#283 CHOPIN PRELUDE IN A-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 28, NO. 17

#283

CHOPIN

PRELUDE IN A-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 28. NO. 17

ERIC LU, PIANO

Is there a “most beautiful” Chopin prelude? I don’t know, is there a most beautiful flower? I do know that I personally favor the Chopin Preludes that are in major keys. A few months ago, I posted the “Raindrop” prelude in D-flat Major (Music I Love #215), and today I’d like to post my own personal favorite of the 24 preludes, the prelude in A-flat Major.

If you recall, Chopin wrote these 24 preludes with the same goal in mind that Bach had when he composed his Well-Tempered Clavier, which was to write a piece in every major and every minor key. In so doing, he arranged the preludes as they appear in the circle of fifths, presenting a prelude in a given major key, followed by another prelude in its relative minor key, which is easier to illustrate this way: C major-A minor, G major-E minor, D major-B minor, A major-F-sharp minor, and so on until he reached the end of the circle with F major-D minor. It’s hardly necessary to know this to appreciate any of the preludes, but it is interesting.

Chopin composed the bulk of these preludes in a disastrous summertime trip to the island of Majorca with his lover, George Sand. The disaster had nothing to do with her, rather it was the horrendously bad weather combined with the ostracizing the couple experienced there because they were not married. If ever there is a real-life illustration of a composer producing a sublime work in the midst of tribulations, I think the Preludes would qualify.

And this particular one, in A-flat major, is one that I find breathtakingly beautiful, so attractive.

Eric Lu was a competitor in the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. This is one of his performances from the third stage of the competition. As you can hear, he is an excellent musician, very communicative. I really like his performance.

Just a word about piano competitions. Going the “competition route” is—regardless of what one thinks of its merits–or lack of–has been the pathway for career success for pianists and other solo classical instrumentalists for decades. In the piano world, there are top tier competitions, such as the Tchaikovsky in Moscow, the Van Cliburn in Dallas, the Leeds in England, the Franz Liszt in Utrecht—and the Chopin in Warsaw. There are, of course, scores of other competitions, all of which seem to produce increasingly impressive winners all over the globe—and maybe especially in the United States.

But these “top tier” competitions are the standard by which the others get measured. Contestants must qualify, via recorded performances, to even participate in person in the preliminary round. All of these competitions have multiple rounds, in which the number of competitors decreases in each round, and the level of playing increases. There were five rounds in the 2015 Chopin competition. Perhaps it is not even necessary to say that EVERY competitor in the PRELIMINARIES is a major talent. By the time final rounds are reached, the level of playing—and the nerves of steel—are apparent for all to hear.

Eric Lu was the fourth prize winner in the 2015 Chopin Competition.

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#282 LENNY WELCH SINCE I FELL FOR YOU

#282

LENNY WELCH

SINCE I FELL FOR YOU

Beauty and pain,1963…

One did not need to have a backlog of life experience—as I certainly did NOT have at age 11—to hear—and feel—the pain and anguish expressed in Lenny Welch’s “Since I Fell For You.” To this day, I find his version of the big band standard the most heart-wrenching of all I have heard. The song, written by Buddy Johnson had been successfully recorded by his siter Ella Johnson in the late 1940’s—and it has been covered by many artists since then, most notably by Dinah Washington. But the most successful version remains Lenny Welch’s.

Lenny Welch (born Leon Welch in 1938) did not have the career that his voice and talent warranted. Born and raised in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Welch was excitedly picked up by Cadence Records in the early 1960’s. Cadence had had great success launching the careers of Andy Williams, the Everly Brothers, and Johnny Tillotson. “Since I Fell For You” was a major coast-to-coast hit for Welch and Cadence in 1963. Everyone was expecting Welch to be the next Johnny Mathis. But shortly after this, for unknown reasons, the record company folded. And, on the heels of this, Welch was drafted into the army.

When his two years of service concluded, Welch—very mistakenly, in hindsight—decided to take a year off, honing his musical skills, before returning to the music scene. He expressed no interest—even though he was immediately invited—in playing the Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe clubs. All of this—plus the “British invasion” of 1964—with its profusion of “new” pop music—all contributed to the gradual ending of Welch’s career.

And what a shame that was. WHO could sing a ballad with more soul and more emotion? This recording still gets to me EVERY time I listen to it. I always have to listen to it several times in a row.

When you just give love
And never get love
You’d better let love depart
I know it so
And yet I know
I can’t get you out of my heart

You
Made me leave my happy home
You took my love and now you’re gone
Since I fell for you

Love
Brings such misery and pain
I guess I’ll never be the same
Since I fell for you

Well it’s too bad
And it’s too sad
But I’m in love with you

You love me
Then you snub me
But what can I do
I’m still in love with you
Well I
Guess I’ll never see the light
I get the blues most every night
Since I fell for you

Since I fell for you…

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#281 HAYDN PIANO CONCERTO IN D MAJOR

#281

HAYDN

PIANO CONCERTO IN D MAJOR

SIN A MA, PIANO
MUSIC HIGH SCHOOL SCHLOSS BELVEDERE WEIMAR
JOAN PAGES VALLS, CONDUCTOR

In the same way that many musicians automatically and immediately think of Bach and Handel when they think “Baroque”—those two composers towering over the multitude of other composers who lived during the late baroque era—we often think of just three names when thinking of the “Classical” era—Mozart, Beethoven, and Franz Joseph Haydn.

Of these three, Haydn would be the grand old master. He was Beethoven’s teacher during Beethoven’s critical twenties. And he was an older and helpful colleague to Mozart, for whom he had the greatest admiration. His largess of spirit was demonstrated when he told Leopold Mozart (Wolfgang’s father), “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute. He has taste and what is more, the greatest skill in composition.”

Haydn had stumbled into what many consider an idyllic life for a composer, becoming court composer at Esterhazy when he was 28 years old. The Esterhazy family was one of the richest in all of the Hapsburg empire. They had multiple palaces throughout Hungary, and lived, essentially, as royalty. Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, for whom Haydn was employed, was a music lover. Music played an unusually prominent place in his life and his affections. At the Eisenstadt palace—where Haydn was to be employed for the rest of his life–the prince had a glasshouse converted into a theatre in the palace park—just one performance venue that Haydn could choose from.

During Haydn’s years in the prince’s employ, his reputation as a first-rate composer, conductor, and teacher became well-known all over Europe. The prince had no problem with allowing Haydn to write works that were to be played elsewhere (most prominently, in London) and to go there to conduct them.

Haydn’s duties were to 1) continually compose works for performance in the palace theatre(s), 2) hire and fire all court musicians, 3) take care of all instruments—there was an in-house orchestra for which Haydn could compose, 4) archive all the music scores, and of course, 5) to perform and conduct. In his contracts, it was also stipulated that Haydn should know his place—that even though he was the third highest paid individual in the entire palace—indicating the value that the prince placed on him—he was still in fact a servant, and needed to dress and behave accordingly!

At Esterhazy, among the voluminous compositions that Haydn was to write were 52 piano sonatas and about a dozen piano concertos. The harpsichord was still the keyboard instrument of choice when Haydn began his work at Esterhazy, but by the time he composed his final piano concerto (this one, in D Major), the performer was given the choice of harpsichord or fortepiano. The concerto has become the most popular of all his keyboard concertos. It is a delightful work.

I have two memories associated with this concerto. It was the first piano concerto I ever learned. I would have been ten years old. I am certain my playing was not as refined as Sin A Ma’s in the exquisite performance I am linking to. But I always considered myself lucky to have had THIS piece be my entry into the world of piano concertos!

And secondly, I have mentioned my hobby—at one point, an obsession—of listening to shortwave radio broadcasts. About thirty years ago, I was tuning around the dial one night and came upon a particular frequency that I knew was used by Radio Austria. They were playing the most beautiful, heavenly piano concerto—articulately played, energetic, communicative, fun!—WHO and WHAT was this? For whatever reason, in that moment, I was hearing the Haydn D Major for the first time—however it came about, I had no idea what I was listening to. It would be, I suppose, meeting someone on the street that you hadn’t seen for a long time—but who you also hadn’t thought of for a long time—and only after engaging in conversation for a minute did you realize who you were talking with. It was a full thirty seconds before I realized what I was hearing—but those thirty seconds were so delightful that I’ve not forgotten them to this day.

Well, a long and self-indulgent story, sorry.

There are a number of fine Haydn D Majors on YouTube. I’m posting this one, though, not only because it features a young player, but because I think she captures the essence of Haydn better than the other versions I have heard. This was the first prize performance for Sin A Ma, a young Korean pianist, in the fourth international Franz Liszt competition for Young Pianists. She is really superb. She makes it easy for me to visualize Haydn himself playing this with his Esterhazy musicians. I have to say, I am also very impressed with this orchestra, comprised of young players from a Weimar performing arts high school!

Images are Haydn and the music hall at Esterhazy.

Movement timings:
1st movt – 0:00
2nd movt—8:42
3rd movt—15:50

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#280 RACHMANINOFF RHAPSODY ON A THEME OF PAGANINI, OPUS 43

#280

RACHMANINOFF

RHAPSODY ON A THEME OF PAGANINI, OPUS 43

STEVEN HOUGH, PIANO
BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
SAKARI ORAMO, CONDUCTOR

Niccolo Paganini was the great violin virtuoso of the 19th century. He is only inadvertently the subject of this post, but what a colorful person he was! Born in 1782 in Genoa, his musical ability was quickly discovered and encouraged. Although he was equally fluent with both violin and guitar, it was for his violin playing that he became famous. His influence on all violinists was profound. He expanded violin technique well beyond what it had previously been.

In 1813, when he was in his early thirties, he began touring all over Europe, astonishing audiences everywhere. His compositions were all written as vehicles intended to impress listeners with his violinistic pyrotechnics. He was not known to be a good teacher—in fact, pretty much the opposite—but violinists and other composers learned very much about the possibilities of their instrument from his works.

One such work was his 24 Caprices, each one of which was designed to show the unlimited technical possibilities of the violin. The reason that classical pianists—who perhaps have never—and will never—hear a note of Paganini’s violin music—the reason pianists know about him is that he had a profound influence on Franz Liszt. As a young man, Liszt heard Paganini when he played in Paris, and this happening turned out to me very consequential for the history of piano music.

Liszt was taken by two things—#1, the extraordinary technical demands that Paganini placed on himself—and #2, he was impressed by the audience’s reaction to Paganini, the continual ovations and the outpouring of adulation. Liszt seized on this inspiration, and the rest was history: Liszt became the Paganini of the piano, expanding the way pianists and composers have thought about the instrument ever since. One cannot think of Liszt without simultaneously thinking of the technical difficulties involved in playing his music. And of course, to this day, playing Liszt impressively in public is almost a guarantee of a standing ovation.

The very last one (#24) of the Paganini Caprices, in A Minor, is, after all these years, still considered by many to be the most difficult work ever written for violin. It incorporates a simple and catchy melody that has caught the attention of many composers, only the first one of which was Franz Liszt. These composers have used this particular melody as the basis for some profoundly difficult-to-execute works. Liszt in his 6th (and final) “Paganini” etude; Schumann’s arrangement of all the Caprices, including #24; Brahms in his mind-blowingly (!) difficult set—actually two lengthy sets—of Variations based on the melody; and closer to our time, Andrew Lloyd Webber in his Variations, and Lutoslawski’s Variations for Two Pianos. Over fifty prominent composers, generation after generation since Paganini’s time, have composed works based on this melody. It has almost become a litmus test for a composer’s creativity, particularly as it relates to writing technically difficult works.

Perhaps the most beloved of all these Paganini-inspired works is Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody of a Theme of Paganini. Written in 1934, the Rhapsody is in fact the fifth and last piano concerto that Rachmaninoff would write. In 24 variations for piano and orchestra—a very tightly configured interrelationship—Rachmaninoff wrote one of the most beloved works of the 20th century. These 24 variations, played without interruption, nevertheless correspond well to what would be a traditional 3-movement concerto structure, with variations 1-10 being the “first movement”, numbers 11-18 being the second, and numbers 19 to the end being the third.

It is very possible that, at some point in your life, your heard the famous 18th variation—far and away, the lushest and most “romantic” variation of the bunch—in which Rachmaninoff simply turns the them upside down, transposes it into a distant major key, and fires away—you may have heard it in long-ago commercials for sets of “Classical Favorites”: “These great classical pieces will give you HOURS of pure listening pleasure, folks—ALL of the greatest classical music on just THREE long-playing records—EVERYTHING from Bach’s Air on a G String to Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata to Brahms lovely Lullaby to Rachmaninoff’s piercing Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini—don’t delay, folks, this is a limited-time offer!”

Well, you might not remember those commercials, but I certainly do.

The concerto is certainly right up there with Rachmaninoff’s earlier Third Concerto in terms of technical difficulty. The different character and mood with which Rachmaninoff imbues each and every variation—making each one a separate and endearing piece—is quite impressive. The “Rach-Pag”, as pianist refer to it, has always been high up on the list of must-learn concertos for every player.

I’ve been lucky enough to hear the work many times in person, but for me—for Tiraje and me—the cream of the crop performance was by pianist Misha Dichter with the Cincinnati Symphony. Tiraje and I choose to sit within ten feet of the piano soloist in concerto performances (if possible) and Dichter’s performance was as inspiring as any I’ve ever heard, unforgettable actually. I can remember it now as if it just happened.

However, I think that opinion might have changed—in 2013, the year of the attached link—had I been ten feet away from pianist Steven Hough in this performance with the BBC Symphony. Don’t deprive yourself of hearing the whole work by heading for the 18th variation in order to hear it all by itself (it’s at 20:20)—but if you do, please make sure you come back to listen to the whole work. In my opinion, it is the fastest 25-minute concerto every written, so quickly does the time fly by! (Also, Hough’s comments in the interview which precede the performance are informative and very well worth listening to. As you’ll hear, he speaks about music with a naturalness that equals his playing.)

This is SUCH a great concerto, every listening experience to it is as good as one’s first! And this is a truly superb performance.

Images are Paganini, Rachmaninoff, Steven Hough.

 

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#279 JANIS IAN AT SEVENTEEN

#279

AT SEVENTEEN

JANIS IAN

 

IN 1975, at the age of 23, five years after her East Orange High School (New Jersey) experience, Janis Ian wrote what would become not only her most successful song, but pretty much the leitmotif of her life.

Over the decades since “At Seventeen” was played on pop radio, its lyrics and its gentle bossa nova accompaniment have become an anthem not only for the not-popular high school girl but also simply for anyone who feels the pain of rejection, of not fitting in.

Janis Ian (born Janis Eddy Fink in 1951) has been writing songs virtually her entire life. Her first big success—and an indication of her powerful lyrical presence—was “Society’s Child”, a song relating a mixed-race romance in which a white girl ultimately leaves her black boyfriend because she cannot stand the ostracism she experiences from everyone around her, from her parents to her community to society in general.

Ian was only in her mid-teens when she wrote it. Even though the song was, all by itself, a commercial success, she was catapulted quickly to a much wider audience when Leonard Bernstein featured her—in November 1966, when she was just 15—in a nationally broadcast CBS special called Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution.

Ian had grown up in a community where whites were a minority, and she had attended a typical American high school (later supplemented by the High School for Performing Arts in New York), so the experiences she wrote about in her songs were situations that she not only identified with, but had either seen or experienced firsthand.

It would be nearly ten years, though, after “Society’s Child” until her next, and biggest, hit “At Seventeen.” This is a song in which she lyrically related remembered pain and anguish. Her words are a reflection of adolescent cruelty, spoken from the outsider’s point of view–how she never felt good enough, never felt like she measured up—because the standards she was measuring herself by were those set by that most intractable societal force—the high school caste system.

The success of such a simple song as “At Seventeen” took the pop music world by surprise. Ian won the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1976—beating out Olivia Newton-John, Linda Ronstadt, and Helen Reddy for that honor—and “at Seventeen” was nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year as well.

This kind of success was not to be replicated for her. Ian has continued to record and produce all her life, and her production company—Rude Girl Records—has been a success. One of her pet peeves has always been the RIAA, the Recording Industry Association of America, which she lobbies against because of its anti-free-downloading stance. Ian feels that only through the free availability of artist’s music (and books) can actual sales then be generated.

________________

Although the following story has nothing to do with Janis Ian’s music, or “At Seventeen”, it is amazing, considering what we now know about Bill Cosby, that in 1967, when Janis was appearing on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour—and likewise, Cosby was also a guest—she was accompanied by an older female chaperon, an older family friend. During the long rehearsals, Janis lay her head on this woman’s shoulder, and fell asleep. Cosby interpreted this “behavior” as being lesbian, and made it his business to see that she would never appear on television again because of her “immorality.”

Astonishing hypocrisy…

Decades later, Ian finally did come out as a lesbian, having forced herself in the intervening years–in order to avoid societal condemnation–into a marriage with a man, which predictably had ended in divorce.
____________________

But—as usual—the background information on artists and composers, while interesting, is completely collateral to the actual experience of immersing yourself in a beautiful—and, in this case, sad—song. Janis Ian had a true lyric gift.

Lyrics:

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired

The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth

And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone

Who called to say “come dance with me”
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems at seventeen
A brown eyed girl in hand me downs

Whose name I never could pronounce
Said: “pity please the ones who serve
They only get what they deserve”
The rich relationed hometown queen

Marries into what she needs
With a guarantee of company
And haven for the elderly
So remember those who win the game

Lose the love they sought to gain
In debitures of quality and dubious integrity
Their small-town eyes will gape at you
In dull surprise when payment due

Exceeds accounts received at seventeen
To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called

When choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
When dreams were all they gave for free

To ugly duckling girls like me…
We all play the game, and when we dare
We cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone

Repenting other lives unknown
That call and say: “come on, dance with me”
And murmur vague obscenities
At ugly girls like me, at seventeen

Photos are Janis Ian, then and now. I thought this link to a live performance–back in the day, 1976–is worth seeing. She could make you feel what she was singing.

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#278 BEETHOVEN PIANO CONCERTO #3 IN C MINOR, OPUS 37

#278

BEETHOVEN

PIANO CONCERTO #3 IN C MINOR, OPUS 37

ANNIE FISCHER, PIANO
HUNGARIAN RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
ANTAL DORATI, CONDUCTOR

Thus far, I’ve posted the first seven of the Beethoven piano sonatas—7 of 32, each one of which I can call a “favorite”. Beethoven wrote 5 piano concertos, in which the pianist performs as soloist with an orchestra. Of these, I can only say that 3 of them are favorites of mine—numbers 1, 3, and 4—music that has slipped into my subconscious mind forever, and those are the ones I plan on posting. Today, I’d like to start with the Third Concerto in C minor.

We have seen, in previous posts, Beethoven’s attraction to the key of C Minor and how the pieces that he chose to write in that key are universally dramatic, each one making emphatic, definitive “statements”. These pieces include three piano sonatas, his fifth symphony, the “choral” fantasy, and the 32 variations for piano. C Minor obviously must have had special psychological meaning, and special utility, for Beethoven.  The Third Concerto belongs to this particular group.

There is actually still some speculation about the exact year Beethoven composed the Third Concerto. For quite a long time, the year 1800 was the date given for its composition, but that date is now in question. We know that the piece was not premiered until 1803, with Beethoven himself as soloist—this, of course, simply being the way it was in those days: composers played their own works. The day of the concert pianist, who made a living playing the works of others, was still decades away. Because the work was premiered in 1803 and not published until the following year, there are some who feel that the year 1800 is simply too early, that Beethoven would not have waited three whole years until having the work performed.

But this little musicological quandary aside, the Third Concerto is as compelling a piece to listen to as anything Beethoven would write. It has always been my favorite Beethoven concerto. On a personal note, the Beethoven Third was the first concerto I ever played with an orchestra. And although the experience of playing any concerto with an orchestra is thrilling, I will always have special feelings associated with this exciting and dramatic work.

Mozart had developed the piano concerto into the major formal structure that it ultimately became. Beethoven picked up the baton, so to speak, and pushed the form well beyond anything Mozart had imagined. This is not a critique of Mozart, of course, it is just something that was inevitably going to happen. Regarding the Beethoven Third, there are a couple of things to note:

• Tuttis. The opening part of a concerto—and anywhere in a concerto where the orchestra is playing by itself—is called a “tutti”. Beethoven extended the length of the opening “tutti” of the third concerto to four minutes, underscoring the fact that his concertos were NOT simply vehicles for a pianist to shine as soloist, but were highly integrated orchestral/piano works. Brahms, in his First Concerto, would extend the opening “tutti” even further to four and a half minutes (or five if the orchestra is lacking vitality)—which feels like an eternity to the pianist who is just sitting there, waiting to enter. Brahms himself referred to his concertos as “symphonies for orchestra and piano,” so tightly integrated had the form become.

• There is a somewhat humorous story attached to the first performance of the Third Concerto. Composers in Beethoven’s time performed with the music in public. The day when doing this was seen in a negative light—when playing everything by memory while playing in public became de rigueur—would not occur until Franz Liszt’s time, some thirty years in the future. Turning the pages for Beethoven during the very first performance was Beethoven’s friend Ignaz von Seyfried, who later wrote: “I saw almost nothing but empty pages; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper.”

Annie Fischer (1914-1995) was a Hungarian pianist, one of the great pianists of the twentieth century. She had won the International Liszt competition when she was just 19 years old. A Jew, she fled Hungary for the safety of Sweden during the war years, returning to Hungary in 1946. Her playing was greatly admired in Europe, and she performed with all the great conductors. She was reluctant to make recordings, feeling that any recording made without the presence of an audience would be artificially constricting. Nevertheless, her recordings of the entire set of Beethoven sonatas, made over a period of 15 years, are one of the treasures of classical piano recordings.

This video of her performance of the Beethoven Third has deservedly been praised ever since its first appearance, which I believe is from some time in the 1950’s. There is a depth of feeling and simplicity of interpretation in her playing that I find really appealing.

Images are Beethoven and Annie Fischer.

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#277 BOBBY FULLER FOUR I FOUGHT THE LAW

#277

BOBBY FULLER FOUR

I FOUGHT THE LAW

Reflecting back on the way I heard music—all kinds of music—when I was growing up, it often feels like, in retrospect, that there was this grown-up arbiter-of-good-taste inside me approving or slamming whatever I happened to be hearing at the moment. When I say, in my posts, “I was twelve years old when” or “I was in third grade when” I heard such-and-such a song or classical work, it is always—in my mind—as though I am deferring to the taste of someone who really knew good from bad—me!

Maybe that is all restrospective wishful thinking, but it doesn’t feel like it. The question of how we all acquire the taste we have is one worth thinking about.

This introductory paragraph is just to say that — I was in eighth grade when I Fought the Law was being played on the radio, and I loved it from the first time I heard it. I can remember walking the halls of Van Buren Junior High School and having I Fought the Law going through my mind on rainy, overcast days. The song is extraordinarily rhythmic, the timbre and slight reverb of the guitars is very pleasing, and the simplicity of the song—alternating for two minutes among three chords—-tonic, subdominant and dominant, of course—make it memorable. But perhaps what made it most memorable for me—and what made it commercially successful for the Bobby Fuller Four—is that it is a song of adulation for Buddy Holly and the Crickets. I had enough familiarity with Buddy Holly’s songs at that age—Peggy Sue, Words of Love, Oh Boy, Maybe Baby, and That’ll Be the Day—to immediately hear that influence in I Fought the Law.

Bobby Fuller (1942-1966) had grown poor in El Paso, Texas. He was hooked first on Elvis and then on Buddy Holly, and in his own song-writing, he tried to emulate his fellow Texan Holly. Moving to California in his early twenties, he was signed by Mustang Records. The “Four” at this point were Bobby Fuller, his younger brother Randy, Jim Reese, and Dalton Powell. Like all record producers in those days (and at any time, really) Mustang Records was just taking a chance on the Bobby Fuller Four, hoping they would be that one in a hundred groups that got some radio airplay (and make some money). Mustang had discovered Ritchie Valens, so they had a track record.

They hit pay-dirt with the Bobby Fuller Four, with their release of I Fought the Law. It is a fuel-injected, simple song with a great balance between Fuller’s voice and his backup guitar(s) accompaniment.

I Fought the Law was a song that I guess must have seemed ripe for covers by other groups. The Clash, Green Day, Hank Williams, and many others have covered the song. All of these versions are absolutely dreadful, all chock-full of self-reference and all missing that crucial Buddy Holly sound. There is, often, nothing as good as the original.

Bobby Fuller’s death, at the age of 23, is to this day a mystery. So much so that it was a segment on the TV series, Unsolved Mysteries. He was found in his car, parked outside his Los Angeles apartment. His face, neck and chest were covered with hemorrhages, and it was presumed that the combination of gas vapors and LA heat had caused his death. His death was officially listed as suicide.

But there was always speculation that Fuller had been murdered—by the police, or by the mob (he had a mob-connected girlfriend at the time), or even by Charles Manson himself. Each one of these theories had enough credence to justify a lengthy book about his death by Miriam Linna.

Had Fuller not met such an early demise, it would have been very interesting indeed to hear what he and his group would have come up with as the 60’s progressed!

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#276 BRAHMS FOUR PIANO PIECES, OPUS 119

#276

BRAHMS

FOUR PIANO PIECES, OPUS 119

1 INTERMEZZO IN B MINOR
2 INTERMEZZO IN E MINOR
3 INTERMEZZO IN C MAJOR
4 RHAPSODY IN E-FLAT MAJOR

RADU LUPU, PIANO

Autumnal magic…

If it seems like I have, in my Music I Love blog, posted a disproportionate number of works by Brahms, that is because, from my mid-teen years onward, I gravitated to the music of Brahms like iron filings to a magnet. I am powerless in the grip of his music. So, here is yet another Brahms entry…

I think, when considering the works of any composer, it is informative to think about the context of their life when listening to their compositions, especially when we have—as in the case of Brahms—knowledge of every move he made and every thought he had. Is this kind of “contextual” consideration actually necessary for appreciating his—or anyone’s—music? Absolutely not. But it does provide us with an added dimension—an extended vantage point—that can give us an even deeper appreciation.

Brahms was 60 years old when he composed 20 short pieces—short meaning each piece is less than five minutes long—which we know as four consecutive works, Opus 116-119. If one doesn’t mind playing the role of armchair psychologist—which, clearly, I don’t—these twenty pieces are a kind of summing up of Brahms the composer—kind of a last will and testament—as in “I hereby bequeath these pieces to posterity—this was ME”. At this point in his life, Brahms:

• was the most respected composer in the world, a position he held from the age of 35, when he composed his German Requiem (MIL posts #103-107)

• had absolutely no need for fame and notoriety, which was, incidentally, a lifelong characteristic of the man

• had no need for money—although the honors that had been bestowed on him during his life had made him a rich man, he lived in a small apartment in Vienna—with a bust of Beethoven on the piano and a framed picture of Bismarck on the wall serving as inspiration—and he kept his money in a closet into which he would frequently dip in order to give money to this person or that organization

• was beginning to experience a troubling decline in his health

• had never married, but had a fierce platonic love and friendship with Clara Schumann that was as deep as any love—nevertheless, we do know that Brahms struggled with loneliness and depression in (what turned out to be) his final years

• was well aware that what we associate with the Germanic traits of composition—organization of materials, grounded in functional harmony and a reverence for form—were gradually disappearing in favor of chromaticism and formal ambiguity—perhaps he had the insight to see himself, and to regard himself, as something of a musical dinosaur—the Tyrannosaurus Rex, but nevertheless a dinosaur (this is where the armchair psychologizing—which amounts to guesswork—comes in)

But, as I’ve said, we need know none of these things to appreciate the beauty of these last piano pieces of Brahms. And they were the LAST piano pieces he would write, even though he lived another four years. Compared to the dimensions of his other piano works—the many sets of variations, the sonatas written early in life, and the two gargantuan piano concertos—the pieces of Opus 119 are humble—cottages now instead of palaces.

“Intermezzo” was a catch-all term that Brahms used for many of his piano pieces. He disdained descriptive titles, finding them to be ultimately meaningless, as well as imposing on listeners a kind of imaginary straightjacket. The first three pieces of Opus 119 are intermezzi, all deeply introspective and expressive. An oddity about this entire group of twenty pieces (Op. 116-119) is that the very last piece of the bunch is an extremely extrovertive Rhapsody—as though to put an exclamation point on his body of work written for piano.

#1 As though to reach out to the future of composition, Brahms wrote this dreamy and–at times, as in its very beginning–harmonically ambiguous piece. Although there are other contenders for “most dreamy Brahms piece”, this would be near the top of everyone’s list.

#2 Another poetic and compressed statement. The piece is in an A-B-A form. If you listen carefully, you will hear that the melody, which is clearly delineated and in a minor key (E Minor) in the first “A” section” is simply transposed into a glorious major key (E Major) in the “B” part—before returning to its melancholy appearance in the final “A” section.

#3 Brahms at his happiest.

#4 Rather unusual, Brahms writes a significant part of this virtuoso piece in five-bar phrases, as opposed to the more expected four-bar or eight-bar phrasing of his time. Because of the piece’s character, it is thought—but hasn’t been proven—that this was a piece that Brahms had composed earlier in life, but had withheld it from being published, waiting for the right time—perhaps here, as the final piece of Opus 119—for it to appear.

In an earlier post (MIL #23), I featured another one of these late pieces, the intermezzo in A Major from Opus 118, performed by Radu Lupu, who is, I feel, an ideal interpreter of Brahms.

Pianists will know the experience of listening to many of the great pianists play certain works that they themselves are familiar with, and in many instances, being dissatisfied. “He plays it THAT fast”? “She thinks THAT is being expressive?” “Has he actually LOOKED at the score?” Etc.

My feeling about Lupu’s Brahms is that he is always spot-on correct, very natural, very true to the composer—a real conduit for Brahms. Whether this actually means that he is, or whether I am just looking into a musical mirror seeing what I wish I looked like, I don’t know. But I think these are great performances.

Images are Brahms and Radu Lupu.

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#275 BACH CANTATA #25 ES IST NICHTS GESUNDES AN MEINEM LEIBE

#275

BACH

CANTATA #25

ES IST NICHTS GESUNDES AN MEINEM LEIBE
(THERE IS NOTHING SOUND IN MY BODY)

Written 1723

Fourth (recitative) and Fifth (aria) movements (of six)

ARLEEN AUGER, SOPRANO
HELMUTH RILLING, CONDUCTOR
BACH COLLEGIUM UND GACHINGER KANTOREI, STUTTGART

For me, it is predictable that when I am thinking about Bach’s sacred cantatas—which comprise the vast bulk of his 200+ cantatas—that I often wonder, and reflect on, what Bach himself actually thought about the Lutheran theology that he so excellently presented in his music.

Not that I have any doubt that there was anything the least bit insincere—or even doubting—about Bach’s Christian/Lutheran beliefs—they have been well documented. If there was nothing other than the incipit he penned into his scores—“soli Deo Gloria”—to God alone be the glory—we would certainly know where he stood.

What got me to thinking about this, once again, was re-listening to Cantata #25. Bach wrote it in the summer of 1723 during his very first year in Leipzig. Because of the dictates of the Lutheran church calendar and the prescribed texts that were used in each and every service (talk about having a plan!), the music Bach composed week after week—his cantatas—had to reflect what those texts were addressing. In the case of this cantata, which was written for the church service of the 14th week after Trinity—near the end of August—the biblical readings which were part of the service spoke of the “works of the flesh” and how Jesus healed ten lepers, only one of which returned to thank him.

Bach chose a text written by the poet Johann Jacob Rambach to musically expound on in this cantata. The poem compares the situation of man in general to that of the lepers. A portion of Rambach’s text reflects what Bach was trying to musically communicate:

The entire world is just a hospital,
where humanity, in innumerable great throngs
and also children in their cradles
have been laid low with sickness.
For one quakes in his breast
with the burning fever of evil lust;
another lies ill
in the putrid odor of his own vanity;
a third acquires the thirst for money
and is thrust before his time into the grave.
The primal fall has stained everyone
and infected them with the leprosy of sin.
Ah! This poison rages also through my limbs.
Where shall I, wretch, find a healer?
Who will stand with me in my suffering?
Who is my doctor, who will help me again?

Sin, decay, God’s fury and His assigning infinite punishment for finite crime, and the rotting of bones and bodies permeates Christian, and in particular Lutheran, theology. I often find myself stopping and wondering how Bach would have related to these ideas.

The first movement of Cantata #25 is an extremely complex choral fantasia and double fugue (I will lay out what a fugue is soon in another post about Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier—suffice to say, it is a complex musical construction) based on these textual thoughts. For this post, I’ve opted not to concentrate on this very somber opening movement, but on the MUCH happier fourth and fifth movements (sung here by the always wonderful Arleen Auger). In these movements, the singer is the now-healed leper who returns to thank Jesus:

My Savior, make me pure from leprous sin,
then I shall
dedicate to You
my entire heart in return
and thank you lifelong for Your assistance.
__________

Regarding this recording:

It is a little frustrating when multiple works of a composer have been uploaded to Youtube and are presented without appropriate correlated timings for the various movements—frustrating for me to find start and end points for the benefit of readers, and perhaps also frustrating to you to have to cue up. But, when recordings are as excellent as the Helmuth Rilling Bach recordings, it is worth taking the time to find these spots. In this recording—which includes four cantatas (#23-26), the links to the movements I am highlighting occur at:

46:53 Fourth Movement: O Jesus, Dear Master
48:15 Fifth Movement: Open to my pitiful songs Your gracious ears

I’ve always loved Arleen Auger’s singing. The American soprano grew up in California, and her career took her all over the world. She was equally at home on the concert stage or the opera stage. Her life was tragically cut short in 1993 at the age of 53 from brain cancer. She left a large and treasured recorded legacy.

Images are Johann Jacob Rambach and Arleen Auger.

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#274 QUEEN INNUENDO

#274

QUEEN

INNUENDO

The saying “bigger than the sum of its parts” is one that could apply well to the British rock group Queen. Each one of its members—Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon—wrote hit singles for the group during the 1970’s and 80’s, with each writer being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Queen became one of the most popular rock bands in the history of rock music. They are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they have won the Outstanding Contribution to British Music Award, and just last year (2018) they were presented with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

The group’s ubiquity in the popular consciousness derives from several of their hit songs. Their “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions”, both from 1977, are heard at countless sporting events—it is very likely you have heard these songs—even without knowing anything about Queen—they are everywhere. Their biggest commercial success, as well as their biggest artistic legacy, was their “Bohemian Rhapsody”, written by Mercury. Bohemian Rhapsody was a lengthy (6-minute) montage of five parts and five styles—a suite, in other words. Written during a time of intense personal stress—Mercury was trying, at that time he wrote Rhapsody, to end a long-term relationship with a woman and to begin one with a man. The lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody have confounded fans for forty years. What is certain is that the general tone of the song is dark—perhaps regarding a murder and being haunted by demons. Or perhaps about nothing at all, as Mercury himself claimed, just random words that rhymed.

But this post is not about Queen’s biggest hit, but rather it is about another of their songs that I have grown very fond of, “Innuendo.”

Many posts ago, I digressed to talk about “lists” – how important they are in my life, and how, consequently, I asked my sons to make lists for me of the music that they felt was most important to THEM in their lives. My own listening to popular music generally faded away at the end of the 1980’s—in favor of art music. Back then, I figured that, given the fact that we only live once, there was more to be gained by delving deeply into the great art music that I did not know than there would be to continue devoting time to popular music. It was a conscious decision.

But I also knew deep down that by doing this, I would be depriving myself of a lot of contemporary listening pleasure. Fortunately for me, both of my sons—from their own very different vantage points—have a real handle on most “popular” music—I’m using the term in its broadest sense—of the last few decades. Their knowledge and their experience—and their taste—I figured, would acquaint me with the best of the best. I was not wrong. In Jon’s list of 50 favorites from 1990-2018, there were 17 selections that I was really impressed with. The music, I found, was really compelling.

So that is how I came to know more than the standards, mentioned above, by Queen. Innuendo is a work (at 6 minutes and 30 seconds, I think it can be called a “work”) that, like Bohemian Rhapsody, is written in sections. It grabs your attention from its first sounds—a martial snare drum, layers of sound entering one by one, Freddie Mercury’s unique and piercing voice, an extremely impressive guitar solo by Brian May (in the “Spanish” section, at 3:18 in this clip), changing tempos, and thought-provoking lyrics. Written in 1991, Innuendo is seen by many as the other Queen “bookend” to Bohemian Rhapsody in terms of musical influence.

Queen is especially admirable—to me—in the way they maintain a rock-solid pulse regardless of the style they are utilizing or the emotion-laden lyrics that Mercury is singing. If listening to Queen is new to you, I would suggest, in giving them a listen, you listen to the entire song.

Freddie Mercury’s voice is more than interesting, it is compelling—he delivers a lyric with 100% commitment. His short life (1946-1991) was an extremely interesting one. He was of Persian heritage, and grew up in Zanzibar and India before moving to England, where he formed Queen at the age of 24. Mercury died from AIDS. Innuendo (and the album of the same name, from which it was taken) was the last work he would record.

And just fyi—although it has nothing to do with Queen’s music—I happened to read a few days ago, in Astronomy magazine, about Brian May, Queen’s lead guitarist, who is a very highly respected astrophysicist. Not your usual rock group guitarist!

______________________

“You can be anything you want to be” is the lyric from Innuendo that has become an anthem for their followers. Here are the complete lyrics:

While the sun hangs in the sky and the desert has sand
While the waves crash in the sea and meet the land
While there’s a wind and the stars and the rainbow
Till the mountains crumble into the plain

Oh yes, we’ll keep on trying
Tread that fine line
Oh, we’ll keep on trying
Just passing our time

While we live according to race, colour or creed
While we rule by blind madness and pure greed
Our lives dictated by tradition, superstition, false religion
Through the eons and on and on

Oh, yes, we’ll keep on trying, yeah
We’ll tread that fine line
Oh oh we’ll keep on trying
Till the end of time
Till the end of time

Through the sorrow all through our splendor
Don’t take offence at my innuendo

You can be anything you want to be
Just turn yourself into anything you think that you could ever be
Be free with your tempo, be free, be free
Surrender your ego be free, be free to yourself

If there’s a God or any kind of justice under the sky
If there’s a point, if there’s a reason to live or die
Ha, if there’s an answer to the questions we feel bound to ask
Show yourself destroy our fears release your mask
Oh yes, we’ll keep on trying
Hey, tread that fine line

We’ll keep on smiling, yeah
And whatever will be will be
We’ll just keep on trying
We’ll just keep on trying
Till the end of time
Till the end of time
Till the end of time

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