Month: November 2017

#128 JOHANN STRAUSS II BLUE DANUBE WALTZ

#128

JOHANN STRAUSS II
BLUE DANUBE WALTZ

JOHANN STRAUSS ORCHESTRA
ANDRE RIEU, CONDUCTOR AND VIOLINIST

Elegance from a time gone by…

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) was an Austrian composer of waltzes, polkas, operettas, and other “light” music. His father had also been a composer, but had adamantly opposed his son going into music. When, as a young boy, Johann was caught practicing the violin, his father severely whipped him, saying he would beat the music out of the boy. He wanted his son to be a banker, to have a better living than he himself had accomplished.

Fortunately—for the world—Johann junior persevered and by the time he was in his mid-twenties, he had eclipsed his father’s fame and become the “waltz king” of Europe. He wrote over 400 waltzes, which were danced to in every large city in central Europe as well as in England, Russia, and the U.S. (where he toured with his orchestra in 1870’s.)

The original title of the waltz we have come to know as the “Blue Danube” is actually a little longer than that—“On The Beautiful Blue Danube.” It was written in 1867. Perhaps there was, in 1867, actually something blue about the Danube at the point where it flows through Vienna—unlike the dirty brown of today! After its performance at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair, the popularity of the waltz was assured and it has never left the “mainstream” of all waltzes.

The title—Blue Danube—is, of course, superfluous, only the music matters. Strauss had a particular gift for writing waltzes that were both danceable and quite interesting as music. He was truly a very capable composer–anything but a hack. The time he would take, in a waltz, before introducing the main theme, and then the way he would develop that theme and then introduce a secondary theme, were composition techniques that he accomplished with the greatest of ease.

Johannes Brahms and Strauss were good friends who greatly admired each other. Strauss dedicated one of his waltzes to Brahms.  Strauss’s wife reputedly approached Brahms to autograph her fan one day—something that I guess was customary in those days—and on the fan, Brahms scribbled out the main theme of the Blue Danube and wrote underneath it, “Unfortunately, NOT by Johannes Brahms.”

For me, listening to Philadelphia Orchestra playing the Strauss Waltzes was the height of sophistication at the age of eleven. I cannot remember how that particular record album made its way into our house, but I am so glad to this day that it did.  And, anyone who saw the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film, 2001 A Space Odyssey, will never forget the use of the Blue Danube as a sonic backdrop to the absolute silence of space as portrayed in the space station high above earth. For me, that is still a great moment of cinematic history.

Strauss Waltzes, and similar Viennese fare, now form the backbone of New Year’s Eve concerts all over the western world. Andre Rieu is the Dutch violinist and conductor of the Johann Strauss Orchestra who has done more in our time to promote this music than anyone else. His obvious theatricality and flare for the dramatic have equally endeared and alienated him within the music world. Music critics pounce on his having turned classical and waltz music into staged spectacles, rivaling pop and rock music acts for popularity and ticket sales. Audiences love him. Whatever opinion of him one holds, there is no denying that he has become a phenomenon, selling out venues worldwide and recording 59 best-selling albums over a 30-year period. His rock-star demeanor has definitely gone far in promoting waltz music. He is the master promoter, not only of himself, but of the music he loves.

There could hardly be a more Viennese setting than is captured in this video clip—at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, everyone dressed to the hilt, graceful ballroom dancers, glittering jewelry everywhere. Real old-world elegance, a step back in time. The sound is extremely well-recorded.

Lucky guy, Rieu also plays a 1667 Stradivarius violin.

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#127 GLENN MILLER IN THE MOOD

#127

GLENN MILLER
IN THE MOOD

GLENN MILLER ORCHESTRA
GLENN MILLER, LEADER

The sound of an era…

If you have had the pleasure of watching the enormously long and amazingly produced television mini-series The Winds of War (1983, 15 hours) followed by War and Remembrance (1988, 30 hours), then as a peripheral benefit—to the interwoven storylines, the breathtakingly realistic cinematography, and the general heaviness of thinking about what our world went through in the 1940’s—as a peripheral benefit to those collective experiences, you also heard—in the best sonics available—a LOT of the music of the time. And what would any large, public VIP party in the early 1940’s have been without the music of Glenn Miller?

Glenn Miller was one of the best-known–and extrovertive—of the big band leaders of the swing era. The big band swing era encompassed, generally speaking, the time between the end of World War I to the end of World War II. Miller’s fame, with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, occurred near the end of the “era.” Occurring and blooming in that period of peace between world conflicts, there was something simultaneously wistful and exuberant about the music of the swing era.

Those of us alive today can only imagine the effect that RADIO had on the widespread dispersion of music. It is something worth thinking about as a topic all by itself. The depression had made stay-at-home entertainment via radio THE most desired form of entertainment. At its peak, radio was in 23 million American homes, entertaining daily an audience of over 90 million—in a country with a total population of about 125 million. Radio made jazz—big band jazz—THE most popular music across America.

Part of the appeal of the big band sound was its particular instrumental distribution: a “basic” big band consisted of four sections of saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and rhythm (guitar, piano, bass, and drums). It was a sound that America loved.

All of the big bands were publicized under the names of their bandleaders. Hence, the bandleader received more public attention (and accolades) than the players. The swing era, via radio, had made bandleaders’ names familiar across the whole country by the late 1930’s. Some of these names would have been Count Basie, Bob Crosby, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, and of course, Glenn Miller. Big band era singers—singers who were featured as soloists with the big bands—became equally well-known: Frank Sinatra, Helen O’Connell, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, the Andrews sisters, and the Mills brothers. It was a golden era of jazz talent.

An aspect of this era and of this music that should not be overlooked is the racial divide that permeated the music industry, as it did in so many areas of American life. One of my friends who knows more about jazz than I ever will–jazz pianist Eric Zadan–says that understanding the context of this racial divide is really necessary for fully appreciating the era and the music. “The audiences, the music, the quality of the musicians, and often the very venues that the bands played in exemplified this societal divide.” So, as good as the Glenn Miller Orchestra was, it was in fact “white” big band music, and only one facet of the music being heard across the nation.

Glenn Miller tragically died in 1944 at the age of 39. He was traveling to entertain troops in France, and his plane disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel. His fame has outlived his brief life, of course. I am guessing that some who are reading this post have seen the 1953 movie about Miller’s life, starring James Stewart. The fact that there would be such interest in a musician a decade after his death is an indication of the high esteem–and marketability–accorded to Glenn Miller and his music.

Although “Moonlight Serenade” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” were very popular Glenn Miller hits, “In the Mood” is probably the tune most that people associate with Glenn Miller.

I’ve chosen this clip because of its re-mastered sound. The clip is taken from “Sunvalley Serenade,” one of two movies (this one from 1941) that prominently featured the Glenn Miller Orchestra in their storylines. The plot is hokey and really not worth recounting—just realize that the only NON-musician (in real life) on stage is the handsome pianist, who was the focal point of the movie. The static shots of the dancing couples are, I think everyone will agree, worthy of an LOL.

But if you ignore the staged theatrics of both the musicians and the dancing “extras” and listen only to the music, it’s a sound one remembers for a long time. I certainly have.

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#126 LINDA RONSTADT DIFFERENT DRUM / WHAT’S NEW

#126

LINDA RONSTADT
DIFFERENT DRUM w/ STONE PONEYS
WHAT’S NEW w/ NELSON RIDDLE ORCHESTRA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was in my sophomore year of high school, and the high school choir to which I belonged had traveled on a school bus to Cincinnati on a Saturday night in order to sing in some event the next day. Each member of the choir was farmed out to a different host family to stay the night. I remember in a very vague way that I stayed with a nice family, a widow and her teenage son. But I remember with complete clarity that while I played ping pong with the son, Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys, singing “Different Drum” came on the radio. Wow, I thought, what a pleasing and expressive voice!

Like most of America, I too fell in love with Linda Ronstadt’s voice in 1967. Since that time, Ronstadt had a stellar career, winning Grammys (11 of these plus two Lifetime Achievement Awards), American Music Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards, Emmys, a Tony Award, and a Golden Globe. As might be inferred from some of these awards, Ronstadt also became an accomplished Broadway actress, starring in The Pirates of Penzance in the 1980s. She recorded over 30 studio albums, and initially toured widely across the U.S., both with her group, the folk-rock trio Stone Poneys, and then as a solo act. Different Drum—written, incidentally by Michael Nesmith of the Monkees—was her earliest big hit, released just as she turned 21.

She followed this up with other hit songs—among them: You’re No Good, Blue Bayou, Don’t Know Much (with Aaron Neville), Heat Wave, and Somewhere Out There. During the 1970’s she was the most successful American female singer in terms of records sold and tickets bought for her arena-filling concerts.

Her penchant to explore the unusual and not take the traditional path led her into country and western music with four consecutive platinum albums. But by the early 1980’s, Ronstadt had tired of being “Queen of the Arena”, and said in an interview that she felt that marijuana smoke-filled and beer-bottle littered arenas were just not the place for (any) music.

Yet another new path for her, then, was the trilogy of albums with the noted bandleader/arranger of the 1950’s, Nelson Riddle. This particular path was seen as being too risky for Ronstadt’s career—her producer (Peter Asher, from the British duo Peter and Gordon), her record company Elektra, and many fellow musicians warned her against making what they felt was an unwise move–recording forgotten pre-swing and swing era tunes, full of lush string harmonies, in a style that was thought to be old-fashioned and uninteresting. Fortunately, Ronstadt had the clout to successfully convince them otherwise, and the results were three albums in relatively quick succession—What’s New, Lush Life, and For Sentimental Reasons–each one of which was a stunning success. The What’s New album spent an amazing 81 weeks on the Billboard Top Hits chart.

By this time, Ronstadt could record whatever she wanted and go down any musical path of her choosing. Her recordings of Mexican and mariachi music gained her even more awards in the 1990’s.

Ronstadt’s personal life was always on magazine covers from the moment “Different Drum” hit the charts. Her relationships with California governor Jerry Brown, comedian Jim Carrey, and film producer George Lucas were constantly in the headlines during the 70’s and 80’s. Her political activism—singing in South Africa while criticizing apartheid, her visible championing of gay rights and of the immigrant population, and her opposition to the Iraq War– brought her as much publicity–some positive and some negative–as her singing career.

Ronstadt retired from singing in 2011 at the age of 65. Very sadly for her, and for her millions of fans, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012. Originally an Arizona native, she now maintains homes in Tuscon and in San Francisco.

For me, these two Ronstadt songs stand out, even among a lifetime of outstanding singing, as the ones I first think of when thinking of her.

Different Drum (1967)

What’s New (1983)

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#125 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA #3 IN C MAJOR, OPUS 2, NO. 3

#125

BEETHOVEN
PIANO SONATA #3
OPUS 2, NO. 3 IN C MAJOR

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

  

What is piano technique?

The third and last sonata in Beethoven’s earliest group of sonatas—his Opus 2—is the Sonata in C Major. It is often referred to, and written about, as his first virtuoso sonata.

Does this mean that, by comparison, the other two sonatas in this opus, are relatively easy? Not at all. It just means that the technical demands of the C Major sonata are even higher and require, in order for the sonata to be heard exactly as Beethoven intended, a virtuoso with a great technique.

What does having a great piano technique involve? Broadly speaking, piano technique refers to how the pianist physically interacts with the instrument. Just like in most sports which involve physical movement, piano technique is the physical skill, developed through training and much repetitive practice, involved in performing complex finger, wrist, and arm motions in the interpretation of the piano repertoire. Great finger strength, equally great finger agility, maintaining the proper balance in one’s hands between tension and relaxation, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to do anything and everything with the widest range of dynamic (soft to loud) coloring—all of these are fundamental facets of good piano technique.

Some specific skills involved in piano technique are the abilities to:

• always touch keys in their absolute center in order to avoid “split” notes (two or more notes played at the same time)
• use the fingers to play scale passages evenly and effortlessly
• use the wrists to play passages involving rapidly-moving parallel intervals
• have a hand span that encompasses an octave (the distance between a certain note and the next appearance of that same note on the keyboard—from C to C, for instance) and wrists that are strong and agile enough to play consecutive octaves at a rapid pace
• trill rapidly and evenly—the movement between a note and its immediate next-door neighbor
• tremolo convincingly—the rapid alternation between, for instance, a single note and an interval in the same hand
• execute “broken” chords well–chords that are played one note at a time, consecutively

As every pianist will attest to, these “requirements” only scratch the surface of having a fine piano technique. Some outstanding full-length books–and reams of piano exercises, some by the great composers themselves–have been written on the acquisition of piano technique. So suffice to say, the suggestions above are just a few of the basic building blocks of technique, and only deal with outcomes, not the actual how-to’s.

One of the easily-observable ironies regarding many of those who have great piano techniques is that much of what they do so impressively is completely natural, acquired at an early age, and accomplished perfectly without much (or sometimes any) thought regarding how they do what they do. For the rest of us—the equivalent in music, I guess, of the 99%–the “how-to’s” of technique are pretty important.

Teachers—in-person teachers—are, in my opinion, an absolute necessity in the pursuit of piano technique. I would not count on googling “piano technique”, hoping to acquire a decent technique through an online course! Can you imagine the equivalent of this: “Become a Superhuman Pianist, Have a Dazzling Technique in No Time At All, Subscribe to Our Guide to Complete Piano Technique Mastery!” (quoting some sites you can actually find out there)—can you imagine this, say, in gymnastics or ballet? smile emoticon:)

All of this talk–which I do hope is not boring–about technique is simply to point out that Beethoven’s Opus 2, no. 3 is his first sonata that requires a superb technique.

He wrote it in 1795 when he was 25 years old and dedicated it to his teacher Haydn, as he had done with the other sonatas of Opus 2. It is four movements long, and at 25 minutes, it is also one the longest of the sonatas from the first half of Beethoven’s life.

As we’ll see as we progress through the sonatas, Beethoven used the piano sonata, more than any other compositional form, as a kind of laboratory in terms of his own creativity.

I am including, above, the first page of the first movement and the last page of the fourth movement to give at least a visual idea of the technical difficulties involved. These pages are from the original 1795 first edition. The very opening of the first movement is a famously difficult passage which Artur Rubinstein reportedly used on any every piano he would perform on to see just how responsive the instrument would be. The last page of the piece with its triple trills—three trills going at once—is indicative of the technical demands of Opus 2, no.3.

I hope this brief discussion about piano technique does not seem too obtuse–and therefore possibly a turn-off to appreciating the actual music. My continual goal in these postings is to bring an understanding of music closer to the non-musician. One of the greatest aspects of much technically difficult piano repertoire is that the LISTENER gets so involved in the beauties of what he is hearing that he pays only peripheral attention to the actual performance. Technique, he realizes afterwards, is simply a means to an end.

One-word movement descriptions for Op. 2/3–my descriptors, you will have your own:

first—brilliant
second—soulful
third—vigorous
fourth—cheerful

This sonata is one more impressive step up the Beethoven Sonata staircase.

Richard Goode performs.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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#124 MOZART PIANO CONCERTO #8 IN C MAJOR, K. 246 (“LUTZOW”)

#124

MOZART
PIANO CONCERTO #8 IN C MAJOR, K. 246 (“LUTZOW”)

FIRST MOVEMENT

ALMA DEUTSCHER, PIANO
ISRAEL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
RONI PORAT, CONDUCTOR

A prodigy performs…

Continuing our concerto traversal…

Mozart’s seventh piano concerto, K. 242 in F Major, was actually written for three pianos and orchestra. Similarly, his tenth concerto, K. 365 in E-flat Major, was written for two pianos and orchestra. I’ll return to both of these works at a later time. Next in line, then, is concerto number eight.

Overlooking the entire town of Salzburg was (and still is) the Hohensalzburg Castle, one of the largest medieval castles in Europe. In German, the castle is the “Festung Hohensalzburg,” literally the “High Salzburg Fortress.” Commanding the fortress at the time WAM wrote the Concerto in C Major (K. 246) was Johann Nepomuk Gottfried Graf Lutzow. As commandant, he was therefore one of the most important men in town. His second wife, Antonia, then 25 years old, was a fine amateur (as all women musicians were regarded) pianist.

This concerto is one of the rare instances of WAM writing for a soloist other than himself, in this case Antonia Lutzow. The practical reason for this was obvious, which was not only for WAM to gain favor with a powerful person—the fortress commander—but indirectly also to gain favor with the archbishop, who was “top dog” in Salzburg and would definitely be attending the Lutzow concert. Until he could take it no more–five years down the road, when he left Salzburg–WAM had to curry favor with the local power elite in order to be guaranteed employment.

Musically, the concerto is not quite as technically challenging as his other piano concertos. The debut concert, featuring Antonia, took place at the Mirabell Palace in 1776–when WAM was 20–and presumably was a success. Mozart performed the concerto himself a year later in Mannheim and Munich—so it is clear that he did not see the work as one only for students. He even subsequently wrote three different cadenzas—the show-offy part for the piano soloist—to match the abilities of different players, meaning the concerto had at least a couple more performances in his lifetime.

I am including two links for the concerto, below—one for just the first movement, and the other for the entire concerto.

The single movement link is meant to showcase the young pianist and composer Alma Deutscher. Deutscher is, at present in 2017, twelve years old. She is an English composer, pianist, and violinist. She is, like Mozart had been, a prodigy. She was studying piano at age 2, violin at age 3, and composing by age 5. She wrote her first piano sonata at age 6, her first full-length opera, Cinderella, at age 10. Her compositional method seems to be somewhat similar to that of Mozart as well: melodies and then entire works come to her mind, unbidden.

Deutscher is a very fine pianist. It is quite enjoyable to hear an expressive wunderkind performing the music of Mozart. She had just turned ten when this performance with the Israel Philharmonic took place. Although only her first movement is available on YouTube, I thought it would be interesting to feature that performance. Alma herself wrote the cadenza you will hear her play.

For a complete version of the concerto, elegantly played by the estimable Murray Perahia, here is another link:

And finally, if you are interested—and I have to say, she is fascinating—here is a link to a selection of Alma Deutscher’s works. I think they are impressive. It will be very interesting to see how her talent blooms over the course of time. She is already being championed by the likes of Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, and Simon Rattle.

DEUTSCHER COMPILATION:

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#123 MAURICE JARRE MUSIC FROM DOCTOR ZHIVAGO – LARA’S THEME

#123

MAURICE JARRE
MUSIC FROM DOCTOR ZHIVAGO – LARA’S THEME (1965)

MGM STUDIO ORCHESTRA
MAURICE JARRE, CONDUCTOR

I first saw David Lean’s movie Doctor Zhivago in the summer of 1971, six years after the movie had come out. I saw it with my best friend Dean who, like me, was home from school for the summer. It was in a theatre where they showed older movies and the seats were cheap. It was a humid, overcast summer weeknight and few people were in the theatre.

This experience was underscored by Maurice Jarre’s music, a piercingly beautiful and sensitively played score. But, of course, David Lean’s direction, the brilliant acting of Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness and Geraldine Chaplin, Boris Pasternak’s multi-layered historical/romantic storyline—and perhaps most of all, Freddie Young’s Academy-Award winning cinematography—indelibly imprinted Zhivago in my mind.

This posting is as much about the movie as it is the music. From the sadness that little Yuri experiences at his mother’s funeral in the depths of a Russian winter–to the salon scene in a rich financier’s apartment in which Rachmaninoff preludes are being played in the background–to the eagerness with which the young doctor Zhivago has to adjust to Moscow life in the throes of communist revolution–to the innocent beauty of his fiancé Tonya–to the extreme passion of Lara, to whom circumstances bring Zhivago–to the extraordinary beauty of the Ural Mountains as seen from Zhivago’s tiny train window—to the wintertime frigidity of the Varykino estate out in the middle of nowhere…well, the movie is still my favorite after all these years. At my age, that’s not likely to change.

The film won a plethora of awards—Oscars, Golden Globes, Cannes Film Festival, Grammys, Laurels, People’s Choice—in every category for which films can be nominated.

Maurice Jarre won several of those awards for his score. Jarre (1924-2009) was a French composer and conductor of film music. He had already written the score for Lawrence of Arabia, another David Lean effort—winning an Oscar for that work—when Lean asked him to score Zhivago. Over Jarre’s long life, he would write the scores for dozens of films, many of which have become film classics—The Longest Day, Is Paris Burning?, Topaz, Ryan’s Daughter, Plaza Suite, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds, The Man Who Would Be King, Mandingo, The Tin Drum, Shogun, A Passage to India, Fatal Attraction, Dead Poet’s Society, Jacob’s Ladder, and A Walk In The Clouds. A truly extraordinary career in film score composition.

In describing his work on Zhivago, Jarre said in an interview that, unlike his work on Lawrence of Arabia, he was involved with Zhivago from the very beginning of the film-making process, reading the book and the script, and going on location to see each and every place for which his music would serve as a backdrop. I can only think that that kind of involvement paid off in his luscious score.

There are a number of Doctor Zhivago clips available on YouTube, as one might expect. I’ve selfishly chosen one in which bits of the film have been superimposed on the music. I’m not sure, but I think it was in the Doctor Zhivago score that I first heard a balalaika, that intrinsically Russian instrument which goes so far in suggesting all things Russian.

Photos: Jarre at the time he wrote Zhivago, Sharif and Christie from the film, and a balalaika.

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#122 FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN STRING QUARTET #62 IN C MAJOR, OP. 76, NO. 3 (EMPEROR)

#122

FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN
STRING QUARTET #62 IN C MAJOR, OP. 76, NO. 3 (EMPEROR)

SECOND MOVEMENT

VERIDIS QUARTET:

YOONHEE LEE, VIOLIN
LAURA LIU, VIOLIN
STEVEN LARAIA, VIOLA
DANIEL MITNITSKY, CELLO

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hope readers won’t tire of my occasional personal reminiscences, but this Haydn string quartet brings back too many memories for me to ignore. In my first year as a student in New York, I sublet a room in a very nice elderly woman’s apartment on Riverside Drive. The building was about eight stories high, rent-controlled, and nearly a century old. My room had, once upon a time, been the maid’s room. It was small, narrow, and windowless, with ugly faded lime-green walls. My music self-education was in full gear that first year, and in an effort to fill in some of the gaps in my musical knowledge, I checked out the Haydn Op. 76 string quartets from the Lincoln Center Library. A generous friend had given to me an old record player that fall, and it was upon it that I heard masterpiece after masterpiece—all through a single, tinny speaker. The Haydn String Quartets were among my most prized discoveries.

How fortuitous this was! I did not know until then that Haydn had, for nearly two centuries, been known as the “father of the string quartet”, having absolutely perfected the style in his sixty-eight quartets. I had no idea how felicitous—how sweet—the sound of this particular combination—two violins, a viola, and a cello—could be. I had never heard the kind of interplay and individuality that was possible among four truly first-rate string players. It was a revelation.

I think I have mentioned that in the “classical” era in classical music, it was common for publishers to publish works in groups. Nearly all of Haydn’s quartets were published in groups of six. The six quartets of Opus 76 date from 1796-97, when he was in his sixties and world-famous.

Very often, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are thought of as the three “big guns” of the classical era, and I will have more to say about the life of Haydn (1732-1809) in future posts.

I could have opted in this post for linking to a complete, four-movement recording of the C Major quartet. There are some fine ones available on YouTube. But instead, I am only linking to a performance of the second movement. It is probably the best-known movement in all of Haydn’s Quartets. The tune will probably be familiar. It was originally written by Haydn as a choral anthem for the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II in 1797. Haydn then arranged the anthem, in the same year that he written it, to become the slow movement of his Op. 76, no. 3 string quartet. Here, it is an expressive theme followed by four variations.

Since the second movement melody had originally been written for the Emperor, the quartet itself has gone by that nickname—“Emperor”—ever since. The melody of the second movement was used as Austria’s national anthem for the entire nineteenth century; it also found use as a hymn, and then ultimately as the national anthem of Germany (“Deutschlandlied”). At least a dozen major composers have re-used Haydn’s original melody in their own works.

No arrangement, however, surpasses in beauty the music in its string quartet form, heard here.

The New England Conservatory in Boston holds a competition among its string students each year to form kind of an “all-star” chamber ensemble to represent the famous institution. In 2013, the four young musicians represented in this video won that contest. I believe they have stayed together since then, and are known as the Veridis Quartet. This Haydn excerpt is from their May 2013 debut concert. I think they are exceptional musicians.

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#121 NORMAN GREENBAUM SPIRIT IN THE SKY

#121

NORMAN GREENBAUM
SPIRIT IN THE SKY (1970)

A one-hit wonder…

I know that some may say that I have gone from the sublime—Bach Cantata yesterday—to the ridiculous—Norman Greenbaum today. But to reiterate, my continuing Facebook posting principle is just to share music that has had lasting influence on me. Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit In The Sky does fall into that category!

The lyrics of this song—Christian lyrics, inexplicably written by an observant Jew—have always placed it in a very small pop music category niche—“spiritual” songs that made the top 40 pop charts. That category would include songs like Crying in the Chapel by Elvis, Amazing Grace by Judy Collins, Day By Day from the musical Godspell, My Sweet Lord by George Harrison, and a number of others.

And although the lyrics of this song (click on Show More under the YouTube link) were appealing to a teenager—me—going through an embryonic stage of existential searching, it was always the music—the sounds—of Spirit In The Sky that most appealed to me. That “fuzz box”, distorted guitar sound throughout the song was an interesting and new sound. And there is, throughout the song, an intuitive use of ostinato—musically saying the same thing over and over—that lends a certain hypnotic quality to the song.

There must have been something about this song—lyrically and/or musically—that caught the public’s attention, as the song sold two million copies and went gold in just a few months, and spent many weeks in the “top ten”. The combination of a gospel choir and psychedelic rock no doubt served as inspiration for a lot of “Christian” music—rock/pop music overlaid with Christian lyrics—that was to follow. The song has had a surprisingly lengthy cultural influence, being used in nearly 20 films, including Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, and has been covered by a number of other artists, including Elton John.

As with all pop songs–for me–there are a number of associated memories I have with Spirit In The Sky–of my senior year of high school, of sunny springtime mornings walking between the “units” of my high school during class breaks, and most importantly, of “dressing cool” (!) with my bell-bottom jeans, sandals and “love” beads (whatever they were all about…).

Hope this brings back a memory for my similarly-aged friends…

 

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#120 BACH CANTATA #13, BWV 13, MEINE SEUFZER, MEINE TRANEN

#120

BACH
CANTATA #13, BWV 13
MEINE SEUFZER, MEINE TRANEN
(MY SIGHS, MY TEARS)

BACH-COLLEGIUM STUTTGART
HELMUTH RILLING, CONDUCTOR

ADALBERT KRAUS, TENOR
HARTMUT STREBEL and BARBARA SCHLENKER, RECORDERS
DIETMAR KELLER and HELMUT KOCH, OBOES DA CACCIA

FIRST MOVEMENT (of six)
Written 1726

 

I am not certain, but I think that, of the twelve cantatas we’ve listened to, this cantata–Meine Seufzer, Meine Tranen–may be the first in which we hear Bach utilizing recorders. Or, if that’s not accurate, then this is the first time we’re hearing him use them in such an obvious manner.

Recorders are not instruments we hear much nowadays unless we are listening to baroque (or earlier) music in which they are scored. Yes, they do indeed sound something like the 99-cent flutophone you may have played in elementary school. But unlike the flutophone, they actually require some skill to play, and as you can see from the accompanying illustration, they come in a number of sizes, with varying pitch ranges. It may be of some interest to know that there are different kinds of recorders for medieval, renaissance, and baroque music. There are a number of present-day manufacturers in Europe, Japan, and the U.S, so there definitely still is a market for these instruments.

When I was chair of Sinclair’s Music Department, we had a wonderful Collegium Musicum. A collegium musicum was, back in renaissance and baroque times, an amateur group of music-lovers who primarily played instrumental music. Sinclair’s group had an impressive collection of fine recorders which were as beautiful to look at as to hear.

Some more interesting recorder tidbits (all from the atlasobscura.com site):

“But what really is a recorder? The recorder is a type of flute; in fact, it’s probably the original kind of flute. Technically the flute that we all recognize as a flute, the one that’s played by blowing into the side of the instrument, is actually called a transverse flute. The English name ‘recorder’ is kind of an oddball term; in most other languages its name positions it as some sort of flute. It is FLUTE A BEC in French, meaning “beaked flute” and referring to the shape of the mouthpiece, which sort of looks like a bird’s beak. In German it is BLOCKFLOTE, with “block” referring to the part of the recorder that constricts the breath of the player—a block of wood.”

Well, returning to our main subject—the music—I am only underscoring Bach’s wonderful use of two recorders in the first and fifth movements of this cantata. I’ll link to a performance of the whole cantata below, but you’ll find these two respective movements at 0:11 and at 12:30. As you can surmise from the cantata’s title—My Sighs, My Tears—this is a serious, lamenting work. Textually, the recurring idea throughout the cantata is Jesus’ words: “Mine hour is not yet come.”

Helmuth Rilling is a conductor whose interpretations of Bach–and baroque music in general–are known all over the classical music world. His indefatigable efforts on behalf of this music have resulted in his formation of some great music-making bodies: the Gachinger Kantorei, the Frankfurter Kantorei, the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, the Oregon Bach Festival, and the International Bachakademie Stuttgart. Rilling always secured expressive soloists for his Bach Cantata recordings cycle, and Aldabert Kraus—who we have heard before—is one of them.

As communicative as Kraus is, though, it is—for me—the continual interplay of recorders and oboes that I always associate with this opening movement.

Pictures are of the recorder family, and of a “recorder lesson” from the Renaissance—in which no one looks very happy!

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#119 SCHUBERT FANTASIE IN F MINOR FOR PIANO FOUR HANDS, D. 940

#119

SCHUBERT
FANTASIE IN F MINOR FOR PIANO FOUR HANDS, D. 940

THE RUCKMAN DUO
TIRAJE AND ROBERT RUCKMAN, PIANO

Of his own music, Franz Schubert once said, “that which I have written in my greatest distress is what the world seems to like the best.” He said this in his relatively healthful twenties. By the time he was 31, Schubert was dying. The Fantasie in F Minor certainly fits his description. Created just months before his death, it is a work of great depth and continual melodic invention.

In his brief life, Schubert wrote a staggering number of compositions: 600 vocal works, eight symphonies, eighteen stage works including operas, a truckload of sacred music, much chamber music, and many works for solo piano and for piano duet—a total of over 1500 works! The fact that Schubert’s life was cut so short has always seemed like one of classical music’s greatest tragedies. We selfishly feel short-changed, even though he gave us so much.

I think I have remarked, in a previous posting of his Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, that Schubert’s final year was one in which he knew he was very ill and probably dying, and because of that, he actually stepped up the rate at which he was composing—one masterpiece, literally, after another, sometimes only a day apart. This kind of behavior was coming from someone who, even in better times, always had to have something with him to write with and to write on—manuscript paper, a napkin, a menu, whatever was handy—the ideas came to him with such frequency and vivacity that he felt he could not let them escape.

Schubert composed the Fantasie in F Minor for piano duet in March of 1828. He dedicated it to his pupil, Karoline Esterhazy. Schubert’s sexuality—straight or gay—is something that has supplied musicologists with much food for thought, but will probably never be conclusively determined, and ultimately is not important. What is known is that Franz had strong feelings for Karoline, who was eleven years younger than him, and he never felt brave enough to let her know. This work is the closest he would come.

I am not sure whether I’ve had occasion yet, in my postings, to remark on the distinction between piano duo and piano duet. Piano duo music is music written for two pianos; piano duet music is written for two players at one piano (“piano four-hands”). It may come as a surprise to non-musicians to learn that playing piano duet music is actually more difficult than playing piano duo. Two minds must think as one in a more focused way than in duos: this is especially challenging when trying to maintain a proper dynamic balance between parts. The piano secondo—the player on the left when facing the keyboard—is tasked with pedaling, something that one would think would be easy until you realize that most of one’s pedaling often depends on how closely you are listening to the other part, not yours–even when you are not playing at all. Then there are the logistical, sometimes acrobatic, challenges when the secondo’s right hand crosses into the primo’s left hand territory, and vice versa. There are many challenges in playing piano duet music! Even who turns this page or that page becomes an issue of importance for a successful performance.

In the same manner that I arbitrarily declared the Rachmaninoff Second Suite to be the granddaddy of all piano duo repertoire, I would offer a similar evaluation of the Schubert Fantasie–which consists of four movements played without pause–in the piano four-hands realm. I don’t think many two-piano teams would disagree with this evaluation.

I am casting any pretense at humility aside by offering this version of my wife Tiraje and I performing the work some dozen years ago. Are there better versions—with better audio (and no annoying audience coughing!), much better video, and alternative interpretations—available on YouTube? Absolutely! Nevertheless, I’m going to go with this walk down memory lane (for me and Tiraje)!

I always included a multimedia presentation on our concerts—I can’t recall now, though, what the changing colors on the large screen in the background during our playing was all about at this concert. I must have had some images on the upper part of the screen that are not visible in the video.

Pictures above are of Schubert one year before his death, and of Schubert accompanying Karoline Esterhazy as she sang.

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