Month: February 2018

#200 PAUL MAURIAT LOVE IS BLUE

#200

PAUL MAURIAT
LOVE IS BLUE

PAUL MAURIAT AND HIS ORCHESTRA

I think I was 14 years old when I realized that there was never a time of day when I did not have music going on in my mind. I had woken up in the middle of the night for some reason, and the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto was playing—in my mind’s ear. This phenomenon, which I later discovered was just part of being a musician seemed very cool. And, it still does. I often ask Tiraje what’s playing in her mind at a given moment, just to compare what we’re hearing, what our present states of mind are.

I’m mentioning this because Paul Mauriat’s “Love Is Blue” is what was going on in my mind—stereophonically—when I woke up today. I know I’ll always associate the music with playing on my high school tennis team in 1968. You could not turn on a car radio that spring without hearing Love Is Blue, and my tennis partner Jim Howard and I would find ourselves driving every afternoon to different tennis courts, trying each one out—and all the while, hearing Paul Mauriat on the radio.

But I would have loved the music regardless of what memory I associate with it. Its melody, the use of what appears to be an amplified harpsichord, and the 101-strings sound are—to me—seductive.

Mauriat (1925-2006) was a French orchestra leader, songwriter, and arranger. He was French singer Charles Aznavour’s primary song arranger. His first U.S. success as a songwriter was with I Will Follow Him by Little Peggy March. The French composer and conductor Andre Popp had composed Love Is Blue in 1967. Sung by Claudine Longet, the lyrics of the song describe the pleasures and pain of lost love in terms of colors.  Paul Mauriat arranged an orchestral cover of the song in 1968.

The song became a surprise number one hit in the U.S., the only instrumental to occupy that position since “Theme From a Summer Place” in 1959. It is, to this day, the song which everyone in the U.S. associates with Paul Mauriat.  It was the only song recorded in France ever to reach the American #1 spot.

For many, I imagine this will be a good memory; for those new to the music, I hope an enjoyable listen.

This is my 200th post. I’m going to be stopping here for a while. Happy listening, everyone, to the music you love.

 

Comment

#199 BACH CANTATA #19, BWV 19 ES ERHUB SICH EIN STREIT

BACH

CANTATA #19, BWV 19

ES ERHUB SICH EIN STREIT
(THERE AROSE A WAR)

FIRST MOVEMENT (of seven)

ENSEMBLES DER WEIMARER BACHKANTATEN-AKADEMIE
HELMUTH RILLING, CONDUCTOR

Written 1726

One of the most exciting performances you will ever see…

If you happen to be familiar with the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, you may know of certain verses that reference a future war in which the forces of good—God’s forces, led by the archangel Michael—a personage held in high esteem, by the way, in all three “Abrahamic” religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—defeat the forces of evil, led by Satan.

Those verses read:

And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon.
The dragon and his angels waged war, and they were not strong enough, and there was no longer a place found for them in heaven.
And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world. He was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night.
And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.
For this reason, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them. Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time.”

The authenticity of the book of Revelation has, in its long history, been a continual point of controversy both within and outside the church. Written around 60 A.D., it was so different in content from anything else that its canonicity was questioned for hundreds of years. It is absolutely unique in the New Testament: “John”—we don’t know exactly who this John was—John writes from the Aegean island of Patmos to the “seven churches” of Asia Minor—all in the western part of modern-day Turkey—a series of prophetic visions. The very first word of Revelation is the Greek word “apokalypsis” which means an unveiling or a revelation, and which supplies the prophetic writings with a title. These visions pertain to the “end times.” How these various prophetic visions are interpreted has been just one of the problems facing the acceptance of Revelation as being a legitimate part of the Bible.

Acceptance of Revelation came slowly—it was the last book of the Bible to enter the common canon, around the year 420 A.D. The Council of Laodicea had omitted it. The Eastern Orthodox tradition did not accept it. Various councils in the 5th century did approve it, but still left some “gray area”. A thousand years later, Martin Luther himself stated that it was “neither apostolic or prophetic,” and did not approve it—only to reverse his position later on. His contemporary John Calvin absolutely did not accept its legitimacy. Fast forward five centuries to our own time, though, and Revelation has moved to become a focal point of attention in some circles, especially those that seek to see “signs of the end times” in every daily newspaper headline.

It is not my intention in my music posts to posit religious commentary, much less my personal opinions. All this talk about Revelation is just to provide a framework for Bach’s 19th Cantata, Es erhub ein Streit—There Arose a War. The imagery contained in Revelation is powerfully imaginative, so much so that it defies any definitive interpretation. But, it has served as the inspiration for any number of works of art for hundreds of years—in music, in fine art, in sculpture, and in literature. And by Bach’s time, Luther’s reversed position on Revelation, now one of acceptance, pervaded the Lutheran Church.

Thus, when it was time for Bach, as part of his duties at the St. Thomas Church, to write an annual cantata for the Feast of St. Michael—the angel who avenges for the Lord, per the book of Revelation—he did so routinely, each September. The scripture reading for that Sunday—the last one in September, according to the church calendar—consisted not only of the Revelation text, but also of a reading from Matthew which speaks of heaven and those who will populate it—the childlike, humble, and obedient.

A common characteristic of Bach’s St. Michael works was the use of the largest possible forces available—not only the usual soloists (three, in this case) and four-part choir, but also three trumpets, timpani, two oboes, oboe da caccia, two oboes d’amore, string orchestra, and organ continuo. This was large for Bach, and underscores the importance of the St. Michael observation to the Lutheran Church.

Each one of the St. Michael works starts with an impressive opening chorus. That is the movement I have selected here, and it IS impressive. Unlike the opening movements of many other Bach cantatas which start off with extensive orchestral introductions, Bach dispenses with that here, going for the dramatic effect of having the chorus start immediately, in full voice and performing an impressively difficult choral fugue. They are singing the words from Revelation—describing the battle of good versus evil. Since (we know) good will prevail, the tone of this first movement is jubilant.

In 2016, the great German conductor of Bach—which I’ve featured many times already in my Bach posts—invited young musicians from all over the world to come to Weimar to study and perform Bach Cantatas. He chose 63 performers from 18 countries—out of hundreds of applications. Rilling, of course, is one of the greatest masters of Bach who has ever lived. In a series of concerts, Rilling and these young musicians presented a number of lecture concerts, in which Rilling would first expound on the background of each cantata, citing various illustrative passages, and then the group would perform the work in its entirety. Rilling was 83 years old in 2015, and his locution and conducting are deliberate; obviously, the lecture aspect of this clip will be of interest primarily to German speakers. The performance of the work starts at 29:58, with the first movement concluding at 34:22.

I have to say that the talent level and enthusiasm of these young performers is really outstanding. I get chills down my spine every time I listen to them perform this first movement. The singers, to a person, are happily performing a great work, under the tutelage of a great conductor—a once-in-a-lifetime experience. ALL of the instrumentalists are equally impressive–the trumpets, in particular, are first-rate.

Sorry for my over-the-top enthusiasm, but I think you will agree that this is an OUTSTANDING Bach performance. It is certainly one of the best I have ever seen.

And once again, as a musician, I am humbled by the stature of Bach among all the great composers.

Comment

#198 STEVE REICH TEHILLIM

#198

STEVE REICH
TEHILLIM

INSOMNIO
SYNERGY VOCALS
ULRICH POHL, CONDUCTOR

I really like Steve Reich’s Tehillum. I hope you will too.

I will be posting several other of Reich’s works down the road—his Clapping Music, Music for 18 Musicians, and his Double Sextet—and will speak of his biographical details in those postings. For right now, I want to get right into the music.

Just a necessary word, though, about minimalism: I mentioned Reich (born 1936) a few months ago when I posted Philip Glass’s Songs From Liquid Days (Music I Love #54). Along with Glass, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young, Reich was a pioneer of “minimalistic” music in the 1960’s—music that relies on the reiteration and gradual transformation of small music motifs. Minimalistic music is generally consonant—the sounds are not dissonant, they are pleasing to the ear—and is also characterized by having a steady pulse. Again generally speaking, the ease of listening to minimalist music draws the listener in right away, and the gradualness of the transformation of what one is hearing can produce an almost trance-like state in the listener. That’s been my experience, anyway.

Tehillim was written in 1981. I had read good reviews of the work before I bought it and I loved it right away. Tehillim is the Hebrew word for “psalms.” Reich’s Jewish heritage is reflected in the work. It was the first time he would write music that referenced anything external to music itself. It is written in four parts which follow a fast-fast-slow-fast format. It is scored for 4 female voices, wind instruments—piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, two clarinets—six percussion instruments, two electric organs, two violins, viola, cello and bass. The voices, winds and strings are all amplified in performance. The vocalists in Tehillum purposefully, per Reich’s directions, do not sing with vibrato.

Although some of the usual features of minimalism are obvious in Tehillum, Reich also departs from those by:

• not having a constant meter or pulse—rather, his meter and pulse follow the rhythm of the Hebrew text itself
• writing longer melodic lines here than in many of his other works – again, he does this in order to better declaim the psalmodic texts he is using

He was quite concerned that the Hebrew text be very clear, not disjointed. These are the Biblical texts, in English translation, that Reich uses:

#1 0:00 in recording
PSALM 19:1-4

The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their utterances to the end of the world.
In them He has placed a tent for the sun.

#2 11:43 in recording
PSALM 34:12-14

Who is the man who desires life
And loves length of days that he may see good?
Keep your tongue from evil
And your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil and do good;
Seek peace and pursue it.

#3 17:46 in recording
PSALM 18:25-26

With the kind You show Yourself kind;
With the blameless You show Yourself blameless;
With the pure You show Yourself pure,
And with the crooked You show Yourself astute.

#4 25:02 in recording
PSALM 150:4-6

Praise Him with timbrel and dancing;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe.
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!

I would advise turning your volume up a little bit from what it normally might be in order to attain the best balance between singers and instrumentalists in this video. There are good audio-only versions of Tehillim on YouTube, one even performed by the Steve Reich Ensemble. But this video version affords a visual look at a Reich performance, and that, I feel, is a welcome part of the overall experience of Tehillim, and of Reich’s music in general.

 

Comment

#197 THE ASSOCIATION FIVE OF THEIR HITS

#197

THE ASSOCIATION
FIVE OF THEIR HITS

1960’s Pop Artistry…

The Association was a “soft pop”—sometimes called “sunshine” pop—group from southern California in the 1960’s—specifically 1966-68. Although this category of popular music –“soft pop”—does include big-name, quality groups like the Beach Boys, the Mamas and Papas, the Turtles, and the Fifth Dimension, I have always found the designation—“soft” or “sunshine”—to be derogatory, slanderous even, especially when used to set these groups apart from more “serious,” “hard” rock. I don’t know if anyone else has that particular reaction—maybe it’s just me. I suppose the main reason I don’t like the term is that I know a lot of the music from these so-called “soft” pop groups was EXTREMELY well-written. The music of The Association certainly was. Labeling it “soft” somehow seems to discount that possibility.

A challenge for popular music composers, if you think about it—at least if commercial success is a goal (and when is it not?)—is to make a very short work—say, between two and half minutes to four minutes long—SO INTERESTING that a lot of people will instantly like it, a lot of people will buy it, and even more people will remember it. That is a tall order. A cliché in the industry is that for every home run, there are 99 strike-outs.

In the success of The Association—and of Chicago and of Blood Sweat and Tears (two posts to come)—we have music that is interesting on many simultaneous levels, due in no small part to the very high level of creativity among the band members. If we are thinking in the broad terms of music parameters—rhythm, melody, harmony, and timbre—and then after that we think of form—and then finally we think of performance standards, particularly in front of a crowd—I feel The Association scores very well in every single one of these categories.

When I posted on the Mamas and Papas, the Byrds, and CSNY—Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young—I believe I mentioned the fact that in Los Angeles during the mid-sixties, there were some second-tier groups that had a multi-year existence but in which the personnel were continually changing. Such groups had rotating memberships comprised of individuals who would often go on to significant pop/rock fame. At the Troubadour Club in LA were a couple of these groups, the Inner Tubes and The Men. Seven of the members of these two groups joined forces and left the club in order to form The Association. They were:

Jules Alexander—vocals, lead guitar
Jim Yester – vocals, guitar, keyboard
Brian Cole—vocals, bass, woodwinds
Ted Bluechel—drums, guitar, bass, vocals
Russ Giguere—vocals, percussion instruments, guitar
Larry Ramos—vocals, guitar
Terry Kirkman—vocals, wide variety of wind, brass, and percussion instruments

I’ve listed all the capabilities of these guys because the breadth of their instrumental expertise was pretty unusual at the time—just as it would be a short time later with Chicago. Note that every single band member was a (very capable) singer.

The Association burned white-hot for three solid years with a string of hits. An Association anecdote is that, amazingly, the band—which had always done very well in playing the music of other composers and arrangers—passed when they were offered “MacArthur’s Park”, which was then picked up and made into a huge hit by the actor/singer Richard Harris. I am guessing that was something they surely must have regretted not doing…

Regarding the parameters I was speaking about above, one has to admire The Association’s performance abilities, their ability to beautifully harmonize, and their commitment to perfection. They rehearsed for five straight months before initially auditioning for record producers. Their affinity for interesting, quality compositions, whether written by themselves or others, is impressive. Rhythmic variety and precision, in particular, is something that stands out in both their first hit, Along Comes Mary, and their last, Everything That Touches You.

This was a very rhythmic group. Quick juxtapositions of dotted rhythms with triplets and with longer held notes were routine for the group. Sophisticated compositional techniques also, as in descant ostinatos and writing for two or more equally important vocal parts, were unusual for pop groups in general—“soft” or “hard!” Syncopation pervades every song, whether fast or slow, providing further rhythmic interest. When one views The Association as musicians from a distance, so to speak, their music appears equally good from any standpoint—attention to incisively-conveyed rhythm, attention-grabbing melodies clothed in lustrous harmonies, admirable ensemble work, and creatively-written material in which the music and lyrics fit hand in glove, professionally performed.

I’m listing here The Association’s five biggest hits, in chronological order. The lyrics of each song are poetic, so I’ve chosen links below in which they are included as part of the video, or in the Show More section, or in the Comments section.

ALONG COMES MARY

• written by Tandyn Almer, a close friend of Beach Boy Brian Wilson
• “Mary” may have been a less-than-subtle reference to marijuana—although no one in the band ever made that claim
• I would venture an opinion regarding this song which is that non-musician listeners—who could not have understood the meaning of the lyrics—who could?—and therefore were not primarily relating to the words, but to the music—were hooked on this song for MUSICAL reasons that were both mysterious (as in, if it’s not the words, then what IS it that is attracting me to this song?) and delightful, and that because of this, the success of Along Comes Mary provided listeners with expectations that the next record by The Association was going to be musically INTERESTING…the group’s success was built on musical appeal
• “Along Comes Mary” was covered by a dozen other bands, starting as soon as the song became a hit

CHERISH

• written by Jules Kirkman
• the band’s first number one song, in the U.S. and Canada
• unbelievable to us now, there was a big issue with the length of the song, which timed at 3:22, making it longer than most commercial AM radio stations would play – eventually, the success of the song itself made its length a non-issue
• a session musician, Doug Rhodes, was brought in to play the celesta in the recording
• “Cherish” was literally recorded in a converted garage “studio” – The Association was a prototypical garage band until their success!
• many covers – one of the most covered song of 1960’s

WINDY

• written by Ruthann Friedman
• another #1 song in the U.S., which charted high all over the world
• many covers; and for whatever reason, was featured in a LOT of TV shows, ranging from The Drew Carey Show and the Simpsons to Malcolm in the Middle and Breaking Bad!

NEVER MY LOVE

• written by Donald and Richard Addrisi
• in addition to the band members, the recording employed the services of The Wrecking Crew – the Wrecking Crew was the most famous and talented group of session players in Los Angeles – their collective performance abilities were used on thousands of recordings – many of the Wrecking Crew members had backgrounds in classical or jazz music and could play multiple instruments — Leon Russell and Glen Campbell had been members of the Wrecking Crew
• “Never My Love” is the second most frequently played song in America during the 20th century—according to one survey, anyway (which puts the Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” in the #1 spot)

EVERYTHING THAT TOUCHES YOU
• written by Terry Kirkman
• their last big hit
• their most complex and interesting song, compositionally (my opinion—it’s in my “Best of Best” folder)
• seems like I hear the influence of the Beatles “Paperback Writer” here

Comment

#196 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA #5 IN C MINOR, OPUS 10, NO. 1

#196

BEETHOVEN
PIANO SONATA #5 IN C MINOR, OPUS 10, NO. 1

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

C MINOR – an important key for Beethoven

As we observed with Beethoven’s three sonatas that comprise his Opus 2, there are again three sonatas that comprise his Opus 10. The publishing practice of including a number of similar pieces in a single “opus” would continue right on up to our present day. But while this would be the case for smaller pieces—say, Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives or Ginastera’s Danzas Argentinas, to pick two quick examples that come to mind—the inclusion of three major works—three large piano sonatas—all in one opus was something we encounter less and less after Beethoven’s time.

The subject of key choice—why composers choose certain keys, and whether there are, across the board, certain common emotional meanings that composers find in the various major and minor keys—is one I want to examine, both to offer my own thoughts and to get the thoughts of others. I’ll do that in a separate post—in the “Commentary” category of Music I Love.

For now I just want to make the observation that Beethoven used the key of C Minor in works of unusual intensity, works that were stormy and heroic. Beethoven chose C minor not only for the Opus 10, No. 1 Sonata, but also for another piano sonata he would soon write, the “Pathetique,” as well as for his Third Piano Concerto, the very famous Fifth Symphony, his 32 Variations for Piano, the Choral Fantasy, and his very last Piano Sonata, Opus 111. Every one of these works is quite dramatic, authoritative, and full of the sharpest dynamic contrasts. C Minor for Beethoven obviously was the conduit for a particular expressive palette, one that was turbulent and unsettled.

From its first notes, the Opus 10, No. 1 C Minor sonata is all business—announcing its presence in a “forte”, see-sawed, rising arpeggio—which immediately contrasts with a “piano” chordal answer, a sequence that he then immediately repeats. The nervous energy of the first theme in C minor is then set against the dolce (meaning sweet, tender) A-flat major second theme that follows. One can tell immediately that this is going to be a dramatic work. As in the other C Minor works I’ve listed, Beethoven’s SILENCES in this sonata are quite important and need to be observed precisely by the player. They set off—or frame—the turbulence and tenderness of the sections in which they appear. Clean and judicious use of the pedaling on the part of the player in these early sonatas—never overlapping harmonies—is also a necessity for the player.

I have probably mentioned before, regarding the quick juxtaposition of opposing dynamics—forte and piano—that Beethoven, and Mozart before him, were writing for a new instrument, the piano. For centuries, the harpsichord had reigned supreme as the keyboard instrument in all serious music writing and performance. Among its limitations, though, was the fact that it was dynamically very limited. The emotions that one could express on it had to occur within a limited dynamic range. And, the harpsichord had limited power and projection, not really suitable as a solo instrument in a large hall.

These were reasons why the piano came into being in the first place. Its very name—“fortepiano”—meaning, literally “loud-soft”—indicates how important this ability to play loud and soft was. The new instrument became the means for expressing a much wider gamut of emotions than had previously been possible. In 1796, the year Opus 10, No. 1 was composed, the piano had only been in use for 20 years or so. Mozart (and others) had written for it, effectively. But it was Beethoven who continually challenged—and in the process discovered—what the instrument was actually capable of. A common characteristic of the decades of piano writing was the abundance of “subito” (sudden) dynamic contrasts—suddenly going from loud to soft and vice versa—in order to fully utilize and highlight the new instrument’s dynamic capabilities. These sudden dynamic changes are something you will hear often in the first movement of Opus 10, No. 1.

Typical of Beethoven’s slow movements, the second movement here is all intimate lyricism and playfulness. As he did in the Third Concerto and Fifth Symphony, Beethoven favors stark octaves for the outset of the third movement. If you listen carefully in this third movement, you will hear the opening motive of the Fifth Symphony which, in retrospect, hardly seems coincidental!

Beethoven composed most of this sonata before commencing on a concert tour from to Prague, Dresden, and Berlin. He had originally planned on the sonata having four movements—as all his other sonatas up to this point had. He had a Scherzo movement all ready to go which would have become the third movement (out of four). But he abandoned that idea shortly before the publication of all three Opus sonatas two years later in 1798.

All three of the Opus 10 sonatas were dedicated to Countess Anna Margarete von Browne, who was the wife of one of Beethoven’s most generous patrons.

As usual, Richard Goode’s interpretation is wonderful.

Comment

#195 PEROTIN VIDERUNT OMNES

#195

PEROTIN
VIDERUNT OMNES

EARLY MUSIC CONSORT OF LONDON
DAVID MUNROW, DIRECTOR

THE FIRST WORK OF MUSICAL ART?
THE FIRST MUSICAL MASTERPIECE!

I had originally written this post a few days ago, but I was not satisfied with it. Something was irritating me about it. It was a somewhat lengthy post about the omni-presence of music in all civilizations and how the music of the Notre Dame school in Paris—and Perotin’s accomplishment in particular—could be seen both as the conclusion of a long trajectory from ancient times and also as a brand new start. And while I think those things are true and interesting, it is not really what I wanted to say. I woke up in the middle of the night, just now, with this realization. And so this time I’ll say what I really should have said in the first place.

We know almost nothing about the life of Perotin, other than that he was held in the highest regard by his contemporaries at Notre Dame as a master composer and teacher—so much so that during his lifetime and for many generations after, he was referred to as Perotin Le Grand, Perotin the Great, or Magister Perotin (Perotin the Master.) We don’t know when he was born. We think he died early in the 13th century, around 1215.

The music that Perotin and his predecessor Leonin wrote is called ORGANUM. Organum is music that involves two or more simultaneously occurring voices, and is itself built upon an existing chant melody. By the time of Perotin’s life, there would have been literally thousands of chant melodies—monophonic, unmeasured, pure melodies which “clothed” biblical texts or other spiritual words. Depending upon the geographic location of the cathedrals in which these chants were created, certain styles of chant-writing had come into being—Ambrosian, Gallican, Mozarabic, and the one that most people have heard of, Gregorian. In the work of the Notre Dame composers, a second voice would be added to this chant melody. It was always a higher voice which often moved in parallel motion with the original voice.

This was organum. The important thing to remember is that one of the voices was a chant melody.

It only took a couple generations of the Notre Dame composers to expand from 2-part organum to 4-part organum. To our 21st century ears, the sound of four simultaneously-sounding parts is something that seems commonplace—our ears have heard multi-part music for many hundreds of years—ever since Perotin. But composing 3- and then 4-voice organum was a quantum leap forward, if you will, over all the music of all the centuries that had preceded it. From about 1100 A.D. on, this IS what made western music different than anything that had preceded it. It was an outstanding accomplishment. From it sprang all the music we know and love.

So, here is why “Viderunt Omnes” carries so much weight.

The language of Gregorian chant was Latin. By the middle of the middle ages—1000 A.D.—Latin had become the exclusive language of the clergy and the language of scholars. Therefore, the personal meaning that a typical “parishioner” would get from hearing a chant sung during a service would have been limited at best. The average congregation would have perhaps recognized that this or that chant was speaking about Mary or about God’s beneficence, but that is probably all.

As the writing of organum evolved, the voice that was added above the chant line took on a life of its own—IT became the sole interest. No longer was the centuries-old chant upon which it was written that important. Rather quickly—say, in 40 years or so, around 1150-1190—the chant line—that bottom voice—became simply a series of very long notes, and the voices written above it became everything.

Imagine, for the sake of illustration, the folk song Shenandoah.” The first few lines of that song go:

Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away you rolling river.

Imagine, you are composing a 4-voice organum, and for your bottom line, you select “Shenandoah”—it is your chant. The first note is “OH” and it lasts, say for nearly a full minute—and then comes “SHEN” and it lasts just as long, followed by “AN” and “DO” and “AH”, all of which are very long. Meanwhile, above your long held syllables, you are creating a completely new composition which has nothing whatsoever to do with your original “Shenandoah” tune.

“Viderunt omnes” is Perotin’s masterpiece, and it works in this same way. “Vidernut omnes” had been a single-line, monophonic chant melody, sung by monks during services, in the 1000’s. Here is the Latin text and its English translation.

Viderunt omnes fines terræ
salutare Dei nostri.
Jubilate Deo, omnis terra.
Notum fecit Dominus salutare suum;
ante conspectum gentium
revelavit justitiam suam.

All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Rejoice in the Lord, all lands.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
in the sight of the heathen,
he has revealed his righteousness.

In Perotin’s work, this chant melody would become the bottom part, sung in very long, held notes. As you will hear, the first syllable—“VI”—lasts 50 seconds, followed by a very long “DER”, and so on. Meanwhile, Perotin is embroidering above that foundation a completely new and—to our ears and to the ears of 12th century congregants—beautiful composition.

It is really worth thinking about that with the introduction of organum—of increasing complexity—into the music of the Church, music lost all pretense of being the vehicle for spiritual messages. Even if a congregation had some minimal familiarity with a particular chant, that chant would now be unrecognizable because its notes would be held so long and would be of such secondary importance to the other voices being sung above it. In his way, music was now truly art for art’s sake.

Composers may have sincerely felt they were glorifying God. But their music had definitely become an end in itself, and from an outsider’s perspective, there would have been nothing to specifically connect these new works of art with the Church—other than the threadbare connection to chant itself. Music became art, composed within the aegis of the Church.

Apart from my high regard for Hildegard von Bingen’s music—which is a tad earlier than Perotin and nowhere near as complex—Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes would be the earliest masterpiece in western music, music of complexity and beauty. I listen to it often.

Once again, I apologize for the length of this post (but…it IS shorter than my original).

David Munrow’s suicide death in 1976 at the age of 34 was a tragedy of major proportions for the music world. He was the world’s preeminent authority on early music, an extremely gifted player and conductor who was blessed with amazing organizational skills as well. Fortunately, he left behind, a large discography of early music, from which this recording is taken.

The slides in this YouTube link are of the interior of Notre Dame cathedral, the majestic space where Perotin’s music would have first been performed.

Comment

#194 DE CASTRO SISTERS TEACH ME TONIGHT

#194

DE CASTRO SISTERS

TEACH ME TONIGHT

Some years back, I had an epiphany about the most obvious thing—that the decade in our lives that we know the least about, in every way imaginable, is the decade we are born in. Since I was born in 1951, for me that meant the 50’s. So, I set about with typical OCD fire rectifying the situation with a lot of reading—many biographies, a lot of political history, and a huge amount of 1950’s popular music. [As a good source for information about all of these things—a good intro, for all my same-age friends—I would heartily recommend David Halberstam’s The Fifties.]

It wasn’t too hard to find, download, or buy 600 or so songs from the decade—kind of a greatest hits collection. There were many performers and songs I had never heard before! The whole experience was, and continues to be, really delightful.

One of the groups I was not acquainted with, and that I really liked, was the de Castro Sisters. Here is what I found out them:

• Peggy, Cherie, and Babette de Castro were born and raised in Havana, Cuba. Their father was a wealthy aristocrat and businessman. He owned a large sugar plantation in the Dominican Republic and was a mover and shaker in the booming Cuban media industry, teaming up with David Sarnoff, the RCA chief executive. The girls’ mother had been an American, a Ziegfield follies showgirl. They started singing as a trio when they were quite young, patterning themselves after the Andrews Sisters. Emigrating to Miami in 1942, they were heard by a talent agent, and soon found themselves singing at the Copacabana in New York.

• Their career blossomed and they travelled back and forth California (Hollywood)–New York—California for the next fifteen years. They were signed by Abbott Records, and through a disc jockey’s error of playing “Teach Me Tonight” on the radio—it was actually the “B” side of a single release, never meant to be heard—they became instantly famous coast to coast, selling five million copies of the record—an astounding number for pre-Elvis 1954.

• When Fidel Castro’s revolution occurred, the mansion in which they had grown up in was appropriated by the new government, and they never returned to Cuba. Their career faded as the 1960’s approached, and their appearances were limited to TV variety shows such as Ed Sullivan and Perry Como and a very elaborate Vegas stage act (which continued until the 1980’s.

• “Teach Me Tonight” was not their only hit—they were not one-hit wonders—but it was certainly their biggest. I particularly like the vocal timbre of low-voiced, slightly-slow vibrato lead singer Cherie.

• “Teach Me Tonight” was such a popular song that it charted five times in the 1950’s alone—by Janet Brace, Jo Stafford, Dinah Washington, Helen Grayco, and of course, the de Castro Sisters. It was subsequently covered by everyone from Nat King Cole to Al Jarreau to Amy Winehouse.

• If you were ever a Sopranos fan, you may remember Tony’s mother Livia telling him—yelling at him, really—that the only good music that had EVER been played on the radio was the de Castro Sisters. (Now you are ready for Music Jeopardy…)

Comment

#193 SHREDS

#193

SHREDS

A little levity…

I have a good friend, whose songs I featured here a few months ago (Music I Love #97), Ted Ganger. Ted’s songs are truly first-rate—a mix, I said at the time, of Cole Porter, Billy Joel, and Gilbert and Sullivan. He is a pianist, a conductor and a composer; he seems to have worked with every “name” conductor one can think of, in his position as keyboardist for the Munich Philharmonic. He is also an intellectual, a great conversationalist about many things. Ted is a world-traveler and has an excellent sense of protocol in any situation. And, he is multi-lingual to boot.

Why am I heaping praise on my friend? Well, because on a visit to Ohio a couple years ago, Ted asked me if I knew what shreds were. No, I said, I don’t. And we proceeded to listen to shred after shred, laughing harder and harder with each one. I thought, for today’s post—especially on the heels of three very serious posts—Gorecki, Penderecki, and Mahler—that I would lighten up a bit. Shreds are meant to be funny, but if you find anything you hear here offensive—if I have crossed a line with you—it is all Ted’s fault, not mine. If on the other hand, you enjoy some of these shreds, that is completely to my credit.

What is a shred? A shred is a doctored video of a famous musician, group, or ensemble in which sound has been superimposed upon the original to make it seem as though the world-famous performers you are hearing are rank amateurs. Creating shreds requires great skill, much more than you might initially think. Whatever music is pasted on top of the original has to synchronize perfectly with the performers’ actual physical movements. And—as you might imagine—it takes considerable skill to play or sing knowingly bad—doing a shred means finding performers (perhaps oneself) to do the playing or singing.

Needless to say, shreds are BEST appreciated if you already know the music and/or the performer(s) of the original. Whether one takes “shreds” as being sacrilege or just good humor, it is obvious that those who put shreds together go to a lot of work in terms of creating them.

So, without any further ado, I’ll start off with one of my favorites, Lang Lang playing Traumerei from Schumann’s Kinderscenen. This was originally an encore in a Carnegie Hall recital.

Handel – Zadok the Priest:

Handel – Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah:

Itzhak Perlman playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons:

Richard Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra:

Horowitz playing Chopin Polonaise in Moscow:

Michelangeli playing Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk:

Martha Argerich playing Tchaikovsky Concerto (beginning only, sorry):

AND, a few pop music shreds:

ABBA – Mamma Mia:

Celine Dion – My Heart Will Go On:

A-ha – Take On Me:

Journey – Don’t Stop Believin’:

Katy Perry – Rise:

If you have an interest in hearing more shreds, YouTube is well stocked. Some are better than others…

I will return to my sedate, nerdy self tomorrow.

Not that posting shreds takes one’s nerdiness away…

Comment

#192 MAHLER KINDERTOTENLIEDER

#192

MAHLER
KINDERTOTENLIEDER
(SONGS ON THE DEATH OF CHILDREN)

CHRISTA LUDWIG, MEZZO-SOPRANO
BERLIN PHILHARMONIC
HERBERT VON KARAJAN, CONDUCTOR

Sad and wonderful…

After my two previous posts of Gorecki and Penderecki, it seems like my mind is going in the direction towards music that expresses grief. So I will conclude this unintended trilogy with Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder—Songs on the Death of Children.

I’ve posted only once on Mahler so far (MIL #18, Seventh Symphony) and will certainly be posting many more of his works over time—which will give me more space to talk about his very interesting life.

The basic facts about Mahler, 1860-1911, are that he was an Austrian Jewish composer and conductor. We know him now from his ten symphonies and a number of large-scale works involving orchestra and vocal soloist—a total of less than 25 works. Most of these works are on a grand scale. I use the word “grand,” though, only in reference to the size of his forces and the length of his musical conceptions, not in any kind of self-referential grandiosity that Mahler may have had—because he did not.

Life took Mahler to many conducting positions—in Linz, in Prague, in Leipzig, in Budapest, in Hamburg, in Vienna, and finally in New York, where he conducted the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic from 1908-1911. In spite of an ongoing illness he was experiencing, he insisted on conducting a concert at Carnegie Hall in February of 1911 even though he had a 104 degree fever. He was determined to keep his activity going, and was even, at this time, talking about conducting one of his wife Alma’s works on the next season. (Alma Mahler was one of the incredible women of her time, and I will return to her also in a later post.) Finally, he traveled to Paris, hoping for a medical cure, but there was none to found—he had defective heart valves. He passed away in Vienna in May of that year.

Lovers of Mahler will apply all kinds of adjectives to his works. A few of those that continually recur are: intense, profound, cosmic, emotionally-draining, and existential—concerned, some would say preoccupied, with our existence, with life and death. All of these words apply to his Kindertotenlieder.

Mahler had married Alma in 1902—when he was 42—and they quickly had two daughters, Maria and Anna, in 1902 and 1904. Just days after Anna’s birth, he resumed what had become an all-consuming project of writing the Kindertotenlieder—five songs for mezzo-soprano (or baritone, for male voice) and orchestra, based on the poetry of Friedrich Ruckert. Ruckert had written his Kindertotenlieder poems after the death of two of his young children from scarlet fever. The musicologist Karen Painter says of these poems that they were “almost manic documents of the psychological endeavor to cope with such loss… Rückert’s poems attempt a poetic resuscitation of the children that is punctuated by anguished outbursts…the poems show a quiet acquiescence to fate and to a peaceful world of solace.” Mahler felt inexplicably compelled to identify with these poems, to relate to this anguish, and to communicate those emotions in music.

By coincidence, three years later, his own children became ill with scarlet fever. Anna survived, but Maria died, a tragedy that took its toll on Mahler’s health, emotionally and physically. Music historians see no connection between the events, yet Mahler said that he had, without realizing it, written the very feelings he would have when Maria died.

Mahler specified that the songs be performed together, never separately.

They are:

** NOW THE SUN WILL RISE AS BRIGHTLY**
0:00 in recording

(Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n)

… a sunrise that can no longer bring comfort…

Now the sun wants to rise as brightly
as if nothing terrible had happened during the night.
The misfortune had happened only to me,
but the sun shines equally on everyone.
You must not enfold the night in you.You must sink it in eternal light.
A little star went out in my tent!
Greetings to the joyful light of the world.
___________________________________________________

** NOW I SEE WELL SHY SUCH DARK FLAMES**
6:14 in recording

(Nun seh’ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen)

… remembering his children’s eyes as premonitions of their death…

Now I see well, why with such dark flames
in many glances you flash upon me
O Eyes: as if in one look
to draw all your strength together.
I didn’t realise, because a mist surrounded me
woven of tangled destinies
that your beam was already returning homewards to the place
from which all rays emanate.
You would tell me with your brightness:
We would gladly stay with you!
Now that is denied to us by Fate.
Look at us, soon we will be far away!
What are only eyes to you in these days,
in the coming night shall be your stars.
___________________________________________________

** WHEN YOUR DEAR MOTHER**
11:59 in recording

(Wenn dein Mütterlein)

… the painful memories of habitual actions…

When your mama
steps in through the door
and I turn my head
to see at her,
on her face
my gaze does not first fall,
but at the place
nearer the doorstep,
there, where your
dear little face would be,
when you with bright joy
step inside,
as you used to, my little daughter.
When your mama
steps in through the door
with the glowing candle,
it seems to me, as if you always
came in with her too,
hurrying behind her,
as you used to come into the room.
Oh you, of a father’s cell,
ah, too soon
extinguished joyful light!
___________________________________________________

** I OFTEN THINK THEY HAVE ONLY GONE OUT** 17:05 in recording

(Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen)

… perhaps the children have only gone out for a walk; or maybe they have gone to a better place…

I often think: they have only just gone out
,and now they will be coming back home.
The day is fine, don’t be dismayed,
They have just gone for a long walk.
Yes indeed, they have just gone out,
and now they are making their way home.
Don’t be dismayed, the day is fine,
they have simply made a journey to yonder heights.
They have just gone out ahead of us,
and will not be thinking of coming home.
We go to meet them on yonder heights
In the sunlight, the day is fine
On yonder heights.
___________________________________________________

** IN THIS WEATHER, IN THIS TORRENT** 20:30 in recording

(In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus)

… recalling a storm on the day of the funeral…

In this weather, in this windy storm,
I would never have sent the children out.
They have been carried off,
I wasn’t able to warn them!
In this weather, in this gale,
I would never have let the children out.
I feared they sickened:
those thoughts are now in vain.
In this weather, in this storm,
I would never have let the children out,
I was anxious they might die the next day:
now anxiety is pointless.
In this weather, in this windy storm,
I would never have sent the children out.
They have been carried off,
I wasn’t able to warn them!
In this weather, in this gale, in this windy storm,
they rest as if in their mother’s house:
frightened by no storm,
sheltered by the Hand of God.
___________________________________________________

I apologize for the excessive length of this post, but I think that all of this information provides an interesting background for this major work of the early 20th century.

I prefer the female voice version in Kindertotenlieder; the link below is for mezzo Christa Ludwig. There are a number of singers who have become identified with Mahler’s grief-laden work—Janet Baker, Jessie Norman, Kathleen Ferrier, and Anne Sofie von Otter among them. Of my recordings of the work, I prefer Christa Ludwig’s.

Comment

#191 PENDERECKI THRENODY TO THE VICTIMS OF HIROSHIMA

#191

TWO CONTEMPORARY POLISH COMPOSERS

#2 – KRZYSZTOF PENDERECKI

THRENODY TO THE VICTIMS OF HIROSHIMA

With Hiroshima imagery:

NATIONAL POLISH RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESRA
ANTONI WIT, CONDUCTOR

Concert performance:

FINNISH RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
KRZYSZTOF URBANSK, CONDUCTOR

A topic that I think is interesting to think about is that sometimes the way we are moved by works of music may have more to do with the point the music is trying to make than it does with the music itself. Often, we encounter works that are written specifically to make a point—to make some kind of statement—and they do have strong social impacts—but they may not be, to our ears, beautiful in any particular sense. Yet they leave their mark on us.

In the popular realm, I would think of “Imagine” by John Lennon or “Zombie” by the Cranberries or “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire. In the classical realm, I might think of Stockhausen’s Hymnen, an electronic conflation of many nations’ national anthems or Rzewski’s enormous piano work, The People United Will Never Be Defeated – or Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.

Krzysztof Penderecki (pronounced pen-deh-RET-ski, born 1933) is Poland’s greatest living composer. He wrote the Threnody while still a young man, in 1960–with Hiroshima closer in time to him then than 9/11 is to us today. It is a work dedicated, as indicated in the title, to the victims of the first-ever wartime use of an atomic bomb. A “threnody”, per Wikipedia, is “a wailing ode, song, hymn or poem of mourning composed or performed as a memorial to a dead person”—or in this case, 70,000 dead people. August 6, 1945.

Penderecki’s works are extensive, and have overlapped into popular culture. He has written eight symphonies, four operas, dozens of orchestral works, 22 concertos for various instruments, and scores of additional works, many of them large, for choir, chamber groups, and individual instruments. He is an extraordinarily prolific composer. His works have garnered Grammys, Emmys, and music and civic awards in many countries. Excerpts from his works have been utilized in The Exorcist, The Devils of Loudon, The Shining, Wild At Heart, Twin Peaks, Fearless, Shutter Island, and many other cinematic productions.

The Threnody is written for 52 strings—a large string orchestra. The intended impression, according, to Pendrecki, is solemnity and catastrophe. It is not intended to be “beautiful” in any traditional way. It is basically a free-form piece. The use of sustained tone clusters predominates throughout the work, and builds to an overpowering conclusion. It is, of course, supposed to be profoundly disturbing.

As I asked in my Gorecki remarks, is it necessary to know anything at all about a composer’s intentions, his source of inspiration, why he even bothered to give a work a title in the first place—is it necessary to know any of these things to appreciate any music? I think the answer is no. But knowing these things—giving context to sounds—can very often deepen our appreciation. With no title at all, the music of Threnody would still create the kind of tension, anxiety, and horror in us that it does when we know the title…

I’m linking here, as I did with Gorecki, first to a clip with images:

and one without:

Comment