#415 SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES TEARS OF A CLOWN

#415

SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES

TEARS OF A CLOWN

Pagliacci redux…

In your listening to pop music, do you have songs that, because of their particular sounds—their literal sounds upon your eardrums—make you physically feel better? Songs for which your psychic connection is one thing—a pleasing thing, of course—but you also have a visceral—and equally pleasing—physical sensation as well? “Tears of a Clown” is one of those songs for me.

Fall came early in 1970, and on a crisp Friday night, I was walking through the brightly-lit campus of Columbia University on New York’s upper west side. I was in my first month of living in New York City. Autumn was in the air, the school week was over, I was wearing my (cool) camel suede jacket, walking with hands in my pockets ala Bob Dylan in that famous Greenwich Village picture. It was a time of long hair, bell bottoms, beads, and other things that characterized the hippie lifestyle—all of which, at the time, I subscribed to. “Tears of a Clown” was running through my brain again and again as I walked through the wide-open campus.

I had never heard a pop song feature the sound of the bassoon, a wind instrument that I had always been drawn to. And, the lyrics of the song seemed to ring a bell—this was Pagliacci, the sad clown of Leoncavallo’s verismo opera, updated into a pop song with lyrics that everyone could relate to.

Stevie Wonder wrote the music for Tears. Right at the beginning of the song, Wonder wrote sounds reminiscent of a calliope, that curious instrument found in old-time circuses in which air is blown through large locomotive whistles. He was having trouble, though, coming up with lyrics of his own that he liked enough to put in the song. He asked Smokey Robinson if he could perhaps come up with lyrics.

After hearing the soundtrack, Robinson remarked that it had the sound of a circus, and he took that as the source of his inspiration, writing lyrics about a clown who must publicly appear happy but is in fact so sad—the Pagliacci story.

Now if there’s a smile on my face
It’s only there trying to fool the public
But when it comes down to fooling you
Now honey that’s quite a different subject

But don’t let my glad expression
Give you the wrong impression
Really I’m sad, oh I’m sadder than sad
You’re gone and I’m hurting so bad
Like a clown I appear to be glad

Now they’re some sad things known to man
But ain’t too much sadder than
The tears of a clown when there’s no one around

Now if I appear to be carefree
It’s only to camouflage my sadness
And honey to shield my pride I try
To cover this hurt with a show of gladness
But don’t let my show convince you
That I’ve been happy since you
‘Cause I had to go (why did you go), oh I need you so (I need you so)
Look I’m hurt and I want you to know (want you to know)
For others I put on a show (it’s just a show)

Now they’re some sad things known to man
But ain’t too much sadder than
The tears of a clown when there’s no one around, uh
Just like Pagliacci did
I try to keep my surface hid
Smiling in the crowd I try
But in my lonely room I cry
The tears of a clown
When there’s no one around, oh yeah, baby
Now if there’s a smile on my face
Don’t let my glad expression
Give you the wrong impression
Don’t let this smile I wear
Make you think that I don’t care
‘Cause really I’m sad

The song is one of the very few in pop music history to feature the sound of the bassoon. It is straight Motown sound—high lyric tenor with backup trio—the Miracles—and, in this case, the unmistakable sound of the bassoon from the very first measure. The energy of this song—its continual motion, as well as the poignancy of the words– have long made this a favorite song in my “Best of the Best Pop” folder in my Ipod Classic.

[If you are interested in hearing Smokey Robinson’s story of being inspired by Pagliacci, it can be heard here:

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Although I am guessing that many readers already know this, I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly mentioned that when it comes to choosing YouTube links for pop songs in my posts, I always choose the one I feel has the best audio quality—presence, dynamic range, clarity of lyrics, bass punch, and so on.

Very often, the link you’ll see on YouTube that has the most views is not the one with the best audio. It all depends on the quality of the equipment and the care taken by whoever chooses to upload the track. Consequently, the clip with the most view for “Tears” has about 1,400,000 views. But the one I am linking to—with the best audio—has just 30,000.
And, for those with sharp eyes, you will see, underneath this clip, a Motown copyright date of 1967. That was the year Wonder wrote the song. It was actually only released as Smokey Robinson’s single in 1970.

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#414 THOUGHTS ON A MAGNIFICENT CONCERT

#414

THOUGHTS ON A MAGNIFICENT CONCERT

Last night, Tiraje and I drove to Cincinnati to hear the CSO perform the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, with Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein as soloist. It was a spectacular performance. I would not have any idea how many concerts I have attended in my life, but this particular one will stand out in my memory for the rest of my life. It was overwhelming. I was riveted to my seat, which was not more than ten feet away from Gerstein.

So many thoughts came to mind that I thought I would share them in a post.

*****

Tiraje and I attend CSO concerts often, something I think I have probably mentioned in previous posts. We prefer to sit as close as possible to the piano soloist, and this has always been money well spent. We’ve been subscribers for over 30 years, so we’ve heard dozens of first-rate performances, observed many fine pianists and other soloists, and in general have had, almost routinely, breathtaking experiences. The CSO is a very fine orchestra.

But last night’s concert was so far above what we had previously experienced that the only word I can use—and it is so inadequate—is that it was overwhelming. Describing it in words will be difficult.

*****

A captured moment in the history of a civilization, here on earth…

I’ll get to the performance in a moment. But first, and perhaps foremost for me, was a different kind of feeling, an observation. An observation I’ve had frequently, yes, but never was it so solidly underscored as last night. And that is the observation of a time—THIS time—OUR time—in history. We live in a CIVILIZATION—for all intents, we are living at the peak period of a civilization—as evidenced in a concert such as this one.

A visitor from another planet would observe that several thousand humans have come together to hear sounds—sounds the humans regard as beautiful or important, and obviously requiring incredible physical and mental abilities on the part of the performers. It would be difficult to imagine anything these humans could do that would require greater skill and mental agility. The sounds themselves were obviously created by one of the civilization’s preeminent composers of sounds, and—so these aliens might deduce—performable only by the smallest subset of the race.

This somewhat silly analogy was not actually what I was thinking at the moment, though. I was simply AWED by the fact that, within the past century, a civilization—our civilization—felt it IMPORTANT enough to produce such monumental musical art for public consumption. Forget all one knows about music history or piano performance or any of that—I was just observing, in the moment, the fact that the creation of art, performed by tremendously capable individuals, united for the purpose of creating beauty in a given moment, is important to our civilization.

This may seem an odd place to begin an enthusiastic “review.” I suppose when we are in the presence of any human activity that seems magnificent that similar thoughts could occur to any person. Nevertheless, that feeling of “I can’t believe I am actually here, experiencing this”—and simultaneously reflecting on the fact that it is occurring at all—in 2019—on planet earth—is mind-blowing.

I’m doing an inadequate job of describing this.

*****

Tears…being a passive sponge for beauty

Readers of my Music I Love posts obviously know that I love music, many different kinds of music. Music speaks to my soul, it moves me. BUT—an experience I have always envied in other music lovers is the ability—actually, “ability” is not the right word—maybe “inclination” or “propensity” or “tendency”—but I’ll have to stick with “ability” for right now—the ability to react to beauty with tears. THAT has always been, for me, a measurement of how deeply a person can feel ANYTHING. To have a soul that is an open door to pure beauty. I know that for a lot of musicians, THOUGHTS—our always-active minds—often—very often—intrude and interfere with our simply being a passive sponge for beauty.

I remember my best friend at Juilliard describing many times during his growing up years when the beauty of Chopin totally overwhelmed him to the point of spontaneous tears—that he did not understand what was even happening—he was young—that the mere sounds just drew tears out of him, like a ladle drawing water out of a well.

Every time I encounter a person who can have this reaction to the beauty in music, I wish I was that person. So, obviously this is not an accustomed feeling for me to have. Perhaps I was, for whatever reason or combination of reasons, just in the “right mood” last night. But after maybe the first two minutes of the first movement, I felt tears welling up inside me. By the time the third movement was being played, I actually thought I was going to lose it, that tears were going to start rolling down my face. This feeling was not constant, it came and subsided, but I was helpless, a branch afloat in a sea of beauty. I am pretty certain that those of you—wonderfully emotional people that you no doubt are—for whom such reactions to beauty are routine–may wonder why I wonder at this experience. But at least you’ll know why I savored it, even as it was happening.

There are many who feel that pure beauty, whether in music or some other art, in a landscape or seascape, or in the laugh of a baby—or any of a thousand other reflections of beauty—are just that: reflections. Of God, or a deity, or some indefinable transcendence that we humans can only experience as reflections. Maybe that’s true, or maybe beauty is something else altogether.

For us music lovers, getting small tastes of the infinite are always worth the wait.

*****

Time stood still…

I suppose we’ve all felt the phenomenon of time standing still, when our concentration on something is so complete that we become unaware of the passage of time. So, maybe talking about it is kind of a cliché. Nevertheless, I have never had such extended periods of time—minutes long, and one after another—where I was completely unaware of time—as I experienced last night. My guess is that when one is drawn into beauty, time seems to disappear, that we are—however briefly—outside of time. Again, maybe a cliché.

But, how sweet the taste of not feeling time. I think that’s about as zen as can be imagined.

*****

Perfection…

I am guessing that one reason I felt this escape from the clutches of time is because I was hearing perfection. I am not using the word lightly, either. I’ve heard the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto in my life hundreds of times. I’ve heard it in live performance at least a dozen times, probably closer to two dozen. The Rach Third, as it’s called by pianists, is as formidable a concerto as there is in the entire piano repertoire. The combination of physical pyrotechnics and the ability to meaningfully communicate with an audience lift this concerto up into a rarified atmosphere for the performer. Just to make a silly comparison—yet again, and only because of my limited mind—one does not enter the 1600 meter run in the Olympics if one has any doubt about being competitive—or about being the best.

*****

Kirill Gerstein’s background is unusual. He is Russian, and came to the U.S. to study JAZZ piano at the Berklee School in Boston as a young man. As a young boy, he studied classical piano, but had an intense interest in jazz. When he was just 14, he met, and was heard by, jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton at a jazz festival in St. Petersburg. Burton was the director of Berklee, and offered him a full scholarship on the spot. Gerstein became the youngest student ever admitted to the school.

By the age of twenty, he had returned to classical music, studying at the Manhattan School of Music, receiving both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He already had a performing career when, at 21, he won the Artur Rubinstein International Competition. This was followed by his being awarded the Gilmore Young Artist Award.

The Gilmore Award—which includes a cash prize of $300,000—is awarded every four years to the most promising young pianist. For the past fifteen years or so, Gerstein has performed as soloist with orchestra and as solo recitalist all over the world. His recordings win awards. Home base for him is in Stuttgart, Germany, where he is—when not touring—professor of piano at the Musikhochschule Stuttgart.

All this biographical info is just to state the obvious, that Gerstein is an impressive player with impressive credentials.

*****

But, as I inferred at the outset, I’ve been hearing impressive players with impressive credentials my whole life. I have NEVER heard perfection before—and this includes a most memorable performance by Evgeny Kissin. If I only said that Gerstein was note-perfect in this fiendishly difficult work, that would be an impressive statement. But to also communicate—to the front row where we were—or with the intensity and power required to communicate to the furthest reaches of the hall, regardless of the score’s dynamics—to communicate with such controlled passion every soaring phrase—and not a single melodic note left out or undernourished–such a performance makes one wonder, anew, at just what a giant of pianism and composition Rachmaninoff was.

As an afterthought to such great performances, one knows–always–that the performer knows that only a handful of listeners in a given audience know precisely what he doing, and how admirably he is doing it. The reaching out to be perfect—the guiding light for all musicians—is something that true artists like Gerstein cannot NOT do.

The goal for artists like him, and for all artists, is to reach above. Then, and only then, will real communication with an audience take place.

*****

It was indeed one of the most memorable concerts—and one of the most memorable experiences, period—of my life.

I should also mention that the conductor for this performance was the young and very talented Karina Canellakis.

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#413 SCRIABIN ETUDE IN B-FLAT MINOR, OPUS 8, NO. 11

#413

SCRIABIN

ETUDE IN B-FLAT MINOR, OPUS 8, NO. 11

The etudes of Scriabin hold a special place in my heart. Back in the day, I did my doctoral thesis on the Scriabin Etudes. My choosing them to write about and to play was an outgrowth of the love I had acquired for Scriabin in my undergrad years, listening to as much of him as possible as well as reading everything I could find about him. (Faubion Bowers 2-volume biography of him being at the top of any Scriabin must-reads list.)

I have to say that it was also Scriabin’s non-musical life—the way he thought, the things he thought ABOUT—and the way these things—his mysticism, his theosophical leanings, his grandiosity, his friendships, his fascination with color and synesthesia—the way these things were ultimately reflected in his music that held my constant attention.

When I return to Scriabin again in these posts, I’ll be talking about his five symphonies, each one of which I find compelling. But Scriabin, in spite of his substantial output of orchestral music, will always be associated with the piano.

As an extremely sensitive and impressionable young boy, Scriabin slept with the Chopin Nocturnes under his pillow. So strong was his identification with Chopin that the vast majority of his compositions for piano bear the same titles as Chopin’s work—Nocturnes, Preludes, Etudes, Mazurkas, and so on.

Scriabin had a relatively brief life, dying at the age of 43. Those who write about composers invariably divide a composer’s work into three periods regardless how long the composer actually lived, and this holds true for Scriabin as well. A more accurate accounting of his works, I feel, would be to divide them in half: the first half ending with the Fifth Piano Sonata, the second half with the Tenth.

Nevertheless, when thinking about the Etudes, they do indeed to have a threefold feel. The first set of 12, Opus 8, were written in 1894, and are as close to Chopin as any of his Etudes would be.

The second set of 8, Opus 42, were written in 1903, and reflect what many would consider to be Scriabin’s “beautiful” period—my term actually, but what I mean is that the piano music of these years was harmonically rich, gorgeous, and rhythmically challenging. Cross-rhythms—the apposition of groupings of, say, five notes per beat in the right hand against groupings of two or three in the left hand—were an intrinsic part of Scriabin’s style. They give a kaleidoscopic effect to all his piano works.

The three etudes of Opus 65, written in 1912, are of a completely different order —one might say Scriabin had left earth altogether by then. The first of these etudes is written entirely in parallel 7ths, the second one in parallel 9ths, the 3rd in parallel 11ths. Since he was no longer thinking harmonically in the traditional sense, these etudes produce what, to our unaccustomed ears, seem like dissonance upon dissonance.

*****

I’m mentioning these highlights of the etudes in their entirety to give context to the one I am posting today—Opus 8, no. 11. The Opus 8 etudes—most of which are etudes in the literal sense, meaning they challenge the player in some area of his technique, often requiring virtuosity—also contain several piercingly tender works that would fall more into the category of lyric pieces. One of these, and one of my favorites, is #11 in B-flat Minor.

As I said, there is a strong Chopinesque streak that runs through Scriabin’s early works. It is as though we are hearing Chopin through another genius’s ears. When Scriabin would combine the melancholy he identified with in Chopin with an unavoidable Russianness—he was, after all, Russian through and through—the result is a piece like this etude. It is a deeply soulful work—as though one is remembering sad events from long ago—comprised of unending melody in a harmonic framework that is always, however slowly, moving ahead.

I woke up today hearing this piece in my mind’s ear. I’ve been playing it recently, and I guess that’s why. It is the kind of work that stays with you forever.

I looked through many performances on YouTube until I found one that I think best reflects what Scriabin was after, both in tempo choice and phrasing. Gordon Fergus-Thompson, a British pianist, has obviously lived with this piece his whole life, and we are the beneficiaries of that.

Pics: a young Scriabin, pianist Gordon Fergus-Thompson.

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#412 BRAHMS NANIE, OPUS 82

#412

BRAHMS

NANIE, OPUS 82

ORCHESTRE REVOLUTIONAIRRE ET ROMANTIQUE
MONTEVERDI CHOIR
JOHN ELIOT GARDINER, CONDUCTOR

One of Brahms’ good friends in Vienna was the painter Anselm Feuerbach. Feuerbach was to painting what Brahms was to music composition—meaning they had the same classically-rooted inclinations. When, in 1880, Feuerbach died, Brahms was moved to write a work in his memory. They had been close, and nearly the same age. Feuerbach’s death was unexpected. The work that Brahms wrote as a memorial to Feuerbach is Nanie. Nanie means “a funeral song,” which is derived from the Roman goddess of funerary lamentation, Nenia.

*****

My parents-in-law, years ago, had a summer home on the Black Sea, a modest stucco house in which one could enjoy the fresh air and hear the waves of the nearby sea. On our first visit to the house, which was actually still under construction, I strolled out onto the porch, in the mid-day sun, to listen to some music on my Walkman. I put in a newly-purchased cassette—I had brought along a number of them to discover while on vacation—and started to listen to it as I walked around the porch. The first sounds I heard were heavenly.

It was Nanie, which opens with a blanket of orchestral serenity and the presence of an always-comforting oboe. When the chorus enters, it was almost an afterthought, a surprise.

But of course, it is a most beautiful “afterthought,” for the chorus is the centerpiece of the work. In some ways, in Nanie, the chorus is like a Greek chorus, intoning words that lament not the passing of Brahms’ friend, but the ever-present reality of death in our world. Brahms used the text to Schiller’s “Nanie,” which begins with the lament: EVEN THE BEAUTIFUL MUST PERISH!

In a similar way to Brahms’ approach to musically commenting on death, which we heard in the German Requiem (Music I Love #104-107), so we hear here an acquiescence to the inevitable, a surrendering to our common fate. Nanie is a work of comfort, meant to console the living.

As a measure of Brahms creativity, it is impressive that Brahms could compose Nanie—along with his Academic Festival Overture and Tragic Overture—all substantial (and wonderful) compositions—as peripheral works to the composition of the monumental second piano concerto, which we recently listened to (MIL #406)–all composed in the same 18-month period.

John Eliot Gardiner offers here a heartfelt, sympathetic performance of Nanie.

Pics: Nenia, goddess of funerary lamentation; Anselm Feuerbach, painter, in a self-portrait.

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#411 MUSIC QUOTATIONS

#411

MUSIC QUOTATIONS

The other day, while looking at the website of a group I will be posting soon—the Izmir Big Band—I ran into the often-seen quotation about music by Friedrich Nietzsche:

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”

Thinking about what Nietzsche may have meant got me completely sidetracked from my post. Without even thinking, I got off on a tangent of written contemplation. But, after a couple paragraphs of doing this, I realized that writing about what I think Nietzsche meant is beside the point, that how much more interesting it would be to just offer up a number of thought-provoking quotations in a post for everyone’s contemplative enjoyment. So that will be today’s post.

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The reason quotations become famous is BECAUSE they are thought-provoking. They make the familiar brand new. As in when we see a lifelong love—or anything we know well—through someone else’s eyes. In this case, our longtime “lover” is music.

*****
Here are just a few quotations that you might enjoy:

• Where words fail, music speaks. – Hans Christian Anderson

• Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought. – E. Y. Harburg, composer of “Over the Rainbow”

• If music be the food of love, play on. – William Shakespeare

Two from Plato, who had a lot to say about music:

• Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.

• Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.

• Music is love, love is music, music is life, and I love my life. – Alistair McClean, Scottish novelist

• Music is the silence between the notes. – Claude Debussy

• Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent. – Victor Hugo

• Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memory. – Oscar Wilde

• Music is well said to be the speech of angels. – Thomas Carlyle

Two from Beethoven:

• Music is mediator between spiritual and sensual life.

• Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosphy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.

• People everywhere are the same in heart and spirit. No matter what language we speak, what color we are, the form of our politics or the expression of our love and our faith, music proves: We are the same. – John Denver

• Music is what tells us that the human race is greater than we realize. – Napoleon Bonaparte

• Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without. – Confucius

• To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable. – Aaron Copland

• Music is love in search of a word. – Sidonie Collete, French mime and actress)

• Music is God’s gift to man, the only art of Heaven given to earth, the only art of earth we take to Heaven. – Walter Savage Landor, English writer and political activist

• Music is the harmonious voice of creation; an echo of the invisible world. – Giuseppe Mazzini, Italian revolutionary who spearheaded Italian unification

• When you’re happy, you enjoy the music. When you’re sad, you understand the lyrics. – anon.

• Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. – Percy Blythe Shelley

And two from Bach:

• Music is an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul.

• The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.

• Music, because of its specific and far-reaching metaphorical powers, can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable. – Leonard Bernstein

• There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats. – Albert Schweitzer

• Without music, life is a journey through a desert. – Pat Conroy, author

• Singing is a way of releasing an emotion that you can’t portray when you’re acting. Music moves the soul, so it is the source of the most intense emotions you can feel. – Amanda Seyfried, actress

• If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears however measured or far away. – Henry David Thoreau

• Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. – Bob Dylan

• There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres. – Pythagoras

• You ARE the music while the music lasts. – T.S. Eliot

• Music can change the world because it can change people. – Bono

• Music is the soundtrack of your life. – Dick Clark

• Find a beautiful piece of art. If you fall in love with Van Gogh or Matisse, or if you fall in love with the music of Coltrane, the music of Aretha Franklin, or the music of Chopin – find some beautiful art and admire it, and realize that it was created by human beings just like you, no more human, no less. – Maya Angelou

• I think the purpose of a piece of music is significant when it actually lives in somebody else. A composer puts down a code, and a performer can activate the code in somebody else. Once it lives in somebody else, it can live in others as well. – Yo-Yo Ma

• Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe. – Albert Einstein

• My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being. – John Coltrane

• It requires wisdom to understand wisdom: the music is nothing if the audience is deaf. – Walter Lippmann, American political commentator

*****

Compiling music quotes is, as you can imagine, a thought-provoking experience in itself. I love reading what great thinkers have had to say about music.

I will return with some actual music, next post.

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#410 CHOPIN PRELUDE IN E-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 28, NO. 19

#410

CHOPIN

PRELUDE IN E-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 28, NO. 19

EVGENY KISSIN, PIANO

I have mentioned in other posts of selected Chopin Preludes how the composition of these 24 gems came about—the disastrous trip that Chopin and George Sand made to Majorca in order to restore his health but which ended up nearly killing him—the shunning of the two, who were not married, by the local populace—the tiny piano that he had hauled up to a deserted farmhouse where they had to reside while the unending torrential rains poured down and upon which he composed the Preludes—etc.

All of these exquisite pieces are short. The longest, the one in D-flat Major (nicknamed the “Raindrop”), is just four and a half minutes long. Many of the Preludes are not much more than a minute long.

But these are pretty special minutes.

In writing 24 Preludes, Chopin covered every major and minor key—12 major, 12 minor. The arrangement of the 24 published preludes involved going around the circle of fifths and concurrently placing the relative Minor key after each Major key: C Major—A minor; G Major—E minor; etc. In writing such brief pieces, it is as though Chopin cut through every possible extraneous thought and cut right to the core of his creative imaginings. Listening to each one is like walking through a door into a stunningly beautiful landscape. They take your breath away.

In my prior postings—of the D-flat Major, A major, and A-flat major—I suppose it became evident that I have a preference for the major key preludes—the odd-numbered ones. Number 19 in E-flat is one of those. I think you will find that giving a minute of your day to this work is a very profitable time investment.

Another obvious choice in many of my piano postings involves the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, whose playing here is so crystalline, so evocative of Chopin’s beautiful soul.

*****

Just as an aside: Chopin, as you know, died young, at the age of 39. He had suffered—greatly—with “consumption”—which modern-day medicine has retroactively labeled tuberculosis—from his late teens. Aside from his music, it was the other leitmotif of his life—EVERYTHING in his life had to be planned around it. The photo of Chopin in this Prelude clip—which is only one of two actual photographs taken of Chopin—was taken two months before he died. One can almost feel the pain he was in, looking 15 years older than his actual age. In the entire history of piano music, it is one of the standout photos.

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#409 PATSY CLINE CRAZY/ I FALL TO PIECES

#409

PATSY CLINE

CRAZY
I FALL TO PIECES

Like Buddy Holly, Rick Nelson, and several other singing legends of the 1960’s, Patsy Cline’s life was cut short in the crash of small plane in bad weather in 1963. She was just 30 years old.

Cline had been one of the stars of the “Nashville sound” in the 50’s and 60’s. She had a wonderfully expressive voice, extending downwards into contralto range. She was regarded at the time of her death as being on par with Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jim Reeves. She was the first female artist to be inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame, posthumously.

Born Virginia Patterson Hensley, Cline was born and raised in Virginia. She came down with rheumatic fever as a young teen, an experience that permanently changed her voice, lowering and enlarging it. She came to recognition as a radio singer in the mid-50’s.

Cline married twice, first to Gerald Cline, a building contractor. He wanted her to be a housewife–their marriage ended, childless. She married Charles Dick in 1957 and they had a very happy marriage, with two children.

She won the talent audition to appear on the Arthur Godfrey television show in 1959, and her career was set. The Grand Ole Opry invited her to join their cast in 1960.

*****

The songs I’m featuring today have long been favorites. Really, I think that everyone who hears them has a positive reaction to both of them. The depth of emotion she communicates and her ability to squeeze the last drop out of every phrase make her songs timeless. I don’t even think of these songs as being from any particular era.

“Crazy” was a song introduced to Cline by Willie Nelson, who wrote it. She recorded it when she was recovering from a serious car crash, and suffering intense physical pain. Nevertheless, it quickly became—and has remained—her signature song.

“I Fall to Pieces” was recorded shortly before “Crazy”—and before the car crash—and established her as a chart-topping artist. It was her first crossover, country-to-pop, hit.

I love the lower range of all female singers, so for me, there’s something so compelling about “I Fall to Pieces.” Listening to Cline’s voice is the aural equivalent of falling back into a plush easy chair.

*****

I want to wish everyone a very happy 2019, which I hope will be filled with great music listening experiences for all.

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#408 SIBELIUS FINLANDIA

#408

SIBELIUS

FINLANDIA, OPUS 26

BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
SAKARI ORAMO, CONDUCTOR

The dignity of a nation reflected in music…

I’ve mentioned before—I imagine more than once—that in my drive to musically self-educate myself during my teens, I acquired many “basic repertoire” and “suggested best of the best” lists of classical music to hear—music that one was supposed to listen to before any others—music lists meant to give you, in a distilled form, the highlights of the endless fields of classical music. My OCD was already in full bloom, so I proceeded to listen to all of these works. I still have several sets of LPs that, thankfully, were available to serve this very purpose.

One of the works that made it onto every one of these lists (which, as you might expect, were almost carbon copies of each other) was FINLANDIA by Sibelius. It is a glorious work. If you have not heard it—or if you’ve not heard it for a while—I think you will enjoy this 8-minute performance.

*****

I’ve mentioned before in other posts—on his Second Symphony and Violin Concerto—that Sibelius (1865-1957) is, in most people’s minds, the greatest Finnish composer. Certainly, on the evidence of these three works alone, he deserves consideration for that honor.

Sibelius was one of the very few composers we label “great” who simply stopped composing, by choice, at a certain point in his life. For his last thirty years—realizing that the romantic sweep of his music was simply not the way of the future—that he had become an anachronism—he stopped composing. Musicologists have actually named this last part of his life the “Silence of Jarvenpaa”—the town in which Sibelius lived.

*****

But stopping composing could not have been farther from Sibelius’s mind in late 1899, when he composed Finlandia. And how the work came to be created in the first place is an interesting story.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Finland was a Russian territory. The empire had been imposing increasingly strict censorship upon the Finnish press. By the point in time when Finlandia was composed, the liberal newspaper Päivälehti had been shut down for three months, with only the conservative (pro-Russian) Uusi Suometar allowed to continue publication. The majority of the country’s population, including of course its artists, were aghast at this censorship.

In the Press Celebrations of 1900, an organized protest against these impositions, occurred. Central to this event, and threaded through it, was the music of Jean Sibelius, who felt it incumbent upon himself to express the dignity and honor of his country in music. To do this, Sibelius composed a seven-part work:

• OVERTURE
• VAINAMOINEN’S SONG – Vainamoinen was a Finnish demigod, the originator of chants and song
• THE BAPTISM OF THE FINNS – the 4-century period during which Finland was Christianized
• DUKE JOHN IN THE CASTLE OF TURKU – the 16th century Finnish king who reconciled Protestants and Catholics in Finland
• THE FINNS IN THE 30 YEARS WAR – the heroism of Finns during this prolonged and brutally destructive 17th century conflict
• THE GREAT HATE – the scorched-earth policy of the Russians as they raped Finland in the 18th century – the same censors, the Russians, who were then silencing the Finnish press
• FINLAND AWAKENS

“Finland Awakens,” the final part of this work, is what we now know as FINLANDIA. But because it would have been too dangerous to publicly use his actual titles for these final two movements, The Great Hate and Finland Awakens–Sibelius would have been exiled or executed–he had to mask the names of these movements, not only at the initial performance but for some time afterwards as well.

The music of the last movement became immediately and immensely popular—particularly the hymn section, which even today is one of the most important national songs of Finland. Consequently, Sibelius had to rename the work several times—even though it was a secret to no one what message the music was supposed to convey. For years, Finlandia was known as “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of the Finnish Spring” or “A Scandinavian Choral March.”

It is now, of course, FINLANDIA, still a source of sincere pride for all Finns.

*****

The music, from its initial foreboding and fortissimo brass choir, is alternately turbulent and tender, but always serious and proclamative. It is music that is redolent of the pride a people can take in their own land.

The hymn-like music, at 5:08 in today’s link, which comes on the heels of much orchestral turbulence, is the heart and soul of Finandia. Many people have supposed that Sibelius took an existing hymn tune and simply inserted his own arrangement of it here. But it is in fact entirely original. The sound of a serene capella choir, singing its love for Finland, is a wonderful and unexpected contrast which never fails to connect with audiences.

This fine performance–another one in the magnificent Royal Albert Hall–is by the BBC Symphony, whose current conductor is a Finn, Sakari Oramo.

Pics: Sibelius’s home in Jarvanpaa, where Finlandia was composed – two images of the Finnish terrain

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#407 LED ZEPPELIN STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

#407

LED ZEPPELIN

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Here’s my contention about Stairway to Heaven, the rock song from 1971 that, in the minds of rock music lovers, is the sine qua non of all rock music, the paragon of rock music excellence, the epitome of quality in song-writing: It IS unquestionably a great song—on musical grounds. Reams have been written about its lyrics—a little more about which in a minute. But my contention is that the greatness of this song is musical. Music gives it its power, completely.

Whatever metaphor from nature one might want to use for MUSIC—the wind that carries things—the fire that ignites things—the water upon which things flow—it is MUSIC that lends power to words, injecting meaning into words a thousand times more powerful than those words would be by themselves.

Maybe this is an accepted truth among all music lovers, regardless of the genre, and therefore a cliche. But I tend to think this is not the case. I think a majority of pop and rock music lovers feel that the power—for lack of a better word—in the music they love comes from the lyrics.

IMHO, nothing could be further from the truth.

And–just to put things into perspective: the breadth of musical acquaintance of most rock music aficionados—pardon my judgmental statement here—is limited, so that when they encounter music that is written and performed so well that they sense something transcendental about it, they label such music—appropriately—“great,” the “best”, and so on—an acknowledgment—whether they call it this or not—that such music is ART.

I think that kind of recognition is understandable. There are, however, many thousands of such examples in the world of art music and jazz. I am not trying to sound snooty or snarky, but as great as the music in Stairway to Heaven is as a rock song—it absolutely speaks directly to your soul from its first notes—it is a pebble on the beach among all examples of greatness in music.

*****

OK, now that I’ve alienated some readers, I’ll continue on in my sincere appreciation of Stairway to Heaven. I did not intend to deflate everything I’m about to say with what might seem to some like a straw-man argument that—perhaps—no one is seriously going to disagree with anyway. 😊

*****

Stairway to Heaven—going completely against recording industry protocol—was not released as a single when it came out in 1971. Rather, it appeared on Led Zeppelin’s fourth (and untitled) album.

Just to give the broadest picture of the song’s appeal—in retrospect–Stairway to Heaven:

• Holds a top position in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Top 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll
• Is one of Classic Rock’s Ten Best Songs Ever Written
• Is in VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of All Time
• Is the Recording Industry Association’s Song of the Century
• Has won a Grammy Hall of Fame Award
• Is in Rolling Stones’ Top 500 Songs of All Time
• Is in Q’s 100 Songs That Have Changed the World
• Is in Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos

The song has been downloaded many millions of times. Every YouTube submission of Stairway has millions of views. (The one I am linking to, with just 7 million, has—I feel—the best audio of them all.)

To say the least, this a song that is loved by many, many people.

*****

Led Zeppelin was a British band. The group consisted of guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. The group, recording for Atlantic Records, released eight albums over 11 years, from 1969 to 1979. It was their fourth album, which included Stairway to Heaven, that propelled them, permanently, to international attention.

Their style is basically rooted in the blues, but they were influenced by a number of diverse sources—Celtic music, jazz, world music and reggae—they were a band whose style it was hard to pigeonhole.

Stairway to Heaven was written shortly after the group’s fifth U.S. tour, at a cottage in western England, at night by a fireplace with a roaring fire—a picturesque scene, actually. Jimmy Page simply strummed out–created–the song, section by section, while Robert Plant wrote down lyrics—a very laid-back creation.

*****

Much has been written, as I mentioned, about the lyrics of the song:

[First section]
There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Oh oh oh oh and she’s buying a stairway to heaven
There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook
There’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiving

[Second section]
Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it makes me wonder
There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
In my thoughts I have seen
Rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who standing looking
Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it really makes me wonder
And it’s whispered that soon, If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen
Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on
And it makes me wonder
Your head is humming and it won’t go
In case you don’t know
The piper’s calling you to join him
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow
And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind

[Third section]
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll
And she’s buying the stairway to heaven

One of the virtues of such opaque lyrics—like the texts in many “spiritual” books—is that they are open to interpretation. Each listener is free to make of the song whatever he wants. Generally speaking, the song has been interpreted as being:

• a story about a woman who accumulates money, only to find out the hard way her life had no meaning and will not get her into heaven
• a symbolic ode to drug use (which seems highly unlikely to me)
• a mystical fable about a medieval/pagan past

For many, the lyrics are inseparable from the song’s music. As I mention above, I am not one of them. And I would guess that most “Stairway” lovers listened to the song dozens of times before they paid any actual attention to the lyrics. Even now—going on 50 years–half a century!–from the time of the song’s peak popularity, the only lyrics I retain are “all that glitters is gold” and the refrain “it makes me wonder.”

But, again, that’s just me. 🙂

*****

The song is divided into three sections, each one of which is immediately appealing. The great site americansongwriter.com gives three appropriate labels to those sections:

0:00-2:15 Fairytale Acoustic Folk

Jimmy Page’s simple guitar accompanied initially by a pair of flutes, then Robert Plant starts intoning the lyrics – Plant had an unusually expressive voice

2:15-5:47 Sex-laden Swampy Grooves

A whole new world of instant harmony—supplied by Page’s doubled-necked Gibson guitar—and an intoxicating harmony, alternating between A Minor and D Major, the minor I and major IV chords – wonderful production quality: the engineers achieved a perfect balance between Plant’s melodic line and the guitars of Page and Jones—only at 4:20, more than half-way through the song’s eight minutes, do Bonham’s drums enter the action

5:47-8:01 Braying, blues-based hard rock

A legendary guitar solo by Page, one that instantly put him on par with all the great lead rock guitarists—rhythmically now driving to a frenzied conclusion – UNTIL, the very last final, solitary, solo-voice at 7:50: “and she’s buying a stairway to heaven”

*****
Stairway to Heaven is an exceptionally well-written song. As americansongwriter says, it is “an epic unrivaled in its grandeur and incalculable in its influence.”

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#406 BRAHMS PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 83

#406

BRAHMS

PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 83

EMIL GILELS, PIANO
CHICAGO SYMPHONY
FRITZ REINER, CONDUCTOR

The greatest piano concerto?

For a classical pianist, there are certain works that are so awe-inspiring that they are difficult to write about. Where does one begin? The inadequacy of words, the lack of effective metaphors, the paucity of comparisons to anything in nature—all are obstacles to speaking about such works.

Rather than make clumsy attempts at natural comparisons—the Brahms B-flat Concerto is the Everest of piano concertos, the Brahms B-flat is the planet Jupiter, the Brahms B-flat is the Amazon jungle, etc—all of which fall short—I’ll just say I consider it to be the greatest piano concerto. There are many, many other pianists who would say the same thing.

At 45 minutes in length, it is also one of the longest. There are, to be sure, concertos that are longer—Busoni’s and Furtwangler’s, for instance. But in terms of magical content, the Brahms B-flat is packed with beauties that other concertos lack.

*****

Warning: lengthy personal story to follow that has very little to do with the music!

I first heard the Brahms B-flat when I was a junior in high school. You may remember my habit, already acquired at that age, of reading record review magazines. This habit was not only so I could hopefully fill my life with qualitatively fine listening experiences, but it was also out of financial stinginess—I knew I could only spend whatever money I had ONCE on the recording of a given work, so it had to count. Consequently, it did not take me long to discover that the recording of the Brahms Second by Russian pianist Emil Gilels, with the Chicago Orchestra under Fritz Reiner, was highly regarded by many as the best of the best. I bought it.

For whatever reason, a strong first memory I have of the work occurred on an overcast, autumn Saturday morning. I had been listening to the record for the entire previous week, and I was out in the street, passing football with a friend. So strongly was the music going on in my head that I could only peripherally pay attention to catching and passing the ball. It was like I was sitting in the front row of a great concert by a great performer–while passing football.

I thought to myself, I hope that SOME DAY I’ll be able to play this great work. As it turned out, I did get that opportunity, but not exactly in a way I had hoped for.

Eight years after this football-with-Brahms morning, I was in the doctoral program at CCM at the University of Cincinnati. I had won the piano concerto competition playing the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto. In those days, the orchestra conductor, who would have been one of the judges of the competition, asked you what you would like to play with the orchestra, and whatever concerto you chose would be on a concert the following school year. I grabbed the chance to say the Brahms Second. He said fine, let’s plan on it next May—a whole year away.

That sounded great to me, it would give me plenty of time to learn and get comfortable with this behemoth of a work, perhaps playing it through with a second piano accompaniment dozens of times in preparation for the orchestral concert.

That contest occurred in May. I went to Istanbul during the summer to marry Tiraje. But after we were married, Tiraje had to wait three months before she received clearance to come and live to the U.S.—a standard wait time even in those pre-terrorism days. So, I arrived back in Cincinnati in mid-September by myself, thinking of course that I still had plenty of time to learn the Brahms.

By complete chance, in early October, I happened to glance at a calendar of events for the fall and saw that the conductor had moved the concert from May to early December, giving me just two months to learn the piece, which I had not even started on.

Needless to say, it was—for me—a gargantuan and tension-producing task. I found an opportunity to try the work out in late October in a South Carolina concert, and felt reasonably confident with it. As it happened, the very day I was scheduled to play with the orchestra was the day Tiraje, pregnant with Jason, arrived in Cincinnati, with all her suitcases and her cat, Peanut. It was a hectic day. The concert came and went, and was a good—and memorable—experience.

My experience of having to learn a challenging work in a short period of time is, by the way, in no way exceptional for pianists. It just happened to be MY particular experience.

*****

This is Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. The First was hardly less imposing. That one had been written in 1858 when Brahms was just 25. Although it has but three movements—compared to the four of the Second Concerto—it is also a lengthy work, demanding a lot from both the pianist and orchestra.

Twenty-three years went by before Brahms revisited the piano concerto form. By that time—1881—Brahms was known all over the western world as one of the greatest composers. The reception the concerto received at its premiere performance–with Brahms as soloist, of course–was overwhelmingly positive–just as it has been right up to the present day. Being the landmark of pianism and concerto-writing that it is, the Brahms Second, throughout its history, has attracted the finest pianists, playing at their very best. Concerts featuring the work are predictable sell-outs. Because of its length, the concerto is often either the entire first, or entire second, half of a program.

Just a couple of other remarks.

• Brahms thought of his concertos—two of them for piano, one for violin, and one involving both violin and cello—as being SYMPHONIC in nature. The natural evolution of the concerto had been such that the performance of a concerto appeared to be conversational to an audience—one felt that the soloist and the orchestra were two entities having a musical conversation: sometimes one would speak, sometimes the other, and sometimes both at the same time. But Brahms integrated the solo instrument into the very fabric of the composition. One could easily—and correctly—think of his concertos as symphonies in which a solo instrument is woven into the overall fabric. The piano and the orchestra are one.

• It cannot be overstated how great a pianist Brahms himself was. It is obvious from his compositions, as well as the historical record, that he was one of the greatest pianists of his day, from his late teens onward. He had it all—enormous power, the widest dynamic spectrum, agility beyond belief. His works—especially this concerto—demonstrate this truth. Octaves, trills, scales in thirds, huge fortissimos that must cut through the sound of a full orchestra, the tenderest pianissimo phrases played with the most legato touch—everything is here.

• Not that it is necessary to know, with reference to the B-flat Concerto, but Brahms’ style was essentially set by the time he was twenty. Early Brahms, late Brahms—it is all cut from the same cloth. The denseness of his harmony—eight note chords being not uncommon at all—and the presence, within the same composition, of drastically differing moods—the alternation of the martial with the tender. One hears these things just as much in his first pieces as his last.

*****

The work has four movements. As is so often the case with multi-movement great works like this one, it is not for me to suggest one movement over another. The majesty of the first movement, from its opening horn motive—the tumult of the second movement, with its incredible pianissimo (and fortissimo) octave passages—the lyricism of the third movement with its lengthy and beautiful cello solo, performed here by the great Janos Starker—and the grace of the fourth movement, which sounds light and breezy but is treacherously difficult to actually play—these are just the briefest descriptions of this work.

What I can tell you for certain is that everything I’ve said about the work falls woefully short of describing its glory.

1st movement 0:00
2nd movement 16:04
3rd movement 24:17
4th movement 36:21

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