Program Notes for Schumann / Mendelssohn Felix Mendelssohn Born Feb 3, 1809 Hamburg, Germany Died Nov 4, 1847 Leipzig, Germany Robert Schumann Born June 8, 1810 Zwickau, Germany Died July 29, 1856 Bonn, Germany Mendelssohn Trumpet Overture 1826 Revised 1833 Schumann Piano Concerto 1846 Premiered by Clara Schumann Schumann Symphony No. 4 1841 Revised 1851 We have so, so many words for crazy. Many, many--like Eskimo words for snow. We have clinical words and antiquated clinical words we choose not to retire. There are metaphorical words--‘mad dog’ or ‘hog wild’. We have words to vilify and others to discount the craziness of an individual. Then there are those charming words, elevated and refined.... ‘O, that way madness lies’ The verbs and nouns of a passing madness as is a child’s tantrum the parent’s tantrum close behind If a rich man crazy, we blink and say eccentric. A homeless soul dejected, the tempest in the mind, dangerous psychotic. Until our modern age of medicine, we did not look too closely at madness We did not analyze, we did not diagnose it. We did not nor could not medicate it. If the king was crazy we humored him. If St. Simeon Stylites wanted to live atop a pillar, we sent up the lunch and down the chamber pot. Show of hands-—who wants to march to the holy land, maybe not get back alive or whole? Peter the Hermit says it’ll be okay! If Lincoln did not speak for days or weeks, well. That’s my Lincoln. He’s a bit melancholic you know. Sometimes I don’t know how we survived at all with all those outstanding maniacs holding the reins of power. Really, it’s crazy. Now ART is different. Clearly, as far as music goes, crazy works. Can work. Some of the greats were, by my reckoning, not crazy. Handel, Haydn, and Rossini, for instance, were fairly regular Joes. Hardworking stiffs with whom I would have been delighted to have lunch. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were, in their own special fashions, more than a little crazy. Schumann and Mendelssohn were stark raving nuts. And then some. Again, in government or politics, religious authority and enforcement, crazy nuts—not so good. In many areas of artistic endeavor, it often seems essential. Not always, but a lot. Mendelssohn and Schumann were born a year apart in urban Germany. Schumann died at 46 in an insane asylum. Mendelssohn made it to 38 at which time his head exploded in yet another episode of hysterical apoplexy. Both, no doubt, had I.Q.s through the roof. When I was growing up during the space race and Kennedy’s challenge and all, I thought then and still do, little bit, that if you went into space, you would hear Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That’s what I thought. Think. He wrote that when he was 17. It seems impossible. He came from a wealthy Berlin banking family. He was a rich kid. As with music, other precocious talents were nurtured and tutored in Felix and his sister Fannie (who also suffered and succumbed to hysterical exploding brain syndrome) and really all the siblings. On Sundays at the Mendelssohn house, the best musicians in Berlin were hired to come play the kids’ compositions. I think for this reason, the last page of anything by Mendelssohn I ever played, caused myself and most other folks I played with to stumble and drool. Just chops-busting, eye-crossing difficult. Oy. Schumann came from far more modest circumstances. His father was in the book trade. He played young and composed young as well as getting out two novels while still in his teens. By age 20 the fence-sitting between studying law or music was settled when he attended a Paganini (he was crazy too) performance. Music. He followed his muse, who became a siren, and later psychotic voices in his head. By 1852–3 or so the voices were waking him up which led to the suicide attempts and the nut house and death. Kaput. His devoted and dutiful wife Clara had been unrecognizable to him for nearly two years prior to his death. These two composers were acquainted with one another and held each other in respect though disagreeing strongly on the proper course or direction of music in their lifetimes. What does the ‘scientific theory’ teach us? It suggests that we can only understand the organism in its environment. Really, they are inseparable. Schumann and Mendelssohn lived and thrived in the environment of the first half of the19th century in Europe. They worked in the shadow of three giants. Ludwig von Beethoven 1770–1827 Napoleon Bonaparte 1769–1821 Klemens von Metternich 1773–1859 If not familiar with European history and art, one might not grasp the huge space Beethoven occupied and gigantic role he played. Everything before him was leading up to him and everything after was because of him. He did one thing well--music. He was nuts, his life was nuts, he did not get along with pretty much anybody, and very few people liked him enough to even tolerate him. Nutty as a Snickers bar. Napoleon was another super achieving, super I.Q., super motivated, super lunatic. He must have been something of a Svengali (Jim Jones?) to convince France to go marching into Russian winter expecting to come home victorious with all their fingers and toes. Ultimately, although he did not achieve his big objectives at all, he did manage to alter European history pretty much like no one else. Though he was leftover fries by 1814, by mid-century it is no coincidence that governments from Washington to Moscow were in turmoil or radical structural transition. Into this pyre, Napoleon made of Europe (see 1st movement, Beethoven Symphony No. 5) comes the Austrian Metternich. His tax return might have read, ‘Ambassador, Diplomat & Statesman’. He did a few things; He helped assemble a multinational defense and defeat of Napoleon. They even met once! He was instrumental in creating the treaties that would settle down and get Europe back to business after the defeat of Napoleon. This is now referred to as ‘the Balance of Power’. More than just a victor–loser treaty with France, these treaties took all concerned nations into consideration. Through diplomacy and skilled negotiations founded upon compromise, concessions and goals greater than merely the interests of the powerful country on whose behalf Metternich worked, grim visaged war found no welcome mat on European soil until near the close of century. For that glorious summer three-quarters of a century long, art, technology, social advancements, and of course wealth and world domination exploded as never before. There were some glaring problems, sure, but business was good! Schumann founded, wrote for, and published a magazine dedicated to the advancement of new and modern music. This would be a liberal cause or agenda. Mendelssohn helped found a music school of conservative aesthetics. Really, Mendelssohn did for J.S. Bach what Run DMC did for James Brown. Hey Ya! And both composers could peaceably co-exist, their contributions monumental and their stern disagreements but a drop in the comprehensive ocean that was the Peace of Europe. For the most part, Metternich thrived. Sometimes he didn’t. He had supporters and acolytes as well as critics, detractors, and adversaries. He was educated. He spoke languages; he read books; he thought thoughts. He worked with kings and generals directly and genially whether allies or not. He was the best man for the job. He was not without flaws, but he was the right stuff. He made mistakes, got back up, brushed himself off and got back to work. When he was no longer in demand, he retired and died of old age. He lived late enough to be photographed and in this image I see a man whose head fit in his hat. The arts are full of kooks, lunatics, maniacs, wackos, psychos, and so on. Okay, no problem. With a brush or pen or viola in hand, how much damage can they do. I regret like it was this morning the losses of Mendelssohn and Schumann so early in their endeavors. And Mozart and Bird and Hendrix and Judy Garland and Amy Winehouse. All so tragic. But the really REALLY bad stuff happens when unqualified or unbalanced people assume the power of nations. Really folks, I will tell you, really bad stuff. These are some bad people I will tell you. We’ve seen this all before. So bad. Sad really. I mean that. I wouldn’t lie about this or make stuff up. **I would like to thank William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens for the contribution of some choice lines and phrases. ––Submitted by Robert Block
Program Notes for La Nozze di Figaro / The Marriage of Figaro
Premiered: 1786 Vienna
Composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born: Salzburg Jan. 27, 1756
Died: Vienna Dec. 5, 1791
Libretto by Lorenzo DaPonte
Born: Vittorio Venneto, Italy Mar. 10, 1749
Died: New York City, Aug. 17, 1838
Adapted from the play “Le Mariage de Figaro” (premiered 1784, Paris) by Pierre Beaumarchais (born: Paris, Jan. 24, 1732, died: Paris, May 18, 1799)
I have been away from my post for a spell now. Not dormant, just not here. So, before tackling the matter at hand, I need to address the immediate past.
On March 16, 2016, Downtown Symphony, joined by the Downtown Chorus, presented Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The famous Ninth Symphony!! I’ve listened to this work for as long as I can remember, since I could work the record player. Until now, as an instrumentalist, I always ducked out of playing it because the difficulty of the enterprise is huge. BUT, this time, I took the leap. It was a very great honor to be a part of this endeavor. To be in the midst of and a working part of the realization of the awesome (not – ‘like awesome’ or ‘like totally awesome dude’ but awesome, as if looking straight up from the sidewalk at the Empire State Building) architecture that is that work.
Weaker soles or elite heels might have said our presentation was overreaching folly. To both I would propose some solitary scandalous behavior in the display window of a large Manhattan department store.
I am ever and eternally grateful to Drs. Doug Anderson and Eugenia Oi Yan Yau for the opportunity to play – to have participated in this fine event, unparalleled in the timeline of Western Art. However, never again.
On to ‘The Marriage of Figaro’…
A great American I know, once and likely often said, ‘Greatest opera ever written.’ Although I prefer to avoid definitive hyperbole, I must, on this point, agree. Is there a bar in America where such pronouncements are the source of a night’s banter or even fistfights? And, if so, can I run a tab?
The Figaro plays, three in all – ‘The Barber of Seville’, ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, and ‘The Guilty Mother’ – were all successful as plays in the lifetime of their author, Beaumarchais. All three were transposed at various times from stage play to opera. Rossini’s later Barber of Seville contains the very recognizable ‘Figaro! Figaro! Figaro’ song. Nuff said. The third play, ‘The Guilty Mother’, was recast as an opera more recently – ‘Ghosts of Versailles,’ by the fine American composer John Adams. But no American opera has achieved the sort of immortality as opera that the first two Figaro plays have. Not yet.
Beaumarchais was a wild man. Nowadays all one might expect from a ‘celebrity’ might be say, looking good in a bathing suit while yet again on vacation, looking stupid in metal underwear when not on vacation, getting into a fist fight outside a bar in LA, getting divorced or un-divorced.
Just before penning Marriage, Beaumarchais was a French spy running guns, ammunition, officers, and handkerchiefs to American patriots fighting British occupation in the New World. He might have murdered his first two wives. He was imprisoned during the French Revolution and almost did not survive. He was a smuggler and a playboy. He dabbled in watch repair and gambled. He published the most complete edition of Voltaire. He died in peace in Paris. He lived life, a furious life in which many years were the equal of a lifetime and many days enough to bury a fragile and vacuum wrapped 21st century person.
Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo DuPonte (another wild man) reworked the French stage play script into the Italian opera libretto with just enough alteration to get it past the censors. Now some might say, ‘well, he’s just the librettist’. Certainly, if one were to compare the playwright, the librettist, and the composer, Mozart was and is without doubt the genius of the group, really in a different class, but upon whose shoulders does Mozart stand?
Art is great when it reveals the human condition. The more it reveals, the greater it is. When you love someone for the long term, during that time, are you just running down the road together, parallel? No, shared lives intersect, cross and sometimes crash. The events and people of your other’s life intersect with your life, your events, and your people. Everything intersects. Nothing is simple or easy or obvious. Life is hard, people impossible and nothing alive can be calculated or assumed. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. La Nozze de Figaro. The greatest opera ever written.
In a really brief, almost sudden space of time, Mozart packed SO MANY tunes into this one work…. well it’s just not believable, not possible. And every single one a hit.
My two cents; Dove Sono is the most beautiful song ever written. Here, another unfortunate definitive hyperbole but, there it is. I’ve said it- the Most Beautiful Song Ever Written. And what is it? It’s a blues. It’s the lament of a woman believing herself past her prime because she cannot sustain the undivided attention of her jerk husband. Poor deluded soul. It could be the flip of At Last.
Is one song expressing the sad disappointment of an ill treated wife the expression of the entire human condition? No, but there are thirty songs in this opera, each addressing different colors and pitches and seasons through which our lives may cross. There are those lines between anticipation and disappointment, between anger and joy, being in love and being out of love. And then the lines with opposites at either end intersect and the result is the greatest opera ever written. I think.
What about Mozart? He is someone who our modern age has made an enduring icon of, like Beethoven or maybe Abe Lincoln and the few others who can be included in this rarified category?
Suffice it to say he was never a regular person. As children, he and his sister Nannerl were leashed to their instruments and dragged around Europe like performing monkeys. The guiding force and holder of the leash was their very willful father Leopold, thought by many to be Europe’s best violinist at that time. Mozart’s sister Nannerl, who was said to be a performer as good or better than her brother, was retired young and married off young. Wolfgang himself had two surviving sons. Though one did become a working musician, the other a civil servant, both died unwed and childless. That was the end of that line.
Escaping the control of his father in Salzburg, the young adult Mozart moved to and settled into Vienna. Its wealth, culture, and military primacy then at its zenith, it might be seen as the then capitol of Europe. He married and lived in Vienna for about fifteen years of explosive musical output and died at age thirty-five neither rolling in dough nor standing on a pedestal as he does now. Maybe…. an altar Remember, this was going on at the same time as General Washington’s troops were freezing their patriotic posteriors off at Valley Forge. Not George, his troops.
He did one thing well, music. He, like his father, was not liked. They did not ‘play well with others’ as the saying goes. Ironic that someone who lived so far apart from the general population should have such a remarkable embrace of human character so to represent it so astutely in his operas and, at the same time, to create music so commonly infectious to our ears and minds that his work endures furiously more than 200 years after his death in 1791.
In 1983 (last century) a very nice and somewhat enduring film called ‘Trading Places,’ with Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd, was released to popular approval. In the introductory/titles sequence we hear what? Yep. We hear the overture to our opera, Figaro. So joyous. So glorious.
Who among us has not offended someone they loved? Who has not at some time acted in self-interest, not sufficiently considering how our actions affect those close around us? What do we all desire as much or more than anything else? Forgiveness. We want and need forgiveness. That unique grace without which we hobble the strongest among us.
Mozart. Wolfgang Mozart. Maybe the Greatest Composer/Musician Ever, in his Greatest Opera Ever Written gives us a song of forgiveness at the end of the last act. It reminds us how desperately we wish to be forgiven and how much better it might be if we could forgive others. Once in your heart, this song never leaves.
The world is a crazy place and life too often seems impossible and incomprehensible. Unendurable. But when a thing is put before us which encompasses so many of those matters of the heart that can vex and torment us or flood our lives with joy and love and light and compassion, then it’s time to sit and listen.
— Submitted by Robert Block
Notes on Handel’s Messiah for our concert: December 13, 2015
George Friedrich Handel
Born Halle, Germany, Feb. 23, 1685
Died London, England, Apr. 14, 1759
How many kinds of songs are there? I don’t know.
There are songs of unrequited love like, say, “Heart Break Hotel” by Elvis or “Baby, Baby, Where Did Our Love Go?” by the Supremes. There are list songs like “Partridge in a Pear Tree” or “Let’s Fall In Love” by Cole Porter. Work songs that, unfortunately, have gone out of fashion since radios and recordings de-necessitate singing or the knowledge of songs. There are war songs, somewhat like work songs in that they’re good to have on a long forced march. Love songs — Body and Soul, Body and Soul. There are religious songs, sometimes called hymns, and their contemporary counterparts, jingles, usually shorter though no less infectious. Art songs, the kind what ain’t got words. But to return to the matter at hand, a last, though not final class of song: the anthem.
An anthem is the type of song that might include attributes of other types, that when knit together create something socially adhesive, even, galvanizing.
We have our “national anthem”. I think it’s really a hijacked war song. Tony Bennett says it’s too difficult to sing due to range issues. For myself, it has come to signify the game will begin after three more commercial breaks. Can it resonate equally with women who are generally not deemed appropriate in a theatre of combat? Hmmmmm. And we have our other anthems. Spirituals are numerous but “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem for the civil rights movement. “White Christmas,” “Born To Run,” “What’s Going On?”.
George Frederic Handel was the son of a barber who discouraged his son’s evident musical proclivities. With his father’s death, Handel dismissed any notion of studying law and devoted all his energy to music. He left Halle, Germany permanently in 1703 to pursue his career. First stop, Hamburg. The rage at the time was opera in the Italian style. Adept with languages and musically adaptive, he learned to compose opera in the Italian style. Understand, the style was all sort of Baroque then, but the Italian Catholic entertainments were more colorful, more “spicy” as show biz went. Handel collaborated well, churned out music and generally made a good living. From Hamburg, he moved to Italy for a few educational years and then settled in England where his talents were regarded highly and the appetite for Italian opera was voracious. Though he continued to make trips to the mainland, England would be his home for the remainder of his life. He bought a house on Brook Street, London in 1723. I believe it is still there.
About Baroque composers. They all tended to write a lot, compared to composers of other periods. Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi and the Italians, even Haydn who stood with his youthful feet in the Baroque, wrote in multiples of what contemporary writers produce. Handel was no different and he wrote for all occasions and in quite a few languages — operas, religious music, public festival music, chamber music, etc. In addition, there was performing, conducting, adapting the work of others, some teaching, the business of music and the occasional foray to the Continent to find new singers. Busy boy. He also help found a charity and home for retired (“decay’d”) musicians, and an orphanage. As you might guess, he never had time for a wife. There was a romance, but it did not have legs, and after that, his love life appears to have been modest and discreet.
He was good company and enjoyed the respect and affections of all those around him except when professional rivalry interfered. Tall and stout, he appreciated food and drink but not to excess.
By the late 1730’s, the opera mill got to be too much for Handel. There were competing companies and houses and impresarios and, I bet, a whole lot of attitudes, so, he backed out of the opera thing.
The oratorio form provided a less collaborative effort. No theatre madness, special effects and staging and big budgets. Handel and a librettist — simple. The subjects became simpler too, and often religious. Thus, “the Messiah”, actually, “Messiah”. The story goes that once Charles Jennens gave Handel the libretto, extracted from the Old and New Testaments, Handel kind of locked himself in a room and knocked the whole thing out in 24 days. A minor miracle if true. It premiered in Dublin, Ireland, on 13 April, 1742 at Neal’s Music Hall on Fishamble Street. It was part of a charity music series. Handel played harpsichord for the premier and a friend of his conducted. It was, as it is still, a hit. He performed it many more times in his life and altered the score freely to adjust the thing for different situations. He was very good about that. Others altered, translated, and edited it and I for one, don’t think Handel would have objected at all. The version we shall play, on December 16, at BMCC, is the Mozart retelling, the version most commonly heard.
Handel lived to a good old age but not all of it in the best of health. There were bouts of paralysis in his hands for which cures were prescribed at those hot spring mineral spas so popular in the 18 and 19th centuries. In the final years of his life he was plagued, probably, with cataracts and, like his friend J.S. Bach, probably succumbed to the infections caused by crude operations attempting to relieve the problem. Much of his estate was bequeathed to the charities he had helped found. He is buried in London at Westminster Abbey.
Messiah was not, from the get-go, dedicated as a Yuletide offering, as it is now. At that time a year round appreciation of the life and works of Christ was not exceptional. Of course, now, December is the ticket and entertainment and arts pages of newspapers around the country abound with adverts for performances of Messiah. Every Valley Shall Be Exalted and the Rough Places Plain.
There is a musical technique, a special effect, which Handel did not invent but did refine and wield with exceptional skill. He probably brought it with him from his opera years. The technique is now called, something like, Text Painting. It is a coordination or confluence of lyric content — the text — and the musical setting. Listen to how in the first few numbers and you can hear the fluttering of the wings of angels. Later, the braying of sheep. Valleys are low and hills are up — musically. The cr0-o0-Oo-ked straight, and the rough places plain!!!
It’s kind of like onomatopoeia in poetry. The whole Messiah is chock full of these delightful little musical evocations of specific states of mind and things. Clever clever clever.
Some years ago, foolishly and callously, due to dire and grave conditions in my life, I let music shiver outside in the cold while I languished in a warm artless closet. It was like my head was wrapped in cellophane. Could neither breath nor hear nor speak. I got on the escalator at Lex and 53rd on my way home from toil. Ahead of me and two steps up, a man was humming or whistling. I don’t recall which it was, but I did know the tune.
I said “I know that tune; what is that”?
He turned and smiled and gave forth, “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted And The Rough Places Plain”!!
He took his finger and popped a whole in the cellophane and I began to sing. As the escalator delivered us unto sunshine, Music, Air, and Light and Color rushed back into my self. We sang Messiah till the journey was complete. Then I did resolve to play Messiah every year I had left and then some. Wonderful!
When a room full of folks all sing and play together a perfectly crafted anthem masterpiece like MESSIAH, something takes hold, something irresistible, something galvanizing.
Notes on our concert: May 20, 2012
W. A. Mozart
b. Salzburg, 1/27/1756 d. Vienna, 12/5/1791
Lorenzo Da Ponte
b. Venice, 3/10/1749 d. New York City 8/17/1838
The cowboys sit circled around the fire, drinking Starbucks coffee. One has a laptop. The Bushmen in National Geographic wear Laker jerseys. A rock n’ roll star leans over to kiss his child good night. His hair falls off. He splits his pants.
Where have all the cowboys gone? Role model schmole schmodel. Those we propose and promote as role models are zeroes on their good days. Overpaid athletes, Venus of the week or actors who read other’s lines and wait for the stuntman so they can repose and medicate.
Have we ever had REAL heroes/role models? Who cares? Clarence Darrow, Ida Tarbell, Isabella Baumfree? Impermanent nouns in a bad volume of brand advertising masquerading as ‘our history’. Why, these has-beens couldn’t even do pharmaceutical commercials. Do these men and women still walk among us? Maybe, however the shoes of our information age are far too tight for what free thinkers of substance and would deem comfortable for walking, running, leaping or dancing.
Giacomo Casanova was born into a family of entertainers in the Republic of Venice on Apr. 2, 1725. Though the brightest lights burn furiously, he lived to age 73, cashing in his chips while employed as household librarian in a castle in Bohemia on June 4 1798. What would Casanova write in the ‘occupation’ box of his tax return if he had a tax return, which he didn’t. His occupation box would look like this: Lawyer, Clergyman, Violinist, Military Officer, Con Man/Scam Artist, Gambler, Gourmand, Dancer, Entrepreneur, Diplomat, Spy, Politician, Medic, Mathematician, Philosopher, Cabalist, Writer, Playwright, Librarian. What he would not include might be: refugee, convict, escaped convict, duelist, pimp, AND, most famously, sexual animal of the highest order as well as a walking venereal disease museum.
I begin by declaring to my reader that, by everything good or bad that I have done throughout my life, I am sure that I have earned merit or incurred guilt, and that hence I must consider myself a free agent. … Despite an excellent moral foundation, the inevitable fruit of the divine principles that were rooted in my heart, I was all my life the victim of my senses; I have delighted in going astray and I have constantly lived in error, with no other consolation than that of knowing I have erred. … My follies are the follies of youth. You will see that I laugh at them, and if you are kind you will laugh at them with me.
Was Casanova a role model? For me, absotootally doodally. Please let me live one year in the life of this man (before age diminished him). By comparison, my life is about the same as a jar of generic mayo waiting to expire in the back of a row on the shelf of a supermarket. Of course, the venereal disease biz was a consequence of his time and I would certainly take a pass on that.
Can we all now raise our glasses and voices in veneration of those who have gone before us, living lives of ferocious spontaneity, joy, risk, intellect, peril and achievement. Oye, don’t get me started.
Next, was Casanova as a role model? Lorenzo Da Ponte, who wrote the libretto for today’s opera, was acquainted with Casanova. Casanova attended the premier of “Don Giovanni” in Prague. Rewrites of sections of libretto do exist in Casanova’s hand. Did Mozart know Casanova? It seems most unlikely that he would not have met him. Prague was not that big a city. The bored and lonely librarian would have sought out the company of two musical somebodies the likes of Mozart and Da Ponte. As Da Ponte was not present for the premier, it seems possible that he had recommended Casanova to the composer for some on-the-spot edits and re-writes, or at least comments. Another thing about Casanova, this guy knew everybody who was anybody in Europe–kings, queens, politicos, artists, scientists, paramours, pompadours, Rousseau, Voltaire, Ben Franklin. I mean everybody and he always kept up his side of the conversation. A natural schmoozer. Perhaps he didn’t know Newton, his polar opposite and a most uncharming fellow.
At the premier of “Don Giovanni”, someone asked Casanova if he liked the opera. “Like it; I practically lived it.” Reminds me of a joke.
Remember that Australian kid who played the Joker so brilliantly and then went and O.D.ed on a laundry list of drugs? Well, he did a terrific film (coolly received) about Casanova; there are a lot of films and novels bout him. It’s always best to isolate a chapter of Casanova’s life for a production as the whole life is just too, too vast (his memoirs run to 12 volumes). This is what it seems Da Ponte did. Casanova was in Spain in the late 1760’s but from there returned to Paris as opposed to going straight to hell.
There is a beer commercial where this handsome elegant gentleman tells you what beer to drink on the authority of him being ‘the most interesting man alive’. Casanova. Sanitized but none-the-less, Casanova.
Why would Da Ponte pick this reprobate (?), adventurer (?), libertine for a model for the character of Don Giovanni? I’ll tell ya why, cause Da Ponte was no slouch in this department himself.
Like Casanova, he was Venetian. Unlike Casanova, he was born Jewish. His widower father converted the family to Roman Catholicism so he could re-marry some hot young chick (shiksa). Young Lorenzo entered the clergy but was drummed out due to producing illegitimate children. You know how the Catholic Church frowns on that sort of thing. From here he made his way around Europe, mostly having to skip what ever town he was in at any time, writing operas, teaching languages and just having a good ole time.
He wrote 28 librettos for 11 composers. Three for Mozart – “Don Giovanni”, “Cosi fan tutte” and “Figaro”. All but Don Giovanni was extracted from pre-existing stories. With the death of his pal Mozart and running low on funds, patrons and cosmopolitan destinations to escape to, he bit the bullet and came here–New Yawk, jus like I pictured it–no sky scrapers yet–1805. Boy had survival skills like Carter has pills. First professor of Italian Literature at Columbia, first opera company in the U.S., naturalized citizen in 1828. In business he wasn’t so great but in life he was great. He’s buried here in New York but we’re not sure where. Maybe downtown, maybe Queens. He had a big funeral on Mulberry St. and everyone came.
Sooooooooo, what’s the big deal about Mozart?
There is in our human creative process, this thing, sometimes referred to as art, a summit (?) of excellence. I must be careful here. It stretches across all time (we only have like 4 – 5000 years to talk about) and it covers all nations and cultures. The criteria for this standard include issues of how this person’s output both represented his environment and how he translated and was understood by other places and times. There are matters of structure, form and balance–the organization of information–architecture in a sense. There is the simpler singular matter of self expression coupled with the complex but accurate representation of the universal and eternal human condition. There is transcendent beauty and there is grief. There is invention and innovation and the inspiration you provide others. There are more criteria and smarter folks than me are muttering them now. Know this, or consider this and then evaluate the evidence; Mozart in his short burst of life satisfied all these (and other) criteria with the best of’ em. Look at the Taj Mahal, Mona Lisa, Ode on Grecian Urn, Hamlet, a Samurai Sword and, AND, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”, his Symphony #40, the clarinet concerto, on and on. Oh, yea, the “Requiem”. It’s all there–that which makes the finest examples of human creative endeavors are present in the great works of this strange little man from Vienna.
“Don Giovanni” did not premier in Vienna but in Prague. Prague loved Mozart and vice versa. He referred to Prague as, ’Aach, my Prague.’ The date was October 29, 1787.
Clock’s ticking–seven seconds on the clock–4th down–goal to go. Last thing for now–there are great moments, events in art, sometimes too subtle to see easily or not understood by the many. As to ‘frankly Scarlet, I don’t give a damn’, frankly Scarlet, I don’t give a damn. Now as to the first chord of “Don Giovanni”, I give a damn, Scarlet, and it (the chord) screams damnation. From the outset of the opera Mozart tells you how it will end. What else is foretold by this immense ponderous chord? Mozart declares that the present musical century, with 13 years yet to go is, for all intents and purposes, over, past tense, FAKACHT, FABLUNDGET. Additionally, Mozart confesses that it is he who put the dagger in it and that he accepts the judgment he will receive for his behavior. As the opposite of death is birth the chord delivers new life as well. A whole new century and a terrible century. That best of times worst of times thing. Quite a chord, no?
What sort of chord is it? It’s a big ole’ minor chord, stretched like a rubber band from the tippy top to the bottom of the orchestra. Three notes repeated as Wolfy saw fit. What’s a minor chord? What’s a chord? If you stack three or more notes on top of one another–played simultaneously–it’s a chord. Different combinations produce different effects. Sometimes these complex sounds are characterized as nice or happy, dark or ominous. At worst, they are described as dissonant or consonant. Well there’s no such thing. Sounds vibrate. When played together, musical notes, in general, vibrate uniquely. This is the manipulation of harmony. Beethoven said of Mozart, “Aach, that god of harmony.”
If this cannot be understood in a music context, try colors. Brown and green. Forest colors. I love brown and green. How about purple and yellow. Laker jerseys. Everything old is new again. Ha cha cha!
— Submitted by Robert Block
Notes on our concert: March 21, 2012
J. Brahms May 1833 – Apr. 1897
Symphony No. 4
J. Strauss June 1864 – Sept. 1949
Death and Transfiguration
J. Sibelius Dec. 1865 – Sept. 1957
S. Joplin ca. 1867 – Apr. 1917
Sometimes history pivots. One might not see it happening, though you might be presented with evidence that it has happened. It could happen over an extended spell or overnight. The latter shift is less frequent, and is usually abrupt and even a bit violent.
A lot was going on in 1889. The New York Giants defeated the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers in a proto-subway series. Hitler was born. Cordite, a smokeless replacement for gun powder, was patented. Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla and others tussled over what sort of current would electrify Europe, America and Americans. Orville Wright dropped out of high school. Marx was recently dead, Freud was not.
One morning in late January of that year, the body of Crown Prince Rudolph, heir to the Habsburg Empire and son of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, was found at a recently purchased hunting lodge. Beside him was his drop-dead-gorgeous girlfriend, Baroness Maria Vetsera. It looked like a suicide. Rudy was a bit unhinged, having just been told by his father to break it off with his 17-year-old paramour.
What happened then remains contentious. What would happen later does not.
With the discovery of these bloodied, star-crossed lovers, the acrimoniously crowded Flexible Flyer of European history was nudged down suicide hill, guided only by fatal gravity, into the oncoming traffic of World War 1 Boulevard.
The next in line for the throne, Archduke Ferdinand, was more famously assassinated in 1914, and so the party started.
This program we present here is unquestionably one of the great programs. Fun to play–fun to hear–fun to write about. Now here’s the thing: the symphony, Brahms’ #4, was written in 1885, four years before Rudolph’s suicide. The other three pieces on the program were written 1) after the death of the prince and 2) after the turn of the century, in an altered and saddened world. These composers were mourning the loss not only of this heir but also of a Europe–and to some degree, a U.S.–shaken by the loss of the departed order and more than a little worried about the pestilential century to come.
Most folks write around eight or ten symphonies. Mozart wrote 41 and Haydn more than 100. Brahms wrote four, all large pieces and all spectacular. #4 is a joy. The tango in the first movement and the triangle part in the third are just great. My whole life, I will delight in getting another crack at this singular gem.
In1885 and decades prior, Austria and Vienna were at the top of their game. Art, science, fashion and wealth made their capitols here. Grand twinkling balls where saber-toting cavalry officers twirled with women in hooped dresses are not an image of fiction or cinema. It was an empire in primacy, splendor and gilt. All of this is in evidence in this excellent symphony. Not to say that Brahms did not have sadness in his life, but that he could go out and frolic the blues away, 7 nights a week? Wunderbar!!
I often wonder how my father, a WWII veteran, perceived the 9/11 attacks. Disbelief? Betrayal? The beginning of the end? And how might Brahms have seen the events of ’89? The beginning of the end would not have been far off the mark.
Sibelius was a Finn. I like saying that. Or, he was Finnish; you see, not as much fun. He lived to a ripe old age–92. You can do this if you live in a very cold place and stay pickled as much as possible. He wrote Valse Triste (“sad waltz”) in1903. It was part of the music for a play called “Death”. Now you might think this was a musical but no, Sibelius only provided incidental music–like a film score but for the theatre.
A dying woman fantasizes about her waltzing, twinkling past. A knock at the door–guess who? Mr. Death.
Back to my thesis (?). What is Sibelius talking about here? I posit that he is looking back on a century he would prefer NOT to give up just yet, if ever. Time marches on. This is what sad is. That it should be made to march behind a tank is tragic……triste.
As Germany’s top of the line ‘acceptable’ composer, Strauss submitted to playing patty cake with the Nazis in an effort to keep his Jewish in-laws out of the ovens. From the time those barbaric greasy thugs came to power in the mid-thirties until the end of the war, he worked tirelessly at keeping his people out of the camps, his music flowing, and the high command at bay while suffering the derision of his musical contemporaries for his affiliation. He never joined the ‘party’.
On his deathbed in 1949 he told his daughter-in-law, “It’s a funny thing, Alice, dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung (‘Death and Transfiguration’).”
He wrote it in…wait for it…yep, 1889, though at the other end of the year from ‘the Mayerling Affair’. He was 25 at the time.
This is a difficult and serious hunk of music. Not a trifle, not an amusement. Difficult to play and difficult to hear as nearly all of his music is. Yet, I make a promise to you that IF you bring your patience, your concentration, your intellect and heart to Strauss, he will reward you.
Scott Joplin is our token American on the program and every program should have one. His life was a miserable train wreck, it would appear, from jump to finish. He died in probably horrific segregated squalor in something called a hospital in New York City at age 49. The cause of death was the tertiary stage of syphilis, though the paperwork said ‘dementia’. Three marriages: first ended in divorce after a child was lost, second Joplin outlived, third outlived Joplin. He went from one financial cave-in to another. He signed away his publishing rights for pennies, like a perfect rube. He wrote two operas: the first went broke and was lost, the second never got the chance to thrive. Neither did Joplin’s chops for writing a larger work. He suffered all the crippling vicious racism his time and geography could muster, and he kept on until madness took away his ability to scratch and claw and survive.
How do you do that? You play the blues, play the blues. There was a time here in this country of ours when it was not uncommon to lose everything. When that happened, folks just played the blues. You take all that sadness in you, all the pain and suffering, and the vindictiveness and fight, ’cause there ain’t no fight to fight, and you put it square on the table in front of you and you look at it in the hope that when you get up and walk away that pointy thing that’s been churning up your guts stays on the table when you go. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it don’t. Life is that way.
I hear the blues in Joplin, in Louis Armstrong and Bird and Coltrane and Mingus. In Howlin Wolf and Little Walter and Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday and Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. Those who have suffered undeservedly are its possessors. You don’t learn it in any school.
Joplin’s contribution to this program is a beautiful number that he wrote in 1909 called ‘Solace’. It is recognizable from the very nice film ‘The Sting’ which helped restore Joplin to the position of greatness he deserves in the pantheon of OUR most precious and genuine composers.
Solace is a wonderful notion; something that gives comfort when in sorrow or distress, kinda like the blues. A function of Great Art is that it reveals the human condition. That too-human capacity to endure unearned suffering is so evident in “Solace,” and makes so evident the greatness of Art and Soul contained in poor Scott Joplin.
So, what do you say? Do the great artists take the pulse, or are they the pulse of the culture they inhabit? Both? I’d love to ask Kafka or Goya or Brahms or Whitman, but I can’t ask them. I can refer to them. Set ’em on the table and wonder. That’s it. Better go practice the Strauss.
— Submitted by Robert Block
Notes on our past concert: May 22, 2011
La Forza del Destino
Giuseppe Verdi (b. October 10, 1813, d. January 27, 1901)
Libretto: Francesco Piave (b. May 18, 1810, d. March 5, 1876)
I would like to talk about rubber for a spell. Short spell. In the second half of the 19th century the ‘technologically advanced’ countries of Europe and the U.S. developed an appetite for rubber.
Access to the technological advances that came during our Civil War and during the subsequent taming of the continent became the unholy grail coveted by other nations. Rubber was an essential ingredient for the development of electricity, communication and transportation. Fortunes, FORTUNES would be made by controlling the supply of this commodity. Remember, there was of yet no synthetic substitute (plastic) on hand. This might remind you of our current petroleum situation.
Rubber comes from the sap of a tropical tree indigenous to South America. When the appetite for rubber erupted, boomtowns, really cities, were created in the most unlikely or undesirable places imaginable- the middle of the Amazon Rain Forest. Steamboats could navigate the river and its tributaries. Pre-tamed labor could be brought in and before you knew it, shop was set up, rubber flowed down the river like water, and profit like a mighty stream.
Two cities of note were created in this time of harvest- Manaus and Belem. We’re interested in Manaus.
As the saying goes, ‘Money was no object.’ Every possible amenity was shipped into the middle of the jungle for the comfort and delight of the nice European folk who were raping the jungle and its population in that happy time. To be fair, I must say the Brazilian government helped…the rubber barons.
Plumbing, paved streets and boulevards, stone and concrete buildings in the European style, libraries and churches and anything else that you might have found in Paris or Brussels. A regular home away from home.
But, you know what was the jewel in the crown of this rubber erection rising in the jungle? Hmmmmm?
An opera house. A fabulous opera house.
In today’s dollars, the cost and effort invested in this thing was like a moon shot. They brought in the architects, engineers, masons, artists, decorators and all the materials. They brought electrical generators since the theater would use the newly invented electrical lighting. They paved the surrounding streets with rubber so carriage wheels on cobblestone would not disturb performances. Of course, European singers and musicians were brought in and on one famous occasion, half of an entire cast died from yellow fever.
I could go on but the point is this- the industrialists and profiteers and scientists and chauvinists needed OPERA to make manageable the primitive environment into which they had thrust themselves. Opera was just that important. So important that it cannot be irrelevant to us who inherit what they created in their ferocious century of invention. It reminded them of who they thought they were and it distracted them from the truth of their locality which was a jungle trying to kill them, aggressively.
Honor, Love and Tenderness and Conviction, Sacrifice and Compassion and Forgiveness could all pass before them on the stage so that this transplanted audience could believe, if only for a fleeting moment, they possessed a smidgen of those laudable qualities rendered in the opera. Bravo!
After a while, seeds for rubber trees were smuggled out of the jungle by a clever Brit who brought the biz to the Pacific and Africa causing the Brazilian rubber boom to collapse. The jungle swatted off the Manaus Opera House like last year’s fashions. With some struggle, Manaus endured and the theatre has been recently renovated and restored to its original splendor.
So what is the big deal about opera? If you care to ask the question, the path to the answer is direct and unobstructed – go to the opera. Ignore the opinions and copious verbiage of people like myself or experts. No one sees opera on the radio. What we offer at BMCC is not, in this sense, opera either. Without costumes, sets, knife fights, fake blood, crowd scenes and occasional live animals etc., it ain’t opera. To hear a fine voice, in person, sing selections from opera is good, but it ain’t opera.
We have this thing in NYC called the Metropolitan Opera (we also have the City Opera) and for a ticket the same or a lil’ more than the cost of a movie you can go to the opera. You don’t have to dress up and you don’t have to blow a weeks pay. You can sit in the nosebleeds or you can stand. You won’t miss a thing and you will have no translation issue, nada! Check the schedule and go see anything. Buy your ticket at the door. Live orchestra, sets and costumes and highly, highly trained and devoted ARTISTS singing their brains out. Clapping and cheering and weeping because the ideas presented have so effectively and deeply touched your heart. Movies are too often a stale pretzel compared to the Thanksgiving dinner of entertainment on tap at the opera. JUST GO!! Forget about the pinheads in tuxedos or the subscription ladies who say ‘AH’ or ‘ACH’. ‘Ah Verdi’ or ‘Ach Rossini’. If there is a crisis in classical music, they are the crisis; they think they own it.
Opera is not a temple on some gentrified hill; it’s a gold and green valley into which all are welcome. However, you must go to it.
Verdi was a common man though an uncommon creator. He wrote, at last count, 28 operas. Easily half of those are performed regularly 150-plus years after their creation. Though I could not find a record of performances, I’d bet the ranch Verdi was well represented at Manaus. I think I would be surprised at how many Verdi tunes are recognizable by your average Joe. He was Italy’s number one son. He knew where people’s buttons were and he could hit them with force and accuracy. So much so, one realizes quickly, if you go to the opera, that we have the very same buttons our ancestors had in the 19th century. That’s ART in my world.
The story of La Forza del Destino is what Mark Twain might have called ‘a stretcher.’ It is set in Spain, which writers considered an incubator of hot-blooded people whose bad behavior might seem believable in fiction.
There are, to start, two lovers- she, of high birth and he, of Latin American blood. Her Dad catches them and in the frantic moment, lover boy accidentally kills Dad. Oops! Lover boy skips town and then the cross-dressing begins. Lover girl has a brother and he’s pissed. Both men coincidentally resolve that the best course of action is to get themselves killed in a foreign war and, as luck would have it, with the aid of aliases and disguises become bound comrades through the ordeal of combat until a box of letters reveals lover boy’s identity to pissed off brother. Duel!! Sister/lover girl shows up fresh from the nunnery to watch her bro die and gets stabbed by him, well, just because. Lover boy lives. It’s a stretcher all right.
The first performance, you might guess, was in Milan or Venice. But no. Demonstrating Verdi’s universal appeal, this gem premiered in St Petersburg, Russia, in November of 1862.
In 1960, a baritone dropped dead during a performance of Forza at the Met, which is supposed to earn the work a ‘cursed’ status.
I heard there was a war once where some folks in military costumes were killed and yet the institution endures as a popular past time. Curses be damned!
— Submitted by Robert Block
Notes on our concert: March 16, 2011
Double Concerto for Violin and Cello
b. Hamburg, May 7, 1833
d. Vienna, April 3, 1897
Symphony No. 104
Franz Joseph Haydn
b. Rohrau, Austria, March 31, 1732
d. Vienna, May 31, 1809
Overture to “La Forza del Destino”
b. LeRoncole, Italy, Oct 10, 1813
d. Milan, Jan 27, 1901
Solum Credunt Saliunt
b. Brooklyn, New York, November 13, 1950
History is a distortion. Or maybe, is distortion. Clearly, absolutely, always and forever.
Look in any direction. Pull a single from your pocket. Who is that nice but unsmiling man with the poofy-doo? Can you tell me the insurrection/eye glass story? Did you know he lost more battles than he won, in two wars. He really was not a very good general. Did you know he was so austere, so unapproachable, most people were afraid to say good morning. He did have fabulous penmanship.
Sometimes the hindsight dementia we call history can sanitize and sometimes it can demonize. Lately we have this thing called revisionism. It is a sincere but at best apologetic attempt to right the record of things the experts said.
I’m worried about our world. I’m worried about our culture. Culture is a big deal. Bigger than other abstractions we use to describe our present moment. To manage and reconcile our present culture we might need to do a better job of embracing our past, which, as I have noted before, isn’t even past.
There are those folks in our collective cultural memory who seem to exist as the statues and busts and graven images we make of them. For every generation it is time to refresh the memory of great and yet common men and women. Remember, they too had indigestion, cried when their dogs died and ate cereal from their favorite bowl. Then can we sing a chorus for the common man and live presently in all the centuries.
Brahms occupied a space and time so recent that a good photographic record of him from youth to checkout time exists. What do the photos tell us? Usually, they tell us he looked like Santa Claus in the off-season, really. Younger and without the beard, he was a very good-looking guy with what are commonly described as ‘piercing blue eyes’. The Santa look was apparently typical or even fashionable for older portly gentleman of that period and those climes but Brahms had the look down and then some.
He was born into intense urban poverty. The Brahms family was poor, dirt poor. He came from Hamburg. That’s where the Beatles used to play. It was rough for the Beatles and it was very rough for Brahms. Drunken sailors getting their pockets picked by drunken strumpets in darkened streets running with all manner of human emanation at all hours with no Sabbath or sanctuary.
He took to the piano and to music young. Like the Beatles, he played in the dives and the dance halls and the cathouses and played what was then popular music while business and pleasure shrieked and festered around him.
Something happened to Brahms during this period. First, like the Beatles, he got very good at what he did – good enough to gain the attention of piano teachers who had the good sense to reach down and pull this child out of the muck in which he was drowning (while helping to support his family). Second, and this is significant, we don’t know what happened. Bad scene. Did he catch something? Was he raped? Pedestrian trauma or some really bad experience? I don’t know. Neither does anyone else though many experts have opinions. Some have two.
The results were thus. He never married and had no children. He had enduring relationships with remarkable and substantial women but none were ever consummated as far as is known.
Brahms settled in Vienna later in life. He did his composition work in the morning, scheduled appointments in the afternoon or not and then took off for the Red Hedgehog, a sort of classy broad-spectrum gentlemen’s club on the outskirts of very pious Vienna. Boy was just mad about whores. Other Viennese luminaries were known to while away the hours at the Red Hedgehog. Conversing with the flowers.
Brahms had a best buddy, Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), a violin player who had a career in music that makes musicians swoon- no kidding. He was the first violinist of note to be recorded (in 1903).
In 1863 he had married a singer named Amalie Schneewiess who would later sing the premier of Brahms’ German Requiem. After six kids Joe thought Amy was sharing her charms with another and there was a nasty divorce proceeding and Brahms wrote a letter and maybe he should of kept his mouth shut or done something else but it was a big bowl of acrimonious mishigass and that, in 1884, was the end of Joachim and Brahms’ friendship. That is, until the friends reconciled in 1887 at which time Brahms composed this Double Concerto for Violin and Cello and Orchestra.
A concerto is a symphonic work with a featured soloist(s), usually divided into three sections- the work, not the soloist.
This work is a grand and beautiful thing to behold. It features, as one might expect from for Brahms, both brilliant orchestral writing and a deeply personal conversation between two instruments. I think of the two solo parts as Brahms and Joachim sitting in lawn chairs, sippin’ juleps and walking down memory lane. But they tell me I’m too easily given to conspiracies theories.
Haydn wrote his 104th symphony in 1795. He was 63 years old and for the remaining 14 years of his life, he did not write another symphony. Not one. And, his production in both quality and quantity in that subsequent chapter of his life was like the amalgam of all positive adjectives.
Great tunes. Great and charming orchestration and dance grooves and abundant humanity and all the intellect and humor of a top shelf son of the Enlightenment. In so many spots does this work twinkle joy and delight like the jewels and furniture studs in a Vermeer.
In the slow and elegant intro, Haydn stands before us. He has not come to lecture or preach or show off. He is supplicant. He is inviting us to consider his past, for better or for worse, as it will now be confessed in the remainder of this charged and honest memoir. I love this symphony. It has real meaning and substance. It will never pass into nothingness.
Another distortion of history; the idea that people were ever really any different then or now. ‘The Force of Destiny.’ Works for Star Wars, works for Joseph’s treacherous brothers and it works for Verdi and Italian opera.
Now as luck would have it ladies and gentlemen, we at Downtown Symphony are going to perform this opera for our final offering of the season so this overture is really, an overture two times. Get it?
An overture (used to be) is an introductory medley of numbers from the work to come that will provide you time to find your seat and get settled in. Now, they won’t let you into the Met once the overture begins.
Verdi was to the Italy of the 19th century as Hollywood was to the U.S. in the 20th. He was beloved by his country and throughout Europe and when he died there was deep mourning.
Something about all three of these men in a sort of aggregate– There is a trio of composers who many feel are the high water mark of Western music, namely Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Then there are those who believe the trio is a quartet or even quintet. I’m not going to now share who I feel is (are) the other ‘A’ but these three guys, Haydn, Brahms and Verdi, are absolutely qualified, credentialed and credible candidates for that office, spot.
All three revered their predecessors and honored them. All three provided platforms, both inspirational and concrete, for those who would follow them. All three endure because their music was that good. And, all three were human beings as we are now. Better and worse.
The human condition is immortal, not the human individual. Sometimes, and not often, a human comes along who can express the human condition, display and reveal it, for better – for worse. This is what Great Art is about. It reminds us about ourselves. The disposable pop stuff is meant to distract us or to tell us we are okay. That’s not the truth. We are not okay and I’m scared and I’m frightened Auntie Em.
Douglas Anderson is one of the good guys. He is a superior musician. He is a principled and devoted individual. Thank you Doug.
— Submitted by Robert Block
Notes on our concert: November 10, 2010
born June 15, 1843, Bergen, Norway; died September 4, 1907, Bergen, Norway
–Piano Concerto in A major
–Bergliot: a Melodrama for Speaker and Orchestra
born May 1, 1872, Stockholm, Sweden; died May 8, 1960, Falun, Sweden
–Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, Opus 19, “Midsummer Vigil”
born November 13, 1950, Brooklyn, New York
–The Half King
In a recent conversation with my daughter, we discussed the all-too-common dilemma of popular novels getting converted to films that then jettison so much, too much, of the substance and depth of a given work. How often, really, do we say the film was better than the book? That’s a night in the bar.
My contribution to the conversation was simply this: films are visual affairs. That which was realized in the silents has not become antiquated or been surpassed. Chaplin, Keaton and Fairbanks are thespians every bit the equal of Brando, Scott and Hepburn. Watch your favorite film without watching, just listening. You’ll find a lot less dialogue than you might have suspected. And, AND, how great is the role of the sound track, a.k.a. the music? How much of that ’music’ is catchy pop tunes founded on infectious lil’ hooks and shapely young buns? Ooh, ooh, I know the answer. None. And don’t tell me about ‘Never Can Tell’ in the twist scene of Pulp Fiction. That was in the story.
What is it about a great Vermeer that just causes you to stop? Ooh, ooh, I know that answer too. He can paint silence. Silence becomes a mantra when visualized, and when you tranquilize and transfigure before those too-few miracles of Vermeer’s art—there are some great ones here in NYC—you replicate that silence in yourself.
It’s difficult to pinpoint or credit when what we’ll call European composition transcended dance music and entertainment and really started knockin’ on the door of revealing the human condition and heart. Whenever this was an objective, the language and palette of harmony, melody and rhythm were required to evolve.
Hugo Alfvén was a painter as well as a composer/conductor/violinist. So was Mendelssohn. So was Schoenberg. Sometimes, not always, a really great creative mind must have feet in two worlds. In this conversation, it is the audible and the visual. Sadly, I am not familiar with Alfvén’s paintings. I know that he loved his country, and it loves him. I could easily have written this offering about nationalism but in this election season of ours it seemed a vulgar angle to take. Next thing you know you’re talking about Naz-OUCH#^*%^%$#$^.
“My best ideas have come during my sea voyages at night, and, in particular, the wild autumns have been my most wonderful times for composition.” –Hugo Alfvén
“Midsummer Vigil” is Alfvén’s most recognizable work. It was written about 1903, when he was age 30 or so, and is a fine and colorful work. Someone called it ‘Painterly Harmony’.
Are we all aware that Scandinavia comprises Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark and sometimes Iceland? Though part of what we call Europe, Scandinavia is culturally and geographically distinct. It’s not so much Latin as it is Nordic, culturally speaking.
I’ve seen a few images of Alfvén and I must say, later in life he did look a bit like Gandhi, but a lot of people look like Gandhi when they get older. Not Grieg. Not Anderson. Grieg had hair like a rock n’ roll guy and eyebrows and a moustache you could sweep a floor with. I might say the same for Anderson, but he’s still young.
Also Scandinavian, Grieg was Norwegian. In the course of his cosmopolitan life he did get around Europe, but he will always be perceived as product and favorite son of Scandinavia, like Tycho or Bergman or Abba. Reading about him, it seems like Grieg knew everybody who was anybody in the 19th century, particularly in the orbits of music and art (if those two are really distinct)—Brahms, Wagner, Andersen, Ibsen, Verdi and everybody else you can think of, but he shall, I’m afraid, be most remembered for his collaboration with Bugs Bunny.
This brings us to his Piano Concerto in A Major. There are other piano concertos equally recognizable as Grieg’s, but I think none more so. Right out the gate, first 2 chords, you know this piece of music. Other than Beethoven’s 5th, does any other piece of music do that? My daughter says West Side Story. Maybe “Stairway.” Maybe not. Subsequent chords and movements of the Concerto in A Major are very great as well.
Grieg married his cousin. How do you like that? They separated for a tiny while once but got back together. One kid—lots of music. He avoided symphonies and instead wrote smaller, more personal stuff.
“How does it happen that my songs play such an important part in my production? Quite simply owing to the circumstances that even I, like other mortals, was for once in my life endowed with genius (to quote Goethe). The flash of genius was love. I loved a young girl who had a wonderful voice and an equally wonderful gift of interpretation. That girl became my wife and my lifelong companion to this very day. For me she has been—I dare admit it—the only genuine interpreter of my songs.” –Edvard Grieg
So sweet. Gives me goose bumps, really, even with the incest thing.
Many Grieg tunes are instantly recognizable. The guy just knew how to write a tune—a simple miracle. However, when you put it all together, the tune and the orchestration and arrangement, Grieg’s music seems to have a particularly visual sense. He was dead in 1907, so he knew nothing about cinema or what it would become, and yet he knew everything about it. Writing for the theatre is fine, but Grieg was almost inventing cinematography.
Bergliot was writ around 1871. It is subtitled “a melodrama for speaker and orchestra.” As much as I can get from this old Norwegian poem is this: a father and son, both farmers, go for an audience with the king, King Harrald (the Norwegians did not excel in the department of spelling). The king has them killed dead. Then everyone starts screaming “revenge,” and there are lots of horses and dogs and spears and shouting and a fjord I think and a whole lot of unlikely combinations of consonants and then the widow (Bergliot) of said murdered farmer says, “Let’s get the bastards.” And then more hollering. That is it.
Anderson’s The Half King is based on an American figure of that name. An Indian chief from a tribe called Mingo out of Pennsylvania, he fought alongside George Washington early in the French & Indian War. On patrol in Ohio, Washington and Tanacharison (Half King’s real name) and their soldiers skirmished with a similarly dedicated French attachment. The French took a lickin’ that afternoon and a wounded French officer was captured. While the officer was being interviewed by Washington, Tanacharison took the opportunity to split open his head with a tomahawk, and then proceeded to wash his hands with the Frenchman’s brains. Not what I would call sanitary! This incident started a big mishegasa and the war got going. Would we want to hear a piece of music about a cherry tree or tea with Martha? Let’s don’t be silly!
I’ve known Doug for years and know scant little about him. Mostly this; he loves the pursuit of music. He runs our orchestra with patience, kindness, toleration and the simple operating principal that anyone who wishes to play this sort of music, with a requisite degree of responsibility, is welcome to do so. Should the day come that I grow up, I want to be like Doug. Excuse me, I have to save Wendy.
— Submitted by Robert Block
Notes on our concert: May 23, 2010
By Gioachino Rossini
born February 29, 1792, Pesaro, Italy; Died November 13, 1868, Passy, France
Libretto by Jacopo Ferreti
born July 16, 1784; died March 7, 1852
I live across the street from a public school and our door to the street faces the schoolyard. On warm days and cold, the yard shimmies and shakes to the songs and circles of the old games. Games that are played in schoolyards and on sidewalks. Games with ropes or chalk boxes. You know what I mean. Rhythm and skill. I recognize the games. My mom would recognize the games. Would she or I be surprised if told that those games go back to Victorian England? Elizabethan England? I don’t know, maybe.
When told I was to prepare to write on Cinderella (Cenerentola) I was elated. Rossini is a great subject and the Brothers Grimm (1785-1863 & 1786-1859) are very great subjects. To my surprise, I discovered Cinderella was a Cambrian era arthropod. A mere spelling technicality. Lo and behold, I discover this Cinderella biz pre-dates the Bros. by more than a little. I knew the Grimms did not write their tales but only collected them and claimed them for Hun culture, but Cinderella, I discover, is way older then those wacky Grimms. How old you ask? How would you like 1st or 2nd century B.C.? Or older even, and it is impossible to nail down what ancient region might have first produced this story. In the illustration we have posted on the web site she really does not look a day over 1,100 and to my eye looks like a young Jane Russell in that western with the Wonder Bra thing. That’s what I call evolution. I digress. Cinderella is a very old story the true source of which is perfectly obscured by our converging and conflicting cultures.
Now you have your two basic types of Cinderella—three if you include the prehistoric bug. That is—your magical Cinderella, e.g. Disney and/or Grimm, and your non-magical Cinderella, like the one in our opera here. I should mention there are no fewer than 10 (TEN) Cinderella operas, plus movies, plus cartoons, plays and countless pulp romance novels with Cinderella on the cover looking like Jane Russell in a Wonder Bra. Both types of Cinderella appear in the ponderous chain of folk tales that vanishes into antiquity.
The more familiar magical telling brings a fairy godmother into the story with her spells, incantations and the transformation of household items and vermin. The non-magical version uses a tutor-philosopher in place of the fairy; the magic is replaced by disguises, wisdom and the virtues of character and kindness. Of course, Uncle Walt went magic. Why he deleted the bad stepsisters’ hacking off of their own toes and heels to fit into the too-small glass slipper is a mystery to me. As this slipper is a pivotal talisman in the plot, I would add that in the non-magical Cinderella, the slipper is replaced by a bracelet.
This story begins with the tutor disguised as a beggar coming to the home of the oppressed Cinderella, her idiot father, and two miserable stepsisters. Only Cinderella extends kindness to this individual. I love the way classical literature can employ a prototypical element—like the disguised-as-a-forlorn-soul protagonist—into so many situations to make the story really hop. Similar to the opening here would be Ulysses returning to Ithaca or Henry V circulating amongst his troops. The wise character absorbs the abuse in order to learn something. Richard the Lion Heart at the end of Robin Hood and, AND, the angels that come to Lot in Sodom. That’s a good one.
The stories proceed similarly, magic or not, but at the conclusion the non-magical Cinderella displays forgiveness where the magically transformed Cinderella gets payback.
Oo, oo. I thought of another one! The flashback in Terminator I where a non-Arnold terminator sneaks into the undergrounds headquarters dressed in that typical hooded cape thing. Yeah.
Since I am not an expert about so many things, I will pose my final thought about Cinderella as a question, eventually. In the magical Cinderella, she is triumphant without having earned it, and vindictive to boot. Yes, she has been victimized but she did nothing to achieve her redemption. This seems to me like the difference between achieving financial success through diligence, sacrifice, and skill or winning the lottery. The lottery truly being the contemporary equivalent of magic, it might not transform the recipient, only make him or her wealthy. I could live with that. She gets Prince Charming and the horse because she is pretty—nothing more. Maybe she laughs at bad jokes. But the non-magical Cinderella is a compassionate, perceptive and worthy being. Character and Ethics. She is attractive for those reasons, not because she looks like Jane Russell.
Is this Feminism?
Character and Ethics. When is enough enough? For a select and small percentage of Americans, this question might be irrelevant. Their avarice seems insatiable. The suffering they cause others (us), they facilely forgive themselves, graced in the sanctified pursuit of profits exponentially greater than that which would provide them and their families lives of unimaginable (to us) luxury and privilege. Other than that pesky Character and Ethics and SOUL thing, I am not talking about Cinderella here. The conversation now shifts to Rossini.
In 1829, Rossini produced and premiered his last opera. He was 37. William Tell may have been his masterpiece, though Barber of Seville solidly occupies a place in the standard repertoire while Tell is rarely performed. By 1829 and for years prior to that, he was the most sought after, most performed and renown composer in Europe and then some. Cenerentola, which premiered in January 1817, made it to N.Y.C. by 1826. Not only was Rossini heads and tails more popular (internationally) than his contemporary Beethoven, he could have bought and sold Beethoven. Rossini was viewed as a national treasure by both Italy and France, and was given fat pensions by both countries at this ripe old age of 37. He had by then composed about 40 operas, many of which were being performed all over Europe and, I would like to add, in 1844(!!!!!) Cenerentola was the first opera performed in Australia. That’s the country that produced Joan Sutherland and the BeeGees.
Let’s review. Thirty-seven years old, entertainment super-star, height of his compositional powers and all the money he needed and then some. Now he was also one tired fella and his health was certainly compromised by the furious exertions of his very productive life…
Guess what? Enough was enough. He quit. Hung up the gloves. Called it a day. Said “What am I killin’ myself for?” (not a quote). He retired to an estate outside Paris and did not write another opera. After a time he did produce small works directed at no public, only things for his own satisfaction. He lived for another 40 years post-retirement.
Enough is Enough.
He was born in Pesaro, Italy on February 29, 1792. His folks were what you call ‘Show People’. It seems like much of his youth was a traveling Vaudeville show. Instruments stuck to him like oil on a Louisiana beach. By age ten or eleven he was playing viola in his parents’ productions. He learned pretty much all the instruments and received a formal music education. You know, with the best of composers, all gravitate to viola. Another similarity of great musicians is this—in their musical youths they absorb all that is around them and when they become super-saturated the process reverses and the music comes out like an un-capped oil well.
“What is Rossini? A good scene painter! Behold their idol—Rossini! If Dame Fortune had not given him a pretty talent and pretty melodies by the bushel, what he learned at school would have brought him nothing but potatoes for his big belly.”
“Rossini is a talented and a melodious composer; his music suits the frivolous and sensuous spirit of the times and his productivity is so great that he needs only as many weeks as the Germans need years to write an opera.”
So says Beethoven who wrote one opera. What a cut-up!
Rossini did meet Beethoven once. He (Rossini) described the meeting as polite, though language and B’s hearing made the meeting difficult.
True to Beethoven’s comment, the story is that Cenerentola was written in three weeks. Wow!
Rossini liked to cook and he liked to eat. He enjoyed having folks to his house which became a lively artistic ‘scene’. He died at his home in Passy, France and his remains were later moved to Florence. Big funerals.
Enough is enough and that’s enough.
— submitted by Robert Block
Notes on our concert: March 24, 2010
- Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’
1770, Bonn, Germany – 1827, Vienna, Austria
- Edvard Grieg
‘Morning’ from ‘Peer Gynt’
1843, Bergen, Norway – 1907, Bergen, Norway
- Douglas Anderson
Still 34, born not far from here
History, hindsight, and hearsay bestow a variety of honors upon select sons and daughters. High on the list of said honors is that of having a food named for you. Melba toast, Beef Wellington, O’Henry and I don’t know who this Rueben fella was, but he must have done something…weighty. Airports and bridges can change the name on the sign every other week but YooHoo is forever!
Another equally unrevealing, though no less glorious honor is to be misunderstood. Hardly any luminary of any era I can think of sustains an image of concreteness and clarity, unless of course he or she is a work of fiction. Why should a tormented and pitiful soul, expressing his terrible alienation and his difficulty with benefiting from the love around him be remembered by TOO MANY merely for cutting off his ear in a moment’s madness? And what about Bonaparte? As brilliant, driven, and accomplished personality as our common history has ever produced and this singular history-transforming giant should be ‘erased’ and reduced to an overly sweet pastry that easily gets stale. How I ask, how could this happen. Oh, the calumny!
Well, for a start, it was Beethoven who started erasing Bonaparte — Napoleon Bonaparte. Now I must be short here about Beethoven. He was born to a musical family and their life was intensely hardscrabble. He was not a prodigy like Mozart or Mendelssohn and although unquestionably gifted, he worked hard to construct his musical arsenal. After achieving a degree of success in his adopted Vienna, then a capitol of the lively arts in Europe, he began to lose his hearing. In the final years, and maybe decades of his life, still writing brilliant original music, he was probably entirely deaf.
Now this deafness thing plays big, much like the ear, in how Beethoven is ‘commonly’ remembered, hence misunderstood. His deafness was a footnote. His third symphony is a landmark. I could not describe all the innovation and originality in this watershed event of a symphony. But I must say something. Oh, the captain has turned on the seat belt light.
The fine symphonies of Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven’s first two symphonies were small, tiny, compared to the Eroica. This enlargement of the symphony, as a form, pertains to duration — the size of the orchestra and the massiveness of sound at any given moment — and the appearance of mood swings inside of a movement ranging from rage to tenderness, frustration and hostility to docility and content. Beethoven himself had a terrible hair-trigger temper and would frequently go off like a Roman candle.
The onslaught of his deafness and its accompanying nuttiness begins about 1800 or a bit before. In October 1802 he wrote a letter to his brother Carl. It was to be read after his death, sorta’ kinda’ like a confession. It was discovered in 1827 (post mortem) and is referred to as the Heiligenstadt letter or testament or document. If you’ve never read this thing, stop whatever you are doing, right now, this read included, and find this letter online and read it twice. If, as I believe, a library card is your membership to the life of the mind, then one’s familiarity with this letter is like initiation, dues, and, at the same time, it is income from interest. Go, I’ll wait.
Okay. He started sketching the Eroica at about the same time he wrote the letter. Although Beethoven does not accurately predict another twenty-five years of tortured existence, he does resign himself, as made evident in the text of the letter, to the idea that his remaining time would be lonely, misunderstood, and above all, interior. This is the primary revelation of the symphony and music for Beethoven. He did not produce a symphonic entertainment for the public or for princes . No dancing! This ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around. What you have here is a deeply emotional tour of an expansive, highly charged and utterly brilliant mind. A mind for the ages.
Like our ‘pursuit’ of happiness, Western Art is constantly in pursuit of interior expression while trapped in an exterior body. Select creators have made great strides in this pursuit. Petrarch, Dickinson, Picasso and Beethoven exemplify this pursuit and its achievement. Thank you.
So this lonely Beethoven gets the thing wrapped up in 1804. Originally, he has named/dedicated the work to Bonaparte. Beethoven thought that Bonaparte was just great and a fighter for ‘republican’ ideals and the advance of mankind. When informed that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor, Beethoven flew into a rage and changed the title to ‘Eroica’– heroic. If you poke around, you can find a picture of the original manuscript title page that Beethoven tore erasing Napoleon from his symphony.
Last thing about the Eroica. When Vera Miles is ‘poking around’ the Bates’ house in ‘Psycho’, what is the record on the Victrola in Norman’s bedroom, hmmmmmm?
Next case!! Grieg. If you were a pro biographer looking for a subject, the likes of Beethoven and Byron and Schumann would make for great reading. Grieg however, would not.
Let me bring up some interesting points about Grieg. His name used to be Greig but they changed it to Grieg when the family moved to Norway from Scotland. He married his first cousin but I guess it’s tough meeting girls in Norway it being so cold most the time and all…? He knew Liszt and Tchaikovsky who both held him in very high regard since he was a very fine composer and nothing less than virtuoso on the piano. He had a great head of hair, one of those famous 19th century mustachios and good eyebrows, not in Sam Clemens’ class, but good. I hardly have eyebrows at all so I shouldn’t talk. Well, that’s it on Grieg. He was just a very regular, mild, hard working stiff. Norway awarded him a pension and he lived and died comfortably at his home by the fjord in Norway where he remains a national hero.
The stage play “Peer Gynt” was written by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), the great Norwegian playwright. It was his last attempt at writing in verse (poetic form) for the stage. The story examines the finer aspects of the human condition through the life of the protagonist, Peer. Betrayal, lust, criminality, avarice, and sex with trolls all appear in this long work with more characters than you can shake a stick at. Grieg’s contribution to this production which premiered in Oslo by another name in 1876, was the now utterly recognizable incidental music, one portion of which appears on our program. Here’s the thing about Grieg. Grieg could write a great tune. He had other skills and those are skills you get and refine in school, life, and career. To spontaneously crank out tunes, however, as Grieg could, as Beethoven or Verdi could, is a miracle. Thank you.
Now to Doug and ‘Medea’. I’ve played in more accomplished orchestras but none happier or more devoted to and in awe of its founder and conductor. I have never played with a more skilled conductor. His open-mind and liberal approach enables me to write these wacky and untraditional series of program notes. When my daughter was little, say, eight or nine, she played a minor percussion part in Beethoven’s 10th symphony for no other reason than that she had the moxie to do so and could take direction. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why they call it ‘Community Orchestra.’ When, and if, I grow up, I want to be like Doug.
‘Medea’ is an excellent story. Due to something like ‘our’ present crisis, or Greece’s, a gang of pirates (including Hercules) are assembled to visit a prosperous island nation and steal a golden fleece that is the lucky rabbit’s foot for that nation. Of course, they can kill anyone who gets in their way. The pirates (Argonauts) are led by Jason. The fleece is protected by magic and spells, sooooooooo, Jason seduces Medea, who is both a sorceress and the daughter of the king of this island nation about to get dumped on its head. Jason and the pirates succeed and Medea has thus betrayed her family and nation in a big way. She skedaddles with the Greeks, now as Jason’s wife. Returning home a hero, Jason is rewarded and starts behaving badly, while Medea, his loving wife, gives him two sons. When she just can’t take it no mo’, she gets pissed off and murders her sons. Good story, no?
Play, sing, write, draw, design, paint, sculpt, dance. These are impossible times we got here and sometimes it seems like all we can do is take solace in art. That is all.
–submitted by Robert Block
Notes on our concert: November 11, 2009 at 8pm
- Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809):Symphony no. 100 in G Major, “The Military”
- Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847): Symphony no. 3, Op. 56, “The Scottish”
- John Philip Sousa (1854 – 1932): The Stars and Stripes Forever
How many times a day does that cold chill run up my spine as I confront the possibility that I’m pissing my life away? Unelevated existence and utterly squandered life. “My dear time’s waste.” Maybe I’m being a little hard on myself, beating myself up unnecessarily. But how can I know? How can you know? Easy. Examine the lives of the flesh and blood men and women who came before us and come along still who have invested all their hearts, intellects and power in wringing from this too finite life all the creativity and accomplishment that can be had. When I do this, I feel better. Now I KNOW I’m pissing my life away. I’m not being paranoid! I am but a turd! Now I can pick myself up and go on. Ah relief!
With this in mind, please allow me to indulge in a brief examination (with digressions) of the three men whose works we will present on November 11, 2009.
If there were an award, or maybe an award show, that would recognize the most Herculean, work horse of a composer, the most impossibly prolific output a musical life can produce, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) would win every time.
After graduated from a Vienna boys’ academy with a solid musical education, Haydn navigated and hustled his way from the streets to the top of the music world in Vienna, the cultural and political capitol of Austria, the nation of primacy in 18th century Europe. Being at the top of this world for a musician meant, essentially, a good paying job for a wealthy patron. In Haydn’s case the patron was royal, Austria’s royal family, the Esterhazy.
In this cushy spot, Haydn went to work. Composing, conducting, managing the bands, the events and the productions, performing other people’s music, teaching his patrons, holding auditions, acting as librarian,functioning as all, all, all around musical factotum and always at the whim of his patrons. During this period, he wrote better than 100 symphonies, every one a little gem. One of those, Symphony no. 100 in G Major, “The Military” we play tonight. He also wrote string quartets, lots, and every one a big gem. So much so that the quartet became kind of like the triple-decker sandwich column on the diner menu of classical music.
He knew everybody and everybody loved him. He remained humble and approachable in spite of his well-earned recognition as Europe’s greatest living composer. Despite this, when young Mozart came along, Haydn modestly conceded to his father, Leopold Mozart, that the boy’s talent was superior to his own.
When his employment with the Esterhazy family ended with the death of his patron, Haydn moved to England. There, a more market-driven environment for musicians provided higher incomes for star composers, more so then in the patronage arrangement that Haydn had left. He stopped writing symphonies and started writing those large sort of vocal masterpieces for which there was a great appetite in England at the time. I often wonder why song writers today—contemporary song writers—more often then not achieve a level of success, or age, or sobriety and than run out of ideas or seem just to forget how to write songs. Haydn never stopped cranking out great and important music. Like a river.
There is an encyclopedia of musical history called Grove. It is a large work of many volumes covering everything and everyone from the Beatles to Bach to Balinese gamelan. At the conclusion of each article on a major composer—Haydn, Beethoven etc—there is list of all that person’s compositions. For Haydn, it’s like an auto parts catalogue. Pages and pages of compositions in every form, “for every occasion.” Staggering. Impossible.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 -1847) shares a most unfortunate distinction with a few other notable musician/composers, namely, premature death. Mozart, Shubert, Bellini, Lennon, Pergolesi, Clifford Brown, Burgmueller, Lupati—the list goes on and will go on. What hasn’t been said?
In addition to being a wealthy, talented, wealthy and all around intellectually gifted clan, the Mendelssohns were what you might call “high strung,” to use a musical metaphor. Anyone of them might get bent out of shape about something, freak out and not calm down for days. They called this “apoplexies.” These extreme hissy fits proved fatal for Felix, for his father and sister Fanny, and undoubtedly for other, less renowned family members.
I’m thinking of a bar. The lights are low so you might not realize the joint has not been cleaned since the Eisenhower administration. At the end of the bar reposes a battered hat with a passed out person beneath it. His attire is of the same nondescript color as the walls of the bar. His drink and his beer wait before him, ever tended by a tolerant bartender who does not think this scene amiss. The ice in his drink has melted. Suddenly, he raises his head, pink-faced and disoriented, staring at nothing, speaking to no one. In a loud and choked voice he declares, “Wolfgang Mozart was the greatest child prodigy in the history of Western music and anyone who thinks otherwise can meet me in the alley whenever he or she feels up to it.” He blinks once; he blinks twice and, with a small thud, resumes his hibernating position. My kind of bar.
Now, I would not go for that walk in the alley but I must disagree on the contentious issue presented. Felix Mendelssohn was the greatest child prodigy in the history of Western music, and I’ll tell ya why I say that.
Leo Mozart (one of the greatest music teachers in Europe at the time) trained up his kids Wolfgang and Nannerl. Way up. If there were a music super hero with music super hero powers, simply, it would have been Mozart by age ten. By that age he could knock out a charming string duet or keyboard sonatina before breakfast, and effortlessly. But these were not mature works. He was not writing Don Giovanni or the last five symphonies as a child. He wrote the music a child would write. Show-offish, giddy, imitative or rule breaking and honestly and charmingly the work of a child. On the other hand, Mendelssohn was right from the get go, producing very mature works—17 string symphonies between 12 and 14; at 16, the String Octet; at 17, the Overture to the Midsummer’s Night Dream. Mozart’s early works are like an honest snap shot of his youthful mind where Mendelssohn’s early works are like a movie of his fully developed, multi-dimensional and ever present intellect. Ultimately, most would agree, Mozart became the greater composer, but as children, Felix was the man.
As an employee of the Esterhazy’s, though a star, Haydn was essentially a servant. His life while in their employ was restricted. Mendelssohn, born in the next century, had fealty only to his intellect and to the propagation of it. He composed music, wrote, taught and helped found a still existing conservatory. He painted, traveled, performed, hobnobbed, wed and fathered. Leaving a very large body of excellent work, including, one of the big wedding tunes, Mendelssohn checked out at age 38. Apoplexy.
Something else about Haydn and Mendelssohn, they both, as was the case for so many composers before and since, had siblings who became accomplished and recognized musicians. For Haydn, it was a younger brother, the composer Michael Haydn. For Mendelssohn, an older sister, Fanny, was a highly accomplished pianist. Mozart had a sister considered by some at the time to be more scarily talented then than her brother. Bach had musical family in all directions. Today we have the Astaires, the Webbers, the McGuires and the Sledges.
Years ago, I worked for a fishmonger, a real roughneck character who I did not like nor he me. This is not to say he was uninteresting. He grew roses, beautiful joyous roses that he brought to the fish store in the season and the place smelled great. Our ironies make us interesting. If this is so, John Philip Sousa (1854 -1932) was about as interesting as a body can get.
At age eight or so, he was witness to the Big Skedaddle as Union troops and spectators limped back into his hometown, D.C., to await the Confederate invasion after First Bull Run. He was the third of ten children. His father was a military trombone player. After being identified as a child as possessing absolute pitch, Sousa proceeded to study violin. Can you believe that!!? The March King was a violinist. Of course he played everything else but he performed on violin.
His general and musical education progressed quickly and as his composition and arranging skills became evident, being an always-sensible person, he resolved to runaway and join the circus. On being made aware of this plan, his father apprenticed him to the Marine band. He stayed there for eight years. From there, he left for the bright lights of the stage in New York and Philly. He started writing operettas and learned to conduct. Five years of that and then back to the Marines though now elevated to bandmaster of the Marine Band and the fancy “President’s Own Band” attached to the White House. Twelve years and five administrations of that and it was time to go out on his own. His own band, his own organization. From 1890 until 1931 he directed 15,623 performances, touring the world. Remarkably, Sousa figured out how to make doing this very profitable and became a millionaire. Bands today can’t make a buck touring. They have to be subsidized by their record companies. The marching brass bass, or sousaphone, was created in 1898 at Sousa’s request because he wanted a tuba that could be played when seated or while marching. He, however, preferred to conduct standing on a podium. In those thousands of performances across the globe, the March King marched (count’em) eight times. He took a year off to serve in the Navy during WWI training Navy bands. He had his salary donated to the Sailors’ and Marines’ Relief Fund, accepting only one dollar for himself. While still touring, and apparently happy in his work, he died in a hotel in Reading, Penn, after rehearsing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” with a local band.
Some other stuff:
- Earning big bucks allowed him to pay big salaries for big talent. His meticulous conducting made his band a conservatory of sorts for soloists, conductors, composers and arrangers.
- He wrote novels. Three novels. They weren’t “Moby Dick”, but I can’t write a novel. He also wrote really dandy nonsense poetry, good stuff.
- He wrote a lot of marches, which were and still are hits, however, he also wrote a bunch of operettas, more popular at the time than now, and plenty of music for band other than marches.
- He introduced the works of important European composers to the U.S. (in arrangements for band) and was first to perform Ragtime in Europe.
- He was a champion trap shooter, which is sort of like skeet shooting. I don’t know; I’m from NYC.
- He was an expert horseman.
- He was a connoisseur of and wrote articles about cheese.
- He was a Freemason and very spiritual as well as being a pious church-going man. (Mozart and his dad were Masons,’cept they only went to church when they had to.)
- He testified before Congress about and in support of Copyright Laws. He held strong views about music and technology. Here, I must quote the man, voicing his opinion of recorded music to Congress in 1906:
“These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy… in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would hear young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today, you hear those infernal machines going night and day. We will have not a vocal chord left. The vocal chord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.”
An American celebrity-patriot invoking “Darwinism,” before Congress, twenty years before the Scopes conviction in Tennessee. Most impressive. Raise a glass to the Life of the Mind.
- He coined the term “canned music.” Most impressive.
You can visit his home in Sands Point, New York; there is a public school and band shell in the town named in his honor.
About the music we play tonight. Militarism. As we are, as individuals, complex and integrated beings, containing diverse and often contradictory selves, the same might be said for our nation/cultures. In our current moment, many aspects of our national character and even existence are closeted or sanitized to the point of denial. Birth, death, injustice, avarice, prejudice and, militarism. I remember the long walk home on 9/11 and how unused I was to the site of locked and loaded troops on the streets while deafening fighter jets kept watch by night, and day.
In times and places past, the visible presence of the military was not alarming.
Though Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” symphony has great passages of loveliness and homage to the grace of nature, these are contrasted with the warrior tradition of Scotland, going back to and before say, Rob Roy. As I mentioned before, Mendelssohn was a traveling man, a tourist. He probably read Byron’s “Harold in Italy.” In a time just prior to photography, Mendelssohn recorded his visits both visually and musically. The middle movements of this symphony are a nice little weave, or, collage of the pub-parade-pew Top Ten he encountered during his time in Scotland. For whatever reason the last movement returns to a decidedly German character.
There are musical innovations in the Haydn symphony we are about to perform. The trumpets are freed up instead of being tied to the traditional roles of playing in lock step with other “field instruments.” Secondly, you may notice a “battery” of percussion instruments in the last movement. Cymbals, triangles and field percussion are employed. Some of this reflects the European rage for “Turkish” instruments also found in Mozart and Beethoven. At the time Austria was in the process of settling a long-standing disagreement with the Ottoman Turks.
“The Stars and Stripes Forever” warrants no elaboration. However, might I draw your attention to the piccolo or fife solo towards the end of the march. It is unquestionably badass. All flute players know it and have played it or not.There is this thing, really in all music but here, on paper, called “the repeat.” On the printed score, it looks like this, ll: :ll . It means all music written in between these symbols can be played again or multiple times, as indicated. Now, as a march might go from 1st to 50th Street, the liberal use of the “repeat” allows everyone along the route to hear this very dandy and tweety fife solo. In Haydn’s time, the repeat was useful in extending the dance without having to write more music or waste more paper.
Now I marched in the Halloween parade with my daughter for maybe five consecutive years (after 9/11) and I cannot recall one mobile rocket launcher. Plenty of floats, but no tanks. The last military sort of American pop hits I can recall were “Ballad of the Green Berets” and “The Battle of New Orleans” which were both dated from the Vietnam era. Does this say something about America?
As ever, great ART allows us a silent moment to examine ourselves and the human condition, for better and worse.
Raise a glass to the LIFE OF THE MIND.
— submitted by Robert Block
Notes on Verdi’s La Traviata: performed on our concert: May 17, 2009
An opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi
Born – Le Roncole, Parma, Italy, Oct. 9 or 10 1813
Died – Milan, Italy, Jan. 27 1901
La Traviata premiered Venice, 1853
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave after the play The Lady of the Camellias
by Alexandre Dumas
Joe Green. Really, it translates as Joe Greens. Victor Borge said Giuseppe Verdi was his stage name. He was born in Parma, in an area of then disputed nationality between Italy and France. Not important. Verdi was and is Italy. He was not born of generations of musicians. His folks were tradespeople who knew quick enough that their child’s trade would be music. He was afforded a musical education that, as common at the time, was provided by local churches. Later he was sponsored by a well-to-do local and sent to study in Milan. After this last part of his formal education, he returned to Parma, married his patron’s daughter, and set up home and shop. He stayed in the ‘burbs’ a longish time. To the end, Verdi relied on a ‘folksier,’ though unquestionably magnetic sort of tune-making and the literature suggests this may have been due to his staying so close to home for so long. Between August 1837 and June 1840, during the writing of his first opera, Oberto, and his second, Un Giorno di Regna, Verdi lost two infant children and his wife. So much for home. He vowed to give up composition. He made that vow frequently in his life but never did quit. His third opera, Nabucco was a hit and his career path was locked in.
He cranked out 28 or so operas in his long career and an easy dozen of those are performed regularly around the world as well as in the United States. Contained in those other works, those not heard so much, are plenty of hits. He wrote a whole lot of hits. Tunes that don’t go away and tunes you take for granted as if they had always existed and no one ever had to write them.
Years ago, I was playing a ‘club-date’ for the Shriners. After their roast beef dinner, they requested the band play the Triumphal March from Verdi’s Aida. This was required for the Shriner ritual that entailed marching around the dining room in a collapsing spiral while wearing distinguished bright red hats with tassels. Grown men — really — with their wives sitting right there. Go figure. They wanted Verdi, but to my recollection, this was no opera crowd. Played the tune for half an hour and never really played the bridge right once. No one cared.
I must discuss Europe in the 19th century. Now, you hear a lot about the Renaissance — how there was this explosion of learning and art and invention and who could argue? However, pound for pound I’d put the 19th century up against the 15th or 16th any day (excepting Michelangelo, Leonardo and Billy Shakes). Two things about this 19th century — first, it was preceded by and opened with Napolean and his wars. What followed was the Peace of Europe, established by that loveable Austrian, Count Metternich (who, relative to his effect on history, may be the most under looked at fellow in European history as we teach it here). The continent had spent about 15 minutes of its whole history NOT at war, until Metternich implemented a ‘balance of power’ that provided Europe nearly an century without wars being fought between countries. This did allow a fine and long season for nations to turn their attentions inward, to engage in civil strife and re-organization. Basically, slaughtering countrymen instead of foreigners, Italy, Germany, Russia and others (including us) entertained themselves during this reign of tranquility, the 19th century.
In spite of the carnage during the peace, Europe did somehow maintain its population and that population became increasingly middle class and literate. Though there were books, there was no radio, no movies, TV, computer or any of the media entertainment we so take for granted. Opera was IT !! It was the hottest ticket in every town and much, much more was produced then we realize. The way films were produced in the 30’s and 50’s, in such tonnage, we would not believe if we were told the numbers. And in the coming together of opera’s already huge popularity with continuing national crises, opera became even more super popular. The two heavies in this were Verdi in Italy and, fighting out of the German corner, Richard Wagner (1813-1883). They never met and had nothing positive to say about one another. Their music, operas, themes and very lives became identified and entwined with the issues and inner conflicts in their countries in the 19th century.
At this juncture, I would like to engage another great figure of this 19th century art, Honore Balzac (1799- 1850). If you’ve never heard of him, it makes his influence, to this moment, all the more amazing. Down on his luck after a series of bad business adventures, he invested himself in writing- novels and plays. He charged his stories with ‘verissmo’, realism, nitty gritty of contemporary life. Before him, theatre, opera and literature and even visual arts played safe in elevated mythological, biblical or heroic notions. Balzac shows the low down. Life in the gutter, suffering, miserable self-centered people, avarice, jealousy, deception, cruelty and spitting. Are you getting this? It was represented in European art before, but not as part of the world in which audiences lived, and when Balzac dragged it out, it sold big. Verdi brought it to and out in opera. This alone was a huge innovation and of course it endures in our cinema now. I recommend Pere Goriot if you are curious about this Balzac fellow.
Opera is musical theatre. It involves staging, props costumes, lights, etc. etc. When opera is performed un-staged and un-adorned, we usually call it a concert performance. Sometimes operas are ‘partially staged’ — some costumes, a few props, some interaction between the acting singers, but in front of the orchestra not above it. Putting up an opera fully loaded, like the way they used to do at City Opera, is a Titanic undertaking.
The lyrics of an opera — what in a Broadway musical would be called the ‘book’ — are called the libretto (from the Italian ‘libro’– book). Wagner wrote his own libretti; Verdi did not, but worked with a succession of great librettists. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and John Lennon wrote their own lyrics. Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, and Elton John did or do not.
The Plot of La Traviata
Not too long ago and for all time before that, when folks died, they just died and you generally didn’t know why unless it was something obvious like say, a cannonball took their head off. If that wasn’t bad enough, diseases we now think we have eradicated were often a part of culture and life, without hope of cure or treatment. Popular among these maladies was Tuberculosis, arguably the star of our show.
It is not a very elevated story.
A youngish rich guy falls for a courtesan. That’s a fancy hooker. His father steps in because the son is making an ass of himself and jeopardizing the family reputation. Father convinces the hooker to give up the affair. Everyone commences to behave badly, but, for naught, since she has T.B. and drops dead in time for the last scene. End of story. That’s summary, you bet.
Come and enjoy our modest presentation of Verdi’s La Traviata. You’ll never find a catchier pile of music. And, AND — go to the Met and see an opera put on with all the fixins. It won’t cost you much more than a movie (if you sit upstairs) and it’s just plain good fun, thrilling! You can still watch sports or movies or T.V. or whatever. There’s no conflict. There’s no either or. Your intellect is a big place. Decorate it. Traviata is 156 years old and it’s in perfect health and thus lives long, indisposable. Will E.R. look that good in 50 years?
— submitted by Robert Block
Notes on the concert – March 11, 2009
A Clique of Heroes:
Program Blog / Downtown Orchestra Concert / March 11, 2009
Harold in Italy Hector Berlioz
b. Isere, France, 1803
d. Paris, France, 1869
William Tell Overture Gioacchino Rossini
b. Pesaro, Italy, 1792
d. Passy, France, 1868
Egmont Overture Ludwig von Beethoven
b. Bonn, Germany, 1770
d. Vienna, Austria, 1827
Iphigenie in Aulis Christoph W. v Gluck
b. Bavaria, Germany, 1714
d. Vienna, Austria, 1787
What are the organizing principles that bind nations or cultures? Of course, the answers are numerous and I would venture to guess I am not qualified to discuss any of them. Language, food, religion, mythology or the proper way to break an egg- a ponderous list. And yet, I beg your indulgence.
The subjects of tonight’s program are heroes. Not our heroes, though if we as a nation chose to ‘adopt’ them, I feel they would make fine heroes. All four are from far away places and times past. Three faced death in their narratives. The fourth, Harold, was something of a pacifist.
Where do heroes, these and others, come from? They need come from a past distant enough to be kind of untouchable, ideal and uncorrupted. Iphigenia comes to us through Euripides in the 5th century B.C. That’s a safe 2000 year cushion for her. Iph is part of a larger legend- the epic of the Trojan War. The story goes that the Greek fleet was delayed in their departure for Troy by ill winds. The goddess Artemis required Iph, the daughter of the Greek warlord Agamemnon, to be sacrificed (dead) in order to get the party started with full sails. Iph consented for the sake of her countrymen but got a reprieve in the end.
William Tell, though probably legend himself, does inhabit a fairly well documented period in Swiss history during an Austrian occupation in the 13th century. You know how it goes- forced to shoot an apple from his son’s head. (Did you ever notice how so many of these old stories involve some parent attempting to, or consenting to, or participating in the grisly demise of their offspring?) Tell came to the son and the apple gig with two arrows, the second for the Darth Vader Austrian bad guy in case he missed bad with the first one. Ultimately, Tell devoted the second arrow to its appointed purpose regardless. The play comes via Friedrich von Schiller, a fine and important German writer who had a problem with authority. Schiller belongs to a group of fine and important German writers who through their work strove to create an identity for their fledgling nation through literature. The Grimms, Goethe and Wagner are other notables in this group who helped “forge” a German identity, later to be distorted by nationalism.
Lamoral Egmont (1522-68), was a real fella out of what we would now call Belgium. His story concerns the Spanish occupation of what they called ‘the Low Countries’. His is a fairly complicated story of shifting loyalties, religious dissension , trust, ethics, principles and courage. They cut his head off. The story was brought to the stage by Goethe who is to Germany what Dante is to Italy, Shakespeare to England or what Jacqueline Susann is for US.
Harold is different.
First, he is a fictional character, created by the poet Lord Byron (1788-1824). Published in 1812, ‘Childe Harold’ is a meandering long poem about a youthful British soul leaving a life of debauchery to wander around continental Europe in an effort to find himself. Kind of like Cain in the classic TV show ‘Kung Fu’.
Second, Berlioz, the composer, in his twenties, had won a composition prize that granted him a long visit to Italy to study music. In truth, he really would have passed on the trip as he did not want to leave Paris or his girlfriend. He did not like Rome but did enjoy its countryside and Italy’s other smaller cities. So Berlioz borrowed Byron’s sort of autobiographical character and invested himself in the role of Harold as the solo viola part and limited the wandering to up and down ‘the Boot’ of Italy. Thus, ‘Harold in Italy’. Now this wandering thing is not in itself heroic business compared to the previous stories, but Byron created a mighty prototype for much literature to come and many restless youths to come who would now see walking around Europe sloshed as getting something done. Soul Searching. Byron suspended his ‘trek’ for reasons related to cash flow or lack there of. Berlioz went back to Paris packin’ heat to murder his ex-girlfriend and her significant other. Fortunately, for the sake of tonight’s performance and others, he was intercepted and de-fused. Berlioz was a nut. He could not play piano like all the other big deal composers. His instrument was guitar and some winds. He had this wild head of hair that would generate stares and comments even today. When introduced to a new source of inspiration, i.e. Shakespeare, Beethoven, Byron, etc., he would go nuts, total fanatic. Same with women. He actually fell in love with a woman he saw playing in Shakespeare and romanced her addressing her by the names of Shakespeare heroines.
While in Italy, Berlioz did meet a number of notable musicians. Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), still considered the top violiner of all time, took a liking to Berlioz and his modernism. Later, meeting back in Paris, Paganini asked him to compose a viola concerto for a Stradavari (then considered the top violin maker of all time) viola he had recently acquired. So Berlioz produced Harold. Paganini saw the music, saw the rests (the notated spaces in written music where you don’t play- watch the trumpets if you don’t know what I mean) and refused to play it or pay Berlioz. Violin heroes like their concertos to be real tour-de-force showy glitzy affairs. Berlioz had someone else play and during a huge post performance ovation, Paganini came on stage, knelt and kissed the hand of Berlioz. Later, he cut him a check.
A Few Points of Interest…
The modern string family or gang has four members: violin, viola, cello and bass. These correspond to voices in a chorus: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Of the four strings, viola is probably the butt of the most jokes, many of them very good jokes. However, I’d bet basses get more stupid comments on the subway. All the good and bad viola jokes aside, the instrument of choice for many of your great composers was, in fact, viola. Rossini, Mozart and Beethoven, a short but thick list, all played viola and probably suffered the jokes. All in all, this world, and any world I can imagine, needs and loves good viola.
C’mon, show of hands, who knows all the words for the Gilligan’s Isle song? Well, it is, in some sense, an overture. It orients the audience toward the work to come and allows for seating of late comers, another cocktail, interesting and entertaining program note reading and general fidgeting.
Harold is not an overture.
Paganini asked for a concerto.
Harold is not a concerto.
A concerto is an arrangement for one ‘featured’ instrumental soloist or a few soloists, accompanied by an orchestra, of non-specific size. Orchestral music of three centuries is rife with inspired, sometimes thrilling, often chilling, violin or piano concertos. Concertos for viola are somewhat rare.
On the sheet music- the music all the orchestra players get- it says ‘symphony’. Well, that’s a stretcher too. What it is, is this- Berlioz was wildly innovative. In an artistic pursuit full of conventions, Berlioz just did not pay attention to the rules and traditions of orchestral composition. In most of your arts, it is always difficult to understand what was so different or bizarre about some painting or ballet or novel a mere fifty years after it’s initial presentation. Unfortunately for our childe Hector, Paris just did not pay attention to him. In every age, in every place, you got to make a living and Berlioz couldn’t do it composing. He took to conducting and did well. He took to writing- art criticism, travel, music theory and, eventually, memoirs- and did well. An extremely talented and wide-ranging fellow. His buddy, the painter Eugene Delacroix, called it ‘that insatiable desire to create’. As he traveled he discovered his music faired better everywhere else than it did in Paris. Particularly Prague. Mozart had the same good luck with Prague when he couldn’t draw flies in Vienna. Berlioz knew everybody who was anybody (in the arts) and sustained their affection and respect. He outlived many family members and those around him who he loved, which is never fun, and was buried with honors in Paris, embraced and recognized as a creative genius. My Hero !
Must heroes have god-like bodies poured into skintight little outfits? I think not! What about a baseball uniform or Speedo? Those are “champions“, ever doomed to fall from their wobbly pedestals. Sometimes retired, sometimes replaced, and lately, they seem to just go over all on their own. Hercules was like that, the boy couldn’t keep himself out of trouble, no way, no how. But a hero is indelible. It’s not about fashion or medals or ticket sales. It is about a being, placed into a struggle, forced to behave by a code of ethics or principles or procedures for the sake of those in his or her circle of responsibility or obligation. Sometimes it’s yer folks, and sometimes your country and sometimes those two are indistinguishable.
Rossini — My hero. His family were show people, so as a child he traveled with an opera troupe, probably more like a circus. In this way he learned opera, inside and out. More than a few 18th and 19th century composers produced a whole lot of good work but Rossini was off the chart. At age 20, he cranked out seven complete, original operas in the incredible space of 16 months. How do you do that? I don’t know how you do that.
He wrote more, for years, including, ‘The Barber of Seville’ made immortal by Mel Blanc and Alfalfa. And then he stopped. Right before he stopped he wrote William Tell (his last published work), then he stopped. He was the most recognized, beloved and performed composer of his time. He bought a farm and retired, quit, hung up the gloves. He wrote a little after but nothing like the river of music he produced before. He came to town for the occasional testimonial however, thank you no thank you. My hero.
Ludwig von Beethoven. Don’t get me started. He did one thing well. Wrote music. Every other aspect of his life was a disaster. Personal, health, finance, everything and his hygiene was abysmal. By about the midpoint of his life, he was stone deaf, and he kept writing, for love of art and music. My hero.
Gluck ran away from home because he did not want to be a forester like his father and father’s father’s fathers. He hustled, he took his knocks, traveled as needed and wound up in Vienna eventually producing about 50 operas and other music, much for ballet. His operas were based on classical legend and mythologies, typical of the Italian style. New combinations of opera and ballet were (forgive me ) afoot as well as new sorts of librettos (the script of an opera) and staging concepts. All of these were absorbed by Gluck and he synthesized a new type of opera that escaped the attention of NO one who came after him.
At a ripe old age he was told to stop drinking. He went for a carriage ride with his wife, had a drink and then died. My hero!
Really, my hero is Capt. Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890). Whenever I worry that my time has been wasted, my opportunities squandered and my life as a whole one of complacency and coddling, I read about Burton and I am sure. Who is your hero? Who are our heroes? Do we need heroes or will our cardboard cutouts societal idols get us through another week, another administration? Does a hero sleep in you? What if ? Who’s driving the plane?
What Exile from himself can flee?
To zones, though more and more remote,
Still, still pursues, where-e’er I be,
The blight of life – the demon Thought.
– Childe Harold, Lord Byron
— Submitted by Robert Block
Notes for Beethoven ‘n Schubert
One day in 1785, Mozart, his father and a few other notable musicians of the day attended a small party and chamber music session in honor of Franz Josef Haydn’s birthday. Important and innovative music by Mozart, dedicated to Haydn — Europe’s numero uno- top-o-the-pops composer- was presented. It prompted Haydn to remark to Mozart’s dad (also a world-class musician) — “Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name: He has taste, and, furthermore, the most profound knowledge of composition.”
On another day, in I’ll say 1787, a teenage Beethoven was brought to meet and play for Mozart. He played some of his own stuff and some of Mozart’s. Mozart listened intensely, got up and left the room. He told his associates in the adjoining room, “Keep your eyes on him; some day he will give the world something to talk about.” Or as I’ve read in another source, “This one’s going to be trouble.”
A day in 1827 found Beethoven on his deathbed (he would spend four months in bed, dying). He had long been aware of Schubert though they had never met. During his bedridden months, Beethoven had entertained himself reading through Schubert songs remarking, “Truly a divine spark dwells in Schubert”. About a week before Beethoven left the planet, a friend brought Schubert and another young composer to meet the dying composer. Beethoven said, “Let Schubert come first”.
Sadly, tragically, Schubert would follow Beethoven to the grave a mere year later, a stinking 31 years of age, damn.
What’s the connection? Hmmmm. Yes, these four were the superstars of Classical Music and Classical Music is defined by the work of these four original geniuses. But that is not the connection I have in mind.
Vienna is. Vienna — capitol city of Austria and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mozart came from Salzburg and Beethoven from Bonn but all four were true sons of Vienna. At the turn of the 19th century, Vienna had a population of possibly 250,000, major for the time. Austria was militarily formidable, financially sound, its monarch untouchable and its borders secure. This condition would not evaporate until 1889 when the heir to the throne shot his girlfriend and himself while at the hunting lodge, commencing the slow slide of Europe into W.W. I. That aside, Vienna was the alpha city of Europe during this Classical period and the culture expressed itself in music — the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.
In European (and other) history, cities tend to move in and out of prominence (alpha position). If a nation can sustain those critical conditions described above — those being, loosely, strength in finance and the military, stable government and an enlightened co-existence with its neighbors- then a city in that nation can become a cultural powerhouse. This “alpha” designation has moved around a bit in the last 2000 years, give or take. Rome was an extreme case but so was Alexandria in the 1st and 2nd century. Cordoba in the year 1000. Florence in the 15th century. Holland in the 17th. Paris under Louis XIV. New York after WWII. Currently, I couldn’t say who processes the Golden Fleece. For Florence, the genius was manifested in visual arts generally — Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael. For Holland it was painters. London at the turn of the 20th century was all about writers. I will now attempt to limit myself to talking about Beethoven and Schubert.
Beethoven was not born on a pedestal nor did he live on one. I once heard a guy with a fancy accent on the radio discussing Beethoven’s background like this: Suppose you were a physician and a couple came to you, the wife pregnant, seeking advice. Two alcoholics, T.B., clap, living in poverty and probably a host of other problems that you couldn’t diagnose. Additionally, two still births and one child with Downs’ Syndrome. What would you advise? Abortion? You just killed Beethoven. He came from impossible circumstances. However, both his parents were musical. He was not a prodigy as were Mozart or Mendelssohn. His musical development and achievements came after dogged hard work. He was a rough and difficult character. He did nothing well except write music. He had an awful temper that could be ignited easily even by those whom he loved or loved him, causing him to fall out of favor with them, followed by his begging their forgiveness and plying them with gifts. As he became older, his personal hygiene went south. He bickered with everyone. There were always those who recognized, supported and gravitated to his unquestionable genius, but he was really an unbearable person and his later life was one of isolation and social distances. In one of the great letters ever, EVER, referred to as the Heiligenstadt Testament, he confesses to his brother Carl that his isolation, wretchedness and unusual behavior was due to his progressive deafness. This was 1802, when he was 32 and still had 25 years of miserable health ahead of him. The letter speaks of merciful suicide, which he rejects — “It was only my art that held me back”. This deafness thing is central in the Beethoven mythology. Most folks do not understand the skills possessed by that very top echelon of notable musicians. There are musicians who are both gifted and trained to look at a page of music and hear, really hear it, as if it were coming out of speakers, and there are those who could hear music and write it down spontaneously, as if taking a dictated letter. As his deafness became complete, his music came from a deep interior source. It was meant for no audience. Pure music. Not so much modern but eternal. These late quartets stand alone in Western Art. Who among us could claim to have ever released thoughts or emotions so deeply held that we might not even know we had them?
As to the two pieces on our program:
The Fidelio Overture accompanies Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. Overtures are smallish, one movement affairs that precede an opera. This overture contains all the great Beethoven devices for surprising listeners and demanding their attention. It also has some great tunes. One of the miracles of music composition is that you have people who can just keep inventing tunes, good tunes. There are only 12 notes in an octave, (the other notes on a piano are repeats of these, higher or lower) and every new and singable, hummable, whistleable tune is a new rearrangement of those mere 12 notes. Beethoven was the consummate tunesmith, second to none.
The Piano Concerto #4. Orchestral works featuring a solo instrument, (i.e. piano, violin, steel drum or kazoo) are referred to as concertos. Sometimes the soloist goes off on his or her own and leaves the band staring into space. That is called a cadenza. After a little while the band re-enters and off we go again. Music was changing in Beethoven’s lifetime, often due to Beethoven. In earlier times, musicians tended to be dependant for there livelihoods on wealthy patrons, like the church in the case of Bach, or royalty for Mozart or Haydn. Beethoven quit that. Nobody told him what to do. He was, in this regard, an artist for a new age and his independence would be the model for most who would follow him. His concertos were very popular and people came and paid to come see them. They came to public theaters that were architecturally novel, and heard music on new forms of the piano that could fill these new halls with new sounds.
Franz Schubert. He was a city kid. His musical abilities were apparent and were nurtured when he was young. Vienna provided him fine teachers. He produced a great deal of music in his regrettably short life. His specialty was songs referred to as ‘lieder’. He wrote symphonies and chamber music, and some opera, but his output of songs was huge. He fell in with a bunch of guys who liked hanging out all night singing or reciting poetry while Schubert played piano and all getting variously intoxicated. This might account for why he only briefly held one job in his also brief life. His father encouraged him to teach more but he didn’t want to be bothered. He saw Beethoven in a music store once as a boy and thereafter kinda ‘stalked’ him. Later, they were mutually aware of one another, though only met on Beethoven’s deathbed as previously noted.
Schubert’s 4th Symphony is a fine one and he didn’t name it “Tragic”, that was the work of some publisher. Schubert would never receive the attention Beethoven did. In fact, in his lifetime he barely received any at all. He was a small quiet man and he is pictured always wearing glasses. One of his symphonies, the 8th, now titled “Unfinished”, is readily recognizable, but the others are not and they are all gems. Full of good tunes, honest emotionality, rich orchestration, and all-purpose genius.
Eventually, Beethoven and Schubert were laid to rest side by side in Vienna’s big high-visibility graveyard. Later they were joined by a couple of other heavy hitters.
As you listen to this music it all sounds (to the un-oriented ear) both similar and antique. When premiered, it was startling and new. Schubert’s commitment to delivering emotionally charged music would become the grail of all the great Viennese composers to follow him. On so many levels, Beethoven didn’t just open doors for the progress of the music that would follow, he ripped the freakin doors off the hinges. Critics at the time were not as kind as they might be now. You would not believe the reviews Beethoven got, how they trashed him, though the public loved him.
They were human beings. Exceptional human beings. They endure because they were brilliant and had something to say. They are neither antique nor irrelevant. They are with us to our benefit and re-direct our lives by example. They were real; maybe we live fictions.
— Submitted by Robert Block