Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Call to Arms

Harald Saeverud - a name not generally known in our culture.
In Norway, a composer who becomes one of the most powerful voices following Grieg. He lived a long and fruitful life(1897-1992), already a young boy when Grieg died in 1907.
I will address his prolific and meaningful output in another writing; at this time, I should like to tell you about a most compelling piece for the piano, titled "Ballad of Revolt".
One story which describes the reason for the Ballad is the following: when the Nazis had occupied Norway, Saeverud recalled a particular day when he stepped out of his home and saw in an area facing his house a group of German soldiers billeted and in full uniform. Another story was that the composer was on a train and witnessed the plight of occupied Norway - I do not know which of these two incidents is the truth, or whether both are apocryphal. At any rate, he later remarked that during this period "I had to make my work a personal war against Germany".
And so he wrote a series of works describing his anger and hatred directed at the Intruder.
One of his pieces written at that time was the Ballad, which is truly a call to arms .
One of my former students, who is now a professor of music in Norway, called my attention to this piece when he last visited me. It took some time to find a copy of it, but I do have it , in a fine edition from Norway.
The two recordings I know of are by Leif Ove Andsnes, the legendary Norwegian pianist, and in a multiple CD set of Saeverud's complete piano output, Einar Rottingen, who studied with Saeverud during the last years. Rottingen has honored me by having played and recorded some of my music in recent years.
The Ballad is a magnificent expression, reminiscent in spirit of the so-called 'Revolutionary" etude by Chopin, or the equally well-known Polonaise in "A" flat. Listen to the interpretation by Andsnes - I think that you will find it a most evocative and relentless statement.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Recordings of Interest

As promised, here is another brief list of suggestions for music listeners:

The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven
Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra

The landmark symphonies of Beethoven have been recorded over the past century by many.
However, the most compelling reading of these masterpieces, from my perch, are the performances by the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini and the orchestra he put together, which well could be the orchestra to measure the other great orchestras by.
The indescribable sense of power and drive, coupled with the fantastic lyricism engendered by this group of musicians, make for a view of Beethoven like no other view. Recorded from 1949 through the early fifties, it is a collection well worth searching for.

The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikowsky, transcribed for solo piano by M. Pletnev, and recorded by him, should be a Christmas gift for any music lover. It may be difficult to obtain, but DO try - it will have been worth the effort!

ANY recordings by Ella Fitzgerald and the wonderful guitarist Joe Pass!
The melding of Fitzgerald's lustrous voice and the degree of harmonic empathy by Pass, which lends even greater luminosity to her vocals, create a degree of pleasure one should experience - they were like no other duo in the pop field . I have wonderful photos of the two seated and facing one another during one of their recordings, and that picture IS the music.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ah, Fiction - Stranger than Truth

Saw a movie the other day , titled "A Song to Remember".
Supposedly a portrayal of the composer Chopin.
I was rather bemused as this movie unfolded:
First of all; the actor taking the part of Chopin, Cornel Wilde, had the build of the quarterback on the New England Patriots. In actuality, Chopin, even dripping wet, weighed in at about 150 pounds. When Wilde coughed up blood onto the keyboard during a performance(Chopin was tubercular) , he remained a virtual Adonis.
Secondly, his lover, George Sand(she actually was Chopin's lover), was portrayed in the movie by Merle Oberon, one of the most beautiful actresses of that period(1945). I must give you a description of George Sand by Franz Liszt, one of the great musicians of the 19th century. He mentioned her trousers, which she would wear much of the time, as opposed to the glorious gowns that Oberon was attired in during the movie; the cigar in her mouth, and the faint but visible down on her upper lip.
As for Elsner, Chopin's teacher; well, the hubris and histrionic pose that the actor Paul Muni combined to portray Elsner, who was a diffident, quiet and gentle soul in reality - this film prompted me to begin talking back to the screen.
I was assuaged, however, as I found that the magnificent piano music was played for the film by the great Spanish pianist Jose Iturbi, with whom I had a few lessons in my young years.
That made my experience with this film worthwhile, after all.
The cost was high, but worth it.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Beethoven and the girl with the manure

One of the more curious incidents noted by Schindler, Beethoven's biographer, was repeated many times:
Beethoven, at this point totally deaf, would take his almost daily walk outside of the town of Vienna, and at times would end up at a farm separated from him by a fence.
On the farm side of the fence would appear occasionally a lusty blond teen-ager(my memory reminds me that her name was Ilse Flehberger, and her job was to pitch manure with a pitchfork).
Imagine this picture: There, on one side of the fence, was this middle-aged man of about five feet four inches, with a stove-pipe hat perched at an angle on his head, with a rather long white handkerchief trailing out of a back pocket, with hands folded behind, looking at this young lass doing her work, not saying a word, and remaining in this position for many minutes. Schindler remarks that she would occasionally laugh derisively at this strange person while pitching the manure. Beethoven never said a word, and then would move on.
This event occurred many times, according to Schindler, and absolutely nothing came of all this.
Beethoven never struck up a conversation with the girl - he simply gaped at her time after time, and would then resume his constitutional.
What a strange, lonely man the deafness had molded.
But the Music that streamed out of this insulated world - well, that is another story.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Contrasting Shapes of Genius

I am sometimes struck at the differing shapes of process among the great composers; for instance, in 1800, when Beethoven was about to enter his 31st year, his first symphony was produced and performed. Eight symphonies were to follow.
Mozart, in his 31st year, had completed all but the last half dozen of his 41 symphonies.
Brahms required between 14 and 20 years to complete his first symphony; the first of four.
Wagner sneeringly called Brahms "that prophylactic composer".
One of these days I'll relate to you what some great composers thought of others in the same pursuit - you will blanch!

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Friday, November 16, 2007

The Performers Who Never Existed

You should know of one of the most brilliantly marketed ploys ever perpetrated upon the listening public, and a release which must have created certainly a degree of perturbation for the listener.
"The Piano Artistry of Jonathan Edwards" is the record, which was released around mid-century.
Also listed is the name of a vocalist, Darlene Edwards.
In actuality, Jonathan and Darlene Edwards were Paul Weston, one of the leading pop pianists and arrangers and conductor of his own orchestra, and his wife Jo Stafford, preeminent among the top vocalists of the day. I believe that she is still among us, and is probably in her eighties.
The record does not mention the true identities of the performers, and uses the Edwards name instead. The program notes do not let on in any way the true identity of these two, but go on to describe them; for instance, Jonathan Edwards is described thusly: " in presenting Jonathan Edwards on records,, Columbia has achieved another remarkable "first" - another talent begins its skyrocket rise to the top of the entertainment world".
Darlene is described as " a prominent clubwoman and a driving force in her community, returned from private life to take part in this album, selecting her own repertoire of sophisticated songs".
Both Stafford and Weston must have practiced together for months in order to perform in the manner projected in this album. I cannot, nor will I attempt to describe the level of performance which is heard - all I can ask is that you make a solid attempt to obtain this record.
The two made at least one more album; however, this initial release is the one to search for.
I hope that you will be able to get hold of this historic performance. There is nothing out there quite like it.
To further entice you, I should point out that friends and students of mine who listen to the record end up almost literally rolling on the floor with uncontrollable laughter.
And, by the way, the photo on the album shows a pretty young blond woman next to the piano, listening to the music. The pianist is not seen; however, the hands of the pianist ARE visible - what creates a sense of mystery about these hands is that they are both right hands.
Enough said.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Genius in the art of Comedy

Stanley Laurel Jefferson and Oliver Norville Hardy; or, Laurel and Hardy.
These two were able to vault from silent to sound movies with great success. Of the two, Stan Laurel was the artistic genius who created almost all of their classic films.
Oliver, known as "Babe" by his friends, came from the south.
Stan arrived here from London, and was an apprentice of Charlie Chaplin.
Babe was more inclined to play a round of golf, while Stan molded the classics pretty much on his own, with Babe, of course enhancing the overall comedic aura when they combined their gifts before and during the production of their works.
I liken Stan Laurel to a great composer, in that the composer often builds the music around a singular or dominant theme. Stan did much the same thing by focusing upon a singular item, and building the story around it, such as in "The Music Box."
This skit is constructed around a piano which refuses to be transported up a particularly long flight of stairs, or,
in "A Perfect Day", a car which refuses to move from its location until the very last seconds of the movie.
Laurel was a genius in building these comedies around a singular theme, and was truly a singular artist by way of his creative imagery.
Additionally, some of the most provocative statements in comedic form were created by Stan; for instance, in "Sons of the Desert", after a "deep" philosophical exchange with Babe, Stan looks directly into the camera with his vacant stare, and offers, with a sigh, " yes; life isn't short enough."
Incidentally, "The Music Box" was the first comedy short to be given an Oscar nomination.
My advice, for those of you not familiar with these two giants - make a point of looking for their films. They are truly singular works of art.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Politics and art - a dilemma?

Some have called it one of the great documentaries to come out of the 20th century - a few have claimed it to be the most important; no matter what opinions abound because of it, this film perhaps should be a subject of interest to us all.
In one of my blogs, I mentioned the relationship between Adolf Hitler and his interest in the arts. Another combine of importance is, in my view, that of Leni Riefenstahl and her major work,
"Triumph of the Will".
This film, totally centered around the tyrant Hitler and the meaning of his existence through Riefenstahl's eyes, remains, even after seventy years, a work of power and imagery, however troubling it may be.
Some of her techniques were models in thought, if not action, by such giants in film as Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. It is not merely a propagandistic vehicle glorifying the code of racial supremacy engendered by the Nazis; it is also a work by an artist, highly gifted in dance and acting as well.
And therein lies the dilemma - was she a Nazi, or was she simply an artist by way of that elemental urge to create, no matter the consequence?
Riefenstahl was the object, for many years, of investigation concerning her place in political history, but was never punished by the world's judicial systems, except for a very short period in confinement directly after the war. She insisted until her death at the age of 100, just a few years ago, that her role was that of an artist, and no more.
But if one views this masterpiece, one will probably experience a feeling of doubt, or at least a form of ambivalence , and it probably, as an issue, will never come to rest.
By the way, Riefenstahl produced a film of the 1936 Olympics, which is considered a masterpiece by critics worldwide.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

The mighty heap

They were called "The Mighty Five." The detractors called them "The Mighty Heap", obviously citing them in the same manner as one would cite the always present heaps of horse manure on the streets of Moscow.
I refer to the group of composers who permanently etched into our consciousness the power of 19th century Russian music and forever forged Russia into co-existence with the German, English and French contributors to European music.
What is amazing is that only one of the Five was a trained musician from the outset.
The others dealt with music as an avocation at first - imagine! Moussorgsky was a clerk in the bureaucracy; Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer; Borodin was a chemist; Cui was an artillery officer; only Balakirev was a musician from the outset.
And yet what comes out of 19th century Russia by way of this group, especially from Moussorgsky establishes a new road for the musical world to be able to travel upon.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

May I Suggest?

I probably will suggest a short list of recordings for your consideration about once per week:

1.Vladimir Horowitz and Arturo Toscanini collaborated in recordings of only two composers.
Toscanini, arguably the most revered conductor of his time, and Horowitz, the Lion of 20th century pianists, were, of course, father-in-law and son-in-law respectively. The unique power of communication each possessed singly , when combined, created two epic studio recordings - the Tchaikowsky and Brahms "B" flat Concerti which, to this day, are statements of almost illimitable power and text. Another recording of the Tchaikowsky Concerto in the dramatic "War Bonds" concert in 1943 is a performance one should hear as well. These recordings are a "must", in my view.

2.To hear a saxophone played by Marcel Mule is to hear this instrument, essentially, for the first time.
Around mid - 20th century, Mule recorded the Concertino Da Camera by Ibert. Do make an attempt to get hold of this recording - perhaps you might "Google" in order to find it, if necessary.
Be assured that you will be recipient of a unique experience.

3.Glenn Gould and Bach seem to be one and the same. Gould's defining performances of the great German composer are known to the world, and have been since the 1950's.
May I suggest that you listen to the work of Angela Hewitt, a Canadian pianist? She has in recent years vaulted to fame, primarily because of her luminous readings of Bach, most especially the Partitas and the Goldberg Variations. She may well turn out to become the most important Bach pianist of our time.


Did I say too much??

During a recital I gave in Vienna, in a large home as I recall, I mingled with the audience during intermission, as that occasion was very informal.
A middle-aged gentleman approached me, and as I had included some Mozart on the program, he evidently wanted to discuss the composer with me.
The discussion did not last very long, as he began , with a tone of some pride, by stating that "of course you know that Mozart was an Austrian."
I replied by reminding him that "while the people in Prague were whistling his tunes, he was starving here in Western Austria."
As the gentleman recoiled, then walked away abruptly, I then asked myself, " Did I say too much?"

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Friday, November 9, 2007

Triumph over failure

I wonder how many of you knew that the legendary Polish pianist Artur Rubinstein almost did himself in?
While as a youth, struggling in Europe to establish a career, and without family or friends for support, he decided, in a seedy hotel, to end it all.
He tied what I remember to be his bathrobe belt to a secure fixture on the ceiling, and the other end around his neck. He then kicked the chair out from underneath.
The belt snapped, and Rubinstein ended up on the floor in a heap. After a few indescribable seconds, he broke into uncontrollable laughter and vowed then and there to live life to the fullest. He succeeded, as he lived to be 96.
Let us rejoice in some failures.
Incidentally, Rubinstein first divulged this incident in an interview with a young Canadian, Robin MacNeil, who later became Robert MacNeil of the famed MacNeil/Lehrer Report .


Thursday, November 8, 2007

Mishaps in my time

This morning my memory bank took me to some examples, during my time, of mishaps suffered by some of the great performers in actual concert.
The first that came back to me was a recital at Eastman which I actually witnessed as a student:
The legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz was performing his transcription from Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" as an encore, and was in the midst of plucking multiple strings when he actually plucked one of the strings right out of its cradle - we all gasped and instantly wondered what Heifetz would or could do; well, as calmly as if nothing had occurred, he walked off stage, came back with what I presume was his alternate violin, the Guarneri, tuned it before us, and played through the Stravinsky without further disasters. An unforgettable time for me.
I was not there, but I know that one of the reigning Beethoven pianists, Rudolf Serkin, was in the midst of one of the Concerti by the great composer, when the piano start moving forward - evidently, the piano still had the transporting wheels connected, and this concerto indeed became a moving experience.
I was at Symphony Hall in Boston to attend a recital by the giant from Chile, Claudio Arrau. The most important work on the program was the defining Sonata by Liszt, and in the midst of one of the more dramatic sections, we heard a sound that Liszt had not written, which transfixed both Arrau and his audience. The Sonata ended within that micro-second, and shocked silence followed. A string had failed somehow and produced a sound that I cannot describe. Arrau left the stage(he must have been very upset, to be sure), a technician entered, worked on the instrument for awhile, and Arrau then returned. I do not remember whether he went back to the Sonata, for this was many years ago, but he DID resume playing.
An event which took place well before my time was an evening which featured a soloist playing one of the earlier Beethoven Concerti, with the composer in the audience(obviously at a time before the composer's deafness came on).
The performer was so nervous that he strode onto the platform with a cigar still in his mouth, and proceeded to perform, forming a pall of cigar smoke over the piano area, which persisted until the end of the first movement, at which time the cigar disappeared, resulting in an ultimately smokeless performance of the remainder of the piece.
One can only imagine what the relationship between composer and performer turned out to be after this event


Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Attu - What a defining week!

Last night I viewed a new documentary which detailed the military operations dealing with Attu.
Attu is one of the Aleutian islands off Alaska. And on, I believe, June 7, 1942, the Japanese occupied this island, as well as the island of Kiska nearby.
I thought about the date in 1942 and pondered the supreme irony which occupies that period.
In occupying Attu, this operation turned out to be the nearest Japan ever got to mainland America, and during this very period Japan's ability to continue the offensive war against America was destroyed at the Battle of Midway just hours before - a truly defining week.


Monday, November 5, 2007

Which Mendelssohn was more important?

Felix Mendelssohn was one of the few great 19th century composers born into wealth, which gave him much leisure time to enhance his own great talents and his intellectual curiosity.
The most noted pursuit outside of his own writings was the study of Bach, who at that time was known only to musicians and other intellectuals. At age 20, Mendelssohn was so entranced by his study of Bach's music, that he produced for the first time since Bach's one performance, a century before , a performance of the great "B" minor Mass(this in 1829). The result was for the need to give yet another performance. This is the moment of the establishment of the Bach Cult, which remains to this day. Some years ago, to recognize the first resurgence of Jewish music in Germany since World War II, Time Magazine produced an article on Mendelssohn. The article was very well written, and gave abundant testimony as to the importance of this composer; however, the writer left out one item; Mendelssohn's bringing forth of Bach's music to the masses . And so I wrote a letter to Time concerning this issue.Time called me and informed me that my letter would be published in the next issue.
And so I ask - which Mendelssohn was more important?

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

I Sometimes Wonder

Issues without available answers are seductive unto themselves; for instance, what if Adolf Hitler had been admitted as an art student to Vienna's most famous school for the study of art? He had tried twice for admission and was turned down, primarily because he could not satisfactorily draw the human figure.
What if he had been admitted? Would millions not have died? Would the great tragedy we call World War have ended in 1918, rather than 1945?
I realize that dreaming about the never-to-be seems without direction, if not fruitless; however, be reminded that even great historians do the very same thing. As an example, Ambrose once remarked that if Hitler had gotten to Antwerp during the Battle of the Bulge and split the Allies, Stalin might have thrown up his hands and made an attempt to forge an alliance with the hated
Hitler. One can never know, of course. But this process of "what if" could be a source of some intellectual "fun"; say, if Mozart had lived to be 55 rather than 35, would there have been the same Beethoven we know today? Or, if Gershwin, like Mozart, dying in his thirties - what if he had lived another 20 years - would Bernstein have been the Bernstein we know?
By the way, did you know that Hitler had written several plays and even a libretto for an opera?
Strange bedfellows; evil incarnate and artistic endeavor.


Saturday, November 3, 2007

Picasso in Paris

One of the most gripping statements made by a great artist consisted of just three words -
During the occupation of Paris by the Nazis, Picasso resided there (the Nazis did not dare to touch the living legend), and on a particular day was posting some elements of his defining anti-Fascist Cubist masterpiece Guernica on a display board for reasons I do not know. Just then a Nazi officer strutted into the studio, approached Picasso, then looked at the items on the display surface and asked, "Did you do these?"
Looking squarely into the eyes of the Nazi soldier, Picasso replied "No - you did"
I cannot recall a statement more powerful.


I wonder, sometimes, about Tchaikowsky -

I have yet to come across, in any book or paper about the composer Tchaikowsky, the issue I am about to write.
During the height of a cholera epidemic in Mother Russia, it is known that Tchaikowsky drank a tumbler of water directly from a faucet. It was obvious, even in those days, that water should be boiled before drinking during such an event. The composer died shortly thereafter, in his early fifties - why did he drink unboiled water? Could he have been a suicide? We know that at least once before, he walked, fully clothed, into a river during a winter, but was pulled out.
Was he so be-deviled by what he called "that thing"; namely his homosexuality, which at that time was punishable by execution, that he finally gave in? He most certainly was in a depressed state, having had a marriage to one of his own students annulled. His final (6th) Symphony, which he titled "Pathetique," at least to me, divulges a kind of finality about his existence and consciousness.
I wonder, from time to time, about this incident.



Welcome to my blog! I'll be dealing, for the most part, with subjects related to the arts, with a strong historical connection to the subject of choice, as I taught both in the arts and history as well.
Hope you enjoy the combination of both subjects as a unit!