Thursday, January 31, 2008

Glenn Gould - A True Original

It's known, of course, that the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, in a relatively short life, was veritably Mozart - like in his brilliance, both as a performer and as one of the deep thinkers of the art. Many continue to assert that his playing of Bach is the most important contribution of the composer's keyboard music in the history of recording.
Another facet of his entity is, shall we say, the level of eccentricity.
To cite: He drove the sound engineers at Columbia Records virtually insane because of his insisting that he use his beloved bench (or stool; I know not which) in his recordings. The problem was that the bench squeaked, and rather loudly. In the earlier recordings, especially; his magic music-making was complemented by the incessant squeak of his beloved supporter, and it was quite some time before the squeak was eradicated from the recordings.
Another fly in the engineers' ointment was that Gould constantly sang as he performed, and the accepted view that the great musician, anointed with such a great internal ear, would, if necessary, always sing in tune; sadly, that was not the case with Gould, as some records attest to the reality that the note that Gould played would not always match the note that Gould would sing.
Eventually, that aspect was pretty well overcome, but be assured that one can purchase Gould recordings with the immortal voice/piano performances.
To cite once again:
One day, Gould decided to sing to a herd of cows; and so, armed with a score of Germanic music, he proceeded to bellow forth the strains of an orchestral work of either Wagner or Strauss (I cannot recall which), the result being that the herd mooed quite loudly and proceeded to move away from the source of its discomfort.
I have also heard that another group of animals was accosted in the same manner by this genius. This event is, I believe, in a documentary about his life.
Gould (all in jest, of course) remarked about the lack of taste exhibited by these audiences, and skulked off, bemoaning the refutation of his message.
Truly, one of a kind .

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mozart , The Great Communicator!

Countless books have been written about Mozart, of course. His music pervades the civilized world, and has so for over two centuries.
It might also be enlightening to delve into letters written to and by him; to and from friends, family and countless others relating to the business of music, etc. The best compilation, in my view, was one put together by Emily Anderson, who also worked on Beethoven's letters.
What comes to my mind at this particular point in time were two letters written by Mozart; one in 1770; the other, in 1772 (which made him 14 and 16, respectively).
In the 1770 letter, written to his mother and sister (written from Rome): "Praise and thanks be to God, I am well and kiss Mama's hand and my sister's face, nose, mouth, neck and my bad pen and a___(3-letter word!), if it is clean."
The letter in 1772, written to his sister, is quite lengthy, and was written from Milan; the end of the letter contains "Farewell, my little lung. I kiss you my liver, and remain as always, my stomach, your unworthy brother Wolfgang.
Please, please, my dear sister, something is biting me. Do come and scratch me."
There are many letters written in this vein by the young genius, and what comes to mind is the movie Amadeus, released in the 80's, purportedly the story of Mozart, and loaded with fiction (by the way, the performers of his music in that film were magnificent). Perhaps, one of the few aspects which carried the truth was the superb characterization by the actor Tom Hulce, who portrayed him as a truly weird character, with decided antisocial proclivities.
We certainly know of the tragedy of Mozart, who could not hold onto any employment for long, and was impoverished almost all of his brief experience.It seems that the Wunderkind had not experienced growing into manhood successfully, and paid the price.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Hudson River Patrician and the Great Imperialist - Bedfellows in History

To digress from the arts for a moment - I would have loved to be a fly on the wall of any room in which Roosevelt and Churchill had private conversations during World War II.
They could not have been more opposite in their world views; one, the American patrician, who could not have been more violently against world imperialism; the other, who represented steadfast views on the continuation of the British empire at all costs, even bankruptcy - one can only imagine the arguments the two must have had from time to time.
Fortunately, the overriding mandate was to destroy European Fascism, which was the final and immortal act engendered by these two opposites.
Strange; how just weeks after the war had been won, Churchill, who had held off the Nazi hordes armed with only words, for a critical period in English history, was booted out of office.
Reminds me of another similar event, two thousand years earlier, when Themistocles, after his victory over the Persians(which altered and affects our history today), was hounded into exile within ten years of that victory.
Ah, the history of the human condition - it seems that the greatest of all mysteries may be the image we see in the mirror.
Just thinking...

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Valentine's Day Gift For The Music Lover - A Curio!

How about a rather unique piece of music for the music lover?
Traditionally, composers writing a Theme and Variations will, of course, begin with the theme and then create variations upon that theme, ending much of the time with the most highly developed variation. Great examples would be the Goldberg Variations by Bach; or, the Thirty-Two Variations by Beethoven.
Perhaps the most singular composition in that form was written by a rather obscure composer, Vincent D'Indy. He titled it the "Ishtar" Variations.
He reverses the entire composition by beginning it with the most florid variation, and makes sure that the ensuing variations are less and less complex. He finally arrives at the theme upon which these variations are based, and the piece ends as soon as the theme is completed. One might say that this curio should be called "Variations in Search of a Theme"; actually, D'Indy himself thought of this as the title.
The music is based upon the Dance of the Seven Veils, each veil being discarded until the fair one is clad in her birthday garb.
So the music is fully clothed at first, and eventually arrives at the skeletal base.
Pretty clever, what?

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Friday, January 18, 2008

With Tongue in Cheek - Great American Humorists

In addition to a few years on either side, the middle third of the twentieth century is host to a number of brilliant and original American writers who utilized humor as their base.
Such names as Robert Benchley, grandfather of Peter, who is renown for "Jaws"; H. Allen Smith, who wrote "Low Man on a Totem-Pole"(self-deprecatory or what??); Oscar Levant -
Allow me to focus on Oscar Levant, who is one of my favorites:
Levant was a close friend of George Gershwin, and a brilliant pianist himself. His championing of Gershwin's piano music made him an important link to our time, and to our view of Gershwin as a kind of American Mozart.
What makes Levant even more interesting is that he was not only a top-notch musician, but also one of our great humorists, coupled with an I.Q. that went off the charts. Unlike the other humorists of his time, his humor was acerbic and derisive at times, giving his writings a panache like no others; for instance, how about a couple of titles of books, such as "A Smattering of Ignorance"; or, "Diary of an Amnesiac" - My view is that his brand of humor was laced with a form of irony coming out of the frustration he had when he realized that he would never become a great musician, only a brilliant one.
Levant came apart when Gershwin died tragically in his mid-thirties, and eventually destroyed himself through drug abuse.
But he left golden words for us to enhance our own lives with; in addition, he left a few recordings of Gershwin's music. Sadly, he never got to realize that his performances of Gershwin's Preludes were world-class, and his recording of the Concerto in "F" is, in my estimation, a great performance.
Why not examine this Golden Period?

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

An Encounter With Greatness - But Not As Intended

After returning from Europe; before deciding to teach at public schools and college, I was director of the theory department in a private music school outside of Boston.
On a particular day, I was told that the legendary jazz pianist Thelonius Monk was in Boston for an appearance. Knowing that a considerable chunk of the student body had a solid interest in jazz, I took a chance and contacted the hotel that Monk was staying at.
I did not for a moment think that Monk would accept an invitation to visit our school, but I took a shot at it. To my amazement, Thelonius Monk said yes. I arranged for one of the students to pick him up and bring him to the school. Keep in mind that all this occurred on the same day.
We hastily set up about 60 folding chairs in the small auditorium, and awaited the Great One.
Later in the day(early afternoon, as I remember), Thelonius Monk came through the door, cap on head and dark glasses in place.
Without any discussion with Monk beforehand(my great error!), knowing that he did not have much time, I introduced him, stating that Mr. Monk might like to discuss with the students and faculty some of the aspects of his music.
Shockingly, Monk, sitting in the front row, in a rather loud voice, said something like "Hey, man!
I don't talk about my music. I'm not that great with words, man."
I was so taken aback, that some seconds passed before realizing that this man was not one cloaked in eloquence, but a medium through which passed a form of language recognized for its unique message.
And so I said(with some fear of what might ensue) something like "I hope, then, that Mr. Monk will play for us."
Amazingly, he without word or hesitation ambled to an upright piano situated in front of and below the stage, and created magic for about a half hour.
He left without much fanfare, and with even fewer words.
None there will ever forget that strange, wordless time; that surreal encounter with genius.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Humor as an indestructible force - Final Words

The fabled comedian Stan Laurel(of Laurel and Hardy fame)lay on his deathbed, in a deep coma. The nurse on vigil swears that the following occurred:
Without opening his eyes, Laurel muttered "I'd rather be skiing". The nurse was so startled, that through knee-jerk reaction she blurted "Do you ski, Mr. Laurel?"
His answer, and his last words were "No, but I'd rather be skiing."

The great composer Frederick Chopin passed away during his 39th year, and his final words were "I have been cursed with a short life and a long nose."


Sunday, January 6, 2008

Musical Suggestions for Valentine's Day

A musical Valentine gift?
How about the most popular valentine ever sent by a great composer?
Of course, it is the so-called "Moonlight" sonata by Beethoven(he did not name it "Moonlight"; rather, the publisher thought that title up).
Beethoven, seemingly, was strongly infatuated with one of his students, a beautiful 17 year old countess , Guillieta Gucciardi, who never became aware of his longing for her.
At any rate, she was immortalized by his dedicating this composition to her.
The most durable musical valentine in history - it was published in 1802.

The fabled pop pianist George Shearing has a wonderful arrangement of "My Funny Valentine" by Richard Rogers. I have a video of it he did at the Carlyle in New York about a generation ago, and Shearing wrings the sponge dry by putting this great tune into different classical styles, such as Bach, Delius, Rachmaninoff and Schumann. It goes on for several minutes, and is one of Shearing's most brilliant offerings.
See if you can find it!

I rather doubt that the Bard would have accepted, let alone understood the florescence of Tchaikowsky's music to Romeo and Juliet; but, for the modern ear, is there any piece of music depicting the love of one human being for another more representative than this composition, absolutely drenched in beautiful melody? Highly recommended!

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

William Walton - This composer should be heard

The English composer William Walton, in one of his most important compositions, re-asserts the great tradition of choral writing in London in 1931, having been aided most significantly by that eminent German-turned-Londoner George Frederick Handel back in the 18th century in his oratorios, the most famous, of course, turning out to be "Messiah."
Walton's "Belshazzar's Feast" is one of the most evocative and powerful statements, in chorale form, coming out of the 20th century.
The text relates the fall of Babylon after the slaying of Belshazzar the King, which, as I recall, is out of the Book of Daniel.
The sense of foreboding and terror is magnificent in this composition, especially when the Hand writes out the warning "mene, mene, tekel upharsin"(thou art weighed in the balance, and found wanting).
Walton's score, which calls for an orchestra larger than the usual(he adds saxophone, piano, organ and two brass bands, one on either side of the chorus)coupled with his brilliant choral technique, hurls the impact of the story at the listener in a truly unique manner.
One recording I know of may be available upon special request. It was done around 1950, with a special coming together of orchestra and chorus, conducted by the eminent Britisher Sir Adrian Boult.
Of interest to me is that the composer Walton never took a composition lesson in his life.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Beethoven, the Chef(??)

I recall, in the memoir of one Seyfried, a friend of Beethoven, an incident involving a dinner that Beethoven prepared for a small group of friends, including Seyfried. This is the writer's description of the event:
`After waiting patiently for about an hour and a half(!), the guests were first served a soup that, according to Seyfried, looked and tasted like those charitable leavings distributed to beggars in the taverns; the beef followed, which was but half done and suited only for an ostrich. The vegetables floated in a mixture of water and grease. All of the afore- mentioned tasted as if it had been extracted from the chimney.
Fortunately for his friends, the great composer rather quickly tired of undergoing the tasks of cooking, and the survivors, including Beethoven, returned to the local taverns for their meals.
The entire cooking project was Beethoven's idea, his reason being that the costs would be far less than purchasing meals in the town's eating establishments.
His taste for the sounds he created was another thing, for which we all give thanks.

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