Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Bomb and the Balkans - A connection?

As you know, I at times divert from the arts when I ponder other aspects of man's history - having taught certain phases of history; chiefly, arts history, I had dug deeply enough into various facets of the subject, resulting in such actions as having exchanged letters with the great historian, the late Stephen Ambrose.
What floated across my translucent blackboard were two incidents in the second world war, each quite a distance apart from the other, both in time and geography; however, both came under the same hypothetical question about what the world would be like today.
The first incident was Operation Dragoon, which was the Allied invasion of Southern France to enact a giant pincers formation following Operation Overlord in Northern France - D-Day.
Churchill was violently against Dragoon, and wanted instead an Allied incursion into the Balkans.
Obviously, Churchill was overruled .
The following year, the Bomb was dropped twice on Japan.
Which forged these questions upon my furrowed brow:
If Churchill had gotten his way, and the Balkans had been invaded instead of Southern France, AND was successful, what would Europe have looked like after the war? COULD there have been a Stalinist Eastern Europe? Or, a democratically designed quilt of nations east of Germany? Or, something in between? Or, war with Soviet Russia?
If the Bomb had not been dropped, and the Allies were forced to invade Japan, would the Soviet military giant have occupied Northern Japan? One has to remember that the Bomb was dropped not only for the obvious reason; specifically, the defeat of Japan, but also because of the fear of Russian troops entering Japan. Would MacArthur's epic reconstruction of Japan been possible?
What would the Far East look like today, let alone Eastern Europe?
Questions never to be answered, but I find myself in collision with this kind of question more often than not.
And I thought music was a mystery.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Reminiscence - The Harmonica (Really!)

During the first year or so of teaching, I was called by one of the FM stations, and invited to discuss and perform a project I had just completed.
One of my students was a phenomenal harmonica player, and was on the constant search for material that was in the so-called "classical" realm.
Be assured that classical music for the harmonica is not in the upper level of popularity. Most pieces are arrangements for the instrument, and many of these arrangements are not worth the paper they appear on.
Because of the particular ranges of some of the Bach flute sonatas, I decided to look for the most suitable piece that might fit the harmonica, and chose the "E" flat sonata (BWV 1031), which even today is considered attributed to Bach.
I was amazed as to how smoothly this sonata fit the harmonica. My primary issue was that of phrasing, as the harmonica, unlike the flute, produces sounds by both exhalation and inhalation.
There WERE some moments of difficulty; however, Peter played the piece , accompanied by me, and it went well. Jules Wolffers, the producer of these live performances, and chairman of a local University music department, was the gentleman responsible for this particular event, which was for me not only enjoyable, but the only time I have ever wrestled with the harmonica.
Life, at times, DOES take unusual twists.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

An Argument Over Mozart - A Loving Memory

I had the great fortune of having studied with great men, and most of these musicians were as warm and friendly as they were great teachers.
Two of my favorites were Jerome Diamond, who taught at Eastman, and who became a veritable second father to me; the other, Dr. John Hasson, out of Boston University, who had a profound influence upon me as well.
I had just begun work on the Mozart piano concerto, K. 488, with Hasson, and had gotten pretty well into the first movement, when at a certain point, Hasson disagreed with the tempo I had chosen for this movement. Being young and stupid, I disagreed with his disagreement, and a firm but quite gentle argument broke out concerning the tempo.
After about a week of sparring back and forth about this issue, Hasson suggested that I write to Alfred Einstein (not related to Albert), who was teaching at Smith College at the time.
Einstein was one of the leading authorities on Mozart and the Classical period, and so I thought that this was a good idea.
And so I wrote the great man.
Within just a few days, I received an answer from Einstein, which has governed my way of dealing with the tempi of Mozart from that time to the present.
I remember the exact words of his short but, for me, very pregnant epistle: "My Dear LH (my initials), I consider that all of the allegro markings attached to Mozart be thought of by way of 'cantabile.' Yours Very Truly, Alfred Einstein."
Now the word 'cantabile' pertains to the quality of singing, which meant to me that enough space be given between the notes for the singing nature of Mozart's melodies never to be undermined.
And so from that letter to this very day, I always make an assiduous study of how, in a melody written by Mozart, which is involved with the word 'allegro' (fast) to make sure that speed in and of itself does not affect the elemental nature of the melody's incarnation.
Hasson's suggestion was without question the correct thing to enact; certainly for me.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Winifred and Wolf - Again, the Illimitable Power of Music

We all know, of course, of the town of Bayreuth, where the music of Wagner established its base and world identity.
The great music dramatist, we know, had an immense hold upon the young Hitler, who identified with the great music and attendant sagas of Richard Wagner. It is known that Hitler had seen the drama Rienzi at least forty times.
Winifred Wagner, the daughter-in-law of the fabled composer, got to know Hitler in the very early days of his rise, and from the twenties to her own passing in 1980 remained loyal to Hitler and his political views.
What is not generally known, perhaps, is her direct aid to Hitler while he was in prison.
Hitler was already known for his actions and speeches, and received special consideration while in prison. The paper upon which Mein Kampf was written was sent by Winifred from Bayreuth, along with other items he demanded.
Winifred had joined the Nazi party, and was delighted when Hitler became Chancellor in 1933; sadly, she was wrong when she remarked at that time about her doubts that Hitler would retain power for very long. It did not take very much time to pass before the entire world discovered the errors of her prediction.
Bayreuth, before Hitler's accession to power, was in a rather bad way fiscally, but was saved when Hitler, after attaining power, saw to it that monies from various state sources sustained Bayreuth and Wagner's music. He knew that the state and Bayreuth were intertwined by ideology, both politically and artistically.
An example or two of the role of music coming from these times:
It was from the Wagner estate in Bayreuth that Hitler made the decision to send the tyrant Franco military aid in the Spanish Civil War, which was going on at the time.
It was in France in 1940 that Winifred Wagner made a trip to occupied Paris to organize a concert of the music of Wagner, which was conducted by Herbert Van Karajan.
It was in some of the death camps in occupied Europe that inmates were given live performances of Wagner's music before they were exterminated.
The male performers in the Bayreuth Festivals were exempt from military service, even though Hitler had consigned children as young as fourteen to kill as many Russian troops as possible as they entered Berlin during the final days.
Winifred and Wolf (Hitler's nick-name among the privileged few) - truly a couple designed to enhance the panache that is sometimes attached to the entity we call History.
In an interview in 1975, Winifred said that " if Hitler were to come through that door in front of me at this very moment, I would unhesitatingly welcome him."


Monday, July 14, 2008

Music - Arcanum Arcanorum?

Music has been my oldest friend (other than my parents). I cannot bring back a day in my memory book without its presence, in one or more of its countless forms.
And at times I wonder, and think, and muse, without a shred of an answer expected.
How, in that first century, the Christians huddled around this thing in order to aid in enhancing the existence of a new, a wondrous expression of Faith.
How, during a period formed between two walls of madness we call War, soldiers on the opposing sides were photographed, some with arms entwined or around shoulders, singing Christmas carols, then resuming the madness of killing.
How the tune, Lili Marlene was heard and sung by the opposing sides; sung both in German and in English, and sung many times during the same conflict over a period of years.
How the tune "Happy Days Are Here Again" was sung in both Roosevelt's and Hitler's presence, each in its respective language, before the carnage of World War II.
How, on April 29, 1945, after Adolf Hitler married his mistress Eva Braun, the new Mrs. Hitler had brought in the only record available in the final turmoil of the bunker; a tune called "Red Roses", which was played during the ceremony - just hours before their suicide.
There is no way to reason such events.
Other than to be contemplative about this most arcane of Man's languages.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

An Artist of Greater Power Than Picasso; or, Da Vinci? - Read on...

During my teaching career, I taught at all levels; that is, from elementary and high school through college. During one period, I taught all three every week.
During a break at the high school, I motored down to one of the elementary schools I was servicing, and invited the principal to consider an issue I had been thinking about; namely, to give an exam to all of the children, from kindergarten through sixth grade. She at first consented without hesitation, but balked when I divulged to her that the exam would consist of the same questions at all seven levels. She was incredulous and said that such a test would not be possible.
I asked "do you trust me?" (with a smile, of course). Having known of the kinds of programs I had developed within the school system, she consented to my presenting her with the specifics.
She had doubts as to the final results, but I received clearance, and made plans to give the test.
The exam offered some truly interesting information, forming the question I had based the project on, and the question was presented to the principal before the exam was given; specifically: "Who is the Most Powerful Artist Known to Us?"
The exam consisted of twenty questions; each question a brief piece of music.
The kindergarteners did essentially as well as the sixth graders, with grades one through five equal partners in success as well.
The music was taken from productions of Walt Disney.
So! Perhaps a question should be offered, something like "how many five-year-olds know who Picasso is," or, " how many third graders are familiar with the name Da Vinci?", or, how many of you sixth graders know who Caravaggio is?"
They all knew Disney.


Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Vorsetzer - Music's Gutenberg Press?

In, I believe, 1902, Dr. Edwin Welte constructed one of the most important machines in the history of the arts.
The player piano was, of course, a most popular form of entertainment in countless homes. It was, as well, a contrivance for recording pianists, giving us the piano roll, known as a medium for recording early jazz and rag-time compositions.
It was also called upon for classical musicians to perform, and many of these rolls exist today.
However, there were problems in recording the classics; such as, the player piano recorder could not record dynamics. Also, because of the mechanical nature of the working parts, the piano keys were heavy and somewhat of a deterrent. In short, what the listener heard were the notes, period.
Welte, in a burst of unadorned genius, developed a player through the miracle of electricity that recorded not only the note, but also the exact dynamic and phrase attached to each note played; in other words, this machine captured everything that the pianist did in the performance recorded.
He accomplished this by using carbon tips, each of which was attached to a key on the piano. This carbon tip would dip into a tray of mercury, completing a circuit. The result was a kind of digital process the better part of a century before "digital", as each bit of information would be captured on a special roll made for the Vorsetzer.
Allow me to translate "Vorsetzer":
This machine was not a piano as we know it; rather, it was rolled up to a piano and would "play" the piano with felt-covered wooden "arms", the movements of which would be governed by the electronic information given them on the roll. Because it would be rolled up to a piano, it was lovingly named "Vorsetzer" (in German, meaning, literally, "sitter-in-front").
The invention caused a sensation, and great pianists from all over Europe clamored to record on this contrivance. In fact, there was such a demand that Welte actually rented a castle for the recordings of such artists as Paderewski, Grieg, Debussy, Lhevinne, St. Saens, Scriabin, Busoni and Hoffman, plus many more.
What is so important for those of us in musicology is not only the actuality of these performers having been brought back to life after so many years, but, more importantly, just how these fabled artists actually played.
Many of these recordings were made on a reconstructed Vorsetzer in 1947, rolled up to Artur Rubinstein's West Coast Steinway, and can be gotten, I believe, if you try hard enough.
No novelist can better this story!

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