Sunday, October 26, 2008

America's Mozart - Views of His Contemporaries

In a previous blog, I had described George Gershwin as America's Mozart, as both had died in their thirties, at the zenith of their powers (what would their zeniths have been like, had they lived on??), with indescribable messages emanating from their languages.
I had been looking for a recording made in 1961, and issued commercially in 1987, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Gershwin, and as I am a staunch proponent of Primary Source, as it pertains to matters historically, I had been in pursuit of this recording for a long period of time; the reasons being that this radio program hosted only those surviving friends who knew Gershwin better than any one else.
To list: Oscar Levant, Alfred Newman, Gershwin's brother Ira, Fred Astaire, Arthur Schwartz, Paul Whiteman, all of whom achieved world-wide recognition in their own right.
Levant, the brilliant pianist who has recorded virtually everything the composer wrote for piano; Newman, one of the most famous conductors of that time in this genre; Ira Gershwin, who formed the immortal fusion with his famous brother by lacing the music with lyrics; Astaire, the legendary dancer, who, incidentally, was an accomplished pianist who played for the composer many times; Schwartz , a powerful composer on Broadway and in Hollywood; Whiteman, the conductor who premiered the Rhapsody in Blue with Gershwin at the piano, with Fritz Kreisler and Sergei Rachmaninoff in the audience.
These geniuses discuss their legendary friend. There are also rare recordings of Gershwin himself at the piano. All in all, the most illuminating example of Primary Source information concerning Gershwin I am aware of.
I was fortunate in finding this LP in a used record outlet about a hundred miles from my home, and in pristine condition. I had it transferred to CD, and it is one of my favorite possessions in recorded form.
I have not had the time to see if it was ever released in CD form. The radio broadcast was titled "Gershwin Remembered", if you would like to look for it.
Good Luck!


Friday, October 24, 2008

The Composer Who Murdered His Wife

For those of you who may not have known, one of the most gifted composers of the late Renaissance, Carlo Gesualdo, was a murderer as well.
His wife entered into a relationship with an aristocrat; actually a Duke, not too long after her marriage to Gesualdo. Unfortunately for both Gesualdo's wife and the Duke, they were both stabbed to death by the composer, who happened upon the two of them in a most delicate situation. As a nobleman, Gesualdo escaped prosecution, but was haunted for the remainder of his life for this deed.
What enhances the poignancy and tragedy of this event is that Carlo Gesualdo was one of the most prescient composers of his time, periodically actually utilizing chromaticism in some of his music, which had been virtually absent in the music of the late Renaissance. I would speculate that the deeper, darker aspects of his music, precipitated by the murders, necessitated the use of increased color in his works, made possible by the chromatics therein.
Again; such as with Beethoven and his deafness - would the music have been as we know it to be, if the tragedy had not occurred?


Genius and Mischief - The Pianist and the Singer

The young Artur Rubinstein, who later became one of the most celebrated pianists of the 20th century, and the young Feodor Chaliapin, perhaps the most renown singer to have ever come out of Mother Russia, encountered one another in, I believe, Moscow. As the two musicians walked down one of the streets, a woman and her teen-age daughter (probably around 17 or 18 years of age), strolled by the two in the opposite direction. According to Rubinstein, in his memoir, Chaliapin immediately wheeled around and pursued the two women, and disappeared around a corner.
Now; to interject- both Rubinstein (before he settled down in his late thirties) and Chaliapin were known as, shall we say, "active admirers of feminine beauty", especially Chaliapin, whose reputations both as artist and womanizer were well-known.
At a later date, Rubinstein and Chaliapin met, and Rubinstein asked, arguably, the greatest Basso in the history of singing, what the outcome of that encounter on the street turned out to be.
Chaliapin answered "the mother was wonderful, but the daughter was fantastic."
I cannot inform you as to whether this story is apocryphal, but it IS in Rubinstein's memoir.
At any rate, the amorous exploits of these two giants were without denial by both. As a matter of fact, Rubinstein unabashedly relates some of his escapades in his memoir.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Kenneth More - Lose One, Win One?

As you know, I sometimes muse about issues outside of music, especially those laced with strange coincidence or pure irony.
In this case the career of Kenneth More, a British actor who was eminent but not outrageously famous over a generation ago.
What passed through my mind the other day was the interesting, if not somewhat curious connective tissue that bound two of his films.
The first; titled " A Night to Remember", done, I believe, in 1958, was his role as an officer on the ill-fated Titanic tragedy of 1912, which, of course, traced the sinking of the giant ocean liner on its maiden voyage.
The second; titled "Sink the Bismarck", produced in 1960, had the actor playing the role of one of the British naval officers involved in the sinking of the most powerful battleship in Hitler's navy in 1941. By the way, although I am not a movie-goer, I did see both films, which were well-done, both in quality of entertainment and historical context.
The question which for a moment loomed in front of me - was it merely coincidence that Kenneth More appeared in both sinking sagas, or did he specifically ask to be in both movies due to his interest in being, perhaps, one of few actors involved in two historical sinking sagas; once as a loser (went down with the Titanic), then as a winner ( a contributor to the sinking of the Bismarck)?
Incidentally, be assured that when More passed away, it was not in his bathtub.
Ah, Trivia... I promise to return to a more substantive issue next time.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Early Recollections of Music

In High School I was the Young Lion of the keyboard, having learned the Warsaw Concerto by Richard Addinsell, and I remember being commanded countless times to perform it by both my fellow students and faculty members during every one of the four years in that school. I think I could have played that piece with my toes, as it had become overbearingly familiar to me.
The High School music teacher was lovingly called "Wahnee"(short for her real name, which was considerably longer).
She was a rather large woman, with arms the circumference of small oak trees (she ALWAYS wore short sleeves, winter and summer), waving those arms wildly while conducting her tunes, mostly music from operettas and musicals. She played no instrument, to my knowledge; had no singing voice of discernible distinction, and actually knew very little about the more serious music. Wahnee unabashedly pursued my interests, listening as much to me as I listened to her. We both respected and loved one another, she for honestly acknowledging my attachment to music deeper than the music of her domain (I always have had the greatest regard for her honesty about herself); I for the manner in which she so enthusiastically gave of herself by way of her love for children. She was well remembered, and with great fondness, for her loving ways and genuine love for teaching.
I once suggested to Wahnee that a music club be formed after school hours, which was done. We held weekly meetings, and had quite a few members that year (I was a senior, and could therefore be involved only one year).
The crowning meeting the club held that year was a visit from Guy Fraser Harrison, whom I had invited to speak to the kids. Harrison had been the associate conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic some fifteen years before, but had come back to Rochester to give some performances, and the timing was perfect.
All in all, my earlier encounter with music during the teen years was a great source of pleasure, let alone a constant enhancer of those days of growing up.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Strangest Performance in My Experience - My Own

This experience popped back into my mind the other day, and I thought that you might allow me to share it with you:
It was early in my development - I was about nineteen at the time, and had been working on one of the four great Scherzi by Chopin; the daunting Scherzo in "C"# minor.
My teacher felt that I should perform it publicly, and so I prepared both musically and psychologically for the task.
I cannot remember where I performed it, and for what occasion; however, I vividly remember the happening of my performance (sadly!).
For reasons not clear in my memory (perhaps fear, as it was one of the first really large pieces I had prepared for public performance), I cannot remember to this day; more strangely on THAT day, and from that day on, my playing it in terms of specificity. It was all a blur, and I can remember only that my fingers seemed to playing AT the music, rather than the music itself. It was as if those fingers were not my own; that I was not really there.
After it was over ( I cannot even remember the audience reaction), my teacher came to me, and said something like "you probably did not expect the results yourself." In a millisecond I was crestfallen-it must have been an absolute disaster.
But my teacher continued, remarking as to how "extraordinary" (I remember THAT word, as I was so surprised when I heard it) the performance was, and that he was filled with such pride.
Can ANY of you reading this relate the same kind of experience??
We are indeed the greatest of life's mysteries.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Beethoven' Deafness - Certification of Absolute Victory?

We are all aware of the unspeakable tragedy that struck Beethoven; and it has, of course, been written about by countless historians and musicologists for over two centuries.
For the most part, the story of this tragedy is that of Tragedy, and nothing more, which for the casual reader is where this issue comes to rest.
Perhaps one might consider the ramifications of this tragedy beyond itself; that is, not just the end, but also , a means to an end, which gives the world the sublime gift we call Beethoven.
A question arises in my mind; namely, would the music of this composer have been what we know it to be, had he not lost his hearing? Would, in some arcane way, his music have taken a different path, a different direction, even if it were a subtle difference, had there been no such affliction striking him?
Certainly, the music which ultimately gives us the metaphysical vision of this genius was committed to paper after his deafness had become total. As brilliant and provocative as his music was before 1798, before the deafness began; even taking into account the totally predictable development that his music would have undergone, due to his great gifts, the question beguiles me; again, would his music have been what it is now, and has been, for these past two centuries?
As a composer, I know how vital, how elemental in importance it is to have that indefinable wall of insularity envelope me during the mode that induces me to write. The substance and power of that insularity is the ultimate measure of what the result is. In other words, the essence of insulation engendered by the genius composer such as Beethoven is a world more efficient and more powerful than that of a lesser composer. I know that, as I write, I am aware that whatever insulation I possess gives me the knowledge that I have something to "say" in my music.
Well, just consider what the nature and power of that protective 'bubble' of a Beethoven must be like - one can only imagine.
Thusly, I am driven back to the issue of total deafness, and the results emanating from the process of writing that Beethoven had undergone. No other great composer has ever been the receiver of such an event as that which Beethoven experienced.
I am not for a moment projecting an argument on behalf of deafness as any kind of 'enhancer' for a composer. I am merely posing a question as it pertains to the Beethoven Experience; namely, what is known of the personality, the inner spirit-in short, of Beethoven the man, what with the combination of his particular strengths and weaknesses, coupled with his great gifts, with the terrible weight of a silent world surrounding him - would his music been different had his hearing remained?
Of course, a question which can never be definitively answered.


Friday, October 3, 2008

Disney - Beyond Mickey Mouse

I have already written about Walt Disney and the power of his vision.
You might, if you do not already know the following, be interested in further examples of his unparalleled influence on all generations for the past eighty years:
The great Surrealist painter, Dali, worked for Disney for a short period in , I believe, 1946, and produced a short work for Disney called "Destino". He enjoyed his relationship with Disney, who, rather obviously, possessed artistic vision in many different directions.
The great composer of "Peter and the Wolf," Serge Prokofiev, asked Disney to do a cartoon based upon the legendary tale, which Disney indeed did.
One day, while visiting the Disney studio in California, Prokofiev came upon a small piano in a barn or similar structure, and proceeded to play parts of "Peter" , which surprised and delighted Disney, who was accompanying the composer on his little walk.
Igor Stravinsky, one of the most powerful composers of the 20th century, asked Disney to do a cartoon interpretation of his "Rite of Spring", which Disney did, and inculcated into his feature film "Fantasia". Stravinsky was not at all pleased, primarily,with the cartoon, as Disney used the great dinosaurs , which preceded Man, around which Stravinsky centered his magnificent composition on; however, he was, upon viewing the cartoon, impressed with Disney's view of the work to a point where he went along with Disney and allowed it to remain in "Fantasia."
Just a few examples of Disney and his immense influence on other great artists of his time.


Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Sistine Ceiling - A Study of the Human Condition

The world knows the Sistine Ceiling and the unparalleled beauty and power of this massive work.
What is generally not known is the pettiness and small- mindedness of other artists who assailed Michelangelo.
I was thinking of this aspect of the times surrounding the Pope's contract being given to Michelangelo, and some of the reactions thereafter.
No less than Raphael, the youngest of the great trio representing this period, and Bramante, the distinguished papal architect were the chief antagonists.
Both publicly were deriders of Michelangelo, and sniffed at the fact that he was an architect primarily; not a painter, and yet he was chosen to paint this project. Bramante was a bit more strident in his condemnation of Michelangelo as the choice. Finally, at one time during this altercation among great artists, Michelangelo declared that Raphael had "learned all he knows from me."
The churlish and childish expressions of these lofty entities struck me the other day as I was thinking of this period, which served to remind me that, after all, we are all of us human beings; no more.
No different than N. Rubinstein excoriating Tchaikowsky for the trash emanating from his new piano concerto.
And so it goes...