Sunday, December 27, 2009

Eleanor Roosevelt - the Twentieth Century's Most Defining First Lady?

When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Marian Anderson to sing in their DAR Hall because she was an African-American, the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was so incensed that she immediately resigned from the DAR, and became involved in seeing to it that Marian Anderson would indeed sing in Washington; the result:
An audience of some 75, 000, white and black; elbow to elbow, heard Miss Anderson sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial - could this event be among the first stirrings of the coming Civil Rights movement?
When Varian Fry went to Marseilles in 1940 to find ways to spirit as many of the great artists and writers as possible out of France before Hitler got his hands upon them, again the First Lady was complicit in helping to subsidize the group supporting Fry's mission in France; a thirteen month - long mission, fraught with danger, resulting in saving the lives of many distinguished writers and artists and altering the course of arts history.
Eleanor Roosevelt was an integral ingredient in the process which formed these two truly defining events in the twentieth century.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Some Devastating Mishaps Which Have Altered Music History

Having suffered from a form of neurological trauma in my right hand some six years ago, which resulted in my having to re-learn how to play the piano, I thought today that I would relate to you some rather epic mishaps among great musicians of the past:
When the Russian mystic composer Alexander Scriabin heard Josef Lhevinne perform the daunting Don Juan Fantasy of Liszt, he was so overwhelmed by the playing of this marvelous French pianist that he decided to practice several additional hours per day in order to be able to reach world-class levels in performance; however, the relatively small hands that Scriabin possessed in addition to his work on the Liszt piano pieces resulted in his severely damaging his right hand, and for about two years Scriabin became a one-handed performer, during which he wrote some masterful short pieces for the left hand.
Going back a bit further, the fabled composer Robert Schumann designed a device with spring action which he thought would facilitate greater technique in his playing, as his first goal was to become a concert pianist. A disaster ensued, consisting of instilling permanent damage to one of his hands, forever destroying any hope of his becoming a first-class performer. The world has been the beneficiary of this accident, as Schumann turned to composition - we all know the results.
In our time, the American pianist Leon Fleischer was on his way to a brilliant career, when a neurological disorder crippled his right hand, which recovered after a thirty year period. He now is rediscovered through his defining performances and recordings - a great personal victory, to be sure.
Another American pianist, Gary Graffman, pretty much the same age as Fleischer, was on his way to becoming one of the world's more important pianists, when the same kind of disorder befell him - in his case, one of his fingers was injured, and Graffman found other ways to re-finger much music without the use of that injured finger, which exacerbated his condition, rendering that hand useless, in his case, forever - I believe that he has taught and continues to teach at the Curtis Institute. Later examination seems to imply that his personal disaster was created by the same kind of neurological disorder as that of Fleischer.
Beethoven was not the only distinguished entity in music to have suffered from personal disaster.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Would Mozart Have Approved??

Those of you who read my blog know that I consider linear knowledge only a portion of the total picture being pursued; that is, to know of the event or issue and the dates attached and the individual or individuals involved only the beginning of the process we call 'learning' - to add depth to an issue is to enhance the knowledge of that which we are attempting to truly learn about; for example, when I placed the same pieces of the Bach Partitas back-to-back on a CD, each piece performed first by Glenn Gould and then by Angela Hewitt resulted, for me, in a perspective about the difference in tactic of the same music by two great performers from two different places in Time - or when I alternated a piece performed by a great pianist followed by a tune arranged and performed by Art Tatum, which I called The Tatum Project, which came to about four CD's, proving, at least to me, that a Horowitz or a Rachmaninoff or an Art Tatum are all at the same level of genius and accompanying achievement levels. Horowitz himself openly acknowledged his regard of Art Tatum's pianistic genius. Both of the above issues I have already written about, and can be found in my blog by going to the archive section.
Recently I decided to create a "perspective" surrounding Mozart's "Turkish Rondo," and chose three performances by Vladimir Horowitz, Cleo Laine and Arcadi Volodos.
My tactic was to reverse the role of the virtuosity that accompanied Horowitz by recording his encore performance of the Rondo in its original form. I then followed by recording the arrangement of the Rondo by the clarinetist and saxophonist John Dankworth for his wife Cleo Laine. Therein lies the first example, in this little group of three performances, of virtuosity that we usually attach to Horowitz. When Laine begins to 'scat-sing' along with Dankforth on the saxophone, both in unison, and at dizzying speed, it is veritably breath-taking. I have always considered Cleo Laine to be the most gifted of all the pop singers I know.
I end the trio of performances with the transcription of the Rondo by Arcadi Volodos, who also performs it. This young Russian has continued the tradition of the piano transcription which I thought might have ended upon Horowitz's passing in 1989, and, in my view, has actually exceeded the vaunted Horowitz transcriptions in a continued perusal of the possibilities which lie in wait on the piano keyboard. I cannot conceive of a player of the piano more overwhelming than Volodos; regarding his place as a great musician, the jury is still out, in my view.
To encapsulate: my reason for this 'fun' venture surrounding the Mozart Rondo was to totally reverse the role of Horowitz as the Lion of the piano (which he was), and make him, as it were, the 'miniaturist' followed by virtuosi - most important, for me, was to discover a perspective on this piece realized by different artists from different positions, all under the aegis we call 'music.'
These recordings are available - have fun!


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rise Stevens, Anyone??

The name Rise (ree-sah) Stevens may not be familiar with many of my readers; however, she was a musician of considerable import during the preceding century.
She was one of the Met's most durable and noted mezzo-sopranos, and sang innumerable roles during the period of her tenure with this famous operatic enterprise. I'm sure that her name will pop up if one goes to the Internet.
The reason I bring her name up now is; one, the obvious - namely, for you to become acquainted with this illustrious singer - the other reason is a story going back to my high school days:
As a sophomore, I became acquainted with a student in my classes whom we shall call "Bernice." Although she neither sang, nor played an instrument, she was a devotee of serious music, and she and I exchanged countless conversations about the great music and musicians of the day. We went together to many concerts, and enjoyed bathing in the musical world surrounding us.
One day, walking back from school, Bernice told me that she had been writing letters to someone named Rise Stevens, and was getting letters back from her regularly. I did not know the name Rise Stevens, and was thrilled to find out from Bernice who and what Rise Stevens was. The two never met; only letters were the base of their friendship. I'm still not sure how and why that exchange got started - I never asked Bernice about that. But I know that the famous singer and the high school sophomore we call Bernice wrote to each other for the next two years or so. We went to see Stevens twice in concert, but Bernice never indicated to me that she ever attempted to establish direct contact with one of the world's eminent singers of the time.
A childhood memory that remains with me.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Muzio Clementi - So Easily Overlooked

When one thinks of composers of the second tier, the names of, say, John Field and Muzio Clementi might pop up.
I have written about Field in previous incarnations - I cannot remember having written down any thoughts concerning Clementi.
I recall the story that Wanda Horowitz, the wife of the legendary Vladimir Horowitz related about Clementi:
On a visit to Milan, she stopped at a book store, and came across the complete piano works of Clementi, which she brought back to New York and presented them to her husband; the result:
Horowitz, quite deep into an already legendary journey of world recognition, was absolutely mesmerized by Clementi's contribution to the piano repertoire, and immediately added works of the composer into his repertoire. As a matter of fact, he was the only great pianist of the time to champion Clementi's sonatas, and there is a recording available of his favorite works of the Italian composer.
It's interesting to me that Beethoven possessed more of Clementi's piano music than that of Mozart.
The prescience of Clementi is, in my view, best represented in his Sonata in "f#" minor, Opus 26, No. 2 - one hears Beethoven before Beethoven's music is given to the world. Do keep in mind that Clementi was born eighteen years before Beethoven. Horowitz was veritably messianic about Clementi, and discussed, let alone performed many of his works as often as he could, both socially and in formal performance.
I would respectfully suggest obtaining the Horowitz recording of some of Clementi's Sonatas, if you are not familiar with the vital import of Clementi.
By the way, at the funeral services for Clementi was one of his students; namely, John Field, the great Irish composer, and another of the "second tier."


Monday, December 7, 2009

On This Date... Some Thoughts

On this date in 1941, the entire world knows, of course, of the attack by the Japanese Empire on the American Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
There is no need to go over the details, as they are so very well known; however, some thoughts crossed my mind as I thought of this date:
With all of the carnage caused by the attack; with over 2400 killed, let alone the grievous damage done to the American fleet, one reality crossed my mind - the Japanese had solved the problem of the lingering Depression in America, over a decade in existence, through forcing the United States to transmogrify its economy by moving it into a war mode, putting countless people back to work in just a matter of weeks. Another issue crossed my mind, in that Hitler was shocked at the Japanese action, and it took him almost four days to declare war on America, in accordance with the Tripartite Treaty Germany had consummated with Japan and Italy some time before, and I believe that America was the only country that Hitler formally declared war upon in the entire Second World War.
The "sleeping giant," as Yamamoto called America, had been awakened, and on Dec.7, 1941, the process began which culminated, some thirteen years later, in the emergence of the United States as one of two Super Powers; the other being, of course, the Soviet Union.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Beethovens' Most Cryptic Remark - What are the Reasons??

On and off, I come back to a question about a statement that Beethoven uttered; namely, "Handel is the greatest of them all."
With a not-too obscure composer, born the same year as Handel(1685), whom we call Bach, I have myriads of questions swirling around in my addled cranium, resulting in questions in a speculative mode, such as:
Did Beethoven utter this statement because he understood that Handel was actually as gifted as Bach ( as do I), but tempered his intellectual side just enough to (metaphorically) "invent" the turnstile in order to bring the middle class into the arena of audience for the first time, and made big money in doing so?
Or did he actually consider Handel a greater composer than Bach, who was, certainly, the most pervasive, in influence, of all composers, in my view?
Did he know more about Handel than he did about Bach(which, seemingly, is refuted when we hear that great fugue in that great sonata toward the end of his sonata writing).
When I think of the harmonic vocabulary of Bach, which sometimes, even by some musicologists is placed second to his polyphonic gifts; the ways of probity and experimentation in his chromatic phases which, as opposed to the tempering of this aspect by Handel, which, seemingly, is engendered by the reality that he consciously attached the import of rendering his incarnations more understandable and therefore more "popular" to the masses than did Bach, whose world was much smaller?
I have some confusion about Beethoven's utterance, as you can see.