Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Miracle Called Haydn - His final Composition For Keyboard?...

During a period of rather directionless thought, the Hymn "Gott Erhalte" came wafting across my consciousness - the first reaction was how durable this theme was, having thrust itself  through the Hitler regime and emerging unscathed by any historical scars, having first emerged into world recognition as the Germanic answer to Britain's  anthem.
Which led to the chaos surrounding the identity of the composer of  a set of variations based upon the hymn. At first it was attributed to an Abbe; ultimately, the science and art we call Musicology proved beyond a doubt that these variations were written by Haydn, but not until about 1970! Ironically, it may well have turned out to be Haydn's final major work for keyboard. Considering the chaos which can surround the origin/existence of works of music from this and other periods in History Past, how can one be absolutely positive that a masterpiece of, say, Haydn, has not been consigned to permanent oblivion?
At any rate, I decided to analyze the harmonic aspect of these four variations as published by Urtext in Vienna.
As familiar as I am with the work of Haydn, I was once again reminded of the  boundlessness of vision Haydn demonstrates in these variations, especially in the third and fourth variations.
The  power of gravity in harmonic selection, coupled with the centrifugal forces emanating from his use of chromaticism are positively enthralling, especially when one is reminded that he  was born a generation before Mozart and almost half a century before Beethoven, both of whom, the world knows, were masters of the art of Theme and Variations.
It is known that Haydn spent much time extemporizing on the keyboard and jotting down the most pregnant ideas that were born out of these periods. And we can not be positive as to how many of these 'frozen'  ideas later appear as bases for development in published compositions we can hear every day.
For me, Haydn wears the badge of sublimity when he sets out to unravel the possibilities waiting to be created  out of a simple theme.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

My Student, Her Piano, and Rudolf Serkin... Honestly!

The following incident occurred around the midlife of my teaching career, and remains one of my more  memorable and rather strangely humorous memories:
A young woman contacted me concerning lessons on the piano, whereupon an arrangement was made to hear her perform. I found her to be quite accomplished, and found that she had pursued piano rather diligently during her school years, and now that she was established as a young mother(she was in her early thirties, as I recall)she had decided to reconnect with the piano.
And so we began. I came to her home each week and I quickly found out that the spinet she used was simply not sufficient for her needs and abilities. She played very well indeed. I suggested that she purchase a more substantial instrument, if she could afford such a transaction. Judy(her first name) asked me if a grand piano would be the appropriate size, and I unhesitatingly assured her that it would indeed make her most happy.
To interject: her home was not at all ostentatious, with quiet furnishings and colors - to me, a typical middle class home.
Well, after a few weeks  I was absolutely overwhelmed when she quietly told me who she was. She had married the third generation son of one of the giant  food producers, whose name we had, for years, seen plastered  in countless markets. These people simply made an art of not revealing the immense power of wealth they possessed, which I thought, personally, an admirable thing to do.
And so I realized that Judy could buy and pay for a dozen concert grands, if she so desired.
I then thought that she should visit the local Steinway branch and choose a piano to her liking after trying a number of them out.
She agreed; and so, about two weeks after my suggestion, I appeared at her home  for her weekly lesson.
Upon entering the room, not only was the little spinet gone, but replaced by a full size Steinway grand. It was  one of the  most magnificent instruments I had ever seen. With mouth agape, I slowly circled the piano, and noticed an inscription  inside. There were two words - Rudolf Serkin. With no trace of understanding I asked Judy what the two names were doing in this instrument. She then told me that this was the piano that Rudolf Serkin had chosen to be his piano whenever he came to Boston. She was told that it was not for sale.
And there it was in her home.
I asked no further.
The piano lessons went on for years with Judy, on a piano that bears a story that fits no category of fiction that I know of...
What was Serkin's reaction when he next visited Boston?


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Diva From Sweden - The Byzantine Journey of Zarah Leander...

Adolf Hitler admired  the work of the Swedish actress and singer; however, from a distance. I know of only one meeting between Zarah Leander and the Nazi dictator, and this meeting did not involve itself in anything political, from what can be gathered.
Leander first made her mark in Sweden, then  moved to Nazi Germany, where she established herself as a popular movie actress and singer. She, in actuality, took the place of Marlene Dietrich, who was strongly anti-Nazi, and who left Germany permanently, along with other talents such as the movie genius Billy Wilder and actor Peter Lorre.
Leander, like Dietrich, sang in a low , throaty manner, producing many records in a relatively short period. She decided to sign a contract with UFA, Germany's answer to Hollywood, after determining  that it would be better for her to remain closer to her native country Sweden, than to take a chance at success in California, which was much further away. She actually mused, in a post-war interview, about whether she would have succeeded in Hollywood. It seems that she might have been reticent about taking that chance.
At any rate, Leander became very successful in Germany, and even though Josef Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Culture, did not think, initially, very much of Leander as an artist, he could not afford to ignore her popularity. In other words, Zarah Leander became one of  a handful of powerful women in Nazi Germany, a Germany that Hitler decreed become  a culture  with its women at home where they belonged, raising families for the State. It's of some interest to me that of  the tiny coterie of woman who attained power in Hitler's court, two were not native to Germany; one, of course, was Leander. The other was the daughter-in-law, Winifred, of  the legendary composer and Hitler's artistic hero Richard Wagner. Winifred was an
English Orphan.
Leander was free to journey often to her estate in Sweden, even during the war. One should be reminded that Sweden was one of very few European entities which was not occupied by the Nazis.
In 1943, during a bombing raid by British bombers, some bombs dropped perilously close to Leander's German residence, which resulted in Leander's decision to leave Germany permanently and go back to Sweden, where she met a palpable amount of derision for having achieved stardom in Nazi Germany.
Zarah Leander continuously denied having anything to do with the politics in Germany, and although she was decried by a number of her  countrymen and women, she was never held in any form of punishment, and continued to live in Sweden until her passing in, I believe, 1981. She described herself as "an idiot, politically."
Two incidents in Leander's career bear some humor:
In a conversation with Goebbels, the Minister of Culture asked Leander " by the way, isn't Zarah(Sarah) a Jewish name?" Whereupon Leander asked this powerful, fearsome Nazi "Isn't Josef a Jewish name?" After a moment of mildly stunned silence, Goebbels  broke into laughter, and the conversation ended. Whether this incident is simply  apocryphal, I cannot answer. Personally, I cannot see Leander having accrued enough personal courage to ask such a question of such a hateful racist, who was one of the great powers in the Nazi hierarchy.
The following is indeed true, however. There is a 1938 recording of Leander singing the Yiddish tune "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon(To  Me, You Are Beautiful).
It was recorded in Germany five years after Hitler came to power. This piece was banned in Germany immediately after the recording was made. How in the world did it escape Hitler for five years? All Jewish music was, of course, banned in Germany after Hitler assumed power. But this little tune escaped, as it was distributed and sold outside of Germany before Hitler expunged it.
Go to YouTube - I believe it's there for you to hear...

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