Friday, August 29, 2008

Gretna Music Ends the Summer

Hey folks! Guess what I’m doing this weekend?! Giving my first “pre-concert talk” as Dr. Dick, Private Citizen!

I will be speaking at Gretna Music’s final concert of the classical summer season, Sunday evening at 6:30. The concert, at 7:30 at the Mt. Gretna Playhouse, features the members of the Lark Chamber Artists (see photo, left) joined by pianist Anna Polonsky (see photo, right).

(There have been some changes in my life since the web-site was posted and while the program book is a little vague about things, Ive been assured I really am still doing the talk.)

There are three works on the program: a one-movement string trio by Franz Schubert; the Piano Quartet in G Minor by Mozart; and the rarely-heard Piano Quartet by Ernest Chausson (not to be confused with his less rarely-heard Concerto for Violin, Piano & String Quartet).

Looking over the program, it struck me this is a kind of “young person’s concert,” at least compared to some of the celebrations and observations going on this year – the 50th Anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams who (still composing at the time) died at 85 in 1958; the 100th Birthday of Elliott Carter (who is still composing with some new works to be premiered this coming season); the Centennial Anniversary of Olivier Messiaen who died in 1992, still writing at the age of 83.

Schubert wrote this string trio when he was 19 (a full four-movement trio was written exactly a year later). Mozart wrote his piano quartet when he was 29. Chausson, who began his career as a lawyer and didn’t actually start studying composition until he was 25, wrote his piano quartet when he was 42, just two years before he died in a freak bicycling accident.

I’ll be posting more about the works later, but stop by and say hello - and enjoy a great concert.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Personal Recollection

Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the death of the English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

It seems to be a year for anniversaries with comprehensive festivals, celebratory performances and recordings: most notably the 100th Birthday of Elliott Carter (still composing), the centennial anniversary of the birth of Olivier Messiaen - and even though no one needs to mount a festival of the most performed opera composer in the repertoire to celebrate it, the 150th Anniversary of Giacomo Puccini’s birth. And those are just the ones born in December!

“Death Anniversaries” may not have the same kind of celebration about them, obviously, but on the basis that “any anniversary is a chance to honor an artist,” these will often have to suffice until a more pleasant occasion comes along, usually beyond the lifetime of those people choosing to do the honoring.

In 1972, the centennial of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, I was able to get some British stamps marking that event and even affixed it to an envelope complete with the requisite American postage so I could send my mother, a stamp collector specializing in musical stamps, her own cancelled stamp. It’s around here somewhere – I saw it last year, going through various papers in the desk – but since I never replaced the scanner the cats have disabled in their quest to install wireless technology in the house, we’ll have to let it pass for this post...

(Insert usual admonishments, here: he pronounced his first name “Rafe” and so most people pedantically correct those who pronounce it as it looks; his last name is a double-barreled but unhyphenated Vaughan Williams, not Williams, Ralph Vaughan; and Vaughan is not spelled “Vaughn.” Okay, that’s done...)

When I was in high school, various baritones in the choir had to sing “Linden Lea” by Vaughan Williams which I thought was a folk-song arrangement but actually turned out to be an original tune. It’s probably his most famous song but for some reason I hated it. Well, “hate” is a pretty strong word but I found it boring and disliked it, dismissing it without any more reason than a child might refuse to eat the green beans (which, come to think of it...). Still don’t care for it (or green beans).

Consequently, I didn’t think much of Vaughan Williams, based on my dislike for this one small piece of music. The fact he was best known as a composer of symphonies didn’t seem to matter much to me.

Browsing through the LP bins over at a local department store that had the best selection (and prices) of classical music in the area, I remember finding Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, recorded by John Barbirolli on the Angel label. The first thing that struck me was the cover art – a painting by J.M.W. Turner, a painter I didn’t know at the time (and amazed to find out it dated from around 1844, a generation before Impressionist painters had any influence on the music of Debussy at the end of the century). This was “Rain, Steam and Speed – the Great Western Railway” – since I can’t find my old LP at the moment, I can only say I’m “pretty sure” this is the painting, since Angel used a series of Turner prints for several recordings in a series of works by Vaughan Williams and Elgar. [See P.S. below.]

So I started reading the liner notes and saw words probably like luminous and magical and a description of the opening with its C-natural pedal underneath a haunting D major horn-call. I wasn’t sure how that would work – hey, if it’s in D Major, it’s a C-sharp, right? – so I thought, not knowing much about contemporary music at the time, though I’d been composing for a few years already, perhaps I should look into this. There were doubts – after all, I’d never spent money on a recording of a piece I hadn’t already heard before, and then there was that song, “Linden Lea.” I went through the rest of the LPs, browsed around the store waiting for my mom and dad to finish their shopping, then came back to the LP bins again and decided at the last minute, “Okay...”

It was the first recording I’d bought of a piece of music, sound unheard.

With some caution – I so didn’t want to be disappointed – I started to play it. There was the C-natural in the cellos and basses, that horn call in D Major and then the violins come in with some slight phrase that certainly doesn’t sound like it belongs in D Major either. But I was hooked by its “luminous” magic and sat there transfixed, only breaking my concentration when I had to get up to flip the LP over to the second side to hear the rest of it (back in the days when you had to do stuff like that).

It was while listening to the third movement that I had what was probably the closest thing I’d ever had to a religious experience listening to a previously unknown piece of music – perhaps “spiritual experience” is a better expression. And it never left me: every time I hear it, I am left with the same sense of awe and, above all, love for this music.

So I quickly went out and bought the other symphonies. In about 2 years, I’d collected all nine of them.

I loved the “London” Symphony and found a melody in the slow movement (played by the viola solo) that brought tears to my eyes the only time I heard it live (conducted by some English conductor at Eastman who must’ve been in his 80s then, not a name I knew or remember).

I was amazed by the Sixth which is usually described as a “War” Symphony – the gentle, transcendent Fifth had been written in the midst of World War II but the intense, dramatic and often violent Sixth was composed in the years following the war. It ended with this long, slow pianissimo movement, by comparison static, bleakly oscillating between two chords that just hung there, never going anywhere the way you expect chords to do. And then it just stopped. Since this recording ended with a thank you from the composer made immediately after the recording – “My thanks to the orchestra... and TO the lady harpist...” – you had to hurry to the record player and lift the needle if you didn’t want to spoil the mood, which in itself already spoiled the mood. But I enjoyed listening to the composer’s voice, and coming after that music, it sounded comforting as well.

The Eighth Symphony was a blast, especially the final “Toccata” with all of its percussion clanging and banging away, swoops of harps and vibraphones and the famous tuned gongs – how could a man of 80 write such youthfully vibrant music?

The Ninth, darker and less “on the surface,” perhaps, than the others, mystified me and I didn’t care as much for it. I still keep thinking I need to get back to this one. After all, he died right after the recording session, coming home tired, then “after eating a bowl of bananas, going to bed,” dying in his sleep at the age of 85.

That had only been a few years earlier, actually: I was buying these recordings in the mid-'60s, not even ten years after he died. You think of composers writing classical music as guys who died, like, a hundred years ago. But at that time, World War I wasn’t even yet 50 years ago... that seemed like an eon to a kid like me (I mean, my parents were almost 50!!).

The next symphony I bought was the Fourth which even the composer said he didn’t like. It was abrasive and muscular, not exactly something you could “love,” a far cry from the tranquility people generally associate with his style. But I liked it from the first hearing. It amused me, years later when I was working at the radio station, that I played this on a Friday night, cringing that people were going to call and complain about this “modern music.” Sure enough, the phone rang but not with a complaint: the guy said he never liked classical music and had tuned in thinking it was Saturday night, time to hear the “space music” on Echoes, but this grabbed his attention and he had to know what it was so he could go out and buy it for himself!

I found the Seventh after I’d seen the movie on late-night TV. It’s taken from the film score he wrote for “Scott of the Antarctic” and while it’s a very “picturesque” work (in the sense it paints a suitable picture of its source, the frozen landscape of ice and snow), I never found it particularly memorable. That didn’t stop me from programming it every August during Dog Days – great music to cool off by. Members of the orchestra, walking off the stage after its premiere, walked past the conductor, clapping their arms around them and going “Brrrr!”

The last symphonies I heard were two of the earliest ones – the “Pastoral” Symphony (No. 3) which also left me feeling somewhat blank though it was very “picturesque,” also. This is the symphony a critic described as what a cow sees, looking over a fence. This undramatic, nostalgic wash of sound with its folk-inspired modalities and (supposedly) lack of any sense of climax – at least in the traditional symphonic sense – branded Vaughan Williams as a composer of the English “cowpat” school, as another, more modernist composer scathingly called it. For me, it was pretty, but I preferred the others: even though the Fifth is similar in scope (minus the cow), it never struck me the same way.

His First Symphony, the “Sea” Symphony, begun in 1909, is a vast choral symphony from beginning to end, setting the words of American poet Walt Whitman, a poet Vaughan Williams came back to frequently throughout his career, a poet who was hardly the equivalent of these English “pastoralists.” But once we got past the opening moments – truly, one of the grandest openings to hit you right between the ears – for some reason I found myself drifting off, unable to focus on it. Beautiful, certainly, but I never quite developed a liking for it. It’s not that I found it an hour long yawn or anything, but I decided I wasn’t going to make the effort to go hear it live even when the York Symphony and the Lancaster Symphony each played it within the past few years. Lots of people love it and I don’t “knock” the piece – it just doesn’t speak to me in the same way as the Fifth or the Sixth do.

It was great to see the recently appointed conductor at the Reading Symphony, the English-born Andrew Constantine, program Vaughan Williams’ Sixth last season. That was one concert I would’ve driven to hear, if I’d been able, but conflicts got in the way.

The Harrisburg Symphony, also this past season, performed one of Vaughan Williams’ choral works written between the World Wars, his setting of the “Dona Nobis Pacem” which also includes the poetry of, among others, Walt Whitman. It is a far from “peaceful” work – at times harrowing and dejected, before ending with that same transcendent approach that hopes for a better world, one without the brutality of war but with a sense of resignation to the reality we know will be otherwise, a very personal and introspective sense of hope. It was a riveting work (and performance) which almost overshadowed the “other” piece on the program, except it was, after all, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the “Choral” Symphony with its more public, more universal sense of hope. But for many people I talked to afterwards, it was the Vaughan Williams that struck them more deeply, perhaps because it had been an unknown quantity when they walked in to hear a great favorite.

This past Saturday night, then, I was browsing through the CD bins, now greatly reduced from the last time I’d been at a store not far from the site of that department store I was browsing through the LPs some forty years ago (time flies whether you’re having fun or not). And there was a CD of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony with Barbirolli conducting, that same performance (minus the J.M.W. Turner cover art, alas). Now, I know I had other recordings of it on CD – the one I must get, though, is the Chandos recording w/Richard Hickox conducting: clearly the best interpretation of the piece I’ve heard – but I decided, for old times sake, to add this one to my collection (even as a budget reissue, it was still more expensive than that original LP had been).

For the 1940s, especially during war-time, it must've seemed a far cry from modern music. It still does, today - still in war-time, incidentally - but one thing hasn't changed: it still speaks to me just as it did when I first heard it. And though I may view Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen as more influential composers for me, today, there is still that sense of wonder the Fifth Symphony opened for me when I was a kid, that music could be like this...

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P.S. Added Saturday, August 30th.

A blog-reader who also loved that Barbirolli recording with the Turner cover wrote to say he also wasn’t sure originally which painting it was on the cover until he went to NYC’s Metropolitan Museum exhibit of Turner paintings and came face to face with it: he’s very sure it was “The Snowstorm.”

I had seen this one when I was googling for Turner images and thought this was definitely one of the two paintings used as Angel cover art for these two recordings. I remembered something about a railroad for the one with Vaughan Williams’ 5th, though, and thought, looking at them both, that the “Snowstorm” was too dark for that piece. But who knows? I have not listened to these recordings probably since the late-1970s and may not even have seen them except to pack them up in boxes for five subsequent moves in the intervening 30 years. I probably still have about 4,000 LPs in unpacked boxes in the basement, now: they are down there, somewhere...

Oh, the other LP I’m talking about was Elgar’s Introduction & Allegro plus the Serenade in E Minor on one side with Vaughan Williams’ “Tallis” Fantasia and Greensleeves on the other (it would be easy to admit the “Tallis” side quickly wore out).

By the way, if you’re in the New York City area, go to the Met’s Turner Exhibit which continues till September 21st! His paintings are truly amazing. I’ve never seen them “live” but friends of mine who have say it’s an amazing experience – “stunning in person,” as this reader wrote.

Speaking of the Angel LP, I don't recall which orchestra Barbirolli conducted for that recording, but the one I just bought this past week is with the Philharmonia Orchestra (see link, above). Checking on-line, I thought he had also recorded the symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra which has also been reissued on an Angel/EMI CD, but on closer inspection, the Bax Tintagel is with the LSO, the 5th with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, so that would appear to be the same recording, made in May 1962 and released on Angel the following year. I'm pretty sure I have this one somewhere, too, but at least most of my CDs are already unpacked - not exactly sorted, just unpacked...

These LPs, by the way, were also my introduction to the great English conductor, Sir John Barbirolli. You can read more about him and his tenure at the New York Philharmonic over "On an Overgrown Path."

Friday, August 22, 2008

Schumann & Brahms at Stravinsky's Tavern: Who's on First?

Despite the threat of inclement weather, the crowd at Stravinsky’s Tavern was pretty much the same as usual. Not exactly packed, but then it never is when they had their comedy night stand-up specials. Not much went on in Coalton on week-nights. Igor wanted to have these on Saturday nights but his wife, Vera, kept telling him that everybody went down to the Walmart on Route 61 on Saturday nights, or they’re home watching TV.

Plus the comics were usually better down at the Moose, if you felt like laughing. And then there was that last guy they had here, she reminded him, some Russian named Tchaikovsky.

“I don’t care if you do think he’s a genius, he might as well call himself ‘The Crying Comedian’ since he turned into this big bundle of insecurities after a few catcalls.” Stravinsky remembered: it was awful. He had to lead him off the stage with a few gentle nudges.

“You’re pathetic,” one guy shouted.

“Yeah, don’t drink the water on the way out,” another heckler shouted after him, which just reduced Tchaikovsky to tears.

Igor was a little nervous about tonight’s opening act, two guys who were just starting out. Most of the people who came through this neck of the woods – a town that sometimes felt like it was so far beyond the cusp of civilization, culture was like a four-letter word – were either just starting out and inexperienced or already washed up and could care less how it went. He would have to see how these two would handle it.

Milhaud and Elgar took their usual places over by the cash register. Sibelius was sitting alone at the first booth, nursing some wings (he was always asking why they never have swan wings, only chicken wings), and Mussorgsky sat next to Thomas Mann discussing the importance of dreams as a form of inspiration. The members of Les Six squeezed into the booth at the bay window, celebrating their victory over the Mighty Handful in a twilight soccer match held out at the high school. Poulenc was complaining the wine was so bad, it tasted like steak sauce. And then Honegger pointed out it was steak sauce.

In other words, Bar Talk as usual.

Vera started clinking the glasses to get everybody’s attention while Bobsky stood at the back trying to get the applause started. Finally, Igor was able to be heard over the various mutterings.

As soon as it got quiet, Richard Wagner, a trouble-maker as usual, hollered out, “It’s not time for another fire-drill, is it?” Everybody laughed. He said this every time, like Comedy Night was always the end of the world or something.

Sometimes, Igor wished he could pick and choose his clientele but then it’s a small town. If he wanted to continue bringing in the kind of money he needed to go on writing his ballets, he needed every customer he could get.

He started to speak but the mike hadn’t been opened yet. He glanced over at Bobsky who shrugged his shoulders. He flipped the switch again and now it hummed into life with a sudden loud thud and a squeal of feedback.

“That’s the last time I ever call on that John Cage guy to fix the sound system,” Igor thought.

Igor made his usual short welcome speech – they’d all heard it before, anyway. He looked back at Bobsky, arching his eyebrows questioningly. Young Craft, his right-hand assistant, peeked behind the door to the kitchen and then gave Igor the thumbs-up.

“I can say that tonight’s opening act needs no introduction. I say that because I have no idea who the hell these guys are.” Which is only partly true - he certainly didn’t know them as comics. You never know who’s going to come through town, these days, on the Entertainment Circuit, he thought. “So, without further ados, eh! I give them to you! Schumann... and Brahms!” He started to applaud and a few others joined him as Bobsky held the kitchen door open for the night’s first comics.

The applause died down quickly as they took their place by the side of the bar. Vera and Bobsky had rolled out the old upright piano but it was clear they hadn’t bothered to waste any expense tuning it. Brahms, the one with the beard, sat down on the stool, spun himself around while his partner did the introductions.

“Hi. I’m Bob... and this is my friend Joe,” he said, turning to face the piano. Brahms immediately stopped spinning the stool when he heard his name and looked up, but he found himself with his back to the keyboard and quickly shuffled himself around into position to play a few fanfare-like chords. Judging from the expression on Schumann’s face, it was hard to tell if it was planned that way or if the timing had gone wrong. If that wasn’t bad enough, most everyone winced at the jangling discord that came pounding out of the old hulking instrument.

“What the hell...?” Brahms muttered loudly under his breath. He shifted position and tried again. Still, a nasty discord. It reminded Stravinsky of a tooth-ache he’d once had.

Then Brahms stood up, took a handkerchief out of his pocket and stretched it out full-length between his hands. He held the one end down at the bass end of the keyboard and stretched the rest of it toward the treble. Then he did the same thing from the other end. Then he adjusted the stool, moving it down a couple of inches, before playing the right chords. “We're Bob and Joe!” He looked over at Schumann and beamed.

Nobody laughed.

Brahms began playing the bass for “Heart & Soul” but Schumann waved his hand, declining the offer.

“You know, Joe,” Schumann began, “I’ve just written another symphony but I don’t know what to call it.”

“Well, Bob, you may as well just call it ‘Shit’ because that’s what the critics are going to call it, anyway!” With that, Brahms played his two chords again - “ta daah!”

A rumpled man with unruly hair sitting in the corner went “Ha ha ha haaaah!” and stopped cold.

Brahms began playing some waltz tune quietly underneath their dialogue.

“Joe, you used to play the piano in brothels when you were still a boy. How did you land a job like that?”

“I was a child prodigy!” He played a rim-shot with his fingers on the music rack. "Ouch!"

“Apparently you still have your old charms about you,” Schumann said, glancing around the room and realizing there were no women among tonight’s customers, so he wasn’t sure how he was going to work in their next joke. It’s not good to make fun of the owner’s wife, he thought. “The other night, we played this bar in Jersey. Who was that lady I saw you talking to over by the window?”

“That was no lady, on that you can bet your life!” Brahms switched suddenly to a polka.

Schumann pulled himself up to his more or less full height. “Speaking of ladies, take my wife – please!”

Brahms just stared at him speechlessly, then switched into a high-gear Hungarian dance.

And so it went for ten minutes. Ten long minutes. The crowd, such as it was, rarely responded, or when they did, managed it with a twist of fairly obvious hostility.

“Hey, Igor,” Wagner called out at one point, “can we have a fire-drill now?”

“Tough crowd, “ Brahms thought as he ended his piano piece and pushed the stool aside. “And now, for our last number...”

Once the polite smattering of applause faded away – “it was never like this for Clara,” Schumann thought – they glanced at each other. It was time, now, for their big routine. They each took deep breaths. Schumann held the mike close to him while Brahms pretended to be looking around, kind of lost.

Schumann began, quickly checking a little note-card. “Here we are at the Music Center, getting all the stands set up for the concert tonight for the Greater Coalton Chamber Music Society. Let’s see, David Hu's playing first violin, Jonathan Watt's playing second violin, Michel Eidonneau is playing viola...”

Brahms looked up as if suddenly something caught his attention. “Wait, that's what I want to find out.”

And they were off.

Schumann: Well, I said - Hu's on first, Watt's on second, Eidonneau's on viola.
Brahms: Are you the manager?
Schumann: Yes.
Brahms: And you don't know the musicians' names?
Schumann: Well I should.
Brahms: Well then, who's on first?
Schumann: Yes.
Brahms: I mean the musician's name.
Schumann: Hu.
Brahms: The guy on first.
Schumann: Hu.
Brahms: The first violinist.
Schumann: Hu.
Brahms: The guy playing...
Schumann: Hu is on first!
Brahms: I'm asking YOU who's on first.
Schumann: That's the man's name.
Brahms: That's whose name?
Schumann: Yes.
Brahms: Well, go ahead and tell me.
Schumann: That's it.
Brahms: That's who?
Schumann: Yes.
Brahms: Look, you gotta first violinist?
Schumann: Certainly.
Brahms: Who's playing first?
Schumann: That's right.
Brahms: When you pay the first violinist after the gig, who gets the money?
Schumann: Every dollar of it.
Brahms: All I'm trying to find out is the musician's name on first violin.
Schumann: Hu.
Brahms: The guy that gets...
Schumann: That's it.
Brahms: Who gets the money...
Schumann: He does, every dollar. Sometimes his wife comes down and picks it up.
Brahms: Whose wife?
Schumann: Yes.
Brahms: Look, when you contract the first violinist, how does he sign his name?
Schumann: Hu.
Brahms: The guy.
Schumann: Hu.
Brahms: How does he sign...
Schumann: That's how he signs it.
Brahms: Who?
Schumann: Yes.
Brahms: All I'm trying to find out is what's the guy's name on first violin.
Schumann: No. Watt plays second violin.
Brahms: I'm not asking you who's on second.
Schumann: Hu's on first.
Brahms: One stand at a time!
Schumann: Well, don't change the players around.
Brahms: I'm not changing nobody!
Schumann: Take it easy, buddy...
Brahms: I'm only asking you, who's the guy on first violin?
Schumann: That's right.
Brahms: Ok.
Schumann: All right.
Brahms: So... what's the guy's name on first violin?
Schumann: No. Watt is on second.
Brahms: I'm not asking you who's on second.
Schumann: Hu's on first.
Brahms: I don't know.
Schumann: He's the violist, we're not talking about him.
Brahms: Now, how did I end up with the violist?
Schumann: Well, you mentioned his name.
Brahms: If I mentioned the violist's name, who did I say is playing viola?
Schumann: No. Hu's playing first.
Brahms: What's on first!?
Schumann: Watt's on second.
Brahms: I don't know.
Schumann: He's the violist.
Brahms: There I go, back with the violist, again!
Brahms: Would you just stay at the viola stand and don’t move.
Schumann: All right, what do you want to know?
Brahms: Now who's playing viola?
Schumann: Why do you insist on putting Hu in the viola section?
Brahms: What am I putting in the viola section?
Schumann: No. Watt is the second violinist.
Brahms: You don't want who on second?
Schumann: Hu is on first.
Brahms: I don't know.
Schumann & Brahms Together: VIOLA!
Brahms: Look, you gotta clarinetist?
Schumann: Sure.
Brahms: The clarinetist’s name...?
Schumann: Why.
Brahms: I just thought I'd ask you.
Schumann: Well, I just thought I'd tell you.
Brahms: Then tell me who's playing clarinet.
Schumann: Hu's playing first.
Brahms: I'm not... look, stay out of the string section! I want to know what's the guy playing clarinet?
Schumann: No, Watt is on second.
Brahms: I'm not asking you who's on second.
Schumann: Hu's on first!
Brahms: I don't know.
Schumann & Brahms Together: VIOLA!
Brahms: The clarinetist's name...?
Schumann: Why.
Brahms: Because!
Schumann: Oh, he's the cellist.
Brahms: Look, you got an oboist in this band?
Schumann: Sure.
Brahms: The oboist's name?
Schumann: Tomorrow.
Brahms: You don't wanna tell me today?
Schumann: I'm telling you now.
Brahms: Then go ahead.
Schumann: Tomorrow!
Brahms: What time?
Schumann: What time what?
Brahms: What time tomorrow are you gonna tell me who's tuning the band?
Schumann: Now, listen. Hu takes his pitch from Tomorrow.
Brahms: Look, I'm gonna break your arm if you say “who's on first”! I want to know what's the oboist's name?
Schumann: Watt's on second.
Brahms: I don't know.
Schumann & Brahms Together: VIOLA...!
Brahms: Gotta a bass player?
Schumann: Certainly.
Brahms: The bass-player's name...?
Schumann: Today.
Brahms: Today, and tomorrow's tuning up back-stage.
Schumann: Now you've got it.
Brahms: All we got is a couple of days on the team!
Brahms: You know I'm a bass-player, myself.
Schumann: So they tell me.
Brahms: I’ve been known to save a few rough passages with some fancy footwork, ya know. Picture it: the cellist misses his entrance when this fugue starts up. When he drops the theme, me, being a good continuo player, I'm gonna throw the theme back to the first violinist, right? So I take the theme and toss it... to... who?
Schumann: Now that's the first thing you've said right all day.
Brahms: I don't even know what I'm talking about!
Schumann: That's all you have to do.
Brahms: toss the theme to the first violinist.
Schumann: Yes! That’s what good chamber music playing is all about.
Brahms: So now who's got it?
Schumann: Naturally.
Brahms: Look, if I toss the theme over to the first violinist, somebody's gonna play it. Now who has the theme?
Schumann: Naturally.
Brahms: Who?
Schumann: Naturally.
Brahms: Naturally?
Schumann: Naturally.
Brahms: So I toss the theme over to Naturally?
Schumann: No you don't, you toss the theme over to Hu.
Brahms: Naturally.
Schumann: That's different.
Brahms: That's what I said.
Schumann: You're not saying it...
Brahms: I toss the theme to Naturally.
Schumann: You toss it to Hu.
Brahms: Naturally.
Schumann: That's it.
Brahms: That's what I said!
Schumann: Okay, go ahead, now: you ask me.
Brahms: I toss the theme to who?
Schumann: Naturally.
Brahms: Now, you ask me.
Schumann: You throw the theme to Hu?
Brahms: Naturally.
Schumann: That's it.
Brahms: I said it the same as you! Same as YOU! I toss the theme to Who – whoever it is drops a beat and the guy playing second misses his cue. Who takes up the theme and tosses it over to What. What hands it off to I Don't Know. I Don't Know passes it on to Tomorrow, it’s a triple fugue!. Now today, somebody starts playing a cadenza, just because. Why? I don't know! He's the violist and, frankly, I don't give a damn!
Schumann: What did you say!?
Brahms: I said, “I don't give a damn!”
Schumann: Oh, that's our conductor.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

The applause was polite but not that polite. Stravinsky walked up to them and held their hands up as they bowed. “Let’s hear it for Schumann... and Brahms!” He ushered them back toward the kitchen, Bobsky quick to close the door behind them. Igor returned to what passed for a spot-light to announce that the evening’s main act was about to begin.

Meanwhile, Brahms quickly drank the beer one of the kitchen workers handed him, wiping his brow while Schumann splashed water on his face.

“My first piano concerto got better applause in Leipzig,” Brahms said. “Tell me again why we’re doing this?”

“We gotta brush up on the timing a little on the opening,” Schumann said as he rubbed his hands vigorously with the towel, “we’re playing Frackville, tomorrow night.”

“I beg your pardon?” Brahms clapped his friend on the back and laughed as they walked through the back door out into the parking lot and the quiet stillness of the night. It wasn’t always like this, they knew. Some nights, the laughs were good.

- - - - - - -
Dr. Dick
© 2008

Stravinsky's Tavern

It was a dark and stormy night but then almost every night was dark and stormy in this godforsaken little mining town, stuck in the coal region of Eastern Pennsylvania like a wart on the back of an old sow. It was always the economy, stupid - meaning no disrespect, of course. Once the mines had closed and the factories shut down, there was no place to go, nothing to do. The sidewalks, even on weekends, rolled up not long after sundown. The young people moved away as soon as they could, whether or not they finished school, promising to send money back to their families once they struck it rich in the big cities. Either they forgot or they just never struck it rich because once they left, no one ever heard from them again. It was a pity, what was happening to the young people of Coalton - they were just disappearing.

Oh, not that way, not through any violence or anything supernatural – that anyone knew of at any rate. It was the town itself that drove them away, the bleak houses and mangey streets of a town where many thought their problems were the result of some ancient curse. You could feel it in the air. You could taste it in the water. You could also scrape it off the bottom of your shoes, but that was a more modern curse. Still, it stuck to your sole.

Years ago, they had changed the name of the town, thinking it might help. Not even the most nostalgic old-timers really remembered the original name any more, something Indian, probably from the Delaware tribe (or were they from New Jersey), that meant “Land Where Beavers Come From Miles Around to Pee” or was it something about a trailer park? No one was quite sure.

Everything in town was gray. Yes, this was an improvement over earlier decades when everything was basically black from all the coal dust in the air. As the mines gave way, the factories in the region closed and as coal itself became a thing of the past, slowly but surely the grime started to wear off. But the annual spring rains and the occasional flood when Skunk Run overflowed its banks didn’t really help. It took time, and time was what the citizens of Coalton had plenty of.

The Winter Doldrums which usually began in mid-October eventually gave way, with the advent of milder weather, to the Spring Doldrums. By the time summer rolled around, everybody was so numb, nobody cared what season it was until it started getting cooler and darker earlier and earlier, then everybody wondered where the summer went. Half the time, kids were so bored they sat around counting the days until school began. And before long, the snow would start again. It was gray, too.

With names on the map like Coal Street, Slag Avenue and Collier Park connecting neighborhoods called Canary Row, Methane Manor and the relatively posh suburb of Anthracite Circle, the whole town literally lived and breathed coal. Coal dust, they joked, flowed in their veins. The kids might leave, their elders said, but they carried the legacy of the Coalton mines with them, regardless.

One person who did not seem to mind any of this was, by some standards, a relative new-comer, arriving in the midst of World War II, having given up on the fame and fortune in cosmopolitan Europe and on a brilliant musical career, as well. Coalton may be drab compared to Paris with its light or his native St. Petersburg with its pastel colors, but Igor Stravinsky liked the town though he could never really explain why.

In order to make ends meet, he and his wife opened a bar on Coal Street near the center of town. They called it – what else? – “Stravinsky’s Tavern.”

You’d pry open the dilapidated aluminum storm-door with its soot-smeared window, cracked in the one corner from having been slammed too many times, then walk cautiously into its dark and smoky interior. The government’s well-intentioned regulations, only recently enacted after years of discussion and disagreement, sucked the “atmosphere” out of such places but the people who came here for a beer thought tobacco gave the ever-present coal dust a certain flavor they preferred. Signs had been posted but nobody took them seriously. In a short time, they were streaked with soot and almost illegible. Nobody really cared. They had complied with the law: they posted the signs. Who knew they had to be enforced?

Behind the bar stood a short bald-headed guy with round glasses and big ears. “All the better to hear you with, my dear,” he’d say with his big toothy grin, wiping the bar down with a damp rag and humming the old Russian folk song he’d used long ago in the final moments of his first big success, a ballet called "The Firebird.“

He always chatted with the bar’s regulars, people like Darius Milhaud who also had decided to settle in Coalton and had become an accountant. Funny, the others thought: he never seemed to have much business.

“You couldn’t come up with a better name than ‘Stravinsky’s Tavern’?” he chided the proprietor over his beer. He had suggested using “Le bouef sur le toit” but since it was next to the Moose and a block over from the Elks, Stravinsky felt it would only confuse the townspeople. His wife thought translating it as “The Do-Nothing Bar” would be good, but Milhaud had a friend who’d opened his own tavern across the street from the State Capitol building in Harrisburg where, appropriately enough, it became the favorite hang-out of many politicians.

“You bloody French guys are all the bleedin’ same,” complained the mailman with the heavy mustache. It was as much an enigma to him as anybody else how he, Edward Elgar, once Master of the King’s Music, could end up on the other side of the pond delivering mail in an anthracite coal town he’d never even heard of before. He glanced around at some of the other customers and thought they’d make a sorry lot of variations for his next great masterpiece.

For instance, over there, glancing over toward the front of the bar as if to prove his point: Sibelius and Mussorgsky sat at the booth in what passed for a bay window with its rusted aluminum frame and an eerie light barely visible through the cobwebs and tattered blinds. The neon “open” sign flickered like a bug light and another sign flashed its advertisement for some brand of beer that hadn’t been available for over a decade.

The granite-faced Finn was going on about how a symphony had always had a profound logic to it with an innate connection between all its musical motives, blah blah blah. Mussorgsky’s eyes had glazed over long ago. Slapping his fist down on the table and rattling the plate of peanut-shells, Sibelius complained that this guy Mahler told him just the other night that, noooo, the symphony must embrace the world, the whole universe, even! He took a long swig of his beer as if that dismissed the argument.

What did Mussorgsky care about symphonies anyway, he thought as he rolled his eyes again. Vera the waitress came by with her tray.

“Yeah?” she says, “so what’s a symphony, anyway? It can be whatever you want it to be, right? Hey, you want another beer, hon?”

“No, sorry,” Sibelius said as he brushed the peanut shells onto the floor. “Seven’s my limit - oh wait, maybe I will have another... or... no, that's okay, nevermind...”

The new assistant bartender, a kid named Robert Craft, arrived late for his shift. He hurried into the back room, sloughing off his coat and grabbing his apron off the hook as he rushed by.

Everybody called him Bobsky and treated him like he was the tavern’s errand boy. “Nice kid,” Igor often said, “except he’s been hanging out with the wrong crowd, know what I mean?” He nodded his head toward that place down the street, Pierrot’s Old-World Diner, which Schoenberg had been running for over twelve years, now. Everybody knew about it but still it was not very popular, a place that served nothing but breakfast 24-hours a day. “I mean, how much cereal can they eat around here?”

Stravinsky decided it was time to take a break – he had an idea for a new ballet and he wanted to retire to the back room where he kept a rickety old upright piano he’d brought with him from the good old days, back when he was writing “The Rite of Spring.” Very soon, out-of-tune notes plunked out bit by bit unfolded into chords and motives as a piece of music gradually began to take shape.

Vera, his wife, stood at the door, listening for a while. Shaking her head, she went back to waiting on tables. “He works so hard trying to find the right notes,” she muttered.

“Right notes?!” Elgar fumed, “Right notes! They always sound like the wrong notes to me!”

Raising his hand energetically, Bobsky said, “Ooh ooh! I could help Mr. Stravinsky find the right notes. Mr. Schoenberg was telling me all about how he composes with this system he invented using all twelve notes and how...”

But he was interrupted by the entrance of another regular, a tall, lean, serious-looking man who wrote long, serious novels like Doktor Faustus which had a character in it very much like Arnold Schoenberg. Since it was published, the two haven’t spoken to each other, even though they only lived a few blocks apart (though, of course, everyone in Coalton only lived a few blocks apart). But since writing novels didn’t make much money here, Thomas Mann became the town’s best-known psychiatrist. By the end of the day, he usually needed a few beers to help him unwind before heading home. “Yes,” he often muttered, “the well of history is deep,” before taking a long slow swig on his beer. Then he’d say, “I should write that down,” but he never did.

As Mann hung his overcoat over the “No Smoking” sign, Vera started telling him about the telegram Igor had just received from a big Broadway producer who had asked him to write a new ballet for him. “A great success – stop,” she quoted from memory, her hands tracing the line of words across the air, “could be sensational success if you would authorize Robert Russell Bennett to touch up orchestration - stop.” She leaned against the bar and confided to Mann, “so Igor wires him back: ‘Satisfied... with great success’...”

Milhaud shook his head, peering into his empty beer mug, and sighed, “yah, what would a bartender know about orchestration, anyway...”

Minutes later. the door creaked open again, a swirl of leaves blowing in past the patron, a lonely old man they only knew as Peter Grimes who was humming an old folk song, “Old Joe Has Gone Mining.”

Vera called over to Bobsky, “Those trees across the street... their leaves are always piling up in front of our place, and you’ve been very bad with the rake’s progress again this year!” Bobsky just shrugged his shoulders.

Stravinsky appeared from the back room with a big grin on his face. “I’ve just come up with an idea for a new symphony. It will be in three movements and I will call it "Symphony in Three Movements!”

Everybody cheered except Milhaud who thought it was just another bad name – “too abstract,” he complained. Mussorgsky kept rolling his eyes at all this talk of symphonies.

“Tomorrow,” the proprietor announced in his official proprietary voice, “we will have another comedy-night stand-up special here at Stravinsky’s.” Mussorgsky groaned.

“But for now, a special song for you,” he said, looking at the barely visible clock hanging over the back of the bar. He lifted a glass and toasted his friends.

“I call it... Last Call!” And Igor sang out, “Na zd’rovye!”

And everybody cheered. They knew it would still be hours before anyone would leave.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

And Schubert at the Close: Schubert's Quintet at Gretna Music

One of the benefits of Gretna Music’s new August Festival Format is, rather than having one performance a week every Sunday evening, several concerts a week mean performers can hang around to play more programs without having to stretch out their stay. So the Audubon Quartet, whose annual appearances in Mt. Gretna usually closed the summer season down around Labor Day Weekend, could come to town for three different concerts this year.

Last night, their first program featured an old favorite – Peter Schickele’s 1st String Quartet, “American Dreams” (this time with a choreographic element supplied by Ting-Yu Chen). Tomorrow afternoon’s program pairs them up with another Gretna Music regular, guitarist Allan Krantz who’ll be playing his own Quintet for Strings & Electric Guitar – that performance is at the playhouse, Friday at 2pm, by the way: the composer offers the second installment of a pre-concert preface, “The Role of the Composer in American Society” beginning at 1:00.

On Sunday evening, then, their third performance will find it a family gathering when two sons of cellist Tom Shaw – violist Jeremiah Shaw and cellist Frank Shaw – join them for performances of the Sextet from Richard Strauss’ opera “Capriccio” (written for a chamber orchestra, it’s really the opera’s prelude), the Phantasy Quintet by Ralph Vaughan Williams and one of the great works of the chamber music repertoire, the Quintet in C Major by Franz Schubert. That performance begins at 7:30. Tom will be giving the pre-concert conversation starting at 6:30.

I was thinking how appropriate it is to be playing Schubert as a family affair: Schubert himself grew up in a family with its own resident string quartet. He wrote most of his early quartets for the family band, back in the days when you made your own entertainment before listening became purely passive sitting in front of some home entertainment center or other: his older brothers Ignaz and Ferdinand played the violins, Schubert himself played the viola, their father played the cello. It’s not likely they would’ve been able to handle the challenges of the Quintet – what might be called “Late Schubert” – but it was certainly a valuable experience for the young composer to grow up in, having his own in-house laboratory.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

There are so many things that continue to amaze me no matter how many times I hear Schubert’s Quintet.

For some, there’s just the question, “why two cellos?” It was more standard to add a viola to a string quartet: that’s what Mozart did, though that may have had as much to do with his preferring to play the viola and listening to the music from his “inside-out” position, between the melody in the violins and the harmonic bass in the cello. He also like to pair off the 1st violin against the 1st viola in conversational sonorities. Along the same lines, Boccherini, a virtuoso cellist, wrote string quintets with two cellos, where the pivotal melodic roles are shared by the 1st violin and the 1st cello (in some cases, they sound more like cello concertos with the accompaniment of a string quartet, but when you write the piece, you write the rules). Even afterwards, the standard string quintet was still two violas and one cello: not even Brahms and Dvořák felt the need to change it.

Schubert, as I mentioned, played the viola in the family string quartet. Judging from his treatment of the cello in his late chamber music – like the two piano trios and especially the last string quartet – it’s not difficult to hear how he was drawn to this deeper, fuller sonority and richer texture. Almost as much of a mystery as “why two cellos” is why he wrote it at all – there was no performance in the near future and there were no other quartets with a second cellist going around likely to be looking for such a piece. Like many of the works Schubert composed, he wrote it because he wanted to. Or perhaps, needed to.

People have said there must have been a rush to complete as much music as he could before he died, not that anyone would know how much time they have left in one’s life, especially when you’re in your early-30s like Franz Schubert in the 21 months following the death of Beethoven. But that’s the way Schubert was most of his life, writing as much music as he could possible get down on paper: how else do you end up with nearly a thousand pieces in your catalogue in just 18 years?

From November, 1827, to his death a year later, Schubert wrote (if not completed) 36 works, according to Otto Deutsch’s catalogue, including
- Piano Trio in E-flat (D.929, published as Op.100) - November ‘27 (the more famous B-flat Trio had been written the month before)
- Fantasy in C for Violin & Piano (D.934) based on the song “Sei mir gegrüsst”) - December ‘27
- Four Impromptus for Piano (D.935, published as Op.142) - December ‘27
- Fantasy in F Minor for Piano Duet (D.940) - January-April ‘28
- “Auf dem Strom” (D.943), song for tenor, horn & piano - March ‘28
- Symphony in C Major The Great” (D.944) – though it was probably composed two years earlier, there had been evidence it was begun (or more likely, revised) in March ‘28
- Three Impromptus for piano (D.946) often called more generically “Drei Klavierstücke” - May ‘28
- Mass in E-flat (D.950) - begun June ‘28
- Quintet in C for Strings (D.956) - sometime in August-September ‘28
- Fourteen Songs known asSchwanengesang” (D.957) - finished between August & October ‘28
- Piano Sonata in C Minor (D.958) – September ‘28
- Piano Sonata in A Major (D.959) – September ‘28
- Piano Sonata in B-flat Major (D.960) – last page dated 26th September ‘28
- Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“Shepherd on the Rock”) (D.965) October ‘28

Whether you’d consider them all “masterpieces” or not, this list of fourteen works (really 27, since you should count the songs of Schwanengesang individually as it’s not really a single work per se) does not include nine other songs (two or three written earlier that could’ve fit into the set of “Swan-Songs”), eleven part songs and short choral works (including a setting of Psalm 92 in Hebrew, written for a specific temple’s Sabbath service), four other “miscellaneous” works for piano solo or duet and - oh yes – two large-scale unfinished works, a symphony in D Major (D.936a) and an opera, The Count of Gleichen, listed as D.918 because it was begun the previous summer. And one should also include some “homework assignment” for his counterpoint lessons, which I’ll get to, later.

Look at those works written in September 1828, the three last piano sonatas, the C Major Quintet and probably several of the Swan-Songs (only the first and last are actually dated). While there are sketches that exist for material that ended up in the piano sonatas from earlier that summer, most of the work was done in a matter of three weeks.

But the original manuscript of the quintet has vanished and with it any preliminary sketches, though Schubert rarely “sketched,” his inspiration traditionally described as being “at white-heat” that even if he dropped a page on the floor (so the wive’s-tale goes) he would prefer to start over on a new page rather than waste the time to pick it up. Was the quintet a product of “white-heat?” Was it really composed, as several biographers seem to conclude, in two weeks’ time? In addition to the sonatas he was either composing or copying over in final form to send off to publishers, that is one very intense month!

And in less than eight weeks, he died ten weeks shy of his 32nd birthday.

It’s not that he knew he was dying. His health had not been good, off and on, especially after 1822 when, at the age of 25, he began showing the first symptoms of syphilis, presumably in November, not long after he finished... or rather, left unfinished the B Minor Symphony (“The Unfinished Symphony”), the score dated October 30th, 1822, and the virtuosic Fantasy in C, a piano solo known as “The Wanderer Fantasy,” also one of his most dramatic, violent and, at times, pessimistic pieces. Signs of illness may not explain the despair of the fantasy or even why he never completed the rest of the symphony (he had started the third movement but stopped after nine measures), since we normally think of works of art being unhampered by reality, but the chronology is difficult to ignore.

It was at the end of August, 1828, that Schubert, on the advice of his doctor, moved out of his friend Schober’s house in downtown Vienna to take a room in his brother’s new suburban home just outside the city, since the air – and no doubt the quieter life – would be better for his health. And then in the next few weeks he wrote the string quintet and three sonatas. Could there be some correlation between his health and his inspiration? Certainly, the quintet is one of the loftiest works anyone has ever written under any circumstances.

Today, a composer could brag he (or she) doesn’t write anything unless it’s commissioned or would at least have a performance of it already lined up. We’ve lost that romantic notion of the struggling artist writing for the sheer pleasure of creating art, the product of pure inspiration.

To say Schubert was famous may not be entirely accurate but statements about his being unknown are not exactly truthful, either. His music did not bring him a great deal of money, though his short dance pieces for piano were popular and his songs were well-known, probably circulating more in manuscript copies, the early-19th Century answer to ipods and illegal downloads. By a small group of music lovers, he was certainly respected, but he had difficulties getting his works performed, mostly because he was writing things that were not practical for Vienna in the 1820s: keep in mind, things had gotten tough enough, economically, that even Beethoven threatened to leave for new financial possibilities in Paris or London.

Ironically, the first public, largely professional concert of Schubert’s music was also his last. It took place on March 26th, 1828, the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death as it turned out, and included the E-flat Piano Trio, several songs and part-songs including “Auf dem Strom,” after opening with a movement of (presumably) the G Major String Quartet. The attendance was good, the response, since it was mostly of Schubert’s many friends and acquaintances, enthusiastic, but there was no critical mention of it in the press because all of Vienna (in fact, all of Germany, apparently) was taken up with the five concerts being given by the then-all-the-rage violinist Nicolo Paganini, performances which brought in about 5600 florins per concert. While I have no idea what a florin in 1828 might be worth today, it’s enough to mention that Schubert’s concert brought in 320 florins total, less than 6% of Paganini’s box-office take. For him, he thought he’d done fairly well – not enough as he’d’ve liked, but he was feeling flush enough to plan a couple of summer vacations. Unfortunately, these never came about.

Schubert was convinced that the path to monetary success and artistic recognition was through the operatic stage. For a composer who could write such intensely dramatic songs and telling psychological miniature portraits in his songs (you only need to point out Gretchen am Spinnrad, written when he was 17, to prove that), he couldn’t write a theatrically successful opera if, not to press the analogy, his life depended on it, but he persisted. Even at the end of his life, he continued working on The Count of Gleichen with its lame, cliché-ridden plot and badly written libretto by one of his closest friends. He filled 36 large pages and 52 smaller-sized sheets with sketches and completed sections but it didn’t seem to matter the censors had already rejected the story – shockingly, it included a benign view of a bigamous hero – so even if he might manage to finish it, it wasn’t going to be taken up by any theater in Vienna.

The unfinished D Major Symphony, usually numbered the tenth – there’s no room here for the story of why there had been no 7th Symphony for so long and why the “Great C Major” appears with various numberings – apparently was begun in October ‘28, fragments of three large-scale movements sketched in a “short score” format (like a reduction playable at the piano, but with occasional orchestrational cues written in). The 2nd movement was the “most complete” section but the 3rd movement, labeled a “scherzo” which would imply there would be a 4th movement finale, seems to have morphed into a combination scherzo-and-finale with several large patches of fugal writing, very unusual for Schubert.

Which brings me back to those “counterpoint lessons” Schubert had set up just before he died. When he was working on the Mass in E-flat earlier that year, he had been studying Handel oratorios: Messiah, he’d said, was one of his favorite works. A few months before his death, Schubert told friends about these Handel scores, realizing “Now for the first time, I see what I lack.” He arranged to take lessons with organist Simon Sechter to “make good the omission.”

What was it that Schubert, at the age of 31 and who’d been composing since he was 13, lacked?


Usually, this is assumed to mean “the writing of fugues,” something that by 1828 was pretty old-fashioned already. Composers might insert “a fugal section” to show that they know how to do something academic, that they’ve learned their craft. It might not always sound natural, given the flow of things: Beethoven aside (who at least admitted he approached it “with some license”), I often feel like we should break into The Wave whenever a 19th Century composer breaks into a “learnéd” fugue midstream (there’s one in Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony of 1885 that practically reduces me to a puddle of giggles).

When I listen to Schubert’s quintet, it amazes me that he felt so insecure that he had to go study counterpoint. I’m not familiar with his masses – at least the last two “mature” ones – and I’ve heard the Unfinished D Major Symphony (No. 10, D.936a) once or twice on the radio, enough to remember there’s a lot of fugal writing going on in that last movement (though how much of it is what Schubert sketched and how much is part of Brian Newbould’s realization of it, I couldn’t say), but fugues aside, the art of writing melodically and rhythmically independent lines that are interdependent harmonically – a broader definition of counterpoint – is not something Schubert was lacking!

All you have to do is listen to the opening of the second movement.

Long slow notes in two- and three-part harmony in the inner voices (as they’d be called, regardless of the fact they’re instruments), with rhythmic filagree-like patterns in the 1st violin that remind me of birdsong, and one cello plucking along on what sounds like the downbeat with the harmonic underpinning. These are three fully defined layers of easily identifiable ‘sound’ – the long slow notes actually turn out to be the melodic layer – that becomes clearer the second time around, about 2½ minutes later, when the “bird-calls” of the 1st violin are replaced by plucked chords answering the cello’s bass line. Then, having taken about 5 minutes to run twice through this theme – speaking of expansive – there’s a sudden change of mood: the violins now have the decidedly more dramatic theme, here, the cellos’ bass-line now more insistent, turning back over on itself, and the middle voices now playing an agitated pattern, filling in the harmony but completely separate, rhythmically, from the outer parts, a far cry from the relaxed contemplation of the first theme.

Why would anybody who could create passages like that feel that insecure about needing to study counterpoint?

Unfortunately, we’ll never know what impact those lessons with Simon Sechter would have on Schubert’s later music. He only took one lesson – on November 4th, 1828. He had already complained of feeling sick the week before but managed to walk the four or five miles to the church where his brother Ferdinand’s Requiem was being performed, not counting a three-hour walk they and the choirmaster took afterwards before walking home (no public transportation to the suburbs in those days). Complaining of feeling tired, understandably, Schubert still felt well enough to walk the mile-or-so to and from his teacher’s house for the counterpoint lesson the next day. That weekend, Schubert attended a friend’s dinner party where much wine was drunk and everybody thought he was feeling pretty good (in any number of ways). By Tuesday of that week, then, he “took to his bed,” did not make it to the next lesson - in fact, never left the house again.

Another friend showed up with a copy of his setting of Psalm 23 which needed some corrections. There was no real anxiety – he had been ill before and had recovered before – and Schubert himself complained only of feeling tired, not of any pain. A few days later, he sat up in bed to make corrections on the publisher’s proofs for the second half of the Winterreise songs – keeping in mind the final song, “Der Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”), one of the most desolate songs in the repertoire. He wrote to his friend Schober, asking if he could borrow any books by American author James Fennimore Cooper which he hadn’t read yet.

Two days later there was, as they say, “a turn for the worse,” presumably after friends came and played Beethoven’s C-sharp Minor Quartet, Op.131, for him at his request. By the end of the performance, he had become so excited and his condition had deteriorated so rapidly, they put him back in bed. His friend the librettist of The Count of Gleichen came by to visit the next day or so: Schubert had continued to work on it up until that week, and they even talked about another collaboration once he finished this one. Apparently, in these first two weeks of November, he also worked on the sketch for the slow movement of the D Major Symphony, before things got so bad, he was unable to work at all. A few more days passed: on the 18th, Ferdinand wrote later, Schubert began hallucinating, then died the following day. As his friend, the poet Grillparzer wrote for the epitaph, “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but far fairer hopes.”

So it is impossible – for me, at least – to listen to this quintet and not dwell on things deeper than the acquisition of contrapuntal skills or on the expansion of harmonic and structural techniques to create a work that lasts between 50 and 60 minutes. Schumann, who didn’t know the quintet existed then, wrote about the “heavenly lengths” of the Great C Major Symphony which Ferdinand showed to him during a visit in 1839. The Quintet, equally heavenly, somehow didn’t surface until 1850. Like the symphony, it was just too long – for the audience but also for the players – and both were first performed in heavily cut, shortened versions.

Igor Stravinsky was never one to mince words about other composers (of Benjamin Britten, he said, “He’s an excellent accompanist”), but when someone asked him if he weren’t “sent to sleep by the prolixities of Schubert,” he replied, “What does it matter if, when I awake, it seems to me that I am in paradise?”

Monday, August 18, 2008

Celebrating a Mentor & Teacher

It’s not every day you can help a teacher celebrate a milestone. We often lose track of our teachers after graduation, maybe renewing brief contact during a reunion, perhaps. So when my piano teacher from Susquehanna University e-mailed me a little over a week ago about a “video interview” in the local paper’s website, I had to check it out.

Galen Deibler was my piano teacher through four years of undergraduate study at Susquehanna, as well as a theory teacher and the teacher of the Romantic Music literature course I took one year. Though I never became the pianist those years of study might presume – years later I joked “if practice makes perfect but perfection is unattainable, what’s the sense of practicing? so I quit” – Deibler taught me more than just about playing the piano or how chord progressions worked or what went into the making of a Brahms intermezzo. He taught also by example, not just as a pianist: I can’t say I was ever able to emulate his musicianship or his humility or compassion or sense of adventure in everything he experienced, but he was a major influence on my life and succeeded at least in instilling a love of teaching and a sense of ones own integrity that are part of me still today.

Considering my computer doesn’t have any sound – courtesy of one of the kittens who’s appointed himself the Director of Wireless Technology, having chewed through (among other things) two sets of speakers which have yet to be replaced (if I can find some with steel cables instead of those fine little gourmet wires they all seem to have) – it seemed kind of odd watching a video interview in which someone plays the piano. He’d said in the mass e-mail he’d sent out that he was particularly pleased with the Schubert Impromptu, but I had no idea what else he might be playing: curiously, having tried to play it myself years ago, I could recognize by hand positions and the speed of the notes going by he was playing the E-flat Impromptu (D.899, #2) which lies under the hand so well but is still, frankly, a bitch to play – keeping all the running notes in the right hand even while trying to keep the left hand from sound like it’s flopping around playing the harmony.

It’s especially challenging, you’d think, for hands that have been playing the piano for some 72 years, now. It seemed to fly by without a care in the world.

The interview was not just about playing Schubert. It was where and why he was playing it.

Galen’s been the pianist in the little country church of his hometown for fifty years, now, and Sunday, August 10th, was going to be a special service marking the anniversary. In typical Deibler fashion, the service – a “music Sunday” rather than a typical worship service with music – was not going to be about Galen Deibler, but about music and music-making. It was a kind of public performance but not a recital: he was going to be joined by several of his former students, each of whom had joined him over the past years to play in the church.

You can read the article and view the video (hopefully you have functioning audio on your computer) posted at the website for Sunbury’s Daily Item here. There’s also another article about the event posted at The News Item, another paper that serves the Shamokin area.

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I decided I wanted to go – but wanting and going were two different states of mind, especially since I’m not one to spend hours on the road. John Clare, a fellow ex-colleague, might say “let’s go to New York to hear this concert” – the world premiere of the Clarinet Quintet that Elliott Carter composed back when he was 98 – leave Harrisburg at 3:15pm, get there in time for an 8:00 concert, then turn around after it was over to be back home before 2am. If it had been up to me, I’d’ve stayed home and would still be waiting for the work to come out on a CD...

It had also been part of a busy weekend. Getting used to this state of involuntary retirement has not been difficult, but it makes any spate of activity more tiring, after spending most of my days composing or getting caught up on my reading (yesterday, I passed the 1,000 page mark of Tolstoy’s War & Peace). Meeting John at the airport when he flew in from San Antonio to do the pre-concert talk for Maria Bachmann at Gretna Music’s concert that Friday, then driving down to Mt. Gretna for the performance, then spending much of Saturday at a “music party” given by a friend (another ex-colleague, one who’d left voluntarily) in Carlisle (a loner by nature, I find such conviviality often tiring in itself), the idea of returning to the cocoon of home for a quiet Sunday was very appealing. But there are things you will never experience otherwise and opportunities you may never have again.

St. John’s Lutheran Church is located in Snydertown which, much to my surprise – since it’s always good to know where your destination is – is not located in Snyder County. Galen had often talked of his hometown in such a way, I assumed it was just outside of Selinsgrove, a few miles from the university. Instead, it’s about a dozen or so miles east of Sunbury – not that far away, really, but if I’d been going on my own natural, directionally-challenged instincts, I would’ve been driving around the backroads of Snyder County trying to locate it and missed the whole point of going there. As it was, the day offered me not one but three opportunities to get lost and I managed to live up to my own expectations quite handily.

Googling the church, it was apparently located on Main Street, when I found an address at all; the one article said it was on Snydertown Road. It’s quite possible it could be both. Checking on-line for a map of Snydertown, I discovered there were two roads in Greater Snydertown – Snydertown Road, which ran east-west, and Market Street which ran north-south. The intersection, one would assume, would be The Center of Town. How hard could it be to find a small church in a small country town?

Figuring about an hour to Selinsgrove by old habit (before the highway had been completely re-done), the directions indicated an additional half hour, so I left Harrisburg in plenty of time, following an old route long familiar though considerably changed from the late-60s when I first started traveling this road between home and college. I found my way through Sunbury, taking this street, then that street to get to 11th Street which eventually becomes Snydertown Road once it leaves the city limits. By this point, I passed the house that the Italian poet and would-be-priest Lorenzo da Ponte had built on the square in Sunbury after he had left Vienna and Mozart’s operas behind him to open a dry-goods store in Central Pennsylvania in the early years of the 19th Century (another, long over-due post, by the way).

By the time my tripometer clocked in at the number of miles the internet had told me it would take, I had reached a sign that said “Now Entering Snydertown, PA.” I also had about 30 minutes to spare before the church service would begin, a little better than the time indicated on-line, but then going the requisite number of miles over the speed-limit on Rt.11-15 to Selinsgrove and still getting passed by everybody in the process. In fact, the only thing slower than me was the dead ’possum on the side of the road north of Liverpool.

But for some reason, I was having trouble finding the TOWN of Snydertown. Yes, there was the intersection, though I couldn’t read the street-sign – Market, as the on-line map told me – and the south-bound side had a big ROAD CLOSED sign. Driving past too fast to be able to reconnoiter my bearings, I kept driving on Snydertown Road. Several miles and many minutes later, rarely seeing more than an occasional house and no one about to stop and ask, I decided to turn around, confronting another sign on the way back that said “Now Entering Snydertown.” I returned to the intersection with Market Street and, turning north (since that road was not closed) found a church – wrong one – but little else. At the top of a hill, there was a side-road (the suburbs of Snydertown?), so I turned around in time to realize once again I was “Now Entering Snydertown.” With only one road left to check, I decided to continue on what actually turned out to be marked MAIN Street, not Market Street, and found that the south-bound road is closed a few miles down because of bridge repairs. But there, there were houses and lots of cars and people, and the spire of an old country church, familiar from the video interview.

As I drove past the church, trying to figure out where I could park, I saw Galen Deibler heading inside. This must be the place: it was five minutes to go before the service was to begin.

Slipping into a side pew near the back – the church was quite full, however many of them were from the community – I looked around wondering if I would recognize anybody. Friends from 40 years ago? Other faculty members from school? How long would it have been since I’d last seen them and how much have the years changed us, if we’d recognize each other? Galen looked remarkably the same – a little grayer, a little more stooped in the shoulder, but I would never have guessed he was 77 now. In fact, he seemed younger than I am, stopping here and there to chat with a friend before the service began.

He did his own introduction which is not surprising since he also organized his own celebration. The church had wanted to surprise him but they couldn’t very well just spring it on him so eventually they decided to tell him their plans. He, then, contacted some of his former students about joining him, along with a member of the congregation and his grandson Aaron, now a student at Gettysburg College, who began the service playing the violin for the Meditation from Massanet’s Thaïs. Then he accompanied Betty Phillips in a setting of the old hymn, “How Great Thou Art.” He played the E Major Prelude and Fugue from Book 1 of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” then was joined by trumpeter Dale Orris for the Trumpet Voluntary by John Stanley (familiar to listeners as the theme of Loran Fevens’ “The Music Box” on Sunday nights). Then came a hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” prefaced by a recorder duet played by two of his daughters. Following prayers and readings for the service, baritone Nathan Troup sang two selections – the Largo (Ombra, mai fu) from Handel’s Xerxes and Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Shawn Daly, a former piano student of Galen’s, played the “Harmonious Blacksmith” from Handel’s Suite No. 5 in E Major, followed by a rather unchurch-like selection, the A-flat Major Ballade by Chopin.

Pastor John Fenton allowed members of the congregation to speak instead of offering a sermon. One of the daughters read a poem sent by her brother who could not attend the service (traveling in Germany with his family), reminiscing about Sundays at St. John’s with the picture of Jesus and the sheep “swimming in a sea of yellow” on the right wall as we all looked over at the painting, and about the old upright piano getting ready to play. The youngest daughter reminisced how she’d use every trick in the book not to have to go to church but no matter how hard she tried, the “express train for Snydertown” always left the house with time to spare, though she eventually came to love this family-time.

Several in the congregation stood up to thank Galen for his years of service or to tell stories about having been his students. I wondered what I might say if I stood up, but I’m very bad at these sorts of things and decided to let it pass.

One of them had been one of Galen’s students a few years behind me: he had also been one of my fraternity brothers (in fact, he was my “little brother” the year he joined Phi Sigma Kappa) and we had probably not seen each other since he graduated 34 years ago. Studying with Deibler even before he was in college, he often went to the house for lessons and became part of the family. His story – about the dazed cat who’d peered out over the piano’s music rack after a particularly intense C Minor Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, having decided ill-advisedly to take a nap inside the piano that afternoon – reminded me of a time when, as a senior, I went out to the house for a lesson (mostly, they would’ve been at his studio in the music building) and tip-toed across the living room floor through wall-to-wall toys (I’m not sure how old his three children then were, but the fourth would be born the following year) and how, perhaps 12-13 years ago, I had gone back to visit him one weekend afternoon and found myself, once again, tip-toeing through a living room full of toys when a wave of serious deja-vu made me realize it’s not that they’d never cleaned up from twenty years earlier but that it was now grandchildren!

As the service resumed, Dale Orris joined Galen for another of the hymns, followed by three pieces performed by pianist Jacob Frasch – “The Sunken Cathedral” by Debussy, the Minuet from Bach’s 1st Partita (the trio kept playing through my head much of this past week), and Brahms’ A Major Intermezzo, Op.118, No. 2, which is a work I still try to play and one that Galen had taught me during my lessons, pointing out some structural things and voicings that not only helped the interpretation and showed me that it’s not just sitting down to play the notes that make the piece, but which also served as a history class and composition lesson (under the chapter, “learning ones craft”).

Then, during the offering, Galen played the Schubert Impromptu I’d mentioned earlier, phrasing it with that same sense of technical understanding, fingers wafting effortlessly over the keys – difficult enough to keep smooth even when you are practicing – and being thoroughly stylistic and aesthetically exquisite, or in the middle section, passionate and dramatic in the process. Even though there was the distraction of passing the offering plates, it was easily the best – or at least most meaningful – performance of the piece I’d ever heard.

After the Lord’s Prayer, Nathan Troup and Dale Orris returned for “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” from Handel’s Messiah. It’s not likely this little church gets its rafters dusted by music-making like this that often. Dale is currently teaching in Lewisburg (and at Bucknell University) and, being close by, plays often at the church with Galen. Nathan, however, won the long-distance award, driving down from Boston to join in the celebration. In fact, Shawn Daly came in from Ohio and Jacob Frasch came up Baltimore. One friend drove in from Washington DC and another from New Jersey – my little 90-mile trek seemed like nothing, by comparison – but that is the sense of dedication, here.

The service ended with “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and echoes of Psalm 100 (“Be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song”), along with memories of Galen’s seemingly effortless Schubert, as well as Shawn’s Chopin, Jake’s Brahms, and the rousing “Trumpet Shall Sound” with Nathan and Dale, personal highlights of a performance that was, from beginning to end, like highlights from a life.

During the service, Pastor Fenton told, among other things, how Galen and his wife, Deanna, had initiated having the box placed by the door where the congregation could drop off food items that can then be given to the local food bank, or how they had argued, when a small church is struggling to survive, their role in the community is just as important. There was the time some Romanian immigrants, escaping from Communist Eastern Europe, had been imprisoned nearby and the Deiblers went to meet them, organizing support for them in the communities and helping with legal aid when they were here with very little understanding of the language, much less the system. When they were moved to a prison outside Philadelphia, the Deiblers continued driving down to work with them. When they were released, some of them came back and lived with the Deiblers until they were able to get their feet on the ground and be on their own.

Afterward, there was a community picnic behind the church during which several graduating high school students were presented with scholarships. I’m not sure whether it was from the town or from a committee of the church, or whether the amount had recently been increased to $100 or $150 each, but even though this may not put much of a dent in a student’s college expenses these days, when you consider there were five of these given out, that’s a good bit of money from a small town of about 350 people and a church that is always struggling to survive.

During the various announcements in between selections played over the sound system – the theme was “The ‘50s” with appropriate music – we sat eating home-made food that most baby-boomers these days would consider “comfort food,” while people in the community were recognized for years of service and dedication, kids got up to sing (one, able to count her age in single digits, going through a repertoire of nursery rhymes with the Alphabet Song like a 13-part Rondo, reminded me that Beverly Sills probably got her start like this), and I realized what magic still exists in what we city folks think of as life in Small-Town America.

At one point, the MC of the event said, “I don’t know how many of you attended the church service this morning and heard all that... [pause] wonderful music,” (several people nodded), “but now we’re going to return to the music we love – the music of the ‘50s.” (Hmmm... I was reminded of my one college roommate who’d been a student-teacher in a town like this where the high school music teacher had defined classical music “as the kind of music nobody likes”...) And back came the CDs. Very loud.

Galen invited me to join them out at the house, giving me quick directions to refresh what passes for memory considering I hadn’t been there more than four or five times in the past 38 years, only once under my own driving and that four years ago. True to form, I got to the one demarking intersection and couldn’t remember “Do I turn here or is it at the next stop-sign after this one...?” A mile down the road, I realized I’d missed the turn, retraced my wheels and found myself shortly in front of the very recognizable house, a minor detour.

Conversation in the living room primarily focused on “shop talk” with four pianists in the room comparing the finer points of Steinway pianos and newer models from Mason & Hamlin – complete with model numbers – that was completely beyond me, until Galen came back into the room, changing the topic to be more inclusive after seeing to his wife and daughters’ preparations in the kitchen ready to be taken out onto the deck. There was food (included something wicked with curry, an Indian dish Deanna had learned to make when she was living in India as a nurse’s aide in one of the country’s poorer areas) , champagne, much conversation and many reminiscences, trying in some cases to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen in 34 years. Comments were made by those who’d followed my now-terminated radio career with questions about the future – yeah, well, “stay tuned” – and one of Galen’s daughters told me about renovations they’d been doing at their really old house in Connecticut, built 50 years ago, as I’m telling others about the house I’m living in now which I grew up in, built, uhm... 50 years ago. Perception is everything.

And then there was knowing the next generation continues: grandson Aaron, who played the violin at the start of the service, will be going off to Argentina for the spring semester. Whether music will be his life or not is not important at this point, but it all adds up to a part of the whole, as I sat there and talked with another friend whom I’d met when he was in Pre-Med and is now a doctor who still finds time to do more than just play the piano.

And Galen told me that he wanted to work on my piano piece, “Poetries,” again “and this time get it right,” though I thought there was nothing wrong with the way he played it in 2004, the second pianist to ever play it since I wrote it in New York in 1979. It amazed me he’d wanted to play it al all, then, considering he doesn’t generally play much 20th Century music, and my style is not one he’d be familiar with. This didn’t stop him: he wanted to do it because it was written by a student of his and he liked the adventure of the challenge. He was telling me that, after his eye surgery these next few weeks, he wanted to work on it again: he doesn’t spend as much time practicing since performing is not the major part of his life, now, and there are many things he still wants to do, but he’s hoping to get back into “Poetries” and play it again.

It’s amazing what something like that can do for one’s sense of self-esteem. He was still being the same sensitive, caring, inspiring person he’d been as my teacher forty years ago, and meaning it sincerely.

Having picked up my old copy of Samuel Beckett’s novels – “Molloy,” “Malone Dies” and “The Unnamable” – which ends with the line “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” it’s days like this (in fact, that whole weekend) that make me realize “I’ll go on.”

So when it was time to head back to Harrisburg, I forgot to ask for directions how to get out of there... and so I managed to get lost for the third time that day. Not wanting to drive back the way I came in and end up north of Selinsgrove, I thought if I follow this route, it should come out south of Selinsrgove along Rt.11-15. Of course, I realized there are no road maps in my car and naturally I wouldn’t have GPS, given the little bit of traveling I do, so off I wandered, unwittingly going deeper and deeper into the hinterlands until I realized the towns I was approaching were familiar to me but only from their names on road-signs along the familiar highway – 10 miles, 15 miles thattaway. In Middleburg – where my roommate had the teacher who said “classical music is the kind of music nobody likes” – I stopped at a gas station, thinking it was probably not wise to ask what kind of music she likes, only to discover if I take the other road at this intersection “over the mountain,” it’ll take me to Harrisburg – well, back to the road that will take me back to Harrisburg. So I wasn’t all that lost.

It was a beautiful day for a drive through the country – and real country with rolling hills, woods and farmland, not suburban developments, malls, gas-stations and the increasingly ubiquitous nail salons. I reconnected with the familiar route north of Liverpool (waving at the still dead ‘possum on the other side of the road) and still managed to get home an hour after having left Selinsgrove (checking a map, I realized the road whose turn I missed the first time through was the one I should’ve followed, since it would take me directly to Selinsrgove past the university and deep into more familiar territory). But who cares? I made it home and felt great for having made the effort, after all, getting a chance to visit with friends and pay a small tribute to a mentor still mentoring.