Friday, October 31, 2008

Hallowe'en Comes to Stravinsky's Tavern

It was a dark and stormy night when the Classical Music Radio Station WLVB’s cub reporter Franz “Bud” Schubert went down to Stravinsky’s Tavern for his latest interview. This wasn’t one he was particularly grateful to be assigned since, as a news journalist, you’re not supposed to have any viewpoints of your own, but this one he did. He had tried to talk his boss out of it, but News Director Sir Arthur Sullivan didn’t have anybody else available for the gig: the rest were all covering the impending election. Besides, it’s just a personal interest story, nothing earth-shattering, Sullivan told him, just a little something for the Hallowe’en broadcast, you know? He was busy getting his own Hallowe’en costume on, but Schubert wasn’t sure if he was trying to be a pirate or a Japanese war-lord.

Shrugging his diminutive shoulders, Schubert put on his best poker-face, grabbed his overcoat and headed down to the tavern.

Nicolo Paganini was only in town for a single concert but he agreed to do the interview if it could be done over dinner, hence meeting at the tavern. Schubert hadn’t actually met him before, but their paths had crossed back during his Vienna days. Everywhere you went, it was Paganini This and Paganini That. Nobody was interested in a poor home-grown composer writing art songs and operas. He even tried writing music that might cash in on the Italian Craze that had gripped the Imperial capital that season. Funny, too: he wrote two “Overtures in the Italian Style” just to prove he could, and the one got performed when no one was interested in the rest of his symphonies. And wouldn’t you know it, a few years later when he was giving his first all-Schubert concert, it ended up being scheduled the same day as one of five recitals Paganini was giving in town that week! He was still pretty steamed about that one: he thought he was doing pretty well, considering his usual financial problems, bringing in 320 florins at the box-office, but then he read that Paganini brought in about 5600 florins per concert. There weren’t even any critics around to review his own concert because they were all – every last one of them – at Paganini’s concert. So no one ever read anything about his new piano trio or the songs he’d composed just for this big occasion. Yeah, he was not looking forward to having to interview this guy.

The tavern was busy as usual, warm and inviting once you closed the door behind you and cut out the winds that howled down the street of this little mining town. Stravinsky himself was behind the bar, motioning him over with a big smile. The place had a kind of quiet glow about it and everybody was chattering back and forth.

“Hey, Bud,” he radiated, “good to see you again – the usual?”

“Sure, why not? I know I’m working tonight, but hey...” Schubert looked around. He heard comments about the up-coming election and knew he couldn’t get involved in any of the discussions, whether he’d be voting for Brahms or Wagner. His mind was made up long ago but since he was supposed to be an unbiased reporter, he couldn’t talk about his own ideas much less wear campaign buttons.

Most of the others seemed to be dressed for Hallowe’en. Stravinsky was even wearing a pair of those fake antennae you strap over your head, little googly eyes bouncing up and down as he hustled from one end of the bar to the other. Schubert hadn’t even noticed he was wearing Groucho Glasses with the fake mustache, too.

Over there was Richard Strauss all decked out like a harem girl – “oh right,” he thought, “Salome with her seven veils.” And John the Baptist standing next to him, the tall guy with a platter stuck around his bloody neck, must’ve been Gustav Mahler. Nice touch with the lipstick smear on his cheek...

Behind them in the next booth sat somebody he thought he knew. “OMG,” he spluttered into his beer, “it’s Mussorgsky - sober! No wonder I didn’t recognize him!” He was sitting there smiling at everybody in great delight. “Ach,” he beamed, “they’re playing my song!” The sound system had just started with the gnat-like buzzing that opens “A Night on Bald Mountain.” (They really should up-grade the sound-system, he thought.)

Sibelius sat across from him, sour as ever, ready to go out trick-or-treating as Uncle Fester.

Mozart, sitting next to him at the bar, was quick to kid Schubert about not being in costume, but when he explained he was actually working tonight, Mozart waved his hand across the front of his face and frowned. “Ugh, work, please – it’s a party night!” He took a deep swill of his beer – Igor’s special Blood-Red Hallowe’en Beer made, so he said, from a virgin ballerina who’d danced herself to death (“not just your usual hops,” he explained with a sly smile) – and smacked his lips in satisfaction.

Stravinsky slid a plain dark beer down the bar toward him and it stopped right in front of his seat. Schubert took a quick swig, wondering where they ever learn to do things like that, a course for bartenders comparable to orchestration or counterpoint, he figured.

“So what are you dressed as,” Schubert asked.

“Well, you’ve probably heard about them trying to identify that skull they think is mine?” He looked around and laughed, tapping the side of his head. “Like I’d ever leave home without it! So I was thinking, you know, maybe I should go as the Headless Horseman or something.” With that, he pulled the collar up over his ears, draping the neckerchief across his face and suddenly Schubert realized he was talking to a tall man with no head! Then Mozart picked up something on the floor beside him which looked like a pumpkin carved with the likeness of his own face but actually was one of those “Mozartkugeln” made out of papier maché. With a quick thud, he planted it on top of his head and twisted it into place on the collar. “Ingenious,” Schubert thought, “he is going as himself!”

“Look, there’s Haydn!” With a laugh, Mozart waved good-bye and wandered off into the crowd.

Schubert craned his neck to see but couldn’t recognize him. Mozart went up to a guy dressed as the Grim Reaper with a powdered wig dangling from a bloody scythe. “Ah, Papa Haydn and his little jokes.” Last year, he’d gone as Al Revescio but since he had to walk backwards everywhere, it turned out to be a real disaster, always bumping into people. They were not amused. So far, Mahler didn’t appear too keen on getting hit in the side of his platter by the swinging wig. Schubert hoped he wasn’t going to behead anyone as he walked around with that scythe.

Just then, there was a blast of wind and swirling leaves from the front door. The crowd froze on the spot and stared at the cadaverous specter backlit by the eerie glow of the street light. Even the music came to a sudden unexpected silence. It was a tall gaunt figure dressed head to toe in deepest black with long black stringy hair, his skin, as tight as if stretched over bone, pale and powdery. His thickly hooded, bloodshot eyes seemed to bulge with the effort of looking into the light. In his long bony fingers, there was a violin case that did not need a price tag on it to inform everyone the instrument inside it was priceless.

Nicolo Paganini had arrived. And he had forgotten to wear a costume.

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

Without a word, Paganini went to a shadowy booth near the back of the bar. Bobsky, Stravinsky’s assistant manager, brought out a steaming plate of pasta smothered in a deep rich marinara sauce – “extra red, just as you like it,” he whispered – and placed it before the granitic visage of their obviously special guest. He had placed the violin case carefully beside him on the bench.

Schubert, trying not to be flustered, shuffled up to the booth.

“Hello, sir, your maestroship, er... I’m uh... Franz Sch-Schubert from WLVB and, uh...”

Paganini gestured simply with the palm of his hand, fin-like, for the short man to sit down across from him. He slowly raised his fork and twirled a few strands of pasta, holding them to his lips and then slowly letting them slide into his mouth, savoring the texture, the aroma and above all the flavor. Gently, he patted his lips with the napkin, nodded discreetly at Bobsky who, with great relief, retreated smiling to the kitchen.

“Did you ever leave your violin in a bar before?”

Paganini’s eyes bugged out twice their already abnormal size which, given how gaunt his face was, was actually very creepy. VERY creepy...

“No, of course not,” Schubert thought, “what a stupid question. Allrightee then...” He took a deep breath and started in. “So, how’re things with you and Satan, these days?”

Gradually, the tavern returned to almost normal, the chatter a little more quiet and reverential than earlier.

After another bite, Paganini put his fork down and dropped his hands into his lap. “Quite good, actually. Yes,” after another pause, “quite good.” He took another bite.

Suddenly, Schubert thought he caught a whiff of brimstone. Either that or someone nearby must have farted. The garlic they use in the marinara here is pretty strong for this part of the country.

“So what are you going to play tonight?” His programs were never announced in advance. Like you’d need an excuse like knowing what he’s going to play to go see the Great Paganini!

“Whatever the spirits move me to play. You know, maybe La streghe – everybody likes witches on Hallowe’en – some caprices... maybe I’ll do an improvisation on the Chorus of Damned Nuns from Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable...” He looked off into the distance, as if going through his mental file-drawer –“and I haven’t played the Moses Variations here for eons.”

“Are you going to grind down the strings so they snap one by one and you have to play it all on one last string? People really think that kind of crap is cool.” Ooops, he thought, keep your mouth shut and your mind blank.

Paganini rolled his eyes and continued eating in silence.

The violinist looked at him from under an arched eye-brow. “You will be voting for Brahms, I take it.”

“Yes. I mean, no, no – really, no, I’m... I’m a reporter, we have no opinions. Of our own, I mean.” He fumbled with the recorder and set it on the table.

Just then a man dressed as a priest appeared beside them. It was Franz Liszt.

“Oh, Franz, hiya,” Schubert said, “nice costume!”

The Abbé Liszt looked at him from under his own arched eyebrow and frowned condescendingly.

“You are alone?” Paganini seemed mildly surprised.

“Oh, Georges Sand came with me but she dressed up as Lot’s Wife and now I have to drag her everywhere in that little red wagon. I told her to wait in the back of the pick-up truck until the recital starts.” He checked his watch. “Which is in about an hour. I will leave you to your dinner – and to your rather short guest.”

Schubert smirked back at him.

Stravinsky brought over a dusty bottle of red wine and two glasses, pouring carefully. Paganini twirled the glass, sniffed and sipped, then smiled. Schubert, meanwhile, took a careful but disappointed sip, wondering how he could set to music the line “Having a wonderful wine, wish you were beer”...

Once they were alone, Schubert asked him, “Did letting people think you actually had sold your soul to the devil to be able to play as well as you do” – again, the eyebrow arched markedly as if “only ‘as well as you do’?” – “I mean, as brilliantly as you do - did that ever, like, you know, backfire?”

Paganini continued eating for a while, as if considering his response.

“When I was on my deathbed, they sent me a priest for the Last Rites, but I thought I still had time to live, you know? So I sent him away. They thought that I refused the Last Rites, period. But as bad luck would have it, I got much worse that night and died before my son was able to call the priest again. It got very strange after that.”

There was a long pause while he ate some more pasta and sipped more wine.

“The Bishop of the lovely city of Nice refused to let me be buried in – how you say, hollowed ground? In a church cemetery – consecrated ground, you call it, yes. For five years, my body was kept in the cellar of the house after the landlord rented out my old rooms, like some piece of baggage left behind by an evicted tenant. Then they took me down to the hospital and kept me in the basement, there. My son managed to escort my body back to my hometown of Genoa but we were not permitted to enter the city, so I was stored in a tower of a country estate. Small wonder people complained of hearing moans and cries late at night coming from the tower.”

He finished his pasta, sopping up the last of the sauce with the garlic bread, then pushed the plate back.

“The gardener charged tourists money to view my corpse.” He calmly poured himself another glass of wine, offering some to Schubert who politely refused. “They caught me a couple times, playing the violin. Eerie, they said, hearing me play – or assuming that must have been me. But you can’t stay in shape if you don’t practice.”

He carefully folded his napkin and placed it on the table.

“It was like being on the road again - moving from Bordighera to San Remo to Port Maurice to Savone to... I forget where else. Ah, Polevra, the first place they allowed me to be buried in the ground - some garden, whatever. It gets old very quickly when you’re dead. Well, anyway, the Pope allowed me to be buried at the Duchess of Parma’s villa – another garden, by the way, nothing consecrated. But then finally, thirty-six years after I died” – pausing as if calculating the years in his head – “yes, thirty-six years later, they buried me in a church cemetery – finally, I could be at peace. Isn’t that what they say – “rest in peace”? I felt like some plant, constantly being dug up and transplanted. They even wanted to put me on display - charge admission...”

Paganini picked up the violin case and held it close to his chest.

“That wasn’t the end of it. Seventeen years later, they dug me up and took a look, I guess to make sure I was still in there. Three years after that, they moved me again, a fancier church, this time. I guess now that I’d been dead for fifty-six years – I was only 57 when I died, you know... throat cancer, too, awful stuff – ah well, fame does not come cheaply, I’m afraid.” He sighed wistfully.

Schubert thought “Not that I’d know anything about fame. At least not while I was alive.”

Paganini quietly rose from the booth and nodded to Stravinsky. He turned ceremoniously to Schubert and said “I do hope you can make my recital this time? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must prepare myself for the performance.”

And with that, he seemed to glide toward the door. Another blast of wind and leaves and with a slam, he was gone, leaving behind a whiff of brimstone. Or whatever.

The crowd began to break up: most of them were going to the recital down the street, anyway. Haydn had already knocked Mozart’s Mozartkugeln off his head twice. Mahler found he couldn’t fit into the men’s room stall with the platter around his neck and so he was now very uncomfortable. But Schubert had to get back to his desk to prepare the interview for the late-night news – he couldn’t afford to leave this report unfinished or Sullivan would be threatening to assign him to the New Age News Program which made the idea of going back to being dead definitely a consideration.

He pulled his overcoat more tightly around him and headed out into the wind with everybody else. There was Mozart helping Liszt and Chopin who’d just showed up, trying to get Lot’s Wife out of the pick-up truck. Somehow the night just couldn’t get any weirder, he thought.

- - - - - - -
Dr. Dick
© 2008

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tales from the Crypt: Mozart's Skull

Mark Twain writes about two skulls in a Havana museum, both, he is told, belonging to Christopher Columbus: one when he was a boy and the other, when he was a man.

Just before the Mozart Year began in 2006, back when the world celebrated the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, two musical skulls – fortunately belonging to two different composers – had been in the news. In November, 2005, just before his 135th birthday, it was announced testing on fragments of Beethoven’s skull indicate he died of extreme lead poisoning. Then, just after New Years’ Day, 2006, it was announced the results of DNA testing on a skull that since 1902 has been in the Salzburg Mozarteum (the museum founded to maintain the legacy of the city’s most famous son) could definitively prove if the skull is in fact Mozart’s. The results were scheduled to be revealed on a special television documentary being shown in Austria, a great way to kick off the Mozart Year, so to speak.

I have never been fond of the idea of relics, which may or may not have anything to do with my not being Catholic. On a European concert tour in 1970, when I walked into Italian churches that were old in the Renaissance and saw, for instance, the finger of a pope enclosed in a glass case would probably do nothing for my sense of faith. Standing in a museum and looking at the withered mummy of someone who once was close to a pharaoh four thousand years ago may be historically intriguing but perhaps I’m too squeamish to find it anything more than ghoulish. You couldn’t get me anywhere near that exhibit of cadavers going around called “Our Body: The Universe Within” which closes this weekend at Harrisburg’s Whitaker Center. But then, maybe I’ve seen too many horror movies when I was a kid, I don’t know...

Well, it’s Hallowe’en, so it seemed a good idea to revisit the Mystery of [insert weird, tremulous chord here] Mozart’s Skull.

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

In 1863, the remains of both Beethoven and Schubert were exhumed so the skulls could be examined and compared (you can read about it in this issue of the Beethoven Journal). This was an age when phrenology was being used to explain a lot of things like the relationship between a person's mental attributes and the shape of the head. Parts of Beethoven’s skull were already missing (?) and the rest of it apparently shattered in the 36 years since he’d died (yes, I’d heard the old joke about Beethoven decomposing when I was in third grade). Having removed both composers’ skulls for examination, it was decided, in the interest of science and the arts, not to return the skulls to the caskets upon reburial. This may seem odd to us today, but Vienna was part of a Catholic culture with a deep history of relics at a time when people thought nothing of making death-masks of the recently deceased or even, when the technology became available, photographs of them. (Speaking of photographs, you can see photos of Beethoven’s skull fragments here.)

The mystery, beyond the long involved story of how these fragments of bones ended up in southern California, now becomes how to explain the extremely high amounts of lead discovered in the bones, something that would explain his deafness and other illnesses leading up to his death at the age of 57. It was thought perhaps he drank a great deal from leaded cups, but as he was not known as an alcoholic like his father, the amount he drank and the quality of the cups leads one to wonder why other residents of Vienna in the early-19th Century may not also have gone deaf and suffered similar symptoms. (Will they discover 200 years from now, after digging up someone who’d suffered from Alzheimer’s, that high amounts of aluminum in the bones came from drinking sodas out of cans? Hmmm...)

Since Schubert was also reburied without his skull, I suspect there will be something in the news soon about it, too (hey, his 211th birthday is coming up on January 31st, 2009).

If these bones could speak, the stories they would tell us! Of course, the problem is not the bones or their stories but how we, the recipients, interpret them.

The questions I’d have about Mozart’s skull pertain to one of the oldest myths about Mozart and his death at the age of 35. The mystery continues and while it’s generally believed that Salieri had nothing to do with it (though it makes great theater), the circumstances of that death – and the eerily mysterious circumstances of the Requiem’s commission, left unfinished at the composer’s death – help sustain the mythology. Of course, there are those who would prefer the myth: peeling away old beliefs in the interest of scientific or historical accuracy sometimes is the antithesis of art.

The story goes that Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave, too poor and unknown to warrant consideration of a proper burial (and that the weather was miserable so that no one attended the grave-side services of the burial). Consequently, no one knows where Mozart was buried. This is true to a point.

Volkmar Braunbehrens’ incredibly informative book, “Mozart in Vienna,” was published during the last Mozart Year, 1991, marking the bicentennial of Mozart’s death, though it now appears to be out-of-print. Near the end of over 400 pages covering the last decade of Mozart’s life, Braunbehrens discusses the burial policies of the emperor who once accused Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio as having “too many notes.” Joseph II was one of the more enlightened rulers of Europe, no tyrant (with or without his “puritan economics”) but sometimes a little removed from the feelings of his people who might not have found themselves quite as filled with the Age of Reason. In 1783, he decreed that all the cemeteries within Vienna’s then city limits should be closed and burials only allowed in those “a suitable distance from the city.” While funerals would continue their traditions up to the end of the church service, afterwards the remains would be “conveyed by the priest without ceremony to an outlying cemetery for interment.” It was not the custom for mourners to accompany the casket to the grave-site. The body would then be removed from the coffin (which could be recycled – one of the emperor’s cost-cutting reforms) and, still in its ”linen sack,” thrown into the grave which would be filled in with lime and earth and then marked by a simple cross. “Should several bodies arrive at one time, they may all be placed in the same grave.” Loved ones could erect monuments to the dead but not over the grave, only along the cemetery’s walls, because after six to eight years these graves would then be re-opened, the now decomposed bodies removed and the graves made ready for new, er... clients. It was not uncommon for the now skeletal remains to then be stored in “charnel houses,” the corpses piled on shelves like an ancient catacomb or simply reburied elsewhere in a mass jumble of bones, apparently. That would mean by 1799, Mozart’s body would’ve found, uhm... new lodgings.

Around 1807, then, Georg August Griesinger, who would later write the biography of Haydn, asked the now remarried widow of Mozart if she would go with him out to the St. Marx Cemetery where her husband had been buried. There was a monumental cross in the middle of the graveyard, Braunberhrens quotes in his account, but the gravediggers who would have worked there in 1791 presumably were long gone themselves. While the records would be able to tell us who Mozart would have been buried with, it tells us nothing where that grave may have been. Sixteen years after Mozart’s death, the current custodians could only say it was “three or four rows down” from the center cross. Griesinger remarked, however, that Constanze declared “if it were the custom here as it is in some places to collect and display the bones of the decomposed bodies, she would recognize her husband’s skull among the many thousands.” Apparently, it was not.

In the 2006 announcement, it mentioned that the grave’s “likely location was determined in 1855” and mentions the legend how a gravedigger “who knew which body was Mozart’s at some time sneaked the skull out of the grave,” possibly at the time it was disinterred in 1799 or so? (Unlikely he would’ve bothered to go dig it up right after the funeral.) Possible - but why? Had he been in the audience and enjoyed a performance of his new opera, The Magic Flute, which had a great popular success only ten weeks before Mozart's death: did he feel compelled to retrieve this artifact for posterity? Ah, Yorick... who knows?

Through various adventures, the skull (minus its lower jaw) arrived at the Mozarteum in Salzburg in 1902. What had it been up to in the intervening 105 years? So far, it has remained silent on this account.

But a French anthropologist, Pierre-François Puech, examined it in 1991 – the bicentennial of Mozart’s death – and noticed this skull has a fracture above its left temple, leading him to theorize that perhaps Mozart (or at least, the owner of this skull) had suffered a serious fall “which could explain the severe headaches Mozart suffered more than a year before his death.” I am not an expert on Mozart’s letters, but I am not aware of any reference in them to such a fall: if it were that severe, wouldn't he have complained of it or mentioned it even in passing, how it interfered with his work or dealing with those headaches (which are mentioned)? Of course, not all of his letters have survived, but maybe there’s something to look for in the ones we do have from, say, the fall of 1790?

While there have been many theories – Salieri aside – about the cause of Mozart’s death, a recent theory published in June of 2001 that he may have died of trichinosis – from eating under-cooked pork – can be substantiated by a quote from one of his letters to Constanze: 44 days before his illness began, he wrote “What do I smell? ... pork cutlets! Che Gusto (What a delicious taste). I eat to your health.” Symptoms of trichinosis, compatible with those Mozart would soon suffer, appear usually within 50 days of infection. Hmmm....

Mozart’s skull, now, awaited its official verification. What would it tell us?

*** *** ***

After all the hype with the aforementioned TV documentary in Austria, the results turned out to be... well, less that definitive. It seems the forensic scientists got great readings on the DNA they were able to extract from one of the teeth but unfortunately it doesn’t match anything they got from the two relatives exhumed from the Mozart mausoleum in Salzburg. In fact the two women’s DNA doesn’t even match each other which means... well, maybe they’re not the grandmother and niece they thought they were. Or maybe they’re not members of the Mozart family at all (then who else is buried in the old family crypt?).

Or... uhm... well, hey – maybe the skull just isn’t Mozart’s?

I love this one: when the skull showed up at the Mozarteum in 1902, “museum staff found it creepy. Prior to being pulled from view museum staff reported strange phenomena they believed emanated from it, staff claiming to have heard music even screams emanating from the cabinet in which it was displayed.” Now, that may be a way to get some young people interested in classical music...

This report, despite a few inaccuracies which make me wonder if the rest of it is true or not, mentions the skull’s career from the time it was exhumed – or can we say, “robbed” – by the gravedigger at the St. Marx Cemetery. But perhaps “robbed” is not accurate here, since the remains were being dug up to be reburied elsewhere (possibly even pulverized before re-internment: one could argue he in fact “saved” the skull from the same anonymous fate of the rest of the skeleton. Here, it seems, we find the gravedigger knew “what Mozart's ultimate fate would be[,] so [he] had tied wire around his corpse[‘s] neck to enable him to distinguish the remains from the others[;] knowing the exact location of the body[,] he sought it out and saved the skull from the bone crusher.” From there, he gave it to a friend who in turn gave it to a friend in 1842 who, after he died in 1868, bequeathed it to his brother, a Viennese phrenologist. When he died, his wife kept the skull until she died in 1901 after which it wound up at the Mozarteum.

Apparently some of the owners had the same creepy reports of eerie music and other manifestations coming from the skull. There’s still time for Hollywood to make a movie out of this, you know!

Okay, I’m being less than reverent here, mostly because I’m not into relics, the hype about the Mozart Year was one thing and the hype about the skull was quite another. Fortunately, Mozart’s music, whether it came from the genius possibly once encased in this skull or not, is far better than all of this circus combined.

I hear spooky music emanating from my study! Do I have some skull lurking on my bookshelves? Oh, no... it’s just my cat Murphy, parading up the piano keyboard: it’s past her feeding time.

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

It seems part of the problem with finding the DNA samples that could’ve verified the identity of the Mozart Skull might rest with the relatives chosen by the scientists. The assumption was the skeleton of a young woman was “apparently” that of Mozart’s niece Jeanette who died at the age of 16. So apparently they are not sure whose bones are whose? I had misunderstood earlier reports which seemed to describe either a crypt or some kind of vault, but in reality the “Mozart Family Grave” in Salzburg’s St. Sebastian Cemetery is a typical burial plot as can be seen from these two photographs, posted at and

The tombstones at the plot indicate there are six people buried there. Maynard Solomon, in his excellent biography “Mozart: A Life” (1995) mentions seven but does not include one name clearly visible on the tombstones, nor does he mention her in his biography at all. The news reports mention there were nine bodies found in the grave.

Solomon mentions (on p.502) the following residents of the Mozart grave in Salzburg's St. Sebastian's Cemetery:

Leopold Mozart, the composer’s father
Euphrosenia (Eva Rosina) Pertl (mother of Anna Maria Pertl Mozart, Mozart’s mother)
Jeannete von Berchtold, daughter of Nannerl Mozart von Berchtold (died at 16)
Georg Nikolaus Nissen, 2nd husband of Constanze
Constanze, Mozart’s widow (died 1842, at 80)
Aloysia Weber, sister of Constanze (died 1839, in her late-70s)
Sophie Weber, sister of Constanze (died 1846, at 83)

Not mentioned in Maynard Solomon’s “Mozart” is Genofeva Weber, Constanze’s aunt and mother of Carl Maria von Weber: she died 1798 while her son studied with Michael Haydn in Salzburg. Yet her name is clearly identified on the one marker beside the central monument.

Now, keep in mind that Leopold Mozart despised the Weber family: after he managed to quash his son’s interest in marrying Aloysia Weber, he was convinced Frau Weber was determined to snare Mozart for one of her two remaining unmarried daughters, Sophie or Constanze, especially after Mozart rented a room from the Webers once he settled permanently in Vienna in 1781, far away from Leopold’s daily control. He refused to give Wolfgang his blessing regarding his impending wedding and only reluctantly granted his permission for him to marry her, a letter that arrived in Vienna the day after the wedding which Mozart had been very careful not to mention to his father.

It is interesting to note that Leopold Mozart had his own family problems as a young man: after dropping out of school and then being expelled once he decided to resume his studies, he also was in love with a young woman, the daughter of an impoverished family in Salzburg, whom his mother back home in Augsburg did not approve of. Without her official permission (and before he had obtained the necessary license from the city of his birth), he secretly married Anna Maria Pertl. When his mother discovered this, she refused to grant him the ‘dowry’ she had given her other children upon their marriages (it was the equivalent of a year’s salary at the time) and they remained estranged for the rest of her life, though she lived till her grandson, the composer, was 10 years old. During one of their numerous tours around Europe, Leopold returned home with both his children for a series of performances but no one from the Augsburg branch of the Mozart family bothered to attend. In fact, Leopold’s mother never even saw her two grandchildren. Considering the parallels with his son’s marriage to Constanze Weber, I wonder if Leopold appreciated the irony?

This may also explain the episode near the end of his life with "Little Leopold," Nannerl's first-born son, whom he demanded to have live with him rather than with his mother so he could raise him and turn the boy into another amazing prodigy, a plan that was cut short by the elder Leopold's death! Poor Nannerl, first sacrificing her own musical talent to the greater glory of her brother, and then giving up her own son for two years to see the whole scheme ostensibly played out again!

Though Constanze, Mozart’s wife, had never been accepted into the Mozart family by Leopold or Nannerl, she later petitioned to have her second husband buried in the Mozart family grave in Salzburg. A year later, Nannerl changed her will to announce her intention not to be buried there. Ultimately, Constanze allowed her two sisters to be buried there as well, so ultimately Leopold Mozart found himself resting eternally amidst the whole lot of the Weber Family he despised – speaking of turning over in one’s grave...

Since the DNA has to be traced through the female line, the only ones who might possibly yield anything conclusive would be Mozart’s maternal grandmother and his niece. Since neither of the two subjects taken from the family grave even matched each other, it’s possible the scientists might have gotten one of the Weber sisters (both of whom were elderly when they died) and, perhaps, Constanze’s aunt-by-marriage (and therefore no blood-relation to either the Mozarts or the Weber sisters).

By the way, it should be pointed out – since many people dislike Constanze even today, considering her self-centered and condemning her for turning her widowhood into a kind of cottage industry – the fact her marker is the focus of the grave is not her doing as is often mentioned: in 1855, in advance of the centennial of his father's birth, Karl Thomas Mozart had a new monument built to replace the original and much decayed tombstone at his mother's grave.

Apparently the plan was then to exhume Mozart’s sister Nannerl who, after deciding she didn’t want to share the family plot with Constanze after all, chose to be buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery, near the grave of family friend Michael Haydn, a court composer at Salzburg and perhaps better known as the younger brother of Franz Josef Haydn. Apparently Michael Haydn’s heart was buried separately from the rest of him, encased in this shrine (though hopefully he was able to hang on to his skull). Curiously, there is an old tradition that Nannerl’s grave is actually empty. Mysteriouser and mysteriouser...

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Image credits: Image credit: Some Skull that could be the one they think is Mozart’s skull (or maybe not) from the Mozarteum, unless it’s just clip art, found at

If you’re familiar with the famous
Mozart Bullets, those delicious candies that are a must-have souvenir of Salzburg, you’ll enjoy the “Mozartkugel take-off” (see above) which I found posted at a truly amusing but now long gone blog where I also found a link to Mozart’s Own Blog (once more, a healthy dose of “suspension of disbelief,” maestro, if you please).

Dr. Dick

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Music for the End of Time

With Election Day now being counted down in single digits, I’m not writing about the end of an interminable campaign or the fact the 2012 Presidential campaign is already heating up (will it never end...?).

I’m not writing about what many on both sides assume the out-come of that election will be if their candidate doesn’t win.

I’m not writing about all the wars (not just the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan), the scientific evidence of something called “Global Warming,” the crisis on Wall Street or its impact on an already damaged world much less other issues, political and moral, that many call “a sign of the times.”

I’m writing about a simple piece of music.

Not that it’s really all that simple. You can hear it for yourself this weekend here in Central Pennsylvania when the ensemble Antares comes to Harrisburg to perform it on a program at Market Square Church, Saturday evening at 8pm as Market Square Concerts’ season continues. Eric Riley, the organist at the church, will also perform Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us) from La Nativité du Seigneur. Also on the program will be a suite from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and the Piano Trio by Maurice Ravel.

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You would think a composer planning a work inspired by an apocalyptic theme – nothing less than the End of the World as we know it – would write it for a vast orchestra with a huge brass section (with at least seven trumpets), probably numerous choruses and several vocal soloists to give proper weight and power to the terrifying words of the last book of the Bible.

At the time of the premiere of this work, Olivier Messiaen (photographed here in 1946) was a prisoner-of-war which had something to do with the fact such a piece of music – complete with a “Dance for the Seven Trumpets” – was composed for only four instrumentalists.

The first people to perform and to hear this amazing music were not sitting in a famous concert hall in Paris but in a Nazi prison-camp on a cold day in January, 1941. Scored only for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, it was called “Quartet for the End of Time.”

December marks the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Olivier Messiaen who, recognized as one of the greatest composers in the world when he died in 1992, was at the forefront of New Music at often as he was an outsider. His style changed as he evolved – as did Stravinsky’s or Beethoven’s – and he introduced concepts from the wider world into his own musical vocabulary – as did Debussy or Bartok – that creates an innately unmistakable voice. At heart, a “Catholic Mystic” who brought a bit of the Medieval Past into the 20th Century Present long before the pop world became fascinated by Gregorian Chant, he also absorbed serial techniques and applied them to aspects of music other than just the notes. He built vast structures out of smaller building blocks borrowed from Indian music. He collected the songs of birds from around the world and quoted them in his music as other composers collected and quoted folk-songs. Time, in many of his works, stands utterly still whether it’s in the static meditations of his opera, St. Francis of Assisi or the ecstatic whoops in some of the wilder moments of his Turangalila Symphony. The Quartet is certainly his most famous single work and probably the most frequently performed: every time it is, it’s an event to experience.

Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is a long work in eight movements that alternates between despair, terror and hope. With its emotional sweep, this is a work that must be as emotionally draining to play as it is difficult technically to perform. One of the biggest challenges, after all that, is for the clarinetist and the cellist to sit absolutely still during the final movement so as not to distract from the violinist and the pianist!

The clarinet’s solo movement, “The Abyss of the Birds,” covers an enormous dynamic range between the low-register despair of the abyss itself and the contrasting innocent-sounding bird-song which is the element of hope: beginning almost imperceptibly, the sound grows sometimes to a roar, sometimes to a wail, without ever distorting its core. The two serene movements, the meditations on Jesus’ eternity and on His immortality, are almost motionless but with an intensity that underscores the simplicity of the music to bring out its interior ecstasy, supported just with simple steady chords, the pulse behind the music but also the world-force that rises at the climaxes to drive the music into another sphere of awareness.

There are, considering the subject with many of the movements’ titles taken from The Book of Revelation, more violent moments as well – the Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets where everyone plays in unison or octaves throughout (no harmony) and the next-to-last movement depicting the angel who announces the End of Time – that in some performances sounded more apocalyptic to me than I thought possible with only four players and more fearsome than I remembered them in the several live performances and recordings I’ve had the chance to experience since I first heard the work when I was a student at Susquehanna University in the early-70s.

This is music Olivier Messiaen composed while being held as a prisoner-of-war in a Nazi prison camp in World War II. The music is inspired by lines from the Revelation of St. John (most of Messiaen’s music in based directly or indirectly on his strong Catholic faith). How do you write a piece like this, with its implication of the end-of-the-world, when you are a prisoner-of-war in a Nazi prison camp? If you’ve ever been distracted from something you really needed to focus on, perhaps by the radio in your co-worker’s cubicle, the every-day sounds of life coming from your neighbors, or the incessant jangling of the telephone, multiply that by the questions and privations of living (if one can call it that) in a prison camp! This was not a concentration camp – Messiaen was in the army and had been captured by the Germans following their invasion of northern France – but it was, still, a prison camp, and the composer, his performers and his audience were all prisoners. I can think of no other great musical work of art that came about under such circumstances.

The story Messiaen tells may be slightly different from the reality of the events themselves. The instruments were certainly not in the best shape: he said the piano was missing some keys and then there is the legendary cello with only three strings which may have been a partial fabrication of the composer’s memory (the cellist apparently chided Messiaen later for this little-white-lie, saying “I had four strings and you know it”). He and the cellist met the clarinetist, Henri Akoka, on the train while the prisoners were being transported to the prison. Akoka had his clarinet with him and the first performance of the solo clarinet movement of the Quartet, “The Abyss of the Birds” (or at least a draft of it), took place in an open field during their move from France to Stalag VIII-A in Silesia (now in Poland).

The idea of the entire work appears to have begun before Messiaen was captured: the “Abyss” may have been composed en route to the prison. What could be more of an abyss than being in a train herded across Europe to an unknown future? It is true that the commandant of the camp cut Messiaen some slack and German guards supplied him with manuscript paper and pencils so he could compose. It is also true, ultimately, that Messiaen, a recognized composer even before his incarceration, was released because of his status as an artist, and the other three musicians of that performance were released with him. Though the clarinetist, a Jew, would survive the war, his father would die in another Nazi prison camp, one that had become a concentration camp instead.

The musical language is Messiaen’s own, using Hindu rhythms to create great palindromic phrases that ebb and flow in units of time outside the standard Western Classical vocabulary, melodies that are built on scales of an equally exotic nature and harmonies that, on one hand, are based on “non-traditional” chords that have their own inner logic and tension but, on the other hand, can often be pure traditional triads, sometimes with added notes that remind one of popular songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s.

At one of those “talk-back” session at a recent performance I heard, one questioner asked about this language and remarked that, for a composer who had won a conservatory prize in counterpoint (the art of creating a harmonically integrated fabric out of recognizably independent musical lines: you might think of a round as its most innocent form, or a fugue as a more intellectual conception), there was almost no counterpoint in this piece.

True, in the more limited 18th Century sense of the word: but in the opening movement, for instance, Messiaen creates a sense of suspended time with each instrument playing an independent and virtually unchanging line without apparent reference to one another, a “temporal” counterpoint not too far removed from the opening of Schubert’s expansive C Major String Quintet, another work that manages to suspend a listener’s sense of time, with its interior line of long sustained chords moving slowly in between the cello in the bass and a bird-like line of the first violin.

This is just one element of the variety of textures Messiaen employs throughout his great musical arc: as it begins with time suspended in the liquid flow of all four instruments, it ends with the simple heart-beat-like pulsations of the piano’s supporting chords for one final meditation rising to the heavens and ultimately beyond the scope of our hearing and our earthly experience.

Alex Ross wrote of this music, in a 2004 article in the New Yorker magazine, “In the end, Messiaen’s apocalypse has little to do with history and catastrophe; instead, it records the rebirth of an ordinary soul in the grip of extraordinary emotion, which is why the Quartet is as overpowering now as it was on that frigid night in 1941.”

It is a long work, as I mentioned, but how long in most performances I’ve been lucky to hear, I couldn’t tell you: if the performers manage to translate Messiaen’s transcendence of time with the proper intensity, it becomes but the flash of a moment, one that may live long in your memory.

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Photo credit: an uncredited photograph posted at Wikipedia and used here under the terms of fair use.

While we celebrate the Messiaen Centennial this year, you can also read about another composer who will be on hand to celebrate his 100th Birthday in December: Elliott Carter.

And, on a lighter note or two, you can also read about another election (of sorts) between two unlikely candidates, including one who has a slightly different approach to the End of the World.

-- Dr. Dick

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Confluence of Times: Hearing Elliott Carter's String Quartets

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Elliott Carter’s music, with a pile of CDs on my desk and a handful of scores, ranging from the Concerto for Orchestra to the 4 Lauds for Solo Violin. In April, I heard the world premiere (twice) of his Clarinet Quintet which he’d finished the previous September, saying rather blythely “and I’ve written several works since then.”

Since July, I have sat down with all of the quartets and followed them with the scores (I wasn’t able to get the 5th - out-of-stock - and the 1st is still in one of those boxes yet to be unpacked). Listening to the 5th the other night reminded me of one of the most significant musical experiences I’ve had in my creative life: hearing all five of these incredible works live in one concert.

Granted, his music is not likely to be high on the list of most popular composers, but he is probably the most influential composer in my creative life. Regarded as a composer of some of the most complex music being written in the past 60 years, Carter will be turning 100 in about six weeks and this past year's celebration marking his “100th Year” will soon transform into his Centennial Birthday Celebration. He’s the composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall this season and they’ll be premiering a new work of his the night of his 100th Birthday!

He’s probably best known for his string quartets, certainly the most significant cycle of works in the genre since Schoenberg and Bartok. I heard the Composers Quartet play “All Three” of the Carter Quartets thirty years ago and ended up sitting directly behind the composer at the performance. In late January earlier this year, I heard the Pacifica Quartet play “All Five” of the Carter Quartets and I wondered, while the composer would be in attendance, how close would I be able to get to him?

John Clare, a guy who has interviewed more living composers than most of my fellow musicians could even name and who has a special regard for Carter and his music, talked me into going to this concert and got the tickets set up with the cry of ROAD TRIP.

We made no plans to meet anyone else there, but grabbing a quick pre-concert dinner, we ran into a friend of mine from my UConn & NYC days, DG, whom I’d seen maybe twice in the past seven years now, all three of us shuffling off to the New York Society for Ethical Culture on Central Park West that is the temporary home of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center while Alice Tully Hall is closed for renovations.

The Pacifica Quartet have made quite a name for themselves, championing all of Carter’s challenging quartets and playing them the way other groups play Beethoven or Bartok – individually, in groups, in complete cycles. I’d heard them play the 1st in Harrisburg a few seasons ago with Market Square Concerts, a performance they played with all the intensity and assuredness as if it were in fact Late Beethoven they were offering us. They had just released a new recording on the Naxos label of the 1st and 5th quartets, the first in a series of the complete quartets which can’t be released fast enough for me. Ever the champions, they’d commissioned him to write them a new quartet which he joked, once he reaches 100 he may just have some time for it.

The performance space itself was actually designed as a lecture hall very similar to a church: a wooden thrust stage surrounded by an amphitheater of wooden pews on various levels. We stood in the narrow area that passes for a lobby, DG and I standing near the Naxos CD display, listening to the clanking of the radiators and watching the audience as it entered from the blustery January night. I wonder how many of these people had attended the performance I was at 30 years ago? Many looked like they would’ve been in their 30s and 40s then. But there were many who were also clearly 20-and-30-somethings now: by the time they become grey-haired concertgoers, the composer would probably no longer be in attendance at such an event...

And then we realized the elderly gentleman being guided toward the bench opposite us was the composer himself. Elliott Carter at 99, dressed in an overcoat and a lambs wool cap pulled down over his ears, frail (but only with one cane: I’ve seen him photographed walking with two) but looking remarkably unlike a soon-to-be Centenarian. I just stood there and gazed at him the way a kid would gawk at a hero he just ran into unexpectedly on the street. It was a private moment and yet no one wanted to intrude on his privacy and he, for one, did not look around in any attempt to engage anyone else. And we respected that. In fact, I think some of us were reverencing that. When his secretary came over to escort him into the theater, I felt I wanted to go over and touch the bench.

(Over thirty years ago, standing in line to buy tickets for a concert at the 92nd Street Y, I realized the guy in front of me was Elliott Carter. I think I let out a little gasp. Anyway, somehow a conversation started. “Are you a composer?” he asked me. When I told him I was teaching at the University of Connecticut, he said “Oh, then you work with Charlie Whittenberg! He’s a very fine composer!” When I told Charlie that, he was walking on air for a week.)

When John and I found our seats, they were dead center in the auditorium but unfortunately up under the balcony. The sound it turned out was not bad and the balance was excellent. However, we were seven rows behind Carter and I decided being able to watch the composer, even if only the back of his head, was part of the “event.”

(What would it have been like to attend the premiere of Beethoven’s 9th and see the composer there? Or hear the performance of Brahms’ 4th Symphony when the composer made what was clearly going to be his last appearance in public?)

Yet here was Elliott Carter, fresh from attending a concert of his music the night before at Juilliard, with many more concerts and festivities in the year ahead: no one assumes he’s not going to be there. And this one was going to be a long concert: all five of his quartets, some very challenging music to play and listen to, much less digest. I figured it would be at least three hours long!

Carter’s music is not for the faint-of-mind. His music is often dismissed for its complexity, a style that is overly intellectualized so that the only way you can appreciate it is to bring a slide-rule to the concert. Is it music you can love? Or call beautiful? Is it something you can put on just to enjoy?

I listen to a lot of Carter. He is, basically, one of my favorite composers. Most recently, I find myself listening to the Violin Concerto and the 4 Lauds for Solo Violin over and over again, especially when I’m in the car (better than listening to the radio). A few years ago, I’m not sure I would have said I love it or that I find it beautiful in the same way I would Beethoven or Schubert. It’s not exactly background music (but then, neither is a lot of Beethoven and Schubert). But I thought differently after experiencing, not just hearing, all five of these quartets by the end of that January evening. I do love them and I do find them amazing: in spots they are incredibly dramatic and theatrical; at other times, beautiful.

One of the things that attracted me to Carter’s music years ago was his concept of “time.” There is “metrical time,” when you follow the score and see how the rhythms and meters are worked out in “real time,” what the musicians count in order to play his complex music correctly and stay together even when they're playing apart.

But there is also “audible time” which would be the phrasing you sense when you can’t “see” the beat, either on the page or from a conductor’s baton: lines that sound like they have downbeats and upbeats which set up a specific tempo yet are in contrast if not in conflict with the other instruments’ sense or senses of tempo. At times it’s hard to figure out how many actual tempos are going on, here, and then suddenly they all come together in a climax as direct as any standard harmonic progress or delineation of form from the 19th Century!

There is also gestural time, I guess you could call it, watching the musicians play their lines and seeing them sort of self-conducting the up-beats and down-beats of their individual parts. Or comparing that to watching the second violinist occasionally tap his toe (is that beat expressed by any of the instruments at the time?) or someone bringing a heel down onto the floor on a beat that is in the middle of the violist’s phrase but which marks the end of the one violinist’s line just as the cellist has started a new phrase with a fragment here, a fragment there.

Whatever time was, that evening, it was not three hours of time spent sitting in a pew. If the first quartet is over 40 minutes long, it didn’t seem half that long. The others, some only a little over 20 minutes’ length, seemed hardly to have begun when they were over.

There is also a sense of spatial time: a group of four musicians constantly divides and subdivides itself into various combinations. There are two sound-worlds of Carter’s that I love: one he marks scorrevole (scurrying) where they play extremely fast notes in long smooth bowings, though some of them may play this against the others playing long sustained intervals or perhaps sharply attacked chords that might almost sound scatter-gunned against this whispering, scurrying background.

(This morning I was listening to the Pacifica’s recording of Carter’s 1st Quartet and during one of the scorrevole sections realized I can hear mice scorrevolying around in my attic – with nine cats in the house, how can I have mice in the attic? But I digress...)

The other sound-world is the long sustained intervals at very soft dynamic levels that move almost glacially. Neither background nor foreground, it serves as a foil for other instruments to play something completely contrasting, often violently. At one point, the violence subsides until everybody is playing the long sustained tones, as if absorbed into the sense of stasis. Then just as suddenly, the scurrying may start up again as we’re off into a whole different section. The sense of texture and contrast, the variety, amazes me: like looking at a jewel in light that constantly refracts the light in new and iridescent patterns in your mind.

The quartet plays lines that flow as if they were Beethoven though created out of melodic intervals Beethoven may never have imagined; there were dotted-rhythm patterns that had the quality of swing while the cellist plunked out a walking bass right out of jazz. What, I wondered, was so terribly intellectual about all of this that it is supposed to be so unapproachable?

For the 2nd and 3rd Quartets – perhaps the two major works of the evening, both having won the composer Pulitzer Prizes in music – the Pacifica Quartet adopted slightly different seatings. Where the 1st Quartet recombines frequently – opening with a cello cadenza and ending with one for the 1st violin, and in between every possible subdivision imaginable – the four players are almost constantly separate individuals in the 2nd, each playing their own exclusive material (what passes in Carter’s musical language for melodic and harmonic invention) and rarely convening as a unified quartet. So they spread themselves out more than usual across the stage, as if being too close might engage their concentration too much. It also allows the space between their music to sound more individualized, and I was happy to be sitting in the center where the blend would be less... blendy.

The 3rd divides consistently into two duos throughout, so rather than maintain the usual configuration, the 1st violinist and the cellist are on one side of the playing area while the 2nd violinist and the violist are on the other, a space in the center between them. In this piece, the one duo plays four movements while the other plays six. They start and end together (and furiously, at that) but in between, they overlap movements here and there, sometimes one duo dropping out for a while, or sneaking back in with a reprise of some of their material as if the transmission had been interrupted only to be resumed where we left off. Seeing the separation of the duos also helped audibly define the sound of them much more clearly than you’d get from a recording. In many ways, this may be the most complicated quartet in the repertoire, yet the Pacifica Quartet played it with no less intensity than others would bring to late-Beethoven and made it seem no more difficult, either.

During the second intermission, after the 3rd Quartet, John Clare went down to talk to the composer and his secretary: they’ve been talking for a couple of years, now, about a possible interview. “Oh yes, he’s been communicating with us for quite a while about this,” his secretary told Carter who looked up and said “But I’m very busy right now – I’m working on a new flute concerto…” How amazing to think he’s 99 and writing his first flute concerto! John also asked him for his autograph, a signature that hardly shows any signs of age or infirmity (see John's photo, left). And he’d been signing plenty of autographs during both intermissions.

The 4th and 5th Quartets – written when he was 78 and 87 respectively – followed in the “third half” (we were now past the second hour), and though I’ve listened to these works a few times in the week before the concert, they sounded at times familiar and different. They work their way back from the complexity of the 3rd, less divisive and more conversational. In the 4th, it becomes at times confrontational, at other times collegial. The 5th was inspired by the idea of attending rehearsals where the musicians might try out a fragment of an upcoming passage, and then discuss how it could be interpreted, almost a play on the composer’s own sense of creative flow and how we ourselves might form ideas, discuss them, perhaps adapt them or dismiss them, bringing to the work a different sense of cooperation than one heard in the earlier quartets.

In this sense, Carter may be saying good-bye to the various approaches he’s tried out in the earlier works, but then he didn’t tell the Pacifica Quartet he wouldn’t write them a sixth quartet: he joked that by the time he’s 100, he might be ready to try another one. Perhaps hearing them play the first five, he might be inspired to find yet another solution to the problem composers have been asking since before the days of Beethoven: how do you write another quartet without writing the same thing over and over?

For all their originality, there is a great deal of common ground between them: beyond the idea of creating cooperation through conflict and communication through discourse, mostly those fingerprints of style we associate with his musical voice (the scurrying passages, the glacial sustained notes, the wildly contrapuntal tempos), the same way we might say about Beethoven or Brahms. In today’s world, many composers are chided if each new work isn’t “original,” whatever that means, accused of recycling the same old/same old rather than striving for the constantly new. But many solutions can be found using the same building blocks, retaining something familiar helping to unify the variety of solutions. And so I heard gestures and sounds in these five works (which, after all, span some 45 years of creativity) that refracted differently in each work’s overall soundscape. Part of the concept of originality is to be able to make the familiar sound fresh.

And yet for all the different senses of time expressed in this music, it never speaks of a specific time, never sounds dated. And then it struck me.

Elliott Carter has been experiencing an unprecedented creative outpouring in the past decade, not just composing at all but composing a great deal quickly. True, as someone said, “By now he’s got it down,” but here is a composer who never really worried much about what other composers and listeners thought of his music. Not from the arrogance of many of the 20th Century Serialists who, according to Milton Babbitt’s often misunderstood misquote, may have thought “Who Cares If You Listen?”, but because the strength of his own ideas and convictions gave him a sense of integrity that didn’t require any compromise.

This may go a long way to explain Rossini and Sibelius who were both insecure with their styles which had become outmoded as they passed through middle age. They each stopped composing despite the number of years they had left to live, yet Carter is still busily composing as he approaches 100 as if he may still have more time, somewhere later down the road, to rest on his laurels.

Granted, no one going to this concert could have walked in unaware of what they were about to hear, so in a large room maybe 7/8ths full, it was fair to say these were all fans and friends of Elliott Carter and his uncompromising music. People who were 20 or 80 sat in rapt attention, often smiling, always concentrated and focused on the music and its thoroughly awesome performance. The ovation at the end must have been heartwarming to a man of any age, walking carefully up to the front of the auditorium to accept the prolonged applause and cheers, proving that, despite critical brickbats and public indifference to his music over the decades, perhaps it was good after all to stick to your convictions.

Standing next to the stairwell leading down to the front entrance of the Ethical Center, I watched as Mr. Carter, sitting in a pew for 3 hours, carefully worked his way down the steps, his secretary in front, urging him on, one step at a time. “It’s scary,” the composer protested, reaching tenuously for the hand-rail, “it’s scary!” But he made it down one step at a time, just as we try to make it through one day at a time. And here he is at 99, still composing one piece at a time. There’s a life-lesson to be learned, there, in that exchange at the steps, after hearing this music.

And I – I chickened out. I did not go and get Carter’s autograph at intermission. I wanted to say something like “Thirty years ago, I attended all three of your quartets and sat right behind you. Tonight, I’ve heard all five of your quartets and sat seven rows behind you. I hope soon I’ll be able to see you again when they perform all six of your quartets and…” but I figured I would just trip over my own tongue and say something stupid like “Wow, I really love your stuff!”

Because I realized, as we left the hall, I do.

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Shortly after that concert, a friend wrote to me that he regretted not going up to meet Aaron Copland when he saw him at a 1987 recital. Copland’s health had not been good by that time and it probably would not have been much of an experience beyond being able to say “I shook the hand of Aaron Copland,” but still the idea that shaking Copland’s hand would be one degree of separation from shaking Bela Bartok’s hand as Copland had done (when Bartok’s health was not that good) at the Boston premiere of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in 1944.

My sitting behind Carter at a concert of his quartets in 1978 (when everybody was celebrating his 70th birthday and assuming there would never be any more string quartets from him) also reminded my friend that Carter sat next to Sting at a Kronos Quartet concert in New York in 1987 and neither of them knew who the other was. Of course, he added, Carter had also sat next to George Gershwin at the American Premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in Philadelphia in 1931.

It is easy to forget in today’s polarization that a composer like Gershwin could have even liked Berg’s Wozzeck, much less owned a score of it. When traveling in Europe, Gershwin met Berg (among many others) – you can read more about these connections in Alex Ross’ “The Rest Is Noise” – so the idea of a young and as yet unknown Elliott Carter sitting next to Gershwin (four years before the premiere of Porgy & Bess) brings to mind the meeting with Berg and with Berg's association with his teacher Arnold Schoenberg who as a young man had been a friend and protege of Gustav Mahler.

Sometimes when we listen to music, we hear echoes of the past. There’s a spot in Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, the “Resurrection,” that leaps out at me every time I hear it, a measure straight out of Johannes Brahms’ 2nd Symphony. And then I’m reminded of a conversation between Brahms the Old Master and Mahler the Young Radical, however apocryphal the story might be: they walked beside a stream while Brahms complained of the sorry state of contemporary music and how its greatness would die with him. Mahler took Brahms by the sleeve and pointed at the stream as they crossed over a bridge: “Look, Maestro, look!” And Brahms couldn’t see what he was pointing at. Mahler pointed again “See? It’s the last wave!”

As a young man, Brahms had met Robert Schumann who had also championed the unpublished works of Franz Schubert, having been handed a box of manuscripts by Schubert’s brother Ferdinand, a box that included the Great C Major Symphony which he passed onto his friend Mendelssohn who would conduct its first performance.

And Schubert, even if he hadn’t been at the first performance in Vienna of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (he did mention attending another performance of just the first movement the following year), had been a pall-bearer at Beethoven’s funeral the year before his own death.

The story goes that Beethoven, even before he arrived in Vienna to study with Haydn, had come to Vienna when he was 20 to scout out the scene there, hoping to arrange to study with Mozart. Whether Mozart heard him play and actually said he would “make a noise in the world some day” can’t really be separated from legend but it’s very likely that Beethoven at least met him. And if not, the connection can still be made between Beethoven and his teacher Haydn who played 1st violin in a string quartet with Mozart playing the viola and who was also a good personal friend of his.

And Mozart as a boy traveling across Europe with his father Leopold met an influential composer in London named Johann Christian Bach, whose father, Johann Sebastian Bach, was not all that well known at the time.

It had not occurred to me, seeing the back of Carter’s head as I listened to his quartets, that there sat a living connection with Johann Sebastian Bach. Not that Elliott Carter wouldn't be feeling old enough these days or even know who Kevin Bacon is either, for that matter, but still... it is interesting to think how the continuity from the past continues to manifest itself from one generation to the next even as styles change and attitudes alter.

And in a way, I find that immensely comforting.

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Photo Credits: Portrait of Elliott Carter taken by Jeff Herman; Pacifica Quartet publicity shot from their website; Naxos cover from the Pacifica Quartet's recent recording of Carter's 1st & 5th Quartets; Carter's Autograph on John Clare's program, from Classically Hip.

Additional: Hear an interview with the composer & the quartet about the new Pacifica CD.
Read the New York Times review by Steve Smith. Read John Clare's 5 Things About the Carter Quartets.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Kittehs 1.5

Today, the Kittens of Mass Distraction celebrate their 1½ Birthday. It was 18 months ago just before 9am when I walked into the master bathroom where I’d sequestered the very pregnant Frieda Farrell, a stray cat I’d just rescued from the streets of Harrisburg two days earlier, and heard this odd little whimpering sound. When I located it from underneath the toilet tank back in the corner, there she was, surrounded by five little wet globs of fur, three orange ones, a white and a black one.

Originally the black one would be named Guy Noir and the white one Blanche, hoping the genders would work out accordingly.

Eventually, it was discovered they did not. So the white male (actually a cream tabby) became Guy Noir (see below right) and the black female (actually a tortoiseshell with some pale orange tiger-stripes barely visible under the black, a jaunty little white bib and an orange patch on the belly) became Blanche (see left, here with her mom taken earlier today). It was later decided, in a move to expunge certain associations from recent memory, the cream tabby’s name was changed to the more generic Fred. I considered changing Blanche, having now broken the Blanc et Noir symmetry, to Ethel but Blanche seemed a good name for her, coloring aside.

The three orange tabbies were easily named: being unable to tell them apart, they became Abel, Baker and Charlie, from the “phonetic alphabet” used by American soldiers during World War II. (Continuing the trend for the remaining two would have resulted in Dog and Edward according to one source, though I kind of like Delta and Echo, from another source. Hey, Sierra and Tango would’ve been cute, too... Hmm, could they stand yet another name-change – at their age, now?)

The problem has always been telling which one was Abel, Baker or Charlie. I look at some of their kitten-pictures and think “oh, I labeled that wrong, that’s not Charlie, that’s Baker.” Then, who knew!? It’s not easy to tell, now!

While I’d taken hundreds of pictures during their first months as they were growing up, there have been fewer since last autumn. Unfortunately, the flash also works in such a way I have lots of photos of squinting cats or closed eyes. With the 9-second delay, there are also lots of pictures of empty floor-space. (Left: Abel at play in the Cat Tube.) During their pre-dawn gymkhana or in the evening when they go into their Flying Wallenda mode, getting out the camera is kind of pointless: I should just set up a video camera and grab some stills, but I think they would all be blurs.

The other night, sitting in the living room trying to read, the older cats Max curled up tight against me and Murphy standing on the other side waiting to be skritched behind the ears, when suddenly the Wallendas went into high gear. You could hear them start from the back of the house, run down the hallway through the kitchen and into the powder room (a distance of some 70 feet), smack into the old metal wastebasket before turning en masse and charging through the living room in front of me, running the next lap back out to the kitchen or perhaps back to the far bedroom. In order to cut them off at the pass, one of the orange tabbies – who knows which one, he was just a blur – jumped up onto the recliner beside me, took a flying leap to land six feet further into the middle of the room and was now out in front. This went on for about ten minutes or so, a typical night with Nascat.

So at 1½ years, this means they are the equivalent of 21-year-old humans – assuming those 21-year-olds are the equivalent of Peter Pan crossed with Dale Earnhardt verging on The Hulk.

They had, in fact, turned out to be rather large kittens at any early age – Charlie has large paws, too, like he might still grow to be the size of a labrador – bigger than the other three adult cats I have. Max, however, is quite solid for a fat and happy 7-year-old, but I think Charlie is still physically larger from little pink nose to the tip of his tiger-ringed tail.

So I suspect their father was the hulking black stray cat I often saw in my mid-town back yard, the one I occasionally mistook for a miniature-sized dog. Frieda, who had been a rather petite ginger kitten the summer before, was no match for him. She herself is no longer the petite kitten she was when I first saw her: she is now more like a fur-bearing cantaloupe (see below).

Having nine cats, of course, does have some drawbacks – mostly of the litter box variety. While a friend of mine talks about having 18 cats in a large farmhouse – he says he cleans the litter boxes while listening to ABBA songs turning it, I guess, into some kind of aerobic exercise (that’s two things I could never imagine doing: aerobic exercises and listening to ABBA songs) – I sometimes wonder if it would be possible to have cat littler brought right to my door the way they deliver fuel oil.

When I was a kid, friends of my folks had taken in, over the years, 30 stray cats. Thirty!! That was before all the Crazy Cat Lady Ordinances were getting passed. They had converted their basement into a cat room complete with several large cat-tree platforms, old soon-to-be unstuffed chairs and a child’s back-yard sand-box for a litter box (they used a coal shovel as a scoop). In fact, the basement had one of those small ‘front rooms’ typical from that coal-burning era, where coal was delivered by a truck and dumped by a chute right into your basement. If only they could get cat litter delivered the same way... but then hauling buckets of coal ash out was no fun either. Even so, I’m trying to imagine opening 30 cans of cat food per feeding: what must the stampede have been like?

I’m also trying to imagine paying for 30 cans of cat food per feeding. That would amount to like 420 cans a week or over $120 by today’s prices! And how many tons of cat litter would it take to fill a child-sized back-yard sandbox? When I fill all nine litter boxes with fresh litter, a 20-pound container goes pretty quickly, so at $8-12 a container, that’s about... yeah, right...

Even before the kittens were at the age they should be weaned, I noticed Blanche, for one, was already nibbling at Frieda’s bowl of dry bits. The Book was telling me to moosh canned food down with a little gravy before their little mouths and teeth could handle adult canned food. And here, this kitten was already a drybivor! By the time they got to canned meat, they were woofing down 3 to 4 cans twice a day. This meant bringing home 40-45 cans a week until I thought I should just wear a special t-shirt for the check-out line – “Yes, I Have 9 Cats.”

Now, fortunately, Frieda and all five of her kittens have sworn off canned food, eating only dry food which I can get in large bags at considerable savings. Only the two oldest cats eat canned food any more – Murphy, the Russian Blue, who is a spry 15-year-old and likes the gravy, mostly, and Sieti who is 14½ and not doing too well (she had 11 teeth pulled last winter - the little dentures were just going to be too much to deal with...).

The attempt to find homes for three of them – I had decided quite early I would keep two of them (the white and black one) and, at least until she got acclimated, the mother – but that proved futile. The closest I got was a woman who saw the flier I’d posted at my vets. She wasn’t a client there, she just called to see if anybody had kittens. But they didn’t have a car, our schedules didn’t jive, I was out with a cold much of that week, and their story got stranger and stranger: she went from saying they would take one kitten to taking all of them, including my older cats, if I was overwhelmed by caring for them. They were living in a hotel-apartment near a hospital and her husband had a temporary job “within walking distance” – at the hospital? They lived out-of-state and had cats at their original home – so I was wondering why they would need some just for their temporary place here – and it just started sounding too uncomfortable. Were they recruiting cats for lab experiments? I decided to keep all the cats or at least make sure they only went to friends I knew. Two or three expressed interest – fine – but then changed their minds. So I still have all five of the kittens.

Now, at 18 months – or 21 human years – they are hardly kittens anymore. But hey...

Charlie, whom I thought might grow up to be an orange labrador, has turned out to be a retriever after all. He is the second cat I’ve ever had who fetches, my very first cat, the black cat Chaumleigh, being the other one. And I mean he fetches – he will bring a toy or a wad of paper and drop it by my feet when I’m sitting at the piano trying to concentrate. And since I’m not really doing anything important, he feels, I might as well toss it back down the hall for him. This can go on a dozen times or more. Eventually, he’ll give up when I stop responding but not before I’ll have three or four toys or paper-wads by the damper pedal...

I also found I can no longer just crumple up a bad sketch to throw in the wastebasket. At the mere hint of paper-crumpling, at least four kittens will appear from nowhere, eagerly awaiting me to throw it down the hall. Even when they were a few months old, Charlie usually got the ball and an 8½x11 sheet of paper was about equal to the size of a kitten. He would grab this in his mouth, barely able to drag it around the floor, growling like a lioness with a gazelle as the others followed in pursuit. Now six times that size, he still growls, but the others know better.

The other day, I saw there was a small catnip mouse on the top shelf of a bookcase. It seemed an odd place for them to leave one there, and I wasn’t even sure they could’ve gotten onto that shelf (others, yes, and jumping up to the top of them, depending on what launching pads there might be nearby, no problem) until I noticed Abel, playing with another toy, tossing it high in the air like a kid trying to pitch and bat a baseball by himself. Up it went, arcing in the air and the cat jumped and batted it with a paw and – wham – it landed right on the top shelf of the tall bookcase, a good five feet off the floor.

(Other cats have been inclined to sports as well: Chaumleigh used to batter down a standing paper shopping bag until it was shaped kind of like a soccer goal. Radar, the blind cat I’d rescued from the streets of New York, would sit in front of the opening like a goalie. Chaumleigh would then shoot a small paper-wad toward the goal but rarely managed to get one past Radar who could lunge to the right or left and shoot it back to Chaumleigh with ease. I’m not sure what it did for the two cats, but it afforded a lot of entertainment to the unbelieving humans who’d sit and watch this for 15 minutes at a time before the cats decided, “okay, enough of that - what else is there?”)

For a long time, Frieda remained eternally elusive or at least reclusive, the Greta Garbo of cats. Even after the kittens had been given the run of the house (and I do mean “run”), it took her another month or two to emerge from the back bedroom where the kittens were born and raised. One night, I came home and found her curled up on one of the chairs in the living room, though she wouldn’t let me get too close to her. Eventually she’d come out to be fed with everybody else but always aloof and waiting until I walked away. It was 10 months before I even got a chance to touch her after that first night when I’d caught her. A few months later I was actually able to pet her, nuzzling the back of her head and behind one ear. She turned and looked at me with the kind of expression that says “wow, what was that? That felt good!” Then she became less wary and would stand there to be skritched and nuzzled. Hold her? Well, maybe for 2 seconds before she’d turn into a windmill.

She still is wary of others. N who stops by on weekends sometimes has only seen her twice in the last 18 months and usually just her back end as she scoots out of the living room and down the hall to the safety of the bedroom. When his car pulls away, I’ll walk back into the house and there she is, in the kitchen, ready to be petted and scratched. Go figure.

A couple weeks ago, she started curling up on top of my bed rather than hiding underneath it. Rarely a playful cat, yesterday she was chasing her tail while lying on her side and back, a feline version of break-dancing. Then she rolled over for a tummy-rub. That night I was able to hold her for two minutes before she said, “okay ‘nuf, down now.”

The other morning I woke up and realized I was unable to move. After a wave of fear subsided, I discovered the reason: I was surrounded by five cats - Max, Frieda and three kittens - completely hemmed in, front and back. One of the benefits of having so many cats on the bed, added warmth aside, is that when they start purring (and Max and Charlie can purr like outboard motors) it turns the bed into a vibrator bed.

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The cat pics in this post were mostly taken this morning or in the last couple of days except for the second one, a July portrait of the very handsome Fred. The top photo is of Blanche and her mom, Frieda, enjoying a quiet moment on my bed this morning. I managed to catch Abel playing in the little-used cat tube: in another photo he is lying on his back, hanging out the front of the tube with his paws crossed like a vampire getting ready for the night.

The low bookcase under the bedroom window, next to my computer desk, is a favorite location. They will sit there and look out at the birds in the tree or in the side yard. May Sarton, in her delightful book The Fur Person called this “reading the paper.” Above, Abel (standing) and Charlie read the morning edition (Blanche is barely visible behind them). This is Blanche (left) telling the others “You should see this squirrel on page one!”

Then there’s the elusive Baker on my bed this morning, squinting at the camera. Earlier this month, I caught Charlie and Freddy watching me from the one window as I put bird seed out on the back porch so they’d have something entertaining to watch... Last night, I caught Abel in an uncharacteristic pose, sound asleep on some old jeans ready for the laundry.

Here’s Frieda (right), looking very contented as the Mother of All Furballs. It’s amusing to see her standing in the kitchen when I toss a catnip mouse down the hall way and all of her kittens go chasing after it as they leap around and over her. She has this look of surprise and awe mixed with a bit of “what have I done?”

But now it’s time to hit the litter-boxes and then get to the piano: I’m starting the last segment of the violin-and-piano piece which could mean in a few days the whole piece will be done. That’s something else I’ve been meaning to blog about in the last five months I’ve been working on it but it always seemed better to do some composing than procrastinate by blogging...

Here is one last pic, today, one of my favorites taken last year when they were like seven weeks old. The Three Blonds: Baker, Charlie and Abel (who is telling Charlie to move over just a bit)...