Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tchaikovsky's One Minute Work-Out: Trepak!

One of the things any artist must do – a musician, a dancer, an ice-skater, a skate-boarder – is make it look easy. No one wants to see you look like, “wow, ya know, this is really hard work!”

Here’s a very short dance from Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker” as a case in point (or a “casse noissette en pointe”)… 

I know, it’s easy to overdose on Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” at this time of year but one of my all-time favorite dances is the Russian Dance, the “Trepak,” which is part of the entertainment (or divertissement) in the second act of the ballet.  (The Trepak is originally a Cossack dance from Ukraine, particularly the area around Kharkov. Here is an example of some standard Cossack dance 'moves' as performed by Russian dancers during an American basketball game (!!!) - see especially c.0:40 into the clip as the one guy demonstrates how they "dance on the seat of their pants.")

In most productions of the complete ballet, the dancers in each of the individual dances that make up the suite perform only their one dance. So, yes, they only dance for about a minute out of the whole evening, but I think you’ll realize how much work they’re doing in that one minute!

In this Royal Ballet production, talk about coordinating dance-steps to music! (The still photo – see above – is not from this video but it is from this production – you can see how high these guys actually leap and how well they’re positioned as if hanging in mid-air.)
I hadn’t seen the San Francisco Ballet production before and while it’s exciting, I’m not sure how it happens, but it looks like all three of them add an extra beat about halfway through – it looks like all their downbeats happen on the music’s up-beats and then they don’t end with the music! But they’re together! Maybe that’s what the choreographer wanted…   
This performance, one of many performed by local companies around the country, features three young boys combining dance with gymnastics. Talk about energy!

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One of the great traditions of ballet is the “love duet,” the pas de deux and one of the most beautiful is the one in “The Nutcracker.” This performance, from the American Ballet Theater’s production in 1977, turns the “dance for two” into a “dance for three,” adding the character Drosselmeyer who, in the first act, had presented Clara with her toy nutcracker – after the battle with the mice, he’s turned into a handsome prince (in her dream, that is). Usually, Drosselmeyer is an eccentric toy-maker with an eye-patch who seems at times mysterious and, other times, a bit evil. In this production, he’s more of a wizard (dressed in black like a regulation bad guy) controlling Clara.

Here’s Mikhail Baryshnikov as the Nutcracker Prince with Gelsey Kirkland as young Clara (in some productions, she’s called Marie). Alexander Minz is Drosselmeyer. This clip begins with the end of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy followed by a fast dance for both the Clara and the Prince dancing sometimes separately and sometimes together, then finally becomes the great “duet.”
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While much of the famous suite from Tchaikovsky’s ballet ended up in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, another favorite scene of mine from this 1940 animated classic is their version of another well-known ballet, “The Dance of the Hours.” This music sounds light-hearted and delightful – it’s part of an after-dinner entertainment in the midst of a very bloody opera called La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli.

It has survived countless parodies – including Alan Sherman turning it into a letter a boy sends home to his family from summer camp (“Hello, Mother; Hello, Father; here I am at… Camp Regata”) but none funnier than seeing it performed by dancing ostriches, hippos, elephants and crocodiles.

Naturally, ballet dancers are graceful and exquisite and delicate. And these animals are, well… not so much… There are many inside jokes but I think even if you’ve never seen a ballet before, you would still find it funny. I thought it was very funny when I was 6 years old and saw it for the first time. After I’d played piano in a ballet school in New York City when I was in my late-20s, rediscovering it for the first time in years, I thought it was hysterical. Even now, each time I see it, I continue laughing.

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With best wishes for this season of holidays,

- Dick Strawser

Friday, December 16, 2011

Beethoven and His Women

Since today is traditionally regarded as Beethoven's Birthday, I thought I would repost this – a long one, sorry – originally a transcript of a pre-concert talk I gave for the all-Beethoven program on April 15th in 2005 as part of Gretna Music’s Beethoven Quartet Cycle that season, where each pre-concert talk focused on some aspect of “Beethoven and...”

My topic was to be “Beethoven and Women.” Even though I tried trimming it down, there’s still a lot of information. My intent wasn’t to explain the specific pieces on the program but give some personal background that would allow one to hear these works, written at three different stages of Beethoven’s life, in a different context, a chance to think about Beethoven a little differently – maybe not as a hero with some clay on his feet (he was, after all, human, too) but at different stages in his relationships with the women in his life: the young sought-after piano teacher who'd just written the Early Quartets, always in love though never able to obtain the love-he-sought because of his social status... then, with the Middle Quartets, written when he seems to be on the verge of marrying SOMEone and eventually finding (and losing) the love-of-his-life, the Immortal Beloved... then, in the years following that, perhaps resigned to single-hood and dealing with his deafness, the sister-in-law and the nephew, finding a whole different plane of inward existence in the Late Quartets that can still inspire and amaze us today.

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Dr. Franz Wegeler, one of Beethoven’s oldest friends in Bonn, wrote that Beethoven “was always in love – sometimes so successfully that many handsome young men might have envied him!” Another doctor who treated him over a period of 10 years, around the time he composed his middle-quartets, wrote that Beethoven had a preference for graceful and fragile women (which incidentally reflected the physical type of his mother) but he usually kept their identities a secret from his friends and quite possibly from the women themselves.

That may not be the typical image we have of Beethoven the Composer – the titan with the unruly hair and a glower like he’d have lightening-bolts coming out of his eyes as if he were always under the power of inspiration, striding across the ages as one of the greatest creative artists known to man. Knowing what we know of Beethoven, can you imagine him being married: dealing with noisy children, changing diapers, taking out the trash...?

What affect would married life have had on his solitary existence that brought out such lofty or intensely personal statements in his music, like the 9th Symphony or the late quartets? Being deaf and socially isolated was one thing but being alone was another form of isolation: the two together must’ve had some impact on his creative soul. Would domestic bliss have softened the edges? Would there have been domestic bliss? Who knows... the games one can play with “what if” are endless, not to mention pointless.

The first known identity of a woman Beethoven was attracted to was Jeannette Honrath of Cologne - she was blonde, vivacious (what we might call bubbly today) but had a strong feeling for music. Keep in mind Beethoven was around 20 at the time – she was visiting her friends the von Breunings and Beethoven was a close friend of their son Stephan who, as it turned out, was more openly infatuated with Ms. Honrath. Certainly, if she had a choice in the matter, she would probably have chosen the aristocrat’s handsome son and not the headstrong son of a simple musician, however much she liked music. There was also a Fräulein Westerhold – an unrequited flirtation that was probably more a distraction from court business though one he would remember later fondly as “Fräulein von W.”

Perhaps the strongest affection from his days in Bonn was for the sister of his friend Stephan von Bruening, Eleonore. He was introduced to the family originally by the future Dr. Wegeler when the von Breunings were looking for a piano teacher for Eleonore. He would later dedicate a piano sonata to her, but one he left unfinished, around the time he was working on the Op. 10 Sonatas in Vienna, five years after he left Bonn. In writing to her, he would address her as “Adorable Eleonore.” He still possessed a miniature portrait of her 34 years later.

There was also Babette Koch whose mother, the Widow Koch, ran one of the best high-class restaurants in Bonn where many regulars signed a farewell-book for the young composer on the eve of his departure for Vienna. Except for Babette. We know she and Beethoven danced together at a party one time, according to a friend’s letter. She was a good friend of Eleonore von Breuning’s and it seems the future Dr. Wegeler was also much smitten by her, writing in one of his letters that she was the “ideal of the perfect lady.” A year later, Beethoven wrote to Eleonore, “if you see B [Babette] Koch, tell her please I am waiting for her to answer my two letters.”

And there was the singer Magdalena Willman, a soprano from Bonn who sang in Vienna a couple of years after Beethoven had moved there. Her nephew later told the family story how Beethoven had proposed to her but she refused him because he was – quote – “too ugly and half crazy.”

There was something else that would always haunt Beethoven throughout his life: he moved in aristocratic circles, but he was not “one of them” – and however he might feel about his own position in society, society was very quick to realize exactly what he was: from the lower class.

He was of a short, stocky build with a dark complexion marred by smallpox scars, with bushy eyebrows and thick black hair that defied the best intentions of comb or brush... The piercing nature of his eyes may have been the result of near-sightedness (for a while, he wore eye glasses until he was 47) and as he aged, the hair turned quickly gray before he was 50. While there are reports that a visitor would find Beethoven, then in his 50s, decked out in a blue waistcoat with yellow buttons and spotless white pants, Weber remarked when they met a year later the Master was wearing a well-worn jacket with torn sleeves. It was around this time, when he was working on the Missa Solemnis, he was once arrested as a vagrant: the police could not believe that Herr Beethoven would dress this way! He was not the best housekeeper, either. Because he was a perpetual renter, one of his brothers once tried to throw his own social status around by signing himself as “Johann van Beethoven, Landowner” to which the composer responded as “Ludwig van Beethoven, Brain-Owner.” It was another brother’s wife who would become a very significant woman in Beethoven’s life, but more of that in a little while...

Getting back to Beethoven’s early years in fun-loving Vienna: he was much sought after as a piano teacher, going to their homes to give regular lessons in an age when young women, in order to present themselves as marriageable ladies, were expected to be proficient pianists and/or singers, in the days when families were responsible for making their own entertainment, before there were TVs, stereos and even radios. It seems, in retrospect, it must’ve been a good way to meet girls, not that we would normally call Beethoven a Babe-Magnet, but it’s possible today we might also call him “The Defendant.”

Countess Barbara von Kegelwicz lived across the street from Beethoven – the story goes that he would arrive for her and her younger sister’s lessons dressed in his robe and slippers wearing a peaked night-cap, amusing perhaps if you’re thinking an eccentric old man, but Beethoven was 27 at the time. He dedicated his Op. 7 Piano Sonata to Barbara, a sonata he dubbed the “Lovelorn Maiden” (sometimes called the “Amorous” Sonata). Two years later, he dedicated a set of piano variations to her, on Salieri’s La stessa, la stessissima from “Falstaff.” Now, if you remember the story of Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor, this is the scene in which Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page compare the love letters they have received from Falstaff and discover they are, word for word, identical. So... could it be an inside joke that Beethoven might have been accused of courting, seriously or otherwise, the Countess Barbara and her younger sister (or perhaps some other ‘lovelorn maiden’) at the same time? It seems too much of a coincidence he should choose that duet to write a set of variations for her! Then, two more years passed by when the Countess Barbara became the Princess Barbara Odescalchi – and a month after her marriage, Beethoven dedicated to her his C Major Piano Concerto, his first major orchestral work. Sounds like pretty serious stuff!

Beethoven in 1803
Ferdinand Ries, one of Beethoven’s students, described him as a hopeless flirt. When they would be out walking together, Ries would catch the Master looking longingly after or winking at some beautiful young woman. At one point, Ries was embarrassed when he showed up at Beethoven’s place for a lesson, where a beautiful young woman he did not know was sitting on the sofa. But Beethoven asked him to stay and play something for them while they sat on the couch behind his back. Then he asked him to play something “sentimental.” Then, “something melancholy.” Then, “something... passionate!” (It must’ve been like having a stereo system with remote control!) Ries later wrote to a friend that Beethoven never visited him more than when he lived in a building next to a tailor who had three “beautiful young daughters” and Beethoven often went over on errands to pick up, oh... some needles...

Giulietta Guicciardi
In 1800, now, around the time he had published his first set of six string quartets, he was giving piano lessons to another young countess, Giulietta Guicciardi. He was 30 and she was 16. It was around this time that Beethoven wrote to his Bonn friend Dr. Wegeler, mentioning the symptoms of his deafness that would lead shortly to the Heiligenstadt Testament, that otherwise “life has been a little brighter for me of late...” because “of a dear fascinating girl whom I love and who loves me.... For the first time, I feel what a truly happy state marriage might be. Unfortunately, she is not of my rank in life” – note he did not say “I am not of her rank.” The next year, he published a piano sonata which he dedicated to her, the one we know as “The Moonlight” Sonata. Many times, these dedications are afterthoughts, but did he write this romantic piece with its stormy conclusion with her – or his feelings for her – in mind? Shortly afterwards, she married a count and they moved to Italy. Many years later, when Beethoven was totally deaf, she came back to Vienna, visited him again and, as he wrote later, she “wept, but I scorned her.”

Teresa von Brunswick
Then there was another student and another dedication for a piano sonata, though not a very famous one: the little one in F-sharp Major which Beethoven always described as one of his favorites – perhaps for personal reasons rather than its musical value. Teresa von Brunswick, a cousin of Giulietta Guicciardi, may have been a little in love with her piano teacher, too. There was one story that Beethoven became so cross with her playing at one lesson, he stormed out into the stormy night without his hat or coat and Teresa went running after him with them like a valet. A servant caught up with her, seized the hat and coat and followed Beethoven himself: meanwhile, her mother gave her a good talking to and sent her to her room, (...acting like that in public over a man like that!). She wrote in her diary constantly about Beethoven as “mon maitre” and “mon maitre cheri.” After Giulietta married her count, Beethoven now turned his interest to Teresa.

Years later, Teresa told a friend who wrote this down long after Beethoven’s death that in 1806, she and Beethoven got secretly engaged, which only her brother, who idolized Beethoven, knew about. This apparently lasted for 4 years during which Beethoven composed his 4th, 5th and 6th symphonies, the 4th and 5th piano concertos, the Op. 70 Trios which I’ll mention in a minute... and the Op. 74 String Quartet, the "Harp." Like so many reminiscences about Beethoven, whether this might be factual or fantasy is open to debate, but the main reason I don’t believe it: I can’t imagine Beethoven, with his independence, putting up with a secret engagement for four years. And then, in the midst of this, he was living in an apartment at the palace of the Countess Anne-Marie Erdödy which was the closest thing to a scandalous affair as Beethoven probably came... he confided in her about Giulietta Guicciardi (but apparently not about Teresa von Brusnwick), visited her at her Hungarian country estate, dedicated the two Op. 70 piano trios to her (one of them, the Ghost Trio; but the other one has one of Beethoven’s most lovely slow movements, as friends of the Countess remarked after hearing them played at her musical parties). Finally, they broke up over same vague nastiness with a servant. For several years, they did not speak, but things smoothed out in 1815 and he dedicated to her the two Op. 102 Cello Sonatas. When money was becoming a sore point with Beethoven and he threatened to take up an offer from the King of Westphalia, she got three of her friends together, including the Archduke Rudolph, to contribute to a pension that would ease Beethoven’s financial worries and keep him in Vienna. Countess Erdödy, involved in some kinds of intrigue, was exiled from Vienna after a family fight that ended in the death of one of her sons – her arrest is described in one of Beethoven’s conversation books in 1820.

Now, all of this business with the secret engagement to Teresa von Brunswick and the possible affair with Countess Erdödy was going on around 1809 – the year the French occupied Vienna, the year Haydn died and the year Beethoven completed the Harp Quartet – and, incidentally, around the time he probably wrote a little bagatelle known as “Für Elise,” though we have no idea who Elise was. He wrote to a close friend in Freiburg to help him locate a wife. She should be “above all beautiful” and could “perhaps spare a sigh for my harmonies,” he writes, but not like Elise Bürger whose moral conduct he found scandalous, something that had brought about her recent divorce – probably not the Elise of “Für Elise” fame. Now, this friend in Freiburg was married to the sister of another of his piano students that he seemed to be infatuated with at this time, the niece of his current physician, Dr. Malfatti. It was also around this time that Beethoven wrote to his old friend Dr. Wegeler in Bonn to locate a copy of his birth certificate because he had plans on getting married. The question, naturally, was TO WHOM? We have him (maybe) secretly engaged to Teresa von Brunswick, involved with Countess Erdödy and now infatuated with Teresa Malfatti (though he did consider her flighty). Oh, and one more piano student: Teresa von Brunswick’s sister, Josephine, who’d been forced into marrying an older man who conveniently died the next year. Probably by 1809, this had pretty much played itself out. Or maybe not...

In 1810, he proposed to Teresa... Malfatti. How would this have seemed to her family: Beethoven was a 40-year-old curmudgeon; the bride-to-be was 18. The proposal, for whatever reason, was turned down. Next year, Dr. Malfatti suggested Beethoven should go to the Bohemian spa at Teplitz to “unwind.” There, among the many guests, Beethoven met the great Goethe – as well as a singer named Amalie Sebald and an actress named Rahel Levin who was with her lover, Count Karl Varnhagen von Ense. He returned the following summer and, apparently, wrote a letter on Monday, July 6th and the morning of the next day, but without adding the year which has left open the question exactly when it was written. We’re not sure he even mailed it – perhaps it was the rough draft they found in Beethoven’s desk after his death in 1827, this letter intended for someone he referred to as his “Immortal Beloved”... And now we come to one of the greatest mysteries of Beethoven’s life...

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(pretend you're reading this in a stentorian, radio-announcer voice) "The genius behind the music. The madness behind the man. The untold love story of Ludwig van Beethoven."

If you're ever seen the 1994 movie "Immortal Beloved" (the one without the Saint Bernard), please forget everything... well, almost everything you saw. It wasn't meant to be a documentary, but a little adherence to some truth might've been helpful.

Beethoven at Karlsbad in 1812
The problem is, while no one knows who the Immortal Beloved really was, this film proposed to examine three possible candidates. Beethoven's own friend, secretary and general fly-in-the-ointment, Anton Schindler, did a good deal of white-washing of Beethoven's life in the years following his death, but he thought the Immortal Beloved was probably Giulietta Guicciardi and even adjusted his ideas about when it was written by whether Giulietta was around at that particular time or not. Most scholars today think the letter (dated Monday, July 6th) was written in 1812 because it describes his arrival at the spa at Teplitz that July (when July 6th was a Monday). Since it was supposed to have been mailed to a woman staying in a town that started with a K -- possibly the spa Karlsbad, also in Bohemia - though would rule out Bettina von Arnim, whom several considered one of the candidates, because she was at Teplitz the same time Beethoven was (so there would’ve been no reason to write to her). I haven’t mentioned her yet... Beethoven wrote that he had met her and was fascinated by “the child” – she was 25 at the time – but she seemed to have an over-active imagination and later published a number of letters which were clearly forgeries, from both Goethe and Beethoven. If any of the women who’ve ever been mentioned as amorous interests of Beethoven’s, Bettina is not really one of them...

But who is the Immortal Beloved? It had to be somebody who was staying at the spa at Karlsbad... and curiously, that summer, Beethoven interrupted his stay at Teplitz and appeared, by the end of July, on the guest list at Karlsbad, though he did give a benefit concert there.

A few years later, he would admit to a new friend, Fanny del Rio, the daughter of the school-teacher (more of them, later), it would appear he had met someone he described as the love-of-his-life in 1811, the year before the letter to the Immortal Beloved. Every musicologist has a candidate for the Immortal Beloved. Some feel it was Josephine von Brunswick, Teresa’s sister, who had recently re-married – conveniently, she had a daughter born nine months after Beethoven’s stay at Teplitz: could this be Beethoven’s child?? But Josephine was in Vienna with her husband. Unless she went there under an assumed name, she wasn’t at Karlsbad that summer.

Another candidate was Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann, who was at Karlsbad that summer and to whom Beethoven later dedicated the Op.101 Piano Sonata – but she had studied with him as early as 1804 and if the later clue that he’d met this love-of-his-life in 1811, then it can’t be her, either.

But he did meet Amalie Sebald at Teplitz in 1811 but she was at Teplitz (not Karlsbad) in 1812 too, not at the same time Beethoven was, however. When he first met her, he was much charmed by her: once, when he went to visit her one evening and she was out, he left a note he signed “Ludwig van Beethoven, whom you should not forget even if you’d like to.” But there are other letters to her from Teplitz in 1812, congenial and flirtatious – she had apparently called him a tyrant which he tried to joke his way out of – but in general, the possibility the Immortal Beloved letter was also intended for her doesn’t make a lot of sense, the styles are so different. She would marry a few years later.

Another woman he met at Teplitz in 1811 was the actress Rahel Levin who was there with her lover, Count Varnhagen, a diplomat who was delighted to meet Beethoven and often acted as a go-between with other noblemen regarding the composer’s need for money. In one letter that summer he wrote that they spent a great deal of time with Beethoven who was “ready to play for Rahel but this must be kept a secret” (why?). The next summer they met only briefly and by 1814, Varnhagen was reluctant to have Rahel meet Beethoven again: perhaps there was a reason Varnhagen thought it wise to keep them separated? The couple finally married that year and it was apparently the last time either was involved with the composer.

It was in 1815, then, the year after the exotic Rahel married her diplomat, that Beethoven composed the song cycle “An die ferne Geliebte” – To the Distant Beloved. There are only a few theories about the DISTANT Beloved’s identity but most agree that the Immortal Beloved and the Distant Beloved are two separate women. I don’t know why that should be: in 1812, Beethoven was writing things to a woman he would not care for a married woman to consider (remember, his only opera Fidelio is even based on a story of the faithful loving wife) – so if the Immortal Beloved was unmarried in 1812 but was married by, say, 1814 and was therefore no longer in circulation, would she not have become the unobtainable Distant Beloved? Could Rahel have been both? Short of some other completely valid letter coming to light, we’ll never know.

Antonie von Brentano
There was also Antonie von Brentano, whose step-sister Bettina (herself a bit of a name-dropper) arranged the meeting between Beethoven and Goethe at Karlsbad in 1812 (see drawing, above). Antonie lived in Vienna between 1809 and 1812 and visited Karlsbad that summer with her husband. From there, they moved on to Frankfurt and Beethoven never saw her again. It is interesting to note that that summer she was pregnant with her last child who would be born the following March, a son named Karl.

Curiously, if the period of his infatuations – if not his “secret engagement” – from 1804-1810 was one of the most productive in his creative life, the period beginning late in 1812, after completing the 7th and 8th Symphonies, was one of the driest. There were rumors, during this time, that Beethoven was “washed up” and there were reports he was actually insane: he was aging quickly, dealing with his by now total deafness, and experiencing violent mood swings – for instance, one day writing to a friend he was a vicious dog who should be hauled off to the glue factory and the next day writing to him that he really was a sweet guy and Beethoven’d been mistaken. During these years, he wrote very little – except for “Wellington’s Victory,” some songs (including the song cycle, “To the Distant Beloved”) and the first of the late Piano Sonatas... eventually the Hammerklavier in 1817 unleashed the flood of late works that include three more sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, the 9th Symphony and the five Late Quartets. So what else was going on in his life?

Whoever the Immortal Beloved may have been, one woman it most likely was NOT was Johanna Reiss, his sister-in-law. The film “Immortal Beloved” would have us believe that they met that summer, he got her pregnant but she married Beethoven’s brother Karl instead and gave birth to a son four months after the wedding. This would imply that the Nephew was actually Beethoven’s own SON which would certainly explain his keen interest in the boy’s up-bringing. But if 1812 was the year the letter was written, Johanna Reiss married Beethoven’s brother in 1806 when her son was born, indeed four months after the wedding which caused an on-going scandal between Beethoven and his brother. However, the letter could not have been written that year because July 6th was not a Monday (as it was in 1812), so that is all mere Hollywood conjecture, regardless how theatrical. Salieri, at least, was already the traditional villain in Mozart’s death, having had to deal with rumors during his own lifetime that he’d poisoned Mozart, rumors which didn’t wait almost 200 years before Peter Schaffer’s play “Amadeus” made them famous. 

Beethoven had a habit of meddling in his younger brothers’ affairs – always fighting with Kaspar Karl about his wife Johanna and then shaming Johann into finally marrying his mistress rather than living openly with her. 1815 was also the year Kaspar Karl died, leaving a 9-year-old son named Karl, and immediately Beethoven went into action trying to gain full custody of the boy, taking the sister-in-law to court as an unfit mother, calling her The Queen of the Night, telling the court that even while her husband was alive, she would meet secretly with her lovers in their home and so on. Small wonder Johanna brought up the rumors about Beethoven’s supposed insanity as an unfit guardian for the boy and eventually debunked the claim Beethoven made about being “of the nobility” (the van/von thing)! Brother Johann, meanwhile, got into the court action by forcing the issue that Beethoven and Johanna should SHARE the guardianship of the boy! The courts’ decisions switched back and forth from one side to the other over a period of years. The composer, a deaf, irascible 50-year-old man who dealt poorly with interruptions, was probably not likely to become an instant good-father-figure to a 14-year-old boy. He put him in Giannatasio del Rio’s school – it was to del Rio’s daughter he confessed what little information we have about the Immortal Beloved’s background – but Karl ran away from there at least four times, going back to his mother each time. 

Beethoven in 1823
Over the years, as Beethoven wrote his late masterpieces, he dealt with the issue of living with Karl and fighting with Karl's mother. If any woman ever made an influence on Beethoven’s life, Johanna Reiss, the infamous sister-in-law, made the deepest impact. While we could play “what if” about Beethoven’s deafness, we could also play “what if” about how much more music he might have written if not distracted by these court cases and his nephew's up-bringing.

Fast-forwarding to 1826, Karl, who’d fallen in with a bad crowd and brought considerable grief to his uncle, tried to commit suicide and Beethoven, hoping to hush things up – especially since this was a crime in Vienna – tried getting his nephew into the army, thinking the discipline would do him good and no doubt get the boy, now 19 years old, out of his unruly hair. What was Beethoven writing at the time? His string quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131... and to whom did he dedicate this work? It seems there are no new women in his life, no one commissioned this work, so he dedicated it to Baron Josef von Stutterheim out of gratitude for his help in securing Nephew Karl a commission in his infantry regiment, though I wonder what Baron Stutterheim would make of this long, complex and deeply personal work which the audiences and even the musicians of the day had trouble comprehending.

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I began thinking about the "bad rap" Beethoven's sister-in-law got from all this and decided to do a little more digging. Given all the information that's available about his legal problems with Johanna regarding custody of the composer's nephew Karl, I’ve not come across any non-fictional source from Johanna’s view-point (or for that matter, any memoirs written by her or even a portrait of her). Just because she may have been morally lax in 1806 doesn’t mean she remained a woman of low morals 15-20 years later and would have automatically been an unfit mother for her son Karl. And of course, she also no doubt viewed the composer – whom everybody today would consider a genius – as her insane brother-in-law, so it’s no surprise her attacks may come across more shrewish than merely self-preservational: it was, after all, her son! However, it is Beethoven’s point-of-view that survives.

One thing that didn't help Johanna was having a child out-of-wedlock five years after her husband's death, courtesy of her financial councilor, Johann Hofbauer, badly timed in the midst of her court precedings against her brother-in-law, so perhaps his assessment is not all that inaccurate. The fact that Johanna, who lived into her 80s, never once wrote a word about Beethoven nor tried to defend her own reputation may also indicate there was no reputation to save.

Beethoven himself may have had a fairly "Victorian" moral attitude (pardon the time-bending) which did not always reflect the somewhat looser times he lived in. His other brother, Johann, with whom Beethoven fought constantly, decided he would marry his house-keeper, Therese, who had been his mistress. There are two stories about this: that Johann finally agreed to marry her after Ludwig kicked up a fuss; that Ludwig tried to stop the wedding because she was, after all, only his house-keeper and socially not a suitable woman to bear the Beethoven name. Regardless, Johann comes across unfavorably through the centuries as well, even though as a successful apothecary and land-owner (he had a sizeable estate in the country outside Vienna), he might easily have viewed himself as more successful (and possibly better) than his musician-brother simply on the grounds of financial worth and stability. Certainly, after his brother's death, he tried to cash in on the composer's fame and was generally regarded as all the more ridiculous for it.

Though the term "dysfunctional" may be of fairly recent vintage, the idea that one can pick one's friends but not one's relatives is certainly timeless.

- - - - - - -

In March, 1827, months after completing his last string quartets, Beethoven died at the age of 56, and when Schindler went through his Master’s papers, he found nearly indecipherable sketches for a 10th symphony... a letter written in pencil to the Immortal Beloved... and near it, a miniature portrait of... Teresa von Brunswick...

-- Dr. Dick

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Elliott Carter: Happy 103rd

Today is Elliott Carter’s birthday.

Yesterday, I was talking to some students of mine at the State Street Academy and mentioned that the compositions most people consider the first major works of the new 20th Century Style – Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – were composed around 1911-1912. Pointing out that, here we are in 2011-2012, perhaps the first “great” works in what may become the new 21st Century Style have yet to be heard, when it occurred to me Elliott Carter is actually older than Pierrot Lunaire and The Rite of Spring.

He was born in 1908.

Last Thursday, several musicians played three world premieres of works by Elliott Carter plus three additional works that had received their premieres in Europe earlier in the year. They had all been composed in the past year.

- - - - - - -
Correction: Reports I'd read in the new music press indicated three world premieres and three American premieres on the program. Since I was unable to attend, this was all I could go by. As it turned out, one of those works mentioned in the Sequenza21 post (see below) talked about the Double Trio which seemed to be a world premiere. When I've since found the 92nd Street Y's page about the concert, it indicated the Double Trio was one of the American premieres. Then, to add to the confusion, two short works composed in November were added to the program and announced from the stage! So in actuality, there were four world premieres! Thanks to Joe Barron for the correction: he was there and you can read his review here: love the bit about getting a chance to meet Carter afterwards.
- - - - - - - -

And Mr. Carter, looking frail but with a twinkle in his eyes, was in attendance and accepted the audience’s applause and birthday greetings, though his 103rd Birthday isn’t officially until today.

(You can read the New York Times review, here. The photograph of Carter (see above) taken at the performance is by Times photographer, Richard Termine. Carter is seated with Carol Archer who produced this program at the 92nd Street Y.)

There is, of course, the amazement that anybody is 103. More amazing is that he’s out and about, attending concerts in New York City. Still more amazing is that he’s sharp as a tack. Perhaps most amazing is he’s still composing.

Follow this post at Sequenza21 by cellist Fred Sherry, a musical collaborator with Carter and long-time champion of his music and, not coincidentally, a close friend.

Basically, Carter called Sherry at various times asking him about playing a certain combination of chords on the cello (“good, they’re in my new Double Trio”), if a viola could hold a high F-sharp for two slow measures (“good, that’s the ending of my new String Trio”) and telling him he’s thinking of setting the poetry of e. e. cummings for tenor and chamber orchestra.

That’s when Sherry decided these new works should be heard to celebrate his impending birthday, No. 103.

Two other new works were brief – a duet for cello and bass clarinet (for Mr. Sherry and Virgil Blackwell who has served as Carter’s secretary and assistant over the past several years) was composed on Nov. 5th, 2011; and “Mnemosyné,” composed on Nov. 17, written for solo violin. World premieres, these were added to the program and announced from the stage.

UPDATE: Elliott Carter (lower left corner) accepting the audience's applause at the end of the concert, following the world premiere of "A Sunbeam's Architecture," composed earlier this year (you can see what a substantial chamber ensemble this is). Photograph by Cory Weaver and posted at Sequenza21.
- - - - - - -

In a separate interview reported (unexpectedly) in the New York Daily News, Carter mentioned how in the ‘70s he was writing this vast orchestral works with huge complex scores (and I mean physically huge) that might take him a whole year to compose. But now, due to physical limitations among other things, he prefers smaller combinations and shorter works, producing a series of miniatures, pointing to an even newer piece he'd been working on as a Christmas present for oboist Heinz Holliger which he says took him three days.

When I met Elliott Carter, standing in a box office line at the 92nd street Y in 1978 – he was celebrating his 70th birthday with a performance of all three of his string quartets there – most people then would’ve assumed he’d be ‘retiring’ soon, as old composers often do. So his newest works then – like the mind-blowingly complex vocal piece Syringa which I heard at its premiere – were considered music of his Late Period (you know how Beethoven is divided into three parts, Early – Middle – Late?) but Carter just kept composing and producing a whole range of new works headed in a less dense but rarely less complex direction which, for lack of a better term, people started referring to as his “Late Late Music” or “Post-Late Music.”

Since his 100th birthday, as one recent interview reported, he has completed 19 new compositions.

In 2008, on the verge of his Centennial Birthday, I heard the Pacifica Quartet play all five of his string quartets (see photo, left) and was cheered to see, after the Pacifica commissioned him for another quartet, a sixth, he said “well, in a few years I should be about ready to write another string quartet.”

And yet it’s still possible. 2012 will be a “few years” after his 100th birthday, after all…

(Incidentally, joking recently with the guys from the JACK Quartet when they were in town, their bio says the oldest original work in their repertoire is Charles Ives String Quartet No. 2 which was written between 1911-1913 which means Elliott Carter is also older than their "oldest" piece. Yet they haven't played any of Carter's quartets yet, though they've wanted to work with him. "I wouldn't wait too long, you know... but maybe by then, there'll be a sixth quartet to work on.")

There are two song cycles being premiered this week – the Cummings poems on the 8th and three new songs setting poems by T.S. Eliot for bass baritone and chamber ensemble. These are not miniatures but fairly substantial works given their scope, length and instrumentation.

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

For this birthday post, I thought I’d check out a few piano pieces. I'd recently posted the early Cello Sonata (1948) with the Cello Concerto (2000) so this time I want to post the Piano Sonata, another mid-1940s piece, with three short, more recent pieces.

Here is Ursula Oppens, long associated with Carter’s music, playing a piano sonata in the “grand style” that could belong in the repertoire of any pianist who plays the huge B Minor Sonata of Franz Liszt or comparable sonatas by Samuel Barber or Aaron Copland. It may not be what Carter sounds like now but it is one of Carter’s great early works and an incredibly imaginative one that has a lot of Carter’s later fingerprints already evident.

One of these stylistic traits is the juxtaposition of time, something that is fluid as a psychological experience. Like counterpoint in which one independent melodic line is pitted against another independent melodic line, Carter does this with two strands that seem to move in different tempos. It might be easy to explain it as 16th notes moving against quarter notes in Bach except in Carter, the pulse of one strand might be dotted quarters and the pulse of the other strand could be dotted eighth notes. One could be metronomically strict (clock-time) and the other one more fluid, more varied, less “ticky.” That’s basically the distinction in the Cello Sonata where the clock-like piano part (very logical, clean and architecturally Left Brained) is pitted against the rhapsodic cello part (unexpectedly varied, by comparison, emotionally Right Brained and, in a way, “messy”). While not as overt as the later cello sonata, you can still hear this in the Piano Sonata, in addition to the strongly contrasting ideas that are differentiated by, for instance, the opening blocks of sound and the subsequent scurrying passages (one of Carter’s favorite descriptors is the Italian scorrevole).

#1 - First part of Piano Sonata, 1st Movement.

#2 - Second part of Piano Sonata, 1st Movement.

#3 - First part of Piano Sonata, 2nd Movement.

#4 - Second part of Piano Sonata, 2nd Movement.

There are many things that may sound “traditional,” particularly the development and restatement of material (themes, if you will) which is not much different than you’d hear in a Beethoven or the Liszt sonata. Compare the very opening of Clip #3 (on a D moving to a D/C) with the very opening of Clip #4 (where it’s now E-flat and D-flat) which, at 2:00, sounds like a recapitulation on D but instead of a C-natural, it’s now a C-sharp which means the tension is still not yet resolved until, at the end, it reaches a broad and beatific B-major chord, the tonality in which the sonata began.

There’s even something as “academically traditional” as a fugue (Clip #3, beginning at 3:49) which is primarily in B-flat Minor.

Now, fast forward through the next fifty-three years to 1999 and two short pieces written for Ursula Oppens, called “Two Diversions.”

In this first clip, the performer (Marc Hannaford) sets a metronome to the “pulse” of the one time-strand, a slow but steady ticking line of intervals, against which Carter juxtaposes another more varied and often wildly contradictory, rhapsodic line (not very different from what he was doing in the Cello Sonata of 1948) but here, just single notes usually against the clock-like intervals. Even though the metronome you hear has nothing to do with the rhythmic or metric notation of the piece (trust me!!!), it’s a way to help you focus on one aspect of the piece.

Here is the piece in performance (without metronome) by Thorsten Kuhn, recorded on Carter’s 100th Birthday.

Then, one last short, recent piece, a brilliant barrage of notes (mostly single notes one at a time but all over the keyboard), called Caténaires, about 3 1/2 minutes of constantly cascading 16th notes premiered by Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Carter’s 98th Birthday just a few days after he’d received the manuscript in the mail. Here, it’s performed by Sean Chen.

This has been described as “the unlikeliest piano piece” by Elliott Carter who, on the verge of his 98th Birthday, was still experimenting with the idea of how you create sounds and constantly discover something new to say.

We should also be so lucky, at that age.

At any age…

Happy 103rd Birthday, Mr. Carter – and many more!

- Dick Strawser

For additional posts about Elliott Carter and his music, please follow these links:
Hearing the Five String Quartets with the Pacifica Quartet in 2008.
Hearing the world premiere of the Clarinet Quintet in 2008.
The Cello Sonata and the Cello Concerto.
New Works at 102.
Carter at 102.
Carter at 101.
Carter at 100.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

And the Classical Grammy Nominees Are...

It's that time of year again - in addition to being the end of another year's NaNoWriMo Challenge - when the Music Industry announces the nominations for the Grammy Awards which will announce its winners on Feb. 12th, 2012, at 8pm ET on CBS.

And buried in the hubbub are some classical music nominees, too.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -
These were the only categories I could find posted at their web-site. Not sure what happened to Chamber Music or Cross-Over - and they seem to have combined "Instrumental Performer Without Orchestra" and "Instrumental Performer With Orchestra" into one category, this year. Hmmm...

UPDATE: According to this announcement made in April 2011, the Grammys have decided to eliminate or combine several categories, affecting primarily classical and jazz divisions. Chamber Music nominations will now fall under "Small Ensembles" and solo albums will now compete with concerto soloists in the same "Instrumental Performer" category.

Classical music is little served by the Grammy Awards - winners, much less nominees, are rarely mentioned when publications across the country report on the Grammys (talk about the 1%...) unless you're checking the New York Times. Classical musicians are now served even less by the attention the Grammy Awards focus on the recording industry. That's a shame.
- - - - - - - - - - - - -

70. Best Orchestral Performance

Bowen: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2

Andrew Davis, conductor (BBC Philharmonic)

Brahms: Symphony No. 4

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Los Angeles Philharmonic)
[Deutsche Grammaphon]

Haydn: Symphonies 104, 88 & 101

Nicholas McGegan, conductor (Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra)
[Philharmonia Baroque Productions]

Henze: Symphonies Nos. 3-5

Marek Janowski, conductor (Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin)

Martinu: The 6 Symphonies

Jirí Belohlávek, conductor (BBC Symphony Orchestra)
[Onyx Classics]
= = = = = = = = = = = = =

71. Best Opera Recording

Adams: Doctor Atomic

Alan Gilbert, conductor; Meredith Arwady, Sasha Cooke, Richard Paul Fink, Gerald Finley, Thomas Glenn & Eric Owens; Jay David Saks, producer (Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; Metropolitan Opera Chorus)
[Sony Classical]

Britten: Billy Budd

Mark Elder, conductor; John Mark Ainsley, Phillip Ens, Jacques Imbrailo, Darren Jeffery, Iain Paterson & Matthew Rose; James Whitbourn, producer (London Philharmonic Orchestra; Glyndebourne Chorus)
[Opus Arte]

Rautavaara: Kaivos

Hannu Lintu, conductor; Jaakko Kortekangas, Hannu Niemelä, Johanna Rusanen-Kartano & Mati Turi; Seppo Siirala, producer (Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra; Kaivos Chorus)

Verdi: La Traviata

Antonio Pappano, conductor; Joseph Calleja, Renée Fleming & Thomas Hampson; James Whitbourn, producer (Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Royal Opera Chorus)
[Opus Arte]

Vivaldi: Ercole Sul Termodonte

Fabio Biondi, conductor; Romina Basso, Patrizia Ciofi, Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato, Vivica Genaux, Philippe Jaroussky, Topi Lehtipuu & Rolando Villazón; Daniel Zalay, producer (Europa Galante; Coro Da Camera Santa Cecilia Di Borgo San Lorenzo)
[Virgin Classics]
= = = = = = = = = = = = =

72. Best Choral Performance

Beyond All Mortal Dreams - American A Cappella

Stephen Layton, conductor (Choir Of Trinity College Cambridge)
[Hyperion Records]

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45

Patrick Dupré Quigley, conductor; James K. Bass, chorus master (Justin Blackwell, Scott Allen Jarrett, Paul Max Tipton & Teresa Wakim; Professional Choral Institute & Seraphic Fire)
[Seraphic Fire Media]


Kjetil Almenning, conductor (Nidaros String Quartet; Ensemble 96)
[2L (Lindberg Lyd)]

Light & Gold

Eric Whitacre, conductor (Christopher Glynn & Hila Plitmann; The King's Singers, Laudibus, Pavão Quartet & The Eric Whitacre Singers)

The Natural World Of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen

Paul Hillier, conductor (Ars Nova Copenhagen)
[Dacapo Records]
= = = = = = = = = = = = = 

73. Best Small Ensemble Performance

Frank: Hilos

Gabriela Lena Frank; ALIAS Chamber Ensemble

The Kingdoms Of Castille

Richard Savino, conductor; El Mundo
[Sono Luminus]

Mackey: Lonely Motel - Music From Slide

Rinde Eckert & Steven Mackey; Eighth Blackbird
[Cedille Records]

A Seraphic Fire Christmas

Patrick Dupré Quigley, conductor; Seraphic Fire
[Seraphic Fire Media]

Sound The Bells!

The Bay Brass
[Harmonia Mundi]
= = = = = = = = = = = = = 

74. Best Classical Instrumental Solo

Chinese Recorder Concertos - East Meets West

Lan Shui, conductor; Michala Petri (Copenhagen Philharmonic)
[OUR Recordings]

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 In C Minor, Op. 18; Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini

Yuja Wang (Claudio Abbado; Mahler Chamber Orchestra)
[Deutsche Grammaphon]

Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4

Leif Ove Andsnes (Antonio Pappano; London Symphony Orchestra)
[EMI Classics]

Schwantner: Concerto For Percussion & Orchestra

Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Christopher Lamb (Nashville Symphony)
Track from: Schwantner: Chasing Light…

Winging It - Piano Music Of John Corigliano

Ursula Oppens
[Cedille Records]
= = = = = = = = = = = = = 

75. Best Classical Vocal Solo

Diva Divo

Joyce DiDonato (Kazushi Ono; Orchestre De L'Opéra National De Lyon; Choeur De L'Opéra National De Lyon)
[Virgin Classics]

Grieg/Thommessen: Veslemøy Synsk

Marianne Beate Kielland (Nils Anders Mortensen)
[2L (Lindberg Lyd)]

Handel: Cleopatra

Natalie Dessay (Emmanuelle Haïm; Le Concert D'Astrée)
[Virgin Classics]

Purcell: O Solitude

Andreas Scholl (Stefano Montanari; Christophe Dumaux; Accademia Bizantina)

Three Baroque Tenors

Ian Bostridge (Bernard Labadie; Mark Bennett, Andrew Clarke, Sophie Daneman, Alberto Grazzi, Jonathan Gunthorpe, Benjamin Hulett & Madeline Shaw; The English Concert)
[EMI Classics]
= = = = = = = = = = = = = =

76. Best Contemporary Classical Composition

Aldridge, Robert: Elmer Gantry

Robert Aldridge & Herschel Garfein

Crumb, George: The Ghosts Of Alhambra

George Crumb
Track from: Complete Crumb Edition, Vol. 15
[Bridge Records, Inc.]

Friedman, Jefferson: String Quartet No. 3

Jefferson Friedman
Track from: Jefferson Friedman: Quartets
[New Amsterdam Records]

Mackey, Steven: Lonely Motel - Music From Slide

Steven Mackey
[Cedille Records]

Ruders, Poul: Piano Concerto No. 2

Poul Ruders
Track from: Music Of Poul Ruders, Vol. 6
[Bridge Records, Inc.]
= = = = = = = = = = = = =

68. Best Engineered Album, Classical

Aldridge: Elmer Gantry

Byeong-Joon Hwang & John Newton, engineers; Jesse Lewis, mastering engineer (William Boggs, Keith Phares, Patricia Risley, Vale Rideout, Frank Kelley, Heather Buck, Florentine Opera Chorus & Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra)

Glazunov: Complete Concertos

Richard King, engineer (José Serebrier, Alexey Serov, Wen-Sinn Yang, Alexander Romanovsky, Rachel Barton Pine, Marc Chisson & Russian National Orchestra)
[Warner Classics]

Mackey: Lonely Motel - Music From Slide

Tom Lazarus & Bill Maylone, engineers; Joe Lambert, mastering engineer (Rinde Eckert, Steven Mackey & Eighth Blackbird)
[Cedille Records]

Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4

Arne Akselberg, engineer (Leif Ove Andsnes, Antonio Pappano & London Symphony Orchestra)
[EMI Classics]

Weinberg: Symphony No. 3 & Suite No. 4 From 'The Golden Key'

Torbjörn Samuelsson, engineer (Thord Svedlund & Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra)
= = = = = = = = = = = = =

69. Producer Of The Year, Classical

Blanton Alspaugh

• Aldridge: Elmer Gantry (William Boggs, Keith Phares, Patricia Risley, Vale Rideout, Frank Kelley, Heather Buck, Florentine Opera Chorus & Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra)
• Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas (Peter Takács) • Osterfield: Rocky Streams (Paul Osterfield, Todd Waldecker & Various Artists)

Manfred Eicher

• Bach: Concertos & Sinfonias For Oboe; Ich Hatte Viel Bekümmernis (Heinz Holliger, Eric Höbarth & Camerata Bern)
• Hymns & Prayers (Gidon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica) • Manto & Madrigals (Thomas Zehetmair & Ruth Killius) • Songs Of Ascension (Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, Todd Reynolds Quartet, The M6 & Montclair State University Singers) • Tchaikovsky/Kissine: Piano Trios (Gidon Kremer, Giedre Dirvanauskaite & Khatia Buniatishvili) • A Worcester Ladymass (Trio Mediaeval)

David Frost

• Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live (Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass)
• Mackey: Lonely Motel - Music From Slide (Rinde Eckert, Steven Mackey & Eighth Blackbird) • Prayers & Alleluias (Kenneth Dake) • Sharon Isbin & Friends - Guitar Passions (Sharon Isbin & Various Artists)

Peter Rutenberg

• Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (Patrick Dupré Quigley, James K. Bass, Seraphic Fire & Professional Choral Institute)
• The Vanishing Nordic Chorale (Philip Spray & Musik Ekklesia)

Judith Sherman

• Adams: Son Of Chamber Symphony; String Quartet (John Adams, St. Lawrence String Quartet & International Contemporary Ensemble)
• Capricho Latino (Rachel Barton Pine) • 85th Birthday Celebration (Claude Frank) • Insects & Paper Airplanes - Chamber Music Of Lawrence Dillon (Daedalus Quartet & Benjamin Hochman) • Midnight Frolic - The Broadway Theater Music Of Louis A. Hirsch (Rick Benjamin & Paragon Ragtime Orchestra) • Notable Women - Trios By Today's Female Composers (Lincoln Trio) • The Soviet Experience, Vol. 1 - String Quartets By Dmitri Shostakovich & His Contemporaries (Pacifica Quartet) • Speak! (Anthony De Mare) • State Of The Art - The American Brass Quintet At 50 (The American Brass Quintet) • Steve Reich: WTC 9/11; Mallet Quartet; Dance Patterns (Kronos Quartet, Steve Reich Musicians & So Percussion) • Winging It - Piano Music Of John Corigliano (Ursula Oppens)
= = = = = = = = = = = = =

Check back in February 2012 and we'll find out who the winners are!

- Dick Strawser

NaNoWriMo 2011: It's Official

Yes, I am an author - or so they tell me over at NaNoWriMo where November is "National Novel Writing Month." Every November, they hold their 50,000-word challenge, urging everybody anywhere who has always wanted to write a novel to "git 'er done" (in the American parlance) - or at least to get 50,000 words of 'er done (or, more realistically, of a first draft done).
This year - my fourth NaNoWriMo adventure - I decided to do a complete rewrite of a novel, one of my music appreciation thrillers, I'd started with NaNoWriMo 2009 mainly because I liked the title and some of the characters' names - the plot, not so much. In fact, that original "Lost Chord" was a direct parody of Dan Brown's latest opus, The Lost Symbol and this time around I wanted to remove all parodiness from my latest music appreciation thriller. (You can read about last year's novel, The Doomsday Symphony, here. My earlier parody of Brown's The DaVinci Code can be read in its entirety, here.)

While certain characters remain more-or-less the same - like the villain Tr'iTone and one of his disguises, Dr. Iobba Dhabbodhú, or the Director of Security for the International Composers Alliance Yoda Leahy-Hu, and the beautiful LauraLynn Harty (though I did change her hair color) not to mention other characters like V.C. D'Arcy, ICA Agents Kaye Gelida Manina and Wanda Menveaux or Barry Scarpia - new ones have been added, like Fictitia LaMouche (an on-line journalist whose original name is Felicity Lychpit), teachers like Emilio Fabbro and Dudley Böhm, or the singers Rita Pagliaccio and Cora diLetto (a little more complicated, it's a line from Cherubino's aria, 'Voi che sapete' - at 2:18 into this clip with Joyce DiDonato, you can hear 'Ch’ora è diletto,' this moment of pleasure) and while I'm stealing names from opera arias, let's not forget the yet-to-be-introduced Porgia Moore and Barbra Seville.

I'm also expanding a few walk-on roles from the original, like Garth Widor (an agent of one of the villains, N. Ron Steele, the evil CEO of SHMRG), Peter Moonbeam (a Native-American version of Pierrot Lunaire) and turning Phil Harmon (formerly chief of security for Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall) into Samuel Schäufel (as in shovel), a German version of Sam Spade, the detective from The Maltese Falcon. You see, the biggest change in the setting is moving it from Lincoln Center to (mostly) the Schweinwald Festival in Bavaria (where there actually is a Schweinwald - which means "Hogwood" and I chose it because, back in the 19th Century, there could be a [purely fictional] legendary music school there which could be a kind of musical Hogwarts) and that's where a search is on for something... with clues to be found on a headless Mozart porcelain doll, standing on a map of Malta (why it's referred to as The Maltese Mozart) which was discovered on the site of the old Falkenstein Farm, not far from the even older, possibly haunted Castle Schweinwald.

Then, too, part of the novel's new opening is set in an artist's colony called Benninghurst where the Director, something of a fund-raising wizard, is a guy from Australia named Sidney Drummoyne (Drummoyne is actually a suburb of Sydney). The resident nurse is named Anna Miszklysczewska whom everybody calls Annie M and the house mascot is a little dog named Poco. Stylistic arguments about musical aesthetics involve three composers: serialist Luke van Rhiarden (an anagram of Thomas Mann's Adrian Leverkühn in Doktor Faustus) is accused of lacking a heart while Seth Mazrif (whose names are anagrams for New Age artists [John] Tesh and Zamfir) is accused of lacking a brain. Lionel Roth, a bundle of insecurities who actually becomes a major character, lacks the courage of his own convictions but is peripherally involved in the gruesome murder of composer Robertson Sullivan whose opera, Faustus, Inc. (a corporate version of the Faust legend where Mephistopheles is a CEO named Arachne Webb) will be premiered at the Schweinwald Festival except the recently completed score has just been stolen which means... &c &c

Now, Robertson Sullivan's cousin LauraLynn Harty is descended from the composer Harrison Harty who had studied at Schweinwald in 1880 along with Mahler, Ethel Smyth and Hans Rott. (Harrison, a little-known cousin of Irish composer Hamilton Harty, emigrated to the USA where he became a professor of composition at the Jones School of Music in Indiana.) Late in his life, he married Penelope Pintscher, daughter of the Chicago railroad tycoon, Glutius Pintscher. Penny and Harrison have twin sons, Cuthbert and Norbert (a.k.a. "The Berts") who, after their parents' deaths, are raised by Penny's sister, Nicola Deimler and thus inherit considerable industrial wealth and connections. Norbert's sons are Oliver Costello and Stanley Abbott Harty. Cuthbert's daughters are Catherine (who marries Richard Shaw, becoming Katie Shaw, and their son is Bernard who marries Pashmina) and Mabel (who marries Gilbert N. Sullivan and has a son, Robertson).

Incidentally, LauraLynn’s mother would be Lucille Lewes, her aunt Ethel Clarke, the widow of Uncle Stan (but of course Lucy and Ethel always dreamt of forming a comedy team called Lewes & Clarke). Then there’s Geraldine who marries cousin Martin Lewes, dean of the local college, hence they’re Dean Martin and Gerrie Lewes.

Oh, there are a few other things I've kept: the elevator ride at the Washington Monument, the Night at the Opera parody using the Barber of Seville (also the state room scene transferred to a backstage dressing room), and the "Hu's on First" scene. (You'll have to scroll down for all of these: none of them begin "at the top".)

Did I mention this is a comic music appreciation thriller?

Well, at any rate, 53,473 words of the thoroughly revised (as in "starting-over-from-scratch-almost") version of The Lost Chord are done, but the novel is far from over.

The game, as they say, is afoot!

- Dick Strawser

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Those Nasty New Music Guys...

A champion of the traditional style complained that modern composers wrote only in the newest forms and neglected the tried-and-true forms of the past and used a multiplicity of awkward rhythms and imperfect rhythmic subdivisions of the beat rather than adhering to “the proper use of perfection.” They also indulged in “broken rhythms” and capricious (even lascivious) movement rather than confining themselves, like past masters, to a more modest restrained movement. Some of these new compositions relied on the repetition of such complicated rhythmic patterns often overlapping with similarly repeated melodic patterns to create something so complex, it seemed more mathematical than anything close to the proper attributes music is to instill in the listener (which is why some religious leaders also came out against this new musical style).

It would appear, judging from his comments and those of his colleagues, these modern composers were nothing but a menace – if not to society, at least to the quality of fine art.

So when do you think this stylistic disagreement originates from?

Given the mathematical patterns, perhaps you’re thinking of Arnold Schoenberg and his concept of ‘serialism’ – generally dismissed as more math than music – where patterns of twelve notes (a “row”) could be repeated and manipulated ad infinitum or the next generation of serialists like Boulez and Messiaen who, bored with just serializing pitches, also serialized rhythms and even dynamics.

But since it’s primarily about rhythm and “movement” (in this sense, rhythmic motion rather than the divisions of a larger piece into individual movements), you might think it stems from the complex rhythms of the early 20th Century – Stravinsky and Bartok with their complicated, constantly changing meters, or even the Russian composers of the late-19th Century like Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky who sometimes used meters like 5/4 or 7/8 which they found in East European folk music.

Or maybe it’s between the adherents of Brahms with his legacy from the Symphonic Age of Beethoven who were opposed to the Music of the Future championed by the followers of Liszt and Wagner whose sense of rhythm and harmonic passion (certainly far too emotional for decent people) was certainly more complicated and more “lascivious” than anything composed in previous generations. And it wasn’t just their music – Wagner composing Tristan und Isolde, about a man falling love with another man’s wife, himself fell in love with Cosima, the wife of his conductor-friend Hans von Bülow (and the daughter of Liszt). (And let’s not get into the sordid details of their private lives!) How immoral was that? And the music that went with it… It was enough to make decent people shudder.

Brahms, hearing new works from the next generation composed by twenty-somethings like Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, worried about the cesspool that music was rapidly becoming.

Could it go back further? There were, after all, famous stylistic “wars” during the 18th and 19th Centuries, too.

Actually, the first paragraph is a summary of the argument you could read in Jacques de Liège’s monumental work “Musical Speculation” or, more accurately “The Mirror of Music,” Speculum musicae in which he complained greatly about the followers of Philippe de Vitry.

This was written around 1324, give or take a year.

The problem centered around the development of a more detailed rhythmic notation – as opposed to the older ambiguities of the notation in Gregorian chant – which permitted such complexities as rhythms of LONG-short LONG-short LONG-short LONG (in 6/8, the quarter+eighth note pattern) rather than the traditional SHORT-looong, SHORT-looong, SHORT-looong LONG (in 6/8, the eighth+quarter note pattern).

The idea of bringing greater variety to musical rhythms is something that was going on in 1279 but composers of that generation preferred, perhaps diplomatically, to use both patterns and consider both of them “good.” But Philippe de Vitry (see right) preferred to place the “long note” at the front (giving it a certain lilt – the ‘lascivious’ movement his critics referred to) and to ignore the old-fashioned pattern completely.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was the introduction of duple time – perfection was based on threes (the Trinity being the model) and to do something in two or four (like our modern march) was to embrace imperfection and deny the Trinity! (Why would you do that?!)

Plus, they wrote only motets and cantilenas (long, melodious solo songs) usually about love, and ignored the tried-and-true forms like the Mass, organum (taking a segment of Gregorian chant and superimposing over it one or two newly composed parts) or the stately conductus (a kind of processional motet).

Even Pope John XXII issued a Papal Bull (in a sense different from the modern slang use of the word ‘bull’) around 1325 not against the theory of this new style but against the practical results of the new art, concerned mostly about the impact it would have on the sanctity of the music sung in the church service, especially considering the tranquility generated by the perfection of plainsong (what we consider Gregorian chant). This new music, with these new and complex rhythms was agitated by so many short notes and disturbed by “hockets” (a rhythmic device with a short rest in one part allowing a note in another part to fill in the missing part – and yes, perhaps it’s the source of our word “hiccup”) and that the use of plainsong (or chant) in these new-fangled compositions was rendered unrecognizable by being (disrespectfully) subjected to such complicated rhythmic devices.

The upholders of tradition called their music Ars Antiqua (also Ars Veterum, Traditional Art), based on the proud history of French music going back to about 1160.

Those who broke away from the traditions of the past, like Philippe de Vitry, called their music Ars Nova or The New Art.

And yet, today, these arguments – and examples of music from both these styles – seem so old and foreign to us, unfamiliar, perhaps even pointless to us today, with our modern technology and cool new techniques and attitudes about listening to music.

If Columbus hadn’t dared to reach India by sailing west, would the world still be flat? Or if Galileo never guessed the Earth was not the Center of the Universe, would men have ever landed on the Moon?

Well… maybe…

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Music for Thanksgiving

When thinking about music for Thanksgiving Day, my ear immediately starts hearing this scene from Aaron Copland's opera, The Tender Land. Here is the quintet, "The Promise of Living," from a 2010 production by the Berkeley Opera Company, sung Paul Cheak, Lee Steward, Amy Foote, Malin Fritz, Paul Murray; conducted by Philip Kuttner and directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer. (Video projection, videography and editing by Jeremy Knight).

The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving
Is born of our loving our friends and our labor.

The promise of growing with faith and with knowing
Is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.

The promise of living, the promise of growing
Is born of our singing in joy and thanksgiving.

For many a year I’ve known this field
And know all the work that makes them yield.
Are you ready to lend a hand?
We’re ready to work, we’re ready to lend a hand.
By working together we’ll bring in the harvest,
the blessings of harvest.

We plow plant each row with seeds of grain,
And Providence sends us the sun and the rain.
By lending a hand, by lending an arm
Bring out the blessings of harvest.

Give thanks there was sunshine,
Give thanks there was rain,
Give thanks we are here to deliver the grain.

O let us be joyful, O let us be grateful to the Lord for his blessing.

The promise of ending in right understanding
Is peace in our hearts, peace with our neighbor.
The promise of living, the promise of growing,
The promise of ending is labor and sharing and loving.

-- from the libretto by Horace Everett.
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Wishing everybody a blessed and Happy Thanksgiving Day.
- Dick Strawser