Sunday, May 29, 2011

Gustav Mahler: The Earliest Years

Henry-Louis de La Grange is a French-born music critic who has, as they say, “written the book” on Gustav Mahler. His four-volume biography – the last volume came out in 2008 – averaging about 1,000 pages per volume, is easily the most detailed if not the definitive biography on the composer. When the late, lamented Encore Books went out-of-business, I managed to pick up Vol. 2 (pictured, left) and Vol. 3 for about $20 each: these three volumes currently list for $140-$155.

Vol. 1, curiously, never came up in these searches.

Much of the material I used for my posts on Mahler’s 3rd for the Harrisburg Symphony’s recent performance came from Vol. 2 which covered the years he was preparing the work for its first performances. Even though it had tons of information about it, the time period it was composed in was covered in Vol. 1 which I didn’t have and couldn’t find. Curious about it, I began looking around to see what I could.

I knew that La Grange wrote a one-volume biography published in the early-70s in French which he then expanded into a three-volume work that was never translated from the French. This in turn was further expanded into the four-volume set which began appearing during the 1990s. Oddly enough, I was unable to track down any on-line sales for Vol. 1 of the four – and the original one-volume work was out-of-print. It turns out that Vol. 1-of-4 has not yet been released, despite the three later volumes’ availability. Somewhere, a commentator who referenced the initial 1973 volume advised anybody interested in a “complete” Mahler set by La Grange (who is now 87) to snap this one up “just in case.”

There were things about Mahler’s musical style – or his attitudes about his musical aesthetic – that I was curious about which would only have been discussed in those pages covering his student years. These are very rarely mentioned in what material I’ve read about Mahler where it seems his 1st Symphony (prefaced by the early ‘cantata / song-cycle’ “Das Klagende Lied”) appeared largely through some form of parthenogenesis.

I was also curious about his relationship with fellow-student Hans Rott whose career is easily summarized but tantalizingly lacking in explanation: a brilliant young composer who studied with Bruckner, his 1st (and only) Symphony failed to please, it sounds a lot like Mahler and yet it was composed in 1880, eight years before Mahler began his 1st Symphony. Rott was on the receiving end of some bitter scorn by no less than Johannes Brahms and this apparently proved too much for his delicate psyche: on a train out of Vienna, he threatened a fellow passenger with a revolver when he tried lighting a cigar because he was convinced Brahms had loaded the train with dynamite in order to destroy him. He was taken off the train, put in an asylum and diagnosed with “insanity, hallucinatory persecution mania” and where he died of typhoid before he was 25 years old.

Aside from a single reference to Rott and his Symphony in La Grange’s second volume, I wanted to see what more information there might be about Mahler’s association with Rott when they were students. This would presumably be covered in the first volume of La Grange’s work.

(I’ll write more about Mahler & Hans Rott in a subsequent post.)

Having located Peter Bartok’s memoir about his father through an InterLibrary Loan, I again contacted my local library, the East Shore Library of the Dauphin County Library System, to see if they could track down the elusive (and difficult to explain) one-volume first edition biography of Mahler by La Grange. Despite trying to distinguish between this and the later four-volume expansion (of which Vol. 1 is not yet available), the book that showed up was Vol. 2 (which I already owned). After more discussions and details in an incredible example of customer service – finally aided by my tracking down a publisher and an ISBN number (d'oh!) – they were able to locate it.

Ironically, it was in the Harrisburg Area Community College Library (not one I would’ve expected to own a copy of it) where it has been signed out twice: once in 1977 and another time in 1992. Apparently there’s not a lot of demand for this book – or anyone who would be interested in it would probably not think to check the HACC Library.

So I now have until June 18th to read through some 982 pages.

And it turns out not to be a complete biography of Mahler later expanded into four – it covers only up to January 1901. And Vol. 2 of the “complete” set begins in May 1897 to September, 1904.

Paging through the initial chapters dealing with the inevitable background on Mahler’s family and his earliest years, I found a few items of interest which I thought I would take time to point out.

(These may not be the only biography in which this material appears in print but, published in English in 1973, it still predates many of the more standard, readily available and often less detailed biographies which have been published since then.)

His first composition, written when he was 6 years old, was entitled Polka with Introductory Funeral March.

To anyone who knows Mahler’s more mature music which is full of references to funeral marches – think the third Movement of his 1st Symphony (with its minor key version of the tune we know as “Frere Jacques”), the huge “funeral games” of the 2nd Symphony’s first movement, passages in the opening of the 3rd Symphony, the opening of the 5th Symphony and even passages of the unfinished 10th Symphony which were inspired by hearing a passing funeral procession for a slain policeman in New York City – much less his frequent mixing of the deeply tragic with almost banal vulgarity (particularly in the first movements of the 3rd and 5th Symphonies), and the title of his first piece would surely sound like something Mahler would do.

But at 6 years old?

His musical awareness began quite early, in true prodigy fashion – though Mahler is never thought of as a “prodigy” in the sense Mozart and Mendelssohn were (or we might have been saddled with The Three M’s). As an infant, he would stop crying only when one of his parents would hold him and sing to him; he was able to hum tunes he had heard even before he could stand. There were the darkly sad Slavic cradle songs and gay peasant rounds of Bohemia – and stories like the one told him by a neighbor’s nursemaid called “Das Klagende Lied” which would form the basis of his first major pre-symphonic composition, completed after considerable revision, by the time he was 20 years old.

And he discovered military music. There were barracks down the street and the soldiers often paraded past the Mahler’s house. Once, he ran out of the house and followed behind the parade playing the toy accordion he’d been given for his 3rd birthday. It was only after they’d gone several blocks, into the busy Market Place, when he realized he was lost. Two neighbors recognized him and offered to take him home but “only after he had played to them, on his accordion, his entire repertoire of military music. Seated on a fruit-vendor’s counter, he enchanted a large audience of housewives and passers-by. After this, amidst applause and laughter, he was taken back to his parents…” You could consider this his first “public appearance,” not quite as grand as Mozart’s introduction to the world, but still…

Again, how many “military marches” appear in Mahler’s early symphonies? This is especially important in the 3rd where there is quite a dramatic contest between the March of Pan or Bacchus (as he initially conceived it) and the good burghers who prefer the more vulgar military-style march that forms the first movement’s climactic moments.

Signs of the future conductor and his imperious maestro-ness might be in evidence in another anecdote about one of his first visits to the synagogue, when he interrupted the hymn singing, howling “Be quiet! It’s horrible,” then offering, at the top of his lungs, his own favorite song, “Eits a binkel Kasi” (which unfortunately is not translated in the notes).

(Though other biographies include this anecdote, Norman Lebrecht's "Why Mahler?" mentions it is a bawdy Czech song about a swaying knapsack in a polka rhythm but then he concludes the reference by saying "There is an element of myth-making involved in his narration. He is leaving false trails for future biographers like me, playing us along a line of no return.")

Visiting his maternal grandfather, the 4-year-old Mahler disappeared into the attic where he found a strange box. Opening the lid, he discovered a keyboard that made sounds and on which he found he could play tunes that others in the family recognized. The grandfather gave the boy the old piano, sending it on an oxcart to the Mahler home. The boy then began to have regular piano lessons.

There are stories how he would borrow scores and sheet music from the local library and play them over and over at the piano, even refusing to stop for dinner, entreaties by his sisters and mother ignored until his father's cane proved more persuasive.

When Mahler was 7 or 8, he had his first piano student, a boy a year younger. La Grange writes how the teacher rested his arm on the pupil’s shoulder, palm close to the cheek, all the easier to slap the pupil when he made a mistake. If the pupil continued making the mistake, he was made to write “I must play C-sharp, not C” one hundred times.

Around this time, a neighbor girl asked him “how music is composed.” He told her she should “sit down at the piano and play whatever comes into her head. After noting the principal melodies, she should develop them, improve them, and finally write down the resultant piece of music.”

It may sound obvious to one who composes but not so obvious to one who still regards creativity as a mystery (I couldn’t help thinking, when I found this passage in La Grange, of Monty Python’s infamous “How to Make a Rat Tart” skit which enumerates in excruciating detail how you would kill the rat “and then bake it into a tart,” end of story). Still, the adult Mahler recalled this story and said “These instructions that I gave at the age of 8 are followed by most composers all their lives!”

Many of these anecdotes were told to his friend, Natalie Bauer-Lechner, whom I wrote about in my post on the 3rd Symphony. She was a frequent guest of his during his composing holidays and apparently kept voluminous notes in her journals about her conversations with him.

Another famous anecdote was something he told Sigmund Freud when he visited the psychiatrist in Vienna in 1910 when he was 50. Mahler’s father was an often violent man who could be very strict and abusive, especially toward his wife. During a particularly brutal quarrel, Mahler fled from the house when he ran into a street musician playing Ach, du lieber Augustin on a barrel organ.

Much has been made of this story and it is often dismissed by many writers, those who believe such experiences have nothing to do with an artist’s art. But Mahler himself considered it why, when “a moment of deep emotional creation carried him to the heights,” he would suddenly find one of these banal street songs stuck in his head.

This kind of juxtaposition, so shocking to his contemporaries, was one of the hallmarks of his style, perhaps heralding a more psychological approach to the creative mind. La Grange says, whether conscious or unconscious, “these ‘quotations’… opened a new chapter in musical history, and were the forerunners of neoclassicism in early-20th Century music,” though I’m tempted to think of it as more a precedent for the deeper psychological explorations of early-20th Century’s expressionism, more of an antithesis of 20th Century neoclassicism.

Remember Arnold Schoenberg’s 2nd String Quartet, famous for its use of the soprano voice added in the last two movements, a work that progresses from its loose hold on tonality into what is generally considered the first example of atonal music? Much of it was composed during a particularly emotional phase of Schoenberg’s private life, the discovery of his wife’s affair with the painter Richard Gerstl who would be their summer guest at the time he was completing the quartet. There’s a disturbing and usually inexplicable moment when, in the midst of all this harmonic turmoil as the familiar world is on the brink of being thrown over into the unfamiliar, Schoenberg suddenly quotes a banal nursery song which comes in quite unexpectedly and without apparent preparation – Ach, du lieber Augustin.

Was he familiar with Mahler’s anecdote? They were at times acquaintances, even friends – perhaps Schoenberg had heard him talk about this one time and it left an impression on him. After all, Mahler’s music is full of such contrasts, though not such explicit quotations. Was this Schoenberg’s way of expressing his own deeper personal conflict or applying a “third-person experience” to mitigate the trauma?

Another of Mahler’s childhood recollections regards his day-dreaming whether it was to escape his family’s quarrels or find a haven for his creative mind. His father had taken him on a walk in the woods and ordered him to sit on a bench until he was called. Apparently his father forgot about him but as Mahler later told Bauer-Lechner, “ but I did not get tired waiting and remained in my place, without moving and very happy. To everyone’s great amazement I was found in just that way several hours later.”

Immediately, certain sections of his early symphonies come to my mind – the long scenes of unfolding nature in the bird calls of both the 1st and 2nd Symphonies (which an impatient friend of mine referred to as “Sleepers, Sleep” as opposed to “Sleepers, Awake”) and the long post-horn solos in the third movement of the 3rd Symphony, incredible moments of suspended animation in the midst of the dance that Mahler himself described as being like “nature looking at us and sticking out its tongue.”

Perhaps such awareness of nature and its depiction in music would only have been possible to the mind of a child enraptured by spending hours sitting on a bench in the woods, oblivious to the reality around him, the bustle of the market and the military barracks of the town and of the family life with its quarrels and constant grief over the deaths of his little brothers and sisters (eight of the Mahlers’ fourteen children did not survive childhood).

There is one photograph that survives from Mahler’s childhood, a fairly famous one. He was five or six years old and looks terrified, standing beside a chair and holding a musical score. Now, any child, especially one placed before the contraptions of a photographer in 1866 or so, given the pan with its chemical flash, might be excused for looking terrified. But Natalie Bauer-Lechner writes how young Gustav was convinced he would be subjected to some form of enchantment where he would be transformed, stuck to a piece of paper forever. He would only allow it after he saw his father being photographed first and how “he walked away unharmed from the terrifying machine that [Mahler then] allowed himself to be photographed as well.”

And so far, that covers just twelve pages of La Grange’s text – only 933 more to go…

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Difficult: Thinking about Roger Sessions & Johannes Brahms

Last week, I snatched up a copy of Frederik Prausnitz’s biography of Roger Sessions, subtitled “How a ‘Difficult’ Composer Got That Way.” It was published in 2002, so it’s not like it’s an old book and hard to find – it hadn’t crossed my radar yet, not likely to show up in your typical American bookstore or public library shelf. I found it at an independent book-seller in uptown Harrisburg called “The Mid-Town Scholar” which has a pretty decent music collection among its used books.

(One of the things I like about the store is that, 56 years ago, my dad was getting this converted movie theater ready as a new clothing store called “The Boston Store,” helping to turn the area around the Broad Street Market into the Uptown Business District. Today would be my dad’s 93rd birthday, as it happens.)

Now, Roger Sessions is a composer I’ve always been fond of but, like many American classical music lovers, I was never really familiar with his music. Much of that is because of this “difficulty,” though that hasn’t stopped me with other composers. I own several CDs of Sessions’ music – symphonies, some piano pieces, the piano concerto – and when I was teaching at the University of Connecticut, I took a caravan of students up to Boston to see the American premiere of his opera Montezuma with Sarah Caldwell and her Boston Opera. But for some reason, he's never been high on my listening list.

So finding something that was a biography that might shed some technical light on the details of his style, especially the evolution of that style, was a must-purchase no-brainer for me (and fortunately at a price that fit within my limited budget). I look forward to getting into it in the next few weeks.

How a composer composes is something I find fascinating. I’m not even sure I know how I compose, but reading the thoughts about other composers, about how their creativity works, is something both informative and comforting: usually, when I try to analyze my own process, I can only presume this is how it works for others, so it is reassuring to find other composers who appear to think the same way or present a different process – which in turn might shed some light on how the great composers of the past dealt with their creativity. One can only assume so much, looking at or listening to their music: unless they’ve specifically written something somewhere, there is nothing to prove your assumption.

This was something on my mind a lot, the past few weeks, listening to Brahms’ 1st Symphony as the Harrisburg Symphony was getting it ready for their last concert of the season last week. I have heard this work many times – even listened to it several of those times – and I am constantly amazed by at least one thing: not that it took him so long to complete it (he spent 24 years working on his first attempt at a first symphony, 14 of which were spent actually working on what would become his 1st Symphony), but that it sounds like such a unified work from beginning to end, you would have no idea he was 29 years old when he started the first movement and 43 when he completed the last movement.

In his preconcert talk, conductor Stuart Malina mentioned how much of the thematic material throughout the symphony is based on certain note-patterns – mostly thirds (either as specific intervals or as melodic outlines) and half-step lower- or upper-neighboring tones – often used beneath the surface level of the melodic material. Whether this was something conscious in Brahms’ composing the piece – even on the installment plan – one can only guess: not only did Brahms notoriously destroy his sketches and rough drafts, he never really said much about how he composed and certainly never wrote articles for music periodicals or gave interviews to people asking questions like “So, tell us, Johannes, how did you come up with that theme in the first movement?” Unlike Olivier Messiaen, he never wrote something called “My Musical Language.”

(That’s why his talking about such general aspects of his creative process with a student, George Henschel, who wrote them down for posterity, is so important. You can read a post about those comments he'd made the summer he was completing the 1st Symphony, here.)

That the interval of the third was structurally important to Brahms is obvious – look at the opening of the 4th Symphony for perhaps his most famous example, and how chains of thirds ‘inform’ the late piano Intermezzo, Op. 119, No. 1 or the third of the Four Serious Songs – but is it coincidental the key scheme of his 1st Symphony is also based on thirds?

The first movement is in C Minor, the second is in E Major, the third is in A-flat Major and the finale ultimately in C Major. That’s a series of rising 3rds (considering A-flat the same as G-sharp) – I also think of the symmetry of E being a major third above C and A-flat being a major third below C – same difference.

Is that significant?

Well, Brahms did it elsewhere. The Third Piano Quartet in C Minor – which, along with the C Minor String quartet, was another work that was slowly gestating along with the C Minor Symphony – begins with two movements in C Minor, followed by a gorgeous Andante in E Major – and, not surprisingly, with a melodic chain of descending thirds: G-sharp – E – C-natural – A resolving to G-sharp , a melodic sequence that also gives the movement its peculiarly haunting harmonic sound.

But he also does this in two works completed shortly after finishing the 1st Symphony. In his 2nd Symphony, the 1st Movement in D Major is followed by an Adagio in B Major (a minor third down) which is in turn followed by an intermezzo in G Major (a major third down), before returning to D Major. The Violin Concerto’s luminous Adagio – his calling it a “wretched little adagio” is more self-deprecating humor than his actual assessment of the piece – is in F Major, a minor third above the home key of D Major.

Standard Procedure in the late-18th Century was for contrasting movements to be in “closely related” keys. The second movement of a work in the white rat, garden variety key of C Major, for instance, could be in the dominant or subdominant major or relative minor – in other words, G or F Major or A Minor. A work in C Minor would normally have a contrasting second movement in the relative major, or E-flat Major (same key signature, but different pitch as the tonic). The third movement would usually be in the home tonic.

Only later did composers try to find more variety in their options. Beethoven, in his 3rd Piano Concerto which is in C Minor, writes his slow movement not in E-flat Major as you’d expect, but in E Major. It’s a much brighter sounding key and while the switch from the pitch E-flat of the ‘darker’ minor key to an E-natural implying a ‘brighter’ major key is one thing, but the switch from the dominant pitch G to the G-sharp of an E Major chord is one of those emotional frissons when listeners probably sat up and went, “what? ”

And Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto is a work that Brahms performed and especially liked. It served as a model for his 1st Piano Concerto – a work that began as his first attempt at a first symphony, by the way.

That this scheme of thirds – either in the melodic writing or in the overall key scheme of the complete work – is not original doesn’t make it any less interesting. It’s what helps make the work sound a little different from the ordinary. A lesser composer would have written the 2nd movement in the expected E-flat Major, the 3rd movement most likely in G, a key scheme spelling out, after all, a C Minor triad. And while it also helps make it sound more like Brahms than that theoretical lesser composer (who could never have written a 1st movement like that in the first place), it also helps make the symphony more of a whole, whether we realize it consciously or not.

It is one of those moments where the brain, seriously engaged or not, is still given something to savor as the heart enjoys the overall surface of the work.

This underlying logic is one of the reasons Brahms was considered, in his day, a “difficult” composer. In an age when Wagner and Liszt were writing more dissonant or more harmonically adventuresome music “for the future,” Brahms’ music sounds more academic, not just because he wrote in old-fashioned forms like variations and fugues. Even if he isn’t using outright fugues in his 1st Symphony, its heavy reliance on counterpoint and the frequent use of contrary motion between melody and bass was usually dismissed as “academic,” things one learns in school to help your craft but which you jettison as soon as you arrive in the real world.

Because he wasn’t writing operas or using the symphony to tell involved dramatic stories like Liszt’s “Faust” Symphony or even implied stories like Tchaikovsky in his 4th, 5th and 6th Symphonies, Brahms was considered an abstract “classicist” in an emotional, “romantic” age, despite the passion in his music – is anything more passionate-sounding than the first movement of this 1st Symphony?

Curiously, it is Brahms’ reliance on technical control – the fine structural, often imperceptible details exhibited even in the short piano pieces written at the end of his career – that proved more important to a composer like Arnold Schoenberg who, after following the harmonic evolution from Wagner’s chromaticism to its inevitable dissolution of tonality altogether, decided he needed more of a “system” to wrap his musical ideas around, curiously finding inspiration in “Brahms the Progressive” as he invented something called “serialism” (more correctly a “system of composing with twelve tones”) which is only a neo-classical way of looking for something different from but comparable to the systematic rules we learn in theory classes that comprise what we call “tonality.”

And I can’t think of a composer more maligned for being “difficult” than Arnold Schoenberg.

Prausnitz uses a quotation of Sessions’ as an epigram for his biography’s preface:

“Every composer whose music seems difficult to grasp is, as long as the difficulty persists, suspected or accused of composing with his brain rather than his heart – as if one could function without the other.”

The same is true of Elliott Carter and Arnold Schoenberg, composers whose music is usually dismissed as requiring too much work to listen to and is too different from what we’re familiar with to warrant serious attention.

But the same was true of Brahms, a composer who you’d think had gained a certain amount of self-reliance after coming to terms with writing a symphony after Beethoven, yet following the reaction to his 4th Symphony was still insecure enough to destroy at least two more symphonic works, one far enough along to have played it for a test-drive with his friends!

The key to Sessions’ comment, written (I suspect) in the 1950s, is that “as long as the difficulty persists.”

Perhaps there will come a time when Schoenberg and Carter’s music – as well as Sessions’ – will be accepted on its own terms, and the negativity, like that which pursued Brahms as well as Beethoven and, most certainly, Bach, will have been forgotten.

- Dick Strawser

Friday, May 13, 2011

Notes from the Hypocracy

I don’t often bother getting into political issues, either on Facebook or on my blog, but I was checking out a friend’s blog and saw this story:

“Author Chris Rodda reported today (03/30/2011) that potential presidential contender Mike Huckabee, in a speech at the Rediscover God in America conference held in Iowa last week, stated his wish that all Americans should be forced, at gunpoint if necessary, to listen to the lectures delivered by pseudo-historian David Barton.”

My first reaction to this kind of statement was wondering, “Aren’t these the same people who oppose Obama's Health Care Reform" (which several Republican states’ attorneys general have filed suit against) "because it requires everyone in the country to have health insurance” which they feel is unconstitutional?

Was there any outrage among Huckabee's audience of fellow Republicans and pastors about the unconstitutionality of such an idea in the mouth of a past and likely future Presidential candidate? 

So it’s okay to think – and should Huckabee be elected, perhaps likely initiating the proceedings – that everyone in the country should be required to listen to one person’s opinion at gunpoint, no less!

[UPDATE 5/16/2011: according to the New York Times, Huckabee has decided not to run for President, after all! And La Donald won't have to hear those dreaded words You're fired on election day. Two down...]

Another post today also got me thinking, in a slightly different direction. I haven’t been following the news – mostly because so much of it has been about the killing of bin Laden or the civil war in Libya, even displacing reports of the once ubiquitous Japanese nuclear nightmare that everyone seems to have forgotten.

But a friend on Facebook posted this link about the recently resigned Senator John Ensign, the “respected gentleman from Nevada” (or whatever formulas United States Senators use in recognizing their colleagues on the floor during debate) proving that, alas, not everything that happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

This, of course, from one of the supporters of the Defense of Marriage amendment…

And isn’t this the guy who once called on President Clinton to resign after admitting an affair with Monica Lewinsky because “he has no credibility left”?

Yet Ensign didn’t resign until May 2011, despite interventions by his “spiritual adviser” and various colleagues for an affair that was raging (so to speak) between 2007 and 2008 and which he publicly acknowledged in a press conference in June, 2009? This past March, he announced he would not seek reelection in 2012, fearing an ugly campaign.

"’At this point in my life, I have to put my family first,’ Ensign told reporters at a news conference in Las Vegas.”

This may have been something he should’ve thought about in 2007 when he started pursuing his friend and staffer’s wife.

(I don’t think the Ten Commandments says anything about coveting staffers’ wives, but I’m pretty sure it says something about coveting your “neighbor’s wife” whether they were next door neighbors or not (they did, however, live in the same gated community which proves that even elite neighborhoods like that don’t always protect you against everything). It also seems there was enough reason to include the "neighbor's wife" one along with a whole separate commandment regarding adultery in general.)

And he resigns now, only because he is being investigated in the Senate for “ethics violations.”

It’s not the affair that bothers me – except the woman with whom he was having the affair claims that she gave in only because his persistence wore her down – but the hypocrisy: not just his calling for Clinton’s resignation or his support of the “Defense of Marriage” Bill (which I think, if you're trying to protect the institution of marriage, ought to at least make adultery a punishable offense) but for his sheer stupidity, that he was unable to control himself against the advice and awareness of his cuckolded staffer, his “spiritual adviser” and various, presumably respected friends and colleagues, all advising him to stop the affair.

Yet he would not, perhaps even could not.

Perhaps, in the 2012 election for the Senate seat he just resigned from, John Ensign’s penis (whom the former Senator appears to be describing in the photo at right) can run in his place?

After all, if the Supreme Court decided last year that corporations have the right, like individuals, to make campaign contributions and that campaign reform was violating their right to free speech, couldn’t a man’s penis – especially one which has so clearly demonstrated having a mind of its own – run for elected office?

And he's certainly produced sufficient evidence he can be quite persuasive, if not outright charming, no doubt reasonable qualities in an elected official.

(Update: And this, about how the blood spatter from Ensign's unfolding scandal - particularly the cover-up and arranging of hush-money payments - might affect Republicans Senator Tom Coburn and former Pennsylvania Senator and Presidential ever-hopeful Rick Santorum. so there's a silver lining, after all!)

Well, enough senseless meditations for today – I’m now going to get back to work on my parody-update of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.”

- Dick [sic] Strawser

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Trio, a "Lost Chord" and Lots of Brahms

It’s been busy, here, at Dr. Dick Central – while I’m still finishing up editing a complete novel, “The Doomsday Symphony” (all 130,000 words of it), I’ve already begun working out some details to begin a new one. Well, not exactly “new” – it’s going to be a complete rewriting of one I completed last year, “The Lost Chord” (all 188,000+ words of it), a parody of Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol.”

I’ll get into why and how I’m going to revise it – no, ‘revise’ is too polite a word for what will be a complete overhaul, starting over, basically, from scratch – at a later time, but basically, since I wasn’t as satisfied with Brown’s novel as I was with “The Da Vinci Code” (and I’m still very pleased with my parody, “The Schoenberg Code”), I found myself less than satisfied with my take-off on it, to the point I want to salvage what I can from the characters and many of the scenes, then implant them into a whole new plot which, rather than being a parody of Brown, becomes a parody of the genre, instead.

In addition to that, I’ve started composing again, much to my surprise. It’d been bothering me that it’s been a year since I completed (but not yet finished copying) the seven songs of the cycle, “The Other Side of Air” with no new work anywhere near a back burner.

True, writing a novel might constitute as an excuse for that, but still…

At some point around last Christmas, I jotted down a few ideas for what might become a piano sonata. At the end of April, I got those out to see what I might be able to do with them. It had also occurred to me, if for nothing more than an exercise in keeping the creative muscles moving – a form of exercise – I might transcribe one or two of the songs into... I don't know - a piano trio?

In a few minutes, I was jotting down some new ideas – not for a piano sonata or a song transcription, but for a piano trio. Fifteen minutes earlier, I hadn't even thought of writing a 'real' piano trio...

On May 2nd, I began actual composition on it and in a few days had written most of the first minute of it (it took over 27 hours, by the way, to get that much composed). But then I woke up one morning thinking “ya know, the main motive of this trio sounds awfully familiar,” like I’d written it before. In fact, I had – it was the generating force behind the String Quartet completed in 2003 which also was significant in the Symphony composed subsequently which was based on the same framework (if not the same material). While that wasn’t an “arrangement” of the quartet, I didn’t want this new piece to become “The Piano Trio Version of the String Quartet .” I mean, really…

So I decided to scratch the sketches and start over.

By the next day, I had fashioned a different six-note motive which, though not as dramatic an opening, actually turned out to be more “pregnant,” more filled with potential and found, since the structure I had planned originally was still usable, I could basically plug new notes into the old rhythms and phrases, though it hasn’t turned out to be quite that easy. Plus I found a few spots – even in only the first 17 measures – that could be tweaked a little better.

After all, better now than realizing all this 170 measures into the piece and having to start over again, right?

Curiously, I find the piece is now much better. Funny how things work like that.

I’ve also been blogging about Brahms for the Harrisburg Symphony Blog. Their concert this weekend is called “Brahms Brahms Brahms” and while I joke about calling it “Brahms Cubed” (“Brahms in Triplicate” sounds too bureaucratic), it offers me – as a writer about music – an opportunity to spill the cyber-equivalent of much ink about it.

The First Symphony post is a transcription of my pre-concert talk from several seasons ago, examining what was going on in Brahms' life as he tried to write that first symphony. Curiously, I'd also posted about some comments Brahms had made to a friend of his, the closest thing we've come to Brahms talking about his "creative process" which this friend was kind enough to write down.

This morning, Stuart and I got together to record a podcast, chatting about the program. You can hear that on this post at the Symphony Blog, one of a series of podcasts or video-chats we’d tried to do for each concert (pending the reality of schedules).

This afternoon, I added a post about the Violin Concerto, too, which Odin Rathnam will play with the orchestra, celebrating his 20th season as concertmaster of the orchestra. The post includes three different performances, videos embedded with legendary performers Henryk Szeryng, Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh, each playing one movement of the concerto. That in itself was a lot of fun.

There’s also the realization that – jeez – even a composer like Brahms has his moments with self-reliance: it took him over 20 years to complete his first symphony (and 14 of those years on the work that became his 1st Symphony and then in a burst of creative energy, he completed a second symphony and this violin concerto in the same of two more years.

But the Violin Concerto – regardless how we think of it today – did not go over well (yes, Vienna loved it, but it only received due recognition after Brahms died) and Brahms scrapped his plans for a second violin concerto. When some of his friends, a kind of creative advisory board and support group, were unable to find any enthusiasm for his 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto, he also scrapped sketches he’d had for a second “double concerto” and a 5th Symphony – apparently far enough along he could play it as a piano duet for his friends – as well as another symphony (a new one or a revisiting of the ill-fated 5th?). It makes you wonder what happened to the self-reliance he’d discovered after having finally finishing that 1st Symphony – after the Double Concerto, Brahms clearly went into a creative slide (I’d hesitate to call anything that could produce those last chamber music pieces a “slump”) but he decided to write no more orchestral works. And the Double Concerto was written only 11 years after he completed the 1st Symphony – that’s not a long time, when you consider Brahms’ stature in the world!

It’s made me think about the delicate balance that is creativity and how, even with Brahms’ obvious craft and genius, he could still fall prey to self-doubts.

Part of the reworking of “The Lost Chord” is to set it at a combination writer’s colony and clinic where the hero of “The Doomsday Symphony,” Dr. T.R. Cranleigh, runs into three composers on a mission.

One is a very systematic composer (perhaps a serialist) who is trying to discover how to bring more emotion into his music.

A more emotionally-oriented composer who relies on inspiration rather than craft is trying to find something intellectual he can use to build a stronger framework for his music, so it has more to offer than just "sound-appeal."

And the third composer is searching for the courage of his own convictions to continue being a composer, almost afraid to commit to putting anything down on paper. He hopes to overcome his doubts and fears, the negativity of critics and well-meaning friends and teachers, to write the kind of music he wants to write.

So, yes, one is looking for a heart, the other is looking for a brain and the third is looking for some courage.

And not only do I have to come up with names for them, I have to find a name for the little dog, too…

- Dick Strawser