A few thoughts on some favourite music

A few years ago I made some discs for a music producer friend in England who wanted my take on some masterpieces of classical music. I accompanied the discs with a few off-the-wall comments on my youthful enthusiasms. The other day, I found a bit of what I wrote my friend and here it is.

To set up my first LP connection I had to visit a local “radio shop” (these of course have gone the way of the dodo). A nice shop-fella (I can still see him) actually came over to our public housing apartment building, 15th floor, and hooked up the cheap turntable I had picked up at Sam Goody’s to an unspeakable little portable radio. I tested it with the Rach Two, as they call it, the Second Piano Concerto played by Cyril Smith: I think the radio guy was amused by my taste, my room with art posters, books and a few LPs. My family’s poverty and my determination to hear this LP maybe touched him. (He only charged me a couple of bucks for his trouble). By today’s standards the sound of my “equipment” would be a joke but it was a miracle to me. Mozart, Rachmaninoff and Mahler were my three big youthful music enthusiasms. I loved the photos I saw of Rachmaninoff, (a “six and a half foot scowl” as Stravinsky called him)–great scary features, close-clipped hair, looking like Martin Landau playing Bela Lugosi, and I loved that Russian melancholy, incredible melodies, and that something that was tragic, and also heroic I sensed in the man and his music. The Symphonic Dances, scorned by many when they first came out, stand up strong today. Powerful drama, flowing melody, that wonderful waltz, and the ending which pits the “Dies Irae” (grim medieval chant), against a song of faith from the Russian liturgy. It’s all about dealing with death, which, when you’re young is romantically interesting, and when you’re old, strikes closer to home. The Bells, Edgar Allan Poe translated into Russian, R. thought his best work. It’s a terrific piece, with the various kinds of bells given huge emotional spread by the music and voices. Just before the close there’s a wonderfully poignant lyrical moment for orchestra only. What a composer!

(for the lyrics to The Bells, see the poem “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe, but note that the Balmont translation into Russian is slightly different from the original)

I first began to really hear Sibelius when I saw Sir Thomas Beecham do the Sixth Symphony in Washington in 1956-7. Mysterious wonderful stuff, evoking a northland I’d never experienced. Now that I’ve lived in Canada for so long I appreciate Sibelius even more. The Fifth Symphony with the great swan-beats in the last movement and the wonderful crashing chords to end it. The end of the Fifth Symphony is the ultimate—“look, I’ve come through!” music. It partially reflects Sibelius’ own battle with potentially cancerous throat tumours. The Seventh Symphony in one movement is a masterpiece of conciseness that creates sounds some have said reminds them of a planet turning in space. I couldn’t resist adding (on another disc) the Valse Triste, a death waltz but once very famous radio theme, and The Swan of Tuonela, that wonderful vision of the underworld, marked by an English horn melody that you never forget. As a teacher of mythology how could I resist a composer who writes tone poems based on Finnish mythology, and evokes the world of the Norse sagas so beautifully without really referring to them very specifically? Tapiola, evoking the forests of the north, is the ultimate Sibelius. The wind storm in the middle is so powerfully composed that one musician claimed that during live performances he imagined he could hear extraneous storm noises that weren’t even in the score. As if the elemental spirits, somewhere in deep nature, had been touched and had decided to chime in!

A colleague of mine in a TV lecture once alluded to Orff’s stunning work, nodding knowingly to the class and assuming that they would be familiar with this renowned example of 20th century classical music—if perhaps with few others. He was disappointed; few of them had ever heard of it, or consciously heard it. Yet they may have heard bits on TV ads, or in the score of the movie Excalibur, where it is powerfully used. I heard Stokowski conduct this in NYC once (his CD isn’t the best, but that was a fine performance), and I’ve heard the work several times live. But this Jochum performance is dazzling! What an idea Orff had! To set medieval texts, many of them highly erotic, and mocking of authority, using the full resources of the modern orchestra, a large choir, including boys, and giving challenging and moving bits to various soloists. The “O fortuna!” opening and closing is unforgettable; the song of the roasting goose wonderful, the soprano’s stunning “in truitina” dazzling, the “Oh, Oh, Oh, totus florio!” memorable. What a piece! I’ve added here the Sibelius mentioned elsewhere, plus another tour de force, Heitor Villa Lobos’ Little Train of the Caipira, a vivid picture of train ride V-L took in Brazil, on a train carrying workers and berry-pickers from one town to another. Along with Pacific 231 by Honegger, this is the ultimate musical train ride.

For the words (in Latin and English ) to Carmina Burana google Orff on Classical Net.

When I first heard the Strauss tone poems I found them dauntingly complex and hard to follow. The mists soon cleared as I continued to listen. In Germany I saw quite a few Strauss operas, and as a student of German I learned the lyrics of the songs. Strauss is a wonder: such variety and skill, such workmanlike ethics, the Haydn of the Twentieth Century! The Zarathustra music has become universally known (at least the first few minutes!) thanks to the Kubrick film, but the whole piece is delightful. Strauss uses the Nietzsche book on the emergence of the Superman as a rough basis for the structure, but it has its own musical logic. The “science” music is fugue-like; the dance of Joy is a waltz! The midnight bells sound, ushering in the new age of the Nietzschean Superman (nothing to do with Hitler!) Till Eulenspiegel is a nice comic piece about the uproarious adventures and sad demise –on the gallows—of the rapscallion trickster of medieval German legend. I remember visiting Till’s monument in Ratzeburg or Möln in north Germany. Rudolph Kempe, a great Strauss conductor, does the best Till I’ve ever heard. Don Juan is another “pictorial” piece; the music follows a rough script and surges with passion; the horn music signaling yet another sexual conquest is memorable. (Karl Böhm has a great version of this, possibly the best). Both it, and The Dance of the Seven Veils, as done here by Stokowski, seethe with sensuality. Strauss wrote the dance just before the first performance of the opera Salome, in which it—of course– marks a critical moment. Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler’s wife, thought that Strauss waited too long to pen this, and that it was vulgar, but it’s properly sly and suggestive, lush and leering: it certainly hasn’t faded away. Nor will any of Strauss’s greatest pieces.

When I first moved back to NYC as a young man (I was born there but we had moved to the suburbs in Westchester) I used to eat at an “automat,” somewhere near 57th Street, I believe. When I was getting to know the music of Bartok I was very moved to learn that toward the end of his life he had lived in the same area, when he was mortally ill and very poor. In my naiveté I couldn’t understand how a great composer could end up so neglected and on the verge of poverty. Just previously he had written his Concerto for Orchestra, a tour de force for orchestra, which some critics saw as a creative backslide—because it was so popular, or popularly intended. I grew up with the Fritz Reiner version of this and love it. The first movement is energetic, with lots of brass and contrapuntal effects; the second features wonderful interplay of pairs of woodwinds. The interrupted intermezzo has always sounded to me like a scream of agony touching on the horrors of Bartok’s century, or an outcry, if you will, shorthanding the dilemma of existence itself. This movement also has a stretch of “night music,” like a sorrowful choir of the insects singing on the vast Hungarian plains. The allegretto makes fun of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad Symphony” with its insistent theme representing the German army’s march into the USSR. (Bartok probably thought that the Russian music was too obvious). The last movement is a life-affirmation. The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, has a kind of Merlin-at-midnight spookiness that is haunting and intriguing. This music has a direction and an intellectual sharpness, and a compelling percussive edge: it creates a unique sound-world, unforgettable. The Hungarian Dances serve to remind us of Bartok’s roots in native folk music, a world he incorporated in his later style and carried to ultimate heights of cosmopolitan suavity and expressive power.

I was a young man in NYC when I first heard a broadcast—the first US performance—of this great work, Shostakovich’s Tenth. I felt its power immediately. I knew very little about Shostakovich’s nightmares amid the Stalin terrors, and the work was received in NY (by the composer-critic Virgil Thomson) as a wild outpouring from the barbaric steppes. The second movement is reputedly a portrait of Stalin in all his ferocity, but it was the last movement that first grabbed me: what power, epic scope, what a relentless tread toward the end! It made me shiver—and still does. To understand the background of this, read the letters-diaries of Mikhail Bulgakov (Manuscripts Don’t Burn), the great Soviet writer who went through much of the same terror. The Age of Gold pieces are Shostakovich in a satirical mode—these selections are just a hint of the whole. This kind of work was accepted by the Soviet censors as properly scathing about the capitalist west.

A few years ago Gorecki’s elegiac symphony leapt to the top of the charts in England—and not just the classical charts! Here’s a convinced modernist being driven to raw, basic human communication by his encounter with the horrors of WWII, concentration camps, the death of the innocent. I’ve seen at least one conductor near to tears after doing this work. The work features a kind of minimalism and lyricism that makes these “songs on the death of children,” and pictures of mother and child sheltering against evil, almost unbearably poignant. I’ve added to this disc something resoundingly secular: a few of the American Charles Ives orchestral pieces, full of his famous echoes of the New England reality he had heard around him since childhood, Great, complex, chaotic, offbeat, rough, odd, disconcerting and ultimately invigorating stuff by America’s greatest “original” in Music.

Well, here it is: the fons et origo of modern music. Stravinsky’s piece was the occasion of the greatest scandal in modern musical premieres—the audience booing, whistling, screaming insults, throwing things. What a shock to the Parisians—this wild stuff from Russia. The scenario for “Rite of Spring” was conceived by the Russian artist Nicholas Roerich. It’s all about barbaric sacrifice, orgiastic dances, human ritual and nature. Stravinsky’s masterpiece is very comparable to some of Picasso’s earlier work, with its “primitivistic” power, and direct challenge to everything “pretty”, “charming” and bourgeois. It’s a great listen, totally refreshing, exciting, wonderfully done here by Pierre Boulez. The Takemitsu piece shows takes us to a kind of post-modernism that is gentle, meditative, and other-worldly, minimalism meets Buddhist repose. The John Foulds piece is one of three “mantras” that this British composer wrote in the interwar period—absolutely astounding music that nobody knew much about at the time. Mantra Three is a series of powerful but controlled thrusts—polyrhythmic, relentless, complex, As one commentator notes–“a shattering explosion of orchestral power” at the end.

How I love French music, especially Ravel and Debussy! Immediate passage to those wonderful Impressionist landscapes I saw as a boy in the galleries in New York and Washington. Beautiful, subtle soundscapes full of shimmering light, fluid movement, insinuating sensuality. The Afternoon of a Faun is the piece that Nijinsky made famous, but it doesn’t even need a dancer; it’s a disembodied lyrical vision of nature—a dream of nature rather than a portrait, and what a sensual piece! The Claire de Lune arrangement is by Stokowski and it is lovely. Ravel’s La Valse, by contrast, is a devastating picture of the transition from the old lavish Europe to the arrival of apocalypse, death enters the ballroom and everything crashes; it’s the breakdown of a civilization conveyed in a dance! Debussy’s Fetes have always intrigued me—wonderful mood pictures. I especially like II, the mysterious parade coming toward us and then moving away. The Tombeau de Couperin is Ravel’s tribute to classical French art, its civilized, restrained, lyrical perfection.

Aaron Copland was the most popular American composer of his era. His more “progressive” and difficult works had only a small audience but the “populist” works—the dance works in particular—are universally loved. The Fanfare is a terrific study for brass and percussion—it’s often played at kids’ concerts. Appalachian Spring, written for Martha Graham, with its memorable Shaker tune “Tis the Gift to be Simple” is unforgettable. El Salon Mexico is great fun and has a real American- south- of- the-border flavour. Gershwin’s Concerto in F is as American as it gets. The second movement evokes New York late at night for me like no other work (not even Copland’s Quiet City can match it). When the piano comes in after the introduction, you’re right there in a bar on Broadway and the whole night is ahead of you. It’s Edward Hopper or Damon Runyon, while Jack Dempsey’s place, the Stork Club, Sardi’s, and Times Square are not far away. It’s me working late, looking through my skyscraper window and seeing a couple of late office bodies clinching through a window opposite. The unfulfilled dream, stolen moments, or cynical inertia. Until the last movement!

As a kid I used to have a beautifully illustrated hardcover book telling the Firebird tale. WWII and Russia and things Russian were very popular then—before the Cold War. Stravinsky was the most popular composer for us and we loved his earlier works, The Firebird, Petroushka, Pulcinella– both the big late Romantic stuff and the Neo-classical. Later we got hooked on Jacques D’Amboise of the NY City Ballet dancing Apollon Musagete. The Firebird, remains one of my staples. L’Histoire du Soldat, with its ironical libretto about trafficking with the devil (text omitted in this version), is witty, tart, neo-classical, and is in some ways the essence of the later (but not final period) Stravinsky. Pulcinella is a kind of pastiche on the music of the much earlier Italian composer Pergolesi. It was done at the Paris opera as a ballet in the commedia dell’arte vein. All of this music is enjoyable on every level: melodious, witty (in the case of Histoire and Pulcinella) and earthy and striking in the case of The Firebird.

Prokofiev’s music can be powerful and epic, and sometimes terse and difficult, but it is almost always melodious, fresh and vigorous. Its bitter-sweet flavour makes it especially recognizable and lovable. You can get in touch with it without feeling you are wallowing in vague sentiment—there’s always an edge, a sharpness that keeps you alert; you know you’re listening to something charming and unique! Alexander Nevsky was written for the film by Eisenstein and is probably the greatest film music ever written. The attack of the Teutonic Knights and the battle on ice, the laments following the battle—there is pure originality and inspiration here, and it touches human depths, transforming at least as much as Eisenstein does the anti-German propaganda and the Russian patriotism of the film into something universal and human. The Classical Symphony is very special. A short work presenting an inspired pastiche of a symphony by Haydn or some earlier master. Amusing and delightful–a perfect work. The Piano Concerto Number One gives a slight flavour of the enfant terrible side of Prokofiev—this isn’t a romantic concerto, but something a little more terse and edgy—yet it’s melodious and easy to take, and quite short. (I once heard it played by Byron Janis, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy).


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