A River Franz Through It

Full disclosure: I stole this title from my brother. Good punnery should never go to waste in a Drafts folder, collecting a gentle sifting of e-dust.

I’d like to say that this post was inspired by the lovely river that meanders through my neck of the woods, or inspired by the electric green of spring brought on by lovely soaking rains.  In truth, it was inspired mostly by my washer and dryer and less by rivers and spring and rain.  This proves my point that even if you don’t listen to classical music, it will sneak up on you, and your home appliances are in on the conspiracy.

The first time I heard my washing machine chirp Franz Schubert’s Die Forelle (“The Trout”), I thought I was having some sort of aural hallucination.  Then the dryer did the same thing.  What a refined way to end all of the churning and spinning, instead of a pitch-less and, quite frankly, rude buzzing noise.  Way to go, Samsung! (Can I have my money now?)

It is widely agreed that Die Forelle is Schubert’s most popular art song, and it showcases Schubert’s inimitable gift of turning a simple story into something memorable and extremely pleasing to the ear.  The text was written by poet Christian Friedrich Schubart (yes, that’s an “a”) in 1782, and creates a lovely scene in which a fisherman pursues a rather quick trout, while the poet watches from the riverside.  Employing a strategy beloved by anglers the world over, the fisherman muddies the water, confuses the doomed fish, and catches it. (Schubart does have the good sense to describe the fisherman as being kaltem Blute, cold-blooded.)  Schubert set the poem to a most cheerful piano melody, in which the right hand leaps, trout-like, over sixteenth notes that purposely conjure the image of fish swimming and jumping in the river.

As listeners, we suffer the same fate as that poet standing at the riverside.  We’re drawn in to those alacritous notes and the (for once) cheerful-sounding German text just as he was enjoying a day off from rhyming words by observing an innocent fish bask in its watery paradise.  We’re so drawn in, in fact, that we may not notice when the piano emits some minor arpeggios and the vocal line lowers in register.

Doch endlich ward dem Diebe die Zeit zulang.
Er macht das Bächlein tückish trübe
Und eh ich es gedacht, so zuckte seine Rute,
Das Fischlein, das Fischlein, zappelt dran,
Und ich mit regem Blute Sah die Betrog’ne an.

At last the thief became impatient.
He maliciously made the stream opaque
And I thought, his rod quaked
The fish, the fish was writhing on it,
And I, filled with rage within, looked at the deceived.

We can assume the poet, shoulders slumped, walks back through the woods with his inner rage for company.  Our own inner rage can be directed at Schubert, who lured us in with his vivacious melody and assumption that we could not translate German.  Thus ends the tale of the trout, and the melody has become the Schadenfreude motif of the fisherman instead of the poet.

Here are three noteworthy recordings:

Son of a Mendel!

Although I will assert that no one wears a forehead better than he, Felix Mendelssohn’s music has always left me rather lukewarm.  This predicament became clear a few years ago, when, after singing both parts of his oratorio Elijah, my one conclusion was that within the first syllable of Mendelssohn is “Meh”. (Which, in hindsight, is insane. Three words, soprano-sung: “Hear ye, Israel!”)

“Meh”, indeed.  Until recently, when over the glistening waves of Pandora a familiar theme was heard and I thought “I LOVE this piece!” A quick glance at the screen told me it was none other than the handiwork of Mendelssohn- the Allegro vivace movement of his Symphony No. 4 Op. 90 “Italian”.

In all honesty, how could I hold up the mission we hold so dear here at Sibling Revelry (in case you haven’t memorized it, we strive to make the wide world of classical music approachable and enjoyable for all mankind) while disdaining a composer who is generally quite popular?  It was time that I learned something from my own blog.

Felix spent the better part of 1830-1831 in Italy, indulging his admiration of Italian art and culture and honing his skills as an amateur watercolorist. Unfortunately, his impressions of Italian music were quite opposite. “I have not heard a single note worth remembering”, he lamented in letters to relatives and friends. The knife was further twisted upon discovering that the orchestras of Rome were “unbelievably bad”.  As homage to the country he had come to hold dear- and perhaps to compensate for its one flaw- Mendelssohn began writing his fourth symphony in Italy in 1832 and completed it in Berlin in 1833.  He was never fully satisfied with it, however (even refusing to have it performed in Germany) and gave it at least two revisions: one in 1837, and again in 1847, shortly before his death at the tender age of 38.  It was finally published four years later by one of Mendelssohn’s teachers, Czech pianist Ignaz Moscheles.

The Allegro vivace is just that: fast and lively.  Some musicologists say it was inspired by Felix’s time in Venice.  Metered in 6/8, it is bright, flowing and nicely textured.  I particularly like the little “chat” between the strings’ line and that of the woodwinds’/brass.  You may very well recognize the opening theme, as I did on that day when the “Meh” was taken out of “Mendelssohn”!

I’ve chosen three performances to contemplate.  The first is the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein and his usual exuberance.  The second performance is the Orchestra of Aix, chosen because of the glaring difference in tempo. The third is a live performance by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, conducted by Paavo Järvi.  I hope you’ll enjoy this musical painting very much!

“This is Italy! And now has begun what I have always thought… to be the supreme joy in life. And I am loving it. Today was so rich that now, in the evening, I must collect myself a little, and so I am writing to you to thank you, dear parents, for having given me all this happiness.”  ~Felix Mendelssohn in a letter from Venice to his father Abraham, October 10th 1830

Mendelssohn Sym 4 Allegro vivace Mendelssohn

A Moving Picture: Classical Music in the Movies (Dead Poets Society)

[Today we inaugurate another series, another offspring whom we hopefully won’t leave starving in the streets to eventually attempt to rise up against the bourgeoisie: A Moving Picture, exploring the use of classical music in films great and bad, sweeping and small. Not to be confused with its enchanting sibling, Score-ally Yours. That one examines film scores, with more of an overall view of that element of a movie (and, I believe, scores written specifically for films). A Moving Picture will tend to look at moments where already-written classical music was used to great effect in a movie. Of course, we could have called it something else. Something dorky and fantastic. Velvet Seats & Velveteen Breeches. Celluloid in C Major. Fluffing the Sheet Music. Dorky and Fantastic.]

The impetus for the first post of A Moving Picture came in the form of something pretty well divorced from the world of classical music: professional ice hockey (thanks for the inspiration, Emily Wright!). What’s the link, you ask? Glad to share! Thanks for being so interested. Last night, the hometown team, the good guys, the boys in the red sweaters, the hockey players of our nation’s capital and (let’s admit it) our hearts, the Washington Capitals, won a pretty stunning home game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. (For the initiates, yes, they play hockey in Florida. No, I still don’t know why.) Finding themselves down 3-1 after the first period, the Caps stormed back to finish the 2nd period knotted up at 4-4. Team captain Alex Ovechkin scored the team’s lone goal in the 1st and added two more in the 2nd, giving him a hat trick. A pretty rare occurrence that is greeted with joy and gladness, particularly when it’s done by the guy who is the heart of the team in a few senses. So we go to the 3rd period. The bad guys score again to go up 5-4. With less than a minute to go, the Caps finally ‘capitalized’ to tie it up yet again, with the goal scored by – you guessed it – Ovechkin. Four goals in one night. It’s pretty freaking rare, much less in a very close game. We needed the captain to dig us out of a hole and help us get the win last night, and he delivered. He’s our boy and he’s unique. Even with everything we’ve ever watched him do on the ice that caused our heads to shake slowly from side to side, last night was special. The Caps went on to win – in a shootout, but still. I won’t forget that game for a long time indeed. What a joy.

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“Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen!”

Forgive the long detour. Hopefully you classical music fans made some mental jokes about Canadians taking slapshots in the teeth and eating donuts while driving a Zamboni hopped up on Labatt. If you didn’t, please take a moment to do so now.

That game last night, with all its attendant drama and triumph, reminded me instantly of a wonderful scene involving classical music in “Dead Poets Society.” If I was the type of person to make lists of favorite movies, that one would assuredly figure prominently. The story, the acting, the cinematography, the details of the locations and props…it is a very moving work of art, if I may be so grandiose.

And classical music makes several poignant cameos throughout the movie. Robin Williams’s character, John Keating, dangerous brigand and anarchist, is of course given to whistle Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” at whiles (it starts slow, give it a minute). This is a piece most people are familiar with, from the hands of a composer possessed of what Schonberg calls “a sweet, inexhaustible, supersensuous fund of melody.” Eminently whistleable. Fun fact: the overture has nothing to do with the War of 1812. Tchaikovsky had a rather turbulent personal life, owing to his closeted homosexuality amid the stiff mores of 19th-century Imperial Russia. He did marry, but it caused a complete breakdown that involved a suicide attempt, eventual cuckolding, and perhaps inevitably, the wife being placed in an insane asylum where she died after twenty-one years. Fun stuff. The 1812 Overture (in E-flat major, op. 49) tends to be dismissed in commentary on Tchaikovsky’s body of work – I suppose due to its popular appeal, appearance at fireworks shows, and frequent accompaniment by cannon. God knows, we wouldn’t want a thing like popularity to sully the art form!

But the scene I called to mind was one with no spoken words. While Beethoven’s immeasurable “Ode to Joy” plays (lyrics from a poem by Schiller), Keating plays a riotous game of soccer with his students as the late autumn sunlight gradually fails, setting the woods aglow. When they score a goal, in their exultation they rush over and surround Keating, their leader, lifting him onto their shoulders and charging across the field as they yell in celebration, Keating’s arm raised in victory. It is a beautiful moment for which the welling emotion and glorious humanism of the “Ode to Joy” is quite meet. And a moment that fades all too quickly, as he warned his students on the first day of class.

Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!

I love these graphical visualizations of classical music. Here is one of the “Ode to Joy,” which is part of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s final symphony, the mighty Ninth (D-minor, op. 125).

It fills the soul. “To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, roll on, float…on!”

Beethoven also appears later in the film when Neil Perry comes to visit Keating in his office: the second movement of the “Emperor” piano concerto (no. 5, op. 73) is playing.

Substitute Ovechkin for Keating in the Ode to Joy scene and you have a picture of how I felt last night.  So, to sum this entire ramble up in one barbaric salute to Ovi, the Great 8, YAWP.