Jan, a Czech

Every weekday morning I wake to the usually mellifluous, occasionally clangorous sounds of WETA 90.9. As this daily routine occurs on Rooster Time, WETA wisely crafts its playlist for the early morning hours – only very occasionally is there something like John Philip Sousa summoning you awake (and possibly inducing violence). Unfortunately, it’s never as nice as the royal awakening Eddie Murphy enjoys at the beginning of Coming to America, which every classical music lover and comfort enthusiast would enjoy. Oh, plus the bath. My god, the bath!

My favorite part of my decidedly less regal routine is when I lay in bed and listen, half-awake, for a while when there is something particularly interesting or new to me on WETA. While my dog re-cuddles under the bed, hoping against hope that it was all just a horrible, horrible mistake and that bipedal idiot isn’t really going to get up when the sun hasn’t even yet elected to do the same! (to her everlasting credit, she gets into our routine fairly quickly). One day this week, the annoyingly-not-on-Twitter David Ginder played a piece for us by Leoš Janáček entitled, “Moravian Dances” and explained that Janáček had made a great study of the folk music of his native lands (he was born 1854 in Moravia, then a crownland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now part of the Czech Republic) and used it in his compositions. He was a leading expert on this folklore and made the first recordings of Moravian folk music and published his adaptations and transcriptions. Since I am not an expert, I learned today that these are more closely related to Slavic music melodically and structurally; whereas Bohemian music gravitated towards its geographic German neighbors.

Word up, homies.

There was something about the melody in the first Dance that captivated me. Now, this isn’t exactly a stretch. Your correspondent is someone who has listened to hours of Jodeln and Alphörner on YouTube, worn out CDs of traditional Bavarian music, etc. So the affinity for European folk music was already extant (which, as you can imagine, makes me societal anti-catnip – hence I only mention it from the safety of a blog). I mean, my favorite scene in The Sound of Music is when they dance the Ländler! By the way, if you’re looking for otherworldly yodeling (and I have a sneaking suspicion that, clandestinely, you are), look no further than Franzl Lang, the Bavarian Jodler-König (King of the Yodelers). And you thought Brian Wilson’s falsetto was impressive!

You want and need that hat in your life. Just look in the mirror and admit it already. I know I did.

Swerving from the rumble strips back onto the highway, there was something so simple, yet so culturally expressive in the first Moravian melody that Janáček brought to us. I kept humming it throughout my ablutions, listened to it in the car on the way to work, and although the Jodler-König’s highwire act has now replaced it in my head, I listened to it a few times at work as well. I learned from some digging that it is called “Fur coat” (Kožich). Janáček took it down in 1886 from someone named Jan Myška, in Petřvald (eastern Czech Republic, close to the Polish border, as I now know). I like how the tempo slows and the volume diminishes when the melody is played, and how eventually, there is a harp playing triplets underneath it. Sublime stuff. Here are the 5 dances, played (ironically) by the Slovak Philharmonic:

Two related points. One, Janáček is not exactly who springs to mind when thinking of classical composers, awash as we are in the three B’s and Mozart and the other giants of the genre. Sometimes that hierarchy is correct – I’m sure the Beatles were outranked at times on the charts by long-forgotten bands – and sometimes it isn’t. Discovering these “other” composers is a true delight. Without inflated reputation (“I’m supposed to like this, right?”) one feels free to simply explore and enjoy. There are vast worlds outside Vienna and Italy! Janáček’s Wikipedia entry notes that “Through his systematic notation of folk songs as he heard them, Janáček developed an exceptional sensitivity to the melodies and rhythms of speech, from which he compiled a collection of distinctive segments he called ‘speech tunes’. He used these ‘essences’ of spoken language in his vocal and instrumental works. The roots of his style, marked by the lilts of human speech, emerge from the world of folk music.” I mean, I just HAVE to know more about that.

On the other hand, since I don’t value every piece of music that Bach wrote the same, it also throws the truly great works in harsher relief – mere mortals can write beautiful music, like Janáček, but the Chaconne is not of this world.

Second, obviously at one point in time, the music of Europe’s hoi polloi was not exactly celebrated in classical music’s lofty capitals. It is to the great credit of Janáček and others (his compatriot Dvorak springs to mind, even Debussy weaving French children’s songs into some of his compositions) that they recognized the simple beauty in these dances and songs – that, in the final analysis, they were as deserving of a place in the musical firmament as anything else. Spruced up symphonically, of course, for their big début. You comb your hair before you go out, don’t you? Well, you should start.

And, if you follow the chronology closely enough (or, rather, not closely, since now I’m bloviating), that eventually gave us the great gift of the Jodler-König. For which every single person on Earth thanks you, Leoš.

Strike up a tune, Moravian minstrels!

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Shut Your Brassy, Magnificent Trap!

Well, Sib1 has been carrying all the weight of our return to the tumultuous, colorful carnival that is classical music blogging – it’s like Burning Man, but doesn’t make you weep for humanity. So it’s high time for Sib2 to step up and do his bit. And what better way to self-importantly announce one’s arrival than with a majestic chorus of brass instruments?

Full disclosure: I am a recovering brass player. I take it one day at a time. My habit of choice was the trumpet, otherwise known as “the gateway instrument.” Oh, they lure you in with phrases like, “This is God’s instrument!” as if God weren’t so obviously playing autoharp. And I’m pretty sure that when trumpets blow in Revelation, stuff gets messed up. But to a young, impressionable kid just wandering the streets of music, the offer seems too good to pass up. And then somehow, years later, you find yourself identifying the first movement of Haydn’s trumpet concerto after hearing just one note. You can – and have – drummed the entire thing, all 3 movements, with your fingertips while reading the newspaper. You know which recording it is by certain key passages even before the cadenza. You move on with your life, but the trumpet is always with you.

Eventually you learn to accept and embrace it. You know in your soul that the highest enjoyment you ever had playing music was Brass Choir, freshman year of college. That was when you first heard and played Bach’s incomparable Die Kunst der Fuge – Contrapunctus I. It moved you then and moves you now when you hear that singular melody shared and echoed among a small group of brass players. You feel uplifted and transformed! The best kind of high, really: an authentic one. I love Glenn Gould, of course, but I cannot truly compare the two:

 

Last night I turned on the radio (yes, it was still 2015) in the kitchen as I did some household chores, already tuned to the local WETA station, when immediately my ears perked up (possibly literally). In my opinion, Giovanni Gabrieli gave brass music the gift of his genius, a significant corpus that has rung (brassily) down the centuries. A Gabrieli “canzon” (it’s like a calzone, but less caloric) greeted me on WETA last night. Here is a video of brass players from the Bayerische Staatsoper playing it, conducted by Zubin Mehta:

 

Clearly I owe Gabrieli more than a mere ‘like’: his work actually pioneered this form and setup of instrumentation and playing. Brass music introduced me to polyphony and antiphony, two forms I’ve  dearly loved ever since. Gabrieli was instrumental (wink) in their development. He was the first composer to include dynamics notations (necessary when you’re blowing God’s wind through God’s chosen mazes of brass pipes, emptying the Lord’s spittle ever and anon). The above calzone, a revolution in Italian fast-casual brass dining, comes from a Sacra Symphonia that remains a landmark of this music.

We bid you a brassy adieu with this video from the Chicago Symphony Brass, which talks a bit about Gabrieli (Gabriel, blow your horn) before giving us a few clips of them playing his music:

 

Our undying thanks, as ever, to Jack McFarland, whose wit contributed our title:

 

The Roots of Rhythm

It would be hard to gloss over the fact that the Siblings have apparently been on an extended Christmas break since, oh, say, December 11th or so. Suffice to say that one of us has a better reason than the other, who is merely procrastinatory. A word which he made up and offers to you as proof that good things come to those who wait.

We have many nascent ideas for posts, but the one I’ve apparently chosen to wade back in with is a little bizarre. Yesterday, while watching something on the teevy (I believe it was the masterful Sherlock, specifically the third episode of this latest “series” – our deep thanks to (a) the UK and (b) WETA!) there was a scene in which a heartbeat was played in the background. For whatever reason — because in my multiple decades, I’ve heard a heartbeat once or twice and faintly remember breaking down the various sections of an EKG in a biology class — yesterday I noticed that it appeared to be in waltz time: 3/4.  See for yourself:

About 10 or so years ago, I began realizing that I had a particular affinity for songs and compositions in 3/4 time, both pop and classical. I hadn’t really thought about why that might be the case. I think it was Elliott Smith’s music that first drew my attention to it, though it did not begin there. As many know, Elliott was a masterful songwriter, a uniquely talented guitar player (multi-instrumentalist, really), and beautifully gifted in both lyrics and melody. Besides the two waltzes on XO (Waltz #2 is better known than the gossamer, sorrowing-yet-angry, deep nighttime Waltz #1), many of Elliott’s songs are in 3, and are so well crafted that their meter is not obtrusive. He seems so at home in the meter, with the melody dipping in and out and over and through the beat, whereas something like James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” seems forced (it is a nice song, though). I think “I Better Be Quiet Now” is one of my favorites of Elliott’s.

Given the Sherlock event’s sudden impingement on this three-quarters of an imponderable, today I did some light digging. Naturally, I’m not the first to notice or wonder about this. Here is one message board (aptly, at Drumforum.org) where a few folks weigh in; many of them estimate 3/4 or 6/8 time but others say 4/4. I wouldn’t think heartbeats could vary by rhythm rather than speed of that rhythm, but I am a doctor in no sense of the word. Except the sense of “Brain Donors” where I pretend to be one for nefarious purposes.

http://www.drumforum.org/index.php?/topic/20674-what-is-the-time-signature-of-a-heart-beat/

Many of the participants immediately use the question to suggest that music appreciation is rooted in physiological rhythm. I love the connection to jazz and swing, personally. But overall it’s a bit too much for me, because how do you explain speed metal? Or the diverse time signatures found the world over? I think you could posit a connection to biorhythms more generally than the waltz time specifically. But I do find the possibility of this connection intriguing. It may be nothing more than mere coincidence. But a nice one, at least. It reminded me of these Paul Simon lyrics:

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain

A couple cursory searches did not uncover a lot of material on this subject. Perhaps some of our friends can help enlighten us. I will leave you with Erik Satie’s three wonderful “Gymnopédies,” which are written, of course, in my bizarrely beloved waltz time. Here played with bizarre cinematic accompaniment by Aldo Ciccolini, one of the best Satie interpreters for piano.

Missed It

As you can see, the Sibs have yielded to the indolence of summer and not posted since May 17. Actually, a lot of life events got in the way. “But we’re back, it’s almost spring!” Wait, that’s not true. We are not the birds from A Year With Frog & Toad (unfortunately).

Yesterday morning my alarm clock woke me to the sounds of WETA, the DC-area classical station that is to WQXR what Eddie’s family is to Clark Griswold’s in the original National Lampoon’s Vacation: a hick cousin. Womp womp. I should balance that by saying that WETA has many admirable qualities (thank you, Neil Simon: “I’m very fond of you myself. You have some very nice qualities.”), one of which is an ability to magically play the Kreutzer Sonata in moments of extreme need. The Kreutzer is one of the few reasons I will agree with Sib the Elder that everyone loves Beethoven (because aside from that and a few other pieces, I actually don’t). It is incredible. It’s completely Batman, and I’m glad WETA plays it in its entirety so often. May I assume most readers of this blog will have seen “Immortal Beloved”? “It was that damned sonata…the Kreutzer.”

Swerving back into the correct lane, WETA was playing the overture to something called “The Mute of Portici.” I had never heard it before, much less of it, and in my half-sleeping haze, when the brain more easily makes connections (science), I thought immediately of a Punch Brothers tune called “The Squirrel of Possibility.” Naturally I saw a direct line between the two, “So that’s where they got that title from! How cool that it was from some obscure classical piece.” Well, I predictably awoke to a harsher reality when my cool, deadpan prefrontal cortex went to WETA.org and, upon finding the title, realized it had nothing whatsoever to do with Punch Brothers. Missed it.

It’s actually a jaunty, quasi-foreboding way to start your day (as I guess most operatic overtures might be? Not really a fan. See OldSib.). Parts of it really do seem like an alarm clock that’s been snoozed several times (which is, I suppose, what it was doing on WETA’s morning shift).

Composed by someone named Daniel-François-Esprit Auber. Really? Yes. If I had that name, I would ruthlessly enforce full usage in all social interactions. No “Sprit” for short. I will gallantly admit I’d never heard of him before. Naturally, he’s famous enough in France that a street leading to the Paris Opéra is named for him. What do you want from me? I didn’t know Balzac or Chateaubriand before I studied there, either.

Well, my Ostriches of Incontinence, I will leave you with a bit of the Brothers Punch (can’t find a good, free version of the S of P; I like the Critter/Thile collabo below (starts after the 1:00 mark) and have watched it many times). Their connections to the classical world are so rife and diverse, I can’t believe I’m using this non-existent one. Here’s to “so awake, what waking calls asleep”!