There’s Always Room For Cello

“Ah, Juilliard.  It was like prison, but with cellos.”  ~Robin Williams

Yesterday, somewhat plagued by the darkness in this world and the mind-boggling disrespect mankind has for human life, I found myself listening to the Benedictus of Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace. Classical music is a balm to a ragged soul, after all.  The first few minutes, during which only a cello sings a mournful melody (with a touch of flute and other strings), are transporting.

Soul soothed, albeit temporarily, I began thinking about the cello and what a beautiful instrument it is, then wondered about its provenance…

The first cello-like instrument emerged in northern Italy in the early 16th century. Until then, the violin’s earliest precursor, the viola da braccio, was the instrument of choice.  Artisans such as Andrea Amati, Gasparo da Salò and Paolo Maggini wanted to expand the violin’s sound to deeper ranges, thus the instrument had to be built on a much larger scale and the violoncello (“big little violin”) was born.

By the end of the 16th century, a standard bass violin (violone) had been established and was often partnered with the violin in the music of that day.  Wire-wound strings were invented in the mid-17th century in Bologna and produced a much louder sound with more ring than the conventional gut strings.  It was then that the first real cellos were built and used for solo performances.  Violones were literally sawed apart and resized to fit the new design.  But by 1710, Antonio Stradivari unveiled what became the design and proportions of choice, and it is the famed luthier’s design which remains in use today.

By the turn of the 19th century, performance experience had led to refinements in design, including a higher string tension (producing a clearer tone), a thinner, taller bridge and a sharper neck angle.  The end of the 19th century saw the invention of the endpin for resting the cello on the floor, whereas previously the instrument had been held between the calves.  The endpin proved essential for stability and height during playing.  In the 1920s, steel strings gifted the cello with longer-sustained notes, clearer sound, and amplified volume.

In 2012, a Stradivarius cello built in 1707 and one of sixty surviving of its kind, sold at auction for well over six million dollars. Nicknamed “The Countess of Stainlein“, it was once owned by violinist Niccolò Paganini. In 1822, it nearly suffered an untimely and malodorous demise in a Milan city dump. In the late 1990s, it underwent a meticulous two-year restoration.

Perhaps the most widely known and beloved music written for the cello are the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by J.S. Bach.  Other landmark compositions include Dvorák’s Cello Concerto (a front-runner here at Sib Rev), Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1, and Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto in A Minor.  And for those of you who claim you have never listened to the cello, queue up “Good Vibrations”, “Eleanor Rigby”, or “Strawberry Fields Forever” for a classical sneak-up.

Lastly, after all of this highbrow music history, I would be remiss if I did not mention the phenomenon that is the styrofoam cello.  Far from the days of Stradivari, an ingenious student at the College of Ghent has found a truly unique way to amplify the sound of this lustrous and honored instrument.  Happy weekend, dear Revelers!

The Countess of Stainlein, one of sixty surviving Stradivari cellos.

The Countess of Stainlein, one of sixty surviving Stradivari cellos.


Mother Moat’s Art

To my delight yesterday, WQXR (please let us do a late-night infomercial for you someday!) played a Mozart piece tortuously titled, “12 Variations in C Major on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman”, K. 265.” Now, the reader (s) of our blog will know what the K stands for, and it’s not potassium. Mozart’s title was “Zwölf Variationen in C über das französische Lied „Ah, vous dirai-je Maman“ KV 265.” I note, uselessly, that the English translation drops the modifying phrase “the French song,” probably because the title of the song is in French. In other words, duh, Mozart.

This is a lovely little piece (I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything Wolfie wrote that wasn’t lovely, but still) that I think is great for kids and is also exemplary employment of theme and variation. Don’t forget that Sibling Variation 1 (or does that make her the theme?) wrote a guide to classical music for kids!

What, exactly, is this so-called French children’s song, “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”? Melodically, most listeners will hear it as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” though the tune is also used for asking black sheep how much wool they have and reciting the alphabet. Now, “Twinkle, twinkle” is a staple of childhood bedrooms across the land, and with good reason (staring up at the stars and wondering about life has sparked a lot of creativity in humans over the millennia and should be encouraged). But the lyrics of the French song are, in my mind, quite hilarious. Noting the formal “vous,” the song basically boils down to: candy > grown-up stuff. And that’s hard to argue with, most days. Et mais oui, one would never tutoyer when speaking grandly of candy’s value!

Ah ! Vous dirai-je Maman

Ce qui cause mon tourment ?

Papa veut que je raisonne

Comme une grande personne

Moi je dis que les bonbons

Valent mieux que la raison.

Oh! Shall I tell you, Mommy

What is tormenting me?

Daddy wants me to reason

Like a grown-up person,

Me, I say that sweets

Are worth more than reasoning.

So which came first, French candy theory or English astronomy? It would appear that Gaul is the origin in this case. According to a couple of Internet sources (not pretending to scholarship here), the tune was first published in Paris in 1761 without words.

Mozart’s variations on this theme were first published in Vienna in 1785. Here is Walter Gieseking playing the piece:

You have to love the appearance of the minor key after 3:00 (de rigueur in theme & variation)! And I swear there are small Bach quotes after 4:00 (one of the few composers the little genius actually acknowledged as also having talent). But whether your bag is Mozart, theme/variation, or candy, this is a fine piece for your listening pleasure.

By George, happy birthday!

Thanks to some wonderful selections today from WQXR (no, we are not remunerated for promoting the station: dreams take time to build), I found out that it is the 115th anniversary of George Gershwin’s birth.  Happy birthday, o American Master, from your jazzy, foot-stompin’ fans at Sibling Revelry. Here is a picture of the man lookin’ pretty dapper, and QXR’s tribute to his keyboard works:

George Gershwin in his youth on a ship's deck!/story/gershwin/

Sib1 gave me a Gershwin CD many moons ago (when CDs were still a thing): an excellent recording of all the Gershwin classics like “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.” In some ways, Gershwin (“Shwin” to those in the know) embodies some of the values we hold dear as appreciators of the fine arts (well, some of them. Others we grumble about, Walter Matthau-like). His translation of American roots and rhythms into the classical setting both renews and strengthens the art form. He’s a standout American in an art whose history is almost blindingly European (der, it was invented there). AND, he’s one of seemingly few classical composers who collaborated so memorably and effectively with his SIBLING: brother Ira Gershwin, who probably slept over.

Plus, talking about Shwin gives us a chance to plug the incomparable Gene Kelly, whose gleeful, silky, muscular, form-perfect dancing fills us with wonder and delight. Here he is in “An American in Paris,” in which the eponymous work has a starring role (music & lyrics by Sib2 and Sib1, Gershwin edition):

Is there not something so languorous, thick & muddy Bayou blues-y, about that main melody? Surrounded, of course, by much else of European origin. Kind of like an American in Paris.

And really, just for kicks at this point, there is a connection between The Shwin-Bone and Monsieur Horloger: Ravel traveled to the US in the early 20th century, where he met Gershwin and listened to a lot of jazz that he would then incorporate in his subsequent works. Like a Frenchman in New York.

Happy birthday, George!

Aux barricades, citoyens!

When I lived in Germany, a friend and I derived nearly unending delight from the German commentators of a tennis match who opened a segment with the greeting, “Liebe Tennisfreunde,” which could be either “dear tennis friends,” or, as I prefer because it’s even funnier, “dear friends of tennis.”

Dear friends of classical music and one of the most unpopular blogs on the Internet, I’m going to try and keep this brief (ha). Quite simply, here is a beautiful, intricate, intriguing, and, dare I say, half-smiling piece of music. It is called “Les barricades mistérieuses” and was written for harpsichord by the French composer François Couperin. The below version is arranged and played on classical guitar by, once again, the great Parkening.

Couperin was a Baroque composer, a contemporary of Bach, and lived from 1668-1733. “Les barricades mistérieuses” was written in 1717; despite its nearly three centuries of age, I think it is easy to hear some very modern, folk-y things in it – similar to the connection bluegrass players feel with Bach.

Speaking of whom, according to Harold C. Schonberg, Bach and Couperin are supposed to have had a long correspondence; sadly, none is extant. But Bach greatly admired and respected Couperin, whose music manuscripts Bach copied for himself by hand (an honor he also accorded Vivaldi). Maurice Ravel, Monsieur Horloger, celebrated the composer in his “Le tombeau de Couperin” – a mainstay of the WQXR playlist.

The meaning of the title of the piece is, appropriately, mysterious. I like the theory that the barricade is in fact referring to harmonic resolution. Which, you’ll notice, the piece never achieves for long. Some have also posited that the title refers to women’s chastity belts. That would explain the barricade, but not the mystery. I personally don’t find locked metal underwear all that mysterious. But even if the title doesn’t mean one particular thing, I think its open-ended nature fits the music perfectly and is nice fodder for rumination, lo these three hundred years later.

Enjoy! And to our friends in Russia, where we’ve yet to attract a single viewer, we say: спасибо, мы надеемся, что вам нравится музыка.

Just Another Bernstein Monday (whoa oh ohhh)

Leonard Bernstein

His birthday was Sunday…whoa oh ohhh…

Oh, hello!  Apologies, I was lost in a reverie of rewriting that classic Bangles song. Yesterday would have been legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s 95th birthday.  In the words of the WQXR Blog, he still “looms large over classical music, remembered both for his extroverted conducting style and for his vibrant, culturally omnivorous off-stage persona, documented in countless interviews, TV appearances and public talks.”

My first exposures to Bernstein began, as usual, when I didn’t know it.  In ninth grade my wonderful choral music teacher took us to see West Side Story.  It was love at first note. Bernstein’s score manages to capture every emotion exuded in the star-crossed tale: love, rivalry, nationalism, loss, get-your-mambo-shoes-on.  I am in awe of the gift composers possess, and LB is certainly no exception.  EVERYONE knows at least a little something from West Side Story.  When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.

My next exposure unaware was a couple of years later and in a far less erudite fashion. My best friend and I decided it would  behoove us (academically, natch) to memorize every lyric to R.E.M.’s raucous caveat “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”.  Come on, you know the line: “blah blah blah blah blah LEO-NARD BERN-STEIN!”  I figured that if Michael Stipe, whom I revered, was including That Name in That Song, it was worth checking into.  Thus, here I am these years later, happy to have made a rich, albeit figurative, acquaintance with The Maestro.

Here are three favorites off the top of my head for you to enjoy:

1) Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in this clip the final movement.  He is, in a word, electrifying to watch.  It’s clear that there are actual notes running through his veins. Please ignore the soprano soloist, I find her strident and entirely irritating.

2) LB composed the score to his friend Jerome Robbins’ very first ballet, Fancy Free, in 1944.  This is a fantastic behind-the-scenes look at the NYCB production.  The music is fantastic and another example of Bernstein’s capacity for variation in his writing.

3) I picked Candide over West Side Story because, frankly, I’m guessing you’ve never heard of Candide.  Bernstein wrote the music to the operetta production of Voltaire’s satire and it opened on Broadway in 1956.  The entire show is hilarious, clever and poignant.  Here are Kristin Chenoweth (as Cunegonde) and Patti LuPone (as The Old Woman) singing the naughty “We Are Women”.  (PS- if you ever watch “Live From Lincoln Center”, the overture to Candide is playing during the opening credits.)

How I would love to go on, but as Wm. Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of blogging.” Happy reveling, and happy birthday, Lenny!

Lend Me A Tenor, Please

Today’s Revelation is for all you opera lovers out there- and especially for all you opera-ignorers who have immediately pictured a corpulent Wagnerian soprano shattering glass with Viking-horned high Cs (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Stephen Costello is one of my favorite operatic tenors. A 2007 graduate of the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Arturo in Lucia di Lammermoor that same year.  He is a 2009 winner of the Richard Tucker Award and his star is fast rising on the world opera scene, right along with his wife’s, lustrous soprano Ailyn Pérez.

I’m pretty picky when it comes to voices, altos and tenors especially.  Some just don’t “speak” to me- the color is dark or the vibrato is miles wide.  Others are spot on- supple, soaring and perfectly trained.

Such was the case when I first heard Stephen Costello.  He was in his final year as a resident artist at AVA and was the tenor soloist for my choral group’s performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater.  During a dress rehearsal, he burst forth with the “Cujus animam” movement and I promptly lost all powers of singing and furthermore decided to lip-synch for the remainder of rehearsal so that I wouldn’t miss anything he sang. (Sincere apologies to my director and assurance that I did in fact actually sing at the concert.)  That’s when I knew he was Going Places.

Speaking of Going Places, those of you in the NYC metro area will have an opportunity to hear him when he takes the SummerStage in Central Park on July 16th as part of the Met’s Summer Recital Series.  Along with some champagne and a picnic blanket, you’re in for a lovely evening.

For the moment, though, I’ll leave you with this (thanks, WQXR!):

Bravo, indeed!


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 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”!

Nailed It!

Yesterday afternoon, my office was being bathed and soothed by the sounds of WQXR, when in came two colleagues to do their level best to disrupt and destroy the calm. Mid-conversation when my attention to the music was firmly on autopilot, one of them suddenly perked up his ears (metaphorically, as my colleagues are catlike only in a figurative sense) and said, “Is this ‘Entry of the Guests’ from Tannhäuser?” Inwardly sheepish because I didn’t know (by day I’m a mild-mannered knowledge worker until I step into a classical phonebooth; my coworkers know nothing of this dalliance), I clicked over to the QXR page and indeed, he had instantly and accurately identified the piece. I congratulated him on his acumen. I also mentally congratulated him on his pitch-perfect pronunciation of Tannhäuser (something no Revelrous Sib would fail to notice).

Truth be told, Wagner does very little for me. It may be that I’ve read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” too many times, though I’m not going to really go near the biography vs. art debate. Beyond all that Wagner/Nazi lore (not to mention the bending of Nordic mythology), though, it’s also in general not the type of classical music that speaks to me. Of course, I’d never paint with that broad a brush, as I have found myself enjoying pieces of his over the years. Larry David, my antihero, memorably whistled his “Siegfried Idyll,” which is lovely, in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which sparked the below exchange. OK, I guess I am driving a little closer to the case of Biography v Art than foreseen, but at least it’s through the irascible wit of Larry rather than some heavy-handed philosophy.

And here’s the actual piece. Who better to play it than the Berliner Philharmoniker?

In sum, it’s nice when classical makes an appearance in your everyday life. So a tip of the brushed top hat to my colleague who, to quote Andy Dwyer of Parks & Rec fame, “nailed it.”

Anger Management, Beethoven-Style

I’m just going to come out and say it:  EVERYBODY loves Beethoven.  Even people who don’t like Beethoven love Beethoven (Hum the first few notes of Ode To Joy.  See??). His wild genius left a legacy of vibrantly epic proportions.  I could prattle on, fellow Revelers, about his Seventh Symphony (oh wait, I already did that) or the lustrous thunder of his Sonata No. 23 in Fm (“Appassionata”) or how his Overture To Egmont was written to insult Napoleon.  I could indulge in bloviating about how, in grade school, a few friends and I loved to plunk out Für Elise on someone’s grandmother’s benignly out-of-tune piano or when I sang his Choral Fantasy I thought my heart would vacate my chest.  But I digress.

Beethoven composed Rondo a capriccio (“Rage Over A Lost Penny”) in 1795, when he was 25.  But it remained undiscovered until an auction of his personal effects was held after his death in 1827.  Although there was no indication that the work was incomplete, it is said that Beethoven’s publisher Anton Diabelli “finished” the Rondo before publishing it in 1828.  “Finished”, perhaps- “rearranged” more likely.  In 1949, musicologist Erich Hertzmann prepared a new edition.  The subtitle “Rage Over A Lost Penny” had been added by Beethoven’s friend Anton Schindler, although for what reason I’ll never know.  I like to think it really was because of a rebellious penny, rolling into the cracks of the floor in Beethoven’s rattling Viennese apartment.  Oh, would that all the world’s rage could be channeled into brilliant composing!

I first heard this piece on WQXR eons ago, and I never forgot it.  How could you?  It is played at lightning speed and the notes absolutely glitter. It’s wonderfully rhythmic and captivating, spilling all over the keyboard and back again.  I love when the right-hand notes start to get dissonant.  About three minutes in, the piece goes to half-meter and then teeters between crescendoing arpeggios and rapidfire scales and, as classical music experts say, “a bunch of other stuff” before veering back to the primary theme. Watching the prodigious Evgeny Kissin perform it has the added bonus of Kissin actually looking like Beethoven.  Must be the wild hair and brilliance. Treat your ears to this, the most beautiful of rages, from the revolutionary from Bonn.

Mozart: Brought To You By The Letter “K”

For many years my eyes would skim over the name of a Mozart piece and always the title was followed by “K. 618” (or another number).  It looked very official and not particularly interesting, so I generally ignored it.  Then one day while listening to WQXR, the always-sonorous Jeff Spurgeon perked up my ears when he announced a Mozart piece and then said (phonetically) “KER-shel 618” (or another number).  “Oh!” I immediately thought.  “That’s what the K stands for!  Kershel!”  And so I went on my merry way.

Despite my now knowing the word for which “K” stood, it remained very official and not particularly interesting until some time later when I thought perhaps it would benefit my small trove of musical knowledge to find out exactly what the mysterious “Kershel” meant.

First of all, it is NOT “Kershel”.  Here I hang my head sheepishly.  It is “Köchel”, in all its Teutonic glory with an umlaut over the “o” to boot.

The Köchel catalog is a chronological listing of all of Mozart’s works, compiled by one Ludwig von Köchel.  History accounts for several attempts to catalog Mozart’s compositions, but it was not until the early 1860s that Köchel succeeded.  After spending fifteen years tutoring the four sons of Archduke Charles of Austria, he was awarded a hefty financial settlement which enabled him to live out the rest of his years as a private scholar. And what does one do as a private scholar?  Create the Köchel catalog, of course.  I like to imagine him hunched intently over a small wooden desk, tallow candle lighted and pen paused aloft.  This was not a man whose dance card was full, for he was serving a greater purpose. Isn’t it tragic that there was no way for him to actually listen to each piece as he dutifully jotted and organized?

Köchel died in 1877, but his legacy lives on for those of us who love Mozart and those of us who worship at the altar of Making Organized Lists.


Kochel, captured in a private, scholarly pose.