Classical Mac n’ Cheese

A new chapter in my family’s story has taken us over 800 miles from our previous home, down and down and down into the bucolic green and genteel part of our country.  Over the past few months of living in this New Place, I’ve found myself with head spinning and heart longing for the familiarity of my community, my family and my friends.  A fine thing, then, that our New Place is bucolic and genteel and brimming with life and “y’all”s.  Nonetheless, I’ve needed comfort more times this summer than I care to admit.

We all have our comforts, those lovely little things that cosset us when things “get weird”, to borrow a term from the American Psychological Association. Oftentimes that comfort is food, and oftentimes that comfort food is mac n’ cheese.  Whether the is-it-actually-food form out of the blue box or a schmancy sort laden with three cheeses, nothing assuages the psyche quite like that classic.

Which brings me to my actual point: there have been several classical pieces in constant rotation in my home that have served in the place of mac n’ cheese.  All of the comfort, none of the calories (my diet book is forthcoming!). (Kidding.)  When my spirit was/is low, hearing these pieces slowed the spinning of my head and the ache of my heart.


You get the picture.

Anyway, let’s move on to more pasta and less cheese.  Gabriel Fauré wrote his lovely, mystical Pavane Op. 50 in 1887.  “Elegant, but not otherwise important,” remarked the composer in what was most certainly the catalyst for the “bewildered” emoji.  The piece was originally written for piano, but is most often heard in an orchestral arrangement featuring a small group of strings, winds and horns. Here, however, is a very enjoyable trio performance of flute, harp and viola.

Murray Perahia’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations never fails to clear my head.  Listening to it is like giving my brain a good spring cleaning, because the music is just that: clean.  Clean and lovely and rippling and vibrant. Note: adjective level exceeded.  While my Sibling will rally for Glenn Gould’s recording, you’ll find me firmly planted in Camp Perahia.  His fingerings are extremely light and crisp, which is exactly what the Variations require.  #Perahia2016 #TakingAmericaBach

Lastly, Renée Fleming’s recording of Debussy’s Beau soir has served me well these last few months.  Accompanied by the stellar Jean-Yves Thibaudet, her lustrous soprano sails through the poem written by Paul Bourget around the mid-1880s and set to music by Debussy not long after.  I first learned this piece in college and find the melody just as haunting today as I did then.

What classical music has met you well during difficult times?  We’d love to hear about it.































Le maître aux cheveux de bol

Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. How fascinating (and pithy) the quote that Sib the First chose for her post on Claude Debussy today, his 151st birthday.  Their music and approaches are so different, but if pressed in a life-or-death situation, I suppose I might say that  Debussy and Bach are my two favorite composers. Why exactly life or death might hinge on my divulging, aghast, a “favorite” is beyond me. I’m guessing that when we get more readers, some of them will be psychotic. And I’d like you to know in advance, then, that we welcome your sophisticated psychosis.

“Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk” was featured on a cassette tape much beloved by the Sibs in days of yore, but I did not truly discover Debussy until later in college. To say I was rapt would be an understatement. To this day, listening to certain of his pieces still evokes the autumn landscape from the windows of the music library where I would listen to them for hours on end while I studied. Through Debussy I discovered his talented pupil, Monsieur L’Horloger, Maurice Ravel. Yet had they fought in a lightsaber duel (it’s not so impossible, their relationship wasn’t rosy), I don’t think Ravel could have claimed to be the master (“But only a master of evil and Spanish dances, Maurice.”). Nothing compares to those vast landscapes that Claude painted, somehow blending ethereal avant-garde musical theory I can’t claim to understand (whole tones, dissonance, pentatonic whosiwhatsis) with earthy melodies of rich and variegated emotion. In short, his connections to movements in French arts at the time, like the Impressionists, are profound (naturally, CD disliked the term Impressionist). It is a fascinating period to study, up to the fin-de-siècle, the bridge between old and new.

One of the albums I contributed to wearing out in that library was Alexis Weissenberg’s album of solo keyboard works (I like how in classical music, keyboard doesn’t mean what pop stars in the 80s banged on through their permed hair and fringed, fingerless gloves). Here are the iTunes and ArkivMusic links (note the apt Renoir gracing the cover). I could not more strongly recommend this album. It has never been far from me in the 14 years since I discovered it. It now graces the playlist I leave on for my dog when I’m not home! The first three tracks still make me smile and also send a thrill down my spine. They are collectively called “Estampes” (could be translated as “prints,” but I think that’s too utilitarian a translation. “Impressions” is better for many reasons). I loved these so much I read about them in several books (part of the fun for me of living in the library to study was that there were so many avenues and boulevards down which one could profitably ambulate in procrastination), one of which had the below image (“Aux poissons d’or”) on its cover, which was said to have inspired Debussy’s “Images” piano works.


The third of the “Estampes,” called “Jardins sous la pluie” (Gardens in the rain) has always been my favorite. Well, maybe primus inter pares. The shift in moods, the dynamics, the unique rhythms…and thanks to my procrastination I know that Debussy ‘quoted’ a couple of phrases from French children’s songs in there. I like when I hear jazz players quoting, because it always makes me think of “Jardins sous la pluie.” Here is Monsieur Weissenberg playing the piece (the ‘video’ is just a black background…what, no goldfish swimming across it?):

I will close with another of my most dearly loved Debussy pieces. A small, singular piece written for piano called “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair), from Book I of his Preludes (“très calme et doucement expressif”). If you’re wondering where the title of this post came from, check out Claude’s bowl-cut in this portrait! The piece is like a moving portrait – to me, of a girl from long ago. In it I hear much melancholy, even reverence, movement and standing still. The recording I humbly offer is not on piano, but classical guitar, played by the great Christopher Parkening. It comes from another album I abused during that music library period: “The Artistry of Christopher Parkening.” He actually recorded it in 1976; the album is a compilation, but an excellent one. I think Parkening finds shades of emotion on the nylon strings unavailable to the piano. His use of harmonics toward the end is haunting and emblematic of this. He is known for his breakneck tempos, crisp technicality, and bright tone, but on this piece you will hear as emotive a picker as any of the greats with the exception of the Singular Segovia. Well, I’ve gotten lost in this post. Almost expect to extricate myself and find it’s turned autumn outside. Happy listening, and happy birthday, cher maître.

Happy Birthday, Claude!

Today marks the 151st anniversary of Claude Debussy’s birth.  Classical music historian Harold C. Schonberg describes him as “the greatest of the musical Impressionists” and I couldn’t agree more.  Each piece of his that I call to mind is just like the watery, delicate brushstrokes of a Monet painting.

Debussy was brilliant, and scoffed at his old-school predecessors.  “I am more and more convinced,” he said, “that music, by its very nature, is something that cannot be cast into a traditional and fixed form.  It is made up of colors and rhythms.  The rest is a lot of humbug invented by frigid imbeciles riding on the backs of the Masters- who, for the most part, wrote almost nothing but period music.  Bach alone had an idea of the truth.”

C’est la vérité, Monsieur!  His description of music as “colors” sings to me. “Frigid imbeciles” is also delightful.

As always, the Siblings’ intent is to make classical music inviting and relevant, so in honor of Debussy’s birthday I will highlight one of his most recognizable compositions. He began writing Suite bergamasque in 1890 and completed it somewhere around 1905. It is a four-movement suite, the third movement of which is the greatly loved “Clair de lune” (“Moonlight”).

The genius of Debussy is mind-blowing.  The piece IS moonlight.  The opening passages are charmingly shy, exquisite in such a way that your ears will not be swayed by anything else.  The chords grow in their intensity, at once delicate and sure, then dissolve into ripples up and down the keys.  Can you see the moonlight reflected in a dark, peaceful lake?

You have heard this piece if you have seen any of the following films:  Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Thirteen, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Atonement, A Good Year, and Frankie & Johnny, among others.

“Clair de lune” has also been included in episodes of the following television shows: Everybody Loves Raymond, The Simpsons, White Collar, The Good Wife, The Muppet Show and The Twilight Zone.

Oh classical music, you lovely, sneaky thing.

For further listening, some of my favorite Debussy compositions are Children’s Corner Suite, Arabesque No. 1, and his opera Pelléas et Mélisande.

Bon anniversaire, Claude!

138 Years Young

I wonder what the weather was like on this day in March when Maurice Ravel (1875) was ushered into this world.  Fortunately there were no Ritalin-deficient meteorologists to stress his mother with tales of impending Snowquesters, treacherous driving conditions and a potential shortage of bread (horreur!) at the local grocery.  I suppose the bearer of the would-be composer simply took it all in stride.  (As we all should…but I digress.)

I very much enjoy Ravel’s music, and on his birthday I extend a sincere merci bien to him for composing “Pavane For A Dead Princess” (Pavane pour une infante defunte) in particular.  A pavane was a slow processional dance done in the royal courts of Europe. Ravel’s Pavane paid homage to his Basque lineage.  I like this violin-piano recording because it’s a touch rough around the edges, which to me enhances the solemn color. Ravel was a meticulous composer and the Pavane is a lovely example.

There’s much more I could say about M. Ravel, but brevity is the soul of blogging, so I will say adieu with these Random Fascinating Facts.  I am a big fan of Random Fascinating Facts.

~Boléro was originally titled Fandango.

~Five years after a head injury, Ravel underwent experimental (!) brain surgery.

~He was influenced by American jazz.

~He and Claude Débussy had an interesting friendship/mentorship.  In 30 Rock terms they could be described as Devon Banks and Jack Donaghy.

Happy 138th birthday, Maurice!