Kaffeeklatsch!

One half of Sibling Revelry, and the husband of the other half, loves coffee. That would be the half with the pen at the moment. And by “loves,” I mean that a morning without coffee looks like a black-skied, dust-blown, radioactive post-nuclear apocalyptic hellscape. This magical elixir of the gods is the sine qua non of your wayward, deadbeat blogger.

Recently, I was in blissful attendance at a They Might Be Giants concert. That’s right, sports fans, the normally high-and-mighty Sibs occasionally doff their crushed-velvet pantaloons and change into street garb to blend in with the howling masses and investigate their strange, rhythmic musical traditions. Naturally one must wear a cloak and eyepatch in order to avoid detection.

Kidding aside, I adore They Might Be Giants and have for a very long time (to which the other Sib who used to share a wall with me will attest). I remain deeply inspired by their creativity over the years; well into their third decade of making music together, they have released no less than THREE albums in the last 15 months, each brimming with their usual wonderful weirdness. But I also deeply respect their musicianship and, certainly not least, incredibly deft and inventive ability to write melody. Without those two things, just being weird for weirdness’s sake…that doesn’t have any pull with me. These guys have the ability to get inside music (of truly any genre) and do their own thing with it. It’s quite rare. It’s genius at work, friends: not only in its individual parts, but the partnership at its core. And, to use that abused adjective, unique. I’d also say REM was always true to their own unique north star, yet the fame differential between the two is vast. And REM’s creativity in later years was, I’ll humbly say, nowhere close to the Johns. Those two things are probably related. A topic for a different day. Here is a great example for the uninitiated (one of 1,000 I might have picked):

After the concert, still radioactively aglow (I mean, they played the Fingertips medley, one of my all-time favorites. Oh, you don’t know what that is? Gee, let me see if I can scare up the studio version…….)

…I was reading old interviews, and what do you know, one of the Johns of TMBG (Linnell) happens to be a great admirer of the one, the only, the original melodic genius and prolific baby-maker, Herr Johann Sebastian Bach! A man whose praises have been sung, oh, from time to time here. No surprise, there’s a TMBG connection.

Linnell mentions Bach’s so-called “Coffee Cantata,” a very interesting and famous composition. The great JSB didn’t compose any opera (raising his estimation here yet higher), but the Coffee Cantata comes pretty darn close (coming back down). It’s not rock opera, it’s Bach opera! (cue laugh track)

The complete cantata will last longer than your morning cup, however good its first or last drops, at about half an hour. In keeping with opera’s insistence on over-dramatizing everyday life, the protagonist, Aria (snicker), loves coffee but her overbearing father won’t let her drink it. Causing her to exclaim (this should really be done from a fainting couch) that lack of coffee will cause her to shrivel up like a piece of roasted goat. Neat imagery. Seriously, you couldn’t think of anything else that might shrivel? (Bach didn’t write the libretto, so we are not insulting The Master). Here it is in German, with a translation:

http://emmanuelmusic.org/notes_translations/translations_cantata/t_bwv211.htm

My favorite line is probably, “You may not go to the window and watch anyone passing by!” You people need a hobby. And yes, I did mean, “YOU PEOPLE.”

Also in keeping with opera’s simultaneous insistence on ridiculously implausible solutions to the over-dramatized problems of life and love, Aria is placated when her father has three daily cups written into her marriage contract. No mention of roast goat, sadly.

Obviously our proclivities lay far away from stilted Europeans whining in high register about preposterous, self-created culs-de-sac of puffed-up emotion. BUT. It’s Bach, and all Bach is by definition worthy. Especially on (or around) the Kapellmeister’s birthday! Here it is, in full, sung by people who have clearly practiced facial expression at home in long hours before their mirrors, mirrors, on the wall. Cool set, though.

So let’s see if all the puzzle pieces fit here. We like Bach. We like They Might Be Giants. We love coffee. They Might Be Giants are obsessed with coffee. John Linnell wants to have coffee with Bach. Bach wrote a cantata with a coffee theme. Look, it’s a litter of puppies knitting sweaters for roosters!

Or, in other words, by rocket to the moon, by airplane to the rocket, by taxi to the airport, by front door to the taxi, by throwing back the blankets, hanging down the legs…

 

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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!

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.

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.

All That Jazz

Without delving too deeply into my long absence from authorship (I was saving the world from something you’ve never heard of. Yes, I was wearing a cape.), I’d like to swerve out of our usual lane a little bit. But I’ll put the blinker on because that’s how society should function.

In this age of ego and id, classical music must at times seem like superego to many would-be listeners. Impersonal, formal, rules-obsessed, difficult. Michael Tilson Thomas’s recent Tilson Tantrum, while awesome, probably helps reinforce this stereotype. I understand the need for quiet and attention, but are we creating the world here and one errant slip of the baton will make water taste like liquid Roquefort? This criticism is even more emphatic for players of my beloved sport, tennis. Quiet, everyone! These delicate geniuses, these highly-paid professional athletes need absolute silence for their bodies to move properly! They should probably just play in semiconductor fabrication facilities in those white suits, or the Television Room in the Chocolate Factory. For the love of Pete, go to a minor-league hockey game. Somewhere between there and the hushed chapel of Wimbledon, you can still earn an honest buck swinging a tennis racquet.

Jazz, on the other hand, has never suffered from a lack of immediacy. Well, until we got to the really experimental stuff and washed-out smooth jazz Kenny G products of reverse peristalsis. So, ok, I’ll amend that to say, for most of jazz’s history, including the most important eras, jazz never suffered from a lack of immediacy. On this grey, freakishly warm day in November, I’ve been listening to John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord”:

It is hushed and yet immediate. A prayer needing no words, certainly not from this hack.

Now, I’m being purposely unfair to our beloved classical music in order to make a stylized point. Because there are plenty of composers whom I find full of iconoclasm, personability, connection, contrasts – human artists rather than vague painters of boring symphonic landscapes in Randomville-sur-mer, Europe. And there days when they speak to me as I hear Coltrane speaking in “Dear Lord.”

They are out there to find, and highlighting them is one thing I think we’re “doing” here. It’s also clear that the links and exchanges between classical and jazz go back to the latter’s beginnings, and have been rich and fruitful ever since. In trying to find a Wall Street Journal article on classical and jazz I made note of a while back, I came across something better: this article written by Chick Corea on Miles Davis’s setting of the second movement from Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” That concerto is one of the highlights of the classical guitar canon – very Spanish in its composition and execution, a wonderful journey of texture and emotion. The second movement in particular, which  is what Miles “covered”.

Chick Corea is, for me, one of the most unique musicians to whom I have ever had the pleasure to listen, whose work truly blurs distinctions and bends and twists definitions with grace and verve and precision and virtuosity. He ain’t classical, but he ain’t all jazz, either. Listen to his “Children’s Songs” album for an incredible demonstration of this. Here is the inimitable Mr. Corea on the Miles track:

There also was a sense of freedom. Evans had written a gorgeous score and the orchestra was reading notes. But Miles was improvising. He was making up phrases and melodies as he went along. It made me realize that the act of creation was a beautiful thing—that you could make up melodies out of the ether. Years later, in 1971, when I left Miles Davis’s band, I relistened to “Concierto” and was inspired that year to write “Spain.”

And speaking of inimitable, here is Miles’s interpretation of the second movement (16 minutes). The ‘Evans’ that Corea mentions is Gil Evans, one of the great jazz composer/arrangers.

And the great John Williams, with the ‘classical’ version:

Happy listening, cats!

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

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/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.

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.

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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.