Tag Archives: Music

Music to work by

art-of-painting-trumpet.JPGI”ve found that I can work much better at repetitive or research-intensive tasks that require a lot of sitting here and staring if I have good brain music to work by.

When I last was a member of Cubicle Nation (and I was a member of 25 years’ standing, too), one of the pieces that helped me enormously in concentrating and getting down to business with a particularly recalcitrant office duty was the The Art of Fugue, J.S. Bach’s very last composition, and one that’s famously unfinished. The recording I listened to was that of the Russian pianist Tatyana Nikolayeva, and I must have favored it for brain work for somewhere in the neighborhood of two years running.

Although The Art of Fugue has the usual Baroque downside of being mostly in the same key throughout (D minor), this is an astonishing piece of music, and remarkable for study purposes. Bach is able to take the unlikeliest permutations of his theme, a melodic fragment of very humble promise, and make spellbinding music out of it. A good case in point is the 13th fugue, a 3-voice construct that begins with some closely argued triplets that soon share pride of place with a jaunty dotted-eighth-and-sixteenth pattern. These combine to exhilarating effect; I know from my days as a modal counterpoint student that dealing with any fugue subject more complicated than five or six notes, half of them long and slow, would be a daunting task indeed, and here’s Bach with a blizzard of triplets and then a march version of that same rhythm for his subject, and it’s brilliant.

I greatly enjoyed the Nikolayeva recording, but I didn’t take it with me when I left work for the last time, and so last week I borrowed the Pierre-Laurent Aimard recording from the library. This was also extremely fine playing — I admire his discs of the Messiaen Vingt Regards, as I’ve mentioned — but there’s something kind of detached about it. I wasn’t as involved in it as I was the older Russian recording, which, stereotypically enough, was more soulful, mysterious and emotional.

But the Aimard was excellent music to work by, and I’ve found Bach in general good for cerebellum exercises. I have a fine recording of Richard Goode playing three of the Bach partitas, and his recording of two of the Mozart piano concerti (Nos. 23 and 24) also works beautifully for letting the mind work for sustained stretches.

This raises an interesting question, and that of course is whether the music is best-suited for background music. Certainly composers of an earlier day wrote with the expectation that much of their music was supplying ambient sound of a general kind. And while Bach and Mozart are revered, as they should be, how many minds wander far afield while their pieces are played in today’s concert halls?

Once I heard the Russian pianist Kosntantin Lifschitz play the first 12 preludes and fugues from both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and it was an absorbing experience. I had studied the pieces for years, and I brought my study scores with me to check for interpretive niceties, but it was still incredible to hear these pieces come alive as they did at the hands of a gifted player.

But that was a special kind of listening, and I was prepared for it by years of study and playing the preludes and fugues through on my own battered upright. I recognized several other people in the audience as well-known area musicians and pedagogues, so they were a special audience, too.

What I’m wondering is whether when I listen to it with half my brain while the rest is working on something else, am I paying it the ultimate sign of disrespect?

Or is the music protean enough to work fine as mental wallpaper but also be available to reveal the highest artistic achievement when you’ve got time to listen to it?

I think it’s the latter; it’s surely true that truly bad music that works fine as wallpaper won’t stand up under scrutiny, so it’s logical to think that great stuff is ready to show its greatness when you can give it the attention it deserves.

In the meantime, I’m grateful for the malleability of Bach, and he’s helped me get through a lot of computer work I would gladly have bypassed had I that option. If anyone else has a list of good music to work by, please post it and share your ideas.

Loewe, other Broadway writers, deserve musicological treatment


In the midst of furious preparation for the fifth print edition of ArtsPaper, out last week, and for the Tony Awards, which I admit to watching every year, I have been thinking about the life and work of Frederick Loewe.

I even checked out a copy of the movie version of Brigadoon from the library, and it doesn’t hold up very well; the only really good scene for me is the one in New York in which all those gray-flannel suit types are yakking away in some high-powered restaurant before Gene Kelly decides to return to Scotland.

That’s the only scene that has any interesting energy or life. The scenes in Brigadoon itself are wooden and hopelessly corny, and the dialogue (especially the Van Johnson cynic role) is dreadful. Some of the dancing is nice, particularly the Kelly-Cyd Charisse pas de deux, but other than that, all it has is a good score, which in the end is the most important thing.

But every time I hear Loewe’s score, it makes me wonder why someone with such a huge talent for operetta wrote so little, and the reason appears to be success: You make a great deal of money and the leisurely life starts talking in soothing tones to you until you answer back, Yeah, you’re right, I think a nap would be a good idea. (Gene Lees has written a book about Lerner and Loewe which he says is much more Lerner than Loewe, because the composer retired early.)

From all the available evidence, and I’m sure there’s more out there to be found, Loewe’s story of his early life is heavily fictional, but we do know that he was a published songwriter while still in his teens, and that it took him some knocking-around time before he was able to find a good partner in Alan Jay Lerner. In addition to Brigadoon (1947), the two men wrote Paint Your Wagon (1951, which has some good songs), Gigi (1958, for film), Camelot (1960) and of course, My Fair Lady (1956).

All of these scores have a certain amount of formula, including the big choral number that fills in the dramatic action (Go and Stop Him, etc.) But they all have absolutely lovely songs, especially some of the lesser numbers in Camelot, such as Before I Gaze at You Again, and I Loved You Once in Silence. Unlike Richard Rodgers and the other composers of the Broadway mainstream, Loewe was essentially an operetta writer, not a writer of musical comedy, and he is the true heir of Romberg, Friml and Herbert; most of Broadway went in a far jazzier direction.

It seems to me that much of the music Loewe wrote would sound far better, and would be much more appreciated, if it got the overhaul treatment, and in particular were reorchestrated in a light, classical manner, rather than the glitzy, boffo horn-driven sound of the charts that now accompany the music. This is delicate writing, and it needs a sensitive approach, and most of the way his music has been presented is in very dated instrumental garb.

I, for one, would like to see these scores revisited, reworked (a longer madrigal by Lancelot, for instance) and represented, perhaps with book alterations, too. I think a lot of this music deserves to be listened to again with an ear toward its classicism, and I think we’d find that it fits quite well into the operetta tradition, and further we would find that Loewe’s melodies have more shape and less cliche than some of his predecessors (I heard a suite from Herbert’s The Red Mill the other day, and found it ghastly).

And these are scores in which some editing could still be done, getting rid of dance interpolations that aren’t needed, or extending, as I noted, some other ideas that get short shrift: if you can stretch out a piece of one of the songs for a big dance number, you can expand them in other ways for other purposes. Maybe a few more years have to pass before the classic musicals of the 20th century get the scholarly musicological treatment, but I think it’s an idea whose time has come.

Great art keeps revealing itself



This past week I saw the Palm Beach Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro, and quite enjoyed it, as I mention here in my review of the first cast.

One of the best things about this performance is that it allowed me to hear Mozart’s achievement more clearly than I have in some time. I had an old cassette tape version of the opera (Lucia Popp, Samuel Ramey, Kiri Te Kanawa, Thomas Allen, Frederica von Stade; LSO/Solti), but since I can’t find a working tape player in this house, I had to download the Uphsaw-Furlanetto-Levine version onto my wife’s iPod as I dug out my score and listened while I prepped for the show.

But even that didn’t prepare me for the insight I got as I sait and heard the music unfold along with the opera. The magnificence of Mozart’s achievement struck me quite forcefully during the performance, at no place more than in the Count’s Act III recitative and aria that begins Ha gia vinta la causa, a longtime favorite of bass-baritones.

As I listened to it, it suddenly occurred to me that this was the fruition of that letter Mozart wrote to his father a few years earlier, when he was writing Die Entfurhung aus dem Serail:

…and as his rage continues to grow, just when you think the aria is over, the allegro assai — in a completely different meter and different key — is bound to be tremendously effective; just as a person in such a violent rage oversteps all the bounds of order and moderation and overshoots the mark, completely forgetting himself, so the music must forget itself…” (Sept. 26, 1781)

This kind of psychological music-making is everywhere in Figaro, but it was in the Count’s aria that it really grabbed me, as the Count overhears Figaro and Susanna laughing and thinks they’re up to something. The music that punctuates the first lines is haughty and bluff, but then stops and speeds up as he says: Perfidi! and vows to punish them, the music gets more and more breathless.

Then, the miraculous part: Those soft F-sharp minor thirds as he puzzles it over in his mind: Wait a minute…did he actually pay off Marcellina? Can’t be. He doesn’t have a ducat…. Next, as the Count starts to feel better almost immediately about his prospects, the music starts leaves the anxiety of F-sharp minor behind and starts to sound happy and vigorous again. It’s an exceptional painting of a man’s mood, and the next composer to be able to pull this kind of thing off so successfully was Verdi, which puts Mozart a good 60 years ahead of his time. 

I think it was the way the music was played and sung Friday night that drove this home for me; there was a long pause before the entrance of those soft F-sharp minor triads, and it was played so slowly, quietly, and tentatively, yet with an urgent pulse, that in an instant I understood what Mozart was really trying to do. I’ve heard this aria many, many, many times, but it wasn’t until this past week that something so plain about it finally sunk in.

I think that says humiliating things about my perspicacity on the one hand, but good things about the power of Mozart on the other, and further, the power of great art to keep revealing its secrets if you just pay the right kind of attention.

Other 1809 birthday boys needed more days than Mendelssohn got


On Sunday,  I heard a great performance of the Mendelssohn F minor string quartet in a concert in Palm Beach by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and besides the musical excellence of what I heard, I also thought about the two other 200th-birthday boys: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

Mendelssohn’s last string quartet was written in the summer of 1847, three months after the death of his sister Fanny and four months before he died after a series of strokes. The Mendelssohns had a history of fatal strokes in the family, and it’s likely Felix, Fanny (as well as their father, Abraham, and grandfather, Moses) died of what was an inherited condition.

The quartet is a great piece, and I remember on hearing the six mature quartets of Mendelssohn how astonished I was at how good these pieces are. I’m happy to be hearing them more often this year, but this last one is particularly remarkable, and it’s worth thinking about where that might have led him had he lived past 38.

I mentioned this idea in an earlier post when I talked about Lincoln, but after the concert I started thinking about the same question from the vantage point of Mendelssohn: What were Lincoln and Darwin doing at this point? Lincoln and Darwin were both born on Feb. 12, 1809; Mendelssohn was born nine days earlier.

If Lincoln and Darwin had the exact same lifespan as Mendelssohn, they would have died in mid-November of 1847, and their legacies would have been profoundly different.

Lincoln was in Washington, waiting to take his seat in the 30th Congress, which assembled in December 1847 for its first session. The former four-term state legislator had been elected on the Whig ticket, and remained a loyal party man during his sole Congressional term, working hard in 1848 to get out the vote for Zachary Taylor. 

But in November 1847, he was living in a Washington boarding house with his family and other Congressmen-elect, and had made only a limited impact on the national stage.  Only historians would have heard of him had he departed the scene when Mendelssohn did.

Charles Darwin was living in Kent, in the house he had moved to a few years earlier., and was working on barnacles, the study of which helped buttress the opinions he had laid out in an 1844 sketch for a paper that would form the basis on which he would build On the Origin of Species, published in 1859.

 Darwin had written a note to his wife in 1844, essentially staking the claim for the species theory, and instructing her to get it published if he were to die. But he was not ready to publish, and it took him the barnacles study plus a painstaking review of his work aboard the HMS Beagle, not to mention pressure from the work of Alfred Wallace, who had independently arrived at the same conclusion.

Had he died in November 1847, certainly historians of science would have given him credit for the 1844 paper as well as his Beagle memoir, and he would be recognized as an early proponent of a theory that perhaps would now be associated with Alfred Wallace instead.  But again, the world at large would not have heard of Charles Darwin.

As it happened, the world is familiar with the work of all three men, and for me, it says something about the essential unpredictability of life and the part that luck plays in it. And it also says that while Mendelssohn’s life was far too short, he was in those 38 years granted to him to leave a large body of great work that secured his posthumous legacy.

It is certainly easier with an art like music to make a strong impression early in life and leave something of your time on the earth for future generations; the history of music is full of short lives that contained tremendous accomplishments. But it’s often been noted that even someone like Mozart, who lived an even shorter life (only 35 years), was a late bloomer artistically, and what he could have done had he lived as long as Beethoven (56 years, which would have meant Mozart dying in 1812) remains a tantalizing what-if that music lovers like me can’t resist speculating about.

The most important thing to do is celebrate the life and music of Mendelssohn as it was and is, and appreciate a masterpiece like the F minor quartet without asking for more. Still, it’s worth remarking that had Mendlessohn lived as long as Darwin, he would have died in April 1882 — just a couple months before the birth of Igor Stravinsky.

Reviews: Here are some other recent reviews (all positive, as it turns out) I’ve done of violinist Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, the Mozart Piano Quartet and the Palm Beach Symphony. The season’s in full swing here, and it’s only going to get busier next month.

Strike up the band: ‘Dies irae’

It’s a ritual for millions of people on Saturdays during the school year, but I don’t follow college football much; it doesn’t do much for me.

But this weekend I was paying a little more attention to the scores because my wife’s in a pool at her workplace and there’s a question of family honor at stake because of it. So there I was checking out the Georgia-South Carolina game, and lo and behold, one of the marching bands (apparently Georgia’s) starts playing the Dies irae melody, the ancient Catholic chant about the Day of Judgment.

I wasn’t aware that Georgia was using this old chant to get its team going and put the literal fear of hellfire in the Gamecocks, but there it was, unmistakably. And since you can find anything at all on the Internet these days, here’s a link to a grad school paper about the chant that points out that the Georgia marching band has used the Dies Irae before, and probably other marching bands use it, too.

It’s a pretty basic little modal tune that dates back at least to the 13th century and is probably far older than that. Composers have loved it for years. Berlioz and Liszt both made good use of it, and Rachmaninov, who came from the Russian Orthodox tradition, used it in several of his pieces. It must have had some sort of extramusical significance for him, though then again maybe it was just the hyper-Romantic milieu into which he was born.

The words to which the chant melody is set also has inspired composers to do their biggest and boldest to depict an angry God’s bringing of retribution to his wandering flock. My personal favorite still remains Verdi’s Requiem, with the most famous bass drum solo in the literature, as the big drum hammers out the afterbeats as the rest of the orchestra thunders out huge G-minor chords. It’s always fun to see dozing members of the audience jump when the first of those drum cracks thunders through the auditorium.

But it was quite a shock to hear a modern marching band blasting out a melody that for centuries before Vatican II was heard in a far more somber, and sobering, context. It’s not as if the music was taken out of context all that much, either: the intent here clearly is to summon up terror, which is what the old church fathers were trying to do, too.
It just goes to show that you never know quite what you’re going to hear if you’re keeping your ears open.

Here’s pianist Leonid Kuzmin playing the Liszt Totentanz, in which the Dies irae melody can be heard right from the start: