Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Robert Schumann, Who Wore Romanticism on his Sleeve

I spent some quality time with my piano recently, and paged through what used to constitute my "repertoire." I was no pianist, but my college major required that I attain some degree of proficiency and play a jury for the piano faculty every semester. It was nerve-wracking, but not as much as singing in front of the voice faculty! Anyway, I got to where I could play (slowly) the super-easiest pieces by real composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, MacDowell, and Schumann.

Schumann's Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Op. 15, is a set of thirteen short pieces that Schumann wrote in 1838 when he was separated from his true love, Clara Wieck. Clara's father was Schumann's teacher, and Wieck did not approve of this romance because Clara was so much younger than Robert, and Robert was a penniless student. Wieck had taken Clara on tour as she was a rock star pianist of the day. During her absence Robert wrote some of his greatest piano music, which he intended, and she understood, as his love letters for her. Here's Vladimir Horowitz playing Kinderszenen.

I only played the beginning part which may sound familiar since it is used often in movies and television to telegraph a simple, carefree ambiance. The name of this short movement is Von fremden Ländern und Menschen ("From Foreign Lands and Peoples"). If you let the video play, you'll also hear Träumerei ("Dreaming"), which is one of Schumann's most famous pieces.

So Robert Schumann married Clara Wieck even though her father did not approve. (Clara's parents had divorced and back then children went to live with their father. Her mother was not consulted on this match.) Schumann had already alienated his own mother by choosing a career in music over a career in law. Robert and Clara were happy, for a while, and had a family. Clara was the better pianist, so Robert left the concertizing to her while he composed.

A sad thing happened to Robert which set off a tragic chain of events. He began to have trouble with a finger on his left hand. He tried everything to remedy it, from animal baths (sticking his hand in a recently dead animal) to electroshock to a chiroplast contraption that he designed himself:
Ostwald, Peter F. “Florestan, Eusebius, Clara, and Schumann’s Right Hand.” 19th Century Music IV (no.1): pp.17-31.
We don't know for sure, but experts believe this did more damage than good. Schumann began to suffer from depression, and even to experience breakdowns beginning at age 23. At age 44, he attempted suicide by hurling himself into the Rhine River, but he was rescued. He spent the last few years in an asylum, but Clara never gave up on him. She was forced to play concerts to make money to support their family, and when she was away, their close family friend, Johannes Brahms, would step in to mind the children. (How 'bout THAT?) Sadly, Robert Schumann died there, in the asylum in Endenich, in Clara's arms at age 46.

That's a sad story, but one must remember Robert Schumann as a musical leader of the Nineteenth Century Romantic Era in Europe. He not only wrote music, he wrote influential words about music. Carnaval, Op. 9, is another of his enduring early works. While writing this piece, he was distracted by a crush on another of Wieck's students (Clara was too young to think about romantically then), and used the letters of her hometown (ASCH) translated into German names for musical pitches. He also represented two parts of his own personality with the characters Florestan and Eusebius. The crush is represented by the character Estrella, and teenage Clara was there as Chiarina. Other acquaintances appear, too, and they all have imaginative adventures which Schumann wrote about. No composer had ever created such an imaginative world around a piece of non-staged piano music before.

Later in his life, Schumann left the piano to compose for other instruments, orchestra, and voice. His song cycle, Dichterliebe, ("The Poet's Love") Op. 48 (1840), is another work that endures in the concert repertoire. I'll leave you with Fritz Wunderliche singing this cycle, based on the words of Heinrich Heine. Notice that even though these are songs, the piano has a very important part--more than mere accompaniment. That's Romantic with a capital 'R'! (Meaning the era, not hearts and flowers.)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bah Humbug: Holiday Music I Can Tolerate

Christmas 2008, Manhattan
I say "Bah Humbug," but the truth of the matter is I am a lover of Christmas, New Year's, and the holiday season in general. It's only the music with which I have trouble, and I attribute this aversion to the many years I spent in bands rehearsing the same tired tunes over and over. After my school band career was over, I was subject to these same melodies with the elevator-music treatment during my retail career which was approximately the same length as my school band career. So we're talking 18-19 years of too-much-of-a-good-thing. Most holiday melodies have been annoying earworms at one time or another (you know--a tune that gets stuck in your head and won't go away). I know others feel the same way but are afraid to admit they experience this phenomenon or attach sentimental feelings to the offending tunes. I've always been bluntly truthful about this, and I'm sure it has cost me some friends over the years.

I'll try to put a candy-coating on my pain by sharing these few examples of Christmas music that I am able to tolerate in moderation. First, I always enjoy Bruce, Clarence, and their E-Street friends:

And then there's my favorite rock guitarist of all, Joe Perry of Aerosmith with this almost too-cool "Run Run Rudolph" filmed in Perry's basement which is, of course, a recording studio and guitar warehouse:

And although I've played the second clarinet part of the following example scores of times, I still like it.  Leroy Anderson began composing the music during a hot 1946 summer but finished a couple of years later. Mitchell Parrish wrote lyrics in 1950, but I prefer the instrumental version complete with horsey sound effects and jazzy part. I listen for those parts that I really like. This is Leroy Anderson's own Pops Orchestra, so you know this is how he wanted it to sound. This isn't an easy piece to play, but it's worth learning your part. I do admit to "faking" once in a while (not in concert, of course) in order to listen to everything else going on in the other instruments.

Speaking of jazzy stuff, I enjoy anything this guy (and his band) does (do), even MAYBE those old warhorses. But here's a cool swinging version of Boogie Woogie Santa Claus...

(Dig those solos and the Santa hat on the bass.)

Setzer does this one, too, (and so did Louis Armstrong!), but who could forget Buster Poindexter's version?

Okay, you get the idea. With all this great music out there, why are we listening to elevator music? Keep your comments civil, folks.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Bebop Dream

I had a two-part dream last night. In the first part, I was at a club listening to an amazing jazz trumpet player improvise a complex solo in front of a big band. The solo became a duet with one of the trumpeters in the band, and their two lines were so intertwined I couldn't figure out who was playing what. I can match that scene up somewhat with my college years (1980s) when my friend Bob and I used to save our pennies to go hear legends of jazz play at the Chestnut Cabaret in Philadelphia. Bob was a Jazz major at Temple University (trombone), and I was a Music Theory major (clarinet), and our love of jazz and all kinds of music inspired many concert-going adventures. We'd drive over to the Chestnut Cabaret on 38th Street in his green Dodge Dart (or was it a Plymouth?) and hear all the greats play. Bob and I were teetotalers and would nurse our Cokes for an entire evening of jazz. Back then I drank the hard stuff with sugar in it, but soon after changed to Diet Coke.

A guy named Joe Sudler ran the house band, a big band that would back up the artists if they didn't bring their own band. Usually a big band is made up of five trumpets, five trombones, five saxophones (two alto, two tenor, one baritone who double on flutes and clarinets) and a rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, drums). Back in the 1980s, a coworker of mine from the Windsor Shirt Company at 16th and Walnut used to play the trombone for Sudler and then mesmerize me with stories of the gigging jazz musician's life.

As for trumpet soloists at the Cabaret, I remember only Clark Terry. I didn't know of him before, but I was impressed by his playing that night. He is best-known for playing with Duke Ellington's and Count Basie's bands, and for playing Bebop style which Bob and I liked so much. Terry played the flugelhorn, too, as seen in this video from that era when he appeared on the Tonight Show with that great big band:

In my dream the trumpeters did not have recognizable faces, but this could be because I was thinking of Clark Terry and I didn't know of him back then.

In the second part of the dream, I was in an old record store (we still bought vinyl LPs then) which was going out of business. I mentioned the concert I had attended to the guys behind the counter and we enjoyed a nice discussion until they asked me who played the first part and who the second in that solo/duet I mentioned above. I had to admit to them that I couldn't tell, and I was embarrassed.
The tiny bridge is to the left

The record store in the dream was probably 3rd Street Jazz & Rock, a tiny shop near Benjamin Franklin's Olde City Philadelphia that Bob and I went to a few times. That's where I got my copy of Richie Cole's "Trenton Makes the World Takes" album with Richie playing his alto saxophone in front of that Trenton bridge on the cover. Richie Cole was my favorite saxophone player ever since I heard him play in 1980 at the college then-known as Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey). He appeared as a guest soloist with the college's jazz band and blew me away with his Bebop style. Bob and I probably heard him play at the Chestnut Cabaret, but we heard him many times in Trenton and Philadelphia, nursing our cokes and enjoying his energetic playing. He is from the Trenton area but now lives in California or Colorado or some place far. He still comes east for gigs, and I just found out one of my co-workers plays in Richie's east coast band! This part of the dream was probably inspired by that conversation, and talking about hearing him play at Trenton State and buying that precious album, the first with Richie as a leader. Here's one of my favorite tunes that appears on that album...

Bebop, if you are wondering is a style of jazz made popular in the 1940s by another trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie, and another alto saxophonist, Charlie "Bird" Parker. It's a less dance-able style than Swing which came before it. The melodies are fast complex, and unpredictable. The name 'Bebop' probably comes from 'scat', nonsense syllables that jazz vocalists sang instead of words, usually making them up on the spot. (Think of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong!). You've heard Bebop. Here's some quintessential Dizzy Bebop for you (we saw him, too, back then, but at the Academy of Music, I think):

Dreams are funny, aren't they? These are cherished memories, but it took a chance conversation about Richie Cole for the memories of the Chestnut Cabaret, Bebop, Clark Terry to bubble up. I wonder if Bob thinks about those days ever...

Monday, December 9, 2013

Bossa Nova: Here's what March 1963 Sounded Like

I'm writing in Cape May, comfortable and safe inside for an extra day while weird winter weather plays out an under-predicted storm. On a recent weekend when I was here to attend the TEDxCapeMay conference, I had to leave earlier than expected. The videos from that conference are online now, so to close that loop I'm watching them while I stay in this same place longer, waiting for the weather to calm down. Visit this link to see TEDxCapeMay videos: TEDxCapeMay
Visit this link to see TED's monster menu: TED talks
Be careful, because one video leads to another, and then another.

I almost always find TED videos inspiring, and I am especially fond of those on music topics. Avi Wisnia got me thinking of bossa nova this morning, a summery kind of music that transports one back to the 1960s when I would have been a curly-haired toddler living in Cape May full-time. Wisnia at TEDxCapeMay describes finding inspiration right here in Cape May after a case of writer's block:

But what is bossa nova?

I've been aware of the term since I was ten.
The Instrument with vintage 1970s music.
My parents required that I take a keyboard instrument, and I was allowed to choose between piano and organ. I reasoned that all of those buttons would make the organ less boring than the piano. I practiced, but never gained much proficiency. I did learn to 'comp' chords and sightread melodies, important skills for a music major. One of those organ rhythm buttons was the bossa nova (see top photo). I wasn't a good enough organist to keep a steady beat, so while I knew what the rhythm sounded like, I never was adept enough to apply it to my renditions of 1970s pop tunes.

Bossa nova developed in Brazil in the 1950s and became popular in the 1960s. Literally, the term means 'new trend' in Portuguese. It evolved from the samba genre and with the addition of some jazz features. Specifically, complex, jazz-type chords are used. These have added ninths, elevenths, even thirteenths, built up from the chord root, and often these added intervals are altered (usually sharped, I think). You'll hear this stuff in jazz, but what makes bossa nova different is that the melody often goes to that added altered chord note. This might not sound innovative to our 21st century ears, but it was fancy back in the 1960s. You'll probably hear soft guitars and pianos accompanying whispered vocals and very little percussion other than cymbals played with brushes. Eventually the style got watered-down to what we would consider elevator music, but take a listen to this vintage bit:

Bossa nova infiltrated the popular music of the era, and in 1967, Frank Sinatra put out his own bossa nova album with the help of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Here, they sing a medley of bossa nova tunes in black and white:

Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994) was the leading composer of bossa nova music. He was born in Rio de Janeiro, and his parents separated soon after. His mother took her children to live near the beach in Ipanema. After his father died, his mother was free to remarry. Jobim's stepfather encouraged the boy's musical interests, and Ipanema inspired him...as we all know...(or should)...

The record was released in 1964, but it was recorded in March 1963, (a month very important to me since I was born in it). João Gilberto and Astrud Gilberto sing the lyrics in Portuguese and English (by Vinicius de Moraes and Norman Gimbel), and Stan Getz adds his tenor saxophone. So this is what March 1963 sounds like: smooth!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Mozart at the Movies

No, I'm not delusional, I know Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart never went to Hollywood. His music has been there many times, though. Most moviegoers have seen or heard of Amadeus, the 1984 Miloš Forman movie made of the maestro's life. There are some errors in those 160 minutes of cinematic storytelling, starting with the poor guy's name. He preferred 'Amadé' and who knows if that brat of a wife of his actually called him 'Wolfie.' He and Salieri knew each other and competed for the best composer gigs, but they weren't arch-enemies as the movie portrays. It's a fun movie even if the facts are not all just right.

Do you have a friend who likes to talk about things? Smart ideas in real conversations? I do, and lately we've been talking about Mozart's music appearing in surprising places. The character Teddy (John Alexander) plays a piece of a Mozart Piano Sonata in the first scene of Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra, 1944). With a little bit of research [I used IMDb.com and The Compleat Mozart, edited by Neal Zaslaw and William Cowdery (W.W. Norton, 1990) for this], we were able to find out that this is the third movement of the Piano Sonata No. 11, K. 331. This movement is commonly known as the "Turkish March" and was composed when Mozart was in Paris in 1783. Besides its job as the third movement of the Sonata No. 11, it is a popular standalone piece. It got its name because Mozart created it to mimic the sound of Janissary music, percussion-heavy marching music of Turkey. Imagine drums and cymbals of all sizes crashing and jangling--cymbals still mostly come from Turkey, by the way. Why did Capra choose this movement for that scene is still a mystery to me, but I would guess because it is popular and exotic-sounding. Listen for yourself:

Remember the 1952 book Charlotte's Web and the 1973 movie? I was recently amazed to learn that the book's author, E.B. White, had been listening to Mozart's Oboe Concerto , K. 370, as he wrote. Particularly, he heard the slow ('Adagio') movement while writing the spider's death scene, and the third movement ('Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo') for the birth of the baby spiders in spring. He thought these would be the perfect accompaniments for those movements, and I agree, but the creators of the animated film (Hanna-Barbera) felt differently and used more popular-sounding vocal music. It might be fun to read Peter F. Neumeyer's book, The Annotated Charlotte's Web (1994), but unless we find it in a library somewhere, Amazon sellers want at least $50 for a used copy. In the meantime, there's this NPR story and Michael Sims' The Story of Charlotte's Web (2011).

Back to Mozart, though, he composed the Oboe Quartet, K. 370, for the celebrated oboist Friedrich Ramm. Ramm had joined the famous and innovative Mannheim orchestra when he was just fourteen, and moved to Munich when its patron, Karl Theodor became Elector of Bavaria in 1778. Mozart was thrilled with Ramm's oboe tone, and Ramm was delighted with Mozart's oboe writing, so the two became friends. This quartet features the oboe and demands consummate technique from it. Mozart doesn't blend the distinctive sound of the oboe with the mellower strings, but instead allows the oboe to dominate. What do you think?

And then there's Out of Africa, which would have been one of my favorite movies of all time even if it did not feature one of my favorite pieces of music of all time. Remember when
Robert Redford (Denys) brought Meryl Streep (Karen) that grand old record player and proceeded to serenade her and the lions of Kenya with Mozart's Clarinet Concerto? It was magical. This was Mozart's last concerto of any kind, and he composed it just a few months before he died. His clarinet pieces were composed with his friend Anton Stadler in mind, and Mozart knew Stadler's abilities very well. Anton Stadler and his brother Johann both played the clarinet, and Anton S. loved the low register of the clarinet so much he put sibling rivalry aside and played second to Johann so that he could have the lower notes! Mozart understood this and let the clarinet parts of the concerto sing in the lower register against a pillow of strings, flutes, and bassoons. Mozart was a man of musical taste and didn't go in much for flashy technique, although there are some tricky passages in his clarinet pieces. I'll leave you to savor the sublime second movement of mature Mozart as performed by Martin Fröst.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Monteverdi's Orfeo and Really Early Opera

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
So here in a nutshell is how opera started: first, a couple of composers from Florence named Peri and Caccini each wrote musical versions of the Orpheus and Euridice story. In order to imitate the Greek drama they were familiar with, they used a lot of recitative. This fast-talking sing-songy speech helps propel the action and the excitement. These operas did not survive, so we only know that little bit from writers who were there for the performances.

Then there was Monteverdi, who also wrote an opera on the Orpheus and Euridice theme. His opera is now commonly known as Orfeo and was first performed in 1607. The opera was written for Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, who lived in Mantua. Monteverdi wrote the music of the opera, but a man named Alessandro Striggio wrote the words. Striggio was an aristocrat and part of an academy of gentlemen dedicated to the arts called the Accademia degli Invaghiti ('academy of the lovestruck' or 'people fascinated by something'). Monteverdi was the court composer in the Gonzaga court, and as such was a mere employee, not eligible for the Accademia!

The Accademia was behind the production of Orfeo, and the Duke's brother Prince Francesco was its chief organizer. There was one performance for the gentlemen of the court, one for the ladies, and then...it was not performed again until the twentieth century. The score, however was published. This was unusual for the time, and lucky for us because it acts as an artifact.

Monteverdi was an innovator to early seventeenth-century ears:
  • he used a variety of instruments in the orchestra to add color to the storytelling
  • he used ritornellos, or repeating sections of music, throughout the opera to give the work unity
  • he placed an overture at the beginning of the opera, but he called it the opening toccata.

Attendees of this opera would have been educated and they would have already known the Orpheus story. I'll catch up my 21st-century readers: Orpheus and Euridice got married, and she was bitten by a snake during their wedding reception and died. Orpheus went after her in the underworld. He used his lyre (a small harp) to lull the guardians. Euridice was allowed to go with Orpheus, but the deal was he wasn't allowed to turn around and look at her until they got all the way home. Orpheus was okay with this, and they started home. Euridice did not know about the agreement and wondered why Orpheus would not turn around or even answer her. She figured he no longer loved her and said so--he turned around--and she slipped back into the darkness of Hades. In the Monteverdi/Striggio version of  the story, Apollo intervenes and takes Orpheus to heaven. (This was a Christian influence.)

After Monteverdi, the center of opera innovation moved around Italy for a bit, and then settled in Vienna where Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote an opera blockbuster called...Orfeo ed Euridice...

Monday, November 18, 2013

Where did Jazz Come from?

Well, here's where: the slaves in the south sang spirituals, and these evolved into gospel music. Mahalia Jackson is singing a spiritual here in gospel style...

The plantation dances called Cakewalks became more complex with their syncopated, "ragged" rhythms, and came to be known as Ragtime. Here's Tom Turpin famous "Harlem Rag" from 1899. Turpin was the owner of the Rosebud Bar, the center of Ragtime in St. Louis. He would later work with another Ragtime composer, Scott Joplin.

Slave songs were often sung in a "call and response" style, and this carried through to prison work songs. 

Then there was the Blues, similar to the Blues we know today. In the early days of recorded Blues, mostly women with big, low voices sang this style. Here is Gertrude "Ma" Rainey singing the Jelly Bean Blues (1924):

Narrative song form was employed as the storytelling form. Harry Belafonte is demonstrating this form as he sings "John Henry."
Take all of these forms and elements and mix them together in New Orleans with New Orleans musicians, and you will come up with something like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. They are performing their first recording, "Livery Stable Blues" here. Can you guess where the song got its name? (Hint: the brass players like to make horse sounds.)

And then there was Joe "King" Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, with Louis Armstrong on second cornet! "Dipper Mouth Blues" (1923) here has an early example of the jazz tradition of taking (improvised) solos. Listen for King Oliver's cornet solo in this example, and also please appreciate the prominent clarinet...
See the woman at the piano? That's Lil Hardin who would later marry Louis Armstrong.
Funny story: King Oliver and the Creole Jazz Band went to New York City where they found success. They were offered the job of house band at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem but turned it down! The Cotton Club's second choice was a relatively unknown Duke Ellington Band--this is how they got their start! (I wouldn't make this up!) Listen for the growly "jungle" trumpets in this example from 1927...
...And that is where jazz came from!!

Monday, November 11, 2013

La Tosca

Tosca is the opera I savored Saturday at the movie theater, brought to me live in high-definition by the Metropolitan Opera. I've posted about these broadcasts before--I look forward to every one and try not to miss any. I was especially looking forward to Tosca. This opera has a reputation as a shocker, and some critics think even gratuitously shocking. It's an emotional roller coaster in high art with deception, an almost-rape, a suicide, and a murder or two. The music is delicious with two famous arias ("Vissi d'arte" and "Recondito armonia") and a big production number in the "Te Deum."

The opera Tosca is based on a play named La Tosca by the Parisian Victorien Sardou. The Tosca character is a mature, independent opera singer, not the usual innocent ingenue we often find in operas. That Puccini kept the racy (for 1900) realism of the play in his opera is no surprise. The man led a very interesting life with wives, mistresses, and two sons with the same name. The details are still being sorted out.

Back to the opera, Patricia Racette sang the title role Saturday, radiant in that red dress, cloak, and gloves in Act II.

Her "Vissi d'arte" would stop traffic, and I think that's the idea since the plot at that point has Tosca being tortured and we're expecting she won't be able to avoid getting raped by the villainous Scarpia. Our diva-hero does wriggle out of that situation ultimately, the story moves on, and she gets to wear a stunning blue dress in Act III. Years ago, this was Maria Callas's signature role.

Tosca's boyfriend is Cavaradossi, an artist who we first meet as he paints a portrait of Mary Magdalene on a wall of the interior of the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle in Rome. In Saturday's performance, this part was sung by Roberto Alagna. Here is R.A. singing his big aria, "Recondito Armonia" in another production:

I'm going to restrain myself from writing an entire post on Roberto Alagna's smile, and I'm not even going to mention it. Oops, I guess I did. Well, he gave us a fine performance Saturday of a part he has sung many times before in many other productions. During his intermission interview with Renee Fleming, he mentioned that Cavaradossi in the play La Tosca was Italo-French just like him. He was born to sing this part, I guess.

The third main character is the Baron Scarpia, a very mean man who was Rome's police chief. No one likes him. He tried to extort certain favors from Tosca in exchange for pardoning her beau Cavaradossi. He's the kind of character that gets booed at his curtain call, not because the performance was bad, but because the portrayal of the character was so believably evil. This opera story has a political perspective which involves the hated Napoleon Bonaparte just before he was exiled. Scarpia was a Napoleon follower, reason enough for the other characters to hate him even before they fall victim to his evil and creepy personality.

I left the theater in a state of operatic euphoria, feeling that I had just seen a killer AH-per-ah. Literally 'killer,' as few of our characters survived the story. Go see it. And, by the way, if you are interested in learning more about Puccini's roller-coaster passionate life and his operas which define the genre for so many opera lovers, I feel comfortable recommending this book even though I haven't finished reading it:

Berger, William. Puccini without Excuses: A Refreshing Reassessment of the World's Most Popular Composer. NY: Vintage, 2005.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

American Composer Amy Marcy Cheney, AKA Mrs. H.H.A. Beach

She was given the name Amy Marcy Cheney when she was born in 1967 to a distinguished New England family. Her musical talent was evident by the time she was two (what were YOU doing at age 2??), and she played her first recital at age seven. She performed works of Handel, Beethoven, Chopin, and herself at this recital, not the usual "Chopsticks" or "Aura Lee." Her family moved to Boston in the next year, and by her teenage years Amy was encouraged to go abroad for musical study. The family decided to keep her local and she studied with the best available teachers. She debuted in Boston in 1883 as a pianist.

One of her teachers was a physician who lectured on anatomy at Harvard, Henry Harris Aubrey Beach (1843-1910) who was also an amateur singer.
They married in 1885 even though he was 25 years her senior. He strongly encouraged her to focus her energies on musical composition rather than performing, so she did, mostly. She performed only once a year and gave the proceeds to charity.

Once married, Amy preferred to be called by the formal Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. Mrs. Beach hadn't had much counterpoint, harmony, or orchestration training as this virtuoso had focused on performing as a girl. As a young wife she had the time to teach herself these aspects of music and became a master. Her first published work was "The Rainy Day" (1883), based on a Longfellow poem.

One of Mrs. Beach most popular compositions is "Variations on Balkan Themes," Op. 60 (1906). The Rev. William W. Sleeper, a missionary and expert on Bulgaria, played for Mrs. Beach a collection of Balkan themes that he collected on his travels. He promised to send her manuscripts of them, but Mrs. Beach had a remarkable memory and transcribed them when she got home that evening. She composed the variations using one of the themes ("O Maiko Moya") prominently, and the others as contrast. Her treatment of the modal-sounding themes was not exotic; she incorporated them into traditional Romantic harmonic structures. The themes are prominent, though, and give the piece interesting flavor. Much later, in 1935, she edited the piece, and that is the version heard most.

Well, you saw this coming: Mr. H.H.A. Beach died in 1910. Mrs. Beach's mother died the year after, so Amy Beach (as she now called herself) headed for Europe to perform, compose, and promote her work. She stayed mostly in German cities and found great success there with the public and the critics. When World War I broke out she returned to the USA, living first in New York, then San Francisco, and then finally in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, in 1916. Starting in 1921, she began going to the MacDowell Colony in summers, and most of the rest of her work was composed there. She was good friends with Marian MacDowell--you remember her from my last post.

In her early days at MacDowell, Amy Beach had a "conversation" with a Hermit Thrush, the Vermont State Bird. She copied its song on the piano and it answered. This experience inspired Amy Beach's love of birdsong which she used in many future works, and two songs: "Hermit Thrush in Eve" and "Hermit Thrush in Morn," Op. 92. The Hermit Thrush became a kind of symbol of her experiences at the MacDowell Colony.

In later life, Amy Beach traveled (she was fluent in French and German), composed, wrote articles, and became active in professional musical organizations. She helped many young musicians get their careers started. She retired in 1940, and died of heart disease in 1944. She left all future royalties to her favorite spot, the MacDowell Colony.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The MacDowells of New Hampshire

Edward and Marian MacDowell (Library of Congress)
Maybe you've heard of the MacDowell Colony, an oasis in New Hampshire where artists can go and create without worrying about menial things like money and preparing meals. (Artists still compete for fellowships to this place.) Or maybe you were a piano student who has played the old chestnut "To A Wild Rose." It was Edward MacDowell who created both of these items, and in a short period of time (46 years) led an interesting life.

MacDowell was born in New York in 1860 and displayed so much musical talent that his family moved to Paris so that he could study there. He was successful at the Paris Conservatoire and moved on to study and teach in Frankfurt, Germany.
This is where he met his future wife, Marian Griswald Nevins, who was a piano student of his. They married in 1884 and stayed in Germany for a while and then moved back to the United States, living in Boston until he received an offer in 1896 to teach at Columbia University in New York City. He was that university's first music professor Around this same time, Marian purchased Hillcrest Farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire, which they used as their summer residence. In 1904, after a sabbatical leave, MacDowell had a public feud with university administrators and resigned from Columbia.

The MacDowells flourished in their New Hampshire home where Edward composed music and wrote poetry with nature as his inspiration. Although he composed music for other instruments and ensembles, he is best known for his solo piano music. Four sets of short piano pieces are at the top of his Greatest Hits list: Woodland Sketches, Sea Pieces, Fireside Tales, and New England Idyls. "To A Wild Rose" is part of Woodland Sketches. MacDowell was a true romantic, naming his pieces with descriptive titles and sometimes even adding poems to the sheet music. (This hadn't been done before.) His Indian Suite was built upon authentic Native American themes, one of the earliest examples of Native American themes in art music.

Edward's story has a sad ending. He was run over by a Hansom cab in 1904, and this exacerbated an existing condition (syphilis) while also contributing to dementia. His career was over, and he spent his days in a chair by a window, paging through a book of fairy tales, usually recognizing his close friends. He died in 1908 in New York City and was buried at Hillcrest Farm in New Hampshire.

The MacDowells' story doesn't end there. Before his accident, Edward had the idea that he would like to share Hillcrest Farm with other artists so that they could enjoy the bucolic and inspirational setting. The couple was able to line up a group of investors that included Grover Cleveland, Andrew Carnegie, and J. Pierpont Morgan. The group set up a fund which established the MacDowell Colony that still exists today. Before he died, Edward was able to see the first group of participants arrive. Marian toured the country as a pianist and promoted the colony at the same time. When she was in New Hampshire she oversaw the endeavor. She outlived Edward by about fifty years and nurtured thousands of artists, musicians, writers, and dancers at the MacDowell Colony. Leonard Bernstein wrote his Mass there, and Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town. Just about anyone who is anyone has had a residency at the MacDowell Colony. In 1997, the MacDowell Colony was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

Monday, October 21, 2013

New Music from Faraway Lands

You know what's fun? Listening to new music from other cultures, sometimes on unfamiliar instruments, and occasionally in languages unlike anything we know. I listened to these CDs while at my desk working and at home at another desk while writing. As I write this post, I'm listening to a recording called African Guitars Anthology (Lusafrica, 2012)According to the brief liner notes, the guitar has figured prominently in African music for about 150 years, and  the performers here represent the entire continent from north to south. Some are solo guitarists, and some support star performers. That is it, though, barely a paragraph
of information, so the curious prospective listener has no choice but to bravely dive in and listen. It's not difficult to imagine this music coming from Africa with its complex rhythms and characteristic percussion instruments. This brave and curious listener gives the recording a thumbs-up for its clarity of sounds and voices, festive spirit, and diversity of styles. Check out some samples at this site (but check your library, too).

Have you ever been to Iceland? Me neither, but it's at the top of my travel bucket list. For now, I'll have to be content with Icelandic Violin Duos (MSR Music, 2012). The performers call themselves Duo Landon, Hlif Sigurjónsdóttir from Iceland and Martin Frewer from a lot of places but currently Germany. Both musicians play instruments made by Christophe Landon, a French violin maker, who originally commissioned them to record Béla Bartòk's 44 Violin Duos. After the Bartòk recording, the duo was looking to put together an album of Icelandic violin duets, but only found three. They contacted some Icelandic composers they knew and commissioned three additional duets. This CD brings us all six duos.

A trip to Sweden would not be a bad thing, either. This record is more jazz than global probably, but they are all Swedish tunes. This is a diverse post, after all, culturally and genre-ly. I hear that the Swedish people appreciate jazz, and traditional Swedish tunes have found their way into some well-known jazz standards. (Listen to Quincy Jones's Stockholm Sweetnin' for example.) Swedish Ballads... & More (Charleston Square, 2013) features American tenor saxophone player Scott Hamilton (NOT the ice skater), with a Swedish trio: Jan Lundgren (piano), Jesper Lundgaard (bass), and Kristian Leth (drums). Here's a short review of this recording of Swedish tunes jazzed-up and arranged by Swedes. I found this gem of a video on YouTube, Hamilton performing "Dear Old Stockholm," which is not technically from the album because why would they put it up there for free?! This is an older recording of Hamilton performing with the Scandinavian Five. A newer version of this tune is found on the Swedish Ballads... & More CD discussed in this paragraph.

And now for something completely different, Compositions for Geomungo and Gayageum (Sub Rosa, 2013). Baudouin De Jaer is the composer of this unusual music, and the performers are Kim Hyunchae and Lee Hwa-Young. The geomungo is a Korean zither that dates back to the fourth century. It has six strings, but only two of these contribute to melody. They are hit with a bamboo stick, and the resulting music comes out sounding like a combination of string and percussion. The gayageum dates back even further, to the first century BC in Korea. It is similar to a zither and the geomungo but has at least twelve strings, and possibly as many as 25. The music produced by this instrument is more melodic, less percussive, and more similar to traditional Asian music we've heard in movie soundtracks and media. It is difficult to describe fresh new sounds using mere words, but I'll try: both instruments, and these compositions for them, produce an elegant, nature-based, unpredictable listening experience.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Like Jazz? Here's some new stuff.

The rumors are true: I am a librarian. One of the best parts of my job is selecting recorded music for the library's collection. It's fun, kind of like shopping with someone else's money. Luckily for the library, my days are filled with many other tasks to distract me from that addictive bliss shopping brings. I've been listening to some new jazz acquisitions lately (not in the library--that would be wrong) and I thought you might be interested...

The album George Shearing at Home (Jazzknight Records, 2012) sounds like a couple of guys sitting around in one of their living rooms playing jazz because that is exactly what it is: George Shearing on his own piano and Don Thompson on bass. Do you know George Shearing? He started his long recording career in the late 1940s and continued until his death at 91 in 2011. Here's some vintage Shearing from 1959:

This recent album was recorded just before he died in 2011. Shearing was eclectic as well as prolific, and performed solo, with small jazz groups and with symphony orchestras. The music on this recording is smooth and pensive--delightful interpretations of familiar and standard tunes. I listened to this while online at the DMV, in a remarkably mellow mood thanks to Shearing and Thompson.

For a change of mood, check out Curtis Fuller on trombone. His Down Home (Capri, 2012) is an energetic album which showcases original music. Fuller was the trombonist on Coltrane's Blue Train record from 1957, and since then has collaborated with just about anyone who is anyone in jazz. The six players heard on this album, Curtis Fuller (trombone), Keith Oxman (tenor saxophone), Al Hood (trumpet and flugelhorn), Chip Stephens (piano), Ken Walker (bass), and Todd Reid (drums), don't often play together and so enjoyed extensive time together practicing and relaxing in order to forge connections and a cohesive whole. The 2011 recording shows this. It is hot stuff. I listened to this in the car, too, and its energy kept me alert during some commutes home after looooong days of library work. Here's the young Curtis Fuller in 1963 with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers...

Energetic, but in a different way, is Chick Corea and Gary Burton's Hot House (Concord Jazz, 2012). This is another living room collaboration. Burton brought his vibraphone to Corea's house, and the two selected songs by composers of the 1940s through 1960s to explore. My favorite is Lennon and McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby," transformed by Corea's piano and Burton's vibraphone into a recognizable but fresh soundscape. I probably shouldn't have listened to this in the car--it was distracting trying to identify the familiar but metamorphosed tunes. Here's a piece of publicity for the album which will give you a taste of its sonic fabric...

Speaking of innovative soundscapes, give the Ali Ryerson Jazz Flute Big Band a listen. Our library now owns a copy of their Game Changer album (Capri, 2013). This gang of flutists with rhythm section creates a silky sound so perfectly appropriate for jazz that the listener forgets that they are listening to a band entirely made up of flutes of all sizes. Ali Ryerson, the leader, has commissioned her arranger friends to write for this instrumentation so that students in her jazz flute master class would enjoy authentic jazz still appropriate for the instrument. The idea for this recording sprang forth when Ryerson introduced the ensemble to the National Flute Association. The record has a trailer, even:

Joe Magnarelli? I had never heard of him, but his Live at Smalls CD (SmallsLIVE, 2013) is an engaging example of traditional jazz featuring Magnarelli's trumpet. If you like jazz, you will like this CD. Magnarelli is joined in this quartet by Mulgrew Miller (piano), Dwayne Burno (bass), and Jason Brown (drums). I don't know them, but I like them. Here they perform some originals and one very familiar "Ruby My Dear" (by Thelonious Monk) and they take really long solos. Really long. Epic. This recording was made at Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village on Smalls' own label SmallsLIVE in summer, 2012, and recreates the jazz club ambiance so accurately you will think you are there. SmallsLIVE is dedicated to "the idea that jazz is best heard in a live context with minimal editing, captured in the full spontaneous moment in which it was created" ...with lots of solos! Here's a really long video of the quartet at Smalls. Enjoy!

Have I intrigued you with this collection of new jazz? Check your library, record shop, or favorite online CD supplier for some new tunes to create your own distinctive sonic fabric!! (If you have access to my library, I've finally returned these to the stacks--have at 'em!)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Who was this Louis Moreau Gottschalk?

Those readers who know me personally know that I have lately been teaching music courses at a lovely retirement village. If you know that, you also know that I have found the experience fulfilling and enjoyable beyond my expectations. The students/participants are bright and knowledgeable, well-read and well-traveled, and sharing my passion of music with them is simply a joy.

We are currently midway through a six-week course on American Music, beginning with Colonial America and ending in the 1920s with precursors of jazz and nascent American art music. In preparing each two-hour lecture, I have come across surprises and treasures I didn't know existed, and sometimes I even surprise those savvy participants with some aspect of American music with which they had not been familiar.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk was a rock star in the mid-1860s.

Louis Moreau Gottchalk was a delightful surprise for all of us. I had heard of him, and I remember certain pianists in graduate school being so enamored with his music that they became Gottschalk specialists. I had never read about him, and not encountered his piano music because it was way past what I could expect to master for my own repertoire. This man was ahead of his time as they say, using the syncopated rhythms of Creole New Orleans in his piano compositions, and putting together a unique cosmopolitan sensibility from his travels in Europe and South America, as well as his native United States.

Gottschalk was born in New Orleans to a Haitian mother and German father. Music is a fundamental part of that city now, and was then, too. Gottschalk soaked it up and showed his aptitude for music early in his childhood. His parents signed him up for piano lessons at age five with the organist at St. Louis Cathedral, François Letellier, and by age seven he was substituting at Mass on the organ.
The organ pipes in St Louis Cathedral
As a survivor of eight years of childhood organ lessons, I can vouch for the difficulty of this instrument. Every finger and foot is required to act independently, while also adjusting switches and bars to tweak the organ's sounds. Both hands and the left foot are usually engaged in playing melodies and chords independent of each other. I wasn't able to come near mastering this in eight years, but little Louis Moreau could perform well enough after two years of lessons to play in church in front of people. I spent some time in New Orleans a couple of years ago, and St. Louis Cathedral was one of my favorite places there.

St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square, New Orleans
When he was thirteen, his parents sent him to Paris to study music. He gave a recital at the Salle Pleyel (one of Chopin's hangouts) just before his 16th birthday which was a huge hit. He began composing for the piano and incorporating influences from the Creole music he knew from New Orleans. When you listen to Bamboula below, please remember that ragtime jazz as we know them did not exist yet. Some of the roots of jazz were around (the Creole influence, for instance), but they had not evolved into any kind of pure concert music. Parisians were fascinated by the sounds Gottschalk got out of the piano and his music became wildly popular. He gave recitals all over Europe, and North and South America, and soaking up musical influences at each location.

Scholars generally divide Gottschalk's music into six compositional periods, and these are based on where he was living at the time:

1844-1851: Paris (Bamboula is from this period)

1851-1852: Switzerland and Spain

1853-1856: United States (check out Le banjo from this period)

1857-1861: the Antilles (considered by some to be his most prolific period; listen to Souvenir de Porto Rico)

1862-1865: United States

1865-1869: South America

He was not strictly a piano composer. Gottschalk composed operas which are mostly lost to us today, and a collection of orchestral music. Towards the end of his life in South America, he enjoyed organizing huge concerts with hundreds of musicians. This exciting orchestral piece is Gottschalk's Grande Tarantelle.

Gottschalk suffered from malaria when he lived in Rio de Janeiro and eventually moved to Tijuca, a suburb, where he died on December 18, 1869 at 40 years old. My premiere source* tells me that it is believed he died not from the malaria, but from an overdose of the quinine used to treat it. His remains were moved from Brazil to Brooklyn, New York, where he was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

If you've never heard the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk before that this post will spark your curiosity. If you would like to read more, get your hands on Gottschalk's own memoir, Notes of a Pianist. I haven't read it YET, but it comes highly recommended!

*Irving Lowens and S. Frederick Starr"Gottschalk, Louis Moreau." Grove Music OnlineOxford Music OnlineOxford University PressWeb7 Oct. 2013.<http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/11530>.