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.