Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Cesar Franck (1822-1890)

Cesar Franck (that's FRAHNK) was on my mind this week. I don't know why, but perhaps I heard a piece of a piece of his and recognized it without realizing it. That happens sometimes. Franck is a role model for those of us at a certain age who know, just know, that we still have some adventure and creativity left in us. His only symphony was performed by the orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire when he was sixty-six (1889). The critics, audience, and even musicians were not thrilled with the piece that evening. Here's the whole Symphony in D Minor, performed by my favorite orchestra, the Philadelphia, conducted by Riccardo Muti. As they say on Saturday evenings on Turner Classic Movies, "It's an ESSENTIAL!"

Franck was a frugal man who never traveled far from Paris: the Conservatoire, his students' homes, and the Church of Saint-Clothilde where he played the organ. The story goes that he was saving money to take a trip to Beyreuth to hear a Wagner opera, but his darn wife found the money and used it for household expenses.

Franck was an organist and organ teacher at the Conservatoire, so guess what instrument turns up often in his compositions...the orgel. Hear the Prelude, Fugue, and Variations, Op. 18, here:

But he wrote for other instruments, too:

That's the second movement of his String Quartet (Scherzo Vivace). This work was not performed until his last year (1890), and was well-received by the audience at the Société National de la Musique.

(One might surmise that Cesar Franck (FRAHNK) did not pose for many headshots during his career, but remember he was a frugal man.)

Franck lived humbly and died tragically. He was hit by a bus on his way to a student's home and tried to perform a two-piano version of his Variations Symphoniques with that student. He did not make it through the performance, though; he left, stopping on the way at Saint Clothilde to say good bye to the organ, and died soon after in his bed.

Franck's Tomb, bust by Rodin

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


"Serpent!" screamed the Pigeon.
"I'm not a serpent!" said Alice indignantly. "Let me alone!"
"Serpent, I say again!" repeated the Pigeon, but in a more subdued tone, and added with a kind of sob, "I've tried every way, and nothing seems to suit them!"
"I haven't the least idea what you're talking about," said Alice.
from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice had just eaten part of a mushroom that made her neck grow long like a giraffe's. The Pigeon mis-identified her as a serpent (understandable mistake from a pigeon's perspective). Would you, from a human perspective, be able to identify this musical instrument if it slithered by?

Serpent (http://www.springersmusic.co.uk/library/serpent.htm)
You'll never guess: It is a serpent! It has a mouthpiece like a brass instrument and keys like a woodwind, and plays very low notes like a tuba or euphonium. The instrument was popular in military bands in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and Richard Wagner actually used one in his 1840 opera, Rienzi. Some scholars believe it was invented as far back as 1590.

Wondering what it sounds like?

"The Military Serpent" by Thomas Key (http://www.bate.ox.ac.uk/military-serpent.html)

Monday, February 3, 2014

Think You Know Louis Armstrong?

Louis Armstrong is a jazz icon. He had a long career in which he mastered changing styles of music as a trumpet player, band leader, and vocalist. He appeared in movies opposite the biggest stars of Hollywood, and he also performed from his balcony in Queens for neighborhood kids. Imagine that!

Armstrong was born in New Orleans at the turn of the last century. His father worked in a factory and left the family when Louis was very young. His mother was very poor and turned to prostitution in order to feed her family. Louis often stayed with his maternal grandmother while his mother was working. On New Year's Eve in 1912, he made the mistake of firing a gun into the air. This blunder got him sent to the Coloured Waif's Home for Boys. This is where he learned to play the cornet and he performed in the band. He dreamed of a career in music. When he was released from the home in 1941 he played in clubs around New Orleans and on riverboats on the Mississippi.

Soon, Armstrong joined his friend and mentor, King Oliver, in Chicago. Armstrong and Oliver dazzled their listeners with their solos and the King Oliver Band began recording. He married the band's pianist, Lilian Hardin, in 1924. The Armstrongs soon left Chicago for New York City where Louis joined Fletcher Henderson's popular band, for a while.

The period between the early 1920s and 1930s in the Harlem section New York City was known as the Harlem Renaissance. Innovators in music, art, dance, and art flocked to Harlem where they encouraged each other and found support for their creations. Armstrong flourished during this period, and switched his main instrument from the mellower-sounding cornet to the brighter sound of the trumpet. Pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines came to town, and soon the two were collaborating. Here's "Weather Bird"...

After the Great Depression all but ended the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s, Armstrong returned to Chicago. His lip was sore from constant trumpet playing, and his marriage had dissolved. He found a new manager, Joe Glaser, who helped turn his career around and got him a new recording contract. He divorced Lil Hardin and married a woman named Alpha Smith. This marriage only lasted a few years, but then Armstrong found Lucille Wilson, a Cotton Club dancer. She turned out to be the love of his life. They bought a modest home in the Corona section of Queens where they would spend the rest of their lives. I got to visit this home years ago, just before it became a museum, and I remember the solid gold bathroom fixtures, and lots and lots of wallpaper. Standing in Louis Armstrong's office was a special kind of thrilling, I will tell you! Check out the Louis Armstrong House Museum website here.

Meanwhile, in the 1940s, Armstrong began to lead his own swinging jazz band. Here are Louis Armstrong, trombonist George Washington, and Velma Middleton performing "Swingin' on Nothing"...

In the 1950s, he continued to record, always evolving his musical style. Notable from this time was his jazz version of "Mack the Knife"...

Armstrong toured during the 1950s and 1960s, both in the U.S. and overseas. He was so popular in other countries that he was known as "Ambassador Satch." He also appeared in many movies including this, my favorite, from 1964:

He toured and he toured, probably too much, and had a couple of heart attacks that slowed him down. He played his trumpet every day, and performed occasionally. (I've left a lot out, believe it or not!) Louis Armstrong died in his sleep at home on July 6, 1971. Lucille died in 1977, leaving the Armstrong home to the City of New York. It was designated a National Historic Landmark and opened to the public in 2003.