Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Ninth: One Symphony to Rule Them All


I'll have one more Beethoven-related post to wrap this all up, which will mainly be a linkage piece; this post will serve as my main Grand Finale, though. And where else to end with Beethoven's juggernaut of a masterpiece, the Symphony No. 9 in D minor?

Whether or not the Ninth is Beethoven's greatest symphony is a matter of debate, and I'm not going to join it here. The main contenders seem to be the 7th, 5th, and 3rd, each of which have strong cases to be made. For me it comes down to the 7th and the 9th, and I probably have a stronger personal attachment to the 9th, since it was my first real deep dive into Ludwig van Beethoven's symphonic world. Quite a starting point, eh?

It was when I was in high school and becoming keenly interested in symphonic music, to the point that I was examining orchestral scores in an attempt to unlock what secrets I could, with my level of training to that point. (Which was, ahem, not much. But I went ahead undaunted!) I remember the bookstore: A B. Dalton (remember those?) in the Monroeville Mall outside of Pittsburgh, when we were there visiting my sister, who was in college. There was a Dover edition of Beethoven's Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, in full score.

Dover Publications used to make wonderful copies of music scores in fine books...and apparently they still do! I just now Googled the folks at Dover to see if they were still around, and there's an active website, so that may be a place that starts taking my money soon...but anyway, I remember picking up the book in that B. Dalton and thumbing through it. At this point I knew nothing at all about either work, so I was completely baffled when I flipped to the last movement of the Ninth and for voices?

Was this a choral symphony?

Indeed it was...and is.

My sister actually gave me that book for either my birthday or Christmas that year; I procured a recording not long after. My band director dubbed me a cassette of the Ninth, and off I went. The recording was Herbert von Karajan, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. You never forget your first Beethoven Ninth.

That the Ninth captivated me utterly is unsurprising, as it has been captivating its audiences ever since Beethoven wrote it. The premiere is one of the legendary events in all music, with the deaf composer sitting on stage as his work crashed and hummed all around him...and he heard none of it at all. Imagine the poignancy of one of the musicians, alto soloist Caroline Unger, at concert's end, putting her hand on Beethoven's sleeve to turn him toward the audience, that he might see what he could not hear: their applause. When you listen to the Ninth, as with all of Beethoven's late works, you are hearing the musical realizations of a man who could only 'hear' the work in his mind.

Beethoven's Ninth went on to become one of the most influential works of music ever written. He fired the imagination of many composers with this work, and indeed, the Ninth took on a nearly mystical air as the 19th century wound on. The Ninth was one of Richard Wagner's favorite works, and it was deep inspiration to both Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler, both of whom felt superstitious angst as they approached their own ninth symphonies, as if Nine was a sacred barrier beyond which a symphonist dare not tread. Mahler, having already written eight symphonies when he set out write Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth"), thought he might cheat the limit of Nine by not titling this work as a symphony, even though everyone believes it is. Even so, it didn't buy Mahler much time: he would write his actual Ninth symphony and then die with only a few sketches written for his Tenth.

The Ninth is one of classical music's true "event" works, often being programmed for concerts that are meant to commemorate specific events. One of the most famous of these was in 1989, when Leonard Bernstein conducted the work in East Berlin, leading an orchestra and chorus drawn from many nationalities. For this concert Bernstein changed the fourth movement's focus from "joy" (Freude) to "freedom" (Freiheit), in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall just a few months earlier. There really is a universality to Beethoven's Ninth that lends itself to such things. It's a deeply human work, encapsulating the tortured journey toward joy as imagined by a great composer brought low by deafness.

I thought about writing a lengthy annotation of the Ninth, but time didn't allow, and besides, I'm not sure if such a thing is really necessary. But there are so many moments in the Ninth that are sheer magic. Here are some of the spots that capture my imagination:

:: The opening bars, with the strings in tremolo, playing only the tonic and the dominant, so we don't even know if we're in major or minor key. It's an opening of total mystery, leading to a stormy march of a movement that is sheer musical relentlessness.

:: And that fiery scherzo, whose opening motifs echo the main theme of the first movement, but in a rhythm that drives, drives, drives forward. Even the timpani gets into the act, pounding out that rhythm in moments that seem to come out of nowhere, no matter how many times I hear the work. But wait! Halfway through the scherzo, Beethoven changes his original time signature and provides, charmingly shocking, a genial "drum and fife" section that eventually yields back to the original scherzo.

:: The double variation of the third movement? I used to have trouble with this movement, not really understanding what Beethoven was up to. It's certainly a very long movement that leads us into the depths of Beethoven's mind, as one of the great writers of variations in music history. Somehow Beethoven finds new and enthralling textures each time he winds his way through the long melody that sustains the movement, and then toward the end come the two sets of giant fanfares that are answered by the strings. The woodwinds sing throughout, and the time is marked by pizzicato strings. It's an amazing movement that once bothered me.

:: And then we arrive at the fourth movement, that gigantic movement that is by itself longer than some of Mozart's entire symphonies. A stormy passage opens, leading to a remarkable passage where Beethoven quotes each of the first three movements, almost questioningly, only to have the low strings reject each one. After one last declaration by the low strings, we finally arrive where the entire symphony has been leading all along: the famous "Ode to Joy" chorale theme, played first by pianissimo low strings. Beethoven repeats the theme four times, adding to the voices each time (my favorite is the second statement of it, before he adds in the violins but also writes the most wonderful countermelody for the bassoons).

Then the original stormy passage from the movement's opening bars reprise, before we hear the first of our voices: the baritone soloist, declaring that it is time for a more joyful sound. "Freude!" he cries out, and the choral passage arrives, with the soloists leading through a set of variations on the chorale theme, variations which are answered by the chorus, all of this building to an immense chord that is one of the greatest single chords in all of music...and then the bottom drops out and a Turkish march begins, with Beethoven doing one of his favorite tricks of off-setting the beat.

I won't describe more than that, save to note that the symphony's closing moments are one of classical music's true moments of magnificence. I have never heard the Ninth in a live performance, but I can only imagine that if performed well, it can be an almost overwhelming experience. There is a vastness to the Ninth that makes it a colossus in itself, but this is not at all unique to the Ninth: Beethoven's greatest works all enjoy this expansive quality, but none are quite so big in their concept as the Ninth. Few works achieve this sense of containing a universe in itself. With the Ninth, Beethoven moved beyond composing music and instead created a world.

Here is Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor. Daniel Barenboim leads the West East Divan Orchestra, chorus, and soloists.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Books Read in 2020

Book, beer, and bibs? #reading #yum #beer #overalls #dungarees #biboveralls #lckingmfg #hickorystripe #denimoveralls #overallsarelife

 Well, one area for me in which this year did not drink deep from the Keg of Suck was in reading: I read a lot of great stuff. My goal each year is 52 books, averaging one a week. This year I got through 52, so, yay! You can find all my various short write-ups on these over on Goodreads; here's my 2020 Goodreads shelf. This is just a list, because...lists! I am listing these in order that I read them, but the Goodreads shelf can be sorted in a lot of ways. We're separating these into fiction and nonfiction, and I'll leave a few notes as I go.

(Goodreads gets a lot of shit for being kind of a mess to use, which is certainly true. I don't use it at all for its social media mechanisms; for me it's just a decent way to track what I've read.)

UPDATE 1/1/2021: Titles in bold are books I rated with five stars on Goodreads. I reserve five stars for books that truly rock my world, books that I know will shift and inform my worldview moving forward. Four stars is for really really really good books that I love. Three stars mean "Good book, I'm glad I read it!" I almost never award two stars and never single stars, because as a general policy I only rate books that I finish, and if I'm not liking it, I don't finish it. And in all honesty, I usually don't conclude that a book I don't finish is bad, because I've had a lot of my favorite books of all time come from the ranks of books I couldn't finish the first time. It's rare for me to conclude that I genuinely dislike something I read.


Heir of Thunder, Karissa Laurel (an indie fantasy)

Red Christmas, Tayna Laubacher (an indie noir-fantasy, by a personal friend of mine)

Magic for Liars, Sarah Gailey (I remember when Gailey first went viral on Twitter for live-tweeting their first-ever viewing of Star Wars: A New Hope while slightly buzzed. Little did I know what a talented writer they are.)

The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater

A Witch in Time, Constance Sayers

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, K.S. Villoso (Filipino-inspired fantasy. Very memorable.)

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas (Brilliant and disturbing. Necessary, and I hate the fact that we've build a world where this book is necessary.)

Last Song Before Night, Ilana C. Myer (Lyric fantasy)

The Parsifal Mosaic, Robert Ludlum (I read a ton of Ludlum as a teen. Loved him. This was a favorite. I wanted to see if it held up. It mostly does, though even with my appreciation of slower-paced stories, this one really takes its time.)

Noir, Christopher Moore (One of my favorite authors, of whose work I always seem to be one book behind. I liked this one, but not quite as much as others of his.)

The Ranger of Marzanna, Jon Skovron (Decent opening volume of a fantasy series. Not sure I'll make it back for the rest, tbh)

The Consuming Fire, John Scalzi (Book 2 of a space opera trilogy. Breezy fun, but it does feel like the second book in a trilogy.)

This is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Much has been said about how good this is, and rightly so)

We Ride the Storm, Devin Madson (Violent and grim fantasy set in a China analogue.)

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (I was truly unprepared for how much this book made me laugh.)

Strange Planet and Stranger Planet, Nathan W. Pyle (collections of Pyle's comics about a family of non-humans on a non-Earth world and yet whose everyday concerns seem oddly familiar)

A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (A space opera that I liked, but not wildly so. But other readers gushed over it, and one podcast I listen to made pretty clear that I somehow missed a lot of this book's forest, so intent was I on focusing on its trees. I will likely give this one a re-read in a year or two because I'm pretty sure I missed some stuff.)

Ashes of the Sun, Django Wexler (Fantasy with a Star Wars aesthetic. Hard to describe.)

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, Mariko Tamaki (teen romance graphic novel. Loved it.)

Nobody's Fool, Richard Russo (Read partly because I like Russo, and partly for inspiration for a bunch of supernaturally-tinged Finger Lakes-set stories that popped into my head this year. This book was...well, it was too damned long. It just kept on keeping on, if you take my meaning.)

The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly, Jamie Pacton (This was the first e-book I ever checked out of the library! I had no idea about it until someone I like tweeted about it, so I gave it a whirl and I actually enjoyed it quite a lot.)

Annihilation Aria, Michael R. Underwood (Space opera that I liked, but it felt like a sequel to an original that hasn't been written, if that makes sense.)

Seven Devils, Laura Lam and Elizabeth May (Space opera again, one of whose authors--Ms. May--is a favorite Twitter follow of mine. Good stuff, violent, queer, and the first book in a duology, which I didn't realize until I suddenly saw that there was no way Lam and May were wrapping up their story in the few pages they had left.)

Last of Her Name, Jessica Khoury. (Another space opera! I need to branch out in 2021, huh...but this was really good. A YA space opera retelling of the Anastasia legend. Loved it!)

A Spark of White Fire, Sangu Mandanna (Yet another space opera. And another really good one, this one inspired by Indian mythology.)

Livingston Girls, Briana Morgan (Another indie by a personal friend. I loved this queer blend of Harry Potter and Dead Poets Society.)

The Spy with the Red Balloon, Katherine Locke (YA supernatural espionage thriller set in World War II. Outstanding! I actually tweeted Locke directly when I was emotionally assaulted by one of their plot developments. They said "Sorry," but I don't think they were all that sorry!)


Letters from an Astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (I've been told for years about this book and while I liked it, I was also mildly disappointed for some reason)

We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates (I'm trying to look more unflinchingly into the bleakest nature of the American character.)

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Goldblatt (I've owned this book for years; finally read it this year. Fascinating stuff that I never knew about the Bard.)

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind, Alex Stone (great read about the subculture of magic, card sharks, and so on)

The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of Its Most Curious Provisions, Jay Wexler (I am increasingly vexed by the US Constitution.)

Glorious Adventure, Richard Halliburton (I love Halliburton, but wow, have aspects of his adventures aged poorly.)

The Body: A Guide for Occupants, Bill Bryson (I always enjoy Bryson, but I probably shouldn't have read this book while a pandemic was unfolding)

Beethoven: The Music and the Life, Lewis Lockwood (Fantastic bio of this year's immortal birthday composer.)

How to Love a Country, Richard Blanco (poetry)

Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War through the Cold War, Jonathan Rosenberg

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King. (A re-read, because I hadn't read it all the way through in some years. It is still my favorite writing book of all time. I noticed in various writerly communities this year a pushback against King's hatred of adverbs, but I'm with King here. I avoid adverbs at all costs.)

The Secret History of STAR WARS, Michael Kaminski (Fascinating for its deep dive into George Lucas's life, influences, and storytelling practices. Annoying for a very clear axe to grind, blaming Lucas for everything ever seen as wrong with Star Wars. Very long and desperately needed an editor.)

A Shooting Star Meets the Well of Death, William R. Taylor. (Biography of Richard Halliburton, mentioned above. If you like Halliburton, this will fascinate.)

A Haunted Atlas of Western New York, Amanda R. Woomer. (Of local fascination, but I may find some story inspiration in listings of haunted places I never knew about.)

The Finger Lakes: Nature's Beauty, Den Linnehan

Waterfalls and Gorges of the Finger Lakes, Derek Doeffinger (used for inspiration for a future story I want to write)

Summer in a Glass: The COming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes, Evan Dawson (really good book about the rise of the FLX region as a wine center)

Choose Your Own Disaster, Dana Schwartz (Schwartz is the host of Noble Blood, one of my favorite podcasts. Her book is memoir structured as a choose-your-own-adventure book. Fun and engaging and very open about mental illness struggles.)

Taking Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft, Jane Yolen (another favorite writing book that I hadn't visited in a long time. I don't read many writing books, because I figure I'll learn more by writing than by reading about writing, but a few craft books here or there are nice.)

So You Want To Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo. (Again, important. And it shouldn't be.)

Little Chapel on the River: A Pub, a Town, and the Search for What Matters Most, Gwendolyn Bounds (A re-read of a book that hit me between the eyes quite a few years ago, and it hit me between the eyes again. I dearly love this love letter to a small town on the Hudson and its dying tavern.)

Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, Maggie Smith (Good, but I didn't come to it when I needed such a book. I might have found it more necessary 15 years ago, when my world was a crumbling mess.)

The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn (When Kahn died in early 2020, a lot of people held up this book as a baseball classic, so I read it. And all those people were right. What an amazing book.)

I Want To Be Where the Normal People Are, Rachel Bloom. (Bloom may well be my biggest celebrity crush these days. I've been aware of her ever since her comedy song video "F*ck Me Ray Bradbury" went viral, and I was a huge fan of her teevee show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I consider her a national treasure and will follow her wherever she goes. From afar, though, because I don't want to be creepy. Anyway, this amazing memoir of her own struggles as a theater kid with mental health issues is blunt, funny, moving, sexy, and at times just the right amount of gross.)



Not a bad batch of reading! I'm struck that I didn't read any Shakespeare this year, so I need to rectify that in 2021. I also need to track the poetry I read; I don't list poetry books because I am always a "dipper" when it comes to poetry, jumping into and out of various collections as I go. Maybe I should read a collection or two all the way through....

Also, in terms of genre, I didn't realize how much space opera I read last year, and while I've no intention of not reading more space opera, I do need to look in on some of the other genres I love! And I need to branch out, so romance awaits.

I note with surprise how few graphic novels I read in 2020. I remember starting several but bouncing off them, which is strange. I love comics and graphic novels and I hope to get back to them next year.

I close with a photo: I made a literal stack for my Major TBR reads in 2021. Obviously I'm going to read way more than this, but these books are the ones I want to ensure that I hit in 2021. There's quite a lot of reading here! I'd best get started, hmmmm?

This is my "Must Read in 2021" stack. My other reading will be as-I-go, but I most definitely want these titles read in one year's time. #books #bookstagram #fantasy #sciencefiction #science #spaceopera #JamesBond #nature

Beethovens Choral Fantasia: or, What Happens When You're An Immortal Composer Who Needs a Piece for Piano, Vocal Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra

 Now here's a very unusual work indeed: a single-movement piece, roughly 25 minutes long, that features orchestra, solo piano, vocal soloists, and a chorus. Why would Beethoven have written such an oddly structured piece? Most likely, I figured, he wrote this piece for a very specific musical performance event...and that turns out to have been exactly the case. Beethoven put on a benefit concert for himself in December of 1808, which I mentioned the other day in the post about the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos. It was quite the program, involving a full orchestra, a chorus, vocal soloists, and himself as pianist, he wrote a work to specifically serve as the finale to the night's music festivities.

The Choral Fantasy begins with a passage for solo piano that sounds almost like an improvisation--and upon doing a bit more research, I learned that Beethoven himself actually improvised the opening at that first performance. Then the orchestra joins in, and then the work has almost the feel of being a short concerto, starting with a rather portentous slow section that doesn't last terribly long before arriving at a theme-and-variations that takes up most of the entire work. The feel at the beginning is of another piano concerto, but as the rest of the orchestra takes over the effect becomes quite charming in spots, including a 'drum-and-fife' section there the flute plays a lively dance while the piano provides the "oom-pah" part.

Eventually the voices arrive, and the Choral Fantasy becomes lyrical and thrilling. Listeners familiar with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony may note a similarity in the Fantasy's main theme and that of the Ninth's great finale. Some have even suggested that the theme in the Fantasy is actually an earlier idea that Beethoven had considered for the Ninth and either rejected or elected to use here. In any event, the ultimate effect is thrilling in a way that is very similar to that of the Ninth's final movement, even if the Ninth is a far more profound work than this. I find the Choral Fantasy an absolute delight. Let me know what you think! Here it is:

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Close Encounters of the Beethoven Kind


 I was fortunate in my music-making days to get to actually play Beethoven on three different occasions.

The first came via my piano teacher in high school, a lovely old woman named Margaret Hooker. She lived alone in a nice-sized house in Olean, NY, with a quite lovely backyard and a large music studio with two pianos in it, and she was well known as one of the area's finest piano teachers. She had a lot of students, and her end-of-year recitals were always pretty big events. Thinking back on those recitals, I remember a lot of music, including one bad moment when I crashed and burned in the middle of the first movement of a Mozart sonata. There was one transition in that movement that always gave me fits, and I tended to nail it in practice no more than twenty-five percent of the time; the recital was not one of the twenty-five. I slammed to a halt, and Mrs. Hooker gently said, "Start right after that." And after that I was fine. A terrible, humbling moment--but I redeemed myself the next year, by gum! The next year I played the absolute hell out of something. A piece by Edward MacDowell, if I recall correctly. I tend to get really motivated when I screw up badly.

But anyway, Beethoven! Any piano student of any skill will play a Beethoven sonata, or a movement of one, sooner or later. For many it's the Pathetique Sonata, but for me it was other really common one: the Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, often called the Moonlight Sonata. This sonata, unlike many of its brethren, starts not with an allegro movement but with an adagio, putting the "slow" movement first in line. Still the form of the movement is that of a sonata-allegro movement, just in a very slow tempo that contrasts a series of arpeggios, repeating and repeating in hypnotic effect in the bass, with a repeated motif played by the right hand that struggles to be called a "melody". I loved playing this piece because it appealed to my inner Romantic: I could linger on this piece and take long liberties with the rhythms; so much so, in fact, that Mrs. Hooker actually had to intercede a few times to tell me that "it's slow, it's not a dirge."

I only played the first movement; though I did work on the second movement (a graceful minuet that I do wish I'd worked harder on), the year's lessons ended before I could really get it polished, and the next year we worked on other things. I never even tried the last movement, which when you listen to the entire work seems to come out of nowhere with its stormy fire. I remember asking Mrs. Hooker about it, and she bluntly said, "I never teach the last movement." When I asked why, she equally bluntly said, "I can't play it." She tried a few bars, and shrugged. "I can play a lot of things, but I've never conquered this one." You gotta respect that!

(On a food note, Mrs. Hooker's recitals are where I first learned about punch made by dumping an entire container of rainbow sherbet into a big bowl of 7-Up. I don't know why I thought of that just now, but there it is.)

Here's the Moonlight Sonata (named thus after Beethoven's death!), performed by Anastasia Huppmann.

I still studied piano in college, for three years, though I don't recall playing any Beethoven there. Beethoven did come up twice on the programs with the Wartburg Community Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Janice Wade (a professor to whom I took a strong initial dislike but came around rather quickly on; she ended up being one of my favorite teachers of all time, which is probably when I learned the lesson that I've carried with me for years, that first impressions are almost always bullshit). I don't recall when exactly the Symphony No. 1 in C Major was on the program, but I think it was in my sophomore or junior year. This symphony is certainly Beethoven, but it is also firmly closer to Mozart and Haydn than to the heights to which Beethoven would take the symphony later in his life. As a member of the trumpet section, I found the First Symphony kind of dull from a performance standpoint; when Beethoven wrote this, the symphonic trumpets were still valveless instruments, only capable of sounding specific harmonics, so there was a whole lot of sitting and doing nothing until the big tutti moments when the trumpets would play a tonic and dominant or two, before returning to counting rests. We were probably tacit for the inner movements. Still, the piece was incredible to hear as it came together, and that in itself was a valuable experience.

Then, in my senior year, Dr. Wade brought in three soloists to play the Concerto for Violin, Cello, Piano, and Orchestra, a work most often referred to as the Triple Concerto. This work is...well, it's a strange kind of work. The three soloists make for some odd writing, as I recall, and the trumpets had even less to do in this piece than in the First Symphony. So...and I admit this with no pride the rehearsals I never played a note. I literally sight-read the damned thing at the dress rehearsal and again at the concert, and we were fine. That's what the Triple Concerto is: it's fine. It's actually kind of a problematic work, maybe for Beethoven the equivalent of Shakespeare's "Problem Plays". I'll let The Guardian explain:

Beethoven Triple Concerto: arguably the least successful of any of Beethoven's mature concertos in the concert hall. It's one of those pieces that never seems to get a performance that does it justice. Usually, you get po-faced seriousness when a big orchestra and three star names try to out-do each other, as the cello, violin, and piano soloists fight for the limelight. On disc, it hasn't fared much better, and there's an infamous Herbert von Karajan recording from 1969 with David Oistrakh on violin, Sviatoslav Richter on piano, and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich: it's a nadir of gigantic egos trying to trump each other, a bonfire of the vanities from which Karajan and the Berlin Phil still somehow manage to emerge victorious.

(Richter himself said of it: "It's a dreadful recording and I disown it utterly… Battle lines were drawn up with Karajan and Rostropovich on the one side and Oistrakh and me on the other… Suddenly Karajan decided that everything was fine and that the recording was finished. I demanded an extra take. 'No, no,' he replied, 'we haven't got time, we've still got to do the photographs.' To him, this was more important than the recording. And what a nauseating photograph it is, with him posing artfully and the rest of us grinning like idiots.")


The truth is that the Triple Concerto isn't a concerto at all, since there's no real dialogue between the orchestra and the soloists, and the three soloists carry virtually all of the musical argument themselves.

It's a nice listen. It's not bad, but if you're working your way through Beethoven, from the greatest works on down, it'll be a while before you get to the Triple Concerto and its not-terribly-profound geniality.

Here are the Symphony No. 1 and the Triple Concerto.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Beethoven: the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos

In a typical classical music concert today, you might hear a short work--an overture, perhaps--followed by a concerto, then an intermission, then a symphony. Or the concerto might be the featured work after the intermission, especially if your soloist is one of the greats. Generally you can count on the concert being over in 90 to 120 minutes.

Not so the concerts of Ludwig van Beethoven's day. On December 22, 1808, Beethoven gave a concert consisting of his Fifth and Sixth symphonies, three movements from his Mass in C, a Fantasia for solo piano, a concert aria, the Choral Fantasia (a 25-minute work to which we'll be returning!), and the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major. I'm guessing, conservatively, that this was about three hours of music, if not more. Wow.

I heard the Fourth Concerto many years ago at a concert in Olean, NY, when I was a kid. There was a local program called "Friends of Good Music" that brought classical music performers to town four or five times a year, and the Fourth was on one of the Buffalo Philharmonic's programs one year. Or it might have been the Rochester Philharmonic--both orchestras were often featured on FoGM programs--and I think the pianist was Malcolm Frager, but I'm quite possibly wrong there, too.

The Fourth is quite a piece, and it might be the finest of Beethoven's five piano concertos. It opens not with the orchestra but with the piano making an entrance that sounds almost improvisatory, before the normal proceedings commence. Beethoven's integration of the soloist with the orchestra is never finer than in this work; a true partnership is at play, and for a convincing performance the soloist must be a virtuoso, to be sure, but also possessed of confident enough ego as to work alongside the orchestra. This is not soloist-with-accompaniment; this is a whole work.

In the minor-key second movement there is an amazing passage where the piano, playing softly, engages the orchestra in dialogue. The orchestra's tone is firm, loud--perhaps even harsh. Meanwhile the piano is responding with statements of delicacy and softness. Apparently this movement was interpreted by early critics as Beethoven's depiction of Orpheus and the Furies. Had Beethoven intended such a thing, surely he would have written that at the top of the score.

As is often the case with Beethoven's concertos, there is no real break between the inner movement and the finale, and the effect is always scintillating as we're into a rondo before we even realize it. Beethoven's rondo here is as good as ever, and there is wonderful lyricism on display as we move toward the conclusion. When I heard this concerto live, I remember the soloist (I really think it was Frager!) literally bouncing off the piano bench with delight as he and the orchestra arrived together on that final chord.

Here's the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major. The soloist is Mitsuko Uchida. Note how carefully she sets up that very first chord! She is leaving nothing to chance, and she doesn't care how long the audience has to wait; she's going to do it right.

And then we come to the last of Beethoven's piano concertos, which is honestly my favorite of the lot, and it's one of my very favorites of all of Beethoven's works. Beethoven himself never performed the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major; by then he was too deaf to be able to perform a concerted work effectively. The work was premiered in Leipzig with Friedrich Schneider as soloist, but the Vienna premiere a few months later was performed by Carl Czerny, a name familiar to many former piano students as the man who wrote all those pages and pages of sixteenth-note fingering exercises. Czerny was a student of Beethoven's.

This concerto, like many classical works, has carried another name into history, and also like many works, that name was not given by the composer themself. Beethoven didn't call his Fifth Piano Concerto "the Emperor Concerto", but it has been known as such ever since. The name came from the concerto's publisher in England. While I'm not generally fond of names given to works by people who came along after the fact and which were not really approved by the composers, I always have to admit that in this case, Emperor works. This is a work of grandeur, bright and flashy and redolent of Imperial Vienna.

The concerto opens as boldly as a concerto can: the orchestra sounds an E-flat major chord, which is then supplanted by the piano playing a virtuosic series of arpeggios. Another chord, another virtuosic reponse, then a third chord and a final virtuosic response which leads to the main theme proper. What happens now is that Beethoven spins out an exposition section so finely crafted in its symphonic styling that, like in the Third Concerto, we forget entirely that we're listening to a concerto at all. The theme is one of Beethoven's best, but not to be discounted is the second subject, a motif that sounds in the horns while the strings soar above it, obliggato. All of this is wonderful listening and it comes before the soloist returns to the fray with an entrance that delights in its simplicity and clarity. From then on, we're in pure Beethoven concerto-as-partnership territory.

The second movement boasts some of Beethoven's finest lyricism in a way that seems to look forward to the famous Nocturnes of Frederic Chopin. The theme yearns and sings slowly and seductively, with the soloist again engaging in dialogue with the orchestra, and as peace falls at the end of the movement, the piano plays two sets of arpeggiated chords in what sounds like a kind of coda--but Beethoven is up to something else here, and as the piano suddenly strikes loudly into the final movement's Rondo, we realized that those chords weren't chords at all but rather snippets of the Rondo's main theme. Beethoven's inner trickster shows up once again in this, his last piano concerto, with a theme set on a rhythm that seems to just defy the bar line. It reminds me somewhat of the last movement of the Violin Concerto, and the ultimate effect is similar as the concerto finally comes to its conclusion.

And thus we come to the end of Beethoven's concerto output. What Beethoven has done is to bring the concerto form to its logical height from the classical standpoint; what remains to be done with concertos is pure Romanticism. Beethoven stands so perfectly between the two that it can be argued that he is, in fact, both.

Here is the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, the Emperor Concerto, performed by Krystian Zimmerman and the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. (And make sure to keep an eye on Bernstein, especially toward the end as it appears he is going to levitate under his own power.)

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Pics or it didn't happen!

 I haven't done a grab-bag of recent photos from my adventures of late, we go!

Sky last night. #sky #clouds #sunset

Green tea is now part of my daily life and this makes me happy. #yum #tea #GreenTea

Hollowed #stump #ChestnutRidge #wny #orchardpark #autumn #fall #nature #hiking #trees

Attentive #Cane #dogsofinstagram #greyhound #greyhoundsofinstagram #ChestnutRidge #wny #orchardpark #autumn #fall #nature #hiking #trees

A manufactured pose while my coffee steeps. #ootd #overalls #dungarees #biboveralls #vintage #lee #leeoveralls #hickorystripe #denimoveralls #overallsarelife #vintageoveralls #doubledenim #denimondenim

Another. She was trying to fall asleep on my lap SO hard.... #Carla #dogsofinstagram #pitbullsofinstagram #pitbullmix #pittie #staffordshirebullterrier #staffiesofinstagram

ALL YOUR WARM ARE BELONG TO ME #catsofinstagram #graycat

In the cold....

Our occasional night-time entertainment companion #Carla #dogsofinstagram #pitbullsofinstagram #pitbullmix #pittie #staffordshirebullterrier #staffiesofinstagram

Christmas book haul. HEAVY stuff, both physically and mentally! I'm already hoping for a massive snowstorm so I can bag my shift at work and bury myself in SANDMAN. #ChristmasBooks #books #bookstagram #fantasy #history #science

Shoveling: ✅ One pair of overalls encrusted with ice: ✅ First cup of coffee: ✅ Next: shower, get dressed in a non-icy pair of overalls, read, write, nap! And listen to some Beethoven. #ahhhhh #snow #wny #

These next few are in a special category, because they're photos I took with my phone and then processed through a cool app called Prisma. I don't use the app all that often, but sometimes I get effects from it I like. (Two of these, which will be obvious, I took while I was waiting for my coffee water to boil in the morning.)

Prismafied overalls

Old bathhouse. Something about this vantage point struck me as...Miyazakian. #ChestnutRidge #wny #orchardpark #autumn #fall #nature #hiking #trees #prisma

Quiet reflection (as I wait for the kettle to boil the water) #overalls #dungarees #biboveralls #vintage #gap #gapoveralls #denimoveralls #overallsarelife #vintageoveralls #prisma

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor

 Beethoven wrote five piano concertos, and only one of these is in a minor key. I don't want to reduce these things to the easily-refuted notion that "major key equals happy music, minor key equals sad music", but there does often seem to be a degree to which a minor key brings out Beethoven's brooding side more than the major keys do. This concerto is certainly the most inward-looking, the most introspective, off the five.

Where the previous two concertos opened with genial major themes, Beethoven's Third opens with a generally low-key statement of the main march-like theme in the strings, and we actually spend what feels like a surprisingly long time awaiting the arrival of our piano soloist; if one listens to a recording without video, one might trick oneself into thinking they are listening to a symphony instead of a concerto at all. But once the soloist arrives, Beethoven's great way of integrating the soloist and the orchestra together into a cohesive whole takes over.

The real magic of this concerto, for me, comes in the second movement, which opens with the solo piano playing a major-key theme that is romance-like. The transition from the first movement to the second always puts me in mind of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, with its famous Romanze in its second movement. Then, the third movement arrives in one of Beethoven's wonderful rondos, propelling us toward the end of the concerto with typical energy and verve, after starting on a quick motif, played softly and climbing upward throughout. This mysterious opening gives way to a sequence of chords that feel like Beethoven is calling a halt to the darker mood as he starts to segue into a cheerier one, though he isn't quite done with the brooding introduction just yet.

Apparently the Third Concerto wasn't even finished when Beethoven premiered it; according to the student who served as Beethoven's page-turned at the concert (which had only had a single rehearsal for a concert which premiered not only the Third Concerto but the Second Symphony and an oratorio), the score from which Beethoven performed sometimes had blank pages and weird notations that the pupil later described as "hieroglyphics"--presumably some sort of shorthand meant by Beethoven to jog his own memory. Here is how author John Clubbe, author of Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary, describes that primiere:

In his Akademies [concerts Beethoven arranged for his own benefit], Beethoven would premiere his first four concertos with himself as soloist. Only the fifth and last, the so-called "Emperor" Concerto, dating from 1809, did he not play in public. By then his fading hearing did not permit a nuanced performance. Once Beethoven realized fully that his time as a piano virtuoso was over, he wrote no more piano concertos.

Although scholars usually date the Third Piano Concerto to 1800, Beethoven had likely worked on it already for several years. He employed his favored key of C minor. As was his wont, he continued to revise it right up to the hour of its first performance. Even then he still had not finished it. For the piano part he had only his erratically pencil-scrawled manuscript. Ignaz von Seyfried, who turned pages for him, recalled how the first performance went:

I saw almost nothing but empty leaves; at the most, on one page or the other a few Egyptian hieroglyphics wholly unintelligible to me scribbled down to serve as clues for him, for he played nearly all of the solo part from memory, since, as so often the case, he had not had time to put it all down on paper. He gave me a secret glance whenever he was at the end of one of the invisible passages, and my scarcely concealable anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly.

Not finishing a work on time was not unusual for Beethoven. Nor did it overly bother him. He had lodged the concerto's piano part deep in memory. He wasted nothing. Soloists then, unlike most today, did not play from memory. Audiences would have regarded doing so as eccentric. Only decades later did Franz Liszt begin the practice of playing from memory.

I often think that I wish I could go back in history and hear inaugural performances of some of the great works of the classical canon, but it's worth remembering that performance standards now are honestly the highest in history. I suspect that could we truly hear what music sounded like in the early 1800s, we might well be shocked--and not in a good way. But still--to go back and hear Beethoven? Knowing that the score on his piano was simply for show?

Here is Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Your Daily Dose of Christmas

 It's here! I hope that all of your Christmases are merry and bright, even in a year as grating and dark as this has been.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

On Jeff Smith, problematic people, food, and memory


A favorite cookbook

 Back when I was in college, I decided that I needed to start learning to cook. One of the cornerstones of that effort was to buy all the cookbooks by Jeff Smith, also known by his PBS brand name "The Frugal Gourmet", and read them cover to cover while also cooking quite a few of the recipes. I learned a hell of a lot about cooking in that way ("Hot wok, cold oil, foods won't stick!), and while I think Smith's notions about food and peacekeeping were a bit out there (one of his last cookbooks has a very odd passage in which he envisions Bill Clinton and Saddam Hussein cooking together), I very much agree with his insights about food and memory. There's a reason why, when a beloved elder dies, a lot of times those left behind despair over being able to replicate their best dishes. "It's good," we say. "I've got it pretty close, but there was something she did that I can't quite get my finger on."

I still own most of Smith's output to this day, and a few of his recipes are in my permanent rotation. I have never stopped reading them or even watching some of his shows which have shown up on YouTube, even though...


Smith, it turned out, was really not the kindly pastoral gentleman he portrayed on his shows. I don't really want to get into that here, but suffice it to say that there were accusations of sexual improprieties in the late 90s that brought his career to a slamming, screeching halt. If you search around the Internet, you can find other testimonials about Smith that are, shall we say, less than flattering. He may have spent many years not even living with his wife (speculations as to why that may have been abound), and he seems to have been an unpleasant fixture in the Seattle food scene toward the end of his life. Again, I don't want to get into that.

It all comes back as we have discussions in society today, quite repeatedly, about what we do when people we admire, especially the creative folks whose works have touched and shaped us, turn out to not only be very human, but very disappointingly human, at that. JK Rowling turns out to be transphobic to a deeply creepy degree. Isaac Asimov...well, rumors abounded about his conduct at science fiction conventions for years, and they don't seem to have gone away despite his being dead for nearly thirty years. Marion Zimmer Bradley's private life was appalling, and Orson Scott Card turns out to be deeply homophobic. Michael Jackson.

We all have to struggle with to what degree our artistic heroes were real people who committed acts ranging from missteps to simply awful deeds. I've known this for years, since I obsessively read about music history as a kid. My favorite composer, Hector Berlioz, was an addict and a manipulative stalker weirdo. Robert Schumann obsessively pursued a girl who today would be a minor and basically forced her to give up almost all of her own musical career outside of helping to perform and advance his works. (Clara Schumann was, by all accounts, an amazingly talented woman who might well have become a beloved composer in her own right, had husband Robert not dominated her so completely.) Richard Wagner? Well, as David Dubal writes in The Essential Canon of Classical Music, in reference to Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll", a gorgeous piece he wrote as a wedding gift for his wife, "That this man, capable of such emotion, was enraged at Bismarck for not burning Paris to the ground will always tantalize and disturb."

So...back to Jeff Smith, among whose cookbooks is the one pictured above, a quite wonderful volume of Christmas recipes and ruminations about our modern Christmas. (Well, not quite our modern Christmas! This book is almost thirty years old.) Smith presents an entire Christmas menu, based on those present at the Nativity: dishes for Joseph, for Mary, for the Innkeeper (whom Smith believed has gotten kind of a bum rap over the years) and the tax collector. There are dishes for the Wise Men, for the angels, and even for the donkey (who gets "Straw and Hay", which is now one of my best pasta dishes). The book has cookie recipes, recipes for mincemeat pie and two kinds of fruitcake--I want to like fruitcake but I can never get there!--and more. He finally presents several complete Christmas dinner menus...and the photographs throughout are wonderfully colorful, as well. There's a reason I love this cookbook: it's the kind of cookbook you can thumb through with pleasure, in addition to having good insights on food.

In the middle of the book comes this section, about Christmas traditions. This has been one of my favorite pieces of Christmas writing ever since I bought this book in the 90s, and if it is coming from someone who would later turn out to be quite a lot less than the sum of his parts, well...that's frankly the case with most art, isn't it? It's up to us to decide how much these things bother us, and which things are our personal dealbreakers.

Our Family Christmas


Our family traditions came about in much the same way as did your family traditions...they just sort of happened.

Patty and I originally made a prime rib of beef for Christmas, and then the boys came along. Somehow Patty got into the roast goose routine, and we enjoyed that for years. As the boys grew, we began to celebrate one of the Christmas menus that follow, and then on Christmas Day I would prepare a full Norwegian smorgasbord with baked beans, potato salad, several different kinds of herring, luncheon meats, special breads, fish balls in cream sauce, cold salmon or lox, lefse, Christmas bread, and, of course, the leftover roast beef or goose from the night before. We still do that.

Last year I did a Swedish meal of pickled pork. The Paulina Market in Chicago makes a Swedish pickled fresh ham that is just terrific. So, now we all have a new favorite dinner. The boys side with the goose, Patty with the roast beef, and I go for the pickled ham. Now what do we do?

One year I suggested to Jason that we make some changes in our Christmas dinners. Try something new. He was quite young at the time, but his response meant that we had established some family traditions that he wanted to maintain. I was so touched by his insight that I wrote the following letter to him, a letter that was circulated by the Roman Catholic parish in Chicago. You will probably recognize your own family in this letter.

My dear Jason,

I probably came very close to violating the meaning of tradition when I suggested that we try something a bit different this year. You are happily bound up in memories of Christmases past, and I expect that I will hear you say, "Dad, can't we have real dressing? I mean the old kind. After all, it is Christmas!"

You are right, son, it is Christmas. And on the day of the Mass, the feast of Christ, I should not go around breaking family traditions.

But I must consider anew the meaning of the Feast of the Christmas, and I think you and I should think about it together.

The term feast is very much involved with the meaning of memory. We feast because we remember certain events in our lives; sometimes wonderful events, sometimes painful events. That seems to be the way it has been with man- and womankind for a long time.

Christmas for me as a child was very different from our Christmas now. We would travel to greet my father's family at his mother's house, your great-grandmother, Nettie Smith. Oh how sad I feel that you did not know this tough old girl. She was a member of the state legislature and she was a left-winger from the start. But in the kitchen she was just terrible. She cooked turkey in the Old Testament style, burning the poor thing on the altar until smoke drifted up to heaven. Then, to the table it would come, though it was so dessicated, so dried out, so tasteless, that I could not understand why someone else in the family did not cook the bird instead. You know why they did not? Because it was job traditionally reserved for Gramma. To this day, when I eat dried-out turkey, I think of her...and how much I miss her.

Christmas morning in my family was wonderful. World War II was in the midst of every event, and candy and sugar were hard to find. One Yule morning my mother, your Grandma Smith, brought us to the table and presented us with marzipan candy shaped like eggs and bacon. My brother, Greg, sister, Judy, and I were amazed that Mom could find such things.

Some of our Christmas traditions are a bit strange, I will admit. But they are our traditions, our family. Each year we carefully unpack the papier-mache manger figures we made together when you and Channing were tiny children. And each year we spend precious time gluing the poor shepherd boy back together. Would it not be much more practical simply to go out and buy a new creche, a new king, a new Christ child? Ah, now, my boy, we are speaking of utter heresy, of violations against the meaning of our past...and I suppose therefore, our future.

A true feast actually has nothing to do with what you eat...but with what you remember. Many families in this nation have no traditions at all, few roots, and thus, few feasts. I am for feasting and celebrating in such a way that we will always remember we are a family. Sometimes I know that it is tough having me for a father, since I always want to add sherry to a gravy that you find perfectly in order already. Or I want to put mushrooms in a dressing, and you claim that they taste like dirt.

So, now, back to the kitchen. We have much to prepare before the star grows bright over the manger and you and I come to the creche, dazed by what we find, but carrying two gravies. One with mushrooms, and one without.

I love you,


Christmas is as much a time of memory as it is of anything else, and food is memory.

Your Daily Dose of Christmas

 The Polar Express is rather a polarizing movie, mostly because of the style of animation Robert Zemeckis used in making it. The landscapes and a whole lot of the film's compositions are frankly gorgeous, and the story is (for me, anyway) fun, fleshing out what is a classic picture book in which not a whole lot happens. (This is not a criticism of the book, by the way! It's a picture book that's about 30 pages long, and the main attraction there is the amazing art.)

What turns people off Polar Express seems to be one big factor, but it's not one you can really escape if it does bother you: the characters' eyes, which in this style of digital-capture animation tend to look...glassy, lifeless, dead. The eyes look unblinking and like what you'd see in a doll. This never impedes my enjoyment of the movie, but I can't argue with people who react strongly against the movie on that basis, either.

And all of that has nothing to do with the music, which is wonderful and amazing. This is one of the best scores Alan Silvestri has written, and for me it's absolutely a Christmas classic. Silvestri blends engaging action music with quotes of traditional material and his own gorgeously sweeping melody that's all about the magic of this time of year.

It's almost here! Can you still hear the ringing of that bell?

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

How he sounded back then....

Beethoven's Symphony No 7 in A Major, op. 92, isn't just one of Beethoven's personal greatest works. It's one of the greatest works of music ever composed, and its stature is such that it even rises beyond the history of music and into the history of art. Beethoven's Seventh is in the same rarefied air as Michelengelo's Sistine Chapel, Da Vinci's The Last Supper, Wagner's Ring Cycle, the Tale of Genji, the terra cotta warriors of China, Hamlet, get the idea. When we engage with the Seventh Symphony, we're engaging with one of the great works of human art.

But for today, let's set aside the superlatives. I'm not really the best person to talk about the how and why of what makes this symphony so great, beyond its near perfection in its proportions, its emotional sweep from the sunny optimism of the first movement to the soul-rending meditation of the second, or the way the work culminates in a movement that has been described as "the apotheosis of the dance". Instead, let's try to hear the Seventh as it might well have sounded to those hearing it for the first time.

Though his hearing loss was progressing inexorably in December of 1813, Beethoven was still able to perform and conduct at this point in his life, although not for very much longer. Beethoven himself led the orchestra in the very first performance of the Seventh Symphony at a charity concert for victims of the Napoleonic Wars. (The same concert would also see the premiere of Beethoven's strange potboiler, Wellington's Victory.) The Seventh was an acclaimed success right from the very first hearing, and it has always been a beloved work, often showing up near or at the very top of lists of Beethoven's greatest works. For me, I for many years ranked it second, just behind the monumental Ninth Symphony--but in recent years, I have reversed that view.

Over the last few decades, trends in classical music performance have led away from the kinds of excesses that were normal in the middle of the 20th century as orchestras have reduced their sizes and striven to perform works in something resembling the kind of air and style of their times. Some have gone even farther with this, though, leading to the rise of "period instrument" ensembles. These groups perform on instruments either directly dating to the Baroque or Classical periods, or on instruments carefully made to those standards. Strings instruments with strings made of genuine materials, flutes of wood instead of brass, trumpets with no valves, and even percussion instruments with heads and mallets made the same way they would have been made in the 1700s or 1800s.

It's not just about the instruments themselves, either. It's in the way they are played. Vibrato in the strings is greatly reduced, percussion sounds sharper, and the woodwinds often more piercing. The conductors, too, adhere as much as they can to the standards of music when it was composed. Tempi are often faster, and interpretive flashes tend to be kept to a minimum. All of this is in an effort to present as authentic to the music's time a performance as possible. Of course, since recordings didn't exist, all of this hinges on our knowledge of the instruments themselves and on our knowledge of performance standards of the time, based on writings left by people in attendance back then: accounts of concerts, pedagogical materials, and so on.

The ensemble in the performance of the Seventh Symphony below is the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique, founded in 1989 by conductor John Eliot Gardiner (who also conducts this performance). This recording is part of a cycle of Beethoven's nine symphonies, which I happen to own on compact disc someplace in the archives. Gardiner and his orchestra are among the leading performing groups in the historically-informed performance movement, and I love his Beethoven cycle a great deal. Some listeners avoid historically-informed performance (which I've just now, as I researched this piece, is the preferred term now for "period performance"!) because they may expect a rather clinical and unemotional, and thus unmoving, approach to the music-making.

But look! If it's true that Gardiner and the ORR have, in fact, managed to reproduce Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in something approaching what those first audiences heard...well, how could that possibly be clinical or unmoving? The Seventh was, as I have indicated, virtually beloved from its first hearing. Beethoven knew what he was doing, after all. Great music can't be suppressed entirely, and it certainly isn't suppressed here. Instead, it shines.

Here is the Symphony No. 7 in A Major, op 92, by Beethoven, performed by John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique. Imagine hearing this in a concert hall in Vienna on December 8, 1813. Imagine hearing this along with musicians such as Louis Spohr, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Antonio Salieri (who, in real life, had a long and successful career in music after the death of Mozart, whom he did not poison or manipulate into drinking himself to death as he composed a Requiem).

If I ever get my hands on Doc Brown's Delorean, I will probably use it to travel back to the premieres of some of the great masterworks of music history, starting here.

Your Daily Dose of Christmas

 Here's an album I grew up with...or maybe it wasn't quite this album, but it was certainly this guy singing. I most definitely remember this version of "We Three Kings", but I don't know if this is actually the original record or if this selection is a repackaging. Anyway, it's the Christmas stylings of American tenor Mario Lanza.

This music is really a throwback to a style of operatic singing that isn't much in vogue anymore. Born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza, and taking the name "Mario Lanza" as a stage name later on, Lanza started out as a classical tenor before his big voice and good looks carried him straight to Hollywood, where stardom beckoned. After World War II he ended up with MGM, where he made several films before various difficulties led to him being dismissed from MGM, spending a year as a recluse, returning to film but with less success, and finally to planning a return to the opera stage in 1959. By this time Lanza had a number of health problems owing to his weight and probably alcoholism, and he died in 1959 of an aneurysm.

His personal life seems to have been a mess, and his family didn't really life happily ever after, either. His wife died of a drug overdose just months after he did; his son died of a heart attack when he was just 37 (younger than Lanza himself had been at his death), his daughter was killed when she was hit by a car while crossing a street, and his other son died in 2008 at just 55 years of age.

Setting aside the sadness of Mario Lanza's life, his voice is something to hear. No, he's not Pavarotti or Domingo, but he had a big and golden-sounding voice, and listening to this record now, I'm struck by his command of phrasing and his superb diction. He's not just a big-voice, big-chested tenor belting out high C's from the sky, and like many things I remember from my youth, I appreciate this sound a lot more now than I did then.

Here's Mario Lanza.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Your Daily Dose of Christmas

 Do you have any musical items on your lifelong wish list? Something you'd be sad if you reached the end of your days and never got to hear? I do! I'd love to attend a performance of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, the full ballet, with full-on Russian choreography and a live orchestra (sometimes, in smaller venues, ballet companies perform to recorded music). Here is the Bolshoi in 2011, performing a wonderfully arresting version of the great ballet. This is some amazing stuff!

And if you don't have time for the entire thing (make time!), you can always enjoy the condensed Suite that Tchaikovsky put together. I've written before of what this suite means to me on a personal level, as one of my fondest musical memories.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Your Daily Dose of Christmas

 I had a music teacher in third and fourth grade, when I was going to an elementary school in Hillsboro, OR, who at one point taught us a song from an opera based on the old fairy tale of "Hansel and Gretel", called, appropriately enough, Hansel und Gretel. The song is a cheery thing near the beginning of the story when Gretel is teaching Hansel a dance. I remember the teacher, Mrs. Sturdevant (I think that was her name), telling us about the opera that had been written a hundred years or so before, by a composer named "Englebert Humperdinck". I hate to admit that this particular name had a predictable effect on a room full of nine-year-old children, and I seem to recall Mrs. Sturdevant being a bit irritated that we giggled.

Sorry, Mrs. Sturdevant.

Anyway, I actually bought a recording of Humperdinck's opera many years ago. It was a pretty nifty CD box that in addition to the 3 CDs and the booklet containing notes and the libretto, also had a little jigsaw puzzle depicting a scene from the opera. There was a period when sometimes CD box sets would come with little things like that, especially if they were recordings of music that might appeal to young listeners. Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel is often considered a children's opera, because it is not terribly long, it's full of folk tunes and dances, and its story is loaded with magic and wonder and an evil witch who wants to back the kids in her oven. Hansel und Gretel has become something of a Christmastime staple, even though it doesn't exactly have anything specifically to do with Christmas. I haven't heard it more than once or twice and those many years ago, so I addressed that this weekend.

Hansel und Gretel is like Wagner-lite: the orchestration and the drama are pure Wagner (Humperdinck himself was a committed Wagnerian), as is a lot of the imagery in the show. But because the story is lighter and free of Wagner's heavier tendencies, the opera is a pretty good bridge between the Wagner-parody of Carl Stalling's work on the Loony Tunes shorts and, well, actual Wagner. As for the opera's Christmas associations, there's the story of two children who get into trouble, and the magic of a life-size gingerbread house; also, the opera was premiered very near Christmas in 1893. When you think about it, a lot of our Christmas trappings don't really have anything to do with Christmas specifically. The Sound of Music song "My Favorite Things" is a good example.

Having freshly heard Hansel und Gretel, I certainly plan to make it a part of my annual listening from now on. The performance I'm featuring here is especially nifty, because it's actually a film made out of the opera, with Sir Georg Solti conducting (and this type of repertoire was Solti's wheelhouse, so it's a treat on that score as well). Live action is combined with animation to create the requisite sense of magic, and the performances are thrilling throughout. This film was intended for television, and aired on PBS's Great Performances in 1981--not long after Mrs. Sturdevant was dealing with a bunch of kids laughing at the name "Engelbert Humperdinck".

If you have a spare hour and forty-five minutes, give this a listen! It really is something of a delight. And look at the screen once in a while, because there's actually usually something neat going on.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Your Daily Dose of Christmas

 And now we're into the last seven days before Christmas. As tends to be my practice, the selections will get longer as we get close to Christmas, because we could all use more music!

This is an entire album by Chanticleer, a magnificent all-male vocal ensemble based in San Francisco. Originally founded to perform Renaissance music according to historical performance practice, the group has branched out over the years to recording other genres. But their main "bread and butter" remains their Renaissance work, and I always love listening to them. It gives me the feeling of walking through stone cathedrals on cold days and nights, illuminated by either sun streaming through stained glass windows or by candles in sconces casting too little light to keep the vaulted ceiling above me from vanishing into the shadows. It's the music of spice and incense and torchlight, of colorful robes and fine doublets and, yes, a dagger tucked into one's belt or boot.

The final track of this album, by the way, is not a Renaissance piece at all, but a composition by Franz Biebl, a twentieth century German composer who only died in 2001. While Franz Schubert's setting of the Ave Maria is undoubtedly the most famous, for me Biebl's is the more beautiful. I won't claim it's the most beautiful, since there are many settings I haven't even heard, but the one here is truly magical. I've known it ever since the Wartburg College Choir sang it as part of our annual Christmas program, back in the day.

Here is Chanticleer, performing their entire album. A Chanticleer Christmas. The days are truly growing short now, so find what light you may!

Friday, December 18, 2020

Your Daily Dose of Christmas

 Obviously I've known for years that Elvis Presley recorded a number of Christmas songs over the years, but I did not know that a bunch of his best-known ones spring from a single album called Elvis's Christmas Album, and neither did I know that not only is this album one of the best-selling albums of all time, but it is also Elvis Presley's only diamond-certified album. These are things I learned yesterday from a Facebook post by Sheila O'Malley, who gave me permission to reproduce it here, so here are her words. (If you're going to inquire as to Sheila's Elvis fandom credentials, well, to quote Captain America: "Son, just don't.")

Here's Sheila:

“ 'Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight' sounds absolutely filthy when Elvis sings it. It might be his best blues vocal ever, with those beautiful stops that nobody could do but him." -- Tom Petty
When I was writing that Eminem piece this summer I went down the rabbit hole of "diamond" albums. There are less than 100 of them IIRC and it is a fascinating and sometimes bizarre list. Adele and Kenny G. Boyz II Men right next to ZZ Top. The Titanic soundtrack! Multiple Garth Brooks albums. MC Hammer. Hootie and Def Leppard. Em's got 2 diamond albums on there - the Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show. Usher. Carole King hand in hand with Biggie. Wikipedia has the full list - I came across a very funnily written ranked list of all 92 diamond albums (92 at the time - the piece is from 2016 - I'll link it in the comments.

[AN INTERJECTION: Here's the piece Sheila mentions, summing up the diamond albums up to 2016. It's an interesting piece, especially since I had no idea some of these records were THAT huge: "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness"? Really? I do remember that album being a big deal, and I even think I own a copy, but I had zero notion that it was that big a deal. Granted, the 1990s were not a period when I was terribly up to date on pop music, but you'd think I'd have heard that that album was doing THAT well.

I also find it slightly irritating that the writer disses the film score tracks from the "Lion King" soundtrack album. "Making you sit through four Hans Zimmer instrumentals in between the two sets (of songs or Elton John tracks) is pretty low," he writes, which is exactly the kind of dismissive attitude to any kind of music other than what the reviewer prefers that I always find off-putting. It was, actually, this kind of thing that ultimately led to me canceling my ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY subscription many moons ago, but that's not especially relevant to this discussion. Back to Sheila! -Ed.]

Elvis' 1957 Christmas album is diamond-certified. It wasn't reviewed all that well at the time - but of course it sold millions and has gone on to be the best-selling Xmas album in the US as well as one of the best-selling albums - period - of all time. The album is a MONSTER. It was a monster THEN and it's a monster NOW.
In other words: on a list featuring mostly contemporary people like Britney Spears, a Christmas album from 1957 is still going strong.
The album features traditional carols, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" (the story about him calling for EP's version to be banned is ... suspect, imo.), and "Here Comes Santa Claus" and of course "Blue Christmas" - the Christmas song always associated with him, with Millie Kirkham's swoopy soprano in the background (his idea! Everyone else was like, "Uhm, are you sure you want her to do that through the whole song? It's a bit much." He loved it. He insisted. He was right. Near the end of her life, Kirkham gave an interview where she joked, “If I was gettin’ royalties, I’d be a rich old woman.”)
The B-side features religious songs like "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Silent Night". Elvis incorporated gospel in his repertoire from the jump - a bold move for someone who was going where he was going. In his 3rd and final Ed Sullivan appearance in January 1957, where Ed Sullivan shook his hand and looked right into the camera saying, "This is a fine young man" - (which almost single-handedly calmed down the fervor of controversy around him) - Elvis sang "Peace in the Valley" - meanwhile, his "Baby Let's Play House" - an ode to happily living in sin with your girlfriend - is a #1 hit - at the very same time. And his teenage fans didn't reject the gospel. "Peace in the Valley" was released as a single at first - and it went to #1. They didn't make enough albums to satisfy the demand - fans had to WAIT to get "Peace in the Valley." That was his superpower at the time. When he sang "Peace in the Valley" on the Ed Sullivan show, and he sang it straight, filled with an earnest and simple faith - it created major cognitive dissonance in the "he's an evil sexpot ruining our youth" crowd.
But the opener of the Christmas album, the first song on the album, is one of the raunchiest tracks in his entire raunchy repertoire - and that's saying something! This is the ferocious and dirty "Santa Claus is Back in Town", written by the great duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Even to modern ears the song - or, what Elvis does with it - is so over-the-top dirty it still conceivably could be seen as shocking. (There are some good covers - not too many though, because why would you put yourself in the position of competing with the original. Dwight Yoakam's is good! Totally different feel, but it SWINGS.)
The song starts with the Jordannaires quartet crooning sweetly, "Christmaaaaaas Christmaaaas Christmaasss" - there are little bells chiming behind them. Like it's going to be a sweet little sleigh ride. This is a fake-out. It's a trick. The Jordannaires say: "This is what you can expect from this song." You feel safe. You reach for the hot cocoa and settle into your armchair by the fire.
And then Elvis arrives. You've had no time to prepare for him.
The way he sings "You be a real good little girl" is not just dirty, it's debauched.
"Hang up your pretty stockings .. turn off the light ... Santa Claus is coming ... DOWN YOUR CHIMNEY TONIGHT." (See Tom Petty's comment above. You're almost embarrassed by it, but it's also so funny!)
And listen for his evil cackle during the bridge.
The fact that this is the first track ... that Elvis didn't bury it to appease the haters ... that he included this track basically alongside "Silent Night" ... represents an aspect of him that is still not wholly grasped. He LED with this. I still can't get over it.
Elvis asked you to reconcile the boy who loves Jesus with the boy who cackles like a sexy demon during the bridge of “Santa Claus is Back”. Neither was an act.
Can the culture embrace such inclusion and inclusiveness? Can the culture accept the secular and the divine, simultaneously? We are so much more comfortable when only one thing is true at one time.
Elvis says, "Both are true. And I'm not the only one who feels that way. Deal with it."

And here is the entire album, on a single YouTube video. I love a good long epic listen as much as anybody, but there is also something to be said for Elvis Presley creating this much magic in just a single 30 minute record.