In terms of cultural impact in the broadest sense, Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was one of the most important musicians of the 20th century.
Susan Sontag once quipped that every analogy is a lie, so: you have been warned. I think that Glenn Gould’s place in classical music in the mid-twentieth century is analogous to Miles Davis’ place in jazz during that same era. If people owned only one real jazz LP, it likely was Kind of Blue; and if people owned only one real classical LP, it likely was Gould’s J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations. Gould, more than any other pianist, is associated with the Goldberg Variations, to the extent that the opening measures of the “Aria” are carved on his gravestone.
Unlike most classical pianists of the time, Gould largely ignored the 19th-c. Romantic piano repertory exemplified by Chopin and Liszt, concentrating instead on Renaissance and Baroque music. Gould brought early music before the general public at a time when it was almost exclusively the province of academic specialists, or performers on period-correct instruments. In 1956, Gould’s intuitive understanding of Bach’s style of counterpoint, and his unprecedented clarity of articulation on the grand piano fell like a thunderclap, upon critics and the listening public alike. (Gould’s first Goldbergs album was recorded in 1955, but released in 1956.) Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs remain one of the best-selling non-crossover classical recordings of all time.
What Gould revered in Bach was his sense of sonic architecture. I think that the heart of Bach’s art was that Bach created ordered musical structures to reflect the nature of a God who had created an ordered cosmos that was (largely) comprehensible by the use of reason. (Yes; I know. I am painting with a brush so broad that it can’t fit into a one-gallon paint can.) Therefore, it might not come as a total surprise that in this video clip from a television interview, Gould takes Richard Strauss to task for his Romantic self-indulgence. Or, does he really?
From the Boston Symphony’s YouTube channel, here is the conclusion of the October 24, 1972 performance by Joseph Silverstein (who was then the Concertmaster of the Boston Symphony), of Edward Elgar’s Op. 61 violin concerto in B minor. The guest conductor is Colin Davis (who was knighted eight years later). By the way, at 1 minute 26 seconds, I believe I hear Colin Davis humming (or groaning) along, to bring out the big tune. (In Elgar, there’s usually a big tune.) The video runs from slightly before the (accompanied) cadenza through the end of the third, final movement.
Elgar’s violin concerto is one of the longest and most demanding violin concertos in the standard repertory. Its running time (modern recordings average circa 50 minutes) is about twice that of the most popular violin concertos (those of Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky). In addition to the demands Elgar’s concerto makes on the soloist’s endurance, his concerto presents many technical challenges. And portions of this video give an excellent birds-eye view of Silverstein’s rising to meet those violinistic demands.
Although Elgar’s rhapsodic style here, which is both discursive and intensely emotional, might take a bit of getting used to, I find that through the years, Elgar’s has always been one of my favorite violin concertos. And, as you will see as you read on past the jump link, I agree with my friend Bob Ludwig: that with Elgar, the interpretation makes the performance—this is not music that “plays itself.” Continue Reading →
James Agee (1909-1955) had a difficult and comparatively brief life. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, his life was upended at age six when his father was killed in an automobile accident. Thereafter, Agee and his younger sister Emma were sent off to various boarding schools. Agee was a member of the class of 1932 at Harvard. Upon graduation, he went to work for Time, Inc.’s magazine Fortune. In 1934, he published his only volume of poetry, Permit Me Voyage.
In 1938 Agee wrote a brief prose piece, “Knoxville, Summer of 1915” that Samuel Barber later (1948) set for soprano and orchestra. In 1938, Barber had set another Agee text, “Sure On This Shining Night,” a brief untitled poetic fragment from Permit Me Voyage. Barber’s “Shining Night” setting is solidly in the core or standard repertory, both in its solo-voice and choral versions. More recently (2005), composer Morten Lauridsen’s choral setting of “Sure On This Shining Night” has earned worldwide currency for its soulful treatment of Agee’s enigmatic, pensive, yet I think ultimately hopeful lines.
Agee later participated in the writing of two of the most famous films of the era, The African Queen and Night of the Hunter. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1958 for his autobiographical novel A Death In the Family. Agee’s reputation as a writer is usually thought to rest upon A Death In the Family and his Depression-era journal Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But it cannot be doubted that Agee was one of the most important English-language art-music lyricists of the 20th century. That is, as long as one judges by quality, and not merely quantity.
Text, commentary, and a news flash, all after the jump. Continue Reading →
Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel is scored for solo viola, solo alto voice, solo soprano voice, mixed chorus, and celesta; with percussion consisting of bass drum, chimes, gong, temple block, tenor drum, timpani, vibraphone, and wood block. Feldman (1926-1987) composed Rothko Chapel in 1971, specifically for the building of that name, in Houston, Texas, which was a gift to the public from the Ménil Foundation. The Rothko Chapel (Wiki) (Home Page) was designed to house and display 14 huge canvases the Ménil Foundation commissioned from the American Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970).
My personal opinion is that Feldman’s Rothko Chapel is one of the most magically organic pieces of modern music. But I can also easily envision the possible so-so (or negative) reactions, that the music was meant be the soundtrack to an aromatherapy session, or that the paintings are what happens when a depressive can only afford half-empty cans of house paint, in the dullest possible hues.
Both Rothko and Feldman declined to embrace the prevailing or at least most talked-about artistic trends—of self-conscious Modernism (such as Pop Art) in painting, and of 12-tone academic serialism in music. Even so, the challenging (or, numinous) nature of Rothko’s paintings and of the music they inspired does force one to confront the question whether some mid-20th-century art was only “the Emperor’s New Clothes.” More after the jump. Continue Reading →
Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma (née Schindler) had a marriage that was often troubled. Mahler started out on the wrong foot by insisting that his musically-talented (and, much younger) fiancée renounce her own ambitions to write serious music. (Alma had already composed some songs, and had worked on some instrumental music, as well as an opera sketch). Years later, a hammer-blow of fate befell Gustav and Alma with the death of their five-year old daughter Maria Anna. That shock was followed by the hammer-blow of Gustav’s diagnosis with the heart defect that eventually caused his early death.
Mahler only later discovered that, reeling from her daughter’s death (and, doubtless, also reeling from Mahler’s determination to isolate himself, so he could put on paper all the music that was within him, before it was too late), Alma had taken up romantically (and sexually) with a young architecture student named Walter Gropius.
My musically-astute friend and I had a wonderful time attending the lectures, discussion panels, recitals, and concert performances of this year’s Bard Festival. Each year, the Bard Festival focuses on one composer; this year’s model was Chopin. Of course, such a project also examines Chopin’s milieu and his formative experiences, his personal life (I learned a lot about George Sand), and his musical influences and musical contemporaries. Next year’s Festival is all about Rimsky-Korsakov and His World; it gets my highest recommendation for an in-depth, challenging, and rewarding cultural experience, all in a wonderful setting near the Hudson River.
Bard College, by the way, is where future rock band Steely Dan‘s co-founders Becker and Fagan met; I was bold enough to ask a Bard administrator where I could find the shrine to Steely Dan, and he smiled at me indulgently. By the way, a Bard-era, pre-Steely-Dan, Becker-and-Fagan group included future comedian Chevy Chase, on drums… . Continue Reading →
John Coltrane would leave for a road trip with the Quartet carrying nothing but his horn case and the Slonimsky book.
John Coltrane (1926-1967) is generally recognized as one of the most significant saxophonists in music history. However, at times I wonder whether the famous phrase applied to his playing—”Sheets of sound”—actually might lead the unwary to underestimate his talent, work ethic, and achievements. Such is the problem with music-history courses graded via multiple-choice examinations. “Coltrane???” “Oh, yeah—Sheets of sound!” A bit reductive… .
In truth, Coltrane was quite a Music Theory Nerd. He owned a copy of Nicholas Slonimsky’s fearsome Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, and had memorized much of it. (That book, first published in 1947, includes more than a thousand musical examples, the majority being not in traditional Western major or minor scales.)
The title track of Coltrane’s LP Giant Steps (recorded 1959) moves through three keys separated by major thirds… hence the giant steps. The tight structuring of this brief musical gem should dispel the impression that Coltrane was just making random noises. The animated graphical representation by Michal Levy is in its own way a great work of art, too.
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There’s not too much to say about this… the music so confidently speaks for itself.
I first became aware of John McLaughlin upon seeing and hearing his third solo album My Goal’s Beyond. Woober Joobers. I had never heard an Ovation “Roundback” guitar before; and the fact that the original LP album cover showed McLaughlin’s meditation room (and a portrait of his guru, Sri Chinmoy), intrigued me.
Years later, attending Vanderbilt Law School, at an overstock sale at the University bookstore, I bought a book of Meditations by Sri Chinmoy; and: it cut me to the quick.
Quoting from memory: Chinmoy stated that Jesus knew in advance and even predicted that Peter would deny him three times.
But: Chinmoy goes on to say, Jesus chose no one else as the Rock upon whom He would found his church. Continue Reading →
Photo Thomas Zwillinger, courtesy of Harmonia Mundi.
Joel Fredericksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich: Requiem for a Pink Moon
CD Harmonia Mundi HMC 902111 (recorded 2012)
(No high-resolution download available, apparently.)
Joel Fredericksen, bass voice and lute; Timothy Leigh Evans, tenor voice and drum; Domen Marincic, viola da gamba; Axel Wolf, theorbo and archlute; producer and engineer not credited.
Back in December, in my coverage of the Wilson Audio/MSB event at Fidelis AV in New Hampshire, I mentioned how the late-stayers were moved by the cuts I played from Joel Fredericksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich’s Elizabethan Nick Drake tribute Requiem for a Pink Moon. You could have heard a pin drop. If that album is unknown to you, here’s a brief précis:
The idea of classical bass singer Joel Frederiksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich’s putting together an early-instruments Elizabethan tribute album to Nick Drake might strike you as daft, as it did me. But, it works. It’s the real deal. There was a melancholic plaintiveness to Drake’s music that is not at all far from the Elizabethan temperament. Frederiksen of course sings both beautifully and un-selfconsciously. But what makes this recording one of the most affecting I have heard in years is that the interleaving of Elizabethan laments and parts of a Gregorian Chant Requiem Mass with Drake’s songs makes such a powerful connection to the universal human experiences of loss and grief, and not just to one particular artist or album. Buy one for yourself, and buy several to give as gifts.
I am working on reviews of new-ish recordings of Edward Elgar’s two published symphonies, so, this video of Sir Colin Davis with an unidentified orchestra playing the slow variation from the “Enigma” Variations is timely. (My guess as to the identity of the orchestra is that it is the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, judging by the façade pipes of the organ. I also deduce that the movement was played as an encore… .) I was privileged to hear Davis conduct Elgar’s masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius twice, twenty-five years apart, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There is no question that Davis was one of the most important Elgar conductors of the modern era. His live “Enigma” Variations recording with the London Symphony is available on SACD for only $14.99; the CD is $9.99. The “Enigma” Variations is one of those pieces that should be part of everyone’s cultural awareness.
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