Forbidden Music

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From the title, you’d think that a book called Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis would begin just before the rise of Hitler, but author Michael Haas takes us back much further than that. He begins in 1814 as Europe was reorganizing after the Napoleonic Wars and really gets going after the emancipation of Jews in Austria and Germany in 1867 and 1871. By giving us what is essentially the history of anti-Semitism in German classical music, Haas shows us how closely intertwined musical and political history really are.

FM

From the title, you’d think that a book called Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis would begin just before the rise of Hitler, but author Michael Haas takes us back much further than that. He begins in 1814 as Europe was reorganizing after the Napoleonic Wars and really gets going after the emancipation of Jews in Austria and Germany in 1867 and 1871. By giving us what is essentially the history of anti-Semitism in German classical music, Haas shows us how closely intertwined musical and political history really are.

Of course, Richard Wagner plays the heavy early on. The opera giant’s anti-Semitism is well known, and Haas describes Wagner’s impact not only on Jewish composers of his day, like Giacomo Meyerbeer and Ignaz Moscheles, but also on those of the 20th century.

Offsetting this was Johannes Brahms, who embraced emancipation and did what he could for rising Jewish star Gustav Mahler. No composer epitomized the fully assimilated Jewish composer more than Gustav Mahler. It was from his shadow that many young Jewish composers spent their careers escaping. These were Erich Korngold, Alexander Zemlinksy, Hans Gal, Ernst Toch, and many, many others. Indeed, the extent to which Jews dominated German music in the early 20th century is astounding…not just with composers, conductors and musicians, but with publishers, impressarios, and librettists too. They dominated the music-savvy public as well.

Contrary to stereotypes, these men were no followers of Arnold Schoenberg. They were modern yet tonal, and were keen not to indulge in the heady excesses of Romanticism. At the same time they struggled to remain sufficiently “German” and contribute to a cultural heritage they felt was theirs as much as anyone’s. Some of them were also immensely popular.

Of course, the Nazis took a cudgel to all this. It was brutal and swift. We all know what happened. Only, we don’t. Haas walks us through the messy and untold aftermath of the Holocaust and the war from a musical perspective…the desperate escapes, the grinding refugee life, the depression and the sorrow. He tells of the Theresienstadt Ghetto, the “model” concentration camp which held geniuses like Viktor Ullman and Gideon Klein before they were killed. He tells of brilliant musical minds churning out schmaltzy Hollywood scores for steady pay. He tells of great careers ruined by indifference abroad or by a postwar Europe that had no interest in reliving the past.

Not all of it was tragic. Remarkably, the composer Walter Braunfels managed somehow to avoid all of this. In 1937 he moved to a town near Switzerland called Uberlingen and stayed there completely unharmed throughout the war. He made his living as a school teacher and composed several major works there. Haas relates a quote from Braunfels explaining why he never emigrated. It is particularly telling:

…I was a stone in the dam that was keeping evil from flooding everything; but also I realized that should I decide to leave my homeland, I would be ripping out the most important roots to my own creativity.
Walter Braunfels: Yeah, I was pretty lucky.
Walter Braunfels: Yeah, I was pretty lucky.

One of these composers I have found particularly moving is Ernst Toch. I’m not one for string quartets, usually. But I found a CD of his String Quartets 12 and 15 at the incomparable Encore Records in Ann Arbor, MI. They were stirring and heart wrenching and reminded me so much of the ending of Shostakovitch’s 5th Symphony, which I love. I wish any description I could give would do them justice.

Ernst Toch: Smoking cigarettes before they were cool.
Ernst Toch: Smoking cigarettes before they were cool.
(As an aside, I love how the sense of discovery of classical music never goes away. You can study and enjoy the music for years and always have something new to discover. It’s wonderful.)

But if these composers are so brilliant, why are they virtually forgotten today? Haas offers a blunt and chilling response: because most of their public had been murdered. This is a hideous wrong he tries to set right with the excellent book Forbidden Music.

Johannes Brahms – A Mini-Biography

Brahms1

Was Johannes Brahms a musical purist carrying on the spirit of the Baroque and Classical traditions? Or was he a stodgy conservative who resisted all change in the Western musical tradition? Indeed, Brahms was “old school” back when the old school may not have been that old, but it certainly wasn’t new. He steadfastly resisted the burgeoning and sensational “Music of the Future” movement inspired by Hector Berlioz and spearheaded by such luminaries as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. By the mid-19th century, classical music was churning with changes that promised to unify the literary, visual, and musical arts. For Wagner, this meant voluptuous multi-layered operatic productions; for Liszt, symphonic poems with literary or visual art underpinnings. All this pointed to a glorious future for music, and indeed paved much of the way towards the radicalism of the Twentieth Century.

In the face of such progress, Brahms was fly in the proverbial ointment. His first symphony, completed in 1876, embodied the classical ideal so much it was praised as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. He championed Bach back when Bach’s music still wasn’t all that fashionable in Vienna. He concentrated on succeeding Schubert as a composer of lieder (German for songs), equaling Beethoven as a composer of symphonies, and composing gorgeous chamber music like no one. After the voices of Mendelssohn and Schumann fell silent in the mid-nineteenth century, Brahms was, as one critic put it, the “keeper of the classical flame.”

Brahms1 Was Johannes Brahms a musical purist carrying on the spirit of the Baroque and Classical traditions? Or was he a stodgy conservative who resisted all change in the Western musical tradition? Indeed, Brahms was “old school” back when the old school may not have been that old, but it certainly wasn’t new. He steadfastly resisted the burgeoning and sensational “Music of the Future” movement inspired by Hector Berlioz and spearheaded by such luminaries as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. By the mid-19th century, classical music was churning with changes that promised to unify the literary, visual, and musical arts. For Wagner, this meant voluptuous multi-layered operatic productions; for Liszt, symphonic poems with literary or visual art underpinnings. All this pointed to a glorious future for music, and indeed paved much of the way towards the radicalism of the Twentieth Century. In the face of such progress, Brahms was fly in the proverbial ointment. His first symphony, completed in 1876, embodied the classical ideal so much it was praised as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. He championed Bach back when Bach’s music still wasn’t all that fashionable in Vienna. He concentrated on succeeding Schubert as a composer of lieder (German for songs), equaling Beethoven as a composer of symphonies, and composing gorgeous chamber music like no one. After the voices of Mendelssohn and Schumann fell silent in the mid-nineteenth century, Brahms was, as one critic put it, the “keeper of the classical flame.” brahms2 Check out some of my Brahms favorites: The Horn Trio, The Academic Festival Overture, and of course, his Violin Concerto. And the way his Second Symphony just barrels to a close is nothing short of glorious. Brahms also produced a wealth of choral music (such as the German Requiem), and perhaps his most profitable works, the Hungarian Dances, demonstrate a deep interest in folk music. That, and he composed a classic lullaby (“lullaby, and good night…”) that rocks children to sleep even today. Brahms’ reputation as the stodgy conservative wasn’t helped at all by his famously brusque behavior. Born in 1833 to humble conditions in the waterfront city of Hamburg, Brahms never seemed to pick up the refinement and manners that one would expect from a star composer. Nor did he seem to care. He reportedly fell asleep while virtuoso Franz Liszt was giving a recital at his home. He did little to curtail his negative opinions of contemporaries such as Anton Bruckner and Peter Tchaikovsky. He was known to say offensive and acerbic things at parties, such as the time when at the home of a wine enthusiast, the host opened what he called “the Brahms of his cellar.” Brahms took a sip and reportedly muttered that host had better bring out the Beethoven. Another story involves how he tried to escape a group of female admirers by lighting up a cigar. Nearly choking on smoke, the ladies scolded Brahms about how gentlemen do not smoke in front of ladies. Brahms replied that “where there are angels there must also be clouds.” Indeed, the quintessential Brahms quote, probably apocryphal but definitely fun, was when leaving a party, he announced, “If there is anyone here I have not offended, I do apologize.” Brahms also had a passionate side, and this was famously expressed in his forty-year relationship with piano virtuoso Clara Schumann. Young and virtually unknown, Brahms fell in with Robert and Clara

Schumann in 1853 after the composer (not one for understatement) hailed him as a genius, a “Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove”. They were tremendously fond of each other, so much that young Johannes lived with the Schumanns for several months and acted as big brother to their many children.

Robert and Clara Schumann
Robert and Clara Schumann
When Robert died three years later, Brahms grew much closer with Clara, who was fourteen years his senior. There is much speculation as to whether their relationship was romantic or platonic, with most evidence (or lack thereof) pointing to a loving but platonic one. Then again, they did burn a lot of their letters, so one has to wonder. Regardless, theirs was a relationship for the ages, filled with passion and strife, and with love and music. It is speculated that this love, thwarted by an insurmountable age difference, is the reason why Brahms never married. He could never find another Clara. Clara finally died in 1896, and this set off a series of tragic accidents that made Brahms horribly late for her funeral. He received the news late, boarded the wrong train, missed his stop, backtracked and got off at the wrong city, and then spent the next forty hours without sleep correcting these mistakes. He arrived during the procession to the grave, exhausted and in tears, just in time to toss three fistfuls of dirt on her coffin. Later, he said, “Now, I have nobody left to lose.” Beyond the boorishness and this intense passion, those who knew Brahms knew him for the kind-hearted softie he really was. He lived modestly in a three room apartment and gave much of his money away to relatives or fellow musicians. He once offered his fortune to a young Antonin Dvorak and helped further the career of Gustav Mahler. He loved nature and the outdoors, and was famous for taking long walks throughout Vienna. He once claimed he could hear music in the croaking of bullfrogs!
Two of Brahms' famous beneficiaries: Dvorak and Mahler
Two of Brahms’ famous beneficiaries: Dvorak and Mahler
Brahms was also extremely humble for someone who was the toast of Vienna for practically three decades. Once at a party, when someone lifted his glass to Brahms to honor the greatest composer of all time, Brahms completed the toast by announcing, “Yes, yes, let’s all drink to Mozart’s health!” and quickly downed his glass. As rough and rude he was, Brahms was indeed a sweet, generous man. This is perhaps exemplified best when someone once asked him for an autograph. Brahms jotted down a few bars of the Beautiful Blue Danube by his dear friend Johann Strauss Jr., and beneath it wrote, “Alas, not written by…Johannes Brahms.”

Music Wars

So, I had an interesting experience today. I went to get some gas with my four year old in my backseat. And some dude was blasting rap music from his car. You could hear his speakers rattle, it was that loud. There is nothing more obnoxious than forcing your music on others at high volume. Now, normally, I would try to ignore it. But then I thought, ‘Am I just going to take this? This is my country too.’ And then I got angry. I thought, ‘You wanna play your music loud? Fine. I can do that too.’ So I opened my door and blasted WCPE the Classical Station. I set the dial to eleven and just went about my business. I couldn’t match his bass, but I took over the upper registers until I could barely hear his music at all. I’m sure no one else could either. I was a little scared because I was clearly trying to be kryptonite to his noise pollution. I was obviously sticking it to him. If the dude wanted to start something, I’d have a serious problem. Fortunately, he took the hint and turned his music off completely. I was much relieved when I turned down mine in response. Before he drove off, he looked to me and didn’t nod. Neither did I. That was the end of a very tense moment. And the music that cleared the air? Rachmaninoff’s Caprice Bohemien, Opus 12. Gonna go buy me copy just because.

So, I had an interesting experience today. I went to get some gas with my four year old in my backseat. And some dude was blasting rap music from his car. You could hear his speakers rattle, it was that loud. There is nothing more obnoxious than forcing your music on others at high volume. Now, normally, I would try to ignore it. But then I thought, Am I just going to take this? This is my country too. And then I got angry. I thought, You wanna play your music loud? Fine. I can do that too. So I opened my door and blasted WCPE the Classical Station. I set the dial to eleven and just went about my business. I couldn’t match his bass, but I took over the upper registers until I could barely hear his music at all. I’m sure no one else could either. I was a little scared because I was clearly trying to be kryptonite to his noise pollution. I was obviously sticking it to him. If the dude wanted to start something, I’d have a serious problem. Fortunately, he took the hint and turned his music off completely. I was much relieved when I turned down mine in response. Before he drove off, he looked to me and didn’t nod. Neither did I. That was the end of a very tense moment. And the music that cleared the air? Rachmaninoff's Caprice Bohemien, Opus 12. Gonna go buy me copy just because. And to clarify my position here, I would be angry if someone were blasting classical music, or any music, forcing it on others. I would be angry if it were Al Franken or Rush Limbaugh they were blasting. Doesn’t matter what; it matters how loud. I said it’s my country too because I got the impression that the dude didn’t think I had the right to enjoy my own piece of mind. I could have ignored him and scurried out of there quickly, but then I would have felt like a second class citizen, sacrificing my right to happiness to his obnoxious behavior. If it were his country and not mine, meaning if he had full rights and I only dhimmi status, then yes that’s what I would have to do or be punished. So it’s more than maintaining a soundscape, and it has nothing to do with what

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I like or don’t like. It’s about my (and everyone’s) right to have a reasonable amount of peace in a public place. That’s what the dude was intruding upon, thoughtlessly or not.

The Captive Outfielder

One of the things that kills me in literature is the joining of two antithetical ideals, usually embodied in characters sharing a strong bond such as friends, siblings or lovers. Think of the ending of the Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. After the intellectual Ivan’s apocalyptic and tragic story of the second coming of Christ, the spiritual Alyosha kisses him, just as Jesus had done to the Grand Inquisitor who intended to execute him. Two things that shouldn’t be close, but have to be.

Okay, so this pertains, not coincidentally, to one of my favorite short stories, a story that happens to involve classical music. The Captive Outfielder, written by Leonard Wibberly, was first published by the Saturday Evening Post on March 25th, 1961. You can read it here. One of Wibberly’s biggest claims to fame was his 1959 satirical Cold War novel, The Mouse That Roared, which was later made into a film comedy starring Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, and Peter Sellers.

So, in The Captive Outfielder, a boy is taking violin lessons when he’d rather be playing baseball–or, really, he’d rather be failing at baseball than at the violin, since he’s getting nowhere with either but is at least less awful at baseball. And his teacher being old and from Eastern Europe isn’t making things any easier. You see, the old man understands nothing about American culture, and therefore knows nothing about the boy.

One of the things that kills me in literature is the joining of two antithetical ideals, usually embodied in characters sharing a strong bond such as friends, siblings or lovers. Think of the ending of the Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. After the intellectual Ivan’s apocalyptic and tragic story of the second coming of Christ, the spiritual Alyosha kisses him, just as Jesus had done to the Grand Inquisitor who intended to execute him. Two things that shouldn’t be close, but have to be.

Okay, so this pertains, not coincidentally, to one of my favorite short stories, a story that happens to involve classical music. The Captive Outfielder, written by Leonard Wibberly, was first published by the Saturday Evening Post on March 25th, 1961. You can read it here. One of Wibberly’s biggest claims to fame was his 1959 satirical Cold War novel, The Mouse That Roared, which was later made into a film comedy starring Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, and Peter Sellers.

So, in The Captive Outfielder, a boy is taking violin lessons when he’d rather be playing baseball–or, really, he’d rather be failing at baseball than at the violin, since he’s getting nowhere with either but is at least less awful at baseball. And his teacher being old and from Eastern Europe isn’t making things any easier. You see, the old man understands nothing about American culture, and therefore knows nothing about the boy.

All this teacher has are these portraits of dead composers like Johann Sebastian Bach glowering at the boy like they’ll flog him if he keeps making mistakes. And the old man keeps talking about time. Time! What’s so important about the stupid time anyway? It’s not like time is going to help him hit the baseball in the big game this weekend. Let’s try this a different way. A violin teacher who witnessed countless tragedies as he escaped from Russia after the Revolution, an old man who’s impoverished family gave everything they had for him to study music as boy, a teacher who knows the meaning and beauty of music in the face of horrible privations is now stuck trying to figure out why this vapid American youth can’t tell the difference between a quarter note and five-sixteenths. He even transposed the boy’s homework from A major to C major to make it easier for him. He loves the boy.

The boy is a good boy with a good ear. The teacher is left asking dear Johann Sebastian hanging on the wall how he, an grizzled old foreigner, can get this fresh-faced American kid to experience the wonder of music. Two people who don’t belong together, yet have to. From this central conflict, the story produces one of the most wonderful resolutions I have ever read. Truly, it is magical. Just a few pages, and you experience the intersection of old and new, youth and adulthood, and music and (believe it or not) baseball. Through baseball, the boy finds his moment of clarity, the very moment after which his appreciation of music will never be the same. My appreciation of short fiction was never the same after reading this wonderful story.

An Equal Music

One of the most fascinating novels about classical music I have ever read is Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, published in 1999. It’s a love story featuring classical musicians (of course). It’s a case of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl and prefers to raise his love to the point of cruelty rather than lose her again despite the fact that she’s married and has a young son. Amid the story, there’s a lot of passion, a lot of sex, a lot of picturesque European scenery, lots of deep, dark secrets, and of course, lots and lots of music.

Could you imagine a love story between classical musicians being any other way?

One of the most fascinating novels about classical music I have ever read is Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, published in 1999. It’s a love story featuring classical musicians (of course). It’s a case of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl and prefers to raise his love to the point of cruelty rather than lose her again despite the fact that she’s married and has a young son. Amid the story, there’s a lot of passion, a lot of sex, a lot of picturesque European scenery, lots of deep, dark

secrets, and of course, lots and lots of music. Could you imagine a love story between classical musicians being any other way? And before you condemn the novel for a plot which seems rather generic, try boiling Shakespearean plays down to brass tacks and see how interesting they become. One truth is that other authors had attempted to dramatize The Merchant of Venice since the basic story had been floating around Europe for years before Shakespeare came around. The bigger truth is that no one did the story better than Shakespeare. There are two things that raise An Equal Music above similar novels. One can only be described as class. Whole courses can be dedicated to this idea and pretty much get nowhere. What is class? My opinion: two or more characters who: are believable because they are like us, are surprising because they are truly individuals and therefore NOT like us, undergo meaningful change, and live in the same world we live in. Note that these characters don’t always have to be likable. For example, who actually likes Humbert Humbert? Heck, Gollum was my favorite character in the Lord of the Rings, and I found him loathsome. Anyway, Seth finds his class when he puts his characters nicely in our comfort zone and then slowly breaks them out of it when we slowly realize what they are capable of. Passion, you see, can take us places we don’t always want to go. The second thing that makes An Equal Music such a prodigious novel is the music. Of course, getting it third hand from me wouldn’t be very useful. If writing about music is considered futile by many, then what about writing about writing about music? At some point, it gets a little, erm, self-referential, if you know what I mean. Suffice to say Seth’s descriptions of the music and the people playing it reach moments of breathtaking clarity. Indeed, I have not read anything approaching them. It is enough to make one fall in love with the music again. This alone is almost enough for me to forgive Seth for his total cop out of an ending. The story basically stops rather than concludes. It seems that the art of plotting was lost on Seth. Either that or his editor insisted he keep his tome within a certain word count and something had to go. Still. An Equal Music. Wow. And it’s even accompanied by a double CD of classical music from the story. Now there’s a marketing idea. The author selected the pieces himself, several of which were specially recorded for the occasion of this CD. One piece, Beethoven’s String Quartet in C minor opus 104, had never been recorded before. It has since been recorded a half dozen times. And like the novel, the music of An Equal Music is gorgeous.

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn transcends music in a way no other composer does. In addition to being firmly ensconced in the canon of great composers, Mendelssohn must also be regarded as an important figure in political history and in the history of ideas.

Felix was a Jew. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, who was a noted philosopher and disciple of Leibniz, promoted the humanistic idea that Jews can assimilate into Western culture and still maintain their identities. Ideas such as this led to the great Jewish Emancipation of Europe and helped establish 19th century Germany as the world leader in the arts and sciences.

By converting to Christianity and spending much of his career championing Christian music, Felix Mendelssohn embodied his grandfather’s ideas of assimilation and emancipation. This led the famous German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine to quip, “the most Jewish thing Felix Mendelssohn ever did was to become a Christian.”

Felix Mendelssohn transcends music in a way no other composer does. In addition to being firmly ensconced in the canon of great composers, nurse Mendelssohn must also be regarded as an important figure in political history and in the history of ideas.

Felix was a Jew. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, who was a noted philosopher and disciple of Leibniz, promoted the humanistic idea that Jews can assimilate into Western culture and still maintain their identities. Ideas such as this led to the great Jewish Emancipation of Europe and helped establish 19th century Germany as the world leader in the arts and sciences.

By converting to Christianity and spending much of his career championing Christian music, Felix Mendelssohn embodied his grandfather’s ideas of assimilation and emancipation. This led the famous German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine to quip, “the most Jewish thing Felix Mendelssohn ever did was to become a Christian.”

Born in 1809 to a family that was as prosperous as it was cultured and respected, young Felix displayed astoundingly prodigious musical talent. He gave his first piano concert when he was nine. At twelve he dazzled the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who compared him favorably to a young Mozart in terms of his ability to sight-read and improvise on the piano. Goethe was speaking from experience. Old as he was in 1821, he had witnessed young Mozart play in 1763!

Mendelssohn had always admired the choral music and texts of Johann Sebastian Bach. Such music was hardly fashionable in the early years of the Romantic era, when enlightened Germans looked down upon such unabashed religiosity, and when leading composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner were focusing on rebelling against classical traditions. Nonetheless, in 1829, when he was a mere twenty years old, Mendelssohn arranged and conducted Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. It was a tremendous success, and the young composer was credited for almost single-handedly reviving Bach’s music in Germany. Significantly, 1829 marked not only the 100th anniversary of St. Matthew’s Passion but also the 100th anniversary of the birth of Moses Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn took new inspiration from traditional forms of music. He wrote many works for the church, such as his Elijah Oratorio, which were instantly popular and grew to be cherished in Germany and beyond. His Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture recalled the majestic sweep of Beethoven’s Leonoren Overtures. And the choral Lobgesang, his second symphony, took up where Beethoven’s Ninth left off in merging the classic symphony with the spiritual cantata.

With the symphonic poem, however, Mendelssohn was at his most Romantic and in many cases a step ahead of his contemporaries. The famous conductor Hans von Bulow once stated that Mendelssohn’s symphonic poem Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage “would live when other symphonic poems had ceased to be played.” And this came from the son in-law of Franz Liszt who coined the term “symphonic poem” and did the most to popularize the form. Around the time of his primeval and terrifying Walpurgis Night cantata in the early 1830s, he began calling himself “Richard Wagner’s elder brother.” Indeed, his elemental Hebrides Overture, a work that captures the raw violence and beauty of the sea, is considered a Wagernian work before Wagner!

What can never be forgotten about Felix Mendelssohn was how he was almost deliberately forgotten nearly a century after his death. The Nazis struggled to efface this towering and much beloved figure from the very core of the German psyche. They could not prevent Germans from singing the songs they loved, but they could suppress the name of the Jew who wrote them. They could not pull him off the small stage where he shared a place with the other great German composers of the past, but they could pull down the statue of Mendelssohn that stood in Leipzig. That these cruel and clumsy efforts came frighteningly close to success can drag one either into the depths of cynicism regarding man’s inherent selfishness and ingratitude or into euphoric heights regarding the victory of Truth over oppression.

As the saying goes, all roads lead to Rome. But in the case of the rather stormy and contentious Romantic period of classical music, all roads seemed to stem from Felix Mendelssohn. Chopin may have disregarded Schumann. Schumann may have railed against Wagner. Wagner may have stood apart from Brahms. Brahms may have condemned Liszt. But to a man, they all revered and took inspiration from Felix Mendelssohn. His dear friend Robert Schumann was said to have begun dying the day Mendelssohn passed away tragically in 1847 at the age of thirty-eight. Upon hearing Mendelssohn himself play his gorgeous Songs Without Words, with its adroit and mesmerizing variations simple themes, Robert’s wife Clara Schumann called him “the dearest pianist of all.” And why? Throughout his charmed but short life, he was brilliant, kind, generous, honest, erudite. But most of all, he wrote beautiful music.

Romance on Three Legs (More on Glenn Gould)

In my previous post, I criticized the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould for being (among other things) not the best starting point for people who would like to begin appreciating the music of Glenn Gould. A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, by Katie Hafner, on the other hand, definitely is.

What a thrillingly odd biography this was! Instead of having one principal, as in most biographies, A Romance on Three Legs has three: Glenn Gould, the quirky piano genius from Toronto, Verne Edquist, his meticulous near-blind piano tuner, and his beloved Steinway concert grand, CD 318.

In my previous post, order I criticized the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould for being (among other things) not the best starting point for people who would like to begin appreciating the music of Glenn Gould. A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, sovaldi sale by Katie Hafner, on the other hand, definitely is.

What a thrillingly odd biography this was! Instead of having one principal, as in most biographies, A Romance on Three Legs has three: Glenn Gould, the quirky piano genius from Toronto, Verne Edquist, his meticulous near-blind piano tuner, and his beloved Steinway concert grand, CD 318.

To a classical concert pianist, pianos are much more than meets the ear. Apparently, this brand of genius can hear things, feel things, that are little more than dog whistles to the rest of us. Gould had a peculiarly light touch, which suited the baroque music he loved to play. He had unique demands for his pianos and gave Steinway technicians fits trying to meet them. He spent his entire career in search of the perfect piano.

As much a contemporary history as a biography, Romance on Three Legs, tells us much we already know about Glenn Gould, his brilliance and sweetness and sensitivity as well as his hypochondria, his phobias, and his strange strange habits. Author Katie Hafner dutifully describes his youth and early successes, including the splash he made with his mid-1950’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She covers his disdain for public performances and fascination with studio recording. She also includes his notoriously less-than-positive opinions of other classical composers and musicians (he once dismissed Vladimir Horowitz as a faker).

What is new however is the lengths to which Hefner goes to describe the inner workings of the piano and the arcane art of piano tuning. What's the best wood to use for a piano’s soundboard? What exactly is “bellying”? What does a piano “voicer” do? What are hammers, dampers, and jacks, and just how complex is a piano’s action, anyway? Indeed, this book teaches us almost as much about the piano as it does about Gould himself.

Hafner also treats us to a brief history of the Steinway company as well as to a lucid biography of Verne Edquist. She chronicles his riveting journey from sight-deprived lad on a desolate Saskatchewan farm, to door-to-door piano tuner in Toronto, to Canada’s top piano technician. His two decade-long collaboration with Gould resembled master mechanic to star auto racer. Behind the scenes, he was there for most of Gould’s recording sessions, making sure that old CD 318 never went out of tune. They were even competitive about it, seeing who can spot an out-of-tune-note first. Their conversations often revolved around how to tinker with CD 318 until its hammers traveled the right distance, until it achieved “an immediate bite” or sufficient “contrapuntal control”.

Gould was utterly reliant upon Edquist, who was finely attuned to Gould’s peculiar, and some would say mystical, needs. This relationship intensified after the fateful drop the piano suffered at the hands of negligent piano movers in the early 1970s. Like stubborn lovers in a doomed relationship, Gould would not give up on CD 318. He and Edquist toiled through endless tunings, tweaks, and desperate contrivances to salvage the damaged instrument and restore it to its former glory.

Hafner, of course, discusses Gould’s premature death at 50 in 1982, as well as the man’s legacy in music. She provides the obligatory where-are-they-nows of the major players in this odd little history, and gives due mention of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, a biopic as quirky as its subject matter.

And what of CD 318? It was sold to the National Library of Canada in Ottawa. And when other concert pianists play it, sometimes they swear they can feel, in that intuitive–some would say mystical–way that pianists have, the old instrument pining for its beloved master.

2 Reviews of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould

In 1993, when I was in my mid-twenties I reviewed the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould by French Canadian director Francois Girard. In short, I hated it. I had never heard of classical pianist Glenn Gould and at that point only listened to classical music when forced to in public. I found the film disjointed, artsy-fartsy and smug. It was offensive, actually, in that it required its audience not just to be familiar with Gould but to harbor a kind of love or awe of him. Ahead to time. Like, before you entered the movie theater. And if you lacked this prerequisite, well, I’m sorry then, but you’re just not qualified to appreciate this film.

The punk rock fan in me bucked hard, and I wrote a suitably obnoxious piece in which I basically put the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane on the same artistic level as Bach (whom Gould most famously interpreted) and then proceeded to bash Girard for his cultural elitism.

Like I said, I was in my mid-twenties.

In 1993, when I was in my mid-twenties, I reviewed the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould by French-Canadian director Francois Girard. In short, I hated it. I had never heard of classical pianist Glenn Gould and at that point only listened to classical music when forced to in public. I found the film disjointed, artsy-fartsy and smug. It was offensive, actually, in that it required its audience not just to be familiar with Gould but to harbor a kind of love or awe of him. Ahead to time. Like, before you entered the movie theater. And if you lacked this prerequisite, well, I'm sorry then, but you're just not qualified to appreciate this film. The punk rock fan in me bucked hard, and I wrote a suitably obnoxious piece in which I basically put the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane on the same artistic level as Bach (whom Gould most famously interpreted) and then proceeded to bash Girard for his cultural elitism. Like I said, I was in my mid-twenties. I was a film critic for the Chapel Hill News in Chapel Hill, NC from 1992 to 2000, and never did any of my reviews produce hate mail except for this one. The letter came to me on paper via the post since this was before most of us had email. In it a man suggested that I show some humility and not so casually smack around names like Glenn Gould and Johann Sebastian Bach. These men were geniuses who have made permanent contributions to Western Civilization and who the bleep are you and what the bleep have you done to put yourself on the same level as them? Fortunately, the missive wasn't longer than a paragraph. It seemed the writer took as much joy in writing the letter as he did in reading my review. Well, I was flattered that someone had taken me seriously enough to actually write me a letter, but I was also dismayed and fearful. The guy certainly wasn't wrong. On the other hand, in my review I was demonstrating the same kind of snooty holier-than-thou attitude that the director did when he made the film? See? Get it? You didn't like my review? Well, join the club. I felt the same way about 32 Short Films. There. See? And some people accuse me of not being subtle. Still, this didn't make the man's points any less valid.

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It took courage for me to write what I did. But courage born from arrogance and ignorance usually isn't anything much more than stupid. Hence my dismay and fear. Well, nearly twenty years later, I guess I'm a different guy. I love classical music and write about it for WCPE the Classical Station. I've also gotten into Bach quite a bit in the last few years. And no, I am not qualified to talk about Bach except for the emotional impact some of his music has on me. A lot of Bach is still beyond me, and I don't know if I will live long enough to be able to appreciate everything he's ever done. I've also purchased a few of Glenn Gould's recordings and really like them. Why? I don't know. How does Gould compare to other Bach interpreters on the piano? Couldn't tell you. All I can tell you is that I like his French Suites and I really really like his Goldberg Variations. Beyond that anything I could say would just be subjective ramblings no better or worse than anyone else's. So, I've always wanted to take another crack at 32 Short Films. I'm grown up now. I've finally got the blare of punk rock out of my brain and can view this film in a more detached manner and from a more informed perspective. So here you go…my second review of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. And guess what? The film is just as dull and pretentious now as it was in 1993. I had it right all along! I stand by my original review, proudly. Well, okay, maybe putting the Velvets and Coltrane on the same level as Bach was a little foolish, and maybe I'd shy away from some of the raw attitude in the original review. But I am proud that the 24 year-old version of me, penniless, uncultured cretin that I was, was able to see this film for the ill-conceived art house experiment that it is. 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould is essentially a smart movie for smart people who like to congratulate themselves for being so smart. Keep in mind, this is not a knock on Gould or Bach. Nor is it a knock on Colm Feore who does a convincing job of playing Gould. It's a knock on the film and the director who made it and co-wrote it. So where was I? Oh, right. Smug. Note how people in the film appear in interviews without subtitles explaining who they are or their relation to Gould. This really would have helped the audience appreciate the relevancy of the interviews, but I guess Girard couldn’t be bothered. We're supposed to know ahead of time who these people are. And if you don't know them, too bad. Notice also how one of these subjects refers to something called 318. This was Gould's beloved piano, a pretty darn important part of Gould's artistic life. But film doesn't tell you this. You have to infer it because an earlier short film called “CD318” shows the inner workings of a piano as it plays. Actually a double inference is required of the uninitiated: You have to know ahead of time that “CD318” was the, er, name of Gould's piano. And you have to know that the “318” this one interviewee keeps mentioning indeed refers to this piano. Of course, Girard could have told us this without requiring us to jump through hoops, but, then again, he wouldn't want to dumb down his precious movie for the sake of the unwashed masses, now would he? See what I mean by smug? Also, many of Girard's pieces are have a point to them. In other words, he wants to tell us things about Gould through cinema, and often cheap cinema at that. Take the piece “Truck Stop”. Gould drives up, sits down, and orders breakfast. Pop music on the radio, people chit chatting about this and that. Normally, our ears would filter most of this out or relegate it as background noise and not pay attention. But not Gould. He has super ears, you see. He hears one conversation loudly and excludes all the others. Then he hears another even louder and over the first. Then another and another and another, until the whole truck stop is a cacophony of conversation. You see what Girard is doing here, don't you? He's telling us that Glenn Gould had really sensitive ears. That was the point of the short film. I figured that out after thirty seconds, but had to put up with the babble of people who had nothing to do with Glenn Gould for the rest of the piece. See what I mean by dull? Another 'point piece' by Girad is “Pills”. All you get is close ups of certain drugs while Gould rattles off effects and side effects of these drugs in voice over. I'm sorry, this is interesting how? Well, Glenn Gould self-medicated and took a lot of needless drugs which may have led to his untimely and tragic demise, don't you see. Oh. Ohhhhh! Boy, I felt like an idiot when I learned that after the fact in 1993. Of course, Girard could have saved me the hassle (and the discomfiture) and made this clear in his film, but I just guess he didn't think people like me were worth it. Next, there is the experimental aspect of the film. And by 'experimental' I mean the kind of dreck you would find in a really bad student film festival. And 'student' I mean attempts at high art that sink directly into tedium. Take “Variation in C Minor”. It's a visualization of a sound reel as Gould's music plays. Just abstract white globs pulsating on a black background in time to piano music. Does anyone else besides me see this as a cheap gimmick? That, and the novelty wears off pretty quickly. Take also “Diary of One Day”. An x-ray video of a man playing piano interspersed with mathematic equations. A baffling piece if there ever was one. Then there's “Practice” in which Gould whines about being on the road and then imagines that he playing the piano. Girard tracks the camera in circles around Gould as he plays air piano in…what? his apartment? a motel? a studio? I can't tell. He does this in “Passion According to Gould” as well. And to a lesser extent in “Opus 1” in which a camera tracks circles around a string quartet as they play an early piece by composed by Glenn Gould. Who the musicians are Girard does not deign to say until the credits roll. With these pieces Girard is gambling that since the subject matter is Glenn Gould and since the music is classical these pieces will be interesting. He loses his gamble. Music, diagetic or not, loses something when heard on film, I don't care how great it is. Unless it is a concert film, the music becomes supportive to the images. It becomes secondary. Take music videos, for example. In all cases, they are heavily edited and filled with striking images. If not, they better have something real clever or serve up to the viewer. Rarely, do you see musicians just playing with only handful of edits. Great music and a famous subject will not rescue boring visuals. And as a little thought experiment, just to test my theory here, suppose in “Practice” it were my Aunt Millie prancing around her apartment caught in a sublime Bach-inspired epiphany and not Glenn Gould. Would anybody care? There are 32 films here, so Girard does get it right some of the time. I love “The Tip”. This is the only piece that contains a beginning, middle, and end and something approaching a plot. Apparently, Gould was almost as good at playing the stock market as was playing the piano. So here you have Gould getting a tip from a Middle Eastern Sheik's bodyguard about a little-known oil company known as Sotex. Gould sells all his other oil stock in the middle of boom and doubles down on Sotex. His broker thinks he's crazy, but eats his words after a disastrous week when Gould is the only one of his clients who makes money. The piece employs irony, humor, and suspense all in appropriate doses. The performances are charming as well. Other pieces do fine. “Personal Ad” has Gould, dwarfed by hulking stacks of books, composing the ultimate personal ad, an alliterative catalog of geeky character traits he looks for in a woman (“Tristanesque trip taking and permanent flame fluttering”) only to keep mum when he calls the newspaper on the phone. “Gould Meets McClaren” is a nice bit of abstract animation, if you like that kind of thing. “Gould Meets Gould” pits pianist against pianist as they debate Gould's views on art and the artist. Gould famously quit performing by the 1960s, opting to direct his creative energies thereafter in the recording studio. The piece, fittingly I guess, ends in mid-thought. “Leaving” achieves poignancy in dealing with Gould's death. I guess my major problem with 32 Short Films, aside from pieces I didn't like outnumbering the ones I did like 3 to 1, is that it provides a poor starting point from which a person can begin to appreciate Glenn Gould. Of course, if you already love Gould, you'll probably love this film. If you already have any affection towards him, then this film will likely match that affection. The film is as quirky and unpredictable as its subject matter. And that indeed is something. But what is more than just something is the millions of people who are ready to appreciate Glenn Gould, but will be put off by the unabashed elitism of this film. And that's too bad, because in the years between my first review and this one, I finally did experience and appreciate the greatness of Glenn Gould. I can only imagine how my life could have been broadened had this happened when it should have happened, the day I first sat down to review 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.

Marrying Mozart

One of the sweetest classical music-related stories you can find is Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell. Published in 2004, it chronicles Mozart’s relationship with the sisters Weber in Mannheim and Vienna. If there is anything inside of you that can fall for a good love story, then reading this novel will make you fall, and then get up, and then fall again.

One of the sweetest classical music-related stories you can find is Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell. Published in 2004, ask it chronicles Mozart's relationship with the sisters Weber in Mannheim and Vienna. If there is anything inside of you that can fall for a good love story, physician then reading this novel will make you fall, and then get up, and then fall again.

Drawing carefully on historical figures, Cowell treats us with distinct, believable characters, and always treads that thin line of objectivity. Mozart is sweet, but impulsive and self-absorbed (of course). Guided by his financially careful mother, the 21 year old genius meets the Weber girls (Josefa, Aloysia, Constanze, and Sophie — all under 20) in Mannheim, and over time falls in love with more than one of them. And they all fall for him, in their own peculiar ways and for their own peculiar reasons. Of course, the nominal villain is their pathologically shrewd mother. She has big, if outlandish, marriage plans for all her daughters and can't bear that they waste their time on a penniless musician. And so it goes.

Some readers might get turned off by all the tears and melodrama. Hearts ache, hearts break (oh boy, do they). Such drama is treated with the utmost respect by Cowell. There is no irony. Nothing to laugh at. But we must remember that this story, which takes place over four or five years, is essentially about the Weber sisters in their teens, and what are teenage girls but susceptible to melodrama? (Mozart himself plays the crucial, if supporting role, and his marriage to one of the sisters is almost like a Maguffin — it takes place on the penultimate page of the book). Further it is a great love story, told once by history, and retold nicely by Cowell, with just enough detail in the candle wax and cobble stones and cold coffee served next to lemonade stands closed for the winter to bring us back to a young girl's 18th Century Europe. But not enough to overtake the story or to deprive us of those breathless moments when the characters she has asked us to invest our time in catch glimpses of true love. You see, their loves become ours. Like I said, sweet.

This however brings me to a confession. One reason for the wonderful sense of discovery I felt while reading this novel was my complete ignorance of Mozart's love life. I had no idea which sister he would marry. So Marrying Mozart became quite a pager turner for me. But I do wonder how I would have reacted to the novel had I known.

Probably the same. It's a sweet story. Such things occur often enough in life. And once in a while an author hunkers down and gets it right. And we're all the richer for it.

Handel vs. Hendel

I guess it can’t be helped, but classical music people really take this music seriously, don’t they? Not that they shouldn’t, of course. But how serious is too serious? Take pronunciation, or, really, the perils of mispronunciation. If you want to come across like you know something, like you are a true classical music connoisseur, it’s not enough to buy the recordings and attend the concerts. You must pronounce the names correctly as well. And that entails understanding pronunciations in, like, eight European languages, and a few east Asian ones as well. Because little in the classical world is phonetic, and spelling is not your friend. The pianist Lang Lang? No, no, that’s Long Long to you and me. Charles DuToit? Well, no, silly, his first name is “Sharl”. And how the heck am I supposed to pronounce the name “Chailly”, anyway?

I guess it can't be helped, but classical music people really take this music seriously, don't they? Not that they shouldn't, of course. But how serious is too serious? Take pronunciation, or, really, the perils of mispronunciation. If you want to come across like you know something, like you are a true classical music connoisseur, it's not enough to buy the recordings and attend the concerts. You must pronounce the names correctly as well. And that entails understanding pronunciations in, like, eight European languages, and a few east Asian ones as well. Because little in the classical world is phonetic, and spelling is not your friend. The pianist Lang Lang? No, no, that's Long Long to you and me. Charles DuToit? Well, no, silly, his first name is “Sharl”. And how the heck am I supposed to pronounce the name “Chailly”, anyway?

I know you absorb this stuff well enough once you listen regularly to classical music radio like WCPE the Classical Station. And frankly, the way some of our announcers negotiate through tongue twisting, diphthong-laden, consonant-infested names from Eastern Europe or Japan is quite amazing. . In fact there are books and websites dedicated to correct classical music pronunciation. Included are geographic and music terms as well as names. You see, you gotta know it all. And I have heard about irate listeners calling up our innocent announcers and berating them for some minor infraction of this pronunciation etiquette. And we're not talking about something obvious like pronouncing Wagner with a W or sounding Mr. Vaughan Williams' first name like it is so clearly spelled. No, I'm talking about getting a minor 18th century German composer's third umlaut wrong because he really was Dutch, and moved to Vienna from Versailles only after he was 14.

Such times make reading names like “Leonard Slatkin” feel like I'm coming home.

Now, I can understand why classical music announcers must get the names at least somewhat right, at least on prime time. Otherwise it could be embarrassing. Calling Georg Friedrich either “Hahndel” or “Hendel” should be fine, whereas “Handle” might be going too far. Going all phonetic on Mozart and Beethoven? Definitely. After all, the classical music crowd is an educated bunch, right?

But at some point it gets too much. Remember when, in the Prince of Tides, Barbara Streisand's husband (played by Jeroen Krabbe — pronounce that, why don't you!) corrects poor, innocent Nick Nolte's mispronunciation of a classical music piece? This is why we hated him. He was a snob. Nolte was a high school football coach. A regular guy. You can't expect him to pronounce everything correctly, could you? Frankly, most of us do associate more with the regular guy who enjoys the occasional sonata and may want to learn more rather than with the classical music uberbrain who knows everything.

The way I see it, classical music people really can't afford to be too snobby these days. We want to attract as many people as possible to the music. If we are going to do this then we should be thrilled when anyone coming to this music likes it. We can worry about the pronunciation later, if ever. Scholars and conductors should know the pronunciations of course. As for the pros, like the announcers here at WCPE, well, if they're in the ballpark that should be good enough. I'll bet that at one point Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wouldn't have minded people pronouncing his name “Marie Antoinette” if it meant getting more lucrative opera commissions. Cash is always greener, you see.

One final point. I think, as an American, that much of this has to do with the exotic and historic nature of so many of these names. Most of these people we're dealing with here are either dead or come from foreign lands and cultures. It is natural to give such names the respect of their native pronunciations. But with American composers, I'm much less reverential. So it's not “Leonard Bernshtine” to me. No no. It's “Lenny Bernsteen”. He's American, like me. I can afford to be familiar. Plus, there is something about America that has always been less pretentious than our European counterparts. Calling him Bernshtine is turning a nice Jewish boy from New England into a hoity-toity European muckity muck. I much prefer the former.

It reminds me a of a story about how playwright Arthur Miller ran into an Old School Chum on the street. The man kept calling Miller “Artie” like he did as a kid. I imagine the dialogue went something like this:

OSC: Artie! Remember me from third grade? Good to see ya! Whatta ya doin' these days, Artie?

AM: Well, I'm a playright, you see.

OSC: Hey, that's great! Anything I've heard of? Huh?

AM: Well, there's Death of a Salesman, The Crucible

At this point, Miller's old friend realizes his mistake and says, “You're Arthur Miller!”

That's my name, Miller must have thought. Don't wear it out!

TRIO

In the afterward of TRIO, his sprawling two-volume novel about the Schumanns and Brahms, author Boman Desai describes his work as a “dramatized biography.” He goes on to say that “TRIO is a biography for people who hate biographies…and a novel for people who hate novels.”

This is pithy and clever, but only half right. It’s a work for people who love novels and biographies too. And it doesn’t hurt if you love the Schumanns and Brahms as well.

The beauty of this however is that TRIO is a great way for people to grow to love the Schumanns and Brahms. Maybe even better than the music itself. It’s got plot, music, politics, warfare. It’s got great characters (including Liszt, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Chopin). Without knowing anything about classical music, there’s enough here to draw you in. Or, if you already love the music and know a thing or two about the principals, TRIO is so well-researched, so all-encompassing, so daring, and so deftly written that you will be pleased to read about what you do know, and your curiosity will be stoked about what you don’t.

In the afterward of TRIO, generic his sprawling two-volume novel about the Schumanns and Brahms, pills author Boman Desai describes his work as a “dramatized biography.” He goes on to say that “TRIO is a biography for people who hate biographies…and a novel for people who hate novels.”

This is pithy and clever, but only half right. It's a work for people who love novels and biographies too. And it doesn't hurt if you love the Schumanns and Brahms as well.

The beauty of this however is that TRIO is a great way for people to grow to love the Schumanns and Brahms. Maybe even better than the music itself. It's got plot, music, politics, warfare. It's got great characters (including Liszt, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Chopin). Without knowing anything about classical music, there's enough here to draw you in. Or, if you already love the music and know a thing or two about the principals, TRIO is so well-researched, so all-encompassing, so daring, and so deftly written that you will be pleased to read about what you do know, and your curiosity will be stoked about what you don’t.

Starting with Clara Wieck as a 9 year-old traveling piano prodigy, Volume One takes us into the life of music at the dawn of the Romantic Period. It's 1828. Robert Schumann is young and passionate but undisciplined. Still unsure of his future (will he be a lawyer or a writer?) he finds himself falling for a maturing Clara and struggling with the notion that his child-bride might earn more money than he. Desai also shows exactly how ferocious Clara's father Friedrich was in opposing his daughter's marriage to Schumann. The couple's ultimate victory is sweet indeed.
As the plot progresses, Desai offers glimpses of the prevailing musical attitudes of the day. Here is a telling passage, taking place at a soiree:

An Italian sang next with the clearest tone accompanied by Kalkbrenner on the piano, but cluttered her songs with the trills and scales and cadenzas and ritardandos Italians found so salubrious and Germans so painful.

Another line that I have to repeat comes from Robert speaking his mind to Friedrich Wieck:

“If we do not make distinctions between the virtuous in music and mere virtuosity, we do not make strides, except backward. Might as well play the pianoforte with your feet. It is not easy, but neither will it make you an artist.”

This is very good. But did Schumann actually say it when he did in TIO? Probably not. But maybe he said something similar. Desai often feeds lines from letters and diaries into his character's mouths during dialog in order to convey the feeling of the character, the time, and the action. One cannot recreate history as it happened, of course, but Desai's technique is the next best thing. These were the thoughts that were running through Schumann's head during this time in his life, and Desai paraphrased them nicely in dialog.

Other composers appear either as part of the central plot or in interpolative chapters. Mendelssohn, brilliant and graceful, makes his benign presence felt, perhaps most poignantly when he meets a young Queen Victoria. Liszt, resplendent in his Mephistophelean glory, comes across equally as cunning schemer and genuine nice guy. Wagner, on the other hand, is well-nigh evil, the villain one loves to hate.

My favorite passage featuring Mendelssohn occurs when he is forced to listen to Clara play one of Robert's sonatas on the piano during a party. Despite both being in their early-to-mid-20s, Mendelssohn was already an established musician (having been a famous child prodigy). Robert on the other hand was still known mostly as a critic, and an impoverished one at that. He was still developing as a composer, and his most well known works were considered pretty and lightweight. Mendelssohn settled down for what he expected to be “a pleasant few minutes”. What he got however was this:

The sonata started as he might have expected, a motif of two notes, now rising, now falling, now maintaining the level of its pitch, played successively over a rumbling harmonic bass, but in a few moments it became evident that the motif in its various guises was only a prelude, and the first movement proper began with a muscular theme, a masculine theme, a gallop in concert, cavalry in triplets, far more satisfactory than anything he had heard yet by Robert, which developed generously and unpredictably. Found himself sitting up, listening intently.

Mendelssohn asked to hear a movement from that piece a second time. I doubt Robert came down from the clouds in over a week.

Robert and Clara's story, of course, does not end well. Robert's mental health was never very stable, and after trying to end his life in the Rhine, he spent the last two years of his life in an insane asylum. But Desai does not focus simply on Robert's harrowing descent into madness, but also on Clara's difficulties raising a houseful of children without a husband. Despite this, Desai shows just how steadfast her love for Robert had always been, even in the worst of times. She was his wife and champion and a very strong lady in her own right. Included is the magnificent scene in which she marched alone through a war zone to return her children to safety.

Volume Two chronicles Clara's relationship with Johannes Brahms within the broader politics of music in the late 19th-Century. It was the New German School of Wagner and Liszt against the Conservative hold-outs Clara and Brahms. Things begin passionately for Clara and Brahms (Known affectionately as “Hannes”), but they soon realize they aren't right for each other. Their 40-year friendship is as bumpy as it is smooth, and Desai makes us feel every bit of it.

Bittersweet, too, is Brahms' bachelorhood. Why did he never marry? Why was he not right for Clara, the woman he could so easily enthrall and frustrate? Among the intellectual and political elite of Central Europe Brahms always remained one step from the shipyards and cheap apartments of his lower-middle class upbringing. Desai gives us some of that too, as well as Brahms' first experience with a prostitute. Apparently, this was an experience he never could overcome.

But he was Brahms. He didn't need to. He didn't kowtow to anyone, not the aristocracy, not academia, and not royalty, especially musical royalty. This reactionary attitude made him stand out among Europe's elite like a ragamuffin at a gala ball, only one expertly wielding a baton. His ratty clothes, his cruel japes, his straight-as-an-arrow honesty, he refusal to put on airs. Brahms once claimed that he had no friends, but if you were something like a friend to him, he could be loyal and generous. Violinist Joseph Joachim once complained that when he and Brahms toured together, Brahms' slow pace made it harder for him to make money (which he desperately needed with a family to support). So Brahms insisted that they keep the slow pace, but that Joseph take in two-thirds of the purses rather than half.

Brahms is a complex character, and Desai gives it to us with a side of boiled cabbage. Once when a friend wanted to learn more about Brahms and his life, Brahms took him to a seedy bar where he, Brahms, the toast of Vienna and the greatest composer of his day, played bawdy songs on a upright piano into the wee hours of the morning. Nobody there knew who he was.

Then there is the question of whether Brahms and Clara were ever indeed lovers. People love to speculate about their relationship, but no one knows for sure, largely because they burned so many of their letters. There is no direct evidence that they were lovers. On the other hand, if they were never lovers, then why burn so many letters?

(Unforgettable is the scene in which Brahms and Clara as old fogies return their letters to each other as part of some earlier agreement. The air is thick with mixed emotions as the pair haggles and stalls before the final barter. You see, they say they don't want to give up the other's letters because they know the other will destroy them. Yet really they just don't want to give them up…and they really really want to burn theirs.).

So what does Desai do to solve the mystery of Clara and Hannes? Were they lovers or were they not lovers? Desai's answer is yes. You'll have to read the book to learn more about that.

Desai also does a wonderful job of describing the music. Of course, any descriptions come up short when compared to the real thing, but the language of TRIO is so vivid it makes one want to explore a composer's repertoire. Schumann's Carnaval and Sonata in F sharp Minor and Brahms' German Requiem and Symphony #1 get some evocative descriptions. So do the performers themselves. Clara's meticulousness, Liszt's power and bravura, Brahms' perfection at the piano as a cocky young virtuoso, his sloppiness as a old man. Mendelssohn's spot on imitations of Liszt and Chopin are breathtaking as well.

In his Afterward, Desai makes it clear that despite thorough research, there are some apocryphal scenes. In these cases he draws reasonable conclusions according to the scant evidence we have. He makes his case, but really doesn't have to. TRIO is a novel about some of the greatest figures of classical music. Like the music, it is meant first and foremost to be enjoyed. And on this account, it certainly does not fail.

A Symphony of Whales

In 1999, the Harcourt Brace Company published a children’s book by writer Steve Schuch and illustrator Peter Sylvada called A Symphony of Whales. It’s an amazing story about a young girl living in the Chukchi peninsula who can communicate with whales through dreams. The Chukchi Peninsula is the northeastern extremity of Asia, across the Bering Strait from Alaska. The Chukchi themselves are the indigenous people from that area who have their own language and folklore. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 15,000 Chukchi in the world.

Anyway, the part about communicating with whales is made up, I believe. But the story’s main plot is not. In the winter of 1984-1985, thousands of beluga whales became trapped beneath the ice in the Senyavina Strait in the Bering Sea. The water was freezing rapidly, and the whales had no way to return to open waters. They would all die soon if not rescued.

In 1999, the Harcourt Brace Company published a children’s book by writer Steve Schuch and illustrator Peter Sylvada called buy viagra from canada A Symphony of Whales. It’s an amazing story about a young girl living in the Chukchi peninsula who can communicate with whales through dreams. The Chukchi Peninsula is the northeastern extremity of Asia, across the Bering Strait from Alaska. The Chukchi themselves are the indigenous people from that area who have their own language and folklore. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 15,000 Chukchi in the world. Anyway, the part about communicating with whales is made up, I believe. But the story’s main plot is not. In the winter of 1984-1985, thousands of beluga whales became trapped beneath the ice in the Senyavina Strait in the Bering Sea. The water was freezing rapidly, and the whales had no way to return to open waters. They would all die soon if not rescued. Back then the Chukchi were part of the Soviet Union. They radioed

a Soviet icebreaker, which must have been hundreds of miles away. The ship would arrive in a matter of weeks. It was up to the Chukchi to keep the whales alive till then. In the story, the young girl Glashka and her entire village chipped away at the ice, slowing its spread. During this time, Glashka learns she can communicate with the whales. She also becomes fascinated when she sees the older whales helping the younger ones stay above water to get more air. Things were growing desperate. This was the dead of winter north of the Arctic Circle. The villagers could only do so much. Soon there were would be no escape for the whales. The icebreaker finally arrived. It broke through the ice, giving the whales a clear path to freedom, but for some reason, the whales would not go. The ship’s captain tried to lead the whales to sea, but they remained reluctant. The water started freezing again, and the ship could not remain their forever. It was Glashka who realized what must be done. She radioed the ship’s captain and told him to play music. Maybe music would entice the whales to leave. First the ship’s crew played rock and roll. It had no effect. Then they tried Russian folk songs. That stirred the whales a little, but still they would not move. The ship was ready to depart, but Glashka begged them to stay. She just knew music could rescue the whales. Finally, the ship’s crew played classical music. Flowing and melodic classical music. The whales stirred, and began singing back the ship. One swam to the ship, followed by another, and another. Soon all the whales were swimming towards the ship, towards the music. The ship led them back to the safety of open water. Glashka and the villagers were overjoyed. Although this is based on a true story, there is very little mention of it on the internet. Shcuch’s main source material, it seems, are contemporary Soviet newspaper accounts. There is this New York Times article from 1985, in which the author drily reports that “The classical proved most to the taste of the belugas.” Apparently the majesty of this incredible rescue was completely lost on the editors of the Old Grey Lady. But what’s most amazing about this story is that no one has ever said what classical music was played that day. On the last page of the book Steve Schuch asks, “Was it Beethoven? Or Mozart? Or Tchaikovsky? The Soviet newspaper accounts don’t say. That part of the story is still untold.”

On Modern Classical Part 2

This is part two of my essay on modern classical music. My basic position, taken up in On Modern Classical Part 1, is that modern classical, defined in this instance mostly as atonal and championed by famous composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and others, is for the most part awful music. And I make the audacious claim that I can prove it.

Of course, I can’t; but my dislike for this kind of music goes so deep that I have to at least try. As with pretty much any voice in the wilderness, the emotions behind it resonate so powerfully with me that they have to contain more than just a scintilla of truth. They just have to. Either that, or the strong emotional responses to music I’ve been experiencing all my life become quite a bit cheaper as a result. And I cannot have that.

I love the music of Beethoven, as many of us do, but how would you rather have it when listening to him? My way:

Or the way the modernists would have it:

This is part two of my essay on modern classical music. My basic position, taken up in On Modern Classical Part 1, is that modern classical, defined in this instance mostly as atonal and championed by famous composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and others, is for the most part awful music. And I make the audacious claim that I can prove it.

Of course, I can’t; but my dislike for this kind of music goes so deep that I have to at least try. As with pretty much any voice in the wilderness, the emotions behind it resonate so powerfully with me that they have to contain more than just a scintilla of truth. They just have to. Either that, or the strong emotional responses to music I’ve been experiencing all my life become quite a bit cheaper as a result. And I cannot have that.

I love the music of Beethoven, as many of us do, but how would you rather have it when listening to him? My way:

Or the way the modernists would have it:

Now let’s back up a bit.

I am not saying that composers of Modern Classical music or those who enjoy it A) engage in atheism, B) downplay relationship between music, math, and physics, C) think that classical composers would have experimented more if they knew such music would sell, or D) believe I have a beer gut for a brain for the reasons listed in the fine print above. But if you believe pretty ardently in at least some of these things, then it is likely you’ll more easily relate to Arnold Schoenberg and his ilk than the composers who came before them. After all, classical music was born in the Church, stays true to a tonal system grounded in math and physics, and for the most part really really tries to hew something true and beautiful out of the air molecules fluctuating chaotically among us.

For modern classical, on the other hand, that would be strike one, two, and three. So let’s get the subjective and therefore flimsiest part of my argument out of the way. When I listen to the music I love, I really want to believe in the sequence outlined in the first spreadsheet. I really want to believe that something truly unique occurs. Albert Einstein once proclaimed that violin playing of Yehudi Menuhin gave proof that there was indeed a God in heaven. This is what I’m talking about: art providing evidence for the theory that Humanity is part divine and indeed unique throughout the universe. It would be as if God created the universe so incalculably vast for the sole purpose of beating the infinitesimal odds that a planet can be formed under the right circumstances and with the right materials from which intelligent life (i.e., human beings) could prosper.

In other words, Ptolemy was right. Humanity is the sole point of existence. We are its headlining act on center stage, its crowning achievement. After us there is nothing. And if you don’t believe me, then listen to Beethoven’s Fifth, read Moby Dick, gaze on this. As I have said. This argument. Is. Exceedingly. Weak. Weak because I can prove none of it. Also, it is, um, self-gratifying. I want to believe this because it feels good to believe it. Or, I should say, it feels right, which is more or less the same thing. But my opponents could then pounce on my position and say, “But you subvert your own position by claiming a conflict of interest. This is a classic example of wish replacing thought.” True, true.

On the other hand, if my opponents accuse me of self-gratification, I can accuse them right back. I mean, who wouldn’t want free the musician from the shackles of tonality? Who wouldn’t want to blaze a trail of revolutionary music and be the “Emancipator of Dissonance”? Who wouldn’t want to lead the ignorant and closed-minded masses into a realm of higher art, higher thinking, higher living, et cetera? Why, low ticket sales and apathy or contempt from the public are small prices to pay for such historical awesomeness. Furthermore, who wouldn’t want to be on the cutting edge of such a noble crusade? All you have to do is buy a few of the right CDs (Tony Conrad, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, take your pick), be seen going to the right concerts, pen a few incomprehensible reviews on your website or a local arts daily, claim you’ve read some Adorno, and shazam, you’re instantly better, yes, better than all the troglodytes out there who actually prefer paintings that resemble the real world, poems that rhyme, and music that doesn’t require an advanced degree (or the patience of Job) to understand. Bet that would feel pretty good too.

Like I said. Weak. But maybe a little less so since I know how to use someone’s own argument against them and never back down from a good fight.

Anyway, I’ve always found Brahms’ approach a little more honest than Wagner’s. Judge for yourself. It’s the genius who envisioned himself spearheading the Artwork of the Future and being the most important composer since…well, since ever, versus the genius who labored within the tonal system to produce works on par with its champions Bach and Beethoven…and succeeded some of the time.

But let’s return to the original reason we’re here: the justifications for modern classical. The first was that by the 1890s the tonal system was pretty much used up, and composers had to go beyond it if they wanted to stay vital. The first part of this polemic takes that on. The second justification goes as follows: We feel the emotional pull of harmonic sequences because we are brought up to do so, not because the emotional pull is objectively there. Thus, atonality was inevitable and necessary, and we didn’t lose much by abandoning the tonal system anyway.

There are two ways for me to attack this. One is to simply describe the rock-solid mathematical relationship between music and physics. But guess what? I won’t do that because others have done it so well before me. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that keeping a tonal center and abiding by the age-old rules of music provides its emotional pull because of its grounding in math and physics and not despite of it.

The second is to look at music made in non-Western cultures because evidence supporting the second justification above can be found there. Essentially, it’s the nurture over nature argument. We feel the emotional pull of the music we’re brought up with and not of the music we’re not brought up with unless we apply serious effort. It reminds me of a quip my brother once made in the late 1980s. I was watching the film Gandhi on television, and some Indian music was playing. My brother winced and said, “Sometimes I think they made that kind of music just to annoy the white man.” Funny, in part because it is demonstrably not true. But it reveals how music from foreign cultures won’t easily make sense for those not immersed in it or who can’t be bothered to learn it. We are “conditioned” to appreciate certain kinds of music.

Okay. Fair enough. But the argument goes further and deduces that if we are culturally conditioned to appreciate certain kinds of music then there is nothing inherent in the cultural nature of the music itself that draws people to it. It’s all about the accidents of conditioning. Where and when you were born, and to whom, etc. And if this is so, then we can be conditioned to appreciate all kinds of music, even the kinds without tonal centers, provided we have open minds and apply the discipline.

This is a false conclusion.

It is false because music from non-Western cultures also tends to be tonal. This is so despite different tuning systems, scales, vocal styles, melodies, harmonies, and so on. Therefore you can argue that the nurture argument applies only to tonal music and does not necessarily encompass the atonal. You can argue that people have a natural inclination towards tonal music first, and towards music of a certain culture second. This leaves atonal music out to dry, that is, if non-Western music truly tends to be tonal. This is where it gets tough. Most sources will begin talking about atonality with people like Debussy in the 1890s, or perhaps Franz Liszt’s Bagatelle sans tonalité from 1885, and then move on to Schoenberg. I don’t think atonality was even a concept in the music theory of non-Western cultures until well into the 20th century and only after solid contact with the West. I can’t be sure because I am not a musicologist, but my hunch is strong. It is also backed up by this passage from Brian Hyer’s essay “Tonality” found in The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory edited by Thomas Street Christiansen (2002), page 727. According to Hyer, tonality

is often used to describe the systematic organization of pitch phenomena in both Western and Non-Western music. Tonal music in this sense includes music based on, among other theoretical structures, the eight ecclesiastical modes of medieval and Renaissance liturgical music, the slendro and pelog collections of Indonesian gamelan music, the modal nuclei of Arabic maqam, the scalar peregrinations of Indian raga…

If this is true (and I welcome arguments to the contrary) then it’s game, set, and match for the nurture argument. I can beat it to the punch with nature by claiming that most humans struggle with atonal music because most human ears simply cannot cope with it, not because we weren’t brought up to appreciate it. It’s a problem of the brain rather than that of the mind.

What follows will be a scatter-shot approach providing even more evidence against modern classical.

1. My favorite is this, Audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope. I linked to this in part one of this essay. Its basic premise is stated nicely in the title. Here’s the best part, but please read the whole thing. It’s not long.

Professor David Huron, an expert on music cognition at Ohio State University, has studied some of the underlying reasons why listeners struggled with such modern classical pieces. He said: “Much of what the brain does is to anticipate the future. Predicting what happens next has obvious survival value, and brains are remarkably adept at anticipating events. We measured the predictability of tone sequences in music by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern and found the successive pitches were less predictable than random tone sequences.”

Heh. Less predictable than random. Think about this for a moment. What would be the point of any art if its fundamental elements are organized in a manner that is less predictable than normal? What if all painters just splashed their paint at random across their canvases? What if all writers just sprinkled words at random across the page? What if all sculptors put on blindfolds and hacked away at slabs of marble until their arms got tired? The end result would not be art. It would be an embarrassment.

2. Alexander Zemlinsky, perhaps the last in the line of great German-Austrian composers starting with Bach, was a great champion of atonal music despite not really composing much of it himself. He worked closely with Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (in fact, he was Schoenberg’s brother in-law). He organized concerts with them, bestowed professional favors on them, corresponded with them, and basically acted as a powerful ally. According to Marc Moskovitz’s splendid Zemlinsky biography, Zemlinksy admitted towards the end of his life (late-1930s, early-1940s) that he did not understand Schoenberg’s later works. Moskovitz describes this as a startling confession and states flatly that Zemlinsky “could no longer comprehend the music of the man whose cause he had once so ardently championed.”

3. From the same biography comes this amusing little anecdote. Sometime in early in World War I, Zemlinsky proposed to conduct some of Schoenberg’s more daring pieces in Prague. Schoenberg begged him not to. You see, his music gave people fits in peace time. Imagine what it would do during war time. Actually, Schoenberg didn’t want to do that (fearing for his own skin), and so pressed on his brother in-law to perform something of his that he can “count on being fairly well received by the public.” Zemlinsky did, and the concert was successful. But this underlies an important point: According to Schoenberg, apparently, when death is near or when you are fighting for survival, atonal music will necessarily have destructive consequences. It will inspire high levels of madness and violence. To take Schoenberg’s point to its logical conclusion then, atonal music should only be played during peace time and when people’s fortunes and futures are more secure. In other words, it is music for pampered, intellectual elites who never have to get their hands dirty fighting for their survival. I’m just extrapolating here, and I’m sure someone else could be more charitable in their conclusions from the same facts. Still, when the chips were down, Schoenberg lost faith in his own music. That says a lot.

4. In 1918 Schoenberg and his students founded the Society for Private Musical Performances. Note the word “private”. It was a members-only club, and according to Wikipedia:

Only those who had joined the organisation were admitted to the events: the intention was to exclude ‘sensation-seeking’ members of the Viennese public (who would often attend concerts with the express intention of whistling derisively at ‘modern’ works by blowing across their house-keys) as well as keep out hostile critics who would attack such music in their publications: a sign displayed on the door – in the manner of a police notice – would state that Kritikern ist der Eintritt verboten (‘Critics are forbidden entry’).

I can understand keeping the ruffians out, but the critics too? Also, by limiting the amount of people who could listen to the music, it seems that Spinal Tap definitely had a predecessor.

5. One of main problems I have with most modern classical music (excepting John Adams and a few others) is that there is so little joy in it. It’s so often serious, strange, forbidding. It seems to have forgotten why people invented music to begin with: to provide comfort or delight or, at its most sublime, to exalt the greatness and mystery of God. I love Rachmaninoff, and I think I will end with this pithy quote from him in 1941: “The new kind of music seems to create not from the heart but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel. They have not the capacity to make their works exalt—they meditate, protest, analyze, reason, calculate and brood, but they do not exalt.”

The Savior

In 2007, Eugene Drucker, violinist for the Emerson String Quartet, wrote a novel called The Savior. Tagline: a violinist plays classical music in a German concentration camp during World War 2 as part of a ghastly psychological experiment.

Of course, pathos and tragedy abound in subjects like this one, so it would be really hard to write a boring book on the subject. Even a lesser writer who does enough research could probably come up with some gripping stuff.

But Drucker goes way beyond that. With music being the link between the living and the (let’s face it) dead, he delivers its transcendental power on page after page. There are unforgettable passages describing music and how the poor victims of the Nazi camps react to and interact with it. Heartbreaking stuff. Then there’s the effect on the maybe-not-so innocent musician himself. You see, he loved a Jewish girl once. But that was in 1934, before things started to go from bad to worse, and before anyone knew how bad it was going to get.

In 2007, Eugene Drucker, violinist for the Emerson String Quartet, wrote a novel called The Savior. Tagline: a violinist plays classical music in a German concentration camp during World War 2 as part of a ghastly psychological experiment.

Of course, pathos and tragedy abound in subjects like this one, so it would be really hard to write a boring book on the subject. Even a lesser writer who does enough research could probably come up with some gripping stuff.

But Drucker goes way beyond that. With music being the link between the living and the (let’s face it) dead, he delivers its transcendental power on page after page. There are unforgettable passages describing music and how the poor victims of the Nazi camps react to and interact with it. Heartbreaking stuff. Then there’s the effect on the maybe-not-so innocent musician himself. You see, he loved a Jewish girl once. ip address websites . But that was in 1934, before things started to go from bad to worse, and before anyone knew how bad it was going to get.

What makes The Savior all the more special is that even its flaws are interesting. It seems that Drucker has yet to master the concept of the story arc, let alone plot. Instead of following the classic Beginning-Middle-End structure, we get Beginning-Middle and are robbed of an appropriate ending. He also stretches believability a smidgeon with the SS officer obsessed with critically analyzing Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, and with the evil commandante who explains his motivations to the protagonist at the very end like a typical comic book villain.

If The Savior has a spiritual cousin, it would probably be Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, just replace Commie bad guys with Nazi bad guys and Freudian psychology with music. Lots and lots of beautiful music in a place where you’d think music doesn’t matter. But it does.

Also, look carefully at the cover above. It’s one of the best book covers I have ever seen.

Funniest. Composer. Ever.

So if you’re going to lampoon a classical music composer, that is, one who really lived and isn’t a modern composer’s hilarious alter-ego, then, really, Beethoven comes to mind. The potential for comedy comes up with him as with no other composer.

First, he was deaf. Ha ha. What?

Second, being the embodiment of the Nietzsche’s Ubermenchian ideal, the guy’s life was full of pain and pathos. Oh, the agony! Oh, shut up!

Third, he was an ornery bastard with a (justifiably) inflated ego who took himself quite seriously. It’s easy to make fun of someone like that. A good comic must always pretend to be as grave as the person he is lampooning. But because we all know it’s farce, the gravity instantly becomes risible. There’s a reason why we rarely saw Leslie Nielson smile in any of the Airplane! or Naked Gun movies. His comic effect would evaporate if he did because he would no longer be the match of his subject matter, i.e., Joe Friday from Dragnet. As such, the comic impersonating Beethoven must be immune to humor. And the fact that Beethoven could be such a nasty cuss makes things a lot easier. I mean, let’s face it, it’s easy to laugh at insensitive behavior when you are protected from its direct effects. And, for the sake of good comedy, we can temporarily forget the sweet and mushy aspects of Beethoven’s life, like all that immortal beloved business, since there is no way to spin a good chortle or two out of that.

(And as an aside, the doppelganger of all this is the tragic portrayal of a clown. Of course, Pagliacci comes to mind. Most recently, we can point to Seinfeld star Michael Richards squirming on the David Letterman Show and getting unintended laughs to see how terrifying such a reversal can be.)

Fourth, he (meaning Beethoven) composed the 4 most recognizable notes in all of music. You want to hear a joke that was floating around my third grade class? What was Beethoven’s favorite fruit? Ba na na NAAHHH! Get it? No, really. Get it? Man, that really got us going in Mrs. Pace’s homeroom.

Fifth, he was truly a great composer and one of the most famous artists who ever lived. Everyone knows who he is, and most everyone knows reasons 1 through 4.

No other composer has such a complete comic package as Beethoven.

So if you’re going to lampoon a classical music composer, that is, one who really lived and isn’t a modern composer’s hilarious alter-ego, then, really, Beethoven comes to mind. The potential for comedy comes up with him as with no other composer.

First, he was deaf. Ha ha. What?

Second, being the embodiment of the Nietzsche’s Ubermenchian ideal, the guy’s life was full of pain and pathos. Oh, the agony! Oh, shut up!

Third, he was an ornery bastard with a (justifiably) inflated ego who took himself quite seriously. It’s easy to make fun of someone like that. A good comic must always pretend to be as grave as the person he is lampooning. But because we all know it’s farce, the gravity instantly becomes risible. There’s a reason why we rarely saw Leslie Nielson smile in any of the Airplane! or Naked Gun movies. His comic effect would evaporate if he did because he would no longer be the match of his subject matter, i.e., Joe Friday from Dragnet. As such, the comic impersonating Beethoven must be immune to humor. And the fact that Beethoven could be such a nasty cuss makes things a lot easier. I mean, let’s face it, it’s easy to laugh at insensitive behavior when you are protected from its direct effects. And, for the sake of good comedy, we can temporarily forget the sweet and mushy aspects of Beethoven’s life, like all that immortal beloved business, since there is no way to spin a good chortle or two out of that.

(And as an aside, the doppelganger of all this is the tragic portrayal of a clown. Of course, Pagliacci comes to mind. Most recently, we can point to Seinfeld star Michael Richards squirming on the David Letterman Show and getting unintended laughs to see how terrifying such a reversal can be.)

Fourth, he (meaning Beethoven) composed the 4 most recognizable notes in all of music. You want to hear a joke that was floating around my third grade class? What was Beethoven’s favorite fruit? Ba na na NAAHHH! Get it? No, really. Get it? Man, that really got us going in Mrs. Pace’s homeroom.

Fifth, he was truly a great composer and one of the most famous artists who ever lived. Everyone knows who he is, and most everyone knows reasons 1 through 4.

No other composer has such a complete comic package as Beethoven.

Bach? He was too underappreciated and too biologically successful. Vivaldi? Let’s see. A non-celibate monk surrounded by adoring nubile young women. You don’t laugh at a guy like that. A guy like that laughs at you. Haydn? Too happy. Mozart? Too brilliant. Chopin? Too French. Mendelssohn? Too Jewish. Liszt? Too talented. Paganini? Too scary. Schumann? Too crazy. Schubert? Make that Whobert.

Verdi? Sure, opera can be lampooned effectively. But that’s because it is opera, not because it is Verdi himself. Salieri? Well, yes, there is potential for lampoonery there. But all the vast majority of us know about him is secondhand and probably inaccurate through the film Amadeus. Anyway it’s no fun pulling down someone who isn’t all that high up on the greatness totem pole to begin with. Remember, with comedy, it’s all about the pratfall, and the bigger the splat in the end, the better.

So who else? Brahms? Many of the stories you hear about Brahms claim that he had quite the razor sharp Churchillian wit himself. It’s hard to lampoon somebody who’s funnier than you are.

And the rest? Tchaikovsky? Meh. Our mothers all dig “The Nutcracker” during the Yuletide. How can that be funny? Rachmaninoff? Too obscure despite the fact that he lived a quarter century in the States. Plus, he looked like Lurch. Dvorak? Grieg? Sibelius? I’m sorry, but nationalism is about as funny as a heart attack. Shostakovich? Was Aleksander Solzhenitsyn at all funny? I didn’t think so. Anyway, Dmitri at one point was the premier Soviet composer. The KGB would shoot you if you ever laughed at someone like that.

Maybe you can strike comic gold with some of the pretentious, artsy, modern types like Glass or Cage. But their music is so annoying, why would you want to? I have such disdain for these intellectual pinheads who deliberately alienate the vast majority of listeners with their experimental timewasters that I don’t even want to give them credit for being good lampoon fodder, let alone good composers.

Anyway, after my comprehensive scientific analysis I have identified two challenger’s to Beethoven’s throne as teh Funniest. Composer. Ever.

Anton Bruckner. Oh, what a horse’s behind he was. This was the guy who practically dove into Beethoven’s coffin when it was being exhumed for reburial. He reportedly grabbed the late composer’s decomposing skull, looked straight into its empty eyesockets, and began talking to it. He said something like, “If you were alive today, Dear Master, you’d let me touch you, wouldn’t you?” Supposedly his monocle fell into the coffin as the authorities were forcibly restraining him and remains there to this day. He also pulled the same stunt when they were reburying Schubert, so this is no aberration. Except this time, he actually removed Franz’s skull and held onto it like a football while the doctors chased him around the cemetery. Anton Bruckner: the self-flagellating, super serious, utterly obsequious, ardently pious, peasantly pleasant composer of sprawling hour long symphonies that few in his day could bear. Oh, yes. He is teh funny.

Problem is, no one outside the classical music world is aware of him. And while his music is certainly good, is it good enough to one day drop him into his own “Great Composer” slot in popular culture alongside Mozart and the 3 B’s? A few people out there might be holding their breath. But only a few.

Richard Wagner. Here’s a joke: Who was Richard Wagner’s favorite composer? Answer: Richard Wagner.

What a pompous jerk of man. This egotistical wife-stealing anti-Semite might have been the most brilliant composer since Beethoven himself, and boy did he know it. In fact, he wrote this constant stream of essays which promoted himself and his “Art of the Future” as being the inevitable history-making extension of Beethoven. He really did think of himself as a god, which was probably why he insisted on living in a palace even when he was completely broke. No composer deserves lampoon more than Richard Wagner. And with his well-publicized yen for embroidered cushions, plush poufs, velvet wall hangings, satin evening gowns, and other effeminate accouterments of the Good Life, yes yes, there is a joke or two in there as well.

But where Beethoven’s coarse and repugnant behavior affected only those around him, Wagner’s assumed an intellectual veneer and has become inextricably tied to his music. And thanks to his prodigious writing, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Think of the KKK riding to the strains of “Ride of the Valkyries” in Birth of Nation. Think of how Adolf Hitler admired Wagner and often forced SS officers to sit through the man’s operas three hours at a time. Wagner’s music might be used to comic effect, as in What’s Opera Doc? and The Blues Brothers, but ultimately to laugh at Wagner would be to laugh at things that are not at all funny.

So Ludwig Van it is. Funniest. Composer. Ever. Check out this: and this:
to prove it.

And could someone please tell me what is it with Monty Python and dead birds?

Bel Canto

Highly recommended (from me) comes Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel Bel Canto. Few novels I have read can match this one for portraying the sheer joy a person can take from music.

Highly recommended (from me) comes Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel Bel Canto. Few novels I have read can match this one for portraying cheap essay writing services the sheer joy a person can take from music. Katsumi Hosokawa, an all-business Japanese businessman loves opera…really, it is a profound love that seems to come from nowhere. He is constantly working, he’s taciturn and serious. He does not devote the same love to his family as he does to his opera recordings. A South American nation desperately wants Mr. Hosokawa to invest in their industry. They lure him to their country by offering him a birthday party — with a live performance by Roxanne Coss, Mr. Hosokawa’s favorite opera diva. Of course, Ms. Coss is young and beautiful. Of course, she has no idea who Mr. Hosokawa is. And of course, after she sings for him and a host of other foreign dignitaries at the home of the nation’s vice president, something happens. That something is a terrorist attack. This might have complicated things either in the publication or reception of this novel due to the contemporaneous 9-11 attacks. But the terrorists here are not

cold blooded killers. You see, they want something, and will hold the entire group hostage until they get it. That something is the president, whom they wish to kidnap. When discovering that the president is not there (he preferred watching a soap opera in his living room instead, a hilarious maguffin), the terrorists hunker down with the entire group as hostages. And slowly the music wins them over. Opera divas often have fanatical, and mostly male, admirers, and this novel, in a sense, explains how. I won’t delve into detail except to say that where you would not expect music to conquer hearts, it does in Bel Canto. There may be some issues of believability here since numerous people among the captors and captives prove to have genius level aptitude for certain subjects: music, cooking, math, language in particular. Aside from this, the plot is tight, the characters intriguing, the love stories stirring, and the ending unexpected. But it is the treatment of the music which makes this novel so special, especially for people who love classical music.

On Modern Classical Part 1

I’ve never been able to appreciate the appeal of classical music from the Modern Period, which extends from the 1890s to today. This basically includes the music of atonal or minimalist composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, John Cage, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and others. If you’re unfamiliar with some of these composers, that might be because most symphonies ignore them. They are box office poison, you see. People in large numbers simply will not pay good money to watch entire programs dedicated to this kind of music.

Okay. So why?

Well, I know why. I have very strong hunches telling me why. So let me set aside my lack of presumption and give in to my hunches’ temptation just for a moment. These hunches tell me that people don’t want to listen to modern classical because modern classical for the most part is bad music. Objectively, demonstrably bad music.

I’ve never been able to appreciate classical music from the Modern Period, which extends more or less from the 1890s to today. This basically includes the music of atonal or minimalist composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, John Cage, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and others. If you’re unfamiliar with some of these composers, that might be because most symphonies ignore them. They are box office poison, you see. People in large numbers simply will not pay good money to watch entire programs dedicated to this kind of music.

Okay. So why?

Well, I know why. I have very strong hunches telling me why. So let me set aside my lack of presumption and give in to my hunches’ temptation just for a moment. These hunches tell me that people don’t want to listen to modern classical because modern classical for the most part is bad music. Objectively, demonstrably bad music.

So where do I get off saying this? I’m not a musician or composer. Neither am I a music scholar. I know some basic music theory, but that’s about it. Who am I to challenge people who have dedicated their entire lives to this kind of music? Who am I to condemn people like Schoenberg and Cage and Glass? These are world famous men with manifest talent and creativity who have built permanent reputations for themselves in the field of music, while I just have this little blog. So who exactly am I? Well, like you I imagine, I am a member of the paying audience. I have shelled out nearly $20,000 on music in my lifetime so far. So that counts for something. I also love music, which I also imagine most of you do too, if you’ve gotten this far in the post.

What I do have going for me most, however, is arrogance. Not the Muhammad Ali kind of arrogance, mind you. The arrogance I’m describing carries with it equal parts innocence and ignorance. Arrogance can be bad, of course, and it is commonly viewed to be. But like greed it can also be good. I once knew a minor league baseball player who pitched against a league all-star in one of his first games in Double-A ball. “I was 21,” he told me. “Didn’t know who he was. Didn’t give a shit. And I struck him out.” But later, after he learned exactly how good this all-star really was, he was never able to duplicate his success against him. Some would call this beginner’s luck. I call it arrogance born from ignorance and innocence, which may or may not be the same thing.

There is, of course, the heavier side of this weighted coin. When my father was in high school, he thought he was quite the chess player, beating all his friends and family. When he joined the chess club his freshman year in college however, an older kid called him a fish before he even played a single move. My dad, truculent cuss that he was, challenged the kid to a game on the spot and promised to clean his clock. The kid not only agreed, but insisted he would win inside of 12 moves and without sight of the board. The only stipulation was that whoever lost a piece for no compensation had to resign. My dad was busted by move 10. So much for arrogance.

(Full disclosure: when he told me this story, my dad could not remember the name of the whiz kid who beat him. But it was known in the chess club that this kid had once played a young Bobby Fischer to a draw.)

So, the lines are drawn. Me against the Modernists. Am I like that minor league pitcher? Or does unsubstantiated arrogance run in my family. I’ll let you decide.

In the meantime, I’ll reiterate my position: Modern classical, for the most part, is bad music.

There is, of course, a small number of people out there who can tolerate this kind of music. Perhaps their ears are wired differently than others. Perhaps they take pleasure from defying expectations and challenging traditions. Or maybe they just enjoy listening to clever things being done with musical tones. I’m sure these groups overlap some, but the net result is that you have very few people in the world who will bother with modern classical music because these reasons are not the reasons why most people listen to music. Most people who love music listen to it for the emotional release. It thrills them, you see. Or it devastates them. A friend of mine once told me that the music of Howlin’ Wolf made the hair on the back of his neck stand on edge. The second movement of Bach’s violin Concerto in A Minor (BWV 1041) has a similar effect on me. And the final movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony almost always leaves me breathless. These are reactions you can’t learn or cultivate. I’ve had them as a child, as I am sure Evgeny Kissin did when he was humming Bach as a toddler. Music is the only thing that can make an adult ride the rushing waves of unspoken, unvisualized, unnamed emotion, just like a child. And it does this for what it is, not for what it isn’t.

Modern classical music (at least the kind championed by Schoenberg) often lacks a tonality, or the need to resolve harmonic sequences within the context of a particular key. This resolution and this tonality help give music its emotional pull. David Goldman in his article “Why We Can’t Hear Wagner’s Music” for the magazine First Things, provides a great example with the song “Over the Rainbow”:

In Western music, the “leading tone,” the seventh-scale step (the “si” in solfège), leads upward to the tonic by a half step. This upward resolution (typically in an inner voice) occurs in every full cadence. So basic is the seventh-to-eighth-step resolution in tonal music that any alteration of it has a musical meaning. Some striking examples are found in the appendix to Oswald Jonas’ Introduction to the Theory of Heinrich Schenker. When, for example, we hear the tonic eighth step descend to the seventh instead, we sense a move away from home. This has become a stock musical device to evoke nostalgia and was first employed, to my knowledge, in Franz Schubert’s 1826 song “In Spring” (Im Frühling). Every American has heard this device countless times, in “Over the Rainbow,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and other popular songs. In “Over the Rainbow” the word “somewhere” is sung on the tonic and descends a half step to the seventh on the words “over the rainbow.” In the accompanying bass, the tonic chord shifts to the chord on the third-scale step, a minor chord that anchors, as it were, the poignant seventh and holds it back from rising naturally back to the tonic.

Another example is a song that I wrote, called (ahem) “Untitled in C Minor, Opus 1”. It’s all of 7 notes long. Here it is on the scale:

And here it is for you:

UntitledInCMinor

I mean, sure, it’s a little creepy, but it makes sense because, among other reasons, it A) obeys the rules of tonality established in the choice of key, and B) ends where it starts. It goes home, so to speak.

The atonal music of Schoenberg and his ilk often defies these rules and thus frustrates our expectations of conflict and resolution. It also puts us at sea emotionally. This is why most people find atonal music so strange and forbidding and, frankly, all over the place. Have a listen and judge for yourself (and if you can get through all 9 minutes of this, you’re a better man than I):

Scholars are not sure exactly when composers began to experiment with atonality, but they more or less agree that it started in the 1890s. Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” (1893) was certainly one of the first pieces that incorporated atonality. Before that we had the “Common Practice Period” (1600-1900) during which the tonal system was paramount in music. During this time, composers, building on the works of their predecessors, kept pushing the boundaries of the tonal system further and further. Franz Liszt did so in order to accommodate his prodigious talent, and Richard Wagner in order to pursue his idea of “The Artwork of the Future”. It was no coincidence that Wagner was the composer the Modernists most looked up to, rather than Romantic mainstays like Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms (Schoenberg’s “Brahms the Progressive” essay notwithstanding).

The common arguments that focus on the necessity and positive aesthetics of the Modernists make two essential points: 1) By the 1890s Western composers had mined the depths of the tonal system for all it was worth. In order to express themselves in creative and vital ways composers were forced to go beyond the tonal system. 2) We feel the emotional pull of harmonic sequences because we are brought up to do so, not because the emotional pull is objectively there. Thus, atonality was inevitable and necessary, and we didn’t lose much by abandoning the tonal system anyway.

Point 1: A half hour of browsing The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music will refute the first part of this point pretty easily. Here is a short list of composers of genius who abided by the tonal system to good effect during and after the 1890s: Antonín Dvořák, Edward Elgar, Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Aaron Copland, and Dmitry Shostakovich. Brahms as an old man composed noteworthy works in the 1890s as well. Further, it should be noted that not all composers welcomed the changes brought about by Schoenberg. Rachmaninoff resisted the Moderns at every turn, calling a wrong note a wrong note, even if it is played by a modernist. Copland went so far as to advise young composers to ignore Schoenberg. And Richard Strauss once stated in writing that “it would be better for him [Schoenberg] to be shoveling snow than scrawling on music paper.” Modern classical music sparked tremendous controversy to say the least, leading to riots and fistfights during concerts, and to considerable discord among the artists themselves. It seems only the Modernists saw Modern Classical as necessary.

To tackle the second half of this argument, I’ll have to delve into the highly subjective field of aesthetics and state unequivocally that art is never, first and foremost, a form of self-expression. Art is the creation of that which is aesthetically good, or beautiful. And what that is we let the artists determine and us decide.

Not a very helpful definition, is it? Perhaps. But it does indicate what art is not, first and foremost. Art is not first and foremost something practical. Sure, there may be aesthetic elements in automobile design. But if your well-designed car doesn’t run, well, who cares about aesthetics at that point? Sure, art can be practical. This could be a travesty, like burning a Rembrandt for firewood. Or it could be a good thing, like using Mozart for crime control.

Art can also be a form of self-expression. Why not? But if that becomes the point or the reason of art, then there is nothing stopping someone from smashing a windshield with a baseball bat and calling it art. You can “express yourself” perfectly fine with a Louisville Slugger. Or how about murdering 6 million people and bringing war to the world and calling it art?

Are you feeling the slippery slope yet?

Defining art as first and foremost a form of self-expression requires that art first and foremost satisfy the personal needs of the artist himself. After all, there is something inside that artist that the artist needs to get out. The artistic process becomes a great catharsis as if the artist were acting in some real-life drama of his own design. The artist or the act of making art becomes more important than the art itself. Of course, the needs of the audience, both those alive and not yet alive, don’t factor in unless the audience pays homage to the artist first.

Put bluntly, this seems like a raw deal for the audience.

Firstly, we all have different needs. So who’s to say that what satisfies Artist A will please Audience Member B? Secondly, it opens the door for indulgence and corruption on the part of the artist. And once you open that door, it’s very hard to close, and potential audience members look for other things to spend their money on. Either way, calling art a form of self-expression is a sure-fire way to kill it.

Going back to my definition of art, the artist (or in this case composer) must focus on making art that all of humanity will find beautiful in some way or another. Like many impossible goals, this is worthy of pursuit because it leads to Humankind at its best. Note that the personal needs and wants of the artist has nothing to do with the outcome. If there is any need at all, it is the same need that a farmer faces when he sees an untilled field. In fact, this is exactly what an artist’s attitude should be when approaching art. Sure, the farmer benefits from a bumper crop, but so do all the people who pay a fair price to eat the food they grow. The “need” for a bumper crop goes way beyond the personal needs of the farmer. Instead, it points to a need that is universal to humanity.

So in the case of Schoenberg and his ilk, if they grow a crop of biologically interesting but bitter vegetables, well, you can’t expect audiences to buy what they’re selling. Essentially, their product is not meant for consumption (mass or otherwise). It is meant for giving the composer the satisfaction of a new outlet for their creativity and nothing more.

This is why I find this argument unpersuasive. It shows contempt for the audience. When it considers the audience at all, it presumes that its members should put the time into learning obscure aspects of music theory if they want to keep up with the artist. It forgets the fact that audience members have lives.

Aaron Copland once asked the younger generation of composers: “Whom are you writing your music for?….It is obvious that those young people who just a few years ago were writing pieces filled with the Weltschmerz of a Schoenberg now realize that they were merely picturing their own discontent.”

Indeed.

Tune in for Part 2 sometime in December 2010.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

One of my favorite composers is Sergei Rachmaninoff. Here is a brief bio of the man which explains why as a person I find him so fascinating.

To many Americans in the first half of the Twentieth Century, Sergei Rachmaninoff was a tall, stern, brilliant figure in classical music. He was a Romantic who staunchly rejected the Modern age even as he lived and breathed in it. He was a composer and piano virtuoso equal to Liszt. His rich, melodious, and sometimes brooding compositions were immediately recognizable. He was the protégé of Peter Tchaikovsky and son of the storied pre-Soviet Russian school of music. When he lived in America from 1918 to 1943, he seemed to belong to another age, one rich with beautiful music from men like Chopin and Mendelssohn, but one which ended in socialist revolution and the horrific trauma the First World War.

Another side of Rachmaninoff was known by his countrymen, that of the young, sensitive and often luckless artist whose failures were almost as famous as his successes. Born in 1873 into an aristocratic family that had seen better times, Sergei began his studies in St. Petersburg at nine. Soon, he moved to Moscow and began composing.

One of my favorite composers is Sergei Rachmaninoff. Here is a brief bio of the man which explains why as a person I find him so fascinating.

To many Americans in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and Sergei Rachmaninoff was a tall, stern, brilliant figure in classical music. He was a Romantic who staunchly rejected the Modern age even as he lived and breathed in it. He was a composer and piano virtuoso equal to Liszt. His rich, melodious, and sometimes brooding compositions were immediately recognizable. He was the protégé of Peter Tchaikovsky and son of the storied pre-Soviet Russian school of music. When he lived in America from 1918 to 1943, he seemed to belong to another age, one rich with beautiful music from men like Chopin and Mendelssohn, but one which ended in socialist revolution and the horrific trauma the First World War.

Another side of Rachmaninoff was known by his countrymen, that of the young, sensitive and often luckless artist whose failures were almost as famous as his successes. Born in 1873 into an aristocratic family that had seen better times, Sergei began his studies in St. Petersburg at nine. Soon, he moved to Moscow and began composing.

Despite a brilliant student career and his widely popular Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Rachmaninoff’s first symphony was an astounding failure. With the arrogance of youth he ignored kindly advice from Rimsky-Korsakov over the score. He didn’t realize how horribly misconceived (or misconducted) his symphony was until the night of its premiere in 1897, which he could not bear to watch. The composer Alexander Glazunov was conducting and had made substantive changes to the score. He was also reputedly drunk at the podium. The audience was dumbfounded, and the critics, including composer Cesar Cui, were merciless. The experience left Rachmaninoff completely humiliated. He would not compose again for three years.

Rachmaninoff sought professional help out of his depression. He consulted psychotherapists and at least once a hypnotist. By 1900 he was riding on a crest of creativity that would last more than a decade.

His Piano Concerto #2, which debuted in 1900, was instantly successful. With Rachmaninoff himself as the soloist, the Russian public quickly realized not only how Russian the work was, but also what a singular artist the composer was. The concerto begins with a theme central to many of Rachmaninoff’s works, the piano emulating the tolling of bells. The melody, dignified yet suggestive of ancient Russian folk chants, was languorous and powerful and filled with long, sweeping melodies. The concerto’s closing moments utilized the power of the piano like few works have done before or since.

From 1900 to when he escaped the Soviet Union in 1917, he would compose thirty-seven of his forty-five opuses including a much more warmly received Symphony #2, and The Isle of the Dead, a tone poem inspired by the haunting painting by Swiss artist Arnold Brocklin. This last work utilized another of Rachmaninoff’s favorite motifs, the Dies Irae chant. His Piano Concerto #3 (1911) was nearly as popular as his second. It was more complex and featured some truly fearsome piano work (and played an important part in the 1996 film Shine). Its cadenza is breathtaking. During this time Rachmaninoff also produced numerous works for solo piano, operas, and choral works, such as the choral symphony The Bells, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. This period was also extremely busy as he conducted and performed throughout Russia and Europe, a practice that would serve him well in later years.

Rachmaninoff worked as much as he could throughout the First World War. While he may have been sympathetic with the plight of the proletariat, he was no friend of the communists. Despite his difficult upbringing, he was an aristocrat at heart and was severely shaken by the October Revolution. As early as June 1917, four months before the Revolution, he was already looking for a way out. By December he had found it: an invitation to play in Stockholm. Without hesitation, he and his family boarded a train for Sweden, never to return.

Late in life, Rachmaninoff once said that “a composer’s music should express the country of his birth….It should be the sum total of a composer’s experience.” He was not shy about his nationalism, which must have made watching Russia descend into totalitarianism all the more heartbreaking. In 1931, he was a signatory to a letter to the New York Times which condemned the Soviet regime as “murderers” and “grave diggers.” The Soviets responded by labeling Rachmaninoff as “decadent” and banning his work.

Not surprisingly, Rachmaninoff’s great creative period ended when he left Russia. Living mostly in America, he toured incessantly and became a successful recording artist, but he composed relatively little. He completed his Piano Concerto #4 in 1927, but it was poorly received. His last major works were his Symphony #4 (1937) and his hugely popular Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (1934). Vivacious and cunning, this work expresses Rachmaninoff’s gift for melody and theme no better than in the exquisite 18th variation, the lyrical beauty of which cannot described. The final variations brilliantly crescendo until the familiar Dies Irae theme reappears ominously in the end, only to be cut short by a quick return to Paganini’s original caprice, a move as clever as it was comical.

As he grew older, Rachmaninoff’s touring schedule did not let up. Neither did his standards for clarity, precision, and magnificent performances. He continued up until the end, giving his last concert in Knoxville, Tennessee in February of 1943. The concert, which fittingly included Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata, received multiple ovations and rave reviews. Rachmaninoff died of cancer a month later.

Sergei Rachmaninoff stood six feet, six inches tall, which undoubtedly contributed to his forbidding aura. Fellow expatriate composer Igor Stravinsky once referred to him as a “six and half foot scowl….an awesome man.” His hands were abnormally large, a condition known as ‘arachnodactyly’. His left hand could play a chord that included C-E flat-G-C-G. His right, C-E-G-C-E. This daunting feat leaves all but the most gifted pianists to play many of his works.

Rachmaninoff was honest, urbane, and sensitive, and his humor was very dry. When asked about his ‘inspiration’ for the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, he reportedly quipped, “20 rubles. My publisher offered 100 rubles for five short works for piano, and this prelude was one of them.” He is also famous for consuming crème de menthe before performing his Paganini Rhapsody. The story goes that the he was nervous before playing this piece because of some difficult passages in the 24th variation. A friend suggested a glass of crème de menthe to calm his nerves. It worked, and thereafter, Rachmaninoff called his 24th variation the “Crème de Menthe Variation.”

He was good friends with fellow piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz and helped relocate novelist Vladimir Nabokov and his family to the United States. He was a great admirer of jazz pianist Art Tatum, as well as a lover of fast automobiles, reputedly buying himself a new vehicle every year and collecting multiple tickets for speeding. He gave generously to the war effort during World War II.

Despite success and fame in America, Sergei Rachmaninoff always longed for home. He was truly a displaced person: a Romantic carrying on the Modern Age, an Old World refugee making a life in America, and a Aristocratic Russian from the time of the Czars turned Cold War exile. In an ironic twist of fate, the Soviets had lifted the ban on his music towards the end of his life, and had sent him a telegram congratulating him on his 70th birthday. Among the signatories was Dmitri Shostakovich, the composer who symbolized the music of the nation Rachmaninoff had left behind. It arrived on March 27th, 1943, the day before Rachmaninoff died. He never was able to read it.