Dave Brubeck (December 6, 1920 – December 5, 2012)
Dave Brubeck, a great American jazz pianist, passed away on December 5th.
Brubeck was just one day short of 92 years old when he died, having lasted long enough so that his death became subject for commentary in formats he could not have imagined in the’ fifties and ‘sixties of the last century, his productive peak: his death in 2012 became fodder for the twittersphere.
Quincy Jones, for example, tweeted that Brubeck was “one of the great jazz pianists and composers of our generation.”
Ted Gioia, a historian of jazz, tweeted likewise that Brubeck was “a brilliant musician, a great innovator and a class act.”
What about dead tree newspapers? In one of them, The Telegraph, Ivan Hewitt says that Brubeck once told him of a childhood memory that dates to the work he used to do on his father’s ranch. The young Dave would listen “to the odd rhythms of animals and machinery in motion” and in particular developed a fondness for “a little water pump with a fascinating lopsided rhythm.”
Lopsided rhythms became a signature for Brubeck and for the ensemble, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, formed in 1951. Their most fondly remembered album, surely, is Time Out, released in 1959. It became the first jazz LP ever to sell more than a million, and still one of the best-selling jazz LPs ever.
Time Out, as its title hints, experiments with rhythms that would challenge the ear of the first listeners, like the 9/8 time of Blue Rondo a la Turk.
The year before the release of Time Out had been a busy one. [So I gather they needed some “time out”.] The DBQ had done a concert at Carnegie Hall in February 1958 that was recorded live, and another concert, in following month, in Copenhagen, Denmark, also recorded live.
I confess to a special attachment to events of the year of my own birth, 1958.
At any rate, one jazz critic has written, about that Carnegie Hall recording in particular, that “all those who have a big axe to grind with Brubeck, … who claim the band was only successful because it was predominantly white, or played pop-jazz, or catered to the exotica craze, or any of that” will have their “preconceptions, tepid arguments, and false impressions” shredded by any honest listen to this material. It might also be said here that the bassist, Gene Wright, was African-American.
The quartet would again be recorded live at a concert in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, at the Concertgebouw, in December 1962.
The Great Concerts, a compilation of material from the Carnegie Hall, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam recordings, was put out decades later. It was released in 1988, re-released in 1998, and re-re-released in 2009. Such was the longevity of the DBQ’s appeal!
The quartet was certainly a distinguished collection of talent, especially in the golden era. Membership changed over time, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s the other members of the DBQ were: Paul Desmond (the saxophonist, and a gifted composer), Gene Wright (bass – Wright had headed his own band before teaming up with Brubeck), and Joe Morello (drums.) Morello has the distinction of having turned down offers from both Benny Goodman’s and Tommy Dorsey’s bands in order to attach himself and his percussive skills to Brubeck in 1955.
In 1968, that group (sometimes called the “classic quartet”) split up, and Brubeck formed another, with Gerry Mulligan as the saxophonist, Jack Six at bass, and Alan Dawson on the drums. This later DBQ put out The Last Set at Newport in 1971.
In the nearly two years now that I have had the privilege of writing blog entries for JustSheetMusic, I have not often repeated myself. But I am happy to note that I’ve linked you to a DBQ performance once before. In September 2011 I offered a whimsical list of “great tunes with railroad-themed lyrics,” and one of those great tunes was Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ train.”
Here’s footage of the Duke Ellington Orchestra performing that song (using a subway train as their set) back in 1943. With all due respect to Ellington and everyone involved, I continue to prefer what the DBQ did with this when they revisited it.
As they did, for example, at that concert in Amsterdam I mentioned above: here.
Another classic tune that the “classic quartet” re-interpreted with wonderful consequences was “Pennies from Heaven”. This is an old Tin Pan Alley tune, composed in 1936 by Arthur Johnston and given its memorable lyrics by Johnny Burke, to be introduced to the world by Bing Crosby no less.
Here is Bing Crosby. I love that crooning. Still, when all is said and done, Brubeck did it better. The following is from 1954.
The “classic quartet” had not yet gelled in 1954. Brubeck was working with Desmond and his sax, but they did not yet have Wright or Morelli on board. Instead, it was Bob Bates on bass there, and Joe Dodge on the drums.
The classic quartet – Brubeck, Desmond, Wright, and Morelli, did “Pennies” at their Carnegie Hall appearance: here.
Late in life, Brubeck was something of an Ambassador. He travelled to the Soviet Union in its final days, in 1988, and was treated their as a conquering hero. In an interview two years later he said, “The most amazing thing was when this guy from the secret police brought about 14 of my albums to one of my concerts and asked me to sign them!” He was clued in to what a “tough customer” that particular fan was, by U.S. embassy officials.
Jazz had long been considered decadent and bourgeois by the communist establishment, in the heart of the cold war and amidst officially formulated doctrines about “Socialist Realism” For a time, Brubeck could be heard behind the iron curtain only with the assistance of Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America broadcasts.
Anyway, it is time to say our final Good bye to Dave Brubeck, the central figure in each of the various editions of the Quartet/Ensemble that bore his name: the friend to music lovers everywhere.
Vale, friend Dave.
Celebrating Ireland’s Recovery With Its Music
The best Eurozone economic news in a long time is that which has come out of Ireland in recent weeks. Ireland is well into recovery, the statistics all tell us, and the rating agency Fitch has upgraded the outlook on its sovereign bonds from negative to stable.
The website of the U.S. news network CNN ran the above photo of some cheerful Irish folk when it noted this turnaround. They are clearly making music and celebrating, although I don’t know if CNN was trying to tell us that these young happy people are celebrating a decision by Fitch!
Certainly they are making and enjoying music and the occasion gives us all the excuse we need to write about some of Irish history’s outstanding composers. The selection is my own, and entirely arbitrary, displaying as it does my personal bias for High Romanticism in music.
The composer John Stevenson (1761 – 1833) and the poet/lyricist Thomas Moore (1779-1852) together published “Irish Melodies” in 1808. Europe was deep into the Romantic era already. Amongst the men of letters to whom the R-word is most regularly applied: William Blake turned 51 in 1808, and Lord Byron turned twenty.
But our concern is with music, and it is important that Thomas Moore was also known as “Anacreon” Moore, because he translated the works of a Greek bard of that name. In his work with Stevenson, as with that translation, Moore was playing to a quintessential Romantic impulse – the rediscovery of the real (or allegedly) buried wisdom of the past, especially of a folkish past.
The Stevenson/Moore melodies, adaptations of folk tunes as the title of the book suggests, were not met with universal praise. Some critics thought they had done too much adaptation, depriving the folk tunes of their folksiness.
William Hazlitt in particular said that they had transformed “the wild harp of Erin into a musical snuff-box.”
Nonetheless, from a perspective two centuries later that sounds like carping. Why listen to grumpy old Hazlitt, anyway, when we can listen to Hayley Westenra and Méav Ní Mhaolchatha singing one of the songs in the Stevenson/Moore collection, “The Last Rose of Summer”?
John Field, (1782-1837) another Irish musician of the early Romantic period, in sometimes credited with the creation of the Nocturne as a musical genre. Field published his first Nocturne in 1812. The use of that word to refer to a particular sort of piano solo – generally one of a dreamy character– only developed slowly. Sometimes Field referred to works of this style as Nocturnes, sometimes not. It was of course Frederic Francois Chopin who later perfected the style.
But here is a link to Field’s first Nocture, arguably the start of the form itself, as performed by Edith Lucey (who has generously posted it for us.) Ms. Lucey is excessively apologetic there about her performance. She does a lovely job, and conveys to us exactly why such music came to be known by the, uh, nocturnal name is has. Here is the sheet music.
Michael W. Balfe, (1808-1870) composed operas, for example “The Bohemian Girl” (1843). This opera featured the popular aria, “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls.”
Balfe is also responsible for “The Rose of Castille,” (sometimes spelt “Castile”) in which his music complements an English-language libretto by Augustus Harris and Edmund Falconer.
“The Rose” was composed and premiered in 1857, at the Lyceum Theatre, in London.
Its slender plot involves a man claiming to be a simple muleteer, but who (the other characters suspect at once) may well be someone much more exalted in social standing. Here is the tenor’s set piece, “Twas Rank and Fame,” as sung by Jerry Hadley. The Rose of Castille also involves the rousing bacchanal, “Wine, wine, the magician thou art,” and a ballad sung in a palace, “Of Girlhood’s Happy Days I dream.”
A half century later, James Joyce would pun on the name of this opera in his masterpiece, Ulysses. His character Lenehan asks, “What opera resembles a railroad line,” and then answers “The Rose of Castille.” [Rows of cast steel.]
William Vincent Wallace, (1812-1865), a native of Waterford, Ireland, emigrated to Australia in 1835, and made his great impact there, like Balfe as a composer of operas. With his wife and his sister, (who had emigrated from Ireland with him) he opened the first school of music in Australia’s history.
As a composer, he is best remembered for the opera Maritana, created for a libretto by Edward Fitzball. Among all the librettists of all the operas in the history of the world, I have to say, my favorite surname is this: “Fitzball.” Also, how is this for a portrait, lovers of steampunk?
Here you can hear two remarkable arias from that opera: There is a Flower that Bloometh, and Let Me Like a Soldier Fall.
So as not to convey the misimpression that I live entirely in the 19th century, I present for your attention the work of an Irish songwriter alive and working as I write these words, Shay Healy, creator of “What’s Another Year,” the song that won the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest. Here is Johnny Logan’s performance of that tune.
More recently, Healy is behind a musical, The Wire Men, that premiered in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre in 2005, giving musical and dramatic shape to the introduction of electricity in County Mayo in the 1950s.
The musical plays up the preservationist/progressivist conflict one might expect given such a theme, a conflict present no less among those of us who contemplate the history of music than among those who see wires being strung into their village for the first time by a rural electrification project.
In cold truth there will always be a balancing act – the task of openness and the task of preservation will always make their competing claims. If there is any country that gets the balance right more often than does Ireland, I could not for the life of me name it. With that in mind, let’s return to 1843 for a rousing conclusion.
I Dreamt I Dwelt.
The United States was at war with itself 150 years ago
The United States was at war with itself 150 years ago.
As the US commemorates the somber landmarks of the Civil War, its citizens might want to give some thought, too, to the music it occasioned: the music the fighting men marched to, or that which simply portioned off their daily routine.
John Brown’s Body comes to mind at once of course. Here is a link to Pete Seegar’s classic version. And here is a link to a list of songs associated with Seegar.
The tune might already have been decades old when the war began. It was used in the tents of revival meetings under the title: “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us”. Well, that was the polite version. It has also been transcribed as “Say, Bummers, Will You Meet Us”!
This became the song whose words would seem familiar to us when it was sung early in the war by soldiers of a Union regiment that happened to have a “John Brown” in their midst, and the allusions were jokily to him, with the idea that he was a lazy fellow who might as well be a-mouldering in the grave for all the good he was doing. Of course at the same time they were referring to the famous John Brown, the abolitionist who did a good deal to bring the war about with his raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.
Eventually the following words came to be regarded as the words to the song, though early on there were many variations:
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave (3X)
His soul is marching on….
Glory, Glory Hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah!
Glory, glory hallelujah! His soul is marching on.
He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord (3x)
There are several further verses, but we need to do our own expository marching on.
This song in time came to the attention of Julia Ward Howe. She knew nothing of the practical joke being played on the militia member named John Brown, so she naturally took the words as an unambiguous and somber reference to the John Brown. She had been of ardent abolitionist sentiment for many years, ardent enough to have seen Brown not as a lunatic (a widespread opinion then and now, north as well as south) but as a martyr to the holy cause.
It was Howe who turned the words of that song into the words of another, the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on….
Glory, Glory Hallelujah! Glory Glory Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory hallelujah, His truth is marching on….
Decades later, the Industrial Workers of the World, also known shortly as the IWW or more dismissively as the Wobblies, a revolutionary labor organization, adopted the same tune, adapted it to new lyrics and purposes, creating “Solidarity Forever.” Here is a sample lyric:
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscles not a single wheel will turn.
We can break their haughty power; gain our freedom when we learn
That the Union makes us strong.
Solidarity Forever, [3X]
For the union makes us strong.
These words were the work of Ralph Hosea Chaplin, a member of the strike committee during an especially bloody strike of West Virginia’s coal miners in 1912-13.
From the cause of labor unions back let’s go to the cause of the USA as a Union. I want to say something about another of the songs that arose out of the Civil War, and out of the Union’s side of that war, one that is still very much with us. I mean … Taps. This is a simple yet haunting bugle call, used also by obvious analogy, at military funerals.
The real facts behind it are straightforward, and a brief pamphlet on the subject, Twenty-Four Notes that Tap Deep Emotions, is readily available. Taps was created during the Peninsular Campaign of the Civil War, in the late spring and early summer of 1862. This was some of the toughest fighting of the war. The Union forces under McClellan had inched their way from Yorktown to the gates of Richmond before Davis made the inspired move of putting Robert E. Lee in charge of the army that stood in McClellan’s way. Lee immediately took the offensive, within days driving the Army of the Potomac back to its boats.
During that period, one of the generals under McClellan (Brig. Gen’l Daniel Butterfield) decided that his men could use a “lights out” signal, so he asked his bugler to work up a call. That bugler was Oliver W. Norton. He apparently devised the now-famous melody by revising an older call, one with the odd name of Scott Tattoo. Taps was soon adopted by the rest of the army and, indeed, quickly crossed the lines as Confederate buglers picked up on it. The funereal use came later.
These plain facts are insufficiently colorful so they are often embellished by a legend. It is said that a Union captain named Ellicombe discovered his son dying on the field at the end of a day of battle. He wasn’t aware his son had even enlisted. What was more shocking — his son was wearing the grey uniform of the Confederacy.
The dying child was musically gifted (he had left his family shortly before the war broke out to study music in Richmond) and there was one final composition in his uniform pocket as he passed away. That was Taps.
Okay, that isn’t true. There isn’t even any record of the existence of a Captain Ellicombe. But it’s a fine story, often tripped out in a variety of further sentimental detail, and it does no harm so long as history and mythology are kept distinct.
Finally, let us end with something upbeat and fun, but with something that proceeds naturally from the quite grave subject matter we have reviewed. That can only be: the Andrews Sisters, and “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” (1941). This up-tempo look at military music first shows up in the Abbott and Costello movie, Buck Privates.
Louis Armstrong (August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971)
The great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) is the subject of a one-man play now touring, Satchmo at the Waldorf, starring John Douglas Thompson.
The play contains three distinct roles, and Thompson by turn inhabits each of them: Louis Armstrong himself of course; Miles Davis, a younger rival who is outspoken about civil rights and thinks Armstrong is a sell-out; and Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s agent/manager. Glaser, though performed by Thompson without transformative make-up, is a white Jew and a stereotypical cigar-chomping show-biz fixer.
If I were to ask you (as a member of the general music-loving public that visits JustSheetMusic) what songs in particular you associate with Louis Armstrong, odds are very good you would mention one of three: Mack the Knife (1956 – Armstrong’s version preceded Bobby Darin’s by three years); Hello, Dolly (1964), and What a Wonderful World (1968).
I’d like to say a word about each of them. The one that gets the most discussion in the play (written by Terry Teachout, who is also the author of a biography of Armstrong) is Hello, Dolly.
The set-up of the Teachout play, by the way, is quite simple. Satchmo has just performed at the Waldorf as the curtain opens, and he is walking backstage into his dressing room when we first see him. It is the spring of 1971, near the end of his life, and he chats with us as if the audience is a privileged visitor into that dressing room, telling us the story of his life, from New Orleans street urchin into the world of the mobbed up clubs of 1930s Chicago, and in time to the level of fame that gets a man a prominent role in a movie starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau.
Along the way, “Louis” and “Joe” alternate in telling us the story of how Hello, Dolly was cut as a single, how it surprised everybody involved by topping the charts (knocking the Beatles briefly out of the number #1 spot in the heyday of Beatlemania), and how Armstrong’s club-gig audiences started demanding the song before he and his band had even bothered rehearsing it.
The fictitious Louis on stage tells us that he doesn’t think much of the song. The tune (I paraphrase here) just circles around to no effect and the lyrics are nothing special. But he was an entertainer, and he gave his audience what they craved.
The author of that tune and those lyrics was Jerry Herman, who won a Tony Award for his work on this show.
Here is a clip of Louie playing and singing “Mack the Knife” in Stuttgart, Germany in 1959.
This song has a fascinating history. You likely have heard Bobby Darin’s version. Also, perhaps, Frank Sinatra’s and Ella Fitzgerald’s. Each brought something distinctive to it. Consider Ella, from Stockholm in 1963. Note that at one point she is doing an impression of Satchmo, around 2:33 into this clip.
The song’s composer was Kurt Weill (1900 – 1950), who was working with Bertolt Brecht. You can find it in German here.
In its first context, in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, Mack the Knife (or, in German, Die Moritat von Mackie Messer) was a bit of socialist propaganda. Brecht and Weill believed that the men who create and run banks are greater criminals and more subtle murderers than is a man who robs from one.
The song, as it has been taken over by the long line of English-language interpreters, seems to have been leached of such sociological significance, and to have become a paradoxically joyous invocation of a serial killer, not unlike the television show Dexter. I doubt that anyone, listening to the Armstrong version, has ever thereby felt stirred to participate in a revolution.
It would truly be wonderful if we could listen to this without let or hindrance. Unfortunately, I’m finding it more difficult to find such videos than I used to because there seems to be a copyright crackdown underway. Still, I’ll continue to do what I can. And, as of the posting of this entry, that last link works.
The song “What a Wonderful World” was co-written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss. According to some accounts, the recording session for this song was interrupted by a shouting match. Larry Newton, representing the label, ABC Records, had been under the impression the song would be an upbeat number akin to Hello, Dolly. He was furious when he discovered the tune was, rather, a slowly paced ballad, and he hated it so much he had to be physically ejected from the studio before work could proceed.
Not the first time that labor has had to overcome the objections of a representative of capital to make both of them some money.
Here are some thoughts on the song, from Just a Song, a very worthwhile blog.
As Roy notes there, the original recording didn’t sell well, because ABC did little to promote it. But Louis persisted in playing the song every time he had a chance, inclusive of television appearances, and when it was re-released three years later, it was a hit.
Nowadays, it is more than a hit. It is a standard.
Armstrong was renowned throughout his career for three gifts: his infectious smile, his distinctive voice, and his way with a trumpet. Another trumpet player, Krin Gabbard, has written about the history of that instrument. Gabbard writes, “[We] cannot imagine jazz without the trumpet, just as we cannot imagine modern America without jazz.” Nor can Gabbard conceive of either of those without Satchmo.
I suspect many contemporary jazz aficionados would have as difficult as time imagining their beloved genre without the influence of the late Miles Davis, the fellow who serves as a foil, as Armstrong’s younger and angry rival, in Teachout’s play.
Davis died at the age of 65, in 1991, in Santa Monica, California. An admiring obituary by Jon Pareles, mentioned that Davis “never settled into one style; every few years he created a new lineup and format for his groups.”
Yet that protean quality was a contributor to the range of his influence. Pereles also says that each of Davis’ successive styles (cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, jazz-rock etc.) brought denunciations, yet almost every one of them “has set off repercussions throughout modern jazz.” You can read more to your heart’s content here.
Or you can just listen to Davis, doing “Summertime”
I recently enjoyed a performance of the Yellow River Cantata at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Hartford, CT.
Big thanks, then, to all who were involved in this production, including the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Carolyn Kahn, as well as the Hartford Chorale and its director, Richard Coffey, and the Kang Hua Singers of Greater Hartford, and their director, Chai-lun Yueh.
You can read a good deal about the history of the work here, if you like. We at JustSheetMusic will only provide this brief comment, and links for your further exploration.
The Yellow River flows for more than 3,000 miles, or close to 5.5 thousand kilometers, from the Bayan Har Mountains in the west to the Bohai Sea in northeastern China.
The river was of great strategic significance during the Japanese occupation of much of the country in the 30s and the Chinese resistance, a conflict that began well before but that in time merged with the Second World War. As early as 1931 the Japanese military staged an supposed Chinese strike against Japanese property, known as the Mukden incident, which they then employed as their pretext for an ever-expanding occupation of large swaths of China.
In 1937, the Japanese occupied the capital of Beijing. The Communists and Nationalist Chinese put aside their differences for the duration to unite against their common foe.
By the middle of 1938, a poet named Guang Weiran, determined to join the resistance, was traveling toward Shaanxi Province for that purpose. His trip took him across the Yellow River at a point just below a great waterfall, the Hukou fall, portrayed above. In that moment he was moved to begin work on a series of poems that fused love of the natural beauty of his homeland with the martial ardor of the times. These were the poems later set to music, for both voices and instruments, by the composer Xian Xinghai. Thus we have the Yellow River Cantata.
Its first movement is, appropriately enough, the “Song of the Yellow River Boatsmen.”
You can listen to that here.
In its first form, the Cantata was composed solely for Chinese musical instruments. The composer settled in Moscow in 1941, though. He had at this point simply moved from one battle zone to another, not surprising: the whole world was by now at war. The German forces by the end of 1941 were in Moscow’s western suburbs. Perhaps to emphasize the global character of the coalition that included China, Xian Xinghai in Moscow re-worked the cantata to include western instrumentation.
The fifth movement takes the form of a musical conversation between the tenor (played in Hartford by Laurence Broderick) and the baritone (Yunpeng Wang) representing two villagers who have each suffered devastating losses in the war and who determine to join the resistance together. The critic for the Hartford newspaper said that their performances were “developed as if each was a fully developed operatic character with whom we would only have a brief encounter.”
You can listen to that dialogue (though not, alas, from this performance): here.
William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616)
Today I’d like to list (quite arbitrarily and subjectively) the ten greatest operas out of the many inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare.
Why Shakespeare? Because he has proven irresistible to so many great composers and librettists. He offers them, after all, a compendium of readymade, popularly known plots, characters, and images. Thus, invoking Shakespeare will serve us as an organizing principle to look at the development of opera as an art form over two centuries. To that end, I’ll offer these ten operas in chronological order, which will have the side effect of freeing me from the obligation of saying which of these is the greatest.
Surely no great operatic composer was quite as thoroughly in the Bard’s debt as Giuseppe Verdi. He’ll show up on this list three times, for his Macbeth, his Otello and his Falstaff.
But other names at the heart of the operatic canon are on this list, too: Rossini, Bellini, and Berlioz. I might mention that I am not including Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, because the titular Shakespearean allusion may seem to some tacked-on, not really worked out in the plot. Also, I believe I did justice to that fine work in an earlier post here. I’m also excluding West Side Story, the great Broadway re-enactment of the story of Romeo and Juliet, just for the sake of taking a stringent view of what counts as an opera.
Perhaps it is time for me to stop describing this list and the start providing it. For each item below I will provide in order the name of the opera, the year it was first staged, the conductor, and the librettist, and then a few words of description or context.
After Rossini’s great success with a comic opera [Il Barbiere di Siviglia, also first produced in 1816] he turned to graver themes. And nothing could be more sobering than Shakespeare’s story of a man who murders his wife in a jealous rage brought on by a conniving false friend.
All operas based on Shakespeare’s work take liberties with the original. They must: the nature of opera allows for very little by way of complexity or character development, so elements are always simplified or just cut entirely. The closest thing to an exception, as we’ll see below, has been the Britten adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which with its magical world and broadly-drawn characters is probably the most operatic of the Bard’s works to begin with.
In Othello, which may on the other hand be the least naturally operatic of his works, Shakespeare gives us a scene (Act 4, sc. 3) in which Desdemona sings to her companion, Emilia, a song she had learned as a child, “a song of willow,” about a bereaved woman whose tears “fell from her and softened the stones.”
The Shakespeare shifts from this domestic willow scene to violent action in the streets of Cyprus. Cassio wounds Roderigo, Iago in turn wounds Cassio. All this has its importance in Shakespeare’s scheme, but Rossini and Berio, with a firm understanding of their own distinctive medium, can do without it.
In their opera the willow scene continues. We, the audience, stay with Desdemona in her bedchamber. Emilia departs, and Desdemona prays to the blessed virgin. Rossini supplies music to the words of “Ave Maria.” With that prayer complete, Otello enters the bedchamber for the violent denouement.
You can listen to, although alas you cannot watch, the entire opera here.
Bellini composed this reworking of the tale of Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague for the 1830 Carnival (pre-Lenten) season in Venice. Self-plagiarism is allowed in opera, especially among composers working under time pressure, so we can say without casting aspersions that Bellini re-used much of the music he had prepared for an earlier unsuccessful opera, Zaira.
Romani, the librettist, had worked with Bellini on several other projects (including Zaira). They would collaborate again the following year on the very successful La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker).
As for their take on the tale of the star-crossed lovers, click here: what can one say that has not been said? I think Peggy Lee may have put it best. “Romeo loved Juliet. Juliet felt the same. When he put his arms around her He said Julie baby you’re my flame.”
Verdi’s Macbeth was notable for the integration of ballet. In the first 1847 version, Verdi included a ballet sequence in which water and air spirits seek to revive Macbeth, dancing to string staccatos and a harp accompaniment. Macbeth needs to be revived because he has just heard the witches predict a long line of descendants for Banquo – news which has him fainting away.
Verdi had had to press for the inclusion of this ballet against opposition, but it paid off. A review in a Milanese paper singled this ballet out for praise, “The third act includes another ballet that has all the zest of modern music….”
The greatest of opera’s 20th century divas, Maria Callas, played Lady Macbeth in 1952.
Berlioz is responsible for both the text and the music of this work, a stylization of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. Beatrice et Benedict was first performed in Baden-Baden at the Theater der Stadt. It wasn’t performed in France until nearly three decades later has never become part of the standard operatic repertoire. But that should not keep you from looking for it in performance. Should it prove too hard to find live, there are always recordings, including one made by the London Symphony Orchestra in 2000.
This is the first of just three comic operas that have made our list. It is the tragic strain of Shakespeare that has always most enticed composers, so the 7-to-3 imbalance isn’t surprising. In the comic spirit, Berlioz added a new character to the Bard’s cast: a farcical figure he called Somarone, to whom he assigns a memorable drinking song in the second act.
One scholar, James Haar, has written recently that Beatrice and Benedict is “a perfectly rounded work, balancing witty elegance with charmingly half-serious sentiment …” It is symmetrically structured, as well, with a male trio in the first act balanced by a female trio in the second, with only a single aria each for each of the two title characters and so forth.
This was Berlioz’ final opera, and a fitting curtain call.
This opera has an unusually complicated pre-production history, and (as a consequence) an unusual ending).
Alexandre Dumas père, a friend of Berlioz’ and a monument in French letters himself, greatly admired Shakespeare and wanted to prepare a French edition of the play Hamlet. Unfortunately, Dumas did not excel in the English language, and he hired an assistant, Paul Meurice. The Dumas-Meurice translation/adaptation of Hamlet was performed at the Théâtre Historique in 1847 to great acclaim. It took some liberties with the original. Most important, Hamlet survives the general slaughter of the famous final scene, and is destined to take the throne at last, despite his grievous wounds.
This version of the play became the basis whence Carre and Barbier worked in preparing their
own libretto for Thomas’ music.
They, too, have the bloody but less-than-tragic ending.
Verdi’s operatic Otello has, perhaps unfortunately, surpassed that of the same name by Rossini as the definitive operatic version of Shakespeare’s tale of the Moor. Verdi and Boito faced the same problem as did Rossini and Berio: there’s too much in the original for an opera to accommodate.
Verdi and Rossini also adopted some of the same stratagems to simplify this material. Notably, Verdi too has Desdemona praying the Ave Maria between the willow scene and Otello’s entrance into her bedchamber.
Rossini’s “Ave Maria” had been orchestrated for woodwinds. Verdi, in an example of the anxiety of influence, composed this Ave Maria for strings. In 2002, at Paris’ Thèatre du Chàtelet, Renee Fleming sang Desdemona.
Falstaff was a character in Shakespeare’s history plays, the boon companion of the youthful Prince Hal, who in turn was the young man destined to become King Henry V and win the battle of Agincourt. Indeed, Falstaff occupies a very high place in the affections of many of Shakespeare’s admirers and interpreters. Harold Bloom couples Falstaff with Hamlet as the Bard’s two greatest achievements in “the invention of the human.”
It is Bloom, too, who points out that Shakespeare’s battle of Shrewsbury is a good deal livelier and more intriguing than Shakespeare’s battle of Agincourt, precisely because Falstaff is present for the one and missing from the other.
Legend tells us that Queen Elizabeth herself suggested to Shakespeare that he employ “Falstaff in love” as theme for a comedy. From that came his Merry Wives of Windsor, and from that in turn came this opera.
Listen to the famous finale here.
This is the first of the twentieth-century items on our list. French composer Hahn and his librettist Zamacois were worthy successors to the illustrious names above. I’ve just described Hahn as a “French” composer advisedly. Though he was born in Venezuela in 1874, he arrived in Paris at the age of three, and stayed there through two world wars, dying there in 1947. Indeed, one reference book calls Hahn “one of the most fragrantly Parisian of composers.”
I’m not sure that isn’t a misprint. Wouldn’t “flagrantly” have been a more natural turn of phrase? Nothing in the context supports the notion that it’s an intentional pun. But, hey, follow the above link and decide that for yourself.
The opera involves the usual compressions: the five acts of the Shakespeare original are turned into three, and some characters are dropped in the process. Here’s 12 minutes of it, courtesy of YouTube.
In 1994, a critic writing in The New York Times lamented that this work is too seldom performed. That critic, Allan Kozinin, wrote admiringly of the “touches of tone painting” such as “the gently bobbing music that underlies the discussion of the gondola that will spirit away Jessica and Lorenzo.”
This is the final of our three comedies. Britten composed this work to mark the re-opening of Jubilee Hall, in Aldeburgh, England, after it had been closed for renovations, including the creation of a new orchestra pit.
This opera stays quite close to the plot of Shakespeare’s original. In point of fidelity, anyway, it might be considered the most successful adaptation of Shakespeare to the operatic stage to date. Near the ending we see (as Shakespeare had intended) a play-within-a-play, on the theme of Pyramus and Thisbe, which gives Britten a chance to parody older operatic conventions.
In some performances, Henneberg’s libretto is sung in the English translation of Desmond Clayton. The link above, though, gives you the singing in the original German, with English subtitles.
An old-fashioned vinyl LP is available from Deutsche Grammaphon, here.
The parts of Kent and Edmund, integral to the play, are severely reduced in this opera. The Fool speaks, but does not sing.
The music sounds modernist in a dissonant way, but in that horrible final scene, where the King dies of grief over Cordelia’s dead body, dissonance is surely what is called for.
So there you have it. With the blessings of JustSheetMusic, you’ve just been treated to a brief history of opera through a Shakespearean lens. What I hope you take from it is that opera is not some dead settled thing, a list of 19th century works performed over and over again in impressive facilities for the purpose. Opera is a continuing force in the artistic world, and the 21st century seems likely to contribute its own candidates for such lists as this.
I’d like to conclude with a runner up: if it had been the general custom to build lists around the number eleven rather than around the number of digits we each carry on our two hands, I would have said a few words about this one:
Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
September 7, 2012 is the bicentennial of the Battle of Borodino, one of the most dramatic events of the Napoleonic Wars, and a pivotal moment for both Russia’s music and its literature.
One the morning of that September 7th, in 1812, the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte and Czar Alexander I – the latter under the leadership of Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov – faced each other near where the rivers Kolocha and Voyna converged, between the villages of Novoe and Utitsa. There had been actions in the vicinity in each of the two proceeding days, but they seem in hindsight not battles at all, mere preliminaries, fights that helped move each army into the respective positions that would prove so devastating in the clash of the 7th.
‘Listen to this beautiful Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture while reading this article’
From Tolstoy to Woody Allen
As Tolstoy emphasized in War and Peace, the Russian position by the start of that fatal day was a defensive crouch behind unfinished entrenchments, and since its commanders were ignorant of the positions of the French, they ended up fighting virtually the entire French army with just their own left flank.
In Woody Allen’s 1975 comedy, Love and Death, Woody’s timid pacifist, Boris Grushenko, is seen wandering across the battlefield terrified. He hides inside the nearest empty space he can find, which turns out to be the mouth of a cannon. He faints, and the voiceover tells us, “When I came to I realized I had made a terrible mistake.” He is shot out of the cannon, and lands on a group of French generals. They surrender and he is an “inadvertent hero.”
The actual battle was, as you might expect, much less amusing.
I won’t give blow-by-blow, but will skip to the upshot. The Russian defense of their position was impossibly valiant and stubborn. Nonetheless, at the end of that horrible day, [roughly 33,000 killed or wounded on the French side, 44,000 on the Russian side] the Russian army was in retreat and the French stood in possession of the battlefield. The victorious army stood there licking its wounds, utterly unprepared for immediate pursuit.
There was no other position between Borodino and Moscow where another set-piece battle could be waged. The result of this one ensured the French would take Moscow. But of course with the occupation of Moscow and the onset of winter their real troubles would begin.
Fittingly, there would be a battle in 1941 on the same real estate, between the German and Soviet armies, known to historians as the “Battle of Borodino Field.” Despite the advance in the science of armaments between 1812 and 1941, the latter battle was less deadly than its precursor had been.
That earlier battle was the grim material with which Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky had to work in order to create what he was committed to creating in 1880, a piece to be performed for the 25th anniversary of the coronation of Czar Alexander II the following year. He completed the work in only six weeks.
On a superficial level, his composition follows the order of the campaign, with Borodino in its center. Thus, the overture begins quietly, as a hymn. The French have invaded, and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has asked that his flock pray for divine intervention.
Over the coming weeks, the French advanced steadily, and there was some skirmishing with Russian forces. We hear both the French national anthem and our composer’s take on Russian folk music intertwining during this period in the Overture.
Then the composer depicts vividly for us the clash at Borodino with its climactic musical chiaroscuro, cannons and all.
The French enter Moscow and all seems to be lost. You can listen to the final four minutes here, a selection that opens as God is about to enter history in answer to Russia’s prayers. The music diminishes to a whisper: then the quiet hymn with which the piece began re-occurs, fully orchestrated this time. At points along the way we hear the musical equivalent of whistling winter winds, representing the French abandonment of the city and the start of their disastrous march westward.
Finally, all is the ringing of triumphant bells in the liberated city, and a brass fanfare representing a great national victory. In indoor performances the part of a brass band is often played by an organ.
The theme used repeatedly to represent the French army in Tchaikovsky’s Overture is a snippet from La Marseillaise. That seems unquestionably appropriate but is in fact an anachronism. Napoleon had banned that revolutionary tune in 1805; he wanted to bank the fires of revolutionary ardor for the sake of stability and for his own peace of mind. It didn’t become the national anthem again until Bonaparte was long gone, and certainly wouldn’t have been used by any musicians with the French troops on their Russian campaign in 1812.
Still, it is itself a fascinating composition and worth further notice here. It was written and composed in 1792 by one Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle at Strasbourg, where he was quartered as part of the “Army of the Rhine.”
The lyrics are fittingly militaristic:
Aux armes citoyens
Formez vos bataillons
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons
Or, on English, if I understand this: “To arms citizens, form your battalions, march, march, Let their impure blood water our fields.”
And we must in this context mention a certain scene in Casablanca.
But to return to Tchaikovsky, and the way in which he settled his accounts with Napoleon’s ghost … what can we say about this, as a piece of music? It is not generally seen as one of its composer’s greatest works. Few lovers of his work would place the Overture ahead of the music from any of his three great ballets, for example, or ahead of that of the opera Eugene Onegin.
Still, it is too often written down as “bombastic,” by those who want to think themselves superior. Yes, it is gimmicky, but it has some wonderful effects. That opening hymn, intended to represent Orthodox religious fervor, is accomplished with an economy of means, a sextet of strings, two violas and four cellos. A bit later, the strings start to alternate with woodwinds, a neat instrumental simulation of choral antiphony, as the composer’s sympathetic biographer, David Brown, has observed.
Let us close with an Austin Texas based rock/classical fusion band, The Invincible Czars, who have released a version in their own distinctive style recently in celebration of the bicentennial of the events depicted.
Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), one of the exemplary inspirational figures of the early and middle decades of the 20thcentury, founded in 1913 and (with brief interruptions) for decades thereafter managed, a hospital in Lambaréné in the Central African rainforest, in the territory of what in 1960 became the independent nation of Gabon.
Yet Schweitzer was more than a humanitarian and physician. He was a distinguished scholar in both philosophy and theology. He coined the phrase “reverence for life” as his central philosophical principle and he regarded the hospital as only one expression thereof. Separately, his works on the early inspiration and development of Christianity continue to be studied and actively debated by the learned and pious a full century after the publication of the earliest example thereof.
Loaded a life’s work though all that might seem, Schweitzer was more: he was a talented organist, and a distinguished musicological scholar. It is here, of course, that he most piques the interest of JSM.
As a young man, in the 1890s, Schweitzer studied under the renowned French pianist and composer Marie Jaell.She had a theory, and she was confirmed in this by a physiologist with whom she had consulted, that if the mind holds before it a note or a musical phrase,
and the nervous system is normal and healthy, the natural instinct of the finger will be to do what is right to make that note or phrase. This theory led her to look for voluntary guinea pigs for some rather unusual training – aimed not so much at teaching technique as at the release of inhibitions that she believed otherwise impede the correct instinctive action. Schweitzer offered himself as one of these guinea pigs.
But he also hedged his bets. As the author of a fine biography of Schweitzer, James Brabazon, explains, Schweitzer studied with Marie Jaell at the same time as he was also studying with a more conventional piano pedagogue, J. Philipp. Since each mistrusted the other, he never told Philipp that he was studying with Jaell, or Jaell that he was studying with Philipp.
In later years, Schweitzer expressed his gratitude toward both his teachers. He said that Jaell helped him become “more and more completely master of my finger, with great benefit to my organ playing,” but he also said that Philip helped protect him “from what was one-sided in the Jaell method.”
In 1905 the publisher Breitkopf & Hartel brought out the first of Schweitzer’s writings on the music of J.S. Bach, a French language study, J. S. Bach: Le Musicien-Poète. It is pleasant to report that Breitkopf is still around, and now bills itself as “the world’s oldest music publishing company.”
Schweitzer’s book was an immediate hit, and there was an instant demand for a German translation. But Schweitzer, instead of a translation, produced a complete and more thorough re-working of the material in German, and these two volumes, J.S. Bach, were later (1908) translated into English by Ernest Newman, the renowned British music critic.
In 1906, Schweitzer wrote a pamphlet on the art of building an organ, in which he argued that romanticism in music had had a deleterious effect on that art, and that the real test of any organ is whether it is fit to play the works of Bach.
Specifically, Schweitzer preferred the creation of music through mechanical action to the use of comparatively new-fangled pneumatic action. “It is true,” he wrote, “that the mechanical action costs a good deal more than the pneumatic, but it is better to dispense with one or two stops and have the mechanical action.”
That is part of our way back, he wrote, to “an organ that is rich and beautiful in tone and interpretation.”
In 1913, when Schweitzer left Europe for Africa, the Paris Bach Society gave him, as a going-away present, no doubt as its own show of gratitude, a piano especially equipped with a pedal attachment that would allow Schweitzer to simulate the playing of an organ. A Mr. Ottman counseled him on how to preserve this piano/organ in the midst of central Africa, where voracious insects might otherwise have made a meal of it: he lined it with zinc.
He did get back to Europe now and then, especially in the years between the two world wars. In 1935-36, Schweitzer was in England, and at this time he made 78 rpm recordings of Bach’s works. For the younger of our readers, we may as well specify that “RPMs” are revolutions per minute. Music was once recording by the cutting of grooves on a wax or vinyl platter.
The disc or record could then be played by the placement of a stylus (a “needle”) into those grooves, and the size of the platter determined the speed of the revolutions it would have to make in order to give the needle the appropriate vibrations, and in order to get the right music to the speakers, and in due course to the audience’s ears.
It was a quite ingenious technology. I’ve written about it here before, and hope to do so again.
But for now I’d like to turn to an episode of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a situation comedy broadcast on American television from 1970 to 1977. In one episode, broadcast in 1975, the character Mary Richards becomes convinced that world she lives in is corrupt beyond repair, and in frustration she says, “I’m going to Africa to work with Schweitzer!”
Her boss and friend, Lou Grant, replied, “Schweitzer’s dead.”
In despair, Mary whines, “See what I mean, Mr. Grant? Lousy, lousy world.”
A decade or more before, there were those in the US and in Europe who said in earnest “I’m going to Africa and work with Schweitzer” and who did so.
The musical theme to the Mary Tyler Moore show is one that Schweitzer himself might have enjoyed. Called “Love is all around,” the upbeat music composed by Sonny Curtis conveys, if not a reverence, at least an enthusiasm, for life that would have been as at home at Lamberéné as in the supposed setting, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The above photo has Sonny Curtis (on the far right) paling about with musical friends – working our way leftward – Joe B. Mauldin, Keith Richards, and J.I. Allison.
Let’s give Curtis the second-to-last word of our brief tribute to Schweitzer, because Love Is All Around. Here’s an unusual performance of that song, by Joan Jett.
But the last word, or rather the last sounds, most go to Schweitzer himself, performing his beloved Bach on the organ (BMV 654, Toccata, Adagio & Fugue in D Minor).
Marilyn Monroe June 1, 1926 – August 5, 1962
August 4, 2012 is the 50th year anniversary of the death of screen legend Marilyn Monroe. Or at least, the best estimates are that she died before midnight that day. She was found dead in her home before dawn on August 5, 1962 with empty pill bottles about. Despite conspiracy theories, the consensus view is that the police who first investigated the scene were right: this was a suicide.
Since this is JustSheetMusic, we naturally remember Marilyn as the star of the musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and we will honor her here by remembering that 1953 Howard Hawks movie and its music in some detail.
Much (not all) of the music in this movie was composed by the prolific Jules Styne, the British born adopted Chicagoan also remembered for his contribution to the Christmas-song canon, “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”
But let’s stick with Monroe! In the opening scene of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she and co-star Jane Russell appear in full showgirl regalia and begin singing, “Two Little Girls from Little Rock,” a song that serves the incidental function of giving them a back story. The credits begin to roll only as this song reaches its bridge.
The music is here and throughout the movie relentlessly up-tempo and dominated by the brass section. No dreamy ballads. In vocal quality, Jane Russell’s voice (in character as “Dorothy”) nicely complements Marilyn’s, making them two extra sections of the band.
The lyrics to this song come from the mind and pen of Leo Robin. Robin, born in 1900 in Pittsburgh, was a veteran wordsmith by this time. He had once teamed up with Ralph Rainger, and together they had produced some of the most memorable movie scores of the late 1930s, including The Big Broadcast of 1938, the movie that introduced the world to “Thanks for the Memories.” Bob Hope sang it as a duet with Shirley Ross, though he later made solo renditions thereof his theme song. (Robin and Rainger shared an Oscar for ‘Thanks’.).
Rainger, sadly, died in an airplane crash in 1942, but Robin found it easy enough to work with a wide range of partners, including as it happens Jules Styne.
The lyrics to “Two Little Girls” include a neat reversal. The “little girls” each presumably had her heart broken in Little Rock, and each moved to New York in reaction to that trauma. Having found success there, becoming wined and dined and ermined, they say (Jane Russell in particular says/sings) that she plans to “go back home and punch the nose” of the boy who broke her heart in Little Rock.
After the credits and the instrumental bridge, though, the lyrics opt for a more non-violent sort of vengeance, and the girls sing (together) that they are going back home and each, now secure in the knowledge that she is known in the “biggest banks,” will give her thanks to the one who broke her heart. Living well, and letting him know that you live well, is presumably the best revenge.
Immediately after the song, the two chanteuses head into their dressing room (they share one dressing room, a fact that limits one’s conception of how high a level of stardom they could have reached), and they begin discussing the fact that the boyfriend of Lorelei Lee (Monroe’s character) had been sitting rather expectantly in the audience.
The nerdy boyfriend, Gus Esmond by name, is played to perfection by Tommy Noonan.
Lorelei notes that there was a “bulge in his pocket.” One knows how Mae West would have responded to that straight line! Russell, though, simply pooh-poohs the news at first, allowing Lorelei to inform her that it was a square bulge, “like a box.” So, a big rock is coming for one of the girls from Little Rock.
Let us not bother too much with the plot. We do have to say, though, that it involves a trans-Atlantic cruise on a ship with a large and well-equipped gymnasium. Lorelei and Dorothy are on an ocean liner hearing to France that just happens to be the same liner that houses the U.S. Olympic team.
Eventually, Russell gets a chance for her own big solo, though back by an all-male chorus of Olympic athletes, just as Dorothy presumably preferred it. [Of the two gals at the center of this movie, Dorothy is the more libidinous, Lorelei the more mercenary.]
Russell’s big solo, “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?,” was not a Styne/Robin concoction. It came into the world through the exertions of Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson.
Its memorable lines include:
I like big muscles and red corpuscles
I like a beautiful hunk o’ man
But I’m no physical culture fan
Ain’t there anyone here for love?
Russell doesn’t participate in the real show-stopper of the movie, which is Monroe’s solo (though with a back-up of well-dressed French suitors) of “Diamonds are a Girls’ Best Friend.” You can watch it here. I’ll add parenthetically that my grandmother used to sing a bit from this song while playing bridge, as a way of celebrating taking a trick in that suit.
For reasons that seem natural enough within the convoluted plot, shortly after the Atlantic crossing Monroe’s character, Lorelei Lee, is briefly penniless in Paris, and immediately solves that problem by getting herself a gig as the star of a show. (Ah, as Woody Allen said in a somewhat different context, if only real life was like that.)
In this routine, Marilyn is wearing a pink dress (many call it “shocking pink”): if you are among Marilyn impersonators some day and hear a reverential reference to The Pink Dress, this is the one meant. See the illustration at the top of this blog entry!
At movie’s end, all the conflicts have been happily resolved. Alas, in life, happy resolutions are quite temporary things, and talented gorgeous actresses who seem to the rest of the world to Have It All are tormented. In the worst of cases they die an early and lonely death.
But if memes can ensure earthly immortality, then Monroe has as fair a shot at it as anyone.
She was, after all, Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” and we may fittingly end our own tribute with his.
By Christopher Andersen
Gallery Books, New York, 2012.
384 pages, $27
Mick Jagger was of course one of the central figures of popular music in the final third of the 20th century. In the 21st, he remains the dynamic and it seems everlasting force behind the Rolling Stones: complemented, of course, by Keith Richards.
One of the many gossipy revelations (or claims) of this gossipy book is that Jagger and another central figure in recent musical history, David Bowie, had a sexual relationship.
Andersen is in the personal-revelations-about celebrities business. Heck, he’s gotten five books published on British royal family related scandals alone, and that’s only one sixth of his canon. He’s no musicologist. So if you buy the book, expect to read things like this, the excerpt published by the New York Post on July 9, 2012. I don’t think their fans will be shocked by the notion that Bowie and Mick were both bisexual. But as for actual encounters between them … Andersen is getting slammed on this, by his own interviewees.
If you want to take part in that sort of debate, you’ll need to read this book. The Winnipeg Free Press calls it “crassly candid.” That might be right – or it might be “crassly lying.” If you don’t care to make that decision, you probably won’t need this.
Keith Richards’ own memoir isn’t all that old yet, so I think I’ll give it a link here.
And let’s give a listen to what you really need to know about the Stones.
By Jessica K. Quillin
Ashgate Publishing, London, UK, 2012.
188 pages, $99.95
You don’t necessarily think of music when you hear the name “Percy Bysshe Shelley.” If you are educated in English language poetry, you think when you hear that name of a handful of renowned poems: Ode to the West Wind, Ozymandias, To a Skylark, etc. The poems can be given musical significance, of course, for example as the background music to a dramatic reading like this.
If you prefer your literature in prose, you might remember that Percy Shelley was the husband of Mary Shelley, née Godwin, author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).
But Jessica K. Quillin, in this new book tells us that music formed a rather important part of Shelley’s view of his own craft. Shelley, accordingly, was intrigued by music, and indeed he could equate music with love. She reminds us that in Epipsychidion (1821), Shelley asks his beloved:
are we not formed, as notes of music are,
For one another, though dissimilar;
such difference without discord, as can make
Those sweetest sounds, in which all spirits shake
As trembling leaves in a continuous air?
are we not formed, as notes of music are,
For one another, though dissimilar;
such difference without discord, as can make
Those sweetest sounds, in which all spirits shake
As trembling leaves in a continuous air?
That final image, “trembling leaves in a continuous air” has important ambiguities. When you first read it, you likely see an image of leaves on a tree shaking as the wind passes. But “continuous air” is an odd expression for wind.
“Ah, yes, those fancy poets love to use extra syllables,” says the philistine. But sorry, sir, Shelley doesn’t. “Continuous” here suggests the Italian musical term “continuo,” a reference to the harmonic structure of a piece.
An air, likewise, is a song-like vocal composition. An air can involve a trembling, or tremolo, effect.
In short, although even after reminding ourselves of all of this the phrase “trembling leaves in a continuous air” might still call to mind an image of the wind passing through a tree, we can also see that Shelley is teasing us still with the thought that we (all of us, not just the poet and his Emilia!) are formed “as notes of music are,” because this sylvan image is itself formed entirely of words of musical significance. (Oh, I left one out: a printed musical score is composed of leaves.)
Indeed, in 2004 Maria Ljungdahl, a Swede who has studied music at Gothenburg and Stockholm, composed a score for Epipsychidion, in an effort to make explicit its musical quality. Ljungdahl’s work was for a strong quartet or quintet. You may listen here. It is only fair to warn you, though, that it does take some getting used to.
The price of books, nowadays, takes some getting used to, as well! The Quillin book is aimed specifically at university libraries as the buyers, and their budgets can presumably accommodate the $99.95 charged (a mere $89.96 if you buy it through the publisher’s website). But some of us individual book lovers will baulk at such numbers.
Finally, (at least for our short list) this year has brought us further items for the science-and-music shelf. One of them that is rather off the beaten path, but that I recommend, is….
By Abel James
James Strategy, LLC, Austin, TX 2012
e-book only, $3.99
This appears to be a self-published book. So far as I can tell, Abel James the author and James Strategy LLC the publisher, are one and the same.
No matter: this is the age in which we live. The old-fashioned gatekeepers of the age of the clunky printing press are no more. Abel James is a bright guy, a graduate of Dartmouth College (a college dear to my heart, since I’m a great admirer of another of its alum, Daniel Webster), and the successful marketer of self-help diet books and related materials.
James begins this book with a provocative quote from Charles Darwin: “As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man in reference to his daily habits of life, they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed.” They are mysterious, in short, because it isn’t obvious that natural selection can account for them.
So: what does? We have to look for what is true of music not in this or that contingent tradition by “across cultures,” James suggests, such as the way in which musical scales have five to seven pitches per octave, “remaining within the range of the capacity of working memory.”
James believes Darwin and others were misguided in looking for specific selection value in music. Music, rather, has developed by piggy-backing on neural capacities that may have evolved for quite other purposes.
James addresses also the question of what are the neural consequences of music. What does it do to the brains of musicians? With that question, unanswered, I will leave you.
Here, though, as a musical and comedic end for our brief literary tour, is the clip of a hysterical take on the story of Frankenstein and his monster. One wonders what the Shelley family would have thought. Thanks, as always, to Irving Berlin and to ….
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