Month: May 2007

Dance the day away

Music is great because you can put it on the stereo and still do other things. Not so dance, which requires one too many senses for multitasking. I’ve wasted a good chunk of the morning hunting around YouTube for the work of the French choreographer Maurice Béjart, just for fun; I figure I better just post a few before the whole day is a wash.

Here’s a bit of Béjart’s 1966 Webern, Opus V, as danced by Loipa Araujo and Jorge Esquivel at the 1969 International Ballet Competition in Moscow. Unfortunately marred by an announcer who has no idea what he’s talking about—that w in Webern’s name is pronounced like a v, my good man! Maybe I’m biased, but I actually find it pretty romantic.

And now my procrastination is yours.

Oldies compilation

Today’s time-sink is the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (free registration required), a joint project of the University of Oxford and Royal Holloway, University of London, consisting of fantastically high-resolution (144 megapixels) images of manuscript sources for Medieval and Renaissance polyphony.

The sources archived include all the fragmentary sources of polyphony up to 1550 in the UK (and almost all of these are available for study through this website); all the ‘complete’ manuscripts in the UK; a small number of important representative manuscripts from continental Europe; a significant portion of fragments 1300-1450 from Belgium, France, Italy, Germany and Spain.

Obviously a great resource for scholars (they’ve started to include images taken under ultraviolet light as well), but also surprisingly fun to just browse around. It takes some time—the search functions are geared towards experts trying to pinpoint particular manuscripts or collections—but there’s plenty of graphic treasure to be found. Here’s a few favorites:

From Oxford’s Bodleian Library (MS. Don. b. 31), an Agnus Dei with the incipit beautifully encased in the initial Q of “qui.”

Three successive initials on page 54 (verso) of MS 178 from the Eton College Library. I love how the obviously Irish scribe indulges himself on that third one.

And from the British Library (Egerton 3307), a Medieval house party. Even the dogs and monkeys are getting drunk. Rock-band excess has nothing on the fifteenth century.

We’ll Meet Again

There’s been an interesting mini-trend in operatic directing in the past few months: updating 19th-century comic operas to World War II settings. Emilio Sagi’s WWII La Fille du Regiment, originally produced in Bologna, had notable revivals at La Scala and in Washington (it comes to Houston later this year); here in Boston, the Boston Conservatory’s spring production of “L’elisir d’amore” had a WWII setting, as did Intermezzo’s Signor Deluso; and now Marc Geelhoed sends word of Chicago Opera Theater’s Béatrice et Bénédict.

In general, I’m more sympathetic to high-concept modernizations of opera than most. Bad ones just vaguely toy around with making the piece “relevant” or other such nonsense, but good ones are after bigger game: the immediacy of the dramatic situation. One of my favorite modernizations was Peter Sellars’ 1988 Tannhäuser for the Chicago Lyric Opera, with the title character a fallen televangelist in the Jim Bakker mold. The production was a scandal, mainly to those who already knew the piece; but for those of us who didn’t (including me, at that time), it made the dramatic stakes immediately apparent, rather than something in need of explanation or exposition. (For those who remember the staging with disdain, I’ll simply defend it by saying that it got me interested in Tannhäuser, and Tannhäuser is the opera that got me interested in Wagner.)

I charitably assume that directors with similar ideas are after the same thing, rather than mere novelty or shock. A rather charitable assumption, in many cases, but if we apply it to this latest spate of 1940s military imagery, what does it mean? It means the directors are sure that, as soon as we recognize the setting, we’ll be put in the proper frame of mind for light romantic comedy. Which is pretty weird, when you think about it.

I would think that, after the last century’s carnage, we would be pretty immune to the romanticization of war, but I guess these days, historically hung over from Vietnam, mired in Iraq, the perception of nobility and moral clarity offered by World War II has become more and more appealing. Of course, that conflict had as much ignobility and moral ambiguity as any. (Ponder the Allied response to the Holocaust, or the internment of Japanese-Americans. I’m not implying a blanket condemnation of our reactions in those situations, but just offering an example of how wartime is always messier and more complicated than we like to remember.) And WWII vets had the same difficulties readjusting to civilian life, something that was more readily discussed at the time than it is now. (Case in point: William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946 to critical acclaim.)

And yet, the 60 intervening years have made that event not only comparatively benign, but a suitable backdrop for some of the sunniest operas in the repertory. It’s worth noting that nobody (myself included) has experienced these productions as cognitively dissonant, or somehow trying to directorially inject a note of bleak despair. I think what they’re tapping into is that peculiar historical moment, when it seemed that, for all the cascading political complications as the war ended, the Allied cooperation and the lessons of 1919 would ensure that the brave new post-war world would really be a better place. Romantic comedies are, after all, essentially optimistic; I guess the level of underlying poignancy depends on how well you know your history.


Terry Teachout throws down a nice challenge today: name a great Hollywood film score written for a comedy. Tough, because, like so much else about comedy, if you notice the score, it’s not really doing its job. Comedy is all about efficiency—film scoring is all about luxury. For a comedic one to work, the effort has to be imperceptible.

For an example, let’s examine what I think is one of the all-time best comedy film scores: Franz Waxman’s for The Philadelphia Story. The first thing you notice is that it’s hardly there at all—maybe twenty minutes of music, and that includes some ambient Cole Porter arrangements for the big party scene. Which leaves, what? Ten minutes of actual cues? Maybe less? Yet without those ten minutes, the movie doesn’t work at all.

Take the opening scene, a flashback in which Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant acrimoniously end their marriage. She breaks his golf clubs; he winds up to punch her, and instead puts his hand over her face and pushes her to the ground. Pretty tough start for a guy we’re supposed to spend the rest of the movie rooting for. Waxman smooths it over with pure cartoon music, mickey-mousing every bit of action with imitative instrumentation. Not only does it decisively confirm the scene as slapstick, it reassures us that the main dramatic conflict is not serious enough to turn into drama. Waxman doles out a little more of the same later, when, depressed and confused, Hepburn downs an entire tray of champagne saucers. Incipient alcoholism? Nah—the insouciantly echoing clarinet line slyly signals that it’s the beginning of her salvation.

Waxman brings his full romantic arsenal to bear in only one scene, the late-night dance between Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart—and even here, he sneaks in, ingeniously dovetailing the cue with some languid jazz coming from an on-screen radio. That’s his strategy all the way through: slip into the scene, gently tip it in the right dramatic direction, and then slip out again.

Big, epic comedies can produce great scores (John Williams’ underrated score for 1941 springs to mind), but such scores are usually forgotten because the resulting movies almost never work. (I’m racking my brains to come up with an example of one that does, and the only one I can think of is Ghostbusters, in which Elmer Bernstein’s Stripes-redux score jostles for space with a lot of 80s pop.) Interestingly, some of my favorite music for comedies is pre-existing: Scott Joplin rags in The Sting, Carmen in the original Bad News Bears, the Marriage of Figaro overture in Trading Places. Lisa Hirsch nominates the collective work of Warner Brothers animation composer Carl Stalling—divorced from the films, the music does have a modernist, fragmentary musique concréte energy, but that’s a response to the structure of the visuals, not an inherently musical inspiration. Alex Ross suggests Danny Elfman’s score for Beetlejuice—I’d go back farther to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Elfman’s first score and still one of the best things he’s ever done, a pitch-perfect musical embodiment of the movie’s loopy atmosphere. I searched high and low for that soundtrack, and when I found it, I wore it out.

That’s the exception, though. I remember a few years back, when the Modern Library came up with their list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the last century. I was ticked that the Julia Child-Louisette Bertholle-Simone Beck Mastering the Art of French Cooking didn’t make the list, but really, the elegance and wit of that book’s writing will always take a perceptive backseat to its functionality. That’s what good comedy scores are like: ideally stylish, but necessarily efficient.

The readers, blessedly more intelligent than me, have posted many a fine comment.


In honor of Memorial Day, here’s the finale of Dmitri Kabalevsky’s 1963 Requiem, “for those who died in the war against fascism.”

Kabalevsky: Requiem (Finale: “Pomnite!”) (mp3, 7.2 Mb)
Valentina Levko, contralto; Vladimir Valaitis, baritone
Moscow Chorus
Children’s Chorus of the Art Education Institute
Moscow Philharmonic, Dmitri Kabalevsky, conductor

Kabalevsky (1904-1987) said that he dreamed for years of writing this piece; I don’t doubt that, but, given the timing, it’s hard not to hear his Requiem as some sort of Soviet response to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem of 1962. Coincidence or not, it’s a classic example of a good piece of music being overshadowed by a similar, great piece. Kabalevsky’s music is undeniably effective, and often inspired, but his socialist-realist vocabulary precludes any of the questioning of pro patria mori that produces such crackling tension in the Britten, and Kabalevsky’s text (by poet Robert Rozhdestvensky), while solidly dramatic, can’t compare with the combination of Wilfred Owen and the timeless Latin of the Mass (which, of course, Kabalevsky eschews). But if all you know of Kabalevsky is the overture to The Comedians and some of his often-anthologized piano pieces, the Requiem is worth a listen. And it’s hard to argue with the climax:

Lyudi zemli,—
ubeite voinu!
Lyudi zemli,
proklyanite voinu!
No o tekh,
kto uzhe ne pridyot nikogda,—
People of the world—
kill war!
People of the world,
curse war!
But them
who will never come back—
I beseech you—

Let It Snow

Today’s the first really hot day we’ve had here in Boston this year—projected high of 91º F, a record for the day. For you all in the South and Southwest who are thinking to yourself 91? That’s not even close to hot, I confess: I’m a cold weather person, and once it gets above 75, I start to wilt. (I was telling my dentist this yesterday, and he theorized that I was an Eskimo orphan and my parents never told me.)

Anyway, I started thinking about good records to put on to take one’s mind off of the heat, and I realized: I think of those in two categories. There’s naturally cold music that, to me, conjures the illusion of arctic wastelands or snow-covered bare trees or iced-over rivers. Here’s a few—some are obvious, some not.

  • Vaughan Williams: Symphony no. 7, Sinfonia antartica
  • Sibelius: Symphony no. 5
  • Shostakovich: Symphony no. 14
  • Feldman: Piano and String Quartet
  • Grieg songs
  • David Bowie: Low
  • Scelsi: I presagi

  • My lovely wife says, for her, the orchestral versions of Strauss’s “Ruhe, meine Seele” and “Allerseelen,” along with Wolf lieder in minor keys, produce a nice chill.

    But then, there’s an entirely separate category of music that is like air-conditioning—a sleek, technological cool that’s self-contained and unfailingly comfortable.

  • Gershwin: concert works
  • Debussy: Nocturnes
  • Webern: Concerto, op. 9
  • Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
  • Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Punch the Clock
  • Adams: Nixon in China, act 3
  • Stravinsky: Movements

  • I’m a child of American excess: Concerto in F and “So What” it is. It’s a long weekend: any other suggestions? (Particularly on the pop side—I had to think to come up with those two examples.)

    I keep a stiff upper lip and I shoot from the hip

    I’m running all over town today, but here’s some stories from the UK to keep you entertained.

    Sympathy for Charlotte Harding, an 18-year-old from Yorkshire who traveled to the University of St. Andrews to hear their symphony give the premiere of her new saxophone concerto, only to have it drowned out by a nearby party.

    The noise pollution came from an event run by the Lumsden Club, an “elite ladies” society that prides itself on social and charity parties, which was staging a noisy fund-raiser nearby…. “It was all right when the orchestra played loudly but, during the quieter bits of music, you couldn’t hear anything but the disco,” said [Harding’s mother].

    The club’s website states: “We host fun social and charity events throughout the university calendar and make a difference within the community.” The poster for a coming Top Gun Night features a sexy photo of Tom Cruise and the dress code is “Take My Breath Away”.

    So the performance was disrupted by a prom that came through a wormhole from the year 1987? I never want to hear classical music described as outdated and living in the past again.

    In other news, a longtime friend of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who happens to be married to Maxwell Davies’ manager, has been arrested for allegedly embezzling 500,000 pounds from the Master of the Queen’s Music.

    Michael Arnold, 73, husband of Judy Arnold, the composer’s manager for 32 years, was taken to Notting Hill Police Station for questioning about money allegedly missing from Sir Peter’s business account…. The Arnolds are close friends and he has in the past dedicated compositions to them. His music is even catalogued in what he calls J Numbers, named after Judy Arnold. Mr Arnold is said to look after his financial affairs.

    This is playing Covent Garden within five years, I guarantee it. (It’s all over the UK papers, but I’ve linked to the Times report on the strength of its first reader comment.)

    The other big story over there involves photos of Hitler taken at the 1939 Bayreuth Festival by Charles Turner, a composer who was also working for British intelligence.

    It is believed that Mr Turner was one of the last Britons to speak face to face with the Nazi dictator before the outbreak of the conflict. The record of what words passed between the two men is locked away in the vaults of MI5, deemed too sensitive to be declassified. The Home Office has said the document may never be made public.

    The German-speaking Turner, from Nottinghamshire, had been granted unprecedented access to the Führer and his entourage, which included Joseph Goebbels and Rudolf Hess. The photographer was hosted by the chairman of the Bayreuth chamber of commerce, who was a member of Hitler’s inner circle – as was British-born Winifred Wagner, the composer’s widow.

    The photos were released to the public by Turner’s son, who also remembers driving around Moscow with his father, looking for Kim Philby’s apartment. I can’t find a whit of information on Turner, which means he must have been pretty good at his day job. (Anybody know any of his music?)

    And finally, this. Note: playing “Memory” in the background while you read it really enhances the effect.

    Come On Everybody

    Erna Sack and Johannes Heesters in Nanon (1938).

    I’ve been experimenting with transferring 78 rpm records to the computer; here’s a couple of sides from the legendary German coloratura soprano Erna Sack.

    Johann Strauss, Jr:
    “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” (mp3, 4.2 MB)
    “Voices of Spring” (mp3, 4.3 MB)

    One of the main things Sack was legendary for was her high C. And not that high C, but the one an octave up—five ledger lines above the treble staff, if you’re keeping score at home. She deploys it at around the 2:38 mark of “Voices of Spring”; the same riff, slightly lower, also turns up at the end of “The Blue Danube.” (To my ear, it sounds closer to a B, but given the vagaries of recording and playback speeds, I’ll give it to her. B would be crazy enough.)

    If I was coaching a soprano with those kinds of notes, I probably wouldn’t begrudge her interpolating them wherever even just barely reasonable; if you got ’em, might as well use ’em. But if I was composing for the same soprano, would I build the piece around those notes? Nope—I’d certainly leave room for some ossia high-wire acrobatics, but I’d first make sure the music was maximally effective without them. Here’s why: I like the idea of notation. And to notate a piece that only one person would probably ever perform defeats the purpose, in my mind.

    In a more detailed way, it’s about the difference between a piece of music as a series of sounds and as a set of notated instructions. I’m as fascinated by the latter as the former, not because I’m disinterested in sound, or devoted to augenmusik, but because I think that the translation from sound into notes and back into sound again is one of the most magical aspects of composition. There’s a slippery vagueness inherent in each step of that progression that’s the essence of the compositional challenge: designing a situation that allows for the greatest chance of an interpretive lightning strike without degenerating into diffuse aimlessness, or, on the other side, stifling precision. The exact position of those thresholds vary from piece to piece, and from composer to composer; under the right circumstances, everything from indeterminacy to total serialism can be effective. That’s the nature of notation: any notation at all is structuring the performance, but even the most fanatically detailed notation is necessarily incomplete.

    For me, to structure a piece around the unique abilities of one particular performer closes that door. It’s not that I’m trying to make my music technically easier—far from it, in some cases. (And I’ve paid the price.) And I like writing for performers I know, keeping their personalities and particular sound in mind as I imagine the piece. But I make sure that, down the line, someone else should be able to pick up the same piece and make a go of it. The life of the music isn’t on the page, or even in the initial realization: it’s the possibility of other performers being able to take the same notes and, using their own sound and their own experience, make something brand-new out of them, something I hadn’t considered, something the original players hadn’t considered, creating a performing tradition for the music that’s not a set of rigid guidelines, but a fluid range of possibility that each subsequent interpreter can explore and expand.

    That’s just my opinion—the advent of recording has opened up the possibility of the complete opposite approach, fixing an irreproduceable musical event for anyone to experience, at any time. I’ve dabbled with that on occasion in the form of electronic and sequenced computer music, and that ability to tweak and refine to your heart’s content could very well be a crucial element of the success of a work, depending on the ultimate goal. But I’m still too addicted to the thrill of hearing notes that only existed in my head suddenly conjured into existence, running out into the world, taking on a life of their own.