Month: September 2007

Holy mackerel

They certainly didn’t make it easy on themselves, but the Chicago Cubs, my favorite team, finally clinched the National League Central Division championship a couple hours ago. Now, my hands-on experience with baseball was limited to a brief and abysmal Little League career; nonetheless, honesty and the ghost of my North Sider grandfather compel me to trumpet my own not insignificant part in this championship. For it was on June 28th, on this very blog, that it was revealed that the Cubs’ main competition down the stretch, the Milwaukee Brewers, were doomed.

If you recall, the discussion concerned Milwaukee’s long-time classical music radio station WFMR, which the owners had decided, after more than 50 years, to switch to a—shudder—smooth-jazz format. At the time, I tried to caution against the dire consequences of such a move:

You Milwaukeeans should be more careful with your civic institutions: the Brewers are having their best season since 1982. The last thing they need is a curse.

Did WFMR’s management heed this warning and amend their easy-listening ways? No. The result? In the three months since, the then-first-place Brewers have gone a dismal 35-46, coughing up a 7½-game lead, surrendering the division to the Cubs. The Cubs, mind you. Anger not the gods of classical music.

(I should mention that I have no particular animus towards Brewers fans, who I remember as being an unusually discerning lot. The last time I saw the team was in 1998, when some brothers and sisters and I journeyed to old Miller Park for a Cubs-Brewers contest, hoping to fill up on bratwurst and beer before they tore the place down. This was late in the Sammy Sosa-Mark McGwire modern-medical-miracle home-run chase; needless to say, everyone was on their feet whenever Sosa came up to bat. But the highlight of the game was when Mickey Morandini, a veteran infielder who had come over to the Cubs from the Phillies, I think, beat out an infield single with a head-first slide. The crowd went bananas, demonstrating that, far from succumbing to the louche blandishments of the long ball, they remained connoisseurs of the true National League style of play.)

In order to promote the spread of Cub Fever (WARNING: Cub Fever is hazardous to your health), here’s a few musical souvenirs of the last time the Cubs won the World Series—that would be 1908, thanks for asking—that I found deep within the online bowels of the Library of Congress.

First is “The Glory of the Cubs,” dedicated to the “World’s Champion Base Ball Team”—a somewhat pedestrian number (sample lyric: “That’s why I’m going to sing this song to you / For I know it is true / The Cubs have won the champion game,” etc., etc.) mainly notable for being a comparatively unsyncopated effort from Arthur Marshall, one of the early masters of ragtime. A protégé of Scott Joplin, Marshall wrote some of the best rags in the older, folk-like Missouri style, so I won’t begrudge him cashing in on a topical novelty. Obligatory inside Cubs joke: hey, that bear on the cover throws a lot like Trachsel, doesn’t he?

Next we have “Cubs on Parade,” a march and two-step by the otherwise unknown H.R. Hempel. The publisher’s name would seem to indicate that the piece originated from Chicago’s significant German immigrant population, who provided the meat-packed foundation for that most sublime of culinary delights, the Chicago hot dog. This one is cool because the scan is actually of a full set of parts for a theatre-pit-sized orchestra. Plus, the bear winding up in the box there would be an absolutely righteous bit of tattoo flash, wouldn’t it? If they go all the way, I’m seriously considering it.

And finally, this oddity: “Between You and Me,” a non-baseball-related love song credited to Johnny Evers and Joe Tinker, two-thirds of the most famous double-play combination in baseball history. Highly unlikely—Tinker and Evers hated each other, as a result of Evers abandoning his teammates in a hotel lobby and taking a cab for himself on one 1905 occasion. The two didn’t speak to each other for the next 23 years, including the championship 1908 season. I think we chalk this one up to some enterprise on the part of the publisher, Will Rossiter (another significant name in the world of ragtime, by the way: at one time or another, he published works by most of the style’s leading exponents).

Anyway, depending on how many tie-breakers the rest of the Senior Circuit needs to sort everything out, I should get about a week’s reprieve before this team starts giving me daily angina again. Hey, for a Cub fan, that’s like a lifetime.

Image at top from a 1932 Cubs program, lifted from this excellent site. Look, the Red Sox clinched, too!

Quote of the Day

I don’t believe people when they say “I don’t understand this music, will you explain it to me?”. It means they don’t understand themselves and the place they occupy in the world, and that it doesn’t occur to them that music is also a product of collective life. Sometimes I have a strange feeling that musical processes can be more intelligent than the people who produce and listen to them; that the cells of those processes, like the chromosomes of a genetic code, can be more intelligent than the perceptive organs that should be making sense of them. It’s as if the music were miming one of the most incredible of natural processes: the passage from inanimate to animate life, from molecular to organic forms, from an abstract and immobile dimension to a vital and expressive one.

—Luciano Berio, in Rosanna Dalmonte and Bálint Andás Varga,
Luciano Berio: Two Interviews, translated and
edited by David Osmond-Smith (1985)

The answer was found in two words

News from all over:

With the exception of a distant summer spent almost exclusively on the Massachusetts Turnpike, I’ve never been much of an audio-book guy. But now that books are coming out in audio-only format, I might have to listen. First up is a new thriller conceived by Jeffery Deaver and written by a round-robin of mystery authors. The title? The Chopin Manuscript.

“The Chopin Manuscript” is the tale of a former British war-crimes investigator and musicologist who comes across a rare manuscript by 19th century composer Frederic Chopin that was buried by the Nazis during World War II. Murder and mayhem naturally ensue.

Naturally. (I love the war-crimes/musicology combo. I imagine a dashing academic nailing a witness at Nuremberg with a subtle explication of watermark discrepancies on variant manuscripts of the Horst-Wessel-Lied.) One gets the feeling that Chopin is replacing Beethoven as pop-culture’s go-to classical reference.

War crimes? The arts? Randol Schoenberg is on the case!

Meanwhile, in England, Bösendorfer redeems the movers.

We’re Running Out Of Media To Plunder Dept.: the musical-comedy adaptation of the TV show “Happy Days” continues apace, helmed by ubiquitous 70s tunesmith Paul Williams:

The biggest challenge, Williams says, was finding a way to make Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli sing. “He’s such a cool guy, how do you get him to open up to his concerns and fears and sing?” he asks.

The answer was found in two words: Pinky Tuscadero.

Funny, I was expecting “Frederic Chopin.” Anyway, if I’m going to see a TV-inspired musical, Neal Fox’s “Thank You, Dan Rather” sounds a lot more fun. (Although a well-placed comma in this headline could make for a really interesting show.)

And a reminder: only two more days to bid on the Beethoven-hair diamond. (At least that foolishly-spent money will go to a good cause.)

No problem

Even if you were able to exorcise the demonic, mythical Historical Arrow of Musical Progress from the bargain Amityville Dutch colonial of your thought process, there would still remain the almost unbreakable habit of considering the appearance of new musical styles and vocabularies to be responses to whatever immediately preceded them. You know the drill: Classicism cut through the ornamental profusion of the Baroque era, Romanticism rejected the objective rationalism of Classicism, atonality dissolved late Romanticism’s anachronistic adherence to tonal-based structures, Minimalism was a reaction against the dissonance of atonality. And so on.

This pattern, of giving equal billing to what each style is not, in comparison with its predecessor, as what it is, has always vaguely bugged me, even as I deployed it myself. Being simply a negation of previous practice, it seems to me, wouldn’t inspire the profound and often joyous creativity that accompanied most of these movements. (As a benchmark, compare with political thought: did anti-Communism ever strike you as a particularly rich intellectual playground? Anti-Zionism? Making fun of the French? Well, maybe that last one.) And yet, all those turnovers of the musical odometer were contrasts, breaking with the previous generation in crucial ways.

I think there’s a more interesting way to think about this, related to a pattern found perhaps most notably in 19th-century history. One of the main undercurrents of Victorian thought in England, for example, was the steady erosion of religious dogma by rational science. It’s around the 1850s and 60s that this particular wave crests, and writers and thinkers begin to seriously propose atheism, as profound a negation as you could come up with at that time. Needless to say, mainstream Victorians were horrified by the atheists in their midst, but what really puzzled them was that the heathens were so happy, even giddy, about the prospect of a godless universe; as Charlotte Brontë remarked, “The strangest thing is, that we are called on to rejoice over this hopeless blank.” Or as the theistic Thomas Carlyle wrote in his journal, “An immense development of Atheism is dearly proceeding, and at a rapid rate, and in joyful exultant humour.”

But what brought the atheists such joy was not the absence of a benevolent deity, but the way denying His existence cleared away an entire philosophical bramble-patch in one stroke. In his vital study The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870, the late Wellesley professor Walter E. Houghton put it this way, commenting on the above Carlyle quote:

In [Carlyle’s] fear of materialism he forgot the release it could bring from the weary and frustrating effort to reconcile religion and science…. Accept it, wrote John Morley, with his own experience in mind (the trying struggle to maintain his Christianity, followed by the happy conversion to agnosticism), and “the active energies are not [any longer] paralysed by the possibilities of enfeebling doubt, nor the reason drawn down and stultified by apprehension lest its methods should discredit a document, or its inferences clash with a dogma, or its light flash unseasonably on a mystery.” The mind is freed from the whole pressure, social and personal, to think within a traditional context which has become incredible.

In other words, the need to work around the question disappears, because the question itself becomes meaningless. The radical Victorians squeezed the elephant in the room out the door, and were thrilled to discover how much space it freed up for new furniture.

If we look at epochs in the history of classical music in this light, not what each movement cast aside from the previous one, but what seemingly intractable aesthetic argument it rendered moot, you can start to understand the infusion of energy with each turn of the wheel. Atonality isn’t a casting aside of tonality, but a slice through the Gordian knot of trying to reconcile an increasingly dissonant vocabulary with formal structures built around consonance. Minimalism isn’t a throwback reaction to serialist dogma, but but a way to cast aside the seeming incompatibility of the intuitive rhetoric of triadic tonality with the deteministic processes of the 12-tone method. Because of the nature of music, this sort of thinking doesn’t necessarily imply any progressive timeline, either: there are still composers who find that the inherent conflicts in Romanticism, or serialism, or what have you, provide the appropriate drama for their expressive goals. But for other composers, such questions only crowd the table, and need to be swept aside.

This way of thinking can help explain supposed musical revolutions that don’t, in retrospect, seem all that revolutionary. Neoclassicism, for example, at the remove of the better part of a century, often sounds tame and hermetic compared with other musical currents between the wars. But as an effort to work through classical music’s perennial wrestling between the push for innovation and the veneration of the past, it fits the pattern nicely. The idea also reveals distant mirrors: both the 14th-century ars nova and current post-minimalism can in part be seen as a dissolution of the supposed boundary between art and vernacular musics.

Historical upheaval fans will no doubt by now be thinking that I’m promulgating a view of music history as a series of quasi-Hegelian dialectics. They’re right, to a point. But it’s a good way to get a sense of what Hegel and those who appropriated Hegel’s ideas were really after. The caricature of the dialectic is a boiling-down of every historical or philosophical pattern to two concepts in conflict with each other—depending on the caricature, either one concept inevitably prevails, or the two are mashed up into a crude “synthesis.” But the real Hegelian process is finding what the fundamental, intractable, unresolvable problems of a situation are, and then figuring how to change the situation so such problems cease to be an issue. That’s what Marx—the most famous, and infamous, disciple of the dialectic—tried to do. It’s what the Victorian atheists tried to do. It’s what composers have periodically tried to do throughout history.

And it’s why all those 19th-century revolutionaries had such consistent and, for the most part, unwarranted optimism, the old conflicts melting away to nothing, a clear, wide path seemingly open in front of them. The socialists saw their revolution founder on the shoals of human nature, but music, happily, lives in a parallel universe of unlimited, unhindered possibility. The Romantics, the futurists, the minimalists, they all felt revolutionary euphoria, for the same reason that revolutionaries do—but composers push to new dialectic syntheses in a forum far more amenable to them than the world of politics and money. Utopias can’t survive in everyday life, but in art, they continually sprout anew, a lush, perennial garden.

I had this thing drafted out before I saw Phil’s “Dial M” post on, among other things, utopian visions in popular music. You know what they say: one of us, it’s a crackpot theory—two of us, it’s a movement!

Come up to My place

[Leonard] Bernstein came from a family of Talmudic scholars, but was only moderately observant in his adult years. However, Bernstein would hire a taxicab for Yom Kippur and go around Manhattan “shul-hopping.” He did this because he loved to hear many different cantors’ interpretations of the traditional prayers.

Bernstein knew, of course, that riding was forbidden on the holiday, so he would have the cab driver drop him off a block away from each synagogue so that synagogue-goers would not see the famous conductor riding on the holiday.

Jewish World Review, October 10, 2005

Caveat: A morning in the library hasn’t turned up corroboration of this story, even by Joan Peyser, who presumably would have jumped on it like a Pomeranian on a meatball. Sounds like Lenny, though.

Di vaghe annugola / Nebbie il pensier

More videos? Yeah, it’s that kind of week. But this one is pretty fun—an Italian newsreel covering opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s 1938 production of Verdi’s Otello. Backstage footage of Lawrence Tibbett (Iago), Giovanni Martinelli (Otello) and Maria Caniglia (Desdemona), along with glimpses of the thoroughly old-school costumes and staging.

The Met’s 1938 Otello was recorded for broadcast.* You can hear Tibbett sing the “Brindisi” here, with Nicolas Massue as Cassio and Giovanni Paltrinieri as Roderigo. Ettore Panizza conducts.

Correction: should read “recorded from a broadcast” (see comments).