The Case for Wagner

The beginning of Tristan und Isolde

I fell in love with classical music at an early age. My parents in the early 1960s purchased a combined Magnovox record player and TV, a so-called console, and in addition to the records of movie sound tracks that they liked to play, such as My Fair Lady and The Music Man, they had a nice record of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. That symphonic tone-poem struck a chord with me, so to speak. I decided that I liked that kind of music, and that I didn’t like Dick Clark and his American Bandstand that were à la mode at the time. Soon, armed with a Sony transistor radio tuned to WFLN, the classical music station of Philadelphia, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder, I was building up my library of classical music. I saved my quarters and bought a cheap portable turntable, and then I started buying vinyl records. Eventually I graduated to a slightly more respectable record player with two small external speakers. In my high school years I immersed myself in music.

My musical tastes were firmly planted in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But I had a curious blind spot when it came to opera. Perhaps it was because opera performances were rare on the radio, or the fact that the plots were largely lost on me due to the foreign language of the libretti, or the lack of the visual component. Or maybe it was their length. An opera recording would be a boxed set of 5 or 6 or more LPs, pretty much outside of my budget in those days. And so it was that I was listening to pretty much only instrumental music up until sometime in my junior or senior year of high school. Then I discovered Gilbert and Sullivan.

By accident I tuned into a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience playing on the radio. Here was an opera (or operetta perhaps) in English that was easy to follow and quite funny to boot. I bought a recording (D’Oyly Carte, of course) and ended up over the next few years through college and med school listening to every available G&S opera I could find, either on record, or in performance (by the same D’Oyly Carte company, in Boston). Eventually saturated with Gilbert and Sullivan, I became curious about other examples of this novel art form. This led me to Richard Wagner.

In reading about 19th century music, the name of Richard Wagner appears everywhere. He was the one, according to some, who destroyed classical tonality and led to the musical excesses—to the tone rows and atonality—of the 20th century. Others, like my namesake Thomas Mann and Friedrich Nietzsche, admitted to being totally seduced by Wagner’s music, only to later reject it, like a drug addict kicking the habit. Few would argue with the idea that Wagner was a pivotal composer in the history of music. However, as he wrote almost exclusively operas, or music-dramas as he called them, it was difficult to understand what all the fuss was about without actually listening to his operas.

My first Wagner record set

So I bought a record set of Tristan und Isolde, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Georg Solti and Brigit Nilsson in the role of Isolde. I listened to it straight through, with the libretto on my lap. I learned that evening what all the fuss was about.

Regardless of what you can say about Wagner the man (and you can say a lot, much of it negative), it is difficult to deny that Wagner the composer was a genius. This was recognized even by his critics. His music is not to everyone’s taste. Mark Twain famously, though apparently not originally, said that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” It is not music for those with a short attention span. Today with our smart phones, our video games, and our 24 hour news cycle, who has time to listen to or watch a four hour long opera? But back in the late 1960s when these distractions hadn’t been invented yet, I fell under the spell of the music of Tristan und Isolde. It was like musical crack cocaine in my veins.

Wagnerian scores, as well as other goodies on my bookshelf
Some books on Wagner

Over the years, I listened to his operas many times, either on the radio, TV, LP, CD, DVD, or in live performance. I remember my first taste of the Ring cycle, listening to a performance of die Walküre on the radio in my car, driving home from the hospital in Philadelphia. I was a cardiology fellow. I still remember the haunting sound of the “Curse” motif on the car radio. In the 1980s there were some broadcasts of the Ring on TV, which I dutifully recorded on my VCR. All of Wagner’s mature operas, the four Ring operas, die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal, are favorites. As you can see, I have copies of their scores and piano reductions, as well as many books on Wagner and the operas. Just the other day I watched a wonderful Meistersinger on YouTube by the Glyndebourne opera company. The music still gets to me, just like it got to my youngest daughter, who, not able to read the subtitles or understand German, while watching a video of the third act of die Walküre, asked me, “why does the music make me cry, Daddy?”

All that said, history has not been kind to Wagner. He was a virulent anti-semite, as evidenced by his essay Judaism in Music. The producers of his operas, including some of his own descendents, have gone out of their way to stage them in silly or political ways: das Reingold in outer space with the gods wearing space suits, for example. Wagner also was posthumously unfortunate in that one of his biggest fans turned out to be a genocidal madman who nearly destroyed Europe. There are certainly those who on this basis will never ever listen to Wagner’s music. If anything, in the 21st century, the era of political correctness, he is more of an misfit than ever, and perhaps is heading towards irrelevancy. Most of the books I have on Wagner were written in the 20th century, though performances of his operas continue. Have the critics lost interest in Wagner. Has his music been analyzed to death? Do his anti-semitic views make him anathema to our time?

The past is the past. There is nothing we can do about it. We have to take the good with the bad, and get what enjoyment we can from the good and learn what we can from the bad. The world of the 19th century is as alien to people today as our world would be to Victorians if they were frozen and then thawed out in the present. As with any alien culture, I believe it is important to study them dispassionately, and not judgmentally. The “woke” people of today are only woke because they are living today. Transport any of them back to the 19th century and odds are they would have turned out just as racist or anti-semitic as the average person of that time. Moreover if we are to judge the past, we must be willing to be judged by future generations. To think that this present era is the end of the moral evolution of humanity is another example of not learning from the past. Will future generations look back on our most progressive voices dismissively, because, for example, they casually ate the flesh of animals tortured and slaughtered in factory farms? Will the most moralizing woke person alive today be cancelled by a future generation because they ate a hamburger at McDonalds? Who knows? Judge not, lest ye be judged.

This was a round-a-bout way to say that I enjoy Wagner’s music despite his flaws. Not all the time. The music-dramas can be emotionally draining. But despite Wagner’s awful anti-semitic screeds, there is much humanity and wisdom in his operas. In the Ring cycle, the Rhine gold is a symbol of wealth and domination. The Ring created from the gold is supposed to give its wearer unlimited power. But the Ring sets off a series of betrayals and murders. Power corrupts. This corruption infests the whole of time and space, as represented by the Norse gods and goddesses. Walhall (Vahalla), the home of the gods, is built on a rotten foundation. Even love falls victim to the Ring, as Wotan, king of the gods, is forced to exile his own beloved daughter due to the events set in play by his coveting the Ring for himself. And that daughter, when she tries to use the Ring to protect herself against an attacker, finds it to be useless. It is greed itself, and not the substance of gold, that wields power in the world. In die Götterdämmerung, the Norns, weaving the fabric of space and time, see that fabric rip apart when the unknown variable of the Ring enters the equation. Like an uncaught division by zero error that brings a computer to its knees, the future becomes unstable and unpredictable. In the end the gods perish, but the Universe, and hope, live on.

Spread out over four evenings, with “special effects” written into the libretto that could not be realized at the time, and can be barely instantiated today, the Ring was the big spectacle of its era. Multimedia–music, song, drama, impossible stage directions–this was far beyond the traditional opera of the day. And the music, continuous, always modulating, never resolving, was a revelation at the time, and still is. Wagner was a master psychologist. He invented leitmotifs, short phrases that represented characters, ideas, places, every component of the drama, and then varied them, combined them, and used them to add emotion to the sung text. The motifs are often related to each other, resulting in very subtle emotional shading to the ongoing action. For example the Sword motif that appears at the end of das Rheingold is derived from the Rhine motif at the beginning of the opera.

Sword motif
Rhine motif

Wagner’s real progeny are not the 12 tone serialists starting with Schönberg, but the film composers, from Erich Wolfgang Korngold to John Williams, who used the same concept of leitmotifs in their music. This technique is commonplace and obvious today, but at the time it was an innovation. Wagner was a force to be reckoned with in the 19th century. All composers that came after Wagner were influenced by him and either sought to emulate him, outdo him, or rebel against him. Of course he did not create his musical innovations ex vacuo. Starting from Beethoven, and going through Liszt, there were musical innovators and iconoclasts throughout the century, but it all came together with Wagner, the polymath who wrote his own librettos and invented a new musical language and a new form of opera.

There are debates about how much of his anti-semitism leaked into his music. As in all drama, there are good guys and bad guys in his operas. It is tempting especially after the Third Reich and Hitler’s fondness for the operas to feel that the bad guys were intended to represent Jews. Books pro and con have been written on the subject. I am impressed by how weak the evidence is that Mime in Siegfried, or Sixtus Beckmesser in Meistersinger represent Jewish characters. The first is one of the Nibelungen, mythological creatures living in mythological times. If he is Jewish, then wouldn’t all the Nibelungen also be Jewish? If so, their oppression and sad lot outlined in das Rheingold would indicate a more sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish people than one is willing to credit to Wagner. Beckmesser is the town clerk and member of the Meistersinger guild of Nürnberg during medieval times, hardly a position that one would expect to be filled by someone who was Jewish. I think that Wagner left his anti-semitism behind when he constructed the fantasy worlds of his operas. The themes are universal, not racist. I don’t doubt that his anti-semitic views had some influence on his work. But before we get too deep into an argument about Jewish stereotypes in 19th century operas, consider that just 20 years ago George Lucas put a flying alien merchant who was an obvious Jewish stereotype into the Star Wars film The Phantom Menace. We haven’t come as far as we think we have.

If I had a family member killed in the Holocaust I might feel differently about Wagner. He is inextricably tangled up with Hitler and the Nazis. How much blame should he receive for that? He died six years before Hitler was born. It’s interesting that Hitler didn’t celebrate his anti-semitic writings. It was the operas he enjoyed, probably at the same visceral level others enjoy them. These great works were an example of German art that fed into his nationalistic ideals about Germany. But his admiration has tainted these masterpieces for many people, which is understandable but sad. We expect our heroes to live pure, uncomplicated lives, and then go on to produce something as complex as der Ring des Nibelungen. Maybe that’s not possible. Maybe the nice, unprejudiced, non-revolutionary imaginary version of Wagner would have been a better person, but would have died in obscurity, a bank clerk or choir master long forgotten. Artists tend to be complicated, flawed people. Not just artists. People tend to be complicated and flawed. Nowadays our social media profiles often represent the Platonic ideal of our true selves. It’s bad enough to project that idealism on each other, worse to project it onto the past. By its nature the past can never live up to the ideals of the present. Nor will the present live up to the ideals of the future. In the case of Wagner, he has bequeathed to us many hours of wonderful, thought-provoking music and drama, and we can be thankful for that. Can’t we be satisfied with that? Shouldn’t that be enough?


Syberberg’s Parsifal

Parsifal and Flower Maidens from Syberberg's Parsifal
Parsifal and Flower Maidens from Syberberg’s Parsifal

One thing that bothers me about opera is that the stage directors are constantly getting into the act, injecting their often weird interpretations into productions, often to the point of destroying the intent of the composer and librettist. Certainly interpretation of a score has a place up to a point, but one can’t redo a Beethoven symphony as hip-hop without fatally distorting the meaning of the music.

The most OCD of operatic composers was Richard Wagner. Not only did he compose the music, he wrote the libretto of each of his operas. Not satisfied with this, he built his own opera house designed especially for the performance of his operas. The stage directions he wrote into his scores are very detailed, and pushed the limits of the technology of his time. Even today, depicting Rhinemaidens singing as they swim in the river, or the burning of Valhalla, or the Valkyries flying through the air on their horses necessitates leaving more to the imagination than can be technically depicted on the stage.

Yet despite this (or maybe because of this?), stage directors think nothing of ignoring these directions and instead impose their own sometimes harebrained interpretations on these finely crafted works. No one would dream of substituting an oom-pah band for the orchestra, but yet anachronistic reinterpretations of the Ring, for example, sometimes bear a closer resemblance to Star Wars (e.g. this) than Norse mythology. Fortunately in most cases the singers, the music, and the text are able to overcome what otherwise would be a cringe-worthy staging.

Case in point: I have seen Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg performed live on two occasions. The first time, years ago in Denver, was a traditional staging, set in the time of the Meistersingers, with period costumes and scenery. It was very enjoyable. This past year, in Paris, I watched the Stefan Herheim version. This version is very cleverly staged, though the bottom line of the production is that the whole opera is just a dream of Hans Sachs’s. The scenes take place on giant versions of his desk and other parts of his room, and various characters from German legends float in and out of the scenes. I have to say that this was entertaining in its own way, but it also somewhat subverted the sad nobility of Sachs in his affection for Eva. I preferred the Denver version that was truer to Wagner’s intent.

All this is just preamble to my feelings about the 1982 film of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. I had heard of the film, but had never seen it until recently. The complete plus-4-hour film is available (at least at the moment) through the magic of YouTube. At first glance, the film seems to do all the things I complained about above. The setting is a giant death mask of Wagner. There are tacky puppets and front-screen projections. There are deliberate anachronisms, like Nazi flags. The protagonist, Parsifal, changes between a male and a female. Only a few of the actors actually sing their roles; most are just lip-synching. So, given all this, I am surprised that I really liked the film.

Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera, is a strange work. After the Norse mythology of the Ring, Wagner turned back to the medieval Christian mythology he had previously explored in Lohengrin. Here we find the Knights of the Holy Grail, and Parsifal, “der Reine Tor — Pure Fool” who ends up saving the order of the Grail. Based on medieval tales such as Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (point of trivial for cardiologists: von Eschenbach in the 13th century describes treating pericardial tamponade with a hollow reed — something that didn’t make it into Wagner’s opera), Wagner as usual wrote his own libretto and has his own interpretation of the tale. This contains many “un-Christian” elements, including a self-castrated evil sorcerer, a knight suffering from a non-healing wound inflicted by the lance that pierced Jesus’ side on the cross, a woman doomed to live forever under a curse because she mocked Jesus at the crucifixion, and over an hour of the most intense seduction scene imaginable, first by a group of flower-maidens, and then by Kundry, the aforementioned conflicted, cursed, unsaved, undying woman/witch. Apparently this mixture of the sacred and profane was met with mixed reactions when the opera premiered, as it does today.  Underpinning all this is Wagner’s music at its finest  — motifs intertwined more intricately than those of Die Götterdämmerung, his penultimate opera. There are many odd and intriguing aspects to Parsifal. It seems that the Castle of the Grail is located in some kind of parallel universe. There is this odd exchange, which make me wonder if Albert Einstein ever viewed the opera:

Parsifal: Ich schreite kaum, doch wähn' ich mich schon weit.

Gurnemanz: Du sieh'st, mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit.

Parsifal: I scarcely move, yet already it seems I have travelled far.

Gurnemanz: You see, my son, here time becomes space.

So what is so great about the Syberberg film? It’s hard to pin down. I think mostly it is the acting. In particular Edith Clever, the German actress who plays Kundry, the tormented, schizophrenic woman at the center of the opera, is wonderful. Using close-ups, film is able to capture the emotions of her and the other actors much better than can be done on the operatic stage. So, despite all the tackiness and weirdness of this production, it is nevertheless a moving experience and, perhaps because Wagner’s opera is so strange to begin with, the extraneous elements don’t seem to distract from the performance.

I would like to see more operas on film. Not films of opera performances (though these are enjoyable too and some are on YouTube), but movies with real actors. Just as Tolkien had to wait for advances in movie special effects and Peter Jackson for his Ring to be filmed, perhaps the apotheosis of Wagner’s Ring will be found in the modern cinema. Through the magic of CGI maybe one day we will see the Rhinemaidens swimming around the Rhinegold as Wagner envisioned the scene in his mind originally.

History Music Politics Society

Memories of Van Cliburn

Van Cliburn
Van Cliburn

In the long struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, from the end of World War II until the end of the Soviet era in 1991, there were intense moments of high drama, like the Berlin Blockade and the Cuban Missile Crisis, intermixed with moments when the icy hostility melted a bit. With both countries armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons of a power sufficient to destroy out planet many times over and a firm policy on both sides with the ironically apt acronym MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), the stakes that world leaders were playing with could not have been higher. The path that eventually led to the defusing of this dangerous situation was not direct. Certainly the final act was played out by Ronald Reagan (undoubtedly his greatest role) and Mikhail Gorbachev, but long before that a young Texan, a classical pianist, was one of the first to breach the barriers between the two countries. In 1958 he won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, the first American to do so. He played two great Russian concertos in the last round of the competition: the Tchaikovsky 1st and the Rachmaninoff 3rd. He won the hearts of the Russian people as well as the judges of the competition. Nevertheless they cleared their decision with Premier Nikita Krushchev. Krushchev reportedly asked them: “Is he the best?” When answered affimatively he stated: “Then he should win.” After the competition he returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, and a full concert schedule. His records (LPs) were all hits, and I personally bought a lot of them. In later years he received some criticism from music reviewers for a conservative repetoire and rote performances, but at his peak he was a tremendous musician. His recordings of the Prokofiev 3rd Concerto and the Rachmaninoff 2nd Sonata are cases in point.

Van Cliburn and Krushchev
Van Cliburn and Krushchev

I first saw him perform live in a concert that I believe took place in 1966 in Philadelphia. He performed 3 piano concertos in one concert with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The 3 concertos were the Mozart number 25 in C major, the Beethoven 4th, and the Rachmaninoff 2nd. I well remember his appeararnce on stage, sitting very tall and straight-backed on the piano chair, swaying side to side with the music. Playing 3 concertos in one concert was and is quite a feat. It was rebroadcast on the Philadelphia classical music channel (WFLN) a few weeks later and I made a tape recording of the whole concert from my little transistor radio. Over the years I lost all my old tapes. I wish I still had that one. I have never heard of another recording of that historic concert.

Cliburn appeared frequently at the Robin Hood Dell concerts. These were summer concerts performed outdoors in Philadelphia. On these occasions he wore white formal attire. My friends and I attended these concerts and at the end of each concert, went up to stand in the front row to watch Cliburn give a series of encores. We went often enough to know that when he played Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat it would be the last encore of the evening. He was always generous with his encores and gracious to his audiences.

Van Cliburn died on February 27, 2013 at age 78. He played for presidents, world leaders, and for all the rest of us. He was a sorely needed bit of warmth in the midst of the Cold War. By any measure he was a great American and I count myself fortunate that I was able to see him perform in person on several occasions.

Computers & Software Music Travel

EP Studios Status Report

Return to Paris
Return to Paris

I’ve been a bit lax on the social media front recently.  In fact, there are some days that I forget that there is such a thing as social media — that is, if it were not for my phone’s frequent pinging and buzzing to remind me of its existence.  Truth is, I’ve been busy with other matters.

My wife and I just finished moving the contents of our condo in Louisville, Kentucky (a.k.a. EP Studios, Eastern Headquarters) back to Colorado.  This was a major undertaking.  We were in Louisville over the Thanksgiving holiday, but had to spend our 4 day stay packing up our stuff in boxes.  We then had to drive back to Colorado in time to beat the moving truck.  We have been unpacking since then, with only a few boxes left to go.  Sadly, there was no time during this hectic visit to Louisville to visit my old friends there.  We’ll be back though, as my son and 3 grandchildren live there.

We’ll be returning to the European Headquarters of EP Studios in Paris, France for another 6 month stint in January.  There are a host of projects that I will be working on there, in between classes at Alliance Française, visits to art galleries, and glasses of wine.  I have a backlog of blog topics that I need to write about.  Probably fewer of these posts will be on medical topics, for reasons I have already explicated.  As I get further into my retirement, I feel less like a doctor and more like a human being (sorry, just a joke!  Hopefully a false dichotomy!).  On the programming front, I will be updating the EP Coding app with the new 2015 CPT codes.  I have already updated both my medical apps to use Android’s new Material Design theme.  I am also working on a simulator app based on Edward E. Smith’s Lensman books.   There are also a number of hush-hush top secret projects in their early stages here at EP Studios.

Gigliola Cinquetti and composer Domenico Modugno in 1966
Gigliola Cinquetti and composer Domenico Modugno in 1966

On the writing front, I have not been completely non-productive (I believe a legal use of a double negative, or maybe French is corrupting my English).  Here is a post I wrote for the Chicago Schlager Music Review on singer Gigliola Cinquetti.  If you don’t know what Schlager means, it is German pop music.  It’s one of my interests though admittedly not a very well known musical genre in America.  It’s big in Germany and the Chicago Schlager Music Review is a great introduction to this type of music.

As any regular reader of my blog knows, I like posting on non-medical topics and will continue to do so.

Happy Holidays!

Computers & Software Electrophysiology History Medicine Music Religion Society

Futurama Revisited

GM Futurama exhibit 1964 New York World's Fair
GM Futurama exhibit 1964 New York World’s Fair

Fifty years ago my parents took me to the World’s Fair in New York. The year was 1964. I was twelve years old. It was a turbulent time in American history. The prior fall John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, initiating a long period of turmoil for the United States.  But it was still the era of America’s post-war technological greatness. The country was gearing up to fulfill Kennedy’s vision of a manned flight to the moon before the end of the decade. Products were still made in America, and we used the phrase “made in Japan” as a joke to mean something cheap and junky. People had savings accounts, and there were no credit cards. At the same time, racial discrimination and segregation were widespread. There was cringe-worthy sexism present, as anyone can tell by watching movies or TV shows from that era. There was no Medicare. US poverty levels were at an all time high. Lyndon Johnson and Congress went on to address some of these issues with the Civil Rights Act and the Social Security Act of 1965 which created Medicare and Medicaid. Johnson declared the War on Poverty in 1964 and poverty levels did fall. At the same time an undeclared war in southeast Asia was to cast a large shadow over his legacy and over the lives of boys turning 18 through the next decade.

Nevertheless it was a beautiful warm summer day when we visited the Fair. I remember the day well. Having devoured the Tom Swift, Jr. books and then science fiction of the 3 grandmasters, Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, I was filled with boundless optimism about the future of technology. The Fair was crowded with Americans that didn’t look much like Americans of today.  Neatly dressed.  Thin.  I was old enough to notice the pretty teenage girls who were just a few years older than I, working summer jobs at the fair. I remember riding up the elevator in one of the saucer-like observation towers (you know them, they play a prominent role in the movie “Men in Black”) and shyly eying the cute girl seated on a stool operating the elevator controls. Yes, for you younger readers, elevators used to be manually operated. The fair made a lot of predictions, but I don’t think automatic elevators was one of them.

The General Motors pavilion was aptly named Futurama. There is a YouTube video showing what it was like. I waited expectantly in the heat in a long line that stretched around the rectangular concrete windowless building. Inside we sat on cushioned chairs that automatically moved through the exhibit. There were vistas of a technologically rich future. Spacecraft exploring the moon. Scientists controlling the weather from a station in Antarctica. And in the environmentally naive outlook of that era, large machines cutting down rain forests to build roads to deliver “goods and prosperity.”

This exhibit was a highlight of the fair. Afterwards we went to the General Electric pavilion where we witnessed a demonstration of nuclear fusion (was it real? I honestly don’t know, and the Internet is vague about it). There was a loud bang and a bright light.  All very impressive, especially at my young age.

There have been a number of recent articles (e.g.  here, here, and here)  about the Fair and about which predictions it got right and which were wrong. Curiously there weren’t any predictions about medical science that I remember. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. I think I wanted to be an astronaut back then. Pacemakers were brand new and digitalis and quinidine were staples for treatment of abnormal heart rhythms. The huge advances in medicine that were to come between now and then could not even be imagined.

I remember there was some stuff about computers, but at the time a single computer with less memory and processing power than that in my cell phone filled a large room. And yet it’s amazing that level of computing power was able to get us to the moon. The thought that everyone would carry their own personal computer/communicator in their pocket was pretty far-fetched. A few years later in Star Trek Captain Kirk would use something that looked like a flip-phone, but gosh, no capacitive touch screen! It did have a neat ring tone however.

The networking together of the world’s computers (aka the Internet) was certainly not predicted. Having the knowledge of the world a few mouse clicks away is probably the most significant advance of the last 20 years or so. It has altered our lives, I believe mostly for the good (except when I read YouTube comments), in a fashion unimaginable 50 years ago. I’m disappointed that the exploration of space didn’t turn out as predicted. Where are our moon colonies, or our base on Mars? But I’m happy with the way the Information Age has turned out, and I wouldn’t trade my ability to spend an evening browsing Gigliola Cinquetti videos on YouTube for anything.

The social changes that have occurred since then have been significant and generally for the good. Communism has been marginalized and the threat of nuclear war diminished. Religious fundamentalism remains a thorn in the side of humanity, as it has always been. Certainly there is still sexism and racism and we have further to go in correcting social injustice. But if I had told my dad back in the 60s that the United States would elect a black president, I’m sure he would have said something like “That’ll be the day!”


The Magic of Medtner

Nikolai Medtner
Nikolai Medtner

When I was in college in the late 1960s, early 70s, electronic and avant-garde music was all the rage, at least in my circles. Honestly everyone else listened to Rock, but I was fascinated by what is ineptly named “Classical Music.” In the 20th century, a century of the utmost human drama and scientific progress, there was a notion that music constantly needed to evolve. The problem was that most of the possible harmonic evolution in so-called “tonal” music had already occurred in the 19th century. Starting with Beethoven who bridged the classical and romantic periods, developed by Chopin and Liszt, and culminating with Wagner, the master musical manipulator of emotion, pretty much every possible harmony that made any kind of sense in a tonal system had already been written by 1900. In the 20th century there then were two kinds of musicians: those who took the 19th century harmonic palette and wrote works with it, and those who decided to test the limits of music by going off into new directions. Composers like Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Debussy, Prokofiev, and Bartok are examples of the first type of composer, and Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Ives, Boulez, Carter and Stockhausen are examples of the second type of composer. Some will object that the two classes aren’t really separate, that composers like Prokofiev and Bartok were harmonically and rhythmically audacious, and composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg wrote tonal works early on. The distinction though I would like to make is that the first group of composers never abandoned tonality, while the second group were more radically experimental and wrote truly atonal music.

In the 20th century the composers of the former group were often looked down upon, whereas the second group, the experimenters, were the darlings of the musical world. This attitude led to curious concert programming, with 19th century staples sharing the concert stage with the latest aleatoric piece by John Cage. Nevertheless the listening public always preferred the more tonal pieces, and today the 20th century experimenters in music are the ones neglected, whereas many fine 20th century tonal composers are being rediscovered.

I was very enthusiastic about avant-garde music in college. I liked electronic and musique-concrete experimenters like Edgard Varese and Karlheinz Stockhausen. I wrote electronic music in the Bregman Electronic Music Studio at Dartmouth under the tutelage of composer Jon Appleton.  (Don’t believe me?  Check out the Baker Library Catalog.)  I corresponded with Elliott Carter who was nice and patient enough to write me back a long letter about modern music. My piano teacher was Milton Babbitt’s uncle. Babbitt wrote serial music that serialized not just tones, but dynamics, timing, and so forth. Listening to it brings to mind the quote that Mark Twain was fond of using about Wagner’s music: “It’s better than it sounds.” My piano teacher though had also met Rachmaninoff, and, despite the experimentation of my college years (doesn’t everyone experiment in college?) I never lost my love for tonal music, especially as written by the great Russians: Rachmaninoff, Scriabin (who remained tonal but did develop some unconventional harmnonies), and of course the subject of this post, Nicholai Medtner.

Medtner lived from 1880 to 1951. He was a friend of Rachmaninoff. The two of them corresponded, comparing notes while composing their (Medtner’s second and Rachmaninoff’s fourth) piano concertos. Superficially the two composers have a similar harmonic style. Medtner, perhaps not quite as melodically gifted as Rachmaninoff (was anyone?), exceeds his colleague in the complexity of his counterpoint and depth of his compositions. Harmonically he used the complete palette of romanticism, but did not forge new ground. He does have a very distinctive and recognizable style, much like Rachmaninoff has. (I once heard on the radio a piece I had never heard before, and knew it had to be Rachmaninoff from the style, and it was.) Like Chopin Medtner wrote almost exclusively for the piano. He wrote 14 piano sonatas, many other pieces for solo piano (including the Skazki or Fairy Tales), a few chamber works, and three piano concertos. Medtner recorded some of his works on 78 rpm records at the end of his life. He was a virtuoso pianist on the order of Rachmaninoff (one has to be to play most of his works). Unlike some composers, his works stand up to repeated listenings, in fact it takes multiple listenings to get the most out of them.

My friend on YouTube who goes by the handle itchy2345 has recorded many of the solo pieces by Medtner. She plays beautifully. Here is an example, the Fairy Tale, opus 20, no 1:

You would do well to explore the other Medtner works she has recorded. Medtner is now well represented on YouTube and on recordings. The 3 piano concertos are amazing. The best in the second, particularly the first movement. The way the themes kind of melt into each other at the end of the movement is typical of Medtner. As always, Marc-Andre Hamelin is great at this sort of music:

Unfortunately Medtner died without much recognition (that old story). Fortunately he is now finally getting his due. He is the sort of composer whose music is fascinating and grows on you. If you like classical music of the romantic period, give him a listen.


Thematic Unity in Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto

Rachmaninoff at the time of the 2nd concerto
Rachmaninoff in 1900, the period the 2nd concerto was composed

Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto (1901) was written after a course of psychotherapy for depression that the composer suffered following the disastrous premier of his first symphony.  Apparently this treatment worked, for the concerto is one of the most popular ever written for the instrument.  Its popularity stems not only from its lyrical themes but also from its remarkable construction.  Unlike some other works by the composer there is no excess in this concerto.  It was never revised or needed revision, in contrast to his first and fourth concertos which were revised multiple times.  His popular third concerto contains several ossias (alternative passages), including two different versions of the first movement cadenza.  There are several optional cuts in the third concerto, sanctioned and indeed played by the composer, though today these cuts are rarely made in performance.  The second concerto in contrast has no ossia passages, no first movement cadenza, and one can’t conceive of any place where it could be cut.  In particular the first movement of the second concerto is about as tight and economical a piece of music as Rachmaninoff ever wrote.  There is a remarkable thematic unity throughout the concerto that contributes greatly to the impression it makes on the listener.  I would like to focus on this aspect of the concerto.   Some of the observations I make have been noted by others, in particular in the detailed 1990 Rachmaninoff study by Barrie Martyn.   I have read many books on piano concertos and Rachmaninoff in particular as well as many liner notes over the years and so it is difficult to remember exactly where each idea came from.  Keep in mind this is just a blog post and not a scholarly article!   Also note that the concerto, published in 1901, is in the public domain, even under the crazy copyright laws of the United States (incredibly a work published in 1923 will not go into the public domain until 2019, thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998).   The score is available for download from IMLSP.

The opening of the concerto is announced famously by a series of solo piano chords, clearly a bell-motif similar to the chords that close the famous C sharp minor prelude.  Rachmaninoff was fascinated by the tolling of bells, as is evidenced in many of his works, especially his liturgical pieces (he even wrote a symphonic poem entitled The Bells, after the Edgar Allen Poe poem).  Here is the beginning of the concerto:

Opening chords

The quarter-notes in the last bar, boxed in red, are important, but I will return to them in a moment.  The opening chords are simple but striking.  It takes a large hand to play them unbroken, and it is a little curious that Rachmaninoff himself, despite his double-jointedness from Marfan’s syndrome and hands that could reach a twelfth, breaks the left hand chords, playing the bottom F a moment before the beat in both his recordings.  I suspect he did this for musical rather than mechanical reasons.  Players of his era often rolled chords or otherwise embellished the score to an extent that today’s players rarely do.  In any case, Rachmaninoff’s own performance certainly sanctions the non-simultaneity of all the notes of these chords, for those players who lack the hand span to play them unbroken!

The question arises, did Rachmaninoff reuse these opening chords later on in the concerto, or did he “throw them away,” much as Tchaikovsky threw out the whole opening theme of his 1st concerto, which is never referred to again in the rest of the work?  As it turns out, the same chord sequence (in fact the exact same chords) appear in the orchestra in the beginning of the third movement (in the green box):

Bell theme in 3rd movement

It may not seem too curious that Rachmaninoff would reuse these first movement chords in the third movement. It does seem more curious when one realizes that the first movement of the concerto was actually written last, after the final two movements were written and originally performed.  Almost a year separates the performance of the last two movements and the first performance of the complete concerto.  One could imagine that Rachmaninoff already had the first movement in mind when he composed the last two movements.  Or perhaps some of the first movement themes were drawn from the third movement.  It is also possible that Rachmaninoff further revised the last two movements after composing the first movement, thus introducing the first movement themes.  I don’t know if there are manuscripts extant that would reflect this, but it is an interesting question, especially in light of the multiple shared themes throughout the concerto.

Returning to the opening bars, in the last measure there are four notes (F-A flat-F-G, boxed in red) that at first glance (or hearing) may seem to be just a grand flourish leading to the main theme of the movement, but actually they turn out to be the pervasive theme of the movement, gradually becoming more and more important throughout the development section and eventually usurping the recapitulation of the movement.  The four note theme makes multiple appearances.  For example, it is hidden in the lyrical second theme of the first movement (boxed in red):

1st movement, 2nd theme

During the development, it appears as an accompanying flourish in the woodwinds to the 1st theme in the strings:

1st movement, development

Here the theme is mutating, preceded by two repeated notes, and becoming a little more martial in character.  The piano takes over, with a more scherzando mood, again featuring the four note theme:

1st movement, development, piano
1st movement, development, piano

There is an interplay between this four note theme, the theme of repeated notes and the 2nd theme which builds up to the recapitulation.

1st movement, further development
1st movement, further development

The start of recapitulation has a completely different character from the exposition.  The martial theme is in the piano and the orchestra accompanies with the first theme.

1st movement, recapitulation
1st movement, recapitulation

A lyrical version of the four note theme is present throughout the recapitulation of the second theme, altering its character quite poignantly:

1st movement, recapitulation 2nd theme
1st movement, recapitulation 2nd theme

This leads to some wonderful harmonies (see my post on this) and then the coda.  Not surprisingly, the four note theme is present even here:

1st movement, coda
1st movement, coda

Rachmaninoff is not finished with this four note theme, as he quotes it in the second and third movements too:

2nd movement, bridge
2nd movement, bridge


3rd movement, beginning
3rd movement, beginning

3rd movement, passage-work
3rd movement, passage-work

It is even possible that the famous “Rachmaninoff signature” with which he ends this and also the third concerto is derived from the repeated note martial manifestation of the four note theme:

3rd movement, end
3rd movement, end

This four note theme is not the only theme that pervades the concerto.  For example, consider the transition between the first and second themes of the first movement.  Rachmaninoff prior to the premiere performance of the movement had a relapse of his perennial self-doubt, fearing the transition was too abrupt.  The transition in actuality is quite clever and is a good example of the economy of the whole first movement.  The transition begins with a brief elaboration by the piano of part of the first theme, followed by an accelerando with rapid piano passage work, followed by rhythmic tonic and dominant chords in c minor (a foreshadowing of the martial mood of the recapitulation).  After this there is a rising arpeggio in the orchestra culminating in a tutti chord, some syncopated triads in E flat major, and then the 2nd theme.  The rising arpeggio foreshadows the second theme, as it is based on a similar arpeggio:

1st movement transition to 2nd theme
1st movement transition to 2nd theme

1st movement, start of 2nd theme
1st movement, start of 2nd theme

The second theme of the first movement bears a certain similarity to the famous melody of the third movement.  Both feature a right hand melody in octaves against left hand quavers.  The third movement melody is long and more intricate, rising to a climax which is used to effect in the final orchestral tutti.  The first movement melody is more limited.  Again note the rising figure with which it begins in the blue box.  Now one can see that the third movement melody also quotes this phrase:

3rd movement, 2nd theme
3rd movement, 2nd theme

In case you think this is a coincidence, Rachmaninoff takes pains to quote this rising phrase at the very end of the 2nd movement.  One can’t hear the unexpected A after the G sharp without getting a sense of deja-vu reflecting back on the 2nd theme of the first movement.

2nd movement, close
2nd movement, close

As always with this kind of analysis,  I could go on, though other than to the hard-core enthusiast of deconstructing works of classical music, I probably made my point quite a while ago.  Perhaps some if not most people just want to listen to the music without trying to understand how it is put together.  Musical analysis to some is akin to revealing how a magician does his tricks and thus spoiling the effect.  I suspect though that if you have read this far you actually, like me, find this interesting.

To summarize, it is surprising to find first movement themes in the latter movements of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto given that the first movement was composed last. Even more remarkable is the terseness and economy of the first movement.  The development of the tiny four note theme into the dominant theme (I use the term in its non-harmonic sense) of the movement is an example of the composer’s excellent craftsmanship which is underappreciated.  Rachmaninoff was often looked down upon in the 20th century by music critics but he has garnered more respect with the passage of time.  Certainly no work has a more secure place in the repertoire than his second concerto, one of the most remarkable works for piano and orchestra in the musical literature.

Books Movies Music

The Music of James Bond

Dr. No Original Sound Track Album Cover
Dr. No Original Sound Track Album Cover

One of the perks of blogging is that it gives one a license to write about topics that one really is not an expert on (a trait that my readers have doubtless discovered on their own).  And speaking of licenses to do things… there is the double zero license to kill, granted by the British Government to a select few secret agents in the fictional world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond.  It is hard to believe, in this world of Edward Snowden, NSA snooping on American’s phone and internet messages, and government sanctioned murder via drones, that not only were James Bond and his somewhat quaint by today’s standards license to kill, as well everything associated with spying, all the rage back in the 1960s, but also that the movie phenomenon has continued right up to the present day.  My son Brian was nice enough to give me a present last Christmas of “The James Bond 50” that consists of all the James Bond movies over the last 50 years.  I was always a fan, and this wonderful Blu Ray set allows me to see all the movies again in order.  I have been watching about one a week, giving me some precious entertainment over this final year of my medical career.  When I get back to Skyfall, it should be January, 2014.  I am also reading Sinclair McKay’s The Man With The Golden Touch which is a great source of insight into these films.

It is interesting to watch the films again from today’s perspective.  I have gotten as far as the start of the Roger Moore era.  The movies, aside from being an interesting glimpse into the culture of the 60s and 70s and showing how far we have come in terms of sexism and racism, are entertaining and have high production values.  They have always been very popular, apparently the second most popular movie series of all time (the first? Harry Potter).  Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and even George Lazenby in his single outing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service all bring a different spin on Bond.  Connery is tough and gritty, Moore is suave and debonair, but a little silly, and Lazenby is handsome but understandably insecure, this being the first and only acting attempt of the former used car salesman turned model.  Ironically his performance probably emulates the Bond of the novels best, who was a considerably more insecure and complex character than that portrayed on the screen.  What strikes me most on re-watching these early Bond films though is how crucial and how good their musical scores are.

At the end of every Bond film there is a statement that reads “The James Bond Theme was composed by Monty Norman.”  Norman was a writer of Broadway songs and was hired to compose the music for Dr. No.  The producers of the Bond films, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were apparently dissatisfied with Norman’s version of the James Bond theme and brought in John Barry to arrange it, resulting in the version so well know today.  The guitarist Vic Flick played the theme and was paid a one time fee of £6.  Over the years Norman (who is still alive) has won several libel suits over authorship of this theme, so, if you are reading this post, Monty Norman, I don’t dispute your authorship of the theme.  As part of the evidence introduced in the libel suits, Norman produced a song from an unpublished musical written in the 1950s prior to Dr. No.  The song, called “Good Sign Bad Sign,” is pretty awful, but there is part of the familiar guitar riff in it, in a Hindu sitar style.

I’m not sure we know how this was adapted by Norman to become his rejected version of the Dr. No James Bond Theme, but we do know what happened when the late John Barry, who I believe was a film music genius, got hold of it:

Barry was chosen to write scores for the next several Bond films.  He did not write the theme to From Russia With Love, but did orchestrate that score.  He then wrote the great Goldfinger theme, belted out memorably by Dame Shirley Bassey.  The next film Thunderball has a great score, though the film itself is not the best of the oeuvre.  Barry originally wrote the title theme “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which is a great tune with about as silly lyrics as you can imagine.

This title song, sung by Dionne Warwick was rejected at the last minute because (maybe among other reasons) it did not contain the word “Thunderball” in its lyrics. The unsung version of this song is heard throughout the score of the movie.  So Barry had only a few days to come up with a new song, which turns out to be another great song, sung by Tom Jones.  According to the singer he held the last note so long that he passed out at the end of the song.

A great parody of this song is the opening of the otherwise forgettable Spy Hard, sung by Weird Al Yankovic, including his take on Tom Jones’s passing out at the end of the song:

Barry went on to write several more of the James Bond scores.  His indelible musical stamp, along with title sequences by Maurice Binder, the incredible sets of Ken Adams (remember the volcano interior in You Only Live Twice, complete with working monorail, or the interior of Fort Knox?), and the personalities of the different Bond actors, helped make the films what they are.  I close with my favorite, the orchestral theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  What a great driving theme, perfect to accompany the thrilling skiing sequences of that movie:

Note: given the vagaries of YouTube and fair use of copyrighted material, on which YouTube definitely treads a fine line, I apologize if either some of the above links don’t work in the future, or if someone feels copyright has been violated.  If the latter, please notify me and I will remove the link.  — DEM

Books Music

PC or Not PC, That is the Question

I read today about the upcoming release of a sanitized version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in which the “N-word,” as it is known in the media, is replaced by the word “Slave.”  So, instead of “Nigger Jim,” there will be, presumably “Slave Jim.”  Never mind that Mark Twain makes Jim the hero of the book, which is vigorously anti-slavery, so that the use of the word is ironic while also accurately reflecting the racism of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era.  Sure let’s clean up the book, so that students today don’t have to be exposed to the Voldemort-like “Word-That-Must-Not-Be-Named” and get uncomfortable.  And, gee, after reading this version of the book, maybe some of them will get the idea that in the South after the Civil War, there really wasn’t that much racism.  After all, here’s this book by Mark Twain that deals with that era, with lots of genuine-sounding dialect, and not once is that dreadful “N-word” mentioned.

About 15 years ago I purchased the piano score of George Gershwin’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess. Many years before that when I was a college student I had played through the same score.  The Baker Library at Dartmouth had lots of musical scores, and I remember checking out their edition of the piano score to study and play back in the 1970s.  The edition I purchased in the 1990s looked identical to the one I remembered so well from college — with one exception.  The word nigger had been removed.    In the opera the black folks of Catfish Row, who used that word to refer to themselves, much as hip-hop types do nowadays (but only black to black — Jackie Chan learns this in a funny scene in the movie Rush Hour), no longer did so, using other less provocative words.  The white policeman who used the epithet “you damned darkey” instead said “you damned dummy.”  And so forth.  Other than that, this edition of the score looked identical to the one I remembered, and there was no indication that this was an edited version.  I began to think that I had imagined the racial slurs in the score I had studied many years before.  Finally, after significant effort researching the issue, I discovered that George’s brother, Ira, after George’s death had revised the libretto (which he and DuBose Heyward had originally written), taking out the racial epithets.  I don’t disagree with revising the libretto in this way.  After all, Ira co-wrote it, so this is a different situation from the revision of Huckleberry Finn by someone far removed from Mark Twain.  The problem I have is that there is no indication that this is a revision.   I doubt there are many people at all, even musical historians, who know that there was an earlier published version of this score.  The original version has been forgotten.  The harsh racist slurs of the original version give a different flavor to the opera.  The audience views the story from the point of view of the poor black people on the outskirts of Charleston South Carolina — certainly an unusual vantage point for white people in the 1920s — and the wonderful music and poignant story make them sympathize with these characters.  Perhaps for the first time the racial slurs that white people so casually used at that time were heard from the point of view of the recipients.  The impression one gets listening to the current edition of the opera is that the Gershwin brothers were very circumspect for their time in avoiding use of racial hate words.  And unless someone uncovers the very earliest edition of the score, there is no way to tell otherwise.

Why do we want to change the past?  How is anyone in the future going to understand our past if we actively alter it?  Why are some words so taboo that just saying them can end careers?  Why do we allow any words to have that kind of power?  Political correctness goes too far if it erases our past and emasculates (very politically incorrect word!) our art and literature.


Reflections on Leonard Bernstein

In olden times, perhaps a hundred years ago, there were still uncharted
corners of the Earth to explore, so that a great fantasy author like
Edgar Rice Burroughs could tuck away a half-dozen unknown civilizations
in the midst of “darkest Africa” for Tarzan to discover, or claim that
large polar openings exist by which the inhabitants of the lands of the
outer crust could enter the inner world of Pellucidar. Sadly, with
Google Earth staring us in the face it requires much more suspension
of disbelief to read Burroughs’ novels today than it did when they were
first published. There are few if any areas of the physical Earth that
remain unexplored. Nowadays the unexplored territories are in the
vast realm of cyberspace. And armed with a web browser, a cup of
coffee, and a comfy chair, I have been known to spend hours at a time
searching for treasure in the jungles of the Internet.

One of my favorite haunts is YouTube. If you are a fan of serious
music, the number of recorded concerts, including rare historical
footage and sound recordings, is mind-boggling. One cool thing about
YouTube is the way your viewing can go off into unexpected tangents,
prompted by the video suggestions that appear on the right side of the
page when you watch a video. For example, yesterday I went from
watching videos of pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin to watching Chico Marx
playing the piano, to watching clips of Leslie Nielson in Forbidden
Planet, to watching episodes of the 60’s TV show Honey West. I love the
combination of seeing old familiar videos with new videos I have never
seen before.

One recent tangent has been watching clips of the conductor Leonard
Bernstein. When I grew up I watched broadcasts of the Young People’s
Concerts that he hosted. In the 60’s I remember going to a concert of
his Mass in Philadelphia and seeing him conduct in person. Many of my
LPs (that’s long-playing records, i.e. vinyl to those raised in the CD
era) were by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. I remember in
particular how fond I was of their recording of Ravel’s Daphnis and
Chloe. Bernstein is best know as a conductor and of course composer of
West Side Story. He was also a talented pianist. Being proficient at
all three of these musical skills is rare; Rachmaninoff was another with
all three skills. But clips on YouTube really demonstrate what an
amazing musician he was. His conducting style was criticized as too
dynamic, too flamboyant. You might interpret these clips that way, but
I instead see a man who is really one with the music. Here was a great
American. Do we have greats like this anymore? If America is on the
decline, is it a least in part because we have lost this kind of spirit?

Here is Bernstein conducting and playing the last movement of Ravel’s
Piano Concerto in G.

And here is a just mind-blowing clip of the end of Mahler’s 2nd