When God Wrote a Symphony

God can do anything.

At least the All-powerful One who created the universe and all the living things in it.

But, on a remarkable day, the Almighty got bored. “I’ve done everything,” he said to himself. “What might I yet do to enhance the world?”

Thus came the idea of a new, mammoth orchestral composition–a piece in three long movements on the largest possible scale. “And so it was.”

The next morning every person on the planet, no matter their age or place, awoke with sheet music and the musical instrument required.

They’d shared a dream overnight, instructing them to practice their portion each day with the newfound talent instilled by The Timeless Being.

In six months, they now knew, God would lead the premiere.

Ah, but we creatures aren’t perfect, are we? Otherwise, why did the Lord drown his people in The Flood? All but Noah, his family, and an ark full of pairs, that is.

Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t come out well, either.

Indeed, one little man in the Deity’s band was already troubled. A diminutive tailor named Thomas read through the score, distressed to discover he had a solo. A star turn in front of the whole world. A cymbal crash, no less. His would be the climactic moment of the entire piece, the capping culmination, its ending excellence.

The clothier, you must understand, preferred the shadows to the stage, avoiding attention his entire life. He worried about bringing his cymbals together a moment too soon, a beat too late, making his noise too loud or soft, or bumping into a fellow percussionist.

Thomas doubted everything about himself. He always had. On this occasion, however, he’d not only be letting himself and humanity down but The Big Guy. Or Woman. Or whatever gender description is appropriate for the Immortal.

What might happen? Would the Supreme Being submerge the earth a second time? The responsibility squeezed Thomas’s heart. He couldn’t sleep, didn’t eat, and lost weight. “God, help me!” pleaded Tom.

No answer came.

The day began. All the living world instantly arrived at an enormous space in Africa. Humankind found itself onstage, surrounded by the rest, in the water, trees, open lands, air, and hills.

After the ensemble tuned, the Maker stepped off his golden chariot and took the podium. The music commenced.

The first movement took eight years to play, but even Thomas thought the celestial tones beautiful beyond imagination. It enchanted the universe of listeners, too, even the man in the moon. Still, as time passed, this musician’s timorous anticipation grew.

After a brief pause, the Lord’s downbeat launched the second section, seven-years in length. The flawless symphonic sounds soared even beyond the loveliness of what had preceded it. Birds froze in mid-flight, transfixed. The giraffes and hippos, the alligators, too, found their eyes glistening. All the collective hearts conjoined, every living creature in synch.

Except for our buddy, of course.

By the beginning of the symphony’s third part, the single suffering soul was beside himself. The cymbal crash lay 10 years ahead. He wrung his hands, wiped his brow, and began to shake.

The decade passed. At last, the moment!

God turned in the cymbalist’s direction, providing the cue. Thomas lifted the metal plates, and then…

Everyone heard the clatter. But it was the sound of Tom dropping the cymbals, not putting the intended final punctuation to the Divinity’s glorious score, 25 years of perfection since the heavenly baton first moved.

The Deity lowered his arms, the performers froze, and the world held its breath. Thomas looked down, but the Immortal One raised the tailor’s head and opened his humiliated, terror-struck eyes to meet his own.

The gaze, as Tom experienced it, felt as though it went on for eternity. In clock time, however, perhaps just a few seconds elapsed.

The composing Creator composed himself and turned to behold the philharmonic altogether.

And he said the only thing a great, eternal musician would say.

“From the top!”

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The first design is Frontiepiece K, The Ancient of Days, to William Blake’s 1794 work Europe a Prophecy. The next image is God Speed! by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, sourced from wikiart.org. Shiva as the Lord of the Dance is the last artwork, created in India. It dates from the 10th or 11th century, now part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Collection.

Bela Bartok’s Simple Philosophy of Life

pouring-light

The conventional question about optimism is whether you see your glass as half-empty or half-full. But let’s look at the same cup differently.

Let’s think of the object as the container of all your capabilities. All your physical skills. All your creative talents and human endowments.

Now turn to the goblet again. Ask not if the glass appears half-empty or half-full of those gifts, but perhaps a more important question:

What will you do with them? What will you do with whatever is inside?

Here is how one person approached the task: Bela Bartok, the 20th-century Hungarian classical composer. He was 64 when he died in 1945, still full of ideas to be put to music paper, not given the life to express them and further enrich us.

The genius regretted it, saying on his death-bed, he had hoped to exit the world with an “empty trunk.” The man might as easily have referred to an empty glass or locker.

His musical being, occupied by what he could yet compose had he “world enough and time,” was still overflowing. The European emigre sought to expend everything on the job of life. Spill the suitcase out. Unpack the riches within.

Since he was born with nothing, Bartok believed he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself and his fellow-man: to share whatever “good” or goods he possessed, to reveal the talents nature bestowed upon him and those he developed.

Bela Bartok, 1927

Bela Bartok, 1927

Creative people often feel chosen. Some consider their craft a “calling” impossible to ignore. They write or perform, not only as a livelihood. Indeed, more than a few sustain their artistic aspirations even though they can’t make a living doing it.

Bartok himself was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment at the time of his death. These people persist out of an “inner necessity.” They cannot do otherwise.

Bartok’s notion is no different than the sports heroes who try to “leave everything on the field,” giving their entire capability to the game. And, while most of us are not inspirational leaders, geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate the most admirable of them: to reach for all we are permitted, work hard, and face challenges instead of running away.

By this standard, a full life would include loving our friends and family passionately and well, seeking always to enrich our knowledge and understanding; and bestow the world with whatever we have to reform it, and us, into something better — to make all our possibilities real, as Bartok hoped.

To choose such a life rejects dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” These seekers refuse self-protectiveness — the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced, the life of “might have been, if only…”

The master wrote one of his greatest works, the Concerto for Orchestra, while fighting the leukemia killing him.

The rest of us can’t claim the same excuse if we slip away with some part of the best of ourselves held back — at least not yet. Why? Because we enjoy the gift of time.

For some of us, the goal of life seems to be filling our luggage with as many things as possible. Things external. For Bartok, the mission was to empty it of the things internal. Many are torn between the two –- a life of consumption or a life of creation. There is a choice.

To Bartok, the playing field of life awaited his best efforts. His regrets reflected his desire to have done more, not consumed more.

Is there a better philosophy of living?

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This post is a reworking of one I published almost eight years ago. The subject of the top photo is a lamp designed by Yeongwoo Kim called Pouring Light.

The Music We Love and the Silence We Need

Do we enhance our appreciation of music by listening to more of it?

The need for silence goes back in time. Man evolved in a world of natural sound and soundlessness. Big cities and machines brought the screech of the elevated train against metal tracks, the rumble from underground subways, and the shout required to be heard above both.

When the conductor Simon Rattle was new to the compositions of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Rattle’s mentor Berthold Goldschmidt said to him, “Will you please remember what the phrase “ohne hast” (without haste) means in a time when there were no automobiles.Nor the sounds from such motor cars, he might have added.

Amplified sound became like floor-to-ceiling audio wallpaper over the course of the twentieth century. Civilization capitulated to its growth.

At first, Western society sought realistic prerecorded melodies. Who among us realized we would pay for this miracle, not just in money spent on phonographs, discs, and streaming services?

Convenience and ubiquity leached away some of the thrills of performances created in our presence. The novel sense of a special occasion diminished. The sonorities we loved became routine.

For music to produce its intended effect, the airborne notes must grow out of silence.

Carlo Maria Giulini, another maestro who mentored Simon Rattle, compared his musical conception to perspective in visual art. This artist wanted “air and space” around the sound to set it in relief from other sounds, just as a painter renders foreground against a background. The painter’s or musician’s hand can produce a third dimension’s magic.

Music now enters us through tired and overused ears. To create impact, performers are tempted to make it louder than in quieter times. More people brought bigger halls. The volume of sound enlarged.

One can speculate about a time-transported Beethoven’s reaction to the intrusion of machinery. Think of the brook he tried to evoke in the second movement of his “Pastoral Symphony.Of course, we can still find streams in the countryside, but we can’t guarantee a chainsaw won’t intrude on the birdsong taking place nearby.

The listener of today is jaded. Television, movies, elevator music, and computers outflank him. Nor does he want to be free of them. Some of us remember the quality of everyday life before stereo recordings. Later, an electronic hum from residential gadgets joined us within moments of relative stillness. Home appliances “speak” to us now.

How often would a music lover 100 years ago have heard a Mozart Concerto in a modest-sized hall? Now we can listen to the same creation more in a week or two than was possible in a lifetime. One needn’t even leave the car or public transportation he takes to work.

I admit music has given me much joy. I’m a veteran concert-goer and recording collector. Yet, I also understand something has been lost.

International concerts in 2021 would have included the tail-end of a world-wide observance of the 250 anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 1770. A wise and necessary idea?

Long before a pandemic aborted the plans to laud the birthday boy, the legendary conductor Otto Klemperer thought otherwise. Musical America published an interview with him in 1927 in commemoration of the composer’s death 100 years before:

If you ask me the best way to celebrate his centenary, I will tell you it is not to play him for a year. He is played too much. Everyone plays Beethoven and no one wishes to hear the (people) who write today. Beethoven has become a business for the box office.

Well, Klemperer got his wish and then some, albeit a little late. Oscar Wilde reminds us, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.

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The first image includes a selection of silhouettes of Gustav Mahler created by Otto Bohler (1847-1913) in 1899.  The photograph of Carlo Maria Giulini is from the cover of Thomas Saler’s superb biography of the conductor, Serving Genius. Finally, a photo of Otto Klemperer, part of the collection of The Library of Congress.

Don Byrd’s Concerto and the Courage to Make Music

Would you travel 500 miles back-and-forth to experience 30-minutes of music by an obscure composer? You might if the musician had dreamed about the piece for 50-years and his name was Donald Byrd; and if he almost died in the middle of its creation. Five friends, my wife, and I were present along with many who traveled much farther; grateful for Don’s life force, his friendship, and his art.

Don was well-into writing his Violin Concerto – a piece for soloist and orchestral accompaniment – when, in January, 2015 …

I’d been having moderate pain in my left hip off and on for months, and nothing seemed to make any difference. Then it got worse, and I returned to my sports-medicine doctor. He thought I just needed a shot of cortisone, but had me get an MRI. Much to our surprise, the report came back stamped ‘CRITICAL UNEXPECTED POSITIVE FINDINGS’: cancer. A week later, I had a definite diagnosis: stage 2 multiple myeloma. The prognosis was pretty good from the beginning; the treatment plan was chemo, possibly followed by a stem-cell transplant. Well, I responded exceptionally well to the chemo — so well my oncologist wasn’t sure I needed the transplant, but I went ahead anyway … and wrote the middle-section of the last movement in the hospital; I think the cancer mostly helped me focus on completing the damn thing; I really didn’t like the thought of dying before finishing it! The illness also gave me time to concentrate on it, since I couldn’t work much on my normal stuff.

Notice the matter-of-factness in Don’s account? Few of us would have been as resilient or optimistic. Few would have reframed the crisis as a spur to reach a goal.

Rumors claimed, back at Chicago’s Mather High School in the 1960s, that Don Byrd was a genius. What none of us, his fellow classmates, then realized, was that he was more remarkable for his courage. And, as you will read, some other things, too.

Master Byrd is a man who remembers those who helped along the way. A 1990 conversation with a Princeton professor, J. K. Randall, moved him from dreaming to doing:

I told him I wanted to create a violin concerto, but didn’t know how (despite having composed other, less ambitious pieces). He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Well, you’d better write it before you find out!’

Still, another five years passed before Don put any notes down. “Thus, you could say the composition took me only 20-years!”

By profession, Don is an informatics expert at Indiana University (Bloomington) – an aspect of information engineering – and one of the founders of the field of music information retrieval. For those of us less steeped in technology, however, his other interests are fascinating, too:

I’m a certified teacher and lover of t’ai chi. I’m a member of the local Quaker Meeting (“meeting” is the Quaker equivalent of church), and I often accompany hymn singing for the Meeting on the piano. I’m an avid but lazy road bike rider. I like physically challenging and dangerous activities: way back when, flying a plane, riding a motorcycle, exploring caves, swimming across a lake alone at night (and I’m not a good swimmer); more recently, rock climbing, mountaineering, and sky diving (the latter only once, on my doctor’s advice). I’m concerned about American society these days and especially its polarization, and over the years I’ve published dozens of letters to the editor and two or three guest columns, the vast majority in the Bloomington paper.

Based on Don’s daring physical activities, you might think of him as an athletic he-man. He is a small fellow (5’3″) except in his heart. There he is a giant.

As mentioned earlier, people came to the September 24th concert from long distances. Among them was a high school friend named Paul Nadler, an international symphony and opera conductor, who directed the performance. Others included the estimable violin soloist, Madalyn Parnas. Friends and colleagues of Don’s traveled from as far away as the San Francisco Bay area, Philadelphia, Florida, Georgia, New York, Michigan, Alabama, and Chicago. Generosity, too, came from three of the orchestra members and his buddy, Paul, who gave their services gratis.

How to explain this devotion? I asked the question of Doug McKenna, who himself journeyed from Colorado: “Don Byrd is a very loyal person and he inspires loyalty in others.” Many of these folks met the composer in school or became colleagues in the early part of his professional career. Some had not seen him for decades.

One might add something else. Many are, like Don, no longer young, except perhaps in attitude. We all knew the event was not to be taken for granted. The good vibe in the concert venue was enough to float the audience of about 150 people out the door. Lots of smiles and a tear or two. Jealous composers or something else?

We never get to hear eulogies for ourselves, of course, and Don Byrd – thank goodness – didn’t either. Yet, early in his battle against cancer, one could have bet a eulogy was more probable than a performance. My guess is that in Don’s worst moments, his wife Susan Schneider and their children would have gratefully given up the completion of the Violin Concerto for a guarantee of more time. Probably even just the shortening of treatment. But, the maestro survived and his magnum opus was performed. Their grown kids, Alec and Torrey, witnessed it, too.

In this month of children’s holiday dreams, prayers, and guardian angels, we all try to get beyond the world’s dark side.

Don Byrd, his spirit, and his music make that a little bit easier for some of us.

Sometimes dreams do come true.

The concert program and program notes:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B2p91S3Iky-VX3k1RENYRG5GU28

Also, before the performance, Don gave a short talk about the concerto, with musical examples played (with hardly any advance notice) by pianist Justin Bartlett. Unfortunately, only the second half or so was recorded, but that recording is here:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B2p91S3Iky-VRGZVZktDSlhYOVE

Independent of the video, the concert was recorded by a professional audio engineer. An MP3 of his recording is here:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B2p91S3Iky-VNDB0Uzd5Mlgycm8

PDFs of the scores of each of the three movements (slightly out-of-date) are at:

1st mvmt: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2p91S3Iky-VQVZxQWExRGlvVkU/view?usp=sharing
2nd mvmt: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2p91S3Iky-VQkUwN1RLeHFHaDQ/view?usp=sharing
3rd mvmt: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2p91S3Iky-VM0JFU2JXRUtuRXM/view?usp=sharing

Read more about Don here: http://homes.soic.indiana.edu/donbyrd/

A Unique Perspective on Traumatic Shock

It was just another late autumn Friday afternoon. A New England autumn. A lovely time to be in Boston. Warm enough, with a high in the 50s.

The greatest shocks never warn.

Matinee symphony concerts, such as those of the Boston Symphony, are attended by more ladies than men. Surely, in the November audience, many from high society – the scions of colonial days – occupied the best seats. Old money, as they say.

The intermission concluded and Erich Leinsdorf, the orchestra’s Viennese Music Director, came on stage. His hands stilled the applause.

Leinsdorf had an announcement to make.

Relive the moment if you are courageous enough: the 53-word report of the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and, more remarkable, the audience’s reaction.

Countless TV and radio interruptions like this occurred, all with the same terrible news. None of the recordings of those broadcasts, however, carry the shock of Leinsdorf’s, because none allow us to hear a traumatized, horrified audience.

Some of the concert-goers knew Kennedy personally. Many had seen him close up. He was a son of their soil and their soul.

Before saying more, I will give you the opportunity to listen. Additional description, context, and analysis follow. Should you be afraid of the shock, however, you may want to read on first. One further word: I’ve included over a minute of the Boston Symphony broadcast before Leinsdorf speaks. I did this to put you in the mind of a Boston listener of the time, unprepared for the unimaginable. Leinsdorf begins to talk about a minute-and-a-half in:

Erich Leinsdorf gave two messages simultaneously, unwittingly. He was convinced Kennedy was dead, but conveyed uncertainty. The audience gasped. Then, before they could process the news – before they could admit to themselves that the President was gone – the orchestra began the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, a piece dedicated to the memory of a fallen hero. Music of consolation served, in this instance, to kill hope.

Perhaps those of you too young to remember the day cannot understand how Americans then felt, despite the more recent shocks you have known. No President had been murdered since William McKinley in 1901, 62-years before Kennedy. The closest previous U.S.A. horror was the Pearl Harbor invasion of December 7, 1941, 22-years before: before my generation, the Post WWII Baby Boomers, were born.

We were – we middle class white kids – yet untouched by national tragedy; a condition now lost in the wave of gun-related domestic massacres, the terrorist catastrophe of September 11, 2001; and subsequent (almost routine) calamities of so many kinds. By 1968, five years later, the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had deflowered the virgin sensibilities of my age group. No wonder smoking marijuana became almost as common among us as saying hello.

On the other hand, if you grapple with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the inside, the audience reaction in Symphony Hall is within the range of your experience. And for those lucky enough not to have suffered such a blow, perhaps listening to this broadcast excerpt will bring you an inch closer to understanding what personal trauma is like.

At least, how it sounded 54-years ago.

A Different Form of Bravery

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as brave. We are not the kinds of heroes found in movies, wartime, or a burning building rescue. Yet one must become the hero of his own story. The reason is simple: there is no one else to do the job. If you are a supporting actor in the movie of your life, audition for a better part.

The clock never stops and opportunities, inevitably, diminish with age. Time still offers chances to change, to try, to dare, but we are captured by long-standing routines. One might say we have traveled the same rut for too long, the furrow deepening with each step. To get out we must climb a wall of earth with strength thought lost.

By 65, the age of my friend Keith Miller, some are already retired. But Keith had at least one more hurdle, one waiting for him over 40 years. Such youthful aspirations are patient, sitting quietly in the back of life’s class, hoping for attention, never raising a hand.

Long ago Keith attended a conservatory and took classes in conducting. He even conducted a chamber group a bit back then, more recently a stint leading a community band, no strings. Keith can’t be called a professional musician, though he has taught piano. The insurance company at which he works as a top-tier technical support analyst is not a wellspring of conductors.

Nevertheless, he had the nerve to apply to the International Masterclasses Berlin, where he would reside for six days in March; and, if he survived, lead the Berlin Sinfonietta in one movement of a romantic masterpiece. Keith was one of 11 students from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina and the USA;  some working conductors with their own ensembles. Almost all were at least 30 years younger than my friend.

But, this is Keith’s story and he needs to tell it:

Packing my luggage for Berlin, I carried expectations, too. Not only from years of listening, but by studying the scores in the months before the masterclass: three symphonies by Brahms, Schubert and Schumann.

This was, after all, my inauguration into the world of orchestral conducting. Sleep medication was the only way to calm my bedtime energy. Most of the anticipation came from the unknown, all that is not in the musical score:

How might the maestro react to my lack of experience? How would I fit, being the oldest student? What of the orchestra’s cooperation and opinion? Would I make good music?

The first rehearsal generated the natural nervousness, heart-palpitations too, but also an internal reminder, “I can do this.” Maestro Shambadal’s steely eyes focused on me. The maestro, Principal Conductor of the Berlin Symphony, was born in Israel and studied with many “greats” including Giulini, Markevitch and Celibidache.

After a few deep breaths I began Schumann’s 4th Symphony. Quickly came a loud clap. The orchestra stopped. Maestro yelled from the back of the room, “It begins on the 3rd beat!” I made the correction and got through ¾ of the first movement before my time was up. A few other stoppages occurred for matters of technique and interpretation. I reminded myself I’d come for just such instruction.

I realized I needed to improve. My desire for the maestro’s approval quickened. The ensemble’s response to my leadership lacked enthusiasm and I knew it.

Three more rehearsals followed and group evaluations, as well, before the concert at which we would all perform. We reviewed videos of the 11 conductors, mine included.

Ugh! My posture was terrible. I looked like a bent old man. Maestro alluded to the same thing. I worked on straightening up, without which I couldn’t communicate command and authority. Here, perhaps, was the explanation for my initial failure to elicit what I wanted from the musicians.

I was selected to conduct the second movement of Schubert’s 8th Symphony at the concert. I marked the top of every page of my score with three words:

POSTURE. TEMPO. RELAX.

Keith worked with an experienced orchestra, many of the musicians retired members of the Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Radio Symphony and regional orchestras, along with younger instrumentalists.

Hundreds of years of accumulated experience face a newbie. Some such ensembles take pride in being able to size up a conductor in minutes, and tear him down in less time. Or ignore him and give “their” version of the piece. Still, each player has a job to do: taking the conductor’s vision as achieved in rehearsal, and making the black notes on white paper sing. Keith learned the conductor’s job, too:

His score holds all the notes, every instrumental line on the same page: dizzying to see, much less read while everything is happening in front of him. There is no opportunity to search the lines, the musicians’ faces, and be the director, too. Without an instrument, armed only with certainty, the knowledge of everyone’s role, and his ability to persuade and inspire, he must make something old into something new.

Concert time at last.

Striding up to the podium I was confident and enthusiastic. I brought along a week’s education.

I led with warmth, lyricism, and the dark drama there in the score. The players were spot on: tempo, dynamics and music-making.

What was experience like? The most exhilarating of my life.

I turned and bowed to the audience. Smiles all around. When I asked the orchestra to stand, I saw many smiles among them, as well. I shook the first violinist’s hand and received one word enthusiastically delivered: “Bravo!” The first cellist gave me a hearty thumbs-up.

My mind was captured by one idea.

“I want to do this again and again!”

The previous conductor and I gave each other a big hug. Later, an audience member said the maestro was watching me with full attention and nodding (not nodding off!), as if to say “very good!” After the concert, he congratulated everyone.

Returning to my hotel after a celebratory dinner, I sat at the edge of the bed and cried. All of the emotion and memories, the anticipation and fulfillment, overtook me. Once composed, I began to pack for the trip home.

Courage takes many forms. Sometimes it is simply making the music that is in you, waiting to be made. Taking a risk, not asking permission.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them.

Here is a man who made his music:


The Music of Catastrophe

If music means something important to us, our contact with a new person finds us trying to discover what musical loves we might share. Thus do friendship and romance begin.

In a world where isolated suffering comes easily, music, like some of the other arts, reveals we have much company in our emotional distress.

Songs add language to instrumental expression, making them more precise in meaning than purely instrumental music. Vocal composition is literally sung to words, but there is just as much of the human experience in the more abstract forms, even if a symphony is not so easily identified with the particular circumstance (say, a broken heart) described in lyrics.

Sound offers solace if a composition reaches the tender, injured place inside. Few pieces, however, deal with cataclysm and collapse. To my ears, one of those is the Symphony #4, the last such work of German composer Johannes Brahms.

Brahms was a life-long bachelor from Hamburg, who died in 1897. He achieved recognition early and much success afterwards. The major unhappiness of his life was his unfulfilled romantic attachment to Clara Schumann, 14 years his senior; the widow of the man who first recognized his genius, the composer Robert Schumann. Some believe their age difference, his virtual adoption by the couple, and the shadow of Brahms’s indebtedness to her late husband made the consummation of his ardor impossible. Brahms’s final symphony reveals he knew much about human calamity, whatever its source.

Lacking a description from the composer about what his symphony “meant” — if anything or nothing — we are left to make our response personal. Perhaps no language exists with which to “understand” Brahms’s Fourth and my use of catastrophe is misplaced, but I am not alone in the opinion.

That disaster, if there is one, occurs in the fourth and last section of the work, the concluding 10-minutes or so. There, too, you will hear a much commented upon “conversational” quality in Brahms, when the wind instruments “speak” to each other. David Hurwitz of Classics Today, finds “active rage and impassive grandeur” in the ending. Jerry Dubins wrote, in Fanfare magazine, of the “final rush to oblivion … on the symphony’s preordained appointment with disaster and annihilation” in “a score of gloom and doom.”

Why might one want to listen given this description?

To me and the many who rank the work one of the most perfect and moving in the entire classical repertoire, much poignant beauty accompanies the ride into the abyss; indeed, because of it. The reasons for listening are no different from those causing us to appreciate a sad song. In Brahms’s 40-minutes we become the composer, inhabit his intellectual and emotional journey, and are seized by towering grandeur; perhaps even  swept away, exhilarated by the suspense and power, and moved to tears. Some would say a great work of art, if masterfully performed, can change us.

Franz Kafka knew the power of all art forms and wrote about the potentially transformational impact of writing:

What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be like an ax to break the frozen sea within us.

Will you be changed?

You can find out in 40-minutes time.

The top photo is the work of Ville Miettinen. It is described as, “A crevasse (moulin) in the Langjökull glacier, Iceland. At the time it was perhaps three or four meters long, a meter wide and some 30-40 meters deep.” The second image is the 20-year-old Brahms in 1853. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Vulnerable Can We Be? Emotional Openness in Therapists and Performers

We get to see public people expressing private emotions on TV. Allowing themselves to be vulnerable. Not only on dating shows. Politicians do it on occasion, including George W. Bush, whose voice cracked and eyes moistened more often than any U.S. President I can remember.

Still, most of us try to stay in control. We hesitate to let down our guard for fear someone will reach into our chest and rip out our already wounded heart. In my experience, however, some of the most touching public situations occur when a self-possessed person displays the courage to live so much in the unselfconscious moment that the voice breaks or tears flow a bit. Before I tell you about my own challenge with this, I will relate two other public examples, as well as describing a therapist’s hesitancy to feel too much in session.

Fred Spector, a retired Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist, told this story in 2001 about an event then three decades old:

We were doing the Verdi Requiem and we knew that the mother of Carlo Maria Giulini, the conductor, died (unexpectedly, while he was in Chicago). He walked on stage (to rehearse with us), starts to conduct the Requiem and stops. He was crying and he said ‘They want me to come home (to Italy). What good is that? My mother is dead. It is more important that I have this experience with you and the Verdi Requiem and think about my mother.’ And now he’s got us all crying, the whole orchestra in tears. ‘That’s more important because then I can experience and think about my mother in this marvelous Requiem. … and those were the greatest performances I’ve ever played of the Verdi Requiem, bar none. … We wanted to get that feeling he wanted for his mother.

Giulini was a private, ever-dignified, old world man (born in 1914) for whom this exposure was uncustomary if not unseemly. Indeed, the orchestra and chorus had been instructed by an administrator not to say anything to him about his loss. Such a direction could only have come from Giulini or his wife.

Of course, it’s one thing to be unguarded in an empty hall and another to “lose it” during performance. Indeed, among the greatest sins of public musical or theatrical presentation is to be so moved by the words you can’t do your job: enable the audience to experience emotion while you remain in control. I am aware of one instance alone when the rule was violated, but the artist succeeded anyway.

A 1947 Edinburgh Festival rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) was the occasion. This hour-long song-symphony portrays the transient beauties of existence and concludes in a 30-minute Abschied (Farewell) to a friend and to life, based on ancient Chinese poetry.

The work’s last moments are a whisper of exquisite, heart-rending beauty as the singer reflects on the passing away of human life, while the world itself blooms anew every spring, “forever.” The last word — “forever” or “eternally” (“ewig” in German) — recurs several times, ever more muted against the fading, shimmering, ethereal consolation of the orchestra.

According to Neville Cardus, a critic for the Manchester Guardian, Kathleen Ferrier, the contralto soloist, was “unable to enunciate the closing words.” Moved by the music, she broke down.

Ferrier, a 35-year-old woman soon to become an international celebrity, was then new to this composition and in awe of Bruno Walter, the 70-year-old conductor who had been the composer’s disciple and given the work its world première in 1911. Cardus tells the story of his arrival backstage after the curtain calls:

I took courage and forced my way into the artists’ room, where I introduced myself to this beauteous (unselfconsciously beauteous) creature. As though she had known me all her life she said: ‘I have made a fool of myself, breaking down like that.’

When Walter came into the room she went to him, apologizing. He took her hands, saying: ‘My child, if we had all been artists like you, we should every one of us have broken down.’

For Cardus, it was one of the greatest, most life-changing performances he heard in a long career as a music critic.

Where does a therapist fit in our discussion? He is not a public performer, but must empathize with his patient. Unmoved by the human suffering he witnesses, he is of no value. But what if he is moved to the extreme? Were he to experience the same level of emotion as his client, he himself would become the patient. The room would be occupied by two people equally anguished, both needing support and relief with no one available to give it.

Someone must possess a therapeutic (but not unfeeling) distance from the suffering. The therapist must.

My own challenge with public vulnerability came in toasting my first child’s marriage. Tears interfere with an adoring parent’s speech at many such events. A guest’s attention is then drawn to the speaker’s unraveling, however sympathetic or touching, not his words about the newly married couple. I wanted the assembly to know what I had to say about my daughter and son-in-law, the better to appreciate them. The language, properly spoken, would externalize the internal, convey emotion, and move the audience.

The problem was, in practicing I could not get through the speech. Time after time I tried, time after time I failed, overwhelmed. Were I to tell you the number of rehearsals I attempted, starting months in advance, I suspect you would not believe me.

The day came — the moment came — and I still had not a single run-through without the internal tidal wave overwhelming my words. Once on stage, however, — finally, finally — the elusive control arrived and the toast went well. I was not as emotionally “present” as I could have been, but the cost of unconsciously distancing myself from my sentiments was the price for moving the audience by words and delivery, not becoming overwrought and a bit incoherent.

Why am I reminded of all this? I just completed a course at the University of Chicago’s Graham School in which our instructor, near the class’s end, discovered her voice cracking with emotion. Sometimes this happens in intimate conversation, frequently in counseling, but not so often at the U of C, and not from this confident and expert guide to literature. She said (to someone else) after the session, she “didn’t know where that came from.”

But, you know what? It capped a great class discussion of a moving novel with a flourish. Sometimes one needs to go with the flow, even if the flow is both figurative and literal.

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The painting at the top of the page is called Tightrope Walker by Jean-Louis Forain(1885). The next image is Australian Artistic Gymnast, Lauren Mitchell at the 41st World Artistic Gymnastics Championship in London, UK, October 14, 2009. The photo was taken by Steven Rasmussen, Explorerdk. The following picture is Gymnast Feet on Beam, January 19, 2008, by Raphael Goetter. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally comes Tightrope Walker by August Macke (1914), sourced from WikiArt.org/

An “Ode to Joy” in a Difficult Moment

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For those searching for joy (and who isn’t), I offer a musical destination. For those searching for defiance — making a statement — I offer the same music, played differently. In both cases the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. You’ve heard it before even if you don’t know it. TV admen for cars and toothpaste made sure.

In a lifetime of listening, the most joyous performance known to me was played by the Boston Symphony under the direction of Charles Munch on April 27, 1956. You might have been brought to tears or thrilled by this music before — and this rendition is thrilling — but, the combustible singers and players, “drunk with fire” in the words of Schiller used by Beethoven, generated an unexpected smile impossible to prevent even if someone paid me to be grim. I’ll give the source below, if you care to put your money where my grin is.

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Unfortunately, not only admen and women turn musical art into a tool. Politicians do too. The Ninth was used in Hitler’s Nazi domain to celebrate his birthday, putting the requested performers in a dilemma: to play or not to play, that was the question. One man in particular gave a peculiar, but memorable response. He played the Ninth, especially the finale’s “Ode to Joy” — including heavenly words about a time when “all men become brothers” — as if to transform the celebration into something joyless, toxic, and dystopian. Indeed, until you experience it, you cannot think this piece could be played in this way. Of course, the conductor was already faced with something beyond imagining: the corruption of the most civilized nation of his time, one he called home.

Here is what Michael Tanner wrote about the concert in notes to a CD of the complete performance:

In April, 1942, (the conductor Wilhelm) Furtwängler was tricked by Goebbels into conducting this work on the eve of the Führer’s birthday in Berlin, something he had always managed to avoid before. Try as he would to insist that he was unwell, had commitments in Vienna, and so on, he was forced to take part and conduct it. … And in the last movement, after stupendous ecstasies and paens, the unspeakable happens: Furtwängler always accelerated wildly for the closing bars, suggesting a barely controlled excitement. But on this occasion the last bars are a nightmare of nihilism, a stampede towards the abyss, such as I have never heard in any other music. It is as if Furtwängler is doing what Thomas Mann’s fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn says he will do in Dr Faustus: take back the Ninth Symphony, because all the hope and aspirations of the noble side of humanity have come to naught. But instead of writing a new piece to negate the Ninth, Furtwängler does the unthinkable and revokes the work by the way he plays its own ending.

Tanner is not the only person with this opinion. Lynn Rene Bayley wrote in Fanfare Magazine, “Even if he was not really trying to hurl Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the face of Hitler, one definitely gets the feeling that, in his mind on that day, this “Ode to Joy” had become an act of defiance, almost distorting the music (and words) to produce an almost apocalyptic vision of the score. In short, one gets the feeling that Furtwängler was not certain whether he, or German art, would survive the Nazi horror, the war, and the Holocaust.”

Hyperbolic? You can be the judge, since the last four minutes of the performance are preserved below. But do find a way to listen to the piece in some other performance, too. The abyss is not a friendly place.

The top photos are of Charles Munch, the second being the cover art for the joyous performance I lead with. The recording of the Munch/Boston Symphony performance is produced by the St. Laurent Studio, catalogue #YSL T-315. The CD includes a rendition of Roussel’s Piano Concerto and only the finale of the Beethoven. Trust me, you won’t feel shorted by the absence of the first three movements. It can be obtained directly from St. Laurent Studios. Note that prices are in Canadian currency. It is also available here.

Marilyn Monroe and Rachmaninoff: Can Movies Sell Music?

Sex sells everything or so it seems.

My earliest recollection of any connection between sex and music was the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, with Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe. The former imagined seducing the latter when a combination of circumstances fueled his fantasy: a stale, seven-year-old marriage; his wife’s temporary absence; and the availability of Ms. Monroe, his smoldering new neighbor. Ewell’s plan was to use Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2 to win her ardor. The scene above depicts his strategy.

Classical music in film usually isn’t intended to engender lust, although the cinematic hit 10,” starring Bo Derek (with Dudley Moore playing the Ewell-like role), gave it a try in 1980, with Ravel’s Bolero serving to keep the erotic pace. Various recordings of the piece dominated the pop and classical charts in the months following.

The use of such music raises the question of whether a movie featuring a classic opus can open the audience to classical scores beyond those pieces featured in the film. Favorites like Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001: A Space Odyssey), Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (Platoon), or Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 (Elvira Madigan) raised interest in the featured works, but not other selections from the oeuvres of those composers. In light of these failures, should a film be expected to convince a classical newbie to dive deeper into the world of symphonic music simply because of its connection with a single appealing piece?

Let’s start with the music attached to Ms. Monroe and Ms. Derek in the already mentioned films. Does any lonely soul watching Tom Ewell or Dudley Moore think he might achieve his romantic fantasy solely by his choice of CD while on a date? Surely no man with a recording of Bolero or Rachmaninoff playing in his living room regularly brings sex to the mind of women. Thus, a film’s featured sound track, if it is to cause anyone to listen after the cinema’s end, will have to stand on its own. Powerful men have an evolutionary/sexual advantage connected to the need of our female ancestors to find a protector and bread-winner. Contemporary males who listen to Bruckner give their dates no clue to those talents.

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Nor is film likely to create wide interest in classical music without a sexual connection to ladies like the two featured above. No boom in the record sales of Richard Strauss’s other compositions was created by Stanley Kubrik’s use of Also Sprach Zarathustra in Space Odyssey, nor did Mozart’s 600+ compositions fly off the store shelves because the slow movement from his Concerto #21 was featured in an art film hit.

Those who believe cinema might increase the classical audience should consider what must be overcome to do so. Music used in movies competes with dialogue, scenery, and plot for the viewer’s attention. By comparison, the standard concert hall symphonic fare offers no dialogue, no story, and the unremarkable sight of a group of sitting musicians — usually at a distance — fiddling, drumming, and blowing; all dressed in similar outfits.

Music at a concert is supposed to speak for itself, while a movie’s narrative line is intended to transcend the background audio. The implied message is that the score is secondary, designed only to create a mood. If the film tunes are being given second class status by the movie makers, why would anyone believe the rest of the composer’s works were worth their time?

Then there is the obstacle classical music confronts when it is heard by an audience of the uninitiated. The standard wisdom of the crowd is that classical music is “relaxing” at best, boring at worst. If they listen to something attractive on the film’s soundtrack, most may conclude the beauty or excitement is an anomaly, nothing like the standard classics they know or think they know. Surely this belief doesn’t spur the listeners to explore beyond a particular piece that, for them at least, is the exception proving the rule.

One more challenge stands in the way of the film-goer’s transformation from someone who doesn’t listen to many classics to one who does: effort. Anyone who wishes to learn to love the classics must put in a good deal of time. The Beethoven Symphony #5 takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 minutes no matter what. A Rodin sculpture, on the other hand, can be observed for whatever unit of time you wish to put into the examination. Concert promoters do what they can, but they cannot generate motivation or cut the score without mutilating the art.

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Don’t underestimate the effort required to become a convert to an unfamiliar art form, even in the case of visual art. Chicago’s grandly successful and much visited Millennium Park was expected to generate increased attendance at the nearby Art Institute when the former opened in 2004. The failure to achieve the expected bump in Art Institute admissions was “a puzzle” to the museum because the art repository was only one block from the new outdoor venue. Perhaps part of the answer then, is that movies are movies, paintings are paintings, and Bolero’s ability to attract an audience guarantees no crossover even to another of Ravel’s famous works, like La Valse. Those who go to a public park want a park experience, not one authored by Van Gogh. Those who visit a Chinese restaurant aren’t looking for pizza.

Presenters have added movie screen close-ups of the players to the concert experience, big screen painting reproductions to enhance performances of Pictures at an Exhibition, iPads to provide a technological jump from the old style paper medium of program booklets, and lectures before concerts to tell the audience what they might want to notice when the program starts. In the end, however, do these produce the “buy in” intended? Doesn’t the music live or die on its own merits?

Concert promoters have tried about everything to expand the audience for the classics, with questionable success. What can one say that hasn’t already been said? Two things:

  1. In the words of impresario Sol Hurok, “If people don’t want to come, nothing will stop them.”
  2. If you have a seven-year itch, try some talcum power.

Following the scene from The Seven Year Itch is a poster from the movie “10” featuring Bo Derek. The bottom image is the Crown Fountain (facing Michigan Avenue), part of Chicago’s Millennium Park.