I was just in Chicago giving another talk at Symphony Center on Monday and, as usual, I came totally over-prepared and unable to cover even a fraction of what I wanted to talk about. The subject was Appalachian Spring and Symphonie Fantastique — kind of a disparate program, but from a lecturer’s point of view, it’s a dream come true: both pieces have so much interesting background and, more importantly, so much that you can hear in the music. Plus, there’s just so much documentation and critical appraisal from which to draw.
Here are some snarky little addenda to my talk, and interesting things I found while researching:
1) The Berlioz is written for 2 Ophicleides. OK, nothing groundbreaking about that point, but rarely does one get to hear the instrument in action:
That’s Douglas Yeo of the BSO. (The audio, not the picture)
Here’s what Berlioz had to say about the Ophicleide:
There is nothing more coarse, I might almost say more monstrous or less fit to harmonise with the rest of the orchestra … It is as if a bull escaped from its stall had come to play off its vagaries in the middle of a drawing room.
That’s from the Treatise on Orchestration and Instrumentation (p. 175).
Seems kinda harsh, no?
Here’s a lovely little poem I found about the Ophecleide. I think it’s just charming:
The Ophicleide, like mortal sin
Was fostered by the serpent.
It’s pitch was vague, it’s tone was dim,
It’s timbre, rude and burpant.
Composers, in a secret vote,
Declared its sound non grata.
And that’s why Wagner never wrote
An Ophicleide sonata.
Thus spurned, it soon became defunct.
To gross neglect succumbing.
Some were pawned, but most were junked,
Or used for indoor plumbing.
And so this ill wind, badly blown,
Has now completely vanished.
I nominate the Heckelphone
To be the one next banished.
Farewell, offensive Ophicleide,
Your epitaph is chiseled.
“I died of Ophicleidicide.
I tried, alas, but fizzled!”
LOL! If there’s anything funnier than ophicleide humor, I haven’t found it.
2) I think the Symphonie Fantastique contains the single worst bar in the entire standard orchestral litterature. To wit:
First, there’s the call from the flute, then the response from the horn in the distance, then – Hey there Hector, not quite. I don’t think we can let that transition slide… just where did he come up with those pitches? No, that won’t do at all.
3) OK, this I did talk about, but I just can’t resist including it, because Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording with SanFran is just so damn good. Have you ever heard rhythmic dissonance quite like the end of this clip?
I’ve found that since I have to edit my remarks at these talks on the fly, it’s a real good idea to keep a closing line hidden up your sleeve, a real zinger to cap things off and leave the crowd smiling and eager to listen. Just my luck, my boy LB had the perfect such material:
Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.
I don’t need no Wall Street Journal to tell me that bow ties are cool. In fact, I never thought they were not cool. So, look how behind the times everyone else is.
I hate how every damn little thing has to be justified by our current economic crisis:
Cardigans, V-necked sweaters and narrow ties are also suddenly popular these days. We’re channeling Paul Newman at a moment when Rambo characters seem to lack the finesse needed to solve our modern challenges.
Oh puleeze… when we start making bow ties out of recycled toilet paper, maybe that will have something to do with our “modern challenges”.
In other fashion news, I saw this little girl today in Targét wearing a bright colored t-shirt that said “Boys like Girls” and I just had to have one for myself! But then I go online and I find out they’re some kind of punk band. Ugh, don’t click on that link, it will just play their music… and I made the foolish mistake of clicking while I was listening to the last 30 seconds of the Berg Violin Concerto. That’s what I get for multi-tasking.
I still kind of want one though… but none of the shirts on their merchandise page are what this little girl had on today. I remain convinced that her shirt was not a Fan T, but rather just a Statement T. But now if I wear it, people will think I like this stupid band.
Despite continuing poor health, the composer forges ahead with ambitious plans: an opera based on the life of Gesualdo for the Vienna State Opera, and an Eighth Symphony for the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who led the dangerous premiere of the First in 1974. He is close upon the mystical symphonic number nine, and might deserve whatever greatness it mythically confers.
Those are the words of Alex Ross from an interview on February 10, 1994 in the New York Times. The premiere recording of Schnittke’s 9th symphony has just been released by ECM and my pre-ordered copy arrived in yesterday’s mail. The story of Schnittke’s 9th symphony is as fraught with drama as any of the other great Nines. He composed it after his third stroke (also in 1994) which left the entire right side of his body paralyzed. With great agony, he scrawled the three completed movements using his left hand (see above).
Even the old Bruckner trick of disowning an early Symphony (Schnittke’s “No. 0”) didn’t allow the composer to escape the curse of the ninth: he died on August 3, 1998 from his fourth and final stroke at the age of 63. I don’t think there is a more poetic version of the ninth symphony story from any of the other composers who lived through it (Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler).
[OK, Mahler comes close… and as for Bruckner’s supposedly incomplete 9th, I think he should really be content with the 3 movements that already total 60 minutes of music.]
Schnittke never heard a performance of his 9th symphony. In fact, the rest of the story of his 9th lends even more poignancy to the tale. Before Schnittke died, the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky prepared a so-called “performing edition” of the 9th, in which he interpolated quotes from historical works by other composers. Where he found his authority to do so is a mystery. The composer Matthias Kriesberg continues:
Schnittke was too ill to attend the performance; those close to him report that when he heard a tape, he was livid at the corruption. Some 10 days later, he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. The Ninth Symphony was originally scheduled for the same Concertgebouw concerts as the Eighth, but performances of this version are now forbidden by the estate.
That was in a 1999 article. The next step was for Irina Schnittke, the composer’s widow, to find a composer who could decipher the manuscript and come up with a real performing version. She first turned to one of Schnittke’s close associates, Nikolai Korndorf. Within months after setting to work on the project, Mr. Korndorf contracted a brain tumor and died. Spooky.
Finally, Irina turned to to Alexander Raskatov, a Russian composer born in 1952. Mr. Raskatov apparently purchased a “special magnifying glass” and set to work. I do not envy his task — how could one possibly be sure of the composer’s intentions given the state of the manuscripts? Unlike the completion of Mozart’s Requiem though, which was basically a collaborative composition, Schnittke’s work was “clearly conceived and committed to paper with admirable completeness” (Helmut Peters’ liner notes). Mr. Raskatov’s role was to decipher the text as written.
So, does it sound like Schnittke? Yes and no. But Raskatov himself said:
I know that Alfred Schnittke considered his Ninth Symphony to be a work apart and completely dissimilar to his preceding symphonies. As Irina Schnittke expressed it, he wrote this symphony as it were ‘for his departure’.
Well, I can say that I know of no other symphony that starts with this kind of a gesture:
In fact, I can’t even imagine starting a symphony like this. I think it is nearly impossible to interpret this piece without reference to mortality, but whereas Dennis Russell Davies comments that this is “a testament by someone who knows he’s dying,” I have a different view: I think this is music of someone who is already dead — as Schnittke had been, having been pronounced clinically dead on several occasions during his strokes. Much of the music sounds like the exploratory wanderings of a ghost during his first encounter with a new, otherworldly universe:
Towards the end of the large (20 minute) first movement, during a rather more violent episode, the horns section has an extremely high soli that to me is very reminiscent of some of Ligeti’s pieces from the ’90’s:
The timbre reminds me very much of the ocarinas that Ligeti uses in the Violin Concerto and other pieces. No offense to the members of the horn section of the Dresdner Philharmonie.
The second movement proves that, at the very least, Raskatov deciphered Schnittke’s instrumentation correctly:
It just wouldn’t be the Schnitt without that harpsichord in there.
One question I keep coming up against is the total number of movements Schnittke intended for this symphony. In all of the articles and liner notes, reference is always made to the “three completed movements,” but there is no mention of the composer’s intentions on how he might have finished the piece. Here’s how the third movement ends:
To me, this sounds awfully final. But with Schnittke, there is no use in trying to predict what he would or would not do: he was a law unto himself.
The more I listen to this symphony, the more I am intrigued by it. It is a delicate work, to be sure, and I think there is a lot of richness to keep exploring in its nuances. However, I sincerely doubt that it will in any way replace the special position that the 8th symphony holds in my heart. I think Schnittke’s 8th may be the pinnacle of musical art. In that piece, Schnittke sustains the most mystical of moods from start to finish, terrifying us in the first movement, torturing us in the second, ravishing us in the third, unnerving us in the fourth, and leaving us to contemplate all of eternity in the fifth, a movement that must stand completely alone in the history of music as the only symphonic movement dedicated solely to the slow amassing of a single chord:
Now go back and listen to the beginning of the 9th and see if it doesn’t sound like the view from the other side.
I LOVE Marianne Faithfull. She was the first (and basically, only) famous person that I ever met. I was but a wee lad and my father took me to her book signing at a Border’s in Rockville, MD (come to think of it, what was she doing at that store?) OK, Wikipedia confirms that her memoir was published in ’94, which would mean I was 10 or 11 years old at the time I got to meet her. I remember being totally shocked when she opened her mouth to speak and thinking that she must have been near death. I also remember her smelling very strongly of cigarettes.
Ah how I have come to savor that death-rattled voice of hers! My good friend El Bensòn likened it to a zombie (“Mick, get out of bed, I’m hungry for the brains of Keith Richards!!”) I think it’s as expressive an instrument as you can get and it sounds so terribly lived-in.
In all honesty, I don’t know too much about Marianne’s early career. I know she was an English light folk singer early in her career and then transitioned to rock/pop starting around the time of her liaison with Mick Jagger. Then, she lived, and lived like no one else since. She released a huge string of studio albums, got addicted to heroine and cocaine, and lived on the streets.
But, was she having fun?
Of course she was. Also of note:
We find it interesting too, Marianne!
My real love and appreciation of Marianne comes from a little known crevice of her career: the music of Kurt Weill. It seems that her mother was a ballerina and collaborated with Weill in Berlin during the ’30s and Marianne took up her late mother’s mantle.
Marianne’s rendition of Kurt Weill’s ballet chanté is, for me, one of the finest interpretations of any piece on record. Dennis Russell Davies and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (an under-appreciated ensemble if ever there was one) support Marianne in every move, breathing full life and intensity into this symphonic score. Just listen:
You like how precise those winds are? How much energy in the strings? And then how they can cool down to Marianne’s ironic delivery of “If you take offense at injustice…” ? Fo sho.
The whole piece is just as good, and the bonus tracks on this album is where I stole my much celebrated rendition of “The Pirate Jenny” from (using Frank McGuiness’s incomparable translation of the Threepenny Opera).
Then, there’s 20th Century Blues, in which Marianne takes Weill as a point of departure and branches out into Noël Coward, Friedrich Holländer and others. In so doing, she invites comparison with the great Dietrich, so let’s see what we’ve got:
I’m not sure if you could find two more interesting renditions of any song to compare — they’re both so genuine, so perfect and yet so different. I love how Marlene sings “they had a touch” pushing just a little towards the high note on “touch”, delivering it with the perfect staccato and without interrupting the phrase. But when you hear Marianne sing, “you are in love with paaain,” you can’t help but believe it.
Interesting too is how these ladies differ in their placement of “slightly used”/”second hand”. Marianne’s placement of the notes after the downbeat of each new phrase works better for me — it makes them sound “slightly used” — thrown away and forgotten about.
(Side note: I am convinced that these kinds of decisions about rhythmic placement are, in actuality, what jazz and pop musicians are referring to when they speak of “phrasing” — a very different notion than in the classical world.)
I guess I should actually mention the album that I set out to discuss at the top of this post. “Easy Come, Easy Go” is something of a rarity (if not a downright oddity): a new studio album of “pop” songs with new instrumental arrangements. Maybe I’m just not usually in the market for such things, but I really thought stuff like that didn’t still happen. And the arrangements – how utterly bizarre. They are the work of three gentlemen: Steve Weisberg, Steve Bernstein and Greg Cohen. I believe they also have an active Bar Mitzvah band.
The array of instruments includes such oddities as the sarrusophone and the alto horn:
Each and every song seems to inhabit a totally different world (or sometimes multiple universes simultaneously). I certainly applaud these artists’ versatility. Of course, certain worlds seem to work better than others. My favorite tracks include: “Down From Dover” (D. Parton), “Solitude” (D. Ellington), “The Crane Wife 3” (C. Meloy), “Children of Stone” (Espers), and “Dear God Please Help Me” (Morrissey).
Although, I do have some questions:
1) Why use Rufus Wainright of all people as a back-up singer? In fact, his voice is almost so produced that it just becomes an instrument:
2) What exactly is going on with the middle of “Ooh Baby Baby”? The mood starts out just right:
with those digitized keyboard arpeggios, it half sounds like Nico Muhly-does a porn score. Or a VicLowenthal warmonization.
Then, beautiful harmonies between Marianne and Antony in the release:
And then, what the hell is this??
It kind of comes out of nowhere. The more I listen to it, the more I kind of like it, but it comes as a jarring, rather than a desired surprise every time. And Antony, all I can say is, we hardly knew you had it in ya’!
The last thing I’ll say about this album is that it actually allowed me to enjoy a Randy Newman song for the very first time in my life (“In Germany Before the War”). Kudos to Mr. Cohen on that one.
A very strange album overall, and particularly as a follow-up to 2003’s “Before the Poison”, a much more straight ahead rock/pop album, with plenty of nuance.
Final thought: who but AbFab could come up with more perfect casting than this?