I was supposed to conduct Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion this coming Friday, but by now, in the throes of the Coronavirus outbreak, it should be obvious that that’s not happening.
So instead, I’ll go deep into the catalog of cabaret songs that I’ve amassed over the past 20 years. It’s a livestreamed YouTube event, Friday, March 20, 2020 at 8 pm ET / 5 pm PT / other times in other places.
Now, likely if you’re reading this, you know me mainly as a composer or a conductor, so what’s all this about cabaret songs? Well it all started when I was in high school, hanging out with these wannabe jazzbos. They didn’t really like me that much or think I was great at the piano (I wasn’t) but I was the best they had if they wanted to practice their soloing skills.
So I learned to be a one-man rhythm section, walking the bass lines and comping in my right hand. And since I always loved singing, it was a natural next step to add my own voice to the mix. By the time I went away to college, I had a big chunk of The Fake Book and The Real Book under my fingers.
It turned out that that was a valuable asset in Hyde Park. Through various machinations, I ended up falling in with a hard-drinking, highfalutin garden party crowd mainly centered around the old Quadrangle Club (not to be confused with its current incarnation. For more, see this and this.) For the next several years I played piano in a variety of lounges, living rooms, cocktail bars, and cast parties.
I learned a lot of songs over those years. A lot of the attendees were born in the 20’s and 30’s, but even the ones who were born in the 60’s and 70’s expected me to have complete familiarity with the Noël Coward songbook. I was also doing lots of theatrical work, conducting musicals and operettas, which nursed my lifelong love of showtunes.
The big thing that’s kept me in the lounge lizard game though, has been my participation in the famous Sara Salon series in Hyde Park, which has been going on for at least 10 years now. From what I can tell, it’s the only 19th century Parisian salon in 21st century Chicago.
The idea is this: my friends Sara Stern and Ted Fishman invite all of their artistic friends over for an evening of food and performing. Everyone brings a number or an act. It can be anything from an aria to a poetry reading to a karate demonstration. One time, members of eighth blackbird played Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” on toy pianos.
I’ve tended to accompany myself at the piano, preferring to do songs with multiple characters. So for example, “Erlkönig” has become a cabaret song for me, as has “Someone in a tree” from Pacific Overtures. Whether or not I’m in drag, you can assume that I’m singing my songs in the style of an aging chanteuse, such as Marianne Faithfull, Lotte Lenya, or Bea Arthur.
So anyway, that’s the idea. Have requests ready and I’ll take them if I can. See you Friday.
Now look, I know this quarantine thing probably isn’t impacting me as much as it is some of you. I’ve spent several years of my life as a self-employed freelance composer, plus I don’t drink, and I’m a vegan. So social distance is par for the course for me.
But some of you might be going stir crazy, so I’m posting a bunch of pieces that I’ve worked on and tinkered with over the years, or that I’ve written for friends and special occasions, and you’re welcome to download them and try them out. Send me feedback (firstname.lastname@example.org) or tag me (insta / twitter @willcwhite) and let me see what you do with them. It’ll be fun.
Solo cello suite (also with viola and bass)
For many years I played around with writing a solo cello suite. Some of the movements I’m happy with, others not so much. Some of it is probably unplayable. But give it a try.
I wrote this for my friend Kyle Ritenauer and his brothers, all amazing percussionists. They were trying to get a percussion trio off the ground way back in 2013 but they ended up pursuing different avenues (all very successfully!) so they never tackled this. It’s very hard, but conveniently for a quarantine situation, it only requires materials commonly found in a suburban garage.
It’s impossible to see an Almodóvar film and not come away a) raptured and b) contemplating what it means to create art and to live as an artist, and Dolor y Gloria gives more fodder to the latter than any of his films for at least a decade.
I’d heard that this was “a return to form” or a “comeback” (both impossible: Almodóvar has never lost his way.) I’d also heard it was a new direction for him, a departure from his earlier films, and here I also disagree: it is a deeper exploration of themes and techniques that have been a consistent part of his work for decades:
Mother-son relationships. The art of filmmaking. Self-medication via illicit drug use. Stories told in several temporal layers. Rural Catholic education. Young boys singing and reading. Unrealized desire. Hospitals and death. City/village life. Theatrical performances (featuring audience members crying.)
There’s also the cast, including Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Cecilia Roth, and Augustín Almodóvar’s obligatory cameo. And certain stylistic elements that make Almodóvar Almodóvar, particularly his bold use of color and the inclusion of fine art in almost every shot. And let us not forget the unforgettable music of Alberto Iglesias.
What’s amazing is that, given the consistency of the tropes, themes, and tone palette with which he builds his films, each one crystalizes in a unique way, based on the weighting each element receives.
[A side note: I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I’ve deepened my appreciation of the music of Herbert Howells. Just think about how many times he set the phrase, “my soul doth magnify the Lord.” He uses similar melodic gestures and harmonic structures in all his canticles, and yet, some sound ancient and ethereal, others bluesy and grounded.]
Most importantly, the film offers a beautiful answer to the question “why do we create?” Put simply, it’s for the physical and mental health of the creator.
That’s an answer that I resonate with deeply. I’ll never reap fame or fortune from writing music. I feel lucky to have a handful of friends and family who remain curious about my work, and to obtain the odd commission or sale. I think the music I write is pretty good, but I’m under no illusion that any of it is groundbreaking or life-changing.
What I do know is that when I’ve gone too long without composing, I fall into bad habits, and my body and my soul cry out to me to begin work on a new piece. (Thankfully my vice is eating too much vegan junk food rather than smoking heroin, but we all take our kicks where we can get them.)
Which means I should stop typing and start plunking out notes on the piano. But before I go, two recommendations:
I did a pre-concert talk this past weekend for the Seattle Symphony. After a beautiful opening work by Anna Clyne, the orchestra performed Schumann’s piano concerto and Mendelssohn’s “Scotch” Symphony, easily my favorite of his large-scale works.
An acquaintance who heard that I had given the talk asked what my area of expertise was, and the best I could come up with was “charm.”
Cheeky, I know, but the fact of the matter is, we conductors are generalists who immerse ourselves in research for specific projects for short periods of time, and after enough years and enough projects, all those mini-spates as experts at up to an interesting and personalized view of the repertoire and of music history.
This was a great talk to give because there was so much to explore in the relationship between these great composers. They were total bros! Almost exact contemporaries (Mendelssohn: 1809-1847; Schumann 1810-1856), they both grew up in “Germany,” and they were both on the early edge of Romanticism in music.
And yet, given that narrow set of constraints, they were about as different as you could get. Mendelssohn came from immense wealth and privilege. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn was considered the ‘Father of the Jewish Enlightenment’, a period in history when the German states were liberalizing their laws towards Jews, and Jews were liberalizing their stance towards assimilation into German society.
When Moses was born, he was named in the conventional Jewish system as Moses ben Mendel, but he Germanized his surname to Mendelssohn. He raised his children with a very liberal brand of Judaism, such that his son Abraham raised his children—including Fanny and Felix—with no religion at all.
Abraham became a banker, and he went to work at his family’s branch in Hamburg, then an independently governed city-state. There, he set about financing the smuggling operations that would bring an end to Napoleon’s “continental system,” a blockade of goods between Britain and Europe. Fearing retribution when Napoleon’s forces invaded, the Mendelssohn family had to escape Hamburg in disguise under cover of night. Which is how Felix ended up back at his family’s seat in Berlin. (The Mendelssohn & Co. bank lasted well into the 20th century—until, 1938, in fact, when it was liquidated by the Nazis and its assets were folded into Deutsche Bank.)
In Berlin, Abraham and his family were taken in to his wife’s mother’s estate. The maternal line of Felix Mendelssohn’s ancestry is just as interesting as the paternal. His maternal grandfather had been Court Jew to Frederick the Great of Prussia, back when German kings had things such as “Court Jews” (really a type of banker.) Using his clout, this Court Jew was able to convince FGP to liberalize many laws surrounding the Prussian Jewry, including opening up the ghettos.
This grandmother of Felix’s would have an important role to play in music history. The family owned several rare manuscripts, and for Felix’s 17th birthday, she commissioned a new manuscript copy of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, which is of course the work with which Felix would inaugurate the modern Bach revival.
Robert Schumann, on the other hand, did not come from a wealthy background. His father was a bookseller, and young Robert’s earliest ambitions were literary. He thrilled to the novels of Jean Paul (whose Titan was similarly adored by Gustav Mahler) and the poetry of Goethe, Rilke, and Heine. He came to music late, and didn’t have a proper piano lesson until he was 19.
His piano teacher was Friedrich Wieck of Leipzig, and it was at Wieck’s house that young Robert would meet a child named Clara. Clara was on her way to becoming a virtuoso pianist; by the age of 18, she would be appointed “Imperial Concert Pianist” to the Hapsburg Emperor. (Another long-gone courtly title, although it should be noted that the Prince of Wales still employs an official harpist.)
After several years in close quarters, Robert and Clara fell in love, and this is where things became challenging. Herr Wieck did not feel that Robert—a poor young piano student with dreams of composing but little to show for himself—was a worthy match for his daughter, already a star on the European musical stage. And thus he launched into a lengthy court proceeding to keep the two apart.
This is where Mendelssohn steps into the story. Robert and Felix had become friends and admirers of one another during the 1830’s, in spite of the fact that when they first met, Mendelssohn was already an adept composer, pianist, and conductor, and Robert had only a few unpublished compositions to his name. (Not to mention the fact that he had rendered his right ring finger totally lame by trying to speed up his muscular development with a hack gadget called the chiroplast.)
And yet, Robert and Clara found a way. They mainly carried out their clandestine romance via musical composition. Clara, as we all know, was herself a distinguished composer. While she was under lock and key, forbidden to see her beloved Robert, she would compose piano pieces that were coded with motifs that had private meanings between her and Robert. Robert would then work these same motifs into his own piano works and arrange to have them delivered to Clara. Old Herr Wieck simply heard Clara practicing new works, and was none the wiser.
Oh right, back to Mendelssohn. Wieck mounted an outright defamation campaign against Robert Schumann, so much that Robert had no recourse except to countersue his father-in-law-to-be. First on the list of character witnesses for the prosecution: Felix Mendelssohn.
Their bromance was one for the ages. They visited and wrote to one another often. Felix likely conducted* the first read-through performance of Robert’s Phantasie for piano and orchestra, which would later become the first movement of the piano concerto. (*Sources differ; some say it was Ferdinand David.) When Felix died at the tragically young age of 38, Robert was one of the pall bearers at his funeral.
The two also wrote pieces that begin in a dreary a minor and end in a triumphant A major, Schumann’s piano concerto and Mendelssohn’s Scotch symphony. (Mendelssohn, however, has the distinction of having the only work in the standard repertoire that begins in major and ends in the tonic minor: his “Italian Symphony.”)
The Scotch is my personal favorite of Mendelssohn’s five symphonies. It’s another one of those cases where the numbering is out of order: though he conceived of it as early as 1829, he didn’t complete it until 1842, making it the last—i.e. the 5th—of his symphonies that he would bring to completion.
The original conception came from a trip that he took to Britain at the age of 20. Mendelssohn went there in order to perform and conduct his own music in London, where he was a huge hit. After that, he and a friend took a pleasure tour of the north of Britain, hitting the major Scottish industrial centers as well as its craggy coasts.
As you probably know, the Hebrides made a major impression on the composer, but so did the derelict ruins of the Holyrood palace chapel.
Of COURSE Mendelssohn was obsessed with this place. It was the most prototypical Romantic-with-a-capital-R site imaginable: a Gothic ruin, decaying and being taken over by nature, not to mention the site of the crowning of Queen Mary, whose story had been immortalized in a play by Goethe. There is literally NOTHING more Romantic that he could have stumbled upon, and so he wrote the opening bars of this symphony as a memento of that visit.
Schumann’s a minor-to-major piano concerto also has a deeply personal story. Naturally, it was written for Clara, shortly after they were married (she played that first, perhaps-conducted-by-Mendelssohn reading while 8 1/2 months pregnant.) The piece can easily be read as a retelling of their courtship. The stormy opening that seems to capture the moment when they were torn apart by Friedrich Wieck. Then the moody opening melody, based on the notes “C-B-A-A,” or in German “C-H-A-A,” which, if you fill in a few gaps, gives you “C-H-i-A-r-A”—”Chiara” or Italian for “Clara”. (I know it sounds far-fetched, but let me assure you: they were into stuff like this.)
The second movement reads as the delicate flirtation between two coquettish people who are taken to flights of fancy together. And of course the finale has the character of a romp, full of joy and optimism, perhaps reflecting their recent nuptials.
So that’s it, that’s the interesting stuff I learned about Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, and now I can forget it until the next time I have to become an expert on these pieces.
for soprano, mezzo-soprano, viola, and piano op. 40
Commissioned and premiered by Northwest Art Song: Arwen Myers, soprano; Laura Thoreson, mezzo-soprano Kenji Bunch, viola; Susan McDaniel, piano
The English text was assembled and freely adapted from speeches by and interviews with Valerie Bell (mother of Sean Bell), Gwen Carr (mother of Eric Garner), Sybrina Fulton (mother of Trayvon Martin), as well as a number of pseudonymous sources interviewed in Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak About War & Terror by Susan Galleymore, and a 1992 article from the New York Times entitled “Parents and AIDS: Rage and Tears” by Carol Lawson.