OK gang, it’s time for some Halloween fun: which of these five fabulous divas makes the best Pirate Jenny?
1. Lotte Lenya
2. Nina Simone
3. Marianne Faithfull
4. Bea Arthur
5. Hildegard Knef
Before you cast you’re vote, I would just ask that you not to be swayed by the fact that three of these ladies have videos, one is singing in German, and one is singing an alternate (and far superior) translation of the text.
Only an evil genius would pit these ladies against one another. Happy Halloween.
In other news, I’m I’m busily assembling a new recording of a new piece I recently composed. It’s a cantata, a setting of the 46th Psalm using the rare and beguiling Young’s Literal Translation.
Making a recording takes a lot of money, so I’ve started a Kickstarter campaign to try and raise some funds. Perhaps some of my readers would consider kicking in. I’d certainly be grateful, and at the very least, you’d get your own mp3 copy of the piece!
This list, #6 on our Top 10 Top 10, is kind of a free-for-all. I wouldn’t say it’s as vaguely defined as that last list, but it’s definitely more of a game game than trying to analyze who the most influential composers were. The idea is to pick composer whose overall output may not have been worthy of the greatest pantheon, but who did write one genre of music better than anyone else.
You’ll pick it up as you go along.
1. Johann Strauss Jr. (1825 – 1899) – Waltzes
Nothing beats a good old fashioned waltz. I use them in my own music all the time. And nobody ever wrote a better waltz than the great Viennese legend Johann Strauss, Jr. He was so passionate about three-quarter time that he even defied his famous composer father – in order to follow in his very footsteps (Johann Sr. had a banking career in mind for his sohn.)
He is rightly fêted every year on New Year’s Eve by the World’s Greatest Strauss Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic:
2. Charlies Villiers Stanford (1852 – 1924) – English Church Music
Leave it to an Irishman to best the English at their own game. The English choral tradition is a quite specific thing. There’s the whole issue of dueling churches, the Anglican and the Catholic. Certain composers specialized in one or the other. Certain composers were glad to be denominational mercenaries.
Another irony in my selecting Mr. Stanford for this particular honor is that I submit as his outstanding work a Latin Motet:
What I love about Weill’s songs is how sardonic they are. He displays a remarkably dark wit in the interplay of his spiky harmonies with the light lyrics (which he didn’t write). His music represents the gritty world that his characters inhabit.
I also like how many of his cabaret songs are real Cabaret Songs – that is, the lyric sets them inside an actual cabaret. It’s much like a Saloon Song.
Puccini appears on my lists of Top 10 Melodists and Top 10 Composers for Non Concert Settings (i.e. the stage). So, it should be pretty obvious why I would put him as the top opera man. I’ll be interested to see if the Wagner contingent mounts a strong defense. As much as I adore Richard’s music, I’d prefer to listen to it in smaller, concert-sized chunks.
5. Vladislav Zolotaryov (1942 – 1975) – Bayan Music
OK, so here’s a composer and an instrument that you’ve likely never heard of, but get ready, because it’s going to be way better than you expected.
Basically, it’s a Russian/Eastern European accordion, which differs from the regular accordion in some way or another.
[Now, apparently there is an alternate meaning to the word ‘bayan’ of which I’m wholly unaware. If you want to find out what it is, or what it might be, or what ‘bayan’ might autocorrect to in some bizarre google conspiracy world, you could do a google image search for ‘bayan’, but I strongly recommend against it.]
So, we’ve established that much. Everything I know about this composer’s biography comes from the liner notes of the one CD I’ve found with his music on it. Apparently his parents were prisoners of the Gulag and he was born in the northernmost region of northeastern Siberia. Great start. He excelled at the bayan, and got some training in music at a small conservatory. He was rejected several times from the Moscow Conservatory before he finally made it in to study composition. He committed suicide at the age of 33.
He composed a number of pieces for other instruments, but this is where he made his mark:
In many ways, I think the minuet was Haydn’s genre par excellence. These pieces were not written for dancing. They were written to add a dance scene into the dramatic flow of his symphonies (as I touched on in the discussion of Piazzolla in last list.) Haydn was a wry observer of human interaction, and he humanizes his noble acquaintances in these minuets.
We might hear the heavy brocade weighing down the upper crust, or see the lush curtains and the warm glow of the gaslit ballroom. We might sense the hesitations and embarrassments of the youth present, relishing their only opportunity for flirtation in a highly formalized milieu (then we catch them as they sneak out to the veranda.) There are the dancers who don’t quite know the steps and their bashful apologies; then there are the big fat ladies with two left feet who couldn’t be less aware.
It’s all just so funny and charming and gemütlich:
OK, so there’s obviously a lot of things that Sufjan Stevens does impressively well. And in my opinion, there’s a lot of things he does better than anyone else. But in this category, he’s pretty much got to be the undisputed leader, right?
8. J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750) – Music for Solo Strings
I think Bach’s cello suites and solo violin sonatas & partitas are every bit as great an accomplishment as his works for organ and the big choral-orchestral combinations. Not only are they shockingly original and deeply emotive, but they link him to other European masters of the solo viol, like Marin Marais and the incorrigible Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.
This is a genre-composer combination on many levels: that is to say, not only do I think Mozart wrote the definitive collection of piano concerti, but I think that the piano concerto was the definitive Mozart genre. So chew on that one for a while.
For me, these are Mozart’s greatest operas. They have the beauty, the drama, and the songfulness of his operas, but they condense the plot into about 30 minutes. Who wouldn’t like that?
No but seriously, he wrote such a gorgeous score for Les Parapluies. And I know there’s a lotta h8trs out there, and h8trs gotta h8t. And I hate that Steven Sondheim is one of them, and that he said that he thinks this “just doesn’t work” or whatever. But then again, he was in Camp which might be the worst movie ever made, so with all due respect Steve, let’s just tone it down an notch, shall we?
I mean, come on:
This is easily the most ridiculous list so far. [Just you wait!] But I think it should make for a good game, because there’s at least three ways to play:
1) Make your own damn list
2) Replace the composer for the category.
Example: Khatchaturian was a way better writer of waltzes than Johann Strauss Jr. ever was! [as if]
or Thomas Tomkins was a much finer composer of English choral music than was Charles Villiers Stanford! [perhaps…]
3) Drop one of my category-composer combos and say that your guy did his thing better than mine did his.
Example: Conlon Nancarrow was a much better writer of boogie-woogie piano rolls than Kurt Weill was of Cabaret Songs!
I know I’m a few days late to be talking about dear departed Bea, but let me just add to the fray that I hope we won’t forget about her successful broadway career that was well under way before she hit the small screen. This included playing Lucy in Marc Blitztein’s 1956 American production of The Threepenny Opera.
Additionally, I’ll nominate what I consider to be the best Dorothy episodes of the GG’s:
Choosing Dorothy’s best episodes is naturally an exercise in futility — they were all her best. I know it’s sacrilege to say this about a show with the best ensemble cast ever, but the show really was about Dorothy. Her relationship with Sophia and Stan really defined so many episodes and her wedding at the end of the series is what ended the show.
So sniff, swig and puff one for Bea — her cares are gone now.
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?