Klemperer on Mahler

Otto Klemperer met Gustav Mahler when he had the opportunity to conduct the off-stage brass at a performance of the latter’s Second Symphony in 1905. The two became friends, and Mahler helped Klemperer become the conductor of the German opera company in Prague two years later. Klemperer, in turn, became one of the foremost interpreters and champions of Mahler’s music.

Later, Klemperer recalled an incident that occurred when Mahler was conducting in Vienna:

There were few soloists in the Phiharmonic’s concerts at this period, and only the very best got a chance to appear. Mahler engaged [Ferruccio] Busoni, for instance, to play Beethoven’s Concerto in E Flat Major. Traveling down from Berlin on the night express, Busoni reached Vienna just after 9:00 a.m. to find a message awaiting him at his hotel. It said to report to the Opera House at once, where Direktor Mahler had something important to tell him.

Without breakfasting, washing or shaving–a circumstance he found highly distasteful–he rushed to the Opera House. Mahler kept him waiting for an hour, then burst from his office and extended his hand. “Not to fast in the last movement, Herr Busoni–all right?” he said, and whistled the main theme. Then with an “Auf Widersehen! he vanished again.

A cruel abuse of classical music

Life has begun to imitate life in the worst way. In Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange (written in 1962), authorities subject an unruly but music-loving youngster to “the Ludovico technique.” They force him to take nausea-inducing drugs and watch violent movies while listening to Beethoven. In the end, he is no longer able to enjoy Beethoven’s music. They stole his former love with that treatment.

Lately it has come to my attention that certain British authorities have reinvented “the Ludovico technique.” Apparently having eliminated exposure to classical music from the curriculum, they assume that young people will automatically find repugnant.

Combined with high-pitched noises, unpleasantly bright lights, and camera surveillance by unmanned drones, classical music has been drafted to serve as a repellant against loitering, graffiti, and other mildly anti-social behavior. It works like a charm.

It’s automated, too, so no adult need actually interact with the youth. It merely teaches them that they’re worthless, to be herded like sheep. It also teaches them, like Burgess’ young man, to associate the  most beautiful music ever written with punishment and unpleasant memories.

For years, I have heard stories of individual store owners who decided to play classical music to get loitering kids to leave. Never before have I encountered schools and governments across an entire nation seemingly bent on trashing a cultural heritage that was so carefully built up over such a long time.

In this country, many school districts have already cut music of any kind, not just classical music, from the curriculum. In times when the school budgets face cuts, even popular and highly successful music programs face the axe.

Put classical music stations on the endangered species list. That they face extinction is not because of any lack of people who want to listen to them. If the conglomerates who own most radio stations find it in their interest to limit format choices to what they find most profitable, no existing regulations stand in their way.

When I moved to the Chicago area I could enjoy two classical stations, WFMT and WNIB, the latter a privately-owned commercial station. When the owner decided to retire, he sold it to a radio station conglomerate.

Despite a well-organized campaign in favor of keeping WNIB classical, the new owners decided that one classical station was enough for Chicago and changed the format. They stole a successful, profitable classical music station from Chicago hoping to wring more  profit out of an already crowded format.

In many areas, NPR stations provide the only classical programing, but only at times not occupied by the network’s news and talk shows.

With diminishing chances for children to learn about classical music in school or stumble upon it while listening to the radio, we already have multiple generations that think “music” is whatever commercial interests serve up for them. One generation has little understanding of another generation’s music.

I certainly hope that the British experiment in turning classical music into a weapon for social control doesn’t happen here.

The birth of an ancient tradition: the gorsedd at the eisteddfod

The eisteddfod, a traditional Welsh competition in literature and music, has served for a little over two centuries as a rallying point to define and glorify Welsh culture, customs, nationhood, and above all, language. The competition itself can be traced back to the twelfth century. Its revival in the eighteenth century introduced some new practices, although the person who invented them never admitted it.

The earliest reliably documented eisteddfod was summoned in 1176, although others undoubtedly took place much earlier.  From the earliest times until the seventeenth century, eisteddfods occurred at irregular intervals, with at least one purpose being to examine the professional qualifications of bards in order to exclude incompetents from their number.

For example, English Queen Elizabeth I ordered an eisteddfod at Caerwys in 1568 because of the intolerable number of vagabonds who made nuisances of themselves and created difficulties for skilled musicians and poets.  All who desired to make their living from these arts were required to appear.  Whoever failed to make the grade rendered themselves liable to imprisonment if they did not quickly find some other line of honest work.

The need for this method of discouraging vagrants disappeared along with professional bards and minstrels.  No such gathering approached the size or importance of the Caerwys eisteddfod for more than 250 years.  History records very few of any size in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In the late eighteenth century, a renascence of Welsh nationalism gave birth to the modern eisteddfod.  A growing scholarly interest in Welsh antiquity led to the founding of the Society of Cymmrodorion (in London!) in 1751 and the Society of Gwyneddigion in 1771.  The latter represented one of the first stirrings of the romantic movement, with its love of the strange and remote.

Under the auspices of the  Society of Gwyneddigion, Edward Williams, known by the bardic name Iolo Morganwg, undertook to find as many ancient Welsh manuscripts as possible.  Sickly as a child, he was educated at home by his mother, although he later claimed to have taught himself to read by watching his father carve inscriptions on grave stones!

Unknown to his benefactors, Iolo was looking not only for old manuscripts, but also for evidence to substantiate his hope that the medieval eisteddfod could be traced back to the ancient Druids.  Not finding what he needed, he resorted to forgery.  His fabrications were so skillful that scholars have not yet succeded in separating fact from fiction.

The first eisteddfod in modern times was sponsored in May 1789 by Thomas Jones of Corwen and actively supported by the Society of Gwyneddigion.  Later that year, the society  sponsored its own eisteddfod.

On June 21 1792, Iolo Morganwg unveiled his most colorful invention, a highly ritualistic, quasi-religious ceremony called the gorsedd  By 1819, he had persuaded his contemporaries that an authentic eisteddfod should begin with a gorsedd.  And so at the eisteddfod held that year at Carmarthen, an ancient tradition was born.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, most Welshmen accepted Iolo’s “scholarship” as genuine, although some expressed skepticism.

One writer noted five eisteddfods spoken of in tradition, but without documentation, from the sixth to the twelfth centuries, and then reached back hundreds of years before the Roman invasion, when

Prydain, the son of Aedd the Great, was, in conformity with the principles originated by Tydain, “the father of Poetic Inspiration,” proclaimed monarch of the island.  After the death of Tydain, a duly proclaimed Eisteddfod was held. . . 
Three persons–Plenydd, Alawn, and Gwron by name–stood pre-eminent among the assembled bards for their knowledge of bardic lore, and they were authorized therefore to draw up a code of regulations for the government of the country, for the regulation of the Cimbric language, and (be it carefully noted) for the preservation of the rights and privileges of the bards. . . 

No Welshman, even though he were a bard, need believe this interesting little story, nor need he pretend  that he believes it, except perhaps once a year, in open Gorsedd, in the face of the sun–the eye of light, when it seems to be expected of Welshman that they shall assume a credulous attitude towards everything, except  the truth.

(Source: T. Marchant Williams, “The History of the Eisteddfod,” The Cambrian 12 (1892): 136-37).

Not many shared this skeptical attitude.  Many publications reported that traveling druids visiting the Greek Olympics took back to Wales a more cultured, intellectual version.   As late as  1911, no less authoritative a  reference work than Encyclopaedia Britannica passed on the story of Prydain without hesitation.

Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor, op. 73

In December 1874 Tchaikovsky completed his first piano concerto, having worked on it for a month and dedicated it to Nikolai Rubinstein, the finest pianist in Moscow. As Tchaikovsky was not a pianist, he wanted to make sure that nothing in the solo part would be technically ineffective or ungrateful or impractical. Naturally, although as he recalled later, with some misgivings, he asked Rubinstein to listen to it and give a soloist’s opinion.

On Christmas Eve, the two met in a classroom at the Moscow Conservatory. Tchaikovsky played through the first movement and Rubinstein didn’t utter a word. Deeply troubled at the silence, Tchaikovsky played the rest of the concerto. Again, Rubinstein said nothing until Tchaikovsky asked for a comment. He didn’t want an artistic verdict, only a pianist’s technical advice, but took the silence as indicating that Rubinstein disliked the concerto entirely.

When Rubinstein began to speak, his words confirmed the composer’s worst fears. The composition was trivial, with all the material stolen from here and there. The passagework was commonplace, unskillfully written, and unplayable. There might be two or three pages worth keeping, but it would be better to scrap the whole thing and start over.

Tchaikovsky felt treated like an untalented scribbler being raked over the coals for pestering a great man with rubbish. Deeply offended, he stormed out of the room without a word. Rubinstein followed  him and tried to make things better. He said that if Tchaikovsky rewrote it as he suggested, he would be happy to play it at one of his concerts. Still enraged, Tchaikovsky vowed to publish it without changing a single note.

He did make one change. He dedicated it to the German conductor and piano virtuoso Hans von Bülow. The two had never met, but Tchaikovsky had heard that Bülow greatly admired his work. Bülow, delighted with the new concerto and unexpected dedication, profusely thanked Tchaikovsky in a long letter and set off on a tour of North America. He premiered the concerto in Boston on October 25, 1875.

And Rubinstein? When he heard one of his students perform it, he changed his opinion and became its vigorous champion.

What’s in a number? (Schubert)

Franz Schubert. classical music trivia


Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert. Detail from a watercolor portrait (1825) by Wilhelm August Rieder. Public domain.

In an earlier post, I looked at the numbering of  Dvořák’s symphonies. He wrote nine, but chose to publish only five of them. A thematic catalog of 1955 included all nine and renumbered them. That numbering is now universally used, but it caused some confusion when it first appeared. Older publications and recordings with the old numbering system catch people off guard now.

Franz Schubert’s symphonies present similar problems. What is the correct numbering of his last two symphonies? It is important to remember that none of his symphonies appeared in his lifetime. The first critical edition of his works began to come out in 1884. The editors (including Eusebius Mandyczewski and Johannes Brahms) had discovered manuscripts of seven completed symphonies and two unfinished symphonies. The “Great C Major Symphony” was the first to be published, in 1840. As it was the last of his completed symphonies, that edition naturally called it no. 7.

In 1951, Otto Erich Deutch issued  his thematic catalog of Schubert’s works. By that time, one of the unfinished symphonies had become popular concert fare. It certainly had to be included in the numbering. Deutsch decided to count both of them in his enumeration. Since then, Schubert’s works have universally been known by the numbers he assigned, known, of course, as Deutsch numbers. In due time, a new complete edition, based on Deutsch’s work, appeared.

The first six symphonies need not concern us here. Deutsch simply added his number to the numbers already known from the Mandyczewski and Brahms edition. Schubert left his next two symphonies unfinished: one in E major (D. 729, which Deutch called no. 7) and one in B minor (D. 759, or no. 8). Last of all, the “Great C Major Symphony” (D. 944) had to be renumbered no. 9.

Most likely, when radio stations play the last two symphonies, they will probably use the numbers Deutch assigned. The B minor, known of course as the “Unfinished Symphony,” is no. 8 and the C major (called the “Great” in order to distinguish it from no. 6, also in C major) is no. 9. Don’t get too attached to that numbering.

In 1964, the International Schubert Society began to issue a new complete edition of Schubert’s works and chose to depart from Deutsch’s numbering of the symphonies. (Fortunately, they kept all of his thematic index numbers.) Schubert completed all of the work on the first two movements of the B minor symphony (D. 759) and left sketches for a  scherzo (third movement). The complete movements can be performed without the unfinished scherzo or the unbegun finale, and of course, they frequently are.

The one Deutch called no.7 presents problems. Schubert sketched four movements, but did not finish any of them. Moreover, he never quite solved some basic formal problems, which makes it impossible for anyone else to make a playable symphony from the sketches. Should it be counted among Schubert’s symphonies? The editors of the new edition decided it should not. Therefore, they renumbered the “Unfinished Symphony” no. 7 and the “Great C Major Symphony” no. 8.

In summary, three different Schubert symphonies have been known as no. 7: D. 729, D. 752, and D. 944. D.752 was first called no. 8,  but recently became no. 7. D. 944 started out as no. 7, then no. 9, but recently became no. 8. Clear?

I have seen no separate editions of Schubert’s symphonies that use the latest numbering published before 2002. Will it become standard, as the revised numbering of Dvořák’s symphonies did by the end of the 1960s? Hang on to your hats!

Beethoven explains his deafness

Visiting Bangkok, Thailand, my father slipped off a curb and broke his wrist. It seemed to him that a fall in an exotic location deserved a better story than mere carelessness. He tried to make something up about falling off an elephant, but never learned to tell it with a straight face. Beethoven must have had similar thoughts about his deafness; the story about gradual loss of hearing lacked entertainment value.

Beethoven told visiting English pianist Charles Neate that he had been working on an opera–not Fidelio–and had to deal with mean-tempered tenor. The tenor had already rejected two arias on a particular text, but appeared to be satisfied with the third one. Glad to be rid of him, Beethoven went back to work on other passages he had to set aside to please the tenor. Unfortunately, not half an hour later, the tenor knocked on his door again. According to what Beethoven told Neate, he flew into such a rage as the man entered the room that he threw himself on the floor. When he got up, he was totally deaf.

On another occasion, he told Ignaz Schuppanzig that he had caught his deafness. He always sketched outdoors. One day it started to rain, but he was so enrapt in his work that he didn’t notice until the paper became too wet to write on. From that time on, he was incurably deaf.

It appears that Beethoven managed to tell these stories with a straight face. Neate and Schuppanzig passed them on to others. The anecdotes appear in all seriousness in Alexander Thayer’s notes for his biography of Beethoven and the diary of George Smart.

Portrait of J. J. Johnson

n 1948, band leader Stan Kenton contemplated replacing all the slide trombones in his band with valve trombones. Under the influence of the new bebop style, all of the instruments had to play much faster than they had just a decade earlier. Kenton thought the slide trombone had become a jazz has-been that could never keep up.
He was probably unaware that a young trombonist named J. J. Johnson had already begun to demonstrate that the slide trombone could indeed keep up.

James Louis Johnson learned trombone as a school student in Indianapolis and played with such big bands as Illinois Jacquet, Benny Carter, and Count Basie. In the 1940s, swing band musicians gathered after gigs to keep playing informally. Bebop was born at these meetings.

Instead of winding down after a long evening of work, these sessions became highly competitive displays of improvisational virtuosity. Musicians attempted solos over complicated chord changes at breakneck speed. The earliest bop standouts included saxophonists, trumpeters, pianists, drummers, and, in short, everyone but trombonists. Then Dizzy Gilliespie heard J. J. Johnson in 1946 and introduced him to other boppers.

People who heard Johnson play only on the radio or on recordings assumed that he must have been playing a valve trombone. Surely no one could play that fast and that cleanly on a slide trombone. But Johnson did. He paved the way for numerous other slide trombonists to demonstrate their own virtuosity. No one has surpassed him yet in the breadth of his accomplishments or the reach of his influence.

After a brief hiatus from music in 1952-53, Johnson teamed with Kenton stand-out Kai Winding. For two years, “Jay and Kai” treated the musical world to the sound of two virtuoso slide trombonists playing at once.

Inevitably, Johnson and other boppers began to explore what else they could do besides play very fast. In Johnson’s case, he not only developed a more expressive approach to melody, but also turned increasingly to arranging and composing. In addition to original jazz works, he scored several movies and television shows.

After Johnson’s wife Vivian suffered a stroke in 1988, he canceled all of his commitments in order to take care of her during the last three years of her life. Upon his return to active music making, he dedicated his first recording, a set of ballads, to her memory. He resumed touring and recording from 1992 to 1996 and then retired for the last time. He continued to arrange and compose until he committed suicide in 2001. He left behind a tremendous legacy.

Here is at least one unique picture. In 1999, Chicago had its “Cows on Parade” art project, including one cow named “Music.” Probably lots of people took pictures of the cow, but I suspect I’m the only one who also took took a closeup of its portrait of J. J. Johnson.

What’s in a number (Dvořák)?

Some music has distinctive titles, like Romeo and Juliette or The Tree-Cornered Hat. More than one composer might use the same title, but so long as we specify whether we mean the Romeo and Juliette by Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev, or anyone else, there is no question of which piece we refer to.

Other music has form titles, like Sonata, Concerto, Symphony, etc. Not only have many composers used those titles over a long period of years, but many use them more than once. We keep them apart by numbering them, among other things. When we see or hear a reference to one of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, one of Brahms’ four, to name only two of many examples, we know exactly what piece is meant.

Not every sequence of numbers is that straightforward. The conductor of the orchestra I play in announced that he intended to play Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony on our next concert, but had second thoughts before the first rehearsal. He said he wanted to decide among that, Franck’s Symphony, and Dvořák’s Ninth. Everyone’s folder included parts for Dvořák symphonies number 2 and 5. Most of the orchestra was confused.

Antonin Dvořák composed five symphonies before he had any published. He issued one now known as his Sixth Symphony as his Symphony no. 1 and the present Seventh as no. 2. Before he wrote another symphony, he decided to publish one of the earlier ones (his Fifth) as no. 3, and so of course he published his last two symphonies as no. 4 and no. 5.

The thematic catalog of Dvořák’s complete works, now universally used as the definitive source of numbering and dating them, restored the four earlier, unpublished symphonies. After it appeared in 1955, it took a while for the new numbering to become accepted worldwide. Somehow it just didn’t seem right for the New World Symphony, known since its first publication as no. 5 to suddenly become no. 9. Now, it’s the older printed music and recordings that people find confusing.

The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi


Ottorino Respighi became what seemed unthinkable a hundred years ago: an Italian composer of orchestral music. He composed no successful operas at all.
Instead, he wrote the first significant Italian contributions to orchestral music since the Baroque era. He studied composition with the Russian Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Under his influence, and that of the French Impressionists and Richard Strauss, Respighi wrote some very successful symphonic tone poems, foreign in form, but  very Italian in subject matter.
The Pines of Rome (1924), the best known of them, is one of three tone poems that celebrate Rome–along with The Fountains of Rome (1918) and Roman Festivals (1929). It owns the distinction of being the first piece of live electronic music: Respighi wanted the sound of a nightingale and didn’t believe that any combination of instruments, or even a coloratura soprano, could achieve it. The score, therefore, includes a part for a phonograph recording of a nightingale in the third movement.

The work has four movements, played without pause. Resphighi provided the following program note in the score:

I. The Pines of the Villa Borghese (Allegretto vivace)

Children are playing in the pine groves of Villa Borghese. They dance in circles and march to mimic soldiers and battles. They are excited by their own cries and, like swallows at evening, they disappear in a swarm. Suddenly the scene changes and. . .

II. The Pines Near a Catacomb (Lento)

We see the shadows of pines crowning the entrance of a catacomb. The sound of mournful psalm singing rises from the depths, floating solemnly on the air, gradually and mysteriously dissipating.

III. The Pines of the Janiculum (Lento)

In the trembling air, the pines of Janiculum Hill stand, outlined distinctly in the light of a full moon. A nightingale sings.

IV. The Pines of the Appian Way (Tempo di Marcia)

In the misty dawn on the Appian Way, solitary pines guard the tragic country. Indistinctly, incessantly, we hear the rhythm of innumerable steps. The poet imagines a vision of ancient glory; at the sound of trumpets in the brilliance of the sunrise, a consular army bursts forth towards the sacred Way, triumphantly climbing to the Capitol.

Photo credit: AttributionSome rights reserved by Sakena

Budget cutting: follow-up to Joshua Bell post

I have just learned from another blog that the Monroe County school district (Bloomington, Indiana) has decided to eliminate the string program. Joshua Bell started playing violin in that program. Could one of the 150 elementary school students who can no longer learn string instruments in that school system have become as renowned an artist? No one will ever know, but it is certain that the move will deprive all of those children of the opportunity to learn to love great music by playing it, not to mention a possibility of a satisfying career (or at least life-long hobby) in music.

Elementary school music programs feed into junior high or middle school programs, which likewise feed high school programs. Bloomington, of course, is no ordinary city. It probably has more excellent music opportunities per capita than anywhere else in the country. Therefore, in this case, the decision to cut the string program also hampers the future growth of the Hoosier Youth Philharmonic.

In junior high school and high school, music performance groups are much larger than most classes. If a school orchestra has 45 members (probably a conservative estimate), it will require at least two other classes or study halls to make room for all of those students if it, too, falls to the budget axe. Students in a music program generally have better grades and fewer disciplinary problems than the school population as a whole.

So let’s see, the district cut a music program, thus disrupting a social and perhaps professional outlet for students, the future health of school and community music programs for older children, and possibly the children’s academic and social development. And the savings? $20,000 a year. I sure hope that’s someone’s typo. Even at a savings of $200,000, the school system will probably have to pay a heavier price down the road than it proposes to save in the short term.