Sid's Contrasts and Connections in Music Thread
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    Default Sid's Contrasts and Connections in Music Thread

    Last November I started a new blog, posting concurrently in the Current Listening thread on this forum, as well as in the blog section. The reason was to give it a bit of exposure but also to be able to cross reference and pinpoint posts if needed in future, a function that isn't available on the blogs (and I don't want to do a new one each time, I want to keep them together).

    They have received a positive response on Current Listening (and thanks to all for that!), however especially since they are getting increasingly detailed and kind of out of place there, I decided to do a separate thread on them here.

    I will continue to cross reference them as before at the blog section here, which includes my overall aim and rationale for doing this 'project' of sorts (there is a link to it in my footer too) :

    Comments and conversations or queries about the topics and so on, are very welcome on this new thread.

    I will start with links to all the posts I have done so far, and then give you my latest installment in the next post!

    Two Devlishly Difficult French Piano Sonatas - Alkan & Boulez

    A gentle tickle of the ivories – Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4 and its impacts on Liszt & Tippett

    A remote and lonely place - Music by Sibelius, Holst & Sculthorpe

    Ode to Joy and its impacts on a Czech and an Argentinean - Music by Beethoven, Dvorak & Ginastera

    Two Russians in Dresden, and The Master – Music by Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Wagner

    Comic escapades, more imagined than real – Music by Richard Strauss, Kodály, Prokofiev, Walton and Mancini

    Paganini’s famous caprice, dances of death, and variations for piano and orchestra to boot! – Music by Liszt, Franck, Rachmaninov and Lutoslawski

    Three progressives in Paris, and three symphonies in cyclic form – Music by Franck, D’Indy and Saint-Säens

    Ives, ragtime and American music – Music by Ives, Copland, Cage and Bernstein
    Last edited by Sid James; Jan-10-2014 at 01:52.

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    I’ve been listening to a fair bit of things to do with cabaret so here is this week’s blog on this very topic. This is the first of two posts, I decided to split it up into one on Paris and another to come on Berlin. They where the twin capitals of this genre.

    Pictures top to bottom: A painting of the cafés-concerts by Edgar Degas (1870’s); a poster of the Chat Noir cabaret in Montmartre; Edith Piaf in a photo with German cabaret artist Marlene Dietrich.

    Cabaret, Part I: Paris – Music by Offenbach, Satie, and Edith Piaf

    Overview – from operetta to cabaret and beyond

    Offenbach, the founder of operetta, can be seen as a precursor of the cabaret genre. His witty, satirical and comical creations poked fun at the pretensions of high art, offering vieled political and social commentary. The songs and dances from them – especially the saucy can-can – went well beyond the Comédie Francaise and Bouffes Parisiens, into the cafés-concerts and streets.

    Strictly speaking though, cabaret emerged after Offenbach’s time, in the 1880’s and ‘90’s, in the night clubs of Paris and Berlin.

    Satie was in the thick of it, working as a pianist in the ‘Chat Noir’ of Paris, which was established in 1881. Satie’s melodies and chansons where sung there right in the center of the emerging artistic milieu of Montmartre.

    Offenbach had made operetta into real comedy, and moved it away from the stuffy conventions found in the Opéra Comique. Satie introduced the element of mixing the mundane, the refined and the downright strange into the genre. Edith Piaf brought to it a measure of reality, grittiness and expressiveness.

    Piaf’s era between the two world wars saw cabaret and chanson increasingly blend with classical music, jazz and trends in literature. One of Paris’ trendy cabarets during the period was Le Boef sur le toit, and it became a melting pot where composers as diverse as Stravinsky, Ravel, the members of Lés Six such as Poulenc, Auric and Milhaud, as well as jazz musicians and literary figures like Jean Cocteau hung out together. Piaf was to benefit from this eclectic atmosphere, indeed Poulenc who was also a master of chanson wrote a piano piece dedicated to her, and Auric wrote one of her many big hits, Moulin Rouge.

    Overtures to:
    Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) (1858)
    La Belle Hélene (1864)
    La Périchole (1868)
    La Vie Parisienne (1866)
    - Philharmonia Orchestra under Neville Marriner (Decca)

    Any publicity is good publicity as they say, and Jacques Offenbach’s first big hit Orpheus in the Underworld is attestation to that saying. Upon its premiere, the operetta had failed to make an impression, but the powerful critic Jules Janin wrote a review of it calling Offenbach a creator of what was blasthemy, “a profanation of holy and glorious antiquity.” Janin’s thunderbolt proved to be a blessing in disguise, it made Offenbach the talk of the town, and people flocked to see Orpheus. It became a sensation, its tunes became famous overnight.

    Offenbach’s opérettes, also called opera bouffes and burlesques, epitomized the Paris of the Second Empire ruled by Napoleon III. They lampooned the pretensions of high art and also hinted at political and sexual taboos. However, there was a serious side to this, as the period was marked by increasing political repression and censorship, so Offenbach had to tread carefully. Contradictorily, the regime encouraged people to have a good time, to focus attention away from their corruption and double dealings. So its not a matter of ‘let them eat cake’ but just encourage them to let off some steam – as long as it doesn’t affect those pulling the strings.

    Orpheus would set a trend which Offenbach would follow up throughout the 1860’s until the early 1870’s. The deprivations of war and the Paris Commune would dent his good fortunes, but that was in the future. Orpheus would run for a record of 228 performances, it only stopped because the cast wearied of doing it. The composer was granted French citizenship, received the Legion of Honour, and amassed enough wealth to buy a fashionable mansion where he threw lavish parties.

    Beneath the light surface, Offenbach’s music comes across as quite sophisticated. He was influenced by Rossini, who called him “The Mozart of Champs-Elyseés.” Another fan was Meyerbeer, who would often get front row seats to Offenbach’s productions. Maybe Giacomo enjoyed seeing his pretentious historicist grand operas being lampooned by Jacques? But they had in common the fact that they where both foreigners, Germans of Jewish heritage, who had conquered the city with their music.

    Offenbach’s overtures
    are amongst his biggest hits. The Mozart comparison is apt, because Offenbach was like him a master of melody. One thing I noticed straight after I heard Offenbach’s music in my youth was his skill at orchestration. To this day I still like how he gives brief but memorable solos to many instruments throughout these pieces, from the woodwinds to the strings, including his own instrument the cello. It has the delicacy and intimacy of chamber music.

    Cabaret Songs:
    La Diva de l’Empire*
    L’Omnibus automobile*
    Je te veux

    - Measha Brueggergosman, soprano; BBC SO under David Robertson; *William Bolcom, piano; Orchestrations of last two songs by Robert Caby and Bolcom, respectively (Deutsche Grammophon – from “Surprise” album)

    If Offenbach’s operettas epitomize the Paris of the grande monde, Erik Satie’s hint at its decline and disintegration. Satie was an innovator in his own right who was to influence so many 20th century composers with his concepts of ‘armchair music’ (or muzak) and technical aspects such as getting rid of bar lines. His musical descendants are a diverse bunch, ranging from his contemporaries Claude Debussy and Les Six, to many in the jazz world, pianists in particular (eg. Jean Wiener, George Shearing, Jacques Louissier), to the avant-garde figurehead John Cage and minimalist Philip Glass.

    The selection of his songs sung here by Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman gives a hint of that diversity. They have elements of simplicity and the mundane, the final song Je te veux being one of those delicious waltzes which is infectious and becomes an earworm in no time at all!

    There is also L’Omnibus automobile, a surreal song about a bus loaded full of cement hurtling at high speed through Paris, mowing down all like a juggernaut. The song comes across as having a double meaning, one level absurd, on the other deadly serious. The bus mows down people of all social classes from the plebs to their political overlords, the date of this imagined event being July the fourteenth, Bastille Day. Written in 1905, it is prophetic of the disaster that was to be World War I. Here, Satie anticipates the Dada movement that was to spring up during the war, it presented the same mix of the absurd with the surreal.

    Album: Edith Piaf – 20 French Hit Singles

    - A selection of her recordings made between 1946 and 1962 (EMI)
    Songs in focus:
    C’est a Hambourg (Monnot-Delecluse-Senlis) Rec. 1955
    L’homme a la moto (Dréjac-Lieber-Stoller) Rec. 1956
    Milord (Moustaki-Monnot) Rec. 1959
    Mon Dieu (Vaucaire-Dumont) Rec. 1961

    Edith Piaf’s voice was one of the most distinctive and recognizable of the 20th century. She reigned as the queen of French chanson from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, singing in the cabarets of Paris and doing concerts abroad. Piaf was literally born and lived on the streets of Paris. She was discovered busking by an owner of one of the cabarets of the city. With her raw and emotionally expressive voice and signature black dress, she became known as ‘the little sparrow,’ and took Paris and eventually the world by storm.

    Piaf was not formally trained in music, but she had an unerring knack for writing memorable melodies and making sensitive arrangements. While she is not credited for composing all of her hit songs, many of the ideas for these songs originated from her, and her partnership with the composer Margeurite Monnot was extremely fruitful and instructive. Piaf did get credit for some of her songs, she sat and passed the exam which was a requirement to be credited as a composer on published scores.

    Piaf’s early hits included the famous La Vie En Rose, and other songs widely known include Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien and Exodus. I love those but chose to cover a handful that are really favourites for me and that I think illustrate many aspects of her art well.

    I see Piaf’s best songs as mini tone poems or even films, using cinematic devices such as flash forwards and flash backs. Often the narrator and protagonist of the song is ambigious, often she is an outsider. The language used is hard to translate because Piaf wrote in the colloquialisms of her era, words and expressions that are no longer used. Some have suggestions of autobiographical elements, Piaf’s life having no shortage of material for inspiration, from her many love affairs, addiction to alcohol and underground activities during the occupation aiding the resistance. There where many sides to her personality, she had a generous side but at the same time was not always the easiest person to be around.

    C’est a Hambourg paints the picture of a busy port with ships coming in bringing men keen on spending a night with a girl. In this song, when Piaf sings of rain you hear sounds from the orchestra as if it was some Debussy piece, when she sings of love you hear these swellings reminiscent of Wagner, and her own instrument the accordion is thrown into the mix giving the vibes of some rough café or tavern at the docks.

    L’homme a la moto images a motorcyclist who terrorizes a village and is cruel to his girlfriend. He gets his comeuppance when he is hit and killed by a train. The symbolism of cruelty and just retribution may well be a comment on the events of the occupation, but its not explicitly stated. There is innovation here in the rhythms of the train imitated by the percussion, and actual taped sound of trains being spliced in for added effect.

    is a song that did very well on the English market for Piaf, and she explicitly asked Georges Moustaki for a song with the world ‘milord’ in it as many times as possible. He delivered, and the story in embryo here is an English gentleman, a tourist in France, brushing past a girl on the street. He doesn’t recognize her and is in the company of another woman. The narrator reminisces about times she spent loving this man, but now she is like a stranger to him, almost like a discarded item. Was she a past mistress, or a prostitute?

    Mon Dieu
    was a song Piaf wrote after the love of her life, the boxer Marcel Cedan, died in a plane crash. The legendary violinist Ginette Neveu also died in the same accident, and that was also a blow to Piaf. The week following this, Piaf locked herself into a room and almost went mad. This moving song came out of that ordeal. It’s a song that always moves me to tears, and the incorporation of classical elements is notable, including a soprano accompanist in one part. Piaf has no choice but to find consolation in her God, but also asks the hardest question in such circumstances: why?

    Piaf did find love again, but she succumbed to a premature death from cancer in 1963. She was only in her mid forties. Her funeral stopped the traffic of Paris, luminaries and ordinary people tussled at her graveside to pay their last respects, and many of her fellow musicians paid tribute including one who said “Edith Piaf died today, Paris is missing something.”

    Despite the death of Piaf being a considerable loss, the chanson tradition didn’t stop there, one of the great songwriters and interpreters of the younger generation was already emerging. Monique Serf (going by her stage name Barbara) is worth checking out as a comparison to Piaf. Barbara was freer in the structures of her songs, she employed jazz musicians to accompany her, and her voice was more trained and polished. I used to have a vinyl on the Philips label titled Barbara chante Barbara (Barbara sings Barbara). Its an interesting follow up to these if you want to go there and can find it!
    Last edited by Sid James; Jan-10-2014 at 06:33. Reason: Spelling and additional info

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sid James View Post
    Piaf did get credit for some of her songs, she sat and passed the exam which was a requirement to be credited as a composer on published scores.
    Sorry guys, a correction to the above. Piaf sat the exam but didn't pass it. I checked in her half sister Berteaut's biography. Would have helped to check what I remembered before publishing but not to worry! My research on Offenbach was strongest, due to the fact that I didn't know that much about him before.

    With Piaf, I am more familiar, but my memory kind of reversed her exam result. She had this symbiotic relationship with composers like Monnot, much was published under their names, but ideas germinated from Piaf a lot of the time. She got a cut of the proceeds of royalties because I suppose it was win win for both of them. In terms of the guys who wrote her songs, she ended up having affairs with most of them. However I know some songs are officially credited to her, one is La Vie En Rose, her most famous (even the three tenors sang it!).

    I will return here next week for an entry on the cabaret scene in Berlin, and links to that in the music of William Bolcom and others.

    Thanks to all for reading/visiting/liking here I hope to do many more in future!
    Last edited by Sid James; Jan-11-2014 at 01:27.

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    This is good stuff, man. Nice of you to write it up.
    Liberty for wolves is death to the lambs.

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    Sid, are you a writer by any chance professionally/student of? Or have you considered writing about music listening (I don't mean academically music listening). Curious.

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    Great read. Wrt Barbara: there is an interesting story how she changed European history in a way with her song Goettingen (link).
    I treat my music like I treat my pets. It’s something to own, care about and curate with attention to detail. From a blog by hjr.

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    Cabaret, Part II: Berlin and New York – Music by Schoenberg, R. Strauss, Weill, Kander and Bolcom

    Overview – From cabaret in Berlin to Broadway musicals in New York

    Last week’s blog looked at how cabaret emerged in Paris during the 1880’s. This week I am linking that to the arrival of the genre in Germany during the early 20th century.

    French cabaret artists such as Yvette Guilbert had toured German cities for two decades. In 1901, Germany’s first cabaret venue, the Überbrettl, opened in Berlin. This established a cabaret tradition that was unique, the Germans tended to be more overtly political than their French predecessors. Composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss composed music related to the emerging genre early on.

    The American connection occurs during World War II, a period of upheaval in Europe. Kurt Weill, composer of The Threepenny Opera, emigrated to the USA and ended up conquering Broadway with his musicals. The seed was sown for American composers to write their own music inspired by cabaret, and the music of John Kander and William Bolcom reflects that strongly.

    Below: French cabaret artist Yvette Guilbert by Toulouse-Lautrec.

    Schoenberg Brettl-Lieder (Cabaret Songs) (1901)
    Jedem das Seine (To Each His Own)
    Mahnung (Warning)
    Der Nachtwandler (Night Wanderer)
    Einfältiges Lied (Simple Song)
    Der genügsame Liebhaber (The Easily Satisfied Lover)
    Arie aus dem Spiegel von Arkaden (Aria from “The Mirror of Arcadia”)

    Orchestrations: Patrick Davin, except Der Nachtwandler by the composer
    - Measha Brueggergosman, soprano.; BBC Symphony Orchestra under David Robertson (from “Surprise” album on Deutsche Grammophon)

    Schoenberg was hired as musical director at the Überbrettl cabaret when it opened in 1901. He stayed there until 1903, when he returned to Vienna to take up a teaching post. His Brettl-Lieder where composed for performance there, but they where not published as a set until the 1970’s. These songs, taking a dig at everything from sexual propriety, the neo-feudalist class structure of the ancien regime and bourgeois morality, show a rare humorous side of the composer’s musical range. It also looks forward to his seminal song-cycle Pierrot Lunaire, which has elements drawn from cabaret.

    They are all great, but its not hard to name my favorites.

    To Each His Own has a soldier placed in three different scenes, one the parade ground, another dancing with his sweetheart, a third lying on the grass with her. The music changes accordingly, from a march, to a waltz, to a lyrical ending. The song puts into sharp contrast the difference between the public face of a soldier and the more intimate concerns at the back of his mind. Militarism contrasted with love. ‘Make love not war’ way before the hippie era, maybe?

    The Night Wanderer has the absurd situation of a man parading through the streets at night, a marching band in front of him and two working class women - a washerwoman and an ironing girl - marching along with him. Schoenberg here uses an unusual combination of piano, piccolo, trumpet and snare drum as accompaniment, reflecting the small bands he conducted at the cabaret.

    The Easily Satisfied Lover has sexual symbolism in a cat that sits on a woman’s lap and is stroked by her lover. The narrator is bald like Schoenberg was, and the cat ends up like some living toupee on his head!

    Below: a poster of the Uberbrettl cabaret, 1900s.

    Richard Strauss Love Scene from Feuersnot (1901)
    - Staatskapelle Dresden under Giuseppe Sinopoli (Deusche Grammophon Eloquence)

    Schoenberg’s mentor at the time, Richard Strauss, also rode the wave of cabaret trend that was sweeping the big German cities. His burlesque opera Feuersnot (Fire Famine) has parallels with Offenbach’s own operas of this type, but it also looks back to the rogue protagonist of Strauss’ tone poem Till Eulenspiegel. Strauss’ second opera, Feuersnot was premiered in Dresden and had an early run in Vienna too.

    The plot of Feuresnot involves a young man seeking to give payback for a girl who jilts him. He hires a magician to fix the matter, and the opera culminates in the girl having fire emanate from her nether regions.

    I haven’t heard the opera in full, however the Love Scene, here played in an orchestral version, gives more than a hint of Strauss’ cheekiness. The string writing is syrupy and the horns add this whimsical element. The climax suggests an embrace after much fumbling about, this is like Wagner’s Liebestod mixed with elements of humour, maybe a bit of slapstick?

    Below: The Uberbrettl, early 20th century.

    Last edited by Sid James; Jan-18-2014 at 03:40.

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    Weill/Brecht Songs from The Threepenny Opera (Der Dreigroschenoper, 1928)*
    Music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Bertolt Brecht

    “The Ballad of Mack the Knife”
    - Louis Armstrong, vocals/trumpet with his All Stars, 1955
    - Shirley Horn, vocals; Jimmy Cleveland, trombone; Bobby Scott, piano; Orchestra arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones, 1963

    “Pirate Jenny”
    - Lotte Lenya, vocals with orch. conducted by Samuel Matlowsky, 1954
    - Nina Simone, vocals/piano with Rudy Stevenson, guitar; Lisle Atkinson, bass; Bobby Hamilton, drums, 1964 (live in concert)

    *Version in English by Marc Blitzstein

    Schoenberg left Berlin to go to Vienna, where he would compose his most innovative music. Kurt Weill was to emerge in Berlin, where he was trained by Busoni, as a composer who would take music in another direction entirely. His partnership with the playwright Bertolt Brecht was a prolific one and together they would redefine concepts of theatre. The directions Schoenberg had taken meant little to Weill, his artistic credo summarized as “I don’t give a damn about posterity, I want to write for today!”

    If Schoenberg hinted at the decline of the ancien regime in his songs, Weill’s works for the stage where witness to its collapse and the rise of extremism. The interwar period was chaotic, with the tottering Weimar Republic threatened by destructive forces within, ultimately giving rise to Nazism. Here, Weill and Brecht produced The Threepenny Opera, which was premiered in Berlin in 1928.

    (Pictures top to bottom: Louis Armstrong, Shirley Horn and Nina Simone)

    Mack the Knife, a song from the opera, became very popular everywhere, everyone from crooners like Bobby Darin to jazz singers sang it, and the violinist Jascha Heifetz even recorded an encore arrangement of it. All of the following recordings of the song where done in New York, but Ella Fitzgerald sang it live in Berlin, and famously forgot the words doing some scat singing to fill the gaps in her memory - mentioning Armstrong and Darin in the process!

    Louis Armstrong’s version has plenty of whimsy but also hints at darker things, for example his rendition of Mack having fancy gloves that don’t show “mmm a trace of red” sounds as if he’s singing about tomato ketchup rather than blood. The suggestion is that death can be as mundane as having a meal, life can be cheap, killing can be clinical. He also gives a shout-out to Lotte Lenya during this recording, Weill’s widow who was apparently in the studio at the time.

    Shirley Horn’s version by contrast is smooth and pretty laid back. The big band arrangement by the legendary Quincy Jones really makes it swing.

    Another song is the disturbing Pirate Jenny, which speaks to the oppressed becoming the oppressor, with images of death and destruction. Lotte Lenya’s version is very dark, emphasizing the repetitive beats so prevalent in Weill’s music, it comes off like some goose-stepping Nazi march.

    I find Nina Simone’s version even more disturbing, it comes off as psychopathic. Simone transports the song's setting to the Southern United States, the scene of race riots during the civil rights era in the 1960’s when it was recorded. When she whispers “tonight, nobody is going to sleep here…nobody…nobody” it is chilling. Her performance takes in too many emotions to name, it is extremely intense and frenzied.

    Last edited by Sid James; Jan-18-2014 at 03:46.

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    Kander/Ebb Cabaret: Original Soundtrack recording (1972)
    Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fredd Ebb
    - Liza Minelli, as Sally Bowles; Joel Grey, as Emcee; Ralph Burns, musical direction & orchestrations (MCA / Hip-O)

    World War II would separate Weill and Brecht, but Weill went on to write Broadway musicals and make his mark on the American scene.

    The partnership of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb lasted for some four decades, during which they produced musicals such as Cabaret and Chicago.

    Cabaret has strong links to the sound and feel of Threepenny Opera. The musical was first produced during the 1960’s, a decade when America was going through many challenges to the system, from the war in Vietnam to the civil rights movement at home. However, the plot takes place in Berlin, in the dying days of the Weimar Republic.

    The film is a favorite of mine, and it garnered a swag of Oscars. It has some unusual features, from one of the leads (Michael York) not singing a note, to all the songs except one taking place indoors, in the Kit Kat Club. Joel Grey gave a very memorable performance as the ever changing Emcee, sinister one minute, charming the next. It was also Liza Minelli’s big break, her role of Sally Bowles bringing to my mind images of the film actor Louise Brooks (who played Lulu) of the silent era.

    The songs sungs by the Emcee and Sally Bowles are interspersed with the real life plot, and act as commentary on it. Rarely does a musical have all songs that are essential, not just filler, but Cabaret is one of the few that achieves that effect. The pivotal song, Tomorrow Belongs To Me, is the only one shot outside, in a beer garden. A young Hitler Youth boy sings a song that at first seems innocent, then turns ugly, with the people joining him to sing about a bright future under the coming political order. That twist from innocence to darkness is simply chilling.

    There are many subtexts here, from sexuality to racism and otherness. Even the hit song Cabaret sung by Sally at the end speaks less to triumph over adversity, more of survival on a temporary basis. Until the next drink comes along, the next night at the cabaret, the next fling. Louis Armstrong did a version of this, but cut out the bits suggesting prostitution.

    William Bolcom
    Cabaret Songs (c.1980's)
    The Actor
    Song of Black Max
    Toothbrush Time
    The Total Stranger in the Garden

    - Measha Brueggergosman, soprano.; BBC Symphony Orchestra under David Robertson (from “Surprise” album on Deutsche Grammophon)

    William Bolcom’s music merges the mundane with the surreal, making references to clichés of high and low art. Composed with his long time collaborator Arnold Weinstein, the Cabaret Songs give snippets of the America of today and yesterday, of reality and of fantasy, of outsiders and eccentrics. Bolcom studied under Darius Milhaud, who was a member of Les Six. The group had formed in the 1920’s, during the heyday of cabaret and chanson in Paris, an early mentor of theirs being Erik Satie.

    Again, not hard to name my favourites, but I love them all.

    In Song of Black Max there are undertones of the soundtracks to mafia films like The Godfather. Here, Bolcom employs a band similar to Schoenberg, piccolo and snare drum being prominent. The figure of Black Max is similar to Mack the Knife – both come across as shady characters from the underworld.

    Amor has some groovy Latin beats, underpinned by maracas and congas. The girl who causes a riot in town ends up going past a church singing gospel tunes, and that’s in the music too.

    Toothbrush Time has bleusy saxophone, piano, strings and horns writing that is in colour and rhythm reminiscent of Gershwin. It alludes to Gershwin’s propensity for one-night stands, and includes an awkward telephone conversation between two people who slept together but obviously don’t know each other from a bar of soap.

    The Total Stranger in the Garden starts with a flowing intro similar to Smetana’s Moldau, coming across as ironic given the context of a boxed in “garden in a garden apartment.” The subject is a conversation turning from boring to bizarre, as a woman stares across the table to her faceless husband who is a total stranger to her after decades of marriage.

    George is about a New York drag queen who sings Un bel di from Puccini's La Boheme, and is killed by a stranger who he invites to his apartment. The bit about his funeral has a neat quotation of the Dies Irae. This song, like all the others, was based on real stories known to Bolcom and Weinstein.

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    This edition of my blog takes a look at some links between three string quintets from three different eras – Classical, early Romantic, and Modern.

    A String of Quintets – Music by Boccherini, Schubert and Sessions

    Boccherini String Quintet in E Major, G.275 (1771)
    - Danubius String Quartet with György Éder, cello (Naxos)

    Schubert String Quintet in C Major, D.956 (1828)
    - Arthur Grumiaux & Arpád Gerecz, violins ; Max Lesueur, viola ; Paul Szabó & Philippe Mermoud, cellos (Decca Eloquence)

    Sessions String Quintet (1958)
    - The Group for Contemporary Music – Benjamin Hudson and Carol Zeavin, violins; Lois Martin and Jenny Douglas, violas; Joshua Gordon, cello (Naxos)

    The connections

    The main connection between these works is in terms of influence.

    Luigi Boccherini was the first composer to add the cello as the fifth instrument to the string quartet to make it into a quintet. Traditionally, another viola was added. It is likely that Franz Schubert knew Boccherini’s music, and he also added a second cello in his quintet. Roger Sessions was an admirer of Schubert’s quintet, as well as Mozart’s ones, and these inspired him him to compose his own work in the genre (although he reverted back to the traditional quintet lineup, as used by Mozart, adding a viola).

    Other commonalities include these three composers tendency to let their melodies flow and meander with some deal of freedom, even though thematic unity is still present. They all rework sonata form to their own ends, and their grasp of the textures and colours of the string ensemble is of a very high level.

    Below: Boccherini, with cello in hand.

    Boccherini String Quintet in E Major, Op. 13 #5 (G.275) (1771)

    The Italian composer Boccherini spent most of his creative life in Spain, having moved there in his twenties following a successful visit to Paris. Boccherini was a cellist, and had initially studied the instrument with his father, a double bassist. Throughout his career, he wrote prolifically for the instrument, including over 100 string quintets as well as a series of concertos and sonatas.

    Boccherini wrote his first set of quintets whilst he was court composer in Aranjuez to the brother of the king of Spain. The String Quintet in E Major (the fifth of the set) is best known for its minuet, but its warhorse status conceals a work of sophistication and indeed, innovation. Boccherini’s use of the extra cello adds not only another ‘voice’ to the ensemble, but also imparts added richness and detail in terms of texture.

    Another aspect of Boccherini’s music is his creativity with form. For example, this piece opens with what in effect is a prelude, the usual sonata form movement comes after this introductory movement. Indeed, Boccherini’s quintets vary in layout, they can be anything from two to six movements.

    The famous minuet has some of the trademarks of Boccherini’s music, such as repetition of small melodic ‘cells’ or motifs (perhaps prefiguring minimalism?), a sense of balance and symmetry, and ornamentation and trills. More obviously, its shows his ability to write a great tune! I remember it being used in a Twinings tea commercial, of all things.

    In the finale, an elegant rondo, the main theme is embellished as it is passed between the instruments. A rhythmic flourish reminiscent of one found in the second movement returns briefly before the decisive conclusion.

    Below: Gustav Klimt's painting of Schubert.

    Schubert String Quintet in C Major, D.956 (1828)

    Schubert wasn’t much older than Boccherini was when he penned his own String Quintet in C Major. Schubert used the cello as his fifth instrument, and it is thought that he knew about and was influenced by Boccherini’s quintets. Schubert also uses the two cellos in similar ways to Boccherini, for example how they announce the second theme of the first movement in a duet underpinned by the rest of the ensemble. There is also Schubert’s use of pivots, extending Boccherini’s formal balance, the second and third movements both have a middle sections that act as contrasting anchors or pivots.

    There has been much written about this work. Schubert composed it during the final year of his life. Writers have written copiously about the reasons why he came to compose it, and have given many varying interpretations of its contents. Some hear premonitions of death, some talk of the sense of youthful daring and adventurousness of the piece, others about the connections of this music to contemporaries of Schubert, particularly Beethoven. A common opinion is that this encapsulates something which is sublime, and there is a general feeling that its his greatest (or among his greatest) works. The question that is on everyone’s lips is that, since was able to achieve this at around thirty, what would he have done at forty or fifty if he hadn't died so young?

    Having recently listened to Schubert’s symphonies, I think that this work has some things in common with them, even the earliest ones. As in the symphonies, the listener is often jolted from an introduction to the first theme to the second theme with little or no transition in between, there is the same sense of song-like melody given purely instrumental expression, and there is the same calmness underneath which lurks this deeper aspect, speaking to human fragility and maybe even doubt.

    Its almost useless to talk about this, like Beethoven’s late quartets (which Schubert had heard), its simply music that has to be experienced. The two central movements with their pivots grab me the most. The slow movement having this almost orchestral texture with a stormy pivot, the scherzo which comes across as quite Viennese having one that is the opposite, the calm in the eye of the storm, so to speak. Then the finale, on the surface a jolly Hungarian flavoured romp, but in some ways its over the top and deliberately exaggerated. Fragmentary reminiscences of earlier themes come back, but the ending strikes me as quite ambiguous, and I like that!

    Below: Roger Sessions with some illustrious American colleagues - Douglas Moore and Sessions (both seated, left to right). Standing (also left to right) : Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Wallingford Riegger, William Schuman and Walter Piston.

    Sessions String Quintet (1958)

    Sessions' String Quintet was amongst his first works using the serial technique. His aim was to make his own mark in the same genre which Mozart and Schubert had mastered in their own times. With this piece, Sessions combines old and new. Before coming to serialism, Sessions was well grounded in the old compositional techniques of sonata form and counterpoint, his teachers being Horatio Parker (who had also taught Charles Ives) and Ernest Bloch.

    Sessions was well into his fifties when he took up serialism, and in a large part it was due to his friendship with Arnold Schoenberg, who had moved to the USA after the Nazis took power in Germany. As a result, Sessions’ quintet displays the same sort of expressive and at times near Romantic aesthetic as Schoenberg’s works. The texture here is quite lean and spare, but at the same time there is this richness of detail. The layering of sounds, the rhythmic contrasts and the journey of the main idea (announced at the start by the lead violinist) throughout the work gives the listener something to hang onto. Sessions said of this signpost system that “I recall an idea very plainly and specifically without repeating it literally.”

    The structure of Sessions’ String Quintet is unusual, it having two slow movements leading to the fast and busy final movement. One thing that struck me upon my first listen to this piece where these flowing and unbroken legato lines, and this is a trademark of Sessions’ music. In some respects, that same melodic and flowing quality is here, as in Boccherini and Schubert. Another parallel is with Sessions’ contemporary Elliott Carter, also a master of chamber music, their music sharing this combination of individual expression with intellectual rigor.

    In an interview done in 1965, Sessions said that a composer’s command of technical skills – both traditional and cutting edge - could not be underestimated. He also said that he saw the serial technique as being most effective when applied flexibly to each composer’s needs, and that he was not concerned about drawing boundaries between what was Romantic and what was Modern music. It goes to show why this piece had such immediate appeal to me, I like that mix of old and new, that cross-fertilization. I don’t see a need to differentiate between various types of musics either, his philosophy fits well with my own.

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    This is all very interesting to me. It's informative and in some instances providing a foundation - and I look forward to pursuing it at my leisure.
    And as an aside, that shot of Louis Armstrong is by Anton Bruehl and is one of only two photos I have framed and on the wall above my desk.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sid James View Post
    I like that mix of old and new, that cross-fertilization.
    Isn't all music to an extent a mix of old and new, whether a composer in a statement about a work wants to highlight that or not? Obviously the balance can vary but everything has to build on the past to an extent. More of modern music inevitably had to have been built on romanticism as that's what preceeded it.
    Not really active anymore because of disagreement of how the forum is run (if I'm allowed to say that).

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    Quote Originally Posted by starry View Post
    Isn't all music to an extent a mix of old and new, whether a composer in a statement about a work wants to highlight that or not? Obviously the balance can vary but everything has to build on the past to an extent.
    I think this is true, and in effect its the reason why I set up this thread/blog. New music builds on old music, or at least older music, something that came before it. However there is always this tension between the old and the new. Once something that is initially innovative and radical becomes accepted and entrenched over time, inevitably it becomes questioned. Some composers react against it, others who are not so radical might heavily modify it, or graft things onto it to meet their own needs.

    ...More of modern music inevitably had to have been built on romanticism as that's what preceeded it.
    That's pretty commonsense now, but back in the 1950's and '60's, it wasn't an opinion shared by all, particularly those who saw Romanticism as retrograde. In that interview, Sessions says he disagrees with the cult elevating Webern and correspondingly downgrading Schoenberg. Years before I read it, I thought the same, in particular how its illogical - Schoenberg taught Webern and bought about serialism, it wasn't the other way round. Yet the post-war avant-garde turned their backs on Schoenberg, and said he was too Romantic for his own good, he hung on to too many remnants of the past (one being sonata form, another being his avoidance of total serialisation, things of this sort).

    But Sessions said that Schoenberg was the more important figure, and he called the Webern cult with its arguments about the inevitability of total serialism and so on to be a view of music history that was in serious error, that was in his opinion "pseudo history."

    Regarding total serialisation, he said that it was of limited interest to him as a composer. He came to serialism late (so too did one other major post-war composer, Luigi Dallapicolla) and he already had his style in place. One anecdote Sessions relates in that interview is how he showed his first serial piece to a colleague, who said to him that he had lost nothing of his musical voice by using the method, it was still recognisable as by Sessions. In other words, Sessions thought things through, he wanted to use the method in his own unique way. That's what he's advocating, not just jumping on some bandwagon.

    On that same Naxos disc as the String Quintet, there is also Sessions' String Quartet #1. Its from the 1930's, and its still tonal but in the interview Sessions said that he realised in hindsight that he was doing similar things in that to Berg. He was already moving into this kind of vague tonal direction, and employing things like polyrhythms (Stravinsky being another big influence early on). It took him time to study and absorb the music of the Second Viennese School. Initially he thought more of Stravinsky, but things changed.

    I can hear similarities between the quartet and quintet, one is the slow-slow-fast movement structure, another is that tendency for flowing legato lines, ideas are allowed to meander and they're not too chopped up. When listening to that it doesn't matter if one is tonal the other serial, and this is what Sessions was getting at, the importance of the end product. That's why he values the craft of composing (he's also not a fan of talking about music ad nauseum - basically his philosophy is for composers to get their hands dirty and just do it!).

    But in terms of my own listeneing, it doesn't matter what a composer says, I listen to their music and connect with it regardless. However I often have a two pronged approach to music. I like to read about what I am listening to, if I can get my hands on things like interviews or facts surrounding the composition, well all the better. It can be quite interesting and add to my appreciation of their music, as well as music history in general. So this is what I try to share on this thread, however its hard to summarise everything I read without losing some of the detail. Of course I also put my own slant on things, I give my own opinions. Its not just rehashing things I read!
    Last edited by Sid James; Feb-06-2014 at 03:13.

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    A composer's words about their music are probably more important in just how they want themselves to be seen or who they want to align with, rather than necessarily being really useful in listening to it.
    Not really active anymore because of disagreement of how the forum is run (if I'm allowed to say that).

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    Schoenberg's 12-tone method grew out of the total chromaticism which preceded. In 'free atonality' or total chromaticism, all 12 notes are in circulation already, so all the 12-tone method does is put these in an order. Ordering insures that all 12 notes are used without repeating pitches (but they already were in free atonality). Vertical stacking freed-up the ordering, as the notes could be stacked in any order, which gave some semblance of harmonic identity, but tonality was already a losing proposition, ambiguous at best in total chromaticism. But this is a natural consequence of chromaticism; more notes in circulation tends to hinder a sense of tonality. Tonality is best established with fewer than 7 notes.

    Still, the voice-leading and textures and phrasing of tonality are still present in Schoenberg and Sessions, so they are firmly tied to late tonal practices.

    Webern, by fragmenting and using unusual phrasing (or no phrasing at all, just isolated note-events), was departing from this older tonal language.

    So why this reticence on the part of Schoenberg and Sessions to not go forward with the consequences of serial methods? At heart, it turns out that they are both traditionalists, conservatives, and wish to be firmly associated with traditional craftsmanship: polyphonic writing, voice leading, textures of orchestration, idiomatic writing for instruments, speech-like phrases and melodies, and "thematic" writing and development of ideas, in short: all the traditional skills that musicians used in the past.

    With Webern, and later Stockhausen and Boulez, we are entering new territory. The postwar serialists saw the need to depart from the past, and this is partly ideological; World War II had decimated Europe (read about Stockhausen's father and early childhood), and they wanted to separate themselves from the nationalistic and bombastic Western tradition which culminated in this destruction.

    Not only that, but fascism and state-controlled scenarios, which were what started the war and also ended it (in a most inhuman way by the U.S.), were ideologically opposed to "modernism" and its offshoots, like serialism (Shostakovich's struggle with Stalin comes to mind). Why should they align themselves with nationalistic forces of culture, as exemplified by Germany and its long tradition, and while America was still building hydrogen bombs?

    Meanwhile, back in post-war U.S.A., the "winners" were building a new America, and the nuclear age set in. Roger Sessions, with his "Father Knows Best" suit and horn-rimmed glasses, exemplifies the 1950s, male-dominated, post-war complacency of a victorious America, building shiny new automobiles and perfecting the hydrogen bomb.

    That's my criticism with Sessions; he was isolated in ivory-tower academia, like an ostrich with his head in the ground. There is a smug detachment in his vision, which seems to make him a "loner" in the end analysis.

    Cage and Boulez corresponded, and interacted with others; by contrast, Sessions was content to sip his martini and remain alloof, isolated, secure in his traditional stance.

    So what makes Sessions any better than Webern or serialists, by holding back? Certainly not the actual sound of his music, which is decidedly atonal. Free atonality/total chromaticism had already dispensed with tonality.

    If there is an "ideology" at work here, it is certainly not an ideology of "atonality," because Sessions is just as atonal as Webern, so we can't blame serialism for being an "ideology" in that regard.

    Sessions simply "dressed-up" his atonality in the respectable 1950s business suit of tradition and academic detachment. Perhaps this was perfectly in-step with the scientific/industrial aims of the hydrogen age. With Webern, Stockhausen, Boulez, and Babbitt (hats off to him, as he was in academia as well), we have a forward-looking vision which seeks to distance itself from any State ideology or post-war trend of complacency and conformity, and pursue its own artistic goals, which were a true departure from the Western outlook, towards a more Eastern, world-inclusive view.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Feb-06-2014 at 18:49.

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