Friday Performance Pick – 111

Sousa, The Washington Post March

I was a band guy (“geeks” hadn’t been invented yet). After doing all the usual band stuff throughout high school and into my college years, I found myself in an Army band for three years. Along the way, I played some unimaginable number of marches.

And I still like thsousaem. Not just as some kind of nostalgia for lost youth or because they appeal to my appreciation for order and form. Yes, they are formulaic, but you can say the same about many musical forms. And yes, they are crowd-pleasers, but that doesn’t mean the crowd is wrong to enjoy them.

Marches caught on in European military circles in large part from contact with the Janissary bands of the Ottoman Empire. (We mentioned this Turkish influence just two weeks ago concerning a work by Rameau.) Marches served several military purposes. They helped troops march in military formation and also boosted morale. The band frequently took to the battlefield, not just as drummers and buglers for signaling, but to keep soldiers feeling just a little better about their circumstances.

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) has a legitimate claim on the title “The March King.” You are probably familiar with many of his marches, but he was also successful at writing operettas. Our friend David Lovrien of the Dallas Wind Symphony maintains a web site devoted to Sousa that has a wealth of information.

Since we are about to celebrate Washington’s Birthday, it seems like a reasonable, if feeble, excuse to feature a march in this series. Sousa’s The Washington Post March (1889) was not written to commemorate anything about George Washington, but rather for an essay contest awards ceremony for the newspaper bearing that name.

An Island Reminds Me

atollThere’s a stark volcanic rock outside of my balcony. It juts up from the water as the lone point of profile across an endless horizon of Caribbean sea. We’re anchored in St. John’s Bay. Behind us lies Gustavia, a luxury port in St. Barts. People don’t bargain in the markets here. It’s not that kind of place.

Foreboding in the early morning light, this island of rock has mesmerized me for some reason, although I’ve seen plenty of similar structures since I began to work on ships as a Smithsonian speaker. It is so bold, so proud.

Despite its dissimilar profile, it reminds me of the mysterious island in Arnold Böcklin’s series of paintings known as Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead). In each of the five versions, created between 1880 and 1886, Böcklin made slight variations, including reconfiguring the shape of the rocks. A figure clad all in white appears in each, accompanying a coffin to the isle. She is regarded variously in the different interpretations, but usually as a symbol of death, or as the deceased seeking repose on the island. Any masterpiece of art invites such speculations.


Arnold Böcklin, Die Toteninsel III

Sergei Rachmaninov certainly speculated on Böcklin’s paintings. He was intrigued enough to compose one of his most gripping tone poems using the same title. Luminously beautiful in its opening, the orchestra introduces a rolling figure of five beats that hypnotizes the ear. Contrasting sections shape the piece into a cleanly symmetrical musical form, echoing the spacing of the stark rock towers and verdant crevice on Böcklin’s isle.

Isle of the Dead (whether paintings or composition) reminds us how an artist’s creativity casts a wide net, encompassing everything imaginable from topography at sea to ambiguous symbols. Art does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it created, or intended to be received, in a vacuum.

So as the morning continued, I found myself wondering if my peak in St. John’s Bay would be impressive enough to evoke such a luscious piece of music or masterful painting? Perhaps. A bevy of fishing boats clustered around it all day. The catch has to be good there. Initially it seemed not a single tree grew on the rocks, but as the dawn gave way to morning sky, I saw pines speckling the craggy surface. Their needles glowed with iridescent green. If I could swim there, would I find tropical flowers tucked into the clefts of the cliffs? What creatures might live on such an outcrop in the middle of the sea? Did birds prefer my peak to nesting sites on the shore?

As I speculated, somehow this massive rock jolted my memory back to fourth grade, when I first learned the basic vocabulary of geography from Mrs. Clark. You’d have to search hard for a teacher like Mrs. Clark today. Prim, with a ruffled collar peeking out from her proper dark suits, she simultaneously intimidated and embraced each of us. A child simply succeeded in Mrs. Clark’s class. The force of her talent as a teacher somehow scooted each of us into the path of progress.

I doubt Mrs. Clark ever saw even a fraction of the places she taught to us. Ordinary people didn’t travel back in those days. Instead, she probably worried herself every night as to whether her tireless efforts would make a difference in her pupils’ lives. She probably did not worry whether she would be remembered by us kindly in the future. Her purpose was to educate, not impress her persona upon us.

Such a teacher leaves a miniature presence on nearly every child. Decades later, that teacher’s voice will return, whispering, “Yes, see, that’s what I was talking about.” So, to all of those Mrs. Clarks laboring with an individual child or a room filled children, you will not necessarily see the fruit of your labors at the end of your year. But seeds do get planted. They may sprout like hibiscus in verdant climes when that fidgeting child gradually finds his footing in the world. Or they may jut dramatically out of the sea, joining hands with an adult’s understanding of far vaster knowledge.

Friday Performance Pick – 110

autoharpGow, Lament for the Death of His Second Wife

Back in elementary school, we had an itinerant music teacher who often played the autoharp. It was a practical instrument: good volume, full harmonies, and easy to carry. I remember being somewhat intrigued by it—as I was with most any musical instrument—but it didn’t seem to offer many possibilities or require much skill.

But there are things one can do on an autoharp that I hadn’t heard, and as I was looking for a good version of this Scottish lament, I came across Will Smith’s video.

Niel Gow (1727-1807) gained fame as a Scottish fiddler and enjoyed the patronage of the Duke of Atholl. He composed many dance tunes that form an important part of the Scottish country dance genre.

After the death of his first wife, with whom he had five sons and two daughters, Gow married Margaret Urquhart in 1768. Upon Margaret’s death in 1805, Gow reportedly put his fiddle away. When he picked it up again, the story goes, it was to compose this Lament.

The tune remains one of the most popular in the genre. You can find many online performances on a variety of instruments. The genre gained much popularity through “Ashokan Farewell” used in Ken Burns’ The Civil War television series. “Ashokan Farewell” became so strongly identified with Burns’ documentary that people assume it is an authentic tune of the time. In fact, it was composed by the American folk musician Jay Ungar in 1982 very much in the style of Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife.

The autoharp works on a simple principle. It has a series of bars that mute certain strings when depressed. So when you press the bar marked “A,” you eliminate all the strings that are tuned to notes not in the A major chord. Too easy, if that’s all you do. Charles Zimmerman obtained a U.S. patent on a similar device in 1882, but the autoharp we know today comes from a German design of 1883 by Karl August Gütter. Called a Volkszither, it indeed belongs to the family of zithers, a term that stretches back to the Latin cittern and the Greek cithara. It describes any instrument consisting of many strings stretched across a thin, flat body.

On A Clear Day

On a clear day
Rise and look around you,


Well it was indeed a clear, sunny day. I had just delivered a mid-afternoon talk on the history of Calypso to an audience of fellow-travelers as we steamed across the Caribbean Sea towards Philipsburg, St. Maarten.

Giving talks on these glamorous ships winds me up, as does the chance to chat with attendees, many of whom have their own expertise in the area. One gentleman told me about his memories of sitting up late with the great Calypsonian legend “The Mighty Sparrow,” marveling at his magnificent extempo, or rapier-sharp improvisations. It’s nice when the words from a podium match up with real life.

Suddenly, while pouring myself a cup of tea in the café on Deck 5, a memory from my real life blasted through me. A song I had long forgotten drifted over the speakers.

And you see who you are.

I first encountered On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Alan J. Lerner and Burton Lane 1965) at a delicate point in my life. I wasn’t the happiest kid in high school—for no reason, I might add. I was moody and resentful of the fact that, as a talented pianist, I needed to practice long hours. Top grades were expected too. None of this was hard, but I resisted much of it.

But then, in the 10th grade, I was asked to do something positively glamorous! I was hired to accompany a girl named Rita who sang On a Clear You Can See Forever in a beauty pageant. I don’t remember whether she was vying for “Miss Roanoke Valley” or was already a queen, competing for the Miss Virginia pageant. But I can tell you that pageants were a big thing back in those days. And while I’d played the organ for fancy weddings, the sparkly atmosphere of a beauty pageant was far different.

We rehearsed a lot. Rita was nervous, despite her lovely voice. Broadway songs are never as easy to sing as they seem.

On a clear day
How it will astound you
That the glow of your being
Outshines every star.

Well she shined a lot that night, although she didn’t win the crown. She won a special talent award and something like Miss Congeniality. I have no idea what her future held: she was a mighty senior from a high school across town and I, a lowly sophomore, was out of her class.

But I gained two important things from the venture. First, I fell in love with accompanying singers. A good accompanist performs the song as much as the singer, yet must know how to retreat into a subsidiary role. Nonetheless, the accompanist breathes each breath with the singer and is attuned to the curve and strength of every phrase. The accompanist stands ready in a split-second to advance, retreat, or cover whatever is needed should there be a faltering on the part of the vocalist. It is never dull.

I also learned that I would never be glamorous. In awe of the girls aglow with rhinestones and perfect makeup, I listened to their chatter as if it were a foreign language.

Since those days I have spent a substantial part of my life in fancy dress, performing and speaking on glamorous stages. But I never gained comfort with the idea, or process, of being glamorous. Instead, what I did gain is a chance to live out the lyrics of the song:

You will follow every mountain, sea, and shore.
You will see from far and near a world you’ve never seen before.

When Rita sang these words, I had a child’s limited view of the future. I doubted I’d ever get past my back yard, much less past the Shenandoah Mountains that ringed my hometown. But things turned out differently. I’ve had opportunities to follow mountains, seas, and shores in ways unimaginable to me, even today.

Many a singer has put a mark on this lovely tune, including Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Johnny Mathis, and Harry Connick Jr. But I’ll always treasure the voice of Rita, who stepped on stage in a shimmer of sequins, and sold the song to her audience. That song served as a promise unaware, pointing to the clear skies that, one day, would lie before me.

Image: Henrik Winther Andersen (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Friday Performance Pick – 109

Rameau, Les Sauvages

In 1725, Chief Chicagou of the Mitchigamea tribe in Illinois visited Paris and met with King Louis XV. The Company of the Indies, which controlled business with the French colonies in America, arranged the visit for Chicagou and five other chiefs. During the visit, the chiefs performed three dances representing peace, war, and victory—a performance attended by Jean-Philippe Rameau.

rameauRameau was inspired by the performance to write this short rondeau. The Air des Sauvages was included in Rameau’s Nouvelles Suites de pièces de clavecin (1728). It then was recycled as an overture to Act IV of his opera Les Indes galantes.

But how does a French Baroque composer represent Native American music to French audiences? Certainly he needed some exotic sounds and had no knowledge of authentic Native American music. We can be sure there were no ethnomusicologists in Illinois reporting back to Paris at the time.

First, remember that French music celebrated dance and grand processions. You certainly hear the dance influence in this piece. The dance is not a refined minuet or sarabande, but has a lively and somewhat angular and primitive character. And it has many of the stylistic features of what Europeans called “Turkish” music: angular melodies, square rhythms with strong downbeats, and heavy use of percussion, particularly triangles and bells. In fact, the opera Les Indes galantes celebrates the exotic with action set in Persia, Peru, North America, and an island in the Indian Ocean. Exoticism, not ethnographic authenticity, brought in audiences. This was the exotic sound of the day, whether it was intended to represent Persia or Illinois.

This performance features a Turkish Crescent containing bells mounted on a pole. It later became popular with European bands (a result of the popularity of the “Turkish” sound) and was known in British bands as a Jingling Johnny and, in Germany, a Schellenbaum.

Now compare the earlier Pièces de clavecin (harpsichord):

An Evening with Wendell Berry


Author Wendell Berry doesn’t leave his Kentucky farm often, but this past weekend he agreed to be our honored guest at the Classical Consortium Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Amid the gilded cornices and sumptuous chandeliers in the historic Seelbach Hotel, […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 107


Kodály, Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8 (3rd movement) Fasten your seat belt. The cellist on the video that follows takes a deep breath at the beginning for a reason. It’s easy sometimes to forget about the physicality of playing an […] Read more.

Playing with Elvis


Earlier today we were about to cross the Mississippi River at Memphis, en route from Texas to a conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Crossing the Mississippi is a big deal in our family. We do the countdown every time: “12 more […] Read more.