Friday Performance Pick – 129

Lahusen, Komm Trost der Welt

The composer of today’s work, Christian Lahusen (1886-1975), was born in Argentina to German parents. He attended high school in Germany and went on to study music in Leipzig. He held various posts as a pianist, teacher, and Kappellmeister. Although little known in the U.S., he has some following in the German choral world.

He chose a text by one of the most prominent 19th-century Romantic literary figures, the Prussian poet, novelist, and playwright Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857). Many composers turned to Eichendorff’s poems, including Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and others. See, e.g., Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 39, and the last of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Im Abendrot.

This particular poem, Der Einsiedler (The Hermit) was first published in 1837.

Komm, Trost der Welt, du stille Nacht!
Wie steigst du von den Bergen sacht,
Die Lüfte alle schlafen,
Ein Schiffer nur noch, wandermüd’,
Singt übers Meer sein Abendlied
Zu Gottes Lob im Hafen.
Come, comfort of the world, you still night!
How gently you climb from the mountains,
The breezes all are sleeping.
A lone sailor tired from wandering
Sings his evening song over the sea
To God’s praise in the harbor.
 aa
Die Jahre wie die Wolken gehn
Und lassen mich hier einsam stehn,
Die Welt hat mich vergessen,
Da tratst du wunderbar zu mir,
Wenn ich beim Waldesrauschen hier
Gedankenvoll gesessen.
The years go by like the clouds
And leave me standing here alone,
The world has forgotten me.
Then you came to me wonderfully,
When I was here at the rustling wood
Lost in thought.
 aa
O Trost der Welt, du stille Nacht!
Der Tag hat mich so müd’ gemacht,
Das weite Meer schon dunkelt,
Laß ausruhn mich von Lust und Not,
Bis daß das ew’ge Morgenrot
Den stillen Wald durchfunkelt.
O Comfort of the world, you still night!
The day has left me so tired,
The wide sea already darkens.
Let me rest from my joy and suffering,
Until the eternal dawn
Illuminates the quiet forest.
 aa

N.B. Lahusen wrote a collection of 150 short sacred songs called Ein Schöpfungsgesang (A Song of Creation) for three female voices. Many of these have been recorded by the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt Chamber Choir under the direction of Christian Ridil. Despite being posted on YouTube more than two years ago, the songs have virtually no views. (If you see 1 view, it’s mine.) This 2-disc set of about 50 songs has also been released on CD and complements another 2-disc set. 

Featured image: John Atkinson Grimshaw

I Never Took a Course in Drawing

At each conference recently, I’ve found myself discussing the same quandary: how do we implement curriculum so that the arts occupy a central, not ancillary, position?

Particularly in the realm of Classical education, we extol the value of the arts as a component of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Yet each of us lives in a world where music, dance, theater, and visual art are seen as frills, or, at best, electives. This diminished labeling exists even within some of the finest Classical curricula.

What do we do about this? One answer comes from remembering the central position the arts held within a serious education in centuries past. A well-educated person attained at least basic skills in several of the Fine Arts, such as dance, drawing, recitation of poetry, or music. The goal wasn’t professional mastery, but the ability minimally to execute, or at least appreciate, the arts. No one questioned this emphasis, just as no one questioned a young man’s training in fencing or a girl’s study of needlepoint.

But to learn and master the execution of the arts, or to gain appreciation or historical understanding of the arts, they must be studied as a core component of daily education. They can’t be pasted on in the manner of an elective (although, admittedly “some” knowledge is better than none).

stick-figureLet me give you a funny example. A few years ago, while crossing the Atlantic on a large cruise ship where I served as a Smithsonian speaker, I enrolled in an art class. Ships at sea have many such classes, and they are often quite good.

The first class dealt with collage (you should have seen my fabulous construction-paper collage of a coffee mug stuffed with colored pencils). “I can do this,” I thought!

But then we had our first drawing class. Okay, first class isn’t quite the right word, because “first” implies a step-by-step introduction to a skill, right? As it turns out, these people could draw already, or at least understood line and perspective. Everyone but me.

We went up to the 16th deck (yes, the ship was that big) and spread out across the Astro Turf. “Let’s sketch this chair,” the teacher said, pointing to a wood-slatted deck chair. They all dove in, quickly sketching it at several angles. I sat there thinking. “Okay, I have no idea what to do . . . but, hey, no one is going to notice I cannot do this, so I’ll just wiggle my pencil and look thoughtful until it’s over.”

Except the teacher did notice. He smiled as if I were a child. “You’ve never done this before, have you?” Well that was apparent.

He put his hand over mine and started sketching the outlines of the chair in the proper proportions. “Here. See if you can take it from there.” He had essentially eliminated my need to have any skill and brought me to a point where I could, at least, decorate my chair with squiggles.

I’ve often reflected back upon that experience. I wish I had more skill at art, but the fact is that I trained my hands at an early age to play music, not to draw. Yet, knowing music helps me to appreciate art. Music provides me an historical and aesthetic frame through which I can weave knowledge from virtually every discipline.

The arts don’t just beautify or inspire us. They develop us. They take our primitive physical and intellectual abilities and make them more exacting, flexible, and effective. They hone our creative and analytic abilities, challenging every aspect of our being (and not just a right or left brain lobe).

I like to use another example: George Washington was renown as one of his era’s best social dancers. His ability to negotiate the subtleties of minuets, allemandes, and jigs (gigues) with exceptional virtuosity was not unrelated to his ability to strategize a military campaign.

In fact, if you look historically, a person’s aptitude in court dance was recognized throughout Europe as a way to assess that person’s cognitive and physical abilities. It was all there on display: memory, coordination, flexibility, fortitude, and grace. A mistake on the dance floor in the French Baroque courts was called a faux pas (false step). This term did not mean “picking up the wrong fork.” It meant making an obvious error in something that should have been learned and mastered.

We can’t approach the Fine Arts as an occasional add-on and expect to develop any proficiency or love for the subjects. Insofar as the performing arts, obviously an early start is desirable; but abilities can be developed at any age (witness the proliferation of classes one finds in senior centers).

Developing the arts as a central column in the curriculum, from the youngest possible age, allows the student’s mind to be shaped in a critical way, whether in terms of creating art or appreciating art. As long as we treat it as an elective, a frill, or a specialization suitable for only a few, we deprive students of enormous, life-long benefits.

And so, as we struggle in our modern world (whether in brick and mortar buildings or in a homeschool) to provide a traditional, and necessary, study of the arts, let us take one concern out of the mix: toss that sense of guilt when focusing on the arts. We are not wasting time, amusing ourselves with easy things, or diverting our students from the “truly important” work. We are, instead, pursing what the Ancients considered a cornerstone of true education.

Friday Performance Pick – 128

Dvorák, String Quintet in G Major, Op. 77 (Scherzo)

It was described as irresistible on the one hand, and roundly criticized on the other. Dvorák’s String Quintet, Op. 77 has generated some conflicts. It is a relatively early work written in 1875. Dvorák (1841-1904) considered it his opus 18, but it was not published until 1888. The publisher slapped Opus 77 on it, the next number in the publishing sequence, suggesting that it was a much more mature work. This may have contributed to the harsh reviews.

One critic noted its “utter lack of melodic charm” and ranked it “among Dvorák’s least successful works.” Another, while agreeing that the work as a whole was undistinguished, nevertheless considered the scherzo movement “irresistible.” 

This scherzo follows the traditional form in its broad outline: a binary main section followed by a trio (at 2:57) and return to the main section. (See the discussion of the scherzo form in a previous post.) But within that larger scheme, Dvorák has expanded the individual sections, writing out some of the repeats with variations and adding transitions and development sections. 

moldau

I think this work’s irresistibility, if that’s what it is, comes from the folk melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that so often characterize Dvorák’s music. It’s difficult not to picture the Czech countryside—or more notably, the rivers flowing through the countriside—when listening to his music. If you get the chance to take a river cruise on the Vltava (Moldau), be sure to take Dvorák along for the ride.

Image: Raymond Zoller (BY SA 2.0)

We’re Supposed To Know It

We’re supposed to know it, but we don’t.

These words have resonated in my mind since hearing them said to me last Friday in our Krakow hotel. It was the last day of our Smithsonian Journeys “Week-in-Krakow” tour. The setting was a restored, golden-bricked medieval cellar where our breakfast was laid each morning.

I’d given my final lecture earlier in a side alcove of the cellar used for presentations. Other than the morning talk, the day was unscheduled, and I was going to be able to eat a leisurely breakfast after speaking. What a rarity that is!

A young waitress set a hearty omelet before me. I nodded and started to dissolve back into my book when she asked quietly: “What was that music you were playing in there?”

She asked in perfect English. (Everyone under 30 seems to speak English here.) What music did she mean? Then I knew. She’d overheard my lecture since only an ancient door of weathered boards separates that space from the breakfasters.

“Ah, that music. Chopin. The first piece was one of his songs called Wiosna (Spring),“ I smiled. “Most people know Chopin’s piano pieces, but they don’t necessarily know he wrote songs.”

“Oh,” she said, still waiting. “And the other music at the end was a clip I showed from a movie called Moonlight Sonata starring your Paderewski.” She nodded at the name of Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941). “It’s a sweet scene where he plays an ornate rendition of his famous Minuet at a children’s hospital.“

Boznańska

Boznańska, Girl with Chrysanthemums (1894)

Her eyes continued to inquire, so I continued. “In between, I was showing images from your wonderful Polish painters, like Chelmonski and Boznańska. In the U.S. we don’t learn many Polish paintings, but you know this art, of course.”

That’s when she said it. “We’re supposed to know it, but we don’t.”

She said it so wistfully, I almost caught my breath. Then I got the picture. She was wishing she had been sitting in the lectures, rather than carrying fruit trays and clearing plates. She wanted to go back and fill in the gaps in her education.

She continued to stand there. I sensed two choices: I could thank her for the omelet and go back to my book. Or, I could follow the twitch in my heart and do something different. But should I?

I looked around. Everyone was gone but us and another young waitress clearing the buffet. The quiet time between breakfast and lunch shifts had descended. I followed my heart: “Would you like to see some of the talk? I can show you right here.” She smiled broadly and called her colleague to come over.

I cranked up the computer and gave them the ten-minute version of the talk. Yes, an hour-long talk can be compressed into ten minutes.

They listened thoughtfully to Wiosna and watched the video clip. I told them more about “their” Paderewski who was just a “book name” to them. In vivid terms, I described this dynamic pianist who took the music world by storm and ultimately served as Premier in the newly restored, independent country of Poland after World War I.

Then we flew through images of gorgeous 19th-century Polish paintings—the same images that had captivated my own guests an hour earlier. They recognized many, but not all, of the paintings. They asked questions, too. It’s amazing how much you can pack into a short time when you have to. It was like ice-skating through Polish cultural history.

Then the restaurant manager walked in. I closed the computer. They moved back to work with a twinkle in their eyes. The omelet, while cold, was still delicious.

They knew enough to know that I was teaching icons of their culture. And they were “supposed” to know these things not for a test or a better job, but because it’s part of who they are as Poles. How many of us in the United States can identify the gaps in our education, especially after we have stripped so much of the Western Canon out of our curricula?

One source of continual inspiration, since beginning “Professor Carol,” happens to be the parents I meet who are dedicated to obtaining a better education for their children than the ones they received. Whether they accomplish this through exceptional diligence for their publicly schooled kids, breaking the bank for private schooling, or by home-schooling, they are determined. It’s a battle and they don’t want to lose again.

We are supposed to know it, but we don’t. It is our duty, and privilege, to make sure this changes.

Friday Performance Pick – 127

Brahms, Scherzo Op. 4

I want to continue looking at the scherzo this week (and beyond). We are not taking them on in chronological order, since we started out two weeks ago with Chopin and then moved to Beethoven, but I don’t think chronology needs to be a big concern here.

Brahms

Brahms in 1853

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Scherzo Op. 4 when he was less than 20 years old. You may recall that it took Brahms quite a while to produce his first symphony. It was published in 1876 as opus 68 when he was 43. Brahms was laboring under “the shadow of Beethoven,” and Beethoven’s legacy had set the symphonic bar quite high.

Brahms was a very good pianist, however. He produced his three piano sonatas early in his composing career—in 1853 in fact, the same year as the scherzo. It was also in 1853 that he traveled to Weimar to meet Franz Liszt. Now that raises one of Professor Carol’s favorite topics: the “War of the Romantics” that would pit the New German School of Wagner and Liszt against the traditionalists, who would ultimately be personified by Brahms. It was serious stuff. But this first meeting was cordial enough, and Liszt played this scherzo and was said to speak highly of it.

This scherzo is an independent work like those of Chopin. It has a second trio, giving it the form of a rondo (A – B – A – C – A), which is expanded over the form of Beethoven’s Septet. Beethoven would approve of that expansion, and it has many of the qualities of a typical Beethoven scherzo. On the other hand, its driving rhythm has been described as demonic, and music critic Malcolm McDonald noted “whiffs of Hoffmannesque devilry.” That sounds more like something Liszt would appreciate, and I think you can hear some foreshadowing of Listz’s Mephisto Waltzes in the work.

Friday Performance Pick – 125

Chopin,_by_Wodzinska

Chopin, Scherzo in B-flat minor, Op. 31 The term scherzo means, literally, joke or jest. When the term first appeared in the early 17th century in Italy, it generally referred to a lighthearted work. The New Grove Dictionary refers to Monteverdi’s […] Read more.

No Selfies

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Twice on Sunday I forgot to take a selfie. The first time came during a joyous afternoon reunion here in Latvia with two long-ago SMU students. Both fantastic musicians, these “kids” were members of our orchestra in the early 1990s, […] Read more.