Friday Performance Pick – 159

Korngold, Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35

erich-korngoldErich Korngold (1897-1957) made his mark in two separate musical worlds. In his childhood, his works were praised by composers like Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. He was in many ways their heir-apparent in Vienna. At age 14, his first orchestral work was premiered at the Gewandhaus. Bruno Walter conducted Korngold’s first opera in 1916.

As expected, Korngold became one of the leading composers in Europe. And he surely would have continued on that path but for one thing. He was Jewish, and events in Europe were conspiring against him.

In 1934 Korngold agreed to arrange the music for a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Warner Bros. snapped him up, and in 1935 he composed the score to the Errol Flynn movie Captain Blood. The film scores would keep coming. He won two Academy Awards for best original score: Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

He initially attempted to balance his work in Vienna and Hollywood, but that became impossible as Nazi Germany took over Austria in 1938 and most of Europe soon after. Korngold would not return to Europe until after the war.

Korngold was one of many renowned composers who migrated to Hollywood to avoid Nazi persecution. Film was entering its heyday, and the cream of European musical talent determined its musical landscape. They brought with them the compositional techniques pioneered by Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto was composed in 1946 and premiered by Jascha Heifetz in 1947.

Spitzweg’s Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday)

spitzweg-ashermittwochUsing a lone figure illuminated by dusty rays of light, the painter Karl Spitzweg juxtaposes the tumult of human consequences against Mercy’s irrevocable dawn.

Here we see a man who, only hours before, was cavorting in full-blown pleasure as Carnaval’s excesses wound to a roaring end. He may have been a costumed reveler, swirling with friends amidst a cascade of Bratwurst, schnapps, and ancient rowdy tunes. Or he may have been a hired performer, a jester exhausted from working the long days of celebration, who somehow got on the wrong side of things.

Now, though, he sits in a dungeon (Kerker), according to the official interpretations of this painting. The light that streams onto him expresses the harsh reality of morning or, as a popular Carnaval song states, “Alles ist vorbei” (“the unrestrained festivity is over”). His hope now lies in the faint light that proclaims the morning known as Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

Lent is the longest liturgical season, a 40-day period characterized by prayer, fasting, and penance in preparation of Easter’s miracle. And while Spitzweg’s painting may well be set in a dungeon, I saw it differently upon first glance.

The figure, to me, was seated not in dungeon, but in a reclusive spot along a city wall, or in a courtyard, perhaps near a cathedral wall. Imprisoned he might well be, but imprisoned by his failings, his sin, rather than by stone cold walls. And while we don’t know how this story will end for our fellow, we each know the feelings he expresses: a rueful recognition of having crossed from what the German’s call Narrfreiheit (Fool’s Freedom) to a point where penance is one’s only hope of rescue.

People often encounter Spitzweg through his tender iconic masterwork The Poor Poet (1839). I certainly did, and initially viewed his artistry solely as an expression of the graceful, intimate style of the Biedermeier Era in early 19th-century Europe.

But later I came to see his depictions of social and individual predicaments as more realistic and psychologically nuanced. Insofar as this painting, Spitzweg invites us to enter and sit quietly on an adjacent ledge. We might be tempted to ask this sad fellow “What happened?” But more likely we would be lost in our own thoughts, bringing our own spiritual weariness and human errors into the same light that illuminates his contemplation.

Art conveys what words cannot. And when we view paintings like Aschermittwoch, we easily can imagine ourselves sharing the canvas with the figures painted within.

May Spitzweg’s depiction of Ash Wednesday speak its own strong message to you during this Lenten season.

Friday Performance Pick – 158

Shostakovich, Polka (from The Golden Age)

What makes music funny? Should we even ask the question? The writer E.B. White said,

Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

I almost always defer to E.B. White on things having to do with writing clearly, but I think we can safely analyze some of the musical humor in this week’s selection.

chaplinWe all listen to music with a set of expectations. Much of composition involves a careful balance between predictability and surprise. Humor in music also depends on predictability and surprise, although it disrupts the balance.

The surprise may be a sudden event, a departure from the norm, or some incongruity. To recognize an incongruity (or, put another way, to get the joke), you need to understand what would normally happen. Translating that to music, you need to understand the normal musical context.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) makes that relatively easy in this case. He sets up our expectations throughout by using common musical idioms. After a short introduction, he sets up a rudimentary accompaniment pattern in the left hand (at 0:05) on a single major triad. It’s childlike—something you might expect in the simplest music. The rhythms too are simple and repetitive.

But these very ordinary things set us up for surprise. We expect the little arpeggiated figure in the melody to lead to a note that fits with the simple harmony, but it takes us consistently to a note outside the key. At another point (0:44), Shostakovich presents an even simpler melody with a ponderous doubling (the same notes two octaves apart). Accents are misplaced. Dynamics and texture change suddenly for no apparent reason. Normal things, put together in an incongruous way.

It’s rather like the ordinary bowler hat worn by Charlie Chaplin. It just doesn’t quite fit.

Composers sometimes insert little “inside jokes” into their music—a device or quotation that only other musicians would recognize. But by using common idioms, Shostakovich ensures that virtually every listener will grasp the humor.

The Library of the Mind


The purge is on. It was triggered in this case by a leak from the garage ceiling that began to soak several stacks of boxes. Inside were files from my university career representing three decades of research and teaching materials.

For me, it’s excruciatingly difficult to throw stuff out. I lament the empty paper towel roll, standing alone, destined for the trash. “Oh you poor little brown roll, you served us so well dispensing all those towels, and now, look! Whatever will become of you?”

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But not by much. So imagine my pain at pawing through boxes of wet, largely no-longer needed folders containing “my life.”

Remember, not so long ago one’s filing cabinet was the equivalent of Mary Poppins’ magic satchel: whatever you were able to pull out determined how much magic you could bring into your classroom.

Yet much in these folders is obsolete. Take the long lists of slides, complete with call numbers, used to illustrate my lectures. Internet access theoretically has eliminated the very need to sit for hours pulling slides from heavy, compartmentalized drawers and or arranging those pesky slide carousels.

Yet how can I describe the learning that took place during the hours I bent over those very drawers! The fiercest cascade of Google search terms cannot begin to teach what was gained by that process.

I struggle the most over purging boxes labeled Introduction to Graduate Studies. An innocuous-sounding class, this required course was a traditional, trial-by-fire introduction to scholarly work. It poured the rigor of research methodology into the head of young adults who would rather be practicing the violin or conducting symphonies.

The text and model for this course came from an esteemed member of that “greatest generation” of World-War II era scholars, Vincent Duckles (1913-1985). His primary publication—a copiously annotated compendium of research materials—struck fear into everyone required to buy it. We called it simply “Duckles” and it grew fatter and scarier with every edition as the author captured the burgeoning waves of bibliographic research bursting out across the globe after the second World War.

But despite the impossibility of learning everything in Duckles, grappling with it was an absolute key to learning research skills for a new graduate student. It changed one’s understanding of music.

Duckles wrote other things, too. My favorite of his articles is entitled “The Library of the Mind” (1976). Here he set forth the rationale and prescription for establishing a mental picture of the materials in a music library. In a sense, he was encouraging us plant the seeds of scholarship mentally before employing them physically.

As beautiful as his title is, though, I called the process the “shooting hoops” principle. A professional basketball player doesn’t look with his eyes to find the basket. The basket is “there” in the mind and muscles, no matter what his position on the court. Hundreds, even thousands, of baskets shot per day guarantee this result.

Well, research materials can go into a person’s mind that same way. So we began our course with internalizing the systemic design of the library. We did this many ways, including memorizing the Library of Congress call numbers for significant types of materials: scores (the written music), biographies, facsimiles, collected sets and series, music iconography, theoretical writings, and more.

Some of it was easy: M100 for solo instrumental music, M200s for duos, M300s for trios, M400s for quartets, M500s for quintets, all the way to M900s for nonets and M1000 for symphonies.

But it wasn’t all so obvious. Students first had to discover, then explore, and finally internalize materials such as the ML134’s, the Thematic Catalogues. Weighty compendia detailing the works of composers like Beethoven, Bach, Haydn, and Brahms, thematic catalogues provide detailed information about individual pieces of music available nowhere else.

We also did a lot of old-fashioned legwork, spending hours physically perusing the books, and sometimes even conducting class while standing before the shelves. It was like googling with the hands and feet.

It sounds very old-fashioned now, but it worked. If done even halfway diligently, the student’s mind gradually became a card catalogue of resources. After all, it’s amazing how much information we really can store in our minds. The best analogy I can offer is grocery shopping. “Why do I need this store?” “Where is the catsup?” “Which brand and size should I buy?” “How many avocados do I need?” And even the tiniest questions: “How many grams of sugar are in this yogurt?” In short, “the grocery store of the mind?”

Some of the traditional methodology of music research in the “Library of the Mind” would appear to be replaced by the internet. But I’d be willing to put the old-fashioned skills of students trained in the older methods against those who learn them through today’s lens of digital access.

If I were teaching the course today, I would naturally include the digital resources. But we’d still walk the shelves, pausing, holding, even smelling the books (yes, 18th-century theory volumes smell very different from 19th-century volumes).

And the rigor would remain. Rigor cannot be demoted to an option in research. A quest does not become an easy path to navigate simply by clicking.

Clicking is marvelous, of course, and I do it countless times a day. But as I click, I’m actually envisioning the individual resources in the Library of my Mind, holding them in my hand, searching through them. The rigor that teaches a young person to approach a topic with the right questions must be fueled by frustrating labor, indeed a bit of drudgery. It is hard because, well, it is hard.

None of my musings, though, make it easy to toss out my wet files. But most of them do need to go. The leak was a kind of blessing in that respect. It’s okay, because those professors who trained me did achieve their goal: they planted a library of the mind impervious to mildew, upon which I still build.

Friday Performance Pick – 157

Schubert, Shepherd on the Rock

Years ago, Dr. Stanley Shumway, my primary professor in my doctoral studies, claimed that he could teach most of music theory using only the Chopin Mazurkas. I thought about that and concluded that I could teach most of music theory using only the Schubert songs. We may both be right.

Schubert Lieder has a wonderfully rich harmonic vocabulary—perfect for teaching modulations to distant keys and the effective juxtaposition of major and minor. Schubert also excelled as a melodist. When you add in the text painting, you have most everything you need to explain music of the 19th century.

Since all of this may not be apparent to the casual listener, let me offer a couple of points from this week’s selection. We can’t analyze the harmonic progressions in this short space, but we can consider other factors. Shepherd on the Rock has three sections: a pastorale (0:00-5:00) in which the shepherd from his rock looks out on the valley and speaks of his loneliness; a lament (5:00-8:40); and a closing section of hope and happiness over the coming of Spring (9:00-11:40). (The timings are approximate.)

shepherd-rockIn the first section, the melody moves in arpeggios extending from the top to the bottom of the vocal range. “When, from the highest rock up here, I look down into the valley and sing.” The shepherd sings of the echoes, which you can hear clearly in the clarinet. You should also hear the harmony moving often to some unexpected places.

But let’s focus on the middle section and its text:

In tiefem Gram verzehr ich mich,
Mir ist die Freude hin,
Auf Erden mir die Hoffnung wich,
Ich hier so einsam bin.
I am consumed in misery,
Happiness is far from me,
Hope has on earth eluded me,
I am so lonesome here.
So sehnend klang im Wald das Lied,
So sehnend klang es durch die Nacht,
Die Herzen es zum Himmel zieht
Mit wunderbarer Macht.
So longingly did sound the song,
So longingly through wood and night,
Towards heaven it draws all hearts
With amazing strength.

The transition between sections 1 and 2 (4:45-5:00) effortlessly moves us to the minor key. The melody of section 2 stays in a confined range as the shepherd sings of loneliness, often refusing to budge from a single note. The music is driven largely by the highly unsettled harmony. The clarinet takes on a clearly subsidiary role, offering only a few short echoes of the vocal sighing. But then the last two lines change entirely. A shift back to major comes at the mention of “all hearts” (7:13). And you can hardly miss the melody being drawn up toward heaven along with them.

The first sound of Spring (8:38) is equally unmistakable. And from there “Der Frühling will kommen” (the Spring will come). The melody soars again with a focus on ascending scales. The harmony stablizes. And the clarinet and voice now share equally in a duet. There’s much we could say about the role the clarinet plays in conveying the text.

For all of our students studying poetry and literature, here’s a chance to dig deep into rhetorical devices and literary allusions. Even if you don’t know a word of German, you can follow the text here with the English side-by-side. The text painting is important throughout these songs, and you will miss it otherwise.

Painting: Félix Saturnin Brissot de Warville, Shepherd and Flock in the Mountains (c. 1870)

The Point of Counterpoint


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Friday Performance Pick – 156


Stravinsky, Pastorale Last week we focused on the rousing galop in Rossini’s William Tell Overture. But, as we noted, much of the work involves a pastorale scene portraying idyllic life in the Swiss Alps. A pastorale evokes shepherds and rustic rural […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 155


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The Family Storyteller


Every family has a storyteller. Or else, a story about a storyteller who touched their lives. Growing up, it was my father who told the stories. My mother told almost none, even though both of my parents clawed their way […] Read more.