Grace Notes air every weekday at about 11:30am on the NPR News & Classical Music stations of
Wisconsin Public Radio. They are written by WPR's Norman Gilliland.
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
A Dangerous Homecoming
| In 1866 Mily Balakirev was asked to go to Prague to arrange a production of Mikhail Glinka's opera A Life for the Czar. He was to have the greatest adventure of his life--getting home.
Balakirev set out in June and had just arrived in Prague when war broke out between Austria and Prussia. Balakirev wrote to a friend, "I had to stay whether I wanted to or not. All the next day I was on edge. Every hour they posted on street corners new bulletins from which you could determine nothing except that the Austrians were fighting doggedly against the Prussians."
He went to Vienna with the intention of returning to Russia, and wrote a letter commenting on the Austrian conduct of the war:
Emperor Franz Josef is behaving just like an Austrian hero--that is, he keeps retreating. Yesterday, I'm told, the all-wise Austrian state council met at the palace and decided, after great thought, not to defend Vienna, and to withdraw to Pest, where the Empress has already relocated herself. As you see, there's no chance of remaining in this area, and I have to hurry while the road is still open from Cracow to Russia. Fortunately I have found a traveling companion, a Russian bound for St. Petersburg, and we have decided to leave tomorrow. We'll travel through Pest by train as far as possible, and from there about 120 miles by horseback to Cracow.
You won't believe how agitated and shaky I am. Nervous and jumpy. But I am consoled by the thought that I'm not the only one who is sleeping badly. Franz Josef is also sleepless at night in the Schonbrunn Palace, and has already had attacks of fainting sickness. I can't wait to leave, and will feel calmer only when I've reached Russian territory.
Six months later the war was over, won by Prussia, and Balakirev was in Prague again. Finally A Life for the Czar was performed, but Balakirev's ordeal in Prague was far from over as we'll find out shortly....
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Engrave This in Your Head
|Vincenzo Bellini had strong ideas about what an opera should do. And he could be very forceful in trying to get his ideas across to others. For example, he wrote to a librettist in June 1834:
Don't forget to bring with you the piece you've roughed out so far so that we can resolve the business of the first act. If you'll fortify yourself with plenty of patience, the act will emerge as an interesting, magnificent, worthwhile poem in music. That's in spite of you and all your absurd rules, which are useless except for generating unending palaver that will never sway a soul who has ever experienced the difficult art of drawing tears by means of song.
If my music proves beautiful and the opera pleases, you can write a million letters complaining about the misuse of poetry by composers and so on, without proving a thing. Engrave this in your head in brass letters: An opera has to draw tears, excite horror, and bring death, by means of song.
Poetry and music; to be effective, have to be true to nature--period. Anyone who forgets that is lost and will wind up turning out a boring, plodding work that can please only the pedants. If he moves the heart, a composer will always be in the right. Will you or won't you comprehend that this is the goal? I implore you to understand it before starting the libretto.
And do you know why I tell you that good drama is unrelated to good sense? It's because I know all too well what stubborn beasts the literati are, and how silly they are with their sweeping rules about good sense. What I'm saying has been proven by the facts in the world of art by the near majority of your famous men who have gone astray in this regard.
Monday, June 17, 2013
Satie the Ardent Suitor
| Eric Satie is known for the eccentricity of his music. That eccentricity was only a reflection of the odd way in which the composer conducted his life--including his love life.
Satie is known to have had an affair with only one woman--and it's possible that he could not have survived--or had time for--more than one such affair. Satie was in his twenties when he was introduced to Suzanne Valadon. She was one year older than Satie, was a painter educated in the street of Montmartre. She had been the mistress of Renoir, and of Degas, who had helped to arrange the first exhibition of her drawings.
Suzanne's fondness for variety led her next to a wealthy young banker who proposed marriage. She refused but agreed to be his mistress. No sooner had he reluctantly agreed than Suzanne took on an additional lover--Eric Satie.
When he met Suzanne, Satie proposed to her, but the marriage was not to be. Suzanne, Satie, and the banker constituted a rather shaky triangle for two years. No doubt Suzanne liked the banker for his stability and liked Satie for his imagination. One evening Satie took Suzanne and the banker to the theater and hired a pair of African boys to proceed them beating on drums.
But Satie's humor wore thin. When he pleaded with Suzanne to stop seeing the banker she laughed at him. Satie put a sign in the window denouncing her morals and generally proclaiming her uselessness to the universe. Shortly afterward they had a quarrel so violent that the neighbors talked about it for years. Suzanne moved out--but not far. She moved in with the banker--two doors down from Satie. She made a point of driving past Satie's apartment in an elegant carriage, accompanied by two wolf hounds and a parrot in a cage.
He wrote letters begging her to return--but it was hopeless. Deprived of Suzanne, he turned to a new love, mysticism, which would be a lifetime companion for the eccentric Eric Satie.
Sunday, June 16, 2013
The Dynamic Hugo Wolf
| The Austrian composer Hugo Wolf was brilliant if erratic. A letter he wrote to a friend on June 16th, 1890 shows that he was dynamic, whether he was talking about music or the weather:
The publisher skips over the proposal to share profits as if it were unimportant. He enlarges his first suggestion to say that after the sale of 300 copies of the twelve Selected Songs, he could see his way clear to print the rest. I'll write to him today to say that I insist on sharing the profits and that a complete volume must be issued if he expects us to close any kind of deal. He may still print the twelve alone in single editions.
Liliencron writes that he doesn't have the nerve to adapt Shakespeare's Tempest. He's offering me a tragedy which, of course, I'm turning down. He has nothing but admiration for my Morike and Goethe songs. He became aware of my work through an article that he found extremely interesting, and through a piece in the newspaper. Furthermore, he paid me the questionable compliment of including me in his pantheon of favorites--Wagner, and the "giants" needless to say--Schubert, Schumann, Robert Franz, and Brahms. Brahms has also set two of his poems, Liliencron tells me
Other than that, all I have to report from here is that I'm miserably cold. Last night I bundled myself up in three blankets and an enormous feather comforter and still froze. I hope the awful weather will change soon and grant me the pleasure of welcoming you all here.
Grohe disagrees with my Tempest idea. He thinks there's too much opera in it. As an alternative he's trying to convince me to set to music a "Buddha" by Heckel, which I'll very likely not touch.
Saturday, June 15, 2013
Musical Diversions for the President
| Eighteen-fifty nine. America was on the brink of Civil War and the weary president of the United States needed music to divert him from the big troubles. The music in the White House of James Buchanan varied considerably.
One of the year’s biggest hits was Ullman’s Opera Troupe and its prima donna Marietta Picccolomini. The twenty-year-old singer had just performed in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in Washington. She attended a White House reception at which she shared the spotlight with a delegation of Potawatomie Indians. Through an interpreter, the 67-year-old bachelor president engaged in small talk with the singer. One guest remarked that Buchanan “would probably have stayed till daylight did appear” if someone hadn’t hinted that it was time to go.
A more unusual “star” performed at the White House later that year. He was the pianist Thomas Greene Bethune, a husky ten-year old black boy billed as “Blind Tom.” An observer said that Tom’s “sightless eyeballs seemed to be searching in the stars and the great opera ear seemed to be catching harmony from the celestial spheres….He claws the air with his hands, whistles through his teeth, capers about and see-saws up and down. “ Yet, it was said that Blind Tom could play the piano like Gottschalk, Mozart, or Beethoven. For President Buchanan Blind Tom played a twenty-page piece of music after hearing it just one time.
It’s likely that the more eccentric part of Blind Tom’s presentation was pure showmanship, coached by money-minded managers who had toured him through Europe claiming that his talent came from some magical source. The simple truth was that Bethune, who was born a slave in 1849, was a professional—a naturally gifted musician and a capable composer. Some saw beyond the ruse to his greater gifts. One of them was the American piano manufacturer who gave the boy a grand piano bearing the inscription: “A tribute to true genius.”
Friday, June 14, 2013
An Improvisor Par Excellence
| By 1740, when Carl Philip Emanuel Bach went to Pottsdam to work for King Frederick the Great, his father, Johann Sebastian Bach, was famous throughout Europe, and King Frederick grew increasingly eager to meet the man known as "the Old Bach."
In 1747 Johann Sebastian Bach, age 62, finally left Leipzig and made the journey to Pottsdam with his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. The king was in the habit of holding private concerts every night, during which he would solo in the performance of flute concertos. One evening as the king and his musicians were all ready to play, an officer of the court brought the king a list of guests. Flute in hand, the king scanned the list and turned excitedly to his musicians saying, "Gentlemen, old Bach has arrived."
The king set his flute down and sent a messenger to Wilhelm Friedemann's lodgings, summoning old Bach to the palace. The evening's concert was set aside for the sake of inviting Bach senior to play the king's forte-piano. The musicians followed Bach from room to room as he extemporized on each keyboard. After awhile Bach asked the king to give him a theme for a fugue to be improvised on the spur of the moment.
After obliging and admiring the resulting fugue, the king asked for a fugue with six obbligato parts. But Bach found the king's theme not quite suitable for such rich harmonizing, He chose one of his own and developed it into a complex fugue that amazed everyone.
The next day Bach worked his keyboard magic on every one of the organs in Pottsdam.
When he got back home to Leipzig, he took the king's theme, added several complex pieces in canon form on the subject and had the impressive collection engraved and dedicated to the king under the modest title A Musical Offering.
Thursday, June 13, 2013
They Barely Understand Me
| June 13th, 1865. New Orleans-born pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk was making a concert tour of the American West. Traveling through Nevada he wrote in his journal:
The first rays of day light up our faces--dirty, dust-covered, our eyes swollen from lack of sleep, etc. We arrive at Dutch Flat, a pretty little town hidden at the bottom of a wooded gorge like a nest in a bush. The neat white houses are covered with splendid rosebushes whose flowers cover the trellises all the way up to the roofs. They are small frame houses, very neat, very small, etc.
Concert this evening. About one hundred seventy persons. Audience very quiet--very quiet because they do not applaud. It is true that they did not show their discontent in any other way. I greatly suspect that they regretted investing their dollar and a half. "Taken in," said one of them later, adding to console himself, "It is true that it is just one time." It will be the concert-givers after me who will experience their resentment.
It often crosses my mind when playing to glance at my audience. There are certain passages where I am so accustomed to see their faces light up that in civilized audiences I trend to consider it an inevitable thing like cause and effect. For example, the end of “Aeolian Murmurs” or even “Last Hope” or the finale of “Creole Eyes.” Here I perceive that it is precisely as if I were speaking Chinese. They barely understand it, and curiously watch me exerting myself with that odd and vacant look which other ignoramuses, for instance, cast upon the hands of a telegraph operator.
I have been sick for three days. I cannot recall in fifteen years of travels and vicissitudes having passed eleven days so sadly as here. I defy you to find in all of Europe a village where an artist of reputation would find himself as cut off as I have been here.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
The Rhapsody that Wouldn't Let Go
| Composers have various reasons for writing--inspiration, pleasure, and money. In the case of Claude Debussy's Saxophone Rhapsody the motivation was provided by money and a persistent music-lover named Mrs. Elise Hall.
Mrs. Hall was a wealthy Boston matron who had taken up the saxophone. In 1895 she commissioned Debussy to compose a work for her instrument. As far as Debussy was concerned, Mrs. Hall's commission had a good side and a bad side. On the bad side was his lack of familiarity with the saxophone. On the good side was the payment enclosed. He accepted the commission.
But he steadfastly avoided working on Mrs. Hall's composition. He went to work on his opera Pelleas and Melisande. And a lot of other things--The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Nocturnes, and La Mer among them. Suddenly eight years had passed.
One day in 1903 who should turn up at Debussy's apartment but Mrs. Hall--the "femme saxophone" as Debussy called her. She wanted to know where her saxophone composition was.
Debussy was caught. He forced himself to get started on something for what he thought of as "that aquatic instrument." He still didn't know much about it. He started doing some homework. Was the saxophone capable of romantic tenderness like the clarinet, he asked a friend in the know. In 1904 he attended Mrs. Hall's Paris recital. Wearing a pink gown, she honked away at something by Vincent d'Indy–another of her commissions.
Another year went by. Debussy roughed out a draft of a piece and called it "Fantasie." But even the title was slow to come. He tried "Oriental Rhapsody" and "Moorish Rhapsody" before settling on plain old "Rhapsody." In 1911 he tried orchestrating it, but it was no go. He bundled up what he had and sent it incomplete to Mrs. Hall. Seven years later Debussy finally escaped the project--he died. His colleague Jean Jules Roger-Ducasse took on the orchestration and the Rhapsody for Saxophone was performed at last in Paris in 1919.