Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

I Am Music

From the prologue of the opera Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi

I am Music who, with
sweet sounds, knows how to calm
every troubled heart, and
now to noble anger, now to love,
can kindle the most icy souls.

Singing to the golden lyre I am
accustomed sometimes to delight
mortal ears and I thus inspire the
soul at the sonorous harmony of
the lyre of Heaven.


Now during my songs, now gay,
now sad, may the birds be silent
on these trees, no waves heard
on these shores, and every breeze
cease to blow.

(Translation taken from Robert Greenberg, who points out that Greenberg means Green Mountain, and Monteverdi means Mountain Green)

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

March of the Astronauts

(I'll get back to the love triangle in a future entry)

In 1983 there was a movie entitled The Right Stuff about the men who became America's first astronauts. In that movie, there is a scene in which the first seven he-men astronauts are shown walking together in slow motion while Bill Conti's music plays a triumphant march-like theme. We see our heroes, on which America has heaped our dreams of glory in winning the space race against the Communist Soviets.

It appears, however, that Conti's music isn't exactly original. The theme, according to Robert Greenberg, comes from the first movement of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. (I've heard both, the resemblance can't be coincidence).

How ironic; this music that celebrates America's astronauts was actually written by a Russian, homosexual pedaphile.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Who defines jazz?

A couple of years ago the alto saxophonist Kenny G caused a stir in the jazz world when he decided to overdub his playing onto a recording of Louis Armstrong performing “What A Wonderful World.”

The brazen act brought a sharp rebuke from jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.

Metheny’s anti-Kenny G essay opened with the following declarative statement - “Kenny G is not a musician.” and pretty much went on from there to slam the pop artist in the most unkind terms:

“...when Kenny G decided that it was appropriate for him to defile the music of the man who is probably the greatest jazz musician that has ever lived by spewing his lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out,....”

OK, I’ll stop there because the rest of the quote gets a bit too profane for this family-oriented blog. But I think the gist of his unhappiness with Mr. G. is fairly clear.

Here Metheny describes his first impression of Kenny G’s playing ability:

“He had major rhythmic problems and his harmonic and melodic vocabulary was extremely limited, mostly to pentatonic based and blues-lick derived patterns, and he basically exhibited only a rudimentary understanding of how to function as a professional soloist in an ensemble...”

“But he did show a knack for connecting to the basest impulses of the large crowd by deploying his two or three most effective licks (holding long notes and playing fast runs - never mind that there were lots of harmonic clams in them) at the key moments to elicit a powerful crowd reaction (over and over again). The other main thing I noticed was that he also, as he does to this day, played horribly out of tune - consistently sharp.”

Now I am not a fan of Kenny G.’s music and I don’t particularly like the “smooth jazz” genre that he inhabits. I can also understand why a lot of jazz purists have lined up behind Metheny to cast aspersions at this affront to their musical tastes. But, nevertheless, I think Metheny’s tirade is just a bit over the top and represents a form of jazz snobbery that I believe has served to keep a large segment of the population away from experiencing jazz music.
The sad fact is that for many listeners, Kenny G may be the first and only example of jazz music they have ever heard. And it is quite possible too that the overdub version of “What a Wonderful World” was there first exposure to the great Louis Armstrong. This is not a bad thing because perhaps it might just encourage them to go out and find more Louis Armstrong music that doesn’t have Kenny G on it.

When I was a kid my first exposure to the Beatles was through the Sgt. Peppers’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie that came out in 1978 starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees. Most Beatles fans then and now considered it an abomination, but I loved it. And when I found out that every song in the movie was by one band I was completely blown away and soon became a huge Beatles fan. So one should not knock the form of exposure that a type of music gets because it may just be the only route available to reach some people.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

A classical music love triangle (Part 2)

(A continuation of this entry.)

Johannes Brahms cut his performing teeth in the brothels of waterfront Hamburg playing piano at the age of twelve. His family was poor, and this was how he contributed to the household income. Pianists would play bawdy songs and dances all night. In between dances, the women would sometimes have Brahms sit on their laps while they poured beer down him. They would even pull down his pants and pass him around, playing with him and laughing at him the whole while. The experience would color his relationships with women his entire life.

At fourteen, his health was poor, and his whorehouse piano days ended. He continued to bring in money, however, by giving piano lessons. He also performed concerts, and studied composition throughout his teenage years. In 1850, Robert and Clara Schumann were in Hamburg to perform, and Brahms collected some of his compositions and sent them to Schumann's hotel. However, Schumann did not know Brahms and had no inclination to study the works, so they were sent back unopened.

In 1853 Brahms paired with a Hungarian violinist named Eduard Rimenyi to do a concert tour of Germany. In May of that year they paid a visit to the reknown violinist Joseph Joachim. (Joachim was a close friend of the Schumanns.) Brahms played some of his piano compositions and Joachim was very impressed; so impressed, that Joachim arranged for Brahms to play before the King of Hanover, who commented afterwards that Brahms was a "little Beethoven."

There would be many comparisons between Beethoven and Brahms throughout the latter's lifetime.

Rimenyi and Brahms parted ways in June of 1853, and Brahms went back to Joachim. They lived and performed together for a few months. With his share of the profits, Brahms decided to do a bit of a hiking tour.

Joachim suggested that Brahms should call on the Schumanns when he reached Dusseldorf, however Johannes was still upset with Schumann for not reviewing the music sent to him earlier. However, throughout his trip he was given the same advice from several people. While in Bonn, he had his first chance to look at Schumann's music, and he was impressed. He finally decided to introduce himself to the Schumanns, and headed to Dusseldorf.

What Brahms did not know was that his reputation had preceded him in the form of praise from Joachim. Robert Schumann ushered the young man in and requested he play something on the piano. However, before Brahms had finished playing a sonata, Schumann stopped him and went to get his wife Clara. Of course Clara was quite famous as a pianist, and playing before her was a bit unnerving. He played the sonata and a few other works, and the Schumanns were speechless. He was invited back to lunch for the next day.

For his part, Brahms did not think he had made much of an impression, and failed to show up for lunch. Clara went out searching for the young man, and brought him home. The Schumanns insisted Brahms stay with them for awhile. Robert Schumann contacted his publisher to have four works of Brahms published. On top of that, Schumann wrote a glowing article on Brahms, proclaiming him as the new great talent.

A great friendship had been formed, which would influence Brahms for the rest of his life.