July 31, 2007


Here's a tantalizing might-have-been. At some point in the early 1960s, Leonard Bernstein asked Robert Lowell to write the text for what would eventually become Bernstein's Symphony no. 3, Kaddish. Lowell mentioned it in a Christmas Eve 1962 letter to Elizabeth Bishop:
I've had the worse experience, 1 of grinding out like a machine things I'll never use. Ten sonnets of Nerval, that vanish to nothing in English, words for a symphony for the dead, that Leonard Bernstein wanted me to try and have so far produced a bilge of declamation.
In the end, of course, Bernstein rather infamously wrote his own text for the symphony. How and when Lowell's part in the project came to an end isn't clear—but Lowell's "Three Poems for Kaddish" did eventually turn up, posthumously, in a 1979 issue of Ploughshares. They were reprinted in the 2003 edition of Lowell's Collected Poems.

Like Bernstein, Lowell uses his text to address God directly, but in place of Bernstein's defiance is a wry empathy: twice, Lowell calls the almighty "poor little Father." Lowell seems to imply a division into seasons (suggesting that there may have been a planned fourth poem). The first is summer, images of light and heat hinting at environmental and nuclear holocausts.
[W]e think the sun draws nearer day by day.
[W]e bake our hearts out on the sands.
We worship thee, Oh bathers' sun,
and in our terror ask if Solomon
in all his beauty was arrayed like thee.
Because we were forgetful of God's ways,
will he rejoice and watch our planet run
like a black coffin round the sun
with frigid repetitions of his praise?
Then an allusion to Psalm 137: "How can I sing a new song,/ rolled stem and blossom/ in this strange land?/ Can God destroy us in the act of praise?"

The second poem shifts to spring, in the form of the Deluge of Noah:
Was God sure
that our extinction was our only cure?

Men saw the heavens' open windows pour
destruction on the land for forty days;
from sun to sun, they filled the earth with praise,
but now we know the Lord of Hosts is poor.
Look in our fallible and foolish glass,
your own face stares at you like withered grass!
This sets up the third poem, where winter descends like an ice age. While fisherman cut holes in the frozen river, Lowell hears echoes of "the saber-tooth and mastodon... they rule with shaggy, crushing stubbornness." The impersonal machinery of technology gives way to the savage machinery of nature.
... The clock-
maker has no surprises for the clock.
Our hands have turned creation on its head.
Oh Father, do not bite your lip and frown;
it hardly matters now if we made God,
or God made us. Both suffer and exist.
A Bernstein-Lowell collaboration, in theory, seems like a dream: both volatile forces, voracious reworkers of the culture, creators of uncomfortably personal art whose "confessional" personas were as carefully constructed and invented as any of their works. There's a possibility that Bernstein decided the stage wasn't big enough for both of them. But comparing Lowell's poems with Bernstein's own texts, there's also a sense that Bernstein may have found Lowell's contributions too polished, too "traditional" in their intricate rhyme and meter. Maybe the poems weren't raw enough or brazen enough—Bernstein's speaker seems a rebellious child, finally grown up enough to challenge the father as an equal. Lowell, who had ample experience as the rebellious child, instead opted to portray a God brought down to our level, afflicted with an all-too-human disappointment. (Our Father, who wert in heaven, welcome to the club.)

For me, the really interesting wild-card in this story is Allen Ginsberg. Because I think parts of Lowell's Kaddish seem to be consciously or subconsciously picking up on themes from Ginsberg's Kaddish. Ginsberg wrote his Kaddish, a long poem on the death of his mother Naomi, between 1957 and 1959. Ginsberg frames the recitation of his mother's life with visions of sunlight:
Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon....
And then:
Toward the Key in the window—and the great Key lays its head of light on top of Manhattan, and over the floor, and lays down on the sidewalk—in a single vast beam, moving, as I walk down First toward the Yiddish Theater—and the place of poverty
We learn later that the sunlight "key" is from a letter Ginsburg's mother wrote to him, which he quotes: "The key is in the window, the key is the sunlight at the window—Get married Allen don't take drugs—the key is in the bars, in the sunlight at the window." Ginsberg contrasts this with his mother dying in the hospital:
But that the key should be left behind—at the window—the key in the sunlight—to the living—that can take
that slice of light in hand—and turn the door—and look back see
Creation glistening backwards to the same grave, size of universe,
size of the tick of the hospital's clock on the archway over the white door—
This is all similar to the sun imagery in the first of Lowell's poems, especially when he says:
I think our little span has reached its end,
that henceforth only ruin will regard
the breathless planets and the sun descend
aeons around an earth whose crust is hard.
Lowell's Psalm 137 allusion, the futility of his song, also has a counterpart in Ginsberg:
Tho I am not there for this Prophecy, I am unmarried, I'm hymnless, I'm Heavenless, headless in blisshood I would still adore
Thee, Heaven, after Death, only One blessed in Nothingness, not light or darkness, Dayless Eternity—
Take this, this Psalm, from me, burst from my hand in a day, some of my Time, now given to Nothing—to praise Thee—But Death
Lowell knew Ginsberg. In 1959, Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso visited Lowell at his house. Lowell didn't think much of the whole movement; after the visit, he would write to Bishop:
They are phony in [a] way because they have made a lot of publicity out of very little talent. But in another way, they are pathetic and doomed. How can you make a go for long by reciting so-so verse to half-jeering swarms of college students? However, they are trying, I guess to write poetry.
But Lowell liked Kaddish. After the visit, he wrote to Ginsberg:
Well, I enjoy Kaddish much more. It's really melodious, nostalgic, moving, liturgical. Maybe it ought to be shorter—the manner sometimes almost writes itself—probably there's too much Whitman. And I do find it a bit too conventional, eloquent and liturgical. Well, it's well done, felt and a good poem.
Presented with Bernstein's scheme, did Lowell see an opportunity to rewrite Ginsberg's Kaddish in his own manner? Certainly the results are wildly different, Ginsberg's stream-of-consciousness reminiscences a long way from Lowell's lofty detachment. But many of Lowell's poems, in their early drafts, are at least a little closer to Ginsberg's style. Lowell often would write blank verse at first, imposing rhyme and meter as he revised. And as he rewrote, personal, autobiographical details often became more abstract, more universal. Interestingly, the formality of Lowell's Kaddish poems is closer to his early 1940s style than the rhythmically looser experimentation of his successful, controversial breakthrough 1959 volume, Life Studies. It might seem contradictory for Lowell to call Ginsberg's eloquence conventional—but not in the light of Lowell's own style, where he tends to utilize the strictest formal discipline for the most shocking and disjointed of his visions.

If Bernstein really was after a more "far-out" text for the symphony, it would be a little bit of irony that, if Lowell was indeed echoing Ginsberg, the result wasn't, well, Ginsberg-like enough for Bernstein. Bernstein never collaborated with Ginsberg, either—that would have been some pairing. And it's intriguing to try and imagine how Lowell's unsentimental, tightly-controlled power would have interacted with Bernstein's sprawling symphonic ambitions. But that could be why it failed—you always assume that the collaboration of two potent personalities will produce a critical mass, but maybe the result is destined to be fission rather than fusion.

Special thanks to Jodi and Patrick, and my lovely wife, for the Lowellian birthday swag.

There's one for you, nineteen for me

Don't miss Geoff Edgers' fine muckraking smackdown of the Citi Performing Arts Center in this morning's Globe. It seems the awfully lawyer-heavy board of trustees voted to give the CEO a $1.2 million bonus at the same time* they were running a deficit, cutting their summer outdoor Shakespeare productions from three weeks to one, etc., etc.
In a phone interview on July 18, board chairman [John William] Poduska [Sr.] said the bonus was created to keep [CEO Josiah] Spaulding [Jr.] at the center. "Was it justified or not? Boy, I'll tell you it was," he said. "Joe was being courted by everyone under the sun. . . . He stayed and did a heck of a job."
The millennium's most ringing endorsement! At the rate they're going, the place'll be a Citibank branch office before "Riverdance" swings through town again.

*Update (8/21): Citi Center board chairman John Poduska, Sr. has sent a letter to supporters and donors in which he states that the decision to give Spaulding the bonus was made in 2001, just before a run of deficit years, although the expense was spread over the five years of his contract ($200K per year, plus accrued interest), which means that they were, in fact, setting aside money for the bonus at the same time they were cutting their support of other programs.

July 30, 2007

London Calling

Head over to the BBC website, and you can listen to streaming audio of the past week's worth of Proms. Thanks to a tip from Ear Trumpet, I just caught up with Esa-Pekka Salonen's new Piano Concerto, played earlier today by Yefim Bronfman and the BBC Symphony, Salonen conducting, and a fun Brass Day concert featuring new pieces by Judith Bingham and Peter Wiegold, along with HK Gruber's trumpet concerto Aerial (played by Håkan Hardenberger).

I think Salonen's Concerto needs the spatial experience of live performance for its full effect; through radio, its non-stop activity, even in the slow movement, comes across like an overstuffed Victorian museum, every corner crammed with bric-a-brac to the point where your senses are inured to the relative quality of each object. This is my second go-round with the Gruber, but critic-at-large Moe's first: the atmospheric opening movement made him quite serene, while the modernist bump-and-grind finale stimulated his appetite. (That's a beef short-rib bone he's chewing on, a souvenir of a Korean barbeque outing with my in-laws.)

serene moemoe with a bone


In memoriam: the first act quintet from Ingmar Bergman's 1975 version of Die Zauberflöte:
(Tamino: Josef Köstlinger; Papageno: Håkan Hagegård; the ladies: Britt Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel, and Birgitta Smiding.) A safe vote for the best movie version of an opera ever—although I think the Powell-Pressburger Tales of Hoffmann should also be a contender—what's most fun about Bergman's rendition is that he is more true to Mozart and Schikaneder than most productions, while, at the same time, transforming the material into an almost stereotypical Bergman film. (Kind of like Bernard Shaw and Wagner, in a way.) This entire scene is done with nothing but lighting (except for those great Seventh Seal-prop-reject skulls), but the close-ups and editing make it completely surreal in spite of the self-conscious stage artifice. The ladies' deep-focus entrance alone—eerie, funny, and so casually understated in its legerdemain—is still one of my favorite celluloid moments.

July 29, 2007

The Young and/or the Restless

Two generations of composers at Tanglewood.
Boston Globe, July 29, 2007.

DVD extras:

John Harbison on choosing between jazz and classical: "There was this instance of mistaken identity. I won an award, but, by mistake, they gave it to another guy in my [jazz] group. By the time it was straightened out, I had already started [studying classical music] at Harvard."

Joan Tower on performing vs. composing: "I thought playing the piano was much more fun [than composing]. You’d have the music right there—you’d just do what it told you, and music came out. Composing is so much harder.... Luckily, I kept changing environments. My father was a mining engineer, so we moved around a lot. I kept changing teachers, which wasn’t a good thing, but it helped me later in life not to have a definite career as a pianist. These things work out sometimes."

Asaf Peres on computer playback: "I had a girlfriend who was a composer, and I would be embarrassed when she would play things back [through the computer] for me. It would sound really bad, and I would think, what am I going to do? But then you hear the live performance, and it sounds amazing."

William Bolcom on Everett, Washington, where he grew up: "Everett was a little socialist town, so it had very good libraries. So I could go, and they had recordings! And scores! And I would start with the 'A' section—I would look at scores and auralize them, learn to hear them in my head."

Alexandra Fol (a native of Bulgaria) on smuggling music across the Iron Curtain: "I remember that. I was very young, and I remember my parents smuggled Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar between their underwear, these black vinyl records."

Correction (7/31): I originally had my pronouns mixed up in Asaf's quote (see comments).

July 27, 2007


More Soviet animation: a portion of Mikhail Tsekhanovsky's "Bazaar," the only extant scene from his unfinished Pushkin adaptation The Tale of the Priest and His Worker Balda, dating from 1933 and scored by none other than Dmitri Shostakovich.

Shostakovich abandoned work on the feature-length film after the infamous 1936 Pravda article denouncing him. The majority of the footage was destroyed in a fire during World War II. (More details here.)

July 26, 2007

Many happy returns of the day

james Dexter Havens caricature of Bernard Shaw
The truth is, laws, religions, creeds, and systems of ethics, instead of making society better than its best unit, make it worse than its average unit, because they are never up to date. You will ask me: “Why have them at all?” I will tell you. They are made necessary, though we all secretly detest them, by the fact that the number of people who can think out a line of conduct for themselves even on one point is very small, and the number who can afford the time for it still smaller. Nobody can afford the time to do it on all points. The professional thinker may on occasion make his own morality and philosophy as the cobbler may make his own boots; but the ordinary man of business must buy at the shop, so to speak, and put up with what he finds on sale there, whether it exactly suits him or not, because he can neither make a morality for himself nor do without one. This typewriter with which I am writing is the best I can get; but it is by no means a perfect instrument; and I have not the smallest doubt that in fifty years’ time authors will wonder how men could have put up with so clumsy a contrivance. When a better one is invented I shall buy it: until then, not being myself an inventor, I must make the best of it, just as my Protestant and Roman Catholic and Agnostic friends make the best of their imperfect creeds and systems.

—George Bernard Shaw, The Sanity of Art, 1895/1908

Kubrick and Jagger are pretty cool, but sharing a birthday with GBS? That makes getting older worthwhile.

Caricature by James Dexter Havens, 1935. Trivia: Havens was also the first American patient to receive insulin therapy for diabetes.

July 25, 2007

Fish Story

As for Periander, the man who gave information about the oracle to Thrasybulos, he was the son of Kypselos, and despot of Corinth. In his life, say the Corinthians, (and with them agree the Lesbians), there happened to him a very great marvel, namely that Arion of Methymna was carried ashore at Tainaron upon a dolphin's back. This man was a harper second to none of those who then lived, and the first, so far as we know, who composed a dithyramb, naming it so and teaching it to a chorus at Corinth.

This Arion, they say, who for the most part of his time stayed with Periander, conceived a desire to sail to Italy and Sicily; and after he had there acquired large sums of money, he wished to return again to Corinth. He set forth therefore from Taras, and as he had faith in Corinthians more than in other men, he hired a ship with a crew of Corinthians. These, the story says, when out in open sea, formed a plot to cast Arion overboard and so possess his wealth; and he having obtained knowledge of this made entreaties to them, offering them his wealth and asking them to grant him his life. With this however he did not prevail upon them, but the men who were conveying him bade him either slay himself there, that he might receive burial on the land, or leap straightway into the sea. So Arion being driven to a strait entreated them that, since they were so minded, they would allow him to take his stand in full minstrel's garb upon the deck of the ship and sing; and he promised to put himself to death after he had sung.

They then, well pleased to think that they should hear the best of all minstrels upon earth, drew back from the stern towards the middle of the ship; and he put on the full minstrel's garb and took his lyre, and standing on the deck performed the Orthian measure. Then as the measure ended, he threw himself into the sea just as he was, in his full minstrel's garb; and they went on sailing away to Corinth, but him, they say, a dolphin supported on its back and brought him to shore at Tainaron: and when he had come to land he proceeded to Corinth with his minstrel's garb.

Thither having arrived he related all that had been done; and Periander doubting of his story kept Arion in guard and would let him go nowhere, while he kept careful watch for those who had conveyed him. When these came, he called them and inquired of them if they had any report to make of Arion; and when they said that he was safe in Italy and that they had left him at Taras faring well, Arion suddenly appeared before them in the same guise as when he made his leap from the ship; and they being struck with amazement were no longer able to deny when they were questioned.

—Herodotus, The Histories, 1.23-24
(trans. G.C. Macaulay)

This might just be the best beach book ever. The Arion story, by the way, was made into an opera by Alec Roth and Vikram Seth in 1994.

July 24, 2007


I wasn't going to come back to the Jerry Hadley story, but at ArtsJournal, Terry Teachout and CultureGrrl are not letting go of it in interesting fashion. And you'll find, at the end, that a suitable moral lies there.

Rosenbaum was of the opinion that bad reviews played a part in Hadley's suicide (more here, here, and here):
Critics have to call it as they see it. But perhaps this singer's suicide suggests that journalistic discussion of the shortcomings of artists needs to be done in a different spirit, with more sensitivity, than exposés of professional malfeasance. When we criticize how people perform their jobs, we're attacking what they do. If they're unethical, incompetent or merely wrongheaded, that's fair game for a hard-hitting appraisal. But when we disparage an artist, we're attacking who they are. Whenever they perform or create, they're completely exposed and putting their entire beings on the line.
If you're a professional, exposure of your malfeasance is the critic's job. Personal attacks? Right out. But I didn't see any personal attacks in critical reaction to Hadley's 1999 Gatsby performance, however harsh the assessment. I'll say this—I never write a criticism without asking myself if I would consider it unfair if I was the performer. Is that enough? It has to be.

Teachout took the opposite tack, soberly shaking his head at the spectacle of a career gone down in flames. After some angry feedback, he had this follow up:
The world is a hard place, and the opera business is, or can be, one of its toughest neighborhoods. Those who think otherwise know nothing about it. Those who pretend otherwise are kidding themselves.
Now, the opera world as a Chandleresque Darwinian dystopia seems a little overblown for an industry that puts people in funny costumes and sends them out on stage to sing, even if supply does vastly outstrip demand. Still, tough-guy prose can be fun to write. But Teachout also quotes detective novelist Rex Stout saying that refusing to speak ill of the dead reflects a fear of death. Here's the point: I think all that terse this-is-the-way-it-is realism reflects another fear, the fear of failure. And the thing is, Rosenbaum implies it, too. She advocates a kindler, gentler criticism out of hope that, when failure comes, we can all get a soft landing. Teachout disdains failure, keeping fear at bay with the bravado of the survivor. (Have "Spade and Archer" taken off the doors and windows.) We all fall somewhere on this continuum, I guess. But it's the combination of that fear with something Rosenbaum says that's really pernicious: [W]hen we disparage an artist, we're attacking who they are. Whenever they perform or create, they're completely exposed and putting their entire beings on the line.

Coming up is the best lesson I ever learned. I'll even put it in boldface, I think it's so important. There may be a lot of things I miss, a lot of things I don't know—but I do know this:
What you do is not who you are.
This is a hard concept for a lot of people to bend their mind around, particularly in America, with its Protestant work ethic and rampant capitalism. But again: the mere fact of success or failure at a particular activity says nothing—nothing—about one's worth as a human being. If you're pursuing an evil activity, sure, that probably makes you evil. But if you fail to achieve a worthy goal, all that says is that you failed. And failure is probably the most common human condition there is.

Teachout writes, "I wish my last memory of Hadley were a happier one." Memory is a recreative process—if you want your last memory of someone to be happy, just pick a happy memory. The number of operas with dramatically ridiculous final scenes well exhausts my fingers and toes. But good operas aren't invalidated by bad endings.

July 23, 2007


Reverse Idler gear shaft
In case you hadn't noticed, we're into summer programming around here—photos, food, video links, etc. But since we're well on our way to that eight-billion-channels-all-the-time world the Internet keeps teasing us with, I at long last did an update on the increasingly unwieldy blogroll over there. Some were long-overdue lacunae (ANABlog, The Standing Room, etc.), while some are relative newcomers: countercritic covers the coverage, with sassy prose and the proper space devoted to dance, the red-headed stepchild of the fine arts (I'm half-afraid and half-eager for him to start reading the Globe); The Omniscient Mussel is but four posts old at this writing, but between one and fifty million cricket-loving Donald Tovey fans can't be wrong; and Ear Trumpet is the new electronic outpost of Boston critic Richard Buell, who has also taken over the Globe's radio listings, turning them into a mouth-watering smorgasbord of Web-streamed delicacies.

Opera is still vastly underrepresented; until the day I expiate that sin, the blogroll over at Sieglinde's Diaries will keep you plugged in. And The Rambler's link page is still one of the universe's great procrastination aids.

Anyway, I swear there's substantial stuff in the works. I promise within the next two weeks I'll be tackling economics again—that's always good for a laugh.

July 22, 2007

Iberian Steps

Operatic revisions. On Verdi's Don Carlos.
Boston Globe, July 22, 2007.

I realized it in time to fix it online, but I made a goof in the print version, where I inadvertently imply that the scene of Carlos's trial appears in all the revisions; of course, it was eliminated in the 1884 and 1886 versions. (This may have been a Freudian slip on my part—the inclusion of the trial is, perhaps, the only aspect in which I prefer the original, as it frames the ending so it's less did-you-get-the-number-of-that-truck abrupt.)

July 19, 2007

Thursday morning cartoons

Over at Do the Math, Ethan Iverson strikes gold: the gorgeous 1969 Alfred Schnittke-scored animated short Ballerina on a Boat, from director Lev Atamanov. Here's a couple more Schnittke animation scores—Andrei Khrzhanovskiy's very weird, very creepy 1968 Glass Harmonica (part 1, part 2), and Khrzhanovskiy's 1970 Armoire, which features some Schnittke baroque deconstruction.

Seufzer, Tränen

Reviewing Thomas Hampson.
Boston Globe, July 19, 2007.

July 18, 2007

Quote of the Day

As the new art form of the 20th century, cinema has had an effect on opera. The audience for opera has shrunk, like the audience for all classical music. But don't blame that on the movies. It's because of a breakdown in education that is scandalous and disgraceful. And it's because America's leaders take orders from corporations that believe culture need play only a small role, just enough to give their workers something to do.

Tobias Picker, 2005

July 17, 2007

And only last year, everything seemed so sure

La Cieca passes on the news that Jerry Hadley has been taken off life support following his suicide attempt last week, so now it's just a matter of time. I have nothing intelligent to say about this sad, sad story, but I do believe that deaths should be opportunities to celebrate lives—so I'd just like to mention two Hadley albums that have given me much joy over the years. His duet album with Thomas Hampson has long held honored status in various official Soho the Dog automobiles; their rendition of "Venti scudi" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore never fails to have me laughing out loud. Also hunt around for Hadley's apparently-out-of-print 1994 Broadway album In the Real World, which might just be the only "crossover" album I've ever liked; a collection of distinctly moody songs sung with direct emotion rather than surface stylisms. It was the record that introduced me to the hilarious Kander and Ebb song "I Don't Remember Christmas," and Hadley's delicately melancholic version of Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do" as well as his full-out operatic rendition of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" are singularly memorable. Condolences to all his family and friends.

July 13, 2007

I think very deeply

Some serious fun for the weekend: the legendary KRS-One performing live, rapping over Vivaldi and Pachelbel.

No idea who this guy is? One of the stars of the 80s generation of hip-hop that brought the style to a national stage. Here's some bonus KRS: one of the many iterations of his group Boogie Down Productions in live versions of two cuts from 1988's By All Means Necessary, "My Philosophy" and "I'm Still #1."

July 12, 2007

Another One Sights the Dust

Forget So or Empty Glass or Radio K.A.O.S.—my new favorite solo follow-up project belongs to ex-Queen guitarist Brian May, who just finished his thesis for the PhD in astrophysics he abandoned in 1974 to pursue international rock stardom. May's work concerns interplanetary dust clouds—you can find some of his pre-"Fat Bottomed Girls" research here—and, according to the Times, his thesis demonstrates, for the first time, that dust clouds in our own solar system move in the same direction as the planets. Gaudeamus igitur juvenes dum sumus!

By the way, Brian's blog is a lot of fun.

July 11, 2007

Fame, it's not your brain, it's just the flame that burns your change

What happens when that illusory arrow of progress takes a bit of a u-turn?

Today's exhibit in the zig-zag of music history is Dieterich Buxtehude, who most people only remember as a precursor of Bach, and that Johann Sebastian once hiked 200 miles to hear him play. But that organist's holiday should tell you something—Buxtehude was pretty famous in his time. He was the organist for the church at Lübeck, and judging by his published compositions, Sundays in Lübeck must have been something. His preludes whip through promiscuous numbers of textures and moods. He thinks nothing of turning a simple chorale prelude into a full-fledged multi-movement dance suite ("Auf meinen lieben Gott," BuxWV 179—score here). His imitative works are built on unusually angular and ruminative themes. Here's a particular example: the Fugue in C major, BuxWV 174 (score here). Go on—show this subject to your 18th-Century Counterpoint instructor and see if you pass.

BuxWV 174 subject
Break out the red pen—too long, too jumpy, too harmonically ambiguous (eight notes in, and he's making the tonic sound like the dominant). But it's the final cadence that's really far out: Buxtehude just hangs on to that tonic triad in the face of all kinds of diatonic dissonance from the bass.

BuxWV 174 final cadence
Now Bach certainly had his wild moments, but I can't think of anything near that crazy. In just about every one of his organ works, in fact, Buxtehude tosses off some musical inspiration—a melodic turn, a clash of harmonies, an unprepared jump-cut to an entirely new texture and tempo—that Bach would have at least thought twice about.

The point here is not to somehow demonstrate that Buxtehude was a better composer than Bach, or that one or the other of them made some sort of "wrong turn," to borrow that awful phrase so beloved of prescriptivist music historians. The point is that those composers we remember as particularly important, or influential, or innovatory—that's as much a fortuitous accident of time and place as it is the force of individual creativity. Bach had an unparalleled talent for assimilating disparate influences into an architecturally harmonious whole at a time when an unprecedented number of disparate influences—Renaissance polyphony, Lutheran chorale, Italian monody, French dance music, you name it—was ripe for assimilation. If Bach's personal style evolved in a more conservative direction than Buxtehude's ever did, that evolution intersected with the musical current of the time such that it became a river feeding countless tributaries over the next centuries. And so Bach is remembered as the singular genius, the navigator that charted the way for everyone who came after him, while Buxtehude is just the guy back in port who encouraged him to buy a boat. (It's interesting to consider what part local preference played in both careers as well. Buxtehude's avant-garde ways—in addition to his organ-playing, he was a pioneer in large-scale sacred dramatic works—apparently went over well in Lübeck: he kept his post for nearly forty years, ending only with his death in 1707. Bach, on the other hand, returned from his trip to hear Buxtehude to find local officials in Arnstadt complaining about, among other things, the over-elaborate nature of his chorale accompaniments.)

In other words, even if Buxtehude was more adventurous, more innovatory than Bach, Bach became the more important composer because he was lucky enough to live at a time uniquely suited to his formidable genius. Buxtehude is rather like Winston Churchill in 1912 or so—obviously talented, impatiently forward-looking, but lacking access to a stage on which his talents can fully flourish. Bach is like Churchill in 1940: the exact person at the exact moment in history.

Buxtehude is one of those radical composers who always seem to flourish just before a historical consolidation—think of C.P.E. Bach, or Carl Maria von Weber, or George Antheil. Would they rank higher in the Pantheon if they had come along fifty years later? Fifty years earlier? It's hard to say. But then again, what if Bach had been a contemporary of Mozart? What if Beethoven had been born in France in 1860? Contrafactuals like those always carry a whiff of the ridiculous, but they point up how, maybe even more than sheer talent, it's how that talent interacts—or doesn't interact—with the time and place it's launched into that determines the historical standing of the bearer. If I end up rating only a cursory mention in the 2200 edition of the New Grove, I may be able to claim the same excuse as Brian Wilson: I guess I just wasn't made for these times.

I got to thinking about this after Adam and Daniel were talking last week about musical innovation.

July 10, 2007

"Let your guests wait—they will be rewarded"

Another highlight from The Boston Symphony Cookbook: how Andrzej Panufnik liked to cook peaches.
Peaches Panufnik

6 large, perfectly ripe peaches ("must be fresh"), peeled
1½ cups heavy cream or
crème fraîche (or a combination)
½ to ¾ cup soft brown sugar

Slice the peaches into a buttered shallow 10-inch pie plate or baking dish, leaving ½ inch room at the top; the peaches should lie as flat as possible.

Whip the cream until very thick, and smooth it over the peaches.
Place in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours, until the cream is very firm but the peaches are not frozen solid.

Preheat the broiler (or a salamander) about 15 minutes before serving. Let your guests wait—they will be rewarded. Just before serving, sift some of the brown sugar over the semifrozen cream in a layer no more than 18 inch thick, covering the cream completely. Broil quickly until the sugar caramelizes. Add another layer and repeat the process, but work fast. Allow a few moments for the melted sugar to harden, and test the topping with taps of a tablespoon. When the properly percussive sound is achieved, rush it to the table, and serve immediately.

I took Andrzej at his word and used the broiler, but next time, I'll use the blowtorch—faster, more even, and far more dangerous/fun. The editors of the cookbook reassure the timid that, in spite of his adamant insistence on fresh peaches, canned peaches will do in a pinch. But with all those summer peaches just lying around, you'd be a fool to break out the can opener; just dunk them in boiling water for thirty seconds, then into a bowl of ice water, and the skins slip right off. While you're at it, you can take a listen to Panufnik's Piano Trio played by its namesake.

For a true Panufnik experience, stay up all night eating the peaches and drinking cup after cup of strong black coffee while listening to ancient Polish chant, then, in your heart-racing caffienated state, fail your army physical the next morning. (Yes, that is how Andrzej avoided military service.) One of the better desserts I've come across in a while. Even critic-at-large Moe was sitting without being told in anticipation of more bits of crunchy topping.

July 09, 2007

Take a picture, sweetie; I ain't got time to waste

Romantic music had Gothic landscapes. Symphonic jazz had Art Deco. Postwar serialism had Abstract Expressionism. (Bebop had it, too.) Hip-hop had graffiti. Surf rock had Ed "Big Daddy" Roth; psychedelic rock had Rick Griffin. Minimalism had minimalism. Expressionism had expressionism. Impressionism had impressionism.

So here's today's exercise in prognostication: what will be the visual artistic style that history will glue to the current era of new music, post-minimalism, non-pop, the new eclecticism, whatever you want to call it? Keep in mind that there doesn't necessarily need to be any direct connection (many of the early graffiti artists in 1970s New York weren't even aware of hip-hop or rap) and that, yes, today's plethora of styles will inevitably be shoehorned into a crude generalization (the association between the 1950s and serialism, for example, ignores Barber, Poulenc, late Hindemith, early Rorem, Cage, etc., etc.). So what'll it be? Conceptual installations? Video? Graphic novels? Damien Hirst? Komar and Melamid? Gerhard Richter? Jeff Koons? None of the above?

You could also probably divide musicians, composers especially, into those of us who like to think about this sort of thing and those who couldn't possibly care less. I personally enjoy pondering the historical perception (and future historical perception) of music because that's part of what attracted me to classical music in the first place: the idea that there was a repertoire that was completely of its own time and place, but had the possibility to be reinterpreted for each subsequent era and yet remain vital. And yet so much of the music I love was created by artists who regarded the past as deadweight baggage to be pitched overboard in the interests of speed and navigability. It works the other way around, too: the scorched-earth Boulez took his cues from the early-music-editing Webern, for instance.

It's odd that music and the plastic arts are always paired up in terms of stylistic designations—the relationship between music and literary movements has always struck me as both temporally and intellectually closer. Then again, music is pretty odd all by itself, so what's the use of getting worked up about it at this late date, right? So make a frame out of your fingers and see what you see—Gehry or Grand Theft Auto?

July 06, 2007

Les lignes, les couleurs, les sons deviennent vagues

Régine Crespin died on Wednesday—with the passing of Beverly Sills, that makes two representative national heroines in one week. Crespin didn't have nearly as high a profile on this side of the Atlantic, but this committed Francophile was in awe of her unfailingly elegant tone and her absolutely effortless way with the language. This is a 1964 performance of Fauré's "Soir," a lovely object lesson in rich, intimate mélodie singing.

She's shamefully underrepresented on YouTube; here's hoping some of her Berlioz interpretations will turn up.

July 04, 2007

Cannon at the Fourth

I'm guest-blogging today for Geoff Edgers, who's enjoying a week off. Head on over for ruminations about everybody's favorite true-blue-American-by-way-of-Russia Independence Day tradition.

Mind the music and the step

Yankee Doodle brand fruit label
Joe Bedrosian: Yankee Doodle (MP3, 280 Kb)

"Yankee Doodle" played on the zurna. Recorded in 1939 by Sidney Robertson Cowell for the WPA California Folk Music Project.

July 03, 2007

En elle tout séduit

Every time a larger-than-life artist passes away, particularly in the tradition- and history-conscious world of classical music, it's customary to dust off the "end of an era" line, but in the case of Beverly Sills, it really does seem like the end of a certain era, and not just because it seemed like she would always be around, forever coming out of retirement to take another set of reins somewhere.

There's one era, I think, that she actually outlived. Most of the obituaries and tributes I've been reading today make a point of contrasting her down-to-earth personality as a singer with her success as an administrator, particularly at steering the New York City Opera through a notably difficult period in the 1980s. Tim Page spelled it out clearest in his tribute:
She was the telegenic "diva next door," a friendly redhead from Brooklyn whose friends called her Bubbles; she was an aggressive Manhattan snob who never let it be forgotten that she did hold grudges. She was the warmest and most brilliant American coloratura soprano of her time; she was a high-culture power broker and adept political infighter. Those who knew her slightly liked her enormously; those who knew her better were sometimes a little afraid of her.

Beverly Sills, who died of lung cancer yesterday at the age of 78, was a complicated person, and any attempt to sum up her life and work will necessarily turn into a string of contradictions.
Sills always struck me as someone whose ebullience sprang from an absolute comfort in her own skin, which is perhaps the best political defense one can have, and throughout her career, though just as demanding as any diva, those demands came with a distinctly non-temperamental, cool assessment of risk and reward. (Anthony Tommasini relates the famous story of her landing the role of Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare, as much a Napoleonically deft flanking maneuver as a prima donna's ultimatum.) Besides, anyone who makes a career out of classical music by necessity develops a certain amount of determination and thick skin; Sills just had it to an unusual degree. So why the surprise? Sills herself thought it was her gender; in 1986, having stared down one musician's strike and succesfully avoided another, she took stock of her NYCO tenure in a New York Times interview. ''What I really resent is that people underestimated me,'' she said. ''I was naive when I took on this job, but I was not stupid. I think if I was a man, I wouldn't have taken the abuse I took here.''

So as you peruse the recorded legacy, it's also worth considering the way society has changed in the past half-century such that Sills strikes us as contradictory. Back in the 1940s, when Sills was just starting out, her combination of grit, savvy, and vivacity wouldn't have been hard to reconcile. She would have been called a tough dame. It would have been a compliment.

July 02, 2007

Links for the day

No blog today—making sausage.

With that out of the way, I'm off to work on a wurstfagott arrangement of "Der Tambour."