December 24, 2008

Tho' hard and dry at first

Critic-at-Large Moe offers his painterly image to wish everyone a happy holiday season. It's the most wonderful deadweight loss of the year! We'll be back in the new year. (Maybe sooner if more stories like this try to slip under the holiday radar.) In the meantime, enjoy a batch of baked goodness from Amelia Simmons' American Cookery, first published in 1796:

Another Chriſtmas Cookey.

To three pound flour, ſprinkle a tea cup of fine powdered coriander ſeed, rub in one pound butter, and one and half pound ſugar, diſſolve three tea ſpoonfuls of pearl aſh in a tea cup of milk, kneed all together well, roll three quarters of an inch thick, and cut or ſtamp into ſhape and ſize you pleaſe, bake ſlowly fifteen or twenty minutes; tho' hard and dry at firſt, if put into an earthern pot, and dry cellar, or damp room, they will be finer, ſofter and better when ſix months old.

December 23, 2008

And since we've no place to go

Reviewing the Musicians of the Old Post Road.
Boston Globe, December 23, 2008.

A nice little musical pun from this one: in Telemann's Abscheuliche Tiefe des großen Verderbens!, some rapid-fire flute runs to accompany the words "Fluten brausen"—raining floods.

December 22, 2008

Oggi rivivi in me!

I am proudly and incurably a Puccini addict. There's not many other composers that combine such a lush surface with so many arresting, idiosyncratic details of harmony and orchestration—Messiaen, maybe, at least among this year's anniversary composers. It's sometimes startling to pick apart a Puccini score and realize just how many completely left-field things are going on beneath that gleaming hood. This is a guy who made parallel octaves a viable harmonic resource, after all.

For Puccini's 150th birthday, three versions of "In questa reggia" from Turandot. FIrst: Dame Eva Turner, who heard the premiere, first sang the role less than a year later, and recorded the aria in 1928.

Next is my personal favorite, Eva Marton singing at the 100th Anniversary Met Gala in 1983. (The non sequiter set is a David Hockney design for Les Mamelles des Tirésias.)

And finally: Puccini's music has carved out a small footprint for itself in popular culture, with varying degrees of success (do you really want to hear Neil Sedaka sing "Nessun dorma"?), but this Bob Belden big-band arrangement of (the first half of) "In questa reggia" (with Wallace Roney on trumpet) is pretty cool.

Buon compleanno!

Strauss and Mahler Re-Enact Your Favorite Movie Moments (5)

(Click to enlarge.)

Previously: 1, 2, 3, 4. T-shirts.

December 21, 2008

Un ballo di macher

Hanukkah started tonight at sundown. Spin that dreidel! Here's a recipe I was absolutely going to test and photograph—gefilte fish as prepared by Richard Tucker's mom—before Boston got hit with three days of snowstorms and shoveling, which I'm sure is some sort of payback for all the bad driving. Anyway, I'll get on the gefilte as soon as I can feel my back again.

This is from Peter Gravina's 1964 collection The Bel Canto Cookbook, which I picked up at this place, which is definitely a mekhaye.
Sara Tucker's Gefilte Fish

3 pounds whitefish
2 pounds pike
1 pound carp
4 onions
2 raw eggs
½ teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper
2 teaspoons cracker meal
3 quarts fish stock
2 carrots

Have fish dealer filet fish but retain the heads and vertebrae. Salt the fish and refrigerate while you make the stock. Combine the fish heads and vertebrae with 2 chopped onions, a little salt and pepper, and cover with water. Bring the stock to a boil and simmer gently for 15 to 20 minutes. Put the fish and two additional onions through a food chopper and grind them finely. To this mixture add the eggs, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the cracker meal and chop until the mixture is thoroughly blended. Shape the mixture into balls 3 inches in diameter. Immerse the fish in the boiling stock (add water to cover if necessary) and cook covered for about 2½ hours, until the fish balls turn white and double in size. Cut the carrots into ½-inch slices and add to the pot ½ hour before the fish balls are finished. Yields approximately 2 dozen.

December 18, 2008

Quote of the Day

The significance of language struck [Richard] Wrangham most forcefully on an occasion when a group of [Mbuti] hunters had killed an elephant.... Excitement was intense, and appeared dangerously volatile as the animal was skinned and dismembered. In terms of activity and noise, the scene matched anything of a comparable nature that Wrangham had observed among chimpanzees.... THe noise was cacophonous, but amid the din patterns of negotiation became discernible. The hunters and those with immediate rights to a share of the carcass were told to honour the obligations of kinship and give meat to their relatives. Old debts and favours were settled in exchange for meat; new pledges were contracted. The talking went on for hours, doubtless reinforcing a long-standing web of reciprocal obligations that was fundamental to the social order of the region. Wrangham says:
Chimpanzees in a comparable situation would have gone berserk. They would have screamed and squabbled and physical strength ultimately would have determined the distribution of the meat, and there probably would have been some violence between competing individuals. There may have been some bad feeling among the Mbuti too, but aggressive tendencies were constrained by the intervention of other individuals. They could talk about their differences, and bring in the issues of what happened in the past and what might happen in the future. In short—they could negotiate. Talking reduced the fighting.

—John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent

I wonder if this is why the dream of bringing disparate human communities together through music—Schopenhauer's "universal language"—simultaneously seems to be so tantalizingly reasonable and wishful thinking: it re-enacts the process of negotiation, but without the specificity to make anyone feel satisfied. (For every instance of music peacefully bridging a divide, it's not hard to find an example of music being used to foment division and/or violence.)

December 16, 2008

Ending up

Reviewing pianist Paavali Jumppanen.
Boston Globe, December 16, 2008.

Published, I notice, on Beethoven's birthday—it's weird to have a sense of occasion even when you're not trying.

Better watch out

Reviewing Boston Baroque's Messiah.
Boston Globe, December 16, 2008.

December 12, 2008

Absence of Malice

Don Rosenberg, the Cleveland Plain Dealer critic who, a few months ago, was rather infamously reassigned for being allegedly too hard on the Cleveland Orchestra and its music director, Franz Welser-Möst, has now sued both the paper and the orchestra for a legion of offenses, including defamation, age discrimination and (I love this phrase) "tortious interference."

Most of the reaction to Rosenberg's plight has taken up familiar themes: freedom of speech, journalistic independence, the value of an experienced observer, &c. (All eminently valid.) But there's one angle that I haven't really seen, which is this: from a circulation standpoint, what are the powers-that-be at the Plain Dealer thinking? A pre-packaged feud between one of the biggest cultural institutions in town and your own on-staff critic drops into your lap, and your initial instinct is to somehow make it go away? I'm not familiar enough with the specifics of Rosenberg's suit to know whether he has a legal leg to stand on or not, but I think the Newhouse family (who own the Plain Dealer via their holding company Advance Publications) might want to take a second look at a management team that seems averse to exploiting opportunities to, you know, sell newspapers.

I mean, come on, the Plain Dealer's the paper getting sued, and they themselves get scooped by The New York Times. Daniel Wakin gets hilariously impolitic quotes from the orchestra's lawyer; the Plain Dealer gets this:
The Plain Dealer declined to comment, and a spokeswoman for the Musical Arts Association could not be reached.
Declined to comment? Why would they not play this story for all it's worth? (At least their online editor can see the appeal.)

I'm not saying that critics should get out their knives solely in order to boost circulation, but newspaper criticism is equal parts information and entertainment, and I would hope that papers would still know how to parlay a little controversy into beneficial entertainment. Critic-at-Large Moe and I spent a couple of lunch hours this week reveling in the glorious pre-Code cynicism of Lewis Milestone's 1931 film version of The Front Page (mainly to enjoy how little things have changed in my old hometown); can you imagine how one of those papers would have reacted if the local orchestra had hired a PR firm to lobby for a friendlier critic? They would have laughed them out the door—and then bragged about it in print. (And, if it was a two-paper town, God help them if they didn't.) Journalism is a long way from the callous unscrupulousness that Hecht and MacArthur romanticized—even some contemporary reporters found The Front Page to be defamatory caricature—but objective doesn't have to mean cautious and boring. Rosenberg's reassignment, apart from being journalistically suspect, is, to me at least, symptomatic of the creeping corporate blandness leaving a lot of papers high and dry while digital content blooms around them. Milestone's film opens with a great joke, a title card proclaiming that
This story is laid in a mythical kingdom.
Keep playing it safe, and the newspaper industry is going to end up as its own Neverland.

December 11, 2008

The lads in their hundreds (2)

Elliott Carter being interviewed by Charlie Rose, December 10, 2008. Rose asked Carter if there were times in his career when he felt a sense of exultation, when he felt like he had reached the top of the mountain. Carter said that he was still climbing; if he ever reached the top of the mountain, he'd be worried.

I've happily spilled plenty of words on Carter and his music this year (start here or here if you missed them). For his actual hundredth birthday, a bit of ephemera. A few weeks ago, I spent a day poking around the Harvard University Archives, and found this photo of the Harvard Glee Club, on stage at Boston's Symphony Hall (click to enlarge):

Harvard Glee Club, 1927 - HUPSF Glee Club - Harvard University Archives.

The conductor is the legendary Archibald T. Davison. The organist is future director G. Wallace Woodworth. Small world department: I'm pretty sure the guy in the horn-rimmed glasses behind Woodworth's right shoulder is future Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. And seated in the back row, eighth from right, is Harvard undergraduate Elliott Cook Carter, Jr.

Happy birthday, Mr. Carter—and many happy returns of the day!

Update (12/11): You can now watch the Charlie Rose interview, with Carter, James Levine, and Daniel Barenboim, online.

December 10, 2008

The lads in their hundreds (1)

Just saying Olivier Messiaen's name is exceptional. Thomas Grubb's textbook Singing in French includes an appendix in which he cross-references every possible combination of vowels in French, in every possible situation, with the corresponding correct pronunciation in IPA. It's pages of this sort of thing:

But every so often there's a unique word, one that makes its own rule—including this one:

An appropriate inheritance for a creator of singular sounds.

As you probably know, Messiaen would have been 100 years old today. For a birthday card, here's one of my favorite shorter Messiaen pieces, the comparatively obscure "Pièce pour le Tombeau de Paul Dukas," from 1936. (Today is unseasonably warm here in Massachusetts, which not only brought out scattered celebratory choruses of birds, but also got the piano closer to being in tune than it was at this time last week.)

December 09, 2008

Drede ye nought, sayd the aungell bryght

Guerrieri: Be We Mery in This Feste (PDF, 163 Kb; not terribly subtle MIDI here)

Here's a nice, crunchy, part-of-this-balanced-breakfast Christmas carol that I'll toss into the season's general musical maelstrom. Merry Christmas, every one! This will probably end up being this year's Christmas Eve choral introit—sometimes you just want something in-your-face to shake everyone out of their cookie-induced torpor. Can I augment that harmony? Sure! Can I throw on all the mixture stops? It's Christmas, isn't it? Why do Tudor sources add so many extra letters to otherwise normal English words? Hey, it's the thought that counts.

If the macaronic inclusion of ecclesiastical Latin is too sober for your holiday, you can always set the Wayback Machine to last year's wassails. And it's as good a time as any to remind everyone that charity-supporting t-shirts are a great way to distract your friends and loved ones from the coming financial apocalypse. (Buy eight for Hanukkah!)

December 05, 2008

Tempo e tempi

The composer in Cambridge: Carter looks back. Interviewing Elliott Carter.
Boston Globe, December 5, 2008.

I ended up with way more material than I could fit into a Globe article. Some of the more off-topic or esoteric excerpts:

It's interesting how much of Carter's early musical experiences revolved around folk music—not just his contact with Ives and Gilbert:
EC:I also studied Greek with Milman Parry, who invited me—Milman Parry caused a revolution in Greek, in the study of the Greek language, he decided to go to some mountains in Albania where there were still people singing like Homer, who sang big epic poems at night. And he wanted me to go with him—I didn’t go, I think I was a little foolish not to, but I’ve forgotten why I didn’t go. But he came back with a lot of recordings of all this, and decided, he had a whole new idea of how Homer had written the Odyssey and the Iliad because of that. There’s still people fighting about it.
MG: One interesting thing: you spent a summer in Tunisia?
EC: Indeed I did.
MG: How did that come about?
EC: Well, I knew a woman who sang Arabic music, Laura Williams.... And Laura Williams had been asked by the Baron d’Elanger, who had a big palace in the northern part of Tunisia, who was very interested in capturing what the original Arabic music of that place was, because radio was playing all kinds of jazz and everything, and everyone was forgetting all about it. So he wanted to make a big effort to have everything down. And I notated a lot of these—we used to set up, it was so hot, we slept all day and worked all night. And it was a lot of fun.
Carter arrived at Harvard in 1926, after Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell had controversially resegregated student housing with regards to Jewish and African-American students. Carter didn't remember that being a big deal among the student population, but he did recall the outcry over Lowell's institution of the Harvard house system:
EC: [T]he other thing I remember very vividly, when we learned that they were going to put up all these dormitories—you know, a lot of students didn’t live in dormitories at Harvard. I rented a room from some old lady on a little street that doesn’t exist anymore. And then later, I rented rooms in a building on Mount Auburn Street. But when we heard that Harvard was going to build all these new dormitories, a great many of us went to President Lowell and said that this was going to destroy the campus. And Lowell said, “You can’t turn down three million dollars easily.”
Carter also got a little lesson in labor relations from BSO players:
EC: My main memory of Boston—the people in the Boston Symphony, it was largely a group of Frenchmen who were not unionized, it was not a unionized thing. So that they were all caught in this situation—if they were fired, they’d have to go back to France, they couldn’t get a job in America. So there was a kind of funny business—in any case, I was brought up to speak French as a child, and they used to run a boardinghouse, and I used to go there and have meals.
Later, in the 1930s, Carter would start his own union:
EC: [T]he thing that we all had going on, was the fact that there were not many American composers, and that the American composer was not paid for his performances—in fact, he was supposed to pay for his performances. And so, in the old-fashioned way, we made a union, and wouldn’t allow any music to be played until we were paid. Well, we finally got it, and the American Composers Alliance worked quite well, and Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland, and the rest of us, we were very active in establishing that....
And now: 20,000 composers in this country.
MG: Too many.
EC: It’s all a mistake, we shouldn’t have done it. [laughs]
I asked Carter about this photo, which shows the Harvard Glee Club visiting Herbert Hoover at the White House in the spring of 1929.
EC: I certainly do not remember anything like this.
MG: There’s one person who kind of looks like you, but I don’t know.
EC: [laughs] Where was this? At Harvard?
MG: No, it was actually at the White House.
EC: Oh, then no.
I was only at the White House twice. There was once with Kennedy, with some other composers. And the second time, Ronald Reagan, he invited me, and he gave me a medal [the National Medal of Arts, in 1985].
God, he was stupid. I had lunch with him, and—well, maybe he wasn’t stupid, but he certainly acted stupidly that day. There were very funny things about it. That famous black opera singer, a beautiful woman, [Leontyne Price]—she sat between me and the president, it was a round table. And she looked at me very angrily and she said, [clenches teeth] “We’re here to have a good time.” [laughs] It was all sort of in that mood. And I sat next to Carter Brown, who I knew, who was head of the big museum down there, the Mellon Museum [the National Gallery of Art], and we talked. And Mr. Reagan tried to get in on some conversation, because we were all talking about things he didn’t know much about. Finally, he said, “I just love the sculpture of [Frederic] Remington,” you know, the cowboy guy.
Finally, he had to take the lead, and he decided to tell his stories, and the stories were unbelievable. I don’t know if you want to hear them.
MG: Sure.
EC: OK. Well, there was one story—he said, there were two psychoanalysts, they had offices in the same building, and they’d go up together in the elevator in the morning. And in the evening, one of them was all disheveled, and the other one looked perfect. And the disheveled one said to the other, “How can you go through all that, hear all those terrible things, and still look like that?” And he says, “Who listens?”
Now, this is the president saying that.
MG: We do know how to pick our presidents.
EC: Well, yes, we finally did! I didn’t think [Obama would] ever get in.

December 04, 2008

Bonjour, l'etoiles!

I'm beginning to sense a pattern at the Metropolitan Opera. Literally.

The photo wall they've put up in the lobby for the 125th Anniversary Season:

From this season's production of Doctor Atomic:

From this season's production of La Damnation de Faust:

It's a real Hollywood Squares vibe, isn't it? Faust for the block: true or false—a jockey can have up to twelve mounts a day!

December 03, 2008

Conducting oneself

I can't go, but you can: tonight at 7:30, head over to Smith Hall at Harvard Hillel and you can hear Daniel Barenboim chatting with Michael Steinberg. (Barenboim is in town for the world premiere of Elliott Carter's Interventions.) The conductor/pianist/Olympic-class troublemaker is also promoting his new memoir, Music Quickens Time (at least that's the American title, anyway). I've heard Barenboim in such conversations a couple of times, and you always end up with your head expanded. The event is free—no tickets required.

December 02, 2008

Principle of Locality

Reviewing the Florestan Recital Project.
Boston Globe, December 3, 2008.

Everybody's Talkin'

Reviewing the Laurel String Quartet et al.
Boston Globe, December 2, 2008.

The Carter centenary is accelerating into the homestretch. I feel like I should have one of those countdown clocks on the sidebar or something.

December 01, 2008

On the small screen

A netting of scuttlebutt:

Announcing the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. Upload a video of yourself playing a newly-commissioned piece by Tan Dun, and you can be part of some sort of grand mash-up; if other viewers vote you worthy, you can go to New York for a three-day Carnegie Hall workshop in 2009—conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas:
Thomas cheerfully conceded that much of the actual planning for the April concert is still up in the air. It depends, he says, on who emerges from the audition project.

For that matter, the entire program still has plenty of serendipity built into its genetic makeup. Asked what might constitute a success for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, [YouTube product marketing manager Ed] Sanders sounded open to just about anything.

"There are lots of ways it could go. If we were to have this conversation again in six months' time, I think the most successful tangents this might go on would be ones that were impossible to predict today."
Wait a minute—technology people using the phrase "impossible to predict" in reference to their creation? Isn't that the linchpin of every movie James Cameron's ever made? Yes, I see no way this can end badly. (I can still watch pirated opera excerpts, though, right?)

Congratulations to composer Brett Dean, now brainstorming just how he can leverage his Grawemeyer award into keeping the bald guy from Midnight Oil from shutting down the Australian National Academy of Music.

Condoleezza Rice plays piano for the Queen of England. Always Brahms with this woman! Well, some people do respond to stress by eating.

Isaac Stern's son, new director of the Israeli Opera, will maintain the Wagner ban.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, having started their own record label, is now offering downloads on their website. Choose your format: 320 Kbs mp3 or, for newer stuff, Windows Media HD Surround Sound. I don't have a surround-sound set-up, so I can't comment on that, and the Java-based download manager kept telling me that a couple of movements of Bartok weren't on the server. (No access to the "Intermezzo interotto"—maybe it's supposed to be ironic.) On the other hand, the prices aren't bad, and seeing how I'm currently listening to the world premiere of Bernstein's Symphony no. 2, with the composer at the piano and Koussevitzky conducting ("The Masque" is nearly flying apart at the seams in exciting fashion), I can definitely see the upside. (Update (12/2): Geoff Edgers gets the details.)

November 30, 2008

Commodore 64

A thank-you to Michael Prager for, in today's Boston Globe, considering this to be one of the "sixty-four websites on Boston life that you should know." I know, I know—I write for the Globe, I get mentioned in the Globe—but honest, there's no conspiracy. (Being from Chicago, I prefer my nepotism to involve cash.)

Anyway, lots of fun stuff there. (Bradley's Almanac was already on our radar, but Under 21 was new to me. Maybe I can finally upgrade my current pop-niche classification skills from disastrous to merely mildly incompetent.)

November 28, 2008

That's the moment I woke up, thank the Lord

HIstory is often presented as situational lessons, but I think a more interesting way to look at it is as a set of uncovered patterns—events and ideas shaping the mechanism of collective and individual journeys such that we follow certain paths without even realizing it, our lives hurtling down unseen rails. Today's itinerary: Saint Augustine to Nadia Boulanger to musical iconoclasm.

Augustine first, from Book X of the Confessions:
The delights of the ear drew and held me much more powerfully, but thou [God] didst unbind and liberate me. In those melodies which thy words inspire when sung with a sweet and trained voice, I still find repose; yet not so as to cling to them, but always so as to be able to free myself as I wish. But it is because of the words which are their life that they gain entry into me and strive for a place of proper honor in my heart; and I can hardly assign them a fitting one. Sometimes, I seem to myself to give them more respect than is fitting, when I see that our minds are more devoutly and earnestly inflamed in piety by the holy words when they are sung than when they are not. And I recognize that all the diverse affections of our spirits have their appropriate measures in the voice and song, to which they are stimulated by I know not what secret correlation. But the pleasures of my flesh—to which the mind ought never to be surrendered nor by them enervated—often beguile me while physical sense does not attend on reason, to follow her patiently, but having once gained entry to help the reason, it strives to run on before her and be her leader. Thus in these things I sin unknowingly, but I come to know it afterward.
In other words, music is just a little too pleasurable to us in this world to be totally, um, kosher, even if the intent is theologically virtuous. I once speculated that this sort of moralizing in the Confessions had something to do with the distrust of temporality in the Plotinian philosophy that was Augustine's waystation on the road to conversion—and, after all, music is the most temporal art form there is.

But Augustine goes on, and in the process, shifts the playing field a little:
On the other hand, when I avoid very earnestly this kind of deception, I err out of too great austerity. Sometimes I go to the point of wishing that all the melodies of the pleasant songs to which David’s Psalter is adapted should be banished both from my ears and from those of the Church itself. In this mood, the safer way seemed to me the one I remember was once related to me concerning Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who required the readers of the psalm to use so slight an inflection of the voice that it was more like speaking than singing.

However, when I call to mind the tears I shed at the songs of thy Church at the outset of my recovered faith, and how even now I am moved, not by the singing but by what is sung (when they are sung with a clear and skillfully modulated voice), I then come to acknowledge the great utility of this custom. Thus I vacillate between dangerous pleasure and healthful exercise.
Augustine is getting a little tricky here. He's gearing up to make a point about virtuosity, but you almost don't notice that he's really talking about two forms: musical and verbal. That's because the inherent virtue of verbal virtuosity is assumed. (Sprechstimme is "safer" than singing?) And if you get the sense that Augustine is about to start separating the intellectual wheat from the chaff, you're right:
I am inclined—though I pronounce no irrevocable opinion on the subject—to approve of the use of singing in the church, so that by the delights of the ear the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional mood. Yet when it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned wickedly, and then I would rather not have heard the singing. See now what a condition I am in! Weep with me, and weep for me, those of you who can so control your inward feelings that good results always come forth. As for you who do not act this way at all, such things do not concern you. But do thou, O Lord, my God, give ear; look and see, and have mercy upon me; and heal me—thou, in whose sight I am become an enigma to myself; this itself is my weakness.
According to Augustine, music plays on "weaker minds," or in Augustine's case, on that part of his mind that is still weak. But then again, Augustine's primary weakness is that he is "an enigma to myself"—apparently, what troubles him about musical pleasure is that he can't get a handle on it, he's not sure how it works or why it happens. It's not only music itself that's too shifty for his taste, it's musical pleasure as well.

Now, Augustine is indulging in a kind of meta-version of what's called praeteritio—bringing something up by saying how you're not going to bring it up. (Example: I'd never stoop so low as to point out that Matthew's blog posts can often be too long.) Augustine is exorcising virtuosity by applying it. He tap-dances around the line between speech and song with such dexterity that by the time he reaches his summation—See now what a condition I am in!—we don't even notice that the seeming self-deprecation is actually an assertion of intellectual authority. It's OK if weak minds respond to singing, but when Augustine responds to it? He's "sinned wickedly." But, of course, he recognizes his sin, which at once sets him above the rabble while playing on our own vanity to support him. Those of us without such fault, weep for him. "As for those of you who do not act this way at all"—you can almost see Augustine working the audience, daring anyone to raise their hand. In admitting that he hasn't always practiced what he is now preaching, Augustine's preaching is more effective, not less. And the fact that his argument against virtuosity is, in fact, supremely virtuosic, well, somehow that ends up in his corner, too. Only a virtuoso can recognize such subtly pernicious virtuosity. Knowing enough to avoid what he knows: that's Augustine's main intellectual strategy throughout the entirety of the Confessions.

So where does Nadia Boulanger figure in all this? Via this old chestnut, which I have seen attributed to her more often than not—
To study, music, we must learn the rules; to create music, we must break them
—the holy-writ justification for every species counterpoint class since. But it's also a Hollywood-level cliché in composer biographies. Many composers are known for breaking with the past—but such composers always come pre-packaged with the necessary mastery of the past they broke with. Beethoven, we are often reminded, studied with Haydn and Albrechtsberger. Berlioz and Debussy both picked up their Prix de Rome. Schoenberg wrote theory textbooks. The leading contemporary example is John Adams: while the poetic impetus for his rejection of atonality may vary—hearing a Hendrix song blasting across Harvard yard? reading Silence? listening to Götterdämmerung while driving across California?—his thoroughly hexachordally combinatorial Harvard education remains a constant biographical presence.

Is this trope a hangover from Augustine? Probably. I mean, your average born-a-saint, stayed-a-saint, died-a-saint story? Boring. Sinner-turned-saint? Thanks to Augustine, a probable best-seller. An asserted virtue comes with more dramatic impact if it's the result of apostasy. The narrative even has a permanent place in the shaping of world history—remember the old Vulcan proverb that only Nixon could go to China. (I seem to recall an opera about that as well.)

Like Augustine said, "Grant me chastity, but not yet." At times in the Confessions, you almost get the sense that Augustine is going out of his way to maintain his sinful life, the better to eventually make a rhetorical example of his conversion in the telling. (Augustine as Nicely-Nicely Johnson.) Interestingly, the composer-biography version of that—Elliott Carter moving his ultra-modernist inclinations to the back burner while mastering Boulangerian neo-Classicism, George Gershwin sounding out both Boulanger and Ravel for lessons in Paris (both, recognizing the limits of Augustinian emulation, turned him down)—usually result in far less vehement rejection of past ways. (Carter, for example, has always extolled Boulanger—while, of course, deriding the conservative nature of his own Harvard education.) Some composers really want to learn the rules before they break them.

But most don't. The Boulanger prescription continues to be challenged (usually by students) and defended (usually by teachers). And yet the two-step seems to have a place on the dance card generation after generation. Maybe some people just take a while to decide what they want to do. Maybe some people just can't get energized about a new path unless they're simultaneously rejecting an old one. But maybe two millennia of redemption narratives have imperceptibly eroded the pathways of civilization into Augustinian channels. Make me a maverick—but not yet.

November 26, 2008


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day here in the US, which means, based on the day's most prevalent activity, giving thanks for being omnivorous. It also means, as usual, I'll make my yearly appeal for you to send the equivalent of your weekly coffee/burrito/gummi bear/ramen/"medicinal" marajuana budget to some organization that will help spread the virtues of said omnivorousness. (The local favorite here at Soho the Dog HQ is The Greater Boston Food Bank.) Not reading this until Friday? No problem—they can use the cash all year round.

Now, I also usually use this space to extol the virtues of my mom's stuffing, but for a little variety, here's a couple of recipes my grandmother used to win five-dollar prizes from the Chicago Tribune back when the estimable Mary Meade was their food editor.

Barbecue Beans

1 pound ground beef
1 medium-sized onion, chopped
2 tablespoons shortening
1 large can pork and beans
1 cup chili sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon pepper

Brown meat and onion in shortening [I would consider the shortening optional—M.G.]. Add remaining ingredients. Turn mixture into a casserole and bake in a moderate oven, 350 degrees, for 30 minutes.
(Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1947)

(Russian Dessert)

¾ pound cream cheese
½ cup butter
½ cup rich sour cream
½ cup sugar
1 cup almonds, chopped
¾ cup candied orange peel
1/3 cup seedless raisins

Cream butter and cream cheese until fluffy. Add remaining ingredients and mix until smooth. Pack in a mold and chill overnight. Unmold and serve with plain [whipped] cream or preserves.
(Chicago Tribune, June 15, 1948)

Note that the traditional mold for a paskha is a pyramid, but my grandmother was Irish, not Russian, and it's nowhere near Easter, so we won't stand on ceremony. The beans have long been a Guerrieri/Knop family gathering staple. A few years ago, it was dubbed "beefy beans" by my brother-in-law Mike, and the name stuck. Family lore also has my grandmother sending in the exact same bean recipe a few years later and winning another five bucks. I couldn't find evidence of this in the Tribune archives, but honestly, it wasn't all that straightforward finding these two recipes there, and I knew where to look. So we'll leave it at se è non vero, è ben trovato for this year.

November 25, 2008

I'll state my case, of which I'm certain

Reviewing the Borromeo Quartet.
Boston Globe, Novermber 27, 2008.

No, I'm not sure why it's dated the 27th. But it's up on the Web, so here it is.

Linkin' Portrait

Odd, pointless, and completely random: it seems that someone in the state of Nebraska's Office of the Chief Information Officer doesn't like Aaron Copland. Or, more likely, Aaron Copland was in the wrong place at the wrong time on a February night in 2007. According to WikiScanner, a slew of vandalism to Copland's Wikipedia article originated from an IP address in said office. Most of the edits are along the lines of changing Copland's name to "Cheesehead," and asserting that his parents owned a booger shop. One prank is unexpectedly poetic, though, changing
He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1925
He was eaten by a Guggenheim fellowship in 1925
Many an artist has been similarly consumed by high expectations.

They say he wandered very far

Reviewing the Boston Philharmonic.
Boston Globe, November 25, 2008.

November 24, 2008

Refrigerator car

I don’t get to spend as much time in train stations as I like—ah, the romance of travel—but last week I had occasion to pass through South Station, the main commuter-rail/Amtrak hub in Boston. And there’s an odd bit of sound design that’s been built into the place.

If you’re reasonably old, you remember the kinds of schedule boards they used to have in train stations, the ones where locations and numbers are printed on tiles that spin around whenever the sign is updated. They’re like giant versions of pre-LED digital alarm clocks. (The technical name for them is a “split-flap” display.) South Station still has a couple of those boards, but they’re not in use, having been replaced by a giant digital LED board.

But this is what’s weird—there’s a speaker mounted near the board, and every time it (silently) updates, the speaker pipes in the clacking sound of the rotating tiles on an old-fashioned board. (It turns out the Globe reported on this feature back in 2006—as far as I know, it's still unique.) If you grew up with the old boards, you hear the sound, you look up to see what’s changed. But we’re now into generations that will be mystified as to why board updates are announced with this strange rattle of percussion. (There weren't that many of the old generations, actually—split-flap signs didn't become common until the 1950s.)

There is, I imagine, an entire category of sounds like this, technically obsolete but still hanging on (for another example, I can set my mobile phone ringtone to a recording of an old-time telephone bell). I wonder if these sounds will become the aural equivalent of particularly obscure sayings or turns of phrase, where the colloquial meaning still remains widely intelligible even as the literal meaning becomes increasingly baffling.

November 20, 2008

Zip! Toscanini leads the greatest of bands

The big time-sink news this week was that Google has begun to digitize the Life magazine photo archive. Will this result in anything actually productive? Well, it does allow us to catch a diva in a little white lie....

From Anna Moffo's New York Times obituary:
Ms. Moffo caused a scandal in Italy when she appeared to be nude in a scene in the film "Una Storia d'Amore." In later years she insisted that she had not been totally unclothed.
Oh, really? Link NSFW, unless you've fallen through a wormhole into Alma Mahler's house. Which reminds me—Alma Mahler!

Take me to a zoo that's got chimpanzees

Ah, memes—the selfish genes of the digital genome. The current entry:

The rules:
1. Link to your tagger and list these rules on your blog. I was tagged by Lisa Hirsch and Dick Strawser.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog - some random, some weird.
3. Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blog.
4. Let them know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.
5. If you don't have 7 blog friends, or if someone else already took dibs, then tag some unsuspecting strangers.

Given that the very fabric of the blogosphere is held together by over-sharing, I think seven unknown random facts is a pretty ambitious request. But here goes:

1. I know way more about T. E. Lawrence than I'll ever have any chance to use.

2. I once played one of the Three Slaves in a production of Die Zauberflöte that left in all the dialogue for the Three Slaves. I think the director regretted it.

3. I can raise one eyebrow. I taught myself to do this because my dad can do it. He still does it better than me.

4. Instruments I have played in public at one time or another, all badly:
  • Harp
  • Double bass
  • Alto saxophone
  • Xylophone
  • Guitar (in character, as Friedrich von Trapp)
5. I once dropped Lucy Shelton on the floor while swing dancing.

6. On a family trip to Washington, D.C., I was the only one who took the Pentagon tour.

7. I cut my own hair.

Tag seven people? Man, this meme is a lot of work. OK—Kyle, Molly, Darcy, Hester, Mark, Andrew, and Richard: you're it.

November 14, 2008

Always look on the bright side of life

Some cold-war era cheerful absurdity as I psych myself up for a long working weekend: Bill Haley and the Comets with their 1954 last-male-survivor-of-a-nuclear-blast masterpiece "Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)." (Amazingly, "Rock Around the Clock" was originally released as the B-side to "Thirteen Women.")

As a footnote, a 1966 film made by freakbeat band The Renegades to promote their cover of "Thirteen Women."

November 12, 2008

We can hardly stand the wait

If you're one of those that enjoys the stately passing of the seasons, likes to take the time to appreciate each unique moment, believes in each day having its own dignity, &c.—in other words, if you're like me, and think that a certain December holiday's backwards creep into more and more of the calendar is an abomination, you might remember to send a fruitcake to the good officers at the Boston Police Department, who share your pain.
At about 4:04 am, on Saturday, November 8, 2008, officers from Area C-6 (South Boston) responded to a radio call for loud music in the area of 5 Shepton Terrace. On arrival, officers spoke to several residents who stated that one of the tenants was playing his music much too loud. As officers approached the location in question, officers could hear Christmas music being played at an unnecessarily loud level. When the tenant answered the door, officers instructed him to lower the music due to calls made to 9-1-1. Officers further advised the tenant that people were having difficulty sleeping due the loud Christmas music. With the music turned down, officers left the location. However, a short time later, officers were called back to the same address for the same reason (noise complaint). Upon arrival, officers were able to hear the loud Christmas music. When officers knocked on the door, the tenant answered the door and began swearing at the officers.
November 8, mind you. He can't even make the Russian old calendar/new calendar argument.

Maybe there's actually a rhythmic lesson here. If you're right in the groove (carols on December 25th), it's OK; if you're sufficiently behind the beat (Christmas in July), it's a pleasant syncopation. But forty-seven three-hundred-sixty-fifths of a beat early? Throws everything off.

November 11, 2008

The Remembrance Ceremony

The last Christmas party at our home was that of 1916. Then in 1917 Walker was training at Camp Dix and we all went out with his mother and spent Christmas Day at an inn near by to which he could come. There was rumor everywhere that his regiment was to embark for overseas in a few days, although he really did not sail until May. We all did our best to make it gay in that hotel dining-room, the rain falling dismally. We were so proud of our young khaki-uniformed lieutenant! My Polly played and played, rags, anything and everything, on the old hotel piano. We did not know it was to be our last happy Christmas together, but war had already given to joy a kind of yearning anguish.

My nephew was killed on the 18th of the following September, 1918, at Saint-Mihiel. Reconnoitring to assure the safety of his men, he leaped a fence to join three fellow officers. A shell tore them to pieces. This was in the early afternoon. Walker was taken to a field hospital and died at eleven that night.

—Walter Damrosch, My Musical Life (1923)

Damrosch's nephew was Walker Blaine Beale, grandson of former Secretary of State James G. Blaine. Damrosch spent the summer of 1918 in France as a war worker under the auspices of the YMCA, conducting orchestral concerts as an outgrowth of his presidency of the American Friends of Musicians in France, and, at the instigation of General Charles Dawes, advising General Pershing on the development of Army bands.

November 10, 2008

Don't quit your day job

Music news from the multiply-employed:

Physicist/composer Paul Sutton hears a particularly important song newly recorded.

A nice profile of Israeli organist/composer/trash collector Roman Krasnovsky.

Over the weekend, musician/trainer Enzo Calzaghe saw his best pupil, his son Joe, win quite possibly his last fight, a unanimous decision against Roy Jones Jr. to retain the Ring Light Heavyweight title and improve to 46-0 as a professional boxer.

And R.I.P. to the legendary singer/activist Miriam Makeba, who passed away yesterday after suffering a heart attack at the end of a concert performance. Here she is in Stockholm in 1966, singing "When I've Passed On." (With the incomparable Sivuca on accordion.)

November 08, 2008

Tiny Bubbles

For the record: the New York City Opera-Gerard Mortier saga, in relation to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. (Click to enlarge.)

November 07, 2008

To shave-a da face

No real post today, as I'm too tired from wrestling Critic-at-Large Moe into tonsorial submission. However, those in the Boston area can see yours truly wrestle a live accordion tonight, part of a recital by soprano Rebekah Alexander to benefit the HOPE Initiative. The show begins at 8:00 PM at Boston University's Marsh Chapel; suggested donation is $10 to $20.

Seriously—an hour-and-a-half to give that dog a haircut. What is this, Samson et Dalila?

November 06, 2008

November 04, 2008

The Audacity of Hatiḳṿah

Reviewing the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's "Israel at 60" concert.
Boston Globe, November 4, 2008.

Early voting

Reviewing the Sarasa Ensemble.
Boston Globe, November 4, 2008.

Fellow cats, mesh your gears / Won't you lend your politic ears?

A couple of pies waiting at home for my lovely wife, spending the day doing last-minute get-out-the-vote canvassing in New Hampshire. The one on the left is supposed to have the Obama logo in the center, but it's somewhat obscured due to my filling it with way too many blueberries, which overflowed the vents. (Insert your own joke about liberal profligacy here.) On the right: a sour cream pumpkin pie. I may be an elitist, but not too much of one for The Joy of Cooking: those pie recipes never let me down.

Wash down the past two years' electioneering follies with this purplish and thus bi-partisan concoction. The scotch gives it a vague sort of toasty, pancake-y vibe; hence the name.

Morning in America

1½ oz. blueberry juice
½ oz. Cointreau
½ oz. scotch whisky
Champagne, chilled

Shake the first three ingredients with ice and strain into a champagne flute. Top off with champagne. (I like a relatively sweet, vanilla-overtoned scotch; if your single-malts are on the peaty side, maybe try some Johnnie Walker Black instead. If you're working with blueberry juice cocktail, perhaps add a touch of lemon juice if it's too sweet.)

And, whatever your persuasion, get out and vote! Even if you cynically doubt its actual efficacy, you'll at least be a player in one of the largest regularly scheduled productions of street theater ever conceived.

One more thing: let's not forget... the farmer:

November 02, 2008

Joe the Plumber

Josef Haydn the Plumber
As it turns out, "Joe's" real name is Franz, he's not a licensed plumber, and he isn't even registered to vote. However, he would pay no taxes at all under either candidate's plan, since he's been dead since 1809.

Still, as is seemingly customary in such situations, he is being pursued for a possible record deal.

October 31, 2008

Many happy returns of the day


WHITE PLAINS, NEW YORK, April 14.—Mr. Percy Grainger, the composer who died on February 20, specified in his will, which was filed for probate today, that his skeleton go to the University of Melbourne, Australia, "for preservation and possible display in the Grainger museum".
Mr. Grainger's instructions concerning his skeleton have not yet been carried out; whether they will be is still questionable. A friend said that Mr. Grainger's widow had flown to Australia with the body soon after the death, and it had been buried at her request in a coffin beside that of his mother in Adelaide.

The Times of London, April 15, 1961

Alas, Grainger's vaguely Benthamite wishes were, indeed, ignored. The University of Melbourne does have his death mask, though.

October 30, 2008

Majestic 12

Tune in to Counterstream Radio this evening at 9:00 Eastern, and you can hear yours truly free-associating about "American Serialism," the first in Counterstream's "Crash Courses in New Music." Babbitt, Martino, Wuorinen, Powell—the gang's all here, and just in time for Hallowe'en. (If you can't tune in tonight, you can catch it again Sunday afternoon at 3—it's also available on demand.)

Future installations include Kyle Gann on Minimalism, Tom Lopez on acousmatic music, and Lara Pellegrinelli (aka Dr. LP) on the new jazz. (Great big thanks to Molly Sheridan for shepherding the thing through, and Corey Dargel for deftly assembling and mixing down a script with a density of montage that would have made Eisenstein blush.)

October 29, 2008

There's always room for

Reviewing Steven Isserlis and Jeremy Denk.
Boston Globe, October 29, 2008.

Local readers are highly encouraged to head back to the Gardner museum this Sunday (11/2) at 1:30, when Jeremy Denk will be bringing his Evel Knievel "Concord" Sonata-Hammerklavier program to Boston. Also: I can't possibly be the first person to notice this, but it's downright uncanny how much Isserlis in performance looks like Roger Daltrey in Tommy.

October 28, 2008


If you can't figure out my politics, you're just not paying attention, but this space tends to be non-partisan; like I've said before, as important as it is, politics is a lousy way to pick your friends. But I will make one public endorsement this cycle, and that's to encourage everyone in California to vote no on Proposition 8, which would rescind the right of gay couples in that state to marry. (Similar measures are on the ballot in Florida and Arizona.) I make this endorsement—stuck here in Massachusetts, I can't actually vote against the thing—because, honestly, I can't think of any reason for anyone of any political persuasion who believes in the virtues of a democratic republic to object to gay marriage. Except homophobia. Which I won't dignify with a response. Beyond that one, anyway. But if you need more convincing:
If you're a liberal: Come on, it's a straight-up civil-rights issue. It's the foam on your vote-for-Obama latte! It's the... look, just get some clichés from your nearest wingnut and fill in the blanks. And vote, OK?

If you're a conservative: Do you really want the government telling you who you can and can't marry? That's the first step down a slippery slope leading to, um, progressive taxation!

If you're a member of the Thermodynamic Law Party: Without institutionalized marriage keeping open the possibility of energy exchange with the rest of society, gay couples will become adiabatically closed systems, preventing them from importing negentropy and thereby increasing, not decreasing, the entropy of such non-traditional but long-standing family units.

If you're a Narodnik: You know the Tsar would have been for Prop 8.

If you just don't like gay people: You know who I just don't like? Baal-worshiping smooth-jazz fans. There, I said it. I'm not proud of it, but there it is. And I still don't see where I get the authority to tell two Baal-worshiping smooth-jazz fans that they can't marry each other.

If you're a musician: Then this is the closest to a pandering pocketbook issue you're going to get in this election cycle. A "no" vote means that many more wedding gigs. Or do you want to give up jobs in the middle of a recession?
In all seriousness, if you at all value the idea of personal responsibility, as even this incurable lefty does, I would think that preventing any two consenting adults from legally and publicly confirming their commitment to each other should seem at least a little counter-productive. Here in Massachusetts, gay marriage has neither a) devalued or undermined my own straight marriage, or b) unraveled the fabric of society. In fact, four years later, it's exactly what it should be: a non-issue.

Also: Critic-at-Large Moe encourages Massachusetts residents to vote Yes on 3.

October 24, 2008

Principal products of Padania

In lieu of actual work: random things named after Verdi's Nabucco:

The Raymond Weil "Nabucco Cuore Caldo" watch.

Nabucco Island resort, off the coast of Indonesia.

The DeLonghi BCO70 Caffe Nabucco espresso/coffeemaker.

The CMA CGM container ship Nabucco.

The Salvatore Ferragamo 'Nabucco' sandal.

The EU's proposed Nabucco gas pipeline. Okay, this last one isn't entirely random—it's supposed to echo the theme of freedom and independence (in this case, from reliance on Russian natural gas fields). But really—a gas pipeline into the heart of Europe named for an opera about exiled Jews? Really?

October 23, 2008

Variations (7): Culture wars edition

WILLIAMS: Who is a member of the elite?

PALIN: Oh, I guess just people who think that they're better than anyone else. And-- John McCain and I are so committed to serving every American. Hard-working, middle-class Americans who are so desiring of this economy getting put back on the right track. And winning these wars. And America's starting to reach her potential. And that is opportunity and hope provided everyone equally. So anyone who thinks that they are-- I guess-- better than anyone else, that's-- that's my definition of elitism.

WILLIAMS: So it's not education? It's not income-based? It's--

PALIN: Anyone who thinks that they're better than someone else.

WILLIAMS: --a state of mind? It's not geography?

PALIN: 'Course not.

WILLIAMS: Senator?

MCCAIN: I-- I know where a lot of 'em live. (LAUGH)

WILLIAMS: Where's that?

MCCAIN: Well, in our nation's capital and New York City. I've seen it. I've lived there. I know the town. I know-- I know what a lot of these elitists are. The ones that she never went to a cocktail party with in Georgetown. I'll be very frank with you. Who think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves.

—Brian Williams interviewing John McCain and Sarah Palin,
NBC Nightly News, October 23, 2008 (via)

While     I     was     studying     the     frozen
   food     department     of     Gristede’s     one
    day,                                Mrs.     Elliott
    Carter     came     up                and     said,
                               “Hello,     John.
                                   I     thought     you
    touched     only     fresh     foods.”
     I     said,                                 “All
  you     have     to     do     is     look     at
  them                and     then     you     come
  over     here.”                She     said,
                         “Elliott     and     I     have
    just     gotten     back     from     Europe.
                                         We’d     sublet
    to     some     intellectuals                 whose
    names     I     won’t     mention.
                               They     had     been
 eating      those      platters                  with
     all      sorts      of      food      on      them.”
                 I      said,
         “Not      TV      dinners?”
 She      said,                                      “Yes,
                                     I       found
them       stuffed       around        everywhere.”

—John Cage, Indeterminacy

October 22, 2008

Can't tell the players without

Here's something to while away your entire day: while trying to track down a quotation source, I stumbled across the fact that Google Books includes, for some reason, three runs of Boston Symphony Orchestra programs from the 1910-11, 1917-18, and 1918-19 seasons. You could be diligent and read all the Philip Hale program notes, but me? I'm too busy perusing vintage ads. The Roland Hayes recital above (with special guest Harry T. Burleigh—I absolutely would have been in line for tickets to that one) dates from 1917. The two below come from the 1918-19 programs, amidst a plethora of ads pitching housewares to returning soldiers.

And here's a couple from the 1910 season—first, accessories for the well-dressed concertgoer:

And finally, commercial launderers and longtime BSO program-book advertisers Lewandos:

Yes, their corporate image is a cat scrubbing baby chicks in a washtub and then pinning them up by their wings to dry. Stare at that long enough, and the advent of Expressionism starts to make a lot more sense, doesn't it?

October 21, 2008

In core scolpiti ho quegli accenti!

Last week Mark Adamo took John Adams' Doctor Atomic, currently in its Met premiere run, to task:
But as written, Doctor Atomic is approximate where it should be precise, airily literary where it should be riskily personal: for musical characterization it substitutes remembered manners, and for political confrontation it offers chocolate cake.... How disappointing, then, that the first American opera on so complex and incendiary a subject should prove so obvious, so evasive, and thus—of all things—so safe.
This is not a post about Doctor Atomic, of which I have not heard enough yet to form a responsible opinion; this is a post about Giuseppe Verdi. But Adamo's ideas, whether you buy his assessment or not, make for a good serendipitous frame—because I think one of Verdi's greatest achievements is something that Adamo seems to be hinting at: an impeccable skill for distinguishing between the most obvious way to musicalize a scene and the most direct way.

A few weeks back, my lovely wife and I hit the theater for the Met's high-def simulcast of their opening gala—an act each of La Traviata, Manon, and Capriccio. Verdi—as he is wont to do—ended up making the other two composers seem a little self-indulgent and amateurish, for all the pleasure they provide (and I bow to no one in my gleeful wallowing in late Strauss). And it's all because of knowing this difference between obvious and direct.

Traviata is actually a great example of this, because given the plot—passionate, melodramatic, full of sharp interactions between characters—the obvious treatment, letting the music magnify and amplify the characters' inner emotional lives throughout, would probably work just fine. But at crucial points throughout the opera, Verdi doesn't do this.

Take that ball scene in Act II, the most emotionally fraught point in the piece. Germont père has convinced Violetta to leave Alfredo—to preserve the family honor—so she writes a "Dear Alfredo" letter that falsely claims her ardor for him has cooled, so Alfredo rushes off to Paris in a rage to confront her at said ball. What always strikes me about this scene is how long Verdi sticks with the party music, even as the emotional water boils. But what he's doing is setting up the climax—Alfredo calling out Violetta in public, for which Germont scolds his son. But note exactly how he scolds him: he doesn't say stop being cruel, or even you don't know the real story—the secret remains safe with him, at least for the time being. What he does say is this: That is not how a gentleman behaves. And that's the key to the whole scene—Verdi has been musically showing us how a gentleman does behave, lulling us into a sense of the social milieu Alfredo, Violetta, and Germont are navigating. And the climax makes us realize how restrictively shallow and repressed it is—Alfredo's breach of decorum is made startling and shocking enough to drive home what the lovers' relationship is up against.

Instead of telegraphing the characters' emotions, Verdi is focusing like a laser on the central conflict of the plot, the societal restrictions that prevent Alfredo and Violetta from their own happiness. What Verdi knows—and, in retrospect, what he makes us realize—is that the real linchpin isn't Violetta's giving up of Alfredo, it's that she agrees to do it. The heartbreak is that she's trapped in a world where Germont's argument actually makes sense—once she sees his point, and once we see that she sees his point, doom settles over the whole story with far more devastation than if Verdi had solely focused on the individual emotional turmoil. Because the most important dramatic engine, the most powerful one, is not between the characters themselves, but between the characters and their social standing. The tragedy is not the loss—it's the inevitability.

Verdi could expertly let the characters take the lead when that was the most direct route—witness Falstaff, after all—but it's his ruthless rejection of the diluted obvious that makes him such an expert at delineating plots about people who are trapped, existential no-exit nightmares. Macbeth, Don Carlos, Aida—no one cuts to the characters' helpless quick like Verdi. For him, tragedy isn't something that sneaks up, or hangs in the background—it's a smart bomb, aimed directly at human illusions of happiness and control, with the music guiding it to the dead center of the target.

October 20, 2008

The trees they grow so high

Five years later Worcester was to be the scene of a still greater and more important conflict, Cromwell's "crowning mercy," the decisive struggle of the great Civil War. King Charles II., with an army drawn from Scotland, took up his position in Worcester on the 22nd of August, 1651, first expelling a small garrison of Parliamentary troops then occupying the city. Reinforcements arrived from the county around, most of the local gentry and their followers flocking to the banner of the King, but even with this augmentation his forces only amounted to about 12,000 all told. Six days later, that is, on the 28th, Cromwell appeared before the walls of the city with 18,000 men, and fixed his headquarters at Spetchley, then, as now, the property of the Berkeley family.

—Bertram C.A. Windle, The Malvern Country

Towards the end of October we went to Malvern Wells, and, on our way there, spent two very pleasant days at Spetchley Park, where [Lady Chatterton] heard Mass for the first time (her health not permitting her to do so before), and where we met the Bishop. It had been our intention to go farther, and the plan of our journey was sketched out; but her protracted struggles against interior influences adverse to her aspirations, her nature, her happiness had undermined her health. It is not till the ship is safe in port that the damage done by wind and waves can be fully estimated.

—Edward Heneage Dering, Memoirs of Georgiana, Lady Chatterton

One of the several Catholic schools to which the young Elgar was sent was at Spetchley Park, a few miles west of Worcester. The schoolhouse was set in an estate belonging to an old Catholic family, and the spacious grounds again contained tall pine trees. Almost ninety years later, the critic Ernest Newman recalled: 'Elgar told me that as a boy he used to gaze from the school windows in rapt wonder at the great trees in the park swaying in the wind; and he pointed out to me a passage in Gerontius in which he had recorded in music his subconscious memories of them.'

—Matthew Riley, Edward Elgar and the Nostalgic Imagination

A DISPUTE over sycamore trees in a Malvern garden has led to accusations of heavy handedness being made against Malvern Hills District Council.
West Malvern composer Paul Farrer contacted the Malvern Hills Conservators after becoming concerned that the trees blocked sunlight and posed a hazard because of their size.
He sought advice on how to approach the trimming of the trees and whether there were any officials channels he must go through to employ a tree surgeon.
His e-mail was passed on to district council planning officers, who placed a tree preservation order on them.
Mr Farrer, of Westminster Bank, said: “I have only ever been concerned about the height of these trees and I am very worried about them.
“I have no idea if they pose a danger to me or to members of the public if the wind picks up and, in my view, MHDC’s actions have deliberately contributed to increasing the danger by telling me that if I trim them I go to prison.
“Do the heavy-handed and dangerous actions here not engender a culture of trying to keep the council out of our lives as much as is possible?
"This is a gross invasion of privacy and one I intend to fight.”

Malvern Gazette, October 20, 2008