Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Mister Rogers Who Saw Us

This New York Times article about Fred Rogers is a beautiful portrait of a beautiful human being, written by a person who had the great good fortune to be a co-worker and a close family friend.

When I was a child we didn't have a television. But I was able to occasionally watch Mister Rogers' Neighborhood at a friend's house. I was skeptical. I remember hating Lady Elaine. She was scary and ugly, and she had my name. I didn't like that. I remember having a hard time trusting Mister Rogers, and remember wondering how a grown-up person could be so, well, nice. I confess that I had little to do with "the neighborhood" during my childhood. My cousins liked Mister Rogers very much. I just didn't trust grown-ups who were nice.

But when I grew up and became a parent, Fred Rogers became a fixture in our house. Michael always liked him, and through the experience of raising children with Michael, I learned to trust Mister Rogers. Then, once I started watching his operas, I started to love Mister Rogers. Perhaps it was a little late, but I was able to benefit from the experience of knowing Mister Rogers through the television during a kind of second childhood: the one I was living with my children. Better late than never, right?

From this article I now understand that he was making his show for grown-ups as well as for children. How many of us grown-ups can relate to this:
“It’s so very hard, receiving,” he said. “When you give something, you’re in much greater control. But when you receive something, you’re so vulnerable.

“I think the greatest gift you can ever give is an honest receiving of what a person has to offer.”
or this:
“I think that the need to create has to do with a gap,” he said. “A gap between what is and what might be. Or what you’d like to be. I think that the need to create is the need to bridge that gap. And I do believe it’s a universal need. Unless there is somebody out there who feels that what is, is also what might be.

“I don’t know anybody who has complete satisfaction with everything. Do you?”
or this:
“There are those of us who have been deprived of human confidence. Those who have not been able to develop the conviction that they have anything of value within. Their gap is rather a chasm. And they most often despair of creating any bridges to the land of what might be. They were not accepted as little children. … They were never truly loved by any important human other. … And so it seems to me that the most essential element in the development of any creation, any art or science, must be love. A love that begins with the simple expressions of care for a little child.

“When people help us to feel good about who we are, they are really helping us to love the meaning of what we create.”
and this:
“It’s so hard, isn’t it?” he said. “I think there are many people who bring a whole lot of baggage from their past and a whole lot of anxiety about the future to the present moment. What’s so great is that people can be in relationship with each other for the now.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“If we can somehow rid ourselves of illusions,” he said. “The illusion that we are greater or lesser than we are. The illusion that we’re going to save the world. There are a lot of illusions that people walk around with. I would love to be able to be present in every moment I have.”

I have been working on a post about seeing and being seen (and heard and being heard), and in it I mention that images we see on television are not seeing us. But maybe Fred Rogers is different. Maybe he was seeing us: a greater, needier, truly collective "us," and, maybe, by doing so he was teaching that "us" to learn to trust that there is goodness in the world.

BONUS:

I'm just leaving this bit of Fred Rogers here to watch after reading the article:

Saturday, November 16, 2019

A Fan Letter to Papa Haydn

Dear Papa Haydn,

I am so grateful for your string quartets. My first experience with them was playing viola in your Opus 33 and Opus 76 quartets, and the experience of playing them gave me the courage to start composing. I know I am not alone. You would blush if you knew how much influence you have had among composers and quartet players all over the world, and throughout three centuries. It hasn't always been rosy. You would be shocked to learn the fate and checkered history of what happened with the theme you wrote for the exquisite set of variations in the "Kaiser" Quartet.

Though I am a professional violist (i.e. I make money playing the viola), I consider myself an amateur violinist. A couple of years ago I started playing with a group of amateur adults, none of whom had ever played in a string quartet before. Our plan was to play through all of your string quartets in the order they were published. Playing the first violin parts in your string quartets has been my first (and best) experience playing chamber music as a violinist. Some of those first violin parts are really tricky, and it takes a lot of ingenuity to figure out fingerings that work. Some of the solutions, which end up being the ONLY practical solutions, border on silliness. When I finally figure out the left-hand puzzle, I feel like I'm exchanging smiles with you across the centuries and continents. It's nice to know that some things, like the navigation of the violin fingerboard, never change.

Every time we meet to play one of your Quartets it is an adventure! And the adventure becomes more and more exotic and more and more rewarding. Everybody is becoming more familiar with the idiom that you took from being an entertaining pastime for musicians to a vehicle that makes possible the highest level of sophistication in their musical discourse. You have given us musical material that amuses us AND makes us think.

Today we read the F minor Quartet, Opus 20, No. 5, the one with the double fugue and the pastorale Adagio with the extremely florid first violin part. It is our favorite quartet so far, and I imagine that it will remain a favorite forever. I was following the score for the fugue. Some members of this quartet of novices, who are still cutting their quartet teeth (on your quartets), can find it difficult to count rests and come in at the right time. But everybody came in correctly when we read the fugue today. The writing compelled us to do so.

We will play the fugue (and the rest of the Quartet) with a little more tempo when we next meet.

See you in the ether!

Your devoted fan,

Elaine Fine

P.S. Now, after learning Opus 17, and embarking on a study of Opus 20, I have a feeling that Mozart might have been impressed by them as well as the Opus 33 quartets that compelled him to write the set of quartets he dedicated to you. I also have a feeling that Beethoven might have had some fascination for Opus 17, particularly the fifth quartet, the one in G major. The recitative sections of G minor Adagio seem to have "informed" the opening of the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. If, as some imagine, you have some access to him in your version of an after-life, you might point that out to him. Tell him that it is fairly obvious to those of us who play your quartets.

P.P.S. You would laugh if you could see the way your quartets have been numbered and collected. Each quartet holds at least three numbers: the opus, the number according to the first published editions, and the number used by Anthony van Hoboken, who spent from 1934 until 1978 re-cataloging your work.

P.P.P.S Our oldest granddaughter calls my husband (her grandfather) "Papa."

Thursday, November 14, 2019

A brief look into Ethel Smyth's Leipzig



John David and I will be performing this viola transcription of Ethel Smyth's Opus 5 Cello Sonata in March. I made the transcription this past summer, and John David and I played it for the first time yesterday. It is just too good a piece to keep to myself until March, so I just put it in the IMSLP. You can find it here. You can also find free digital copies of Ethel Smyth's various memoirs on these pages in the Internet Archive.

I was deeply impressed by Smyth's descriptions of life in Leipzig when I read her memoirs some twenty-five years ago, but I did not know many of the "players" at that time (aside from Brahms, of course, and Reinecke). Now that I have encountered many of those people through their music, re-visiting Smyth's writing (and playing her music) gives me a clearer and deeper picture of Leipzig during the last decades of the 19th-century.

Smyth grew up in England arrived at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1877 to study composition with Carl Reinecke. She found the Conservatory disappointing.
At the time I signed on as a pupil of the Conservatorium, that institution was merely trading on its Mendelssohnian reputation, though of course we in England did not know that. . . . The lessons with Reinecke were rather a farce; he was one of those composers who turn out music by the yard without effort or inspiration, the only emotion connected with them being the ever-boiling fury of his third wife--a tall, thin woman with a mop of frizzy black hair--at the world's preferring Brahms's music to that of her adored husband.

Like most of her contemporaries, Smyth admired Brahms. She had a letter of introduction to Brahms from the singer and conductor George Henschel from December 28, 1877:
The bearer of this [letter] is a jolly English girl, Miss Smyth, as talented as she is amusing. She wrote some quite charming little songs, even before she had had any lessons, and she is burning with longing to say just one word to you, or better still to hear you say it. Grant her that word, even if it were only, "Get out of here!"

Besides all this she jumps over chairs, back and all, rides, hunts, fishes, swims, etc., etc. The Härtels, through whom she hoped to see you, are in Leipzig momentarily, and therefore I have taken the liberty of sending these lines of introduction, whose purpose would be fulfilled, I am told, by one word from you.
With devoted greetings, always your

Henschel

Along with getting to know Brahms, Smyth became very close with Heinrich von Herzogenberg (who became her teacher when she left the Conservatory) and his wife Elizabeth, with whom Smyth fell head-over-heels in love. Brahms also adored "Frau Lisl." Smyth's feelings about Brahms were mixed.
[Brahms] was extraordinarily kind and fatherly to me; yet I cannot say I really liked or felt happy with him, though if ever he was to be seen at his best it was in that house. A salient trait of his was the greediness I consider one of the hallmarks of the true artist . . . I think what chiefly angered me was his views on women.

Brahms, as artist and bachelor, was free to adopt what may be called the poetical variant of the Kinder, Kirche, Küche axiom, namely that women are playthings. He made one or two exceptions, as such men will, and chief among these was Lisl, to whom his attitude was perfect . . . reverential, admiring and affectionate, without a tinge of amorousness. It specially melted him that she was such a spendid Hausfrau, and during his visits she was never happier than when concocting some exquisite dish to set before the king; like a glorified Frau Röntgen she would come in, flushed with stooping over the range, her golden hair wavier than ever from the heat, and cry, "Begin that movement again; that much you owe me!" and Brahms's worship would flame up in unison with the blaze in the kitchen. In short he was adorable with Lisl.

Brahms also tried to charm Lili Wach (1845-1910), the youngest daughter of Felix Mendelssohn, but Wach was not impressed with Brahms's manner. Smyth's recollections of Wach are the only recollections I have been able to find.

Smyth's Cello Sonata was published in 1887 as Opus 5. She had been steeped in the personal/musical culture of Leipzig for a decade, and you can hear the clear influence of Johannes Brahms and both Clara and Robert Schumann in this early work. It is also not dissimilar in organization and quality to the music of Amanda Maier, who was part of the Brahms/
Herzogenberg circle of friends. Maier was married to the pianist and composer Julius Röntgen, who was the cousin of Julius Klengel, who spent a lot of time, along with his violist-violinist brother Paul, playing chamber music at "papa" Engelbert Röntgen's home. Smyth studied violin with Engelbert Röntgen, who had had also been Amanda Maier's violin teacher. Cousin Julius Klengel was the dedicatee of Smyth's Opus 5 Sonata.

I kind of have an inkling that Smyth, who was not a cellist, might have worked some of this Opus 5 Sonata out on the viola. It just seems so nicely at home on the instrument.

The Rewind: Ben shows us about how photos are used in documentaries

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Daffodil Perspective

Elizabeth de Brito of The Daffodil Perspective hosts a UK-based streaming radio program that plays recordings of classical music from the past 400 years. She gives equal time to music by male and female composers. As far as I know, she is the first person to do this over any extended period of time.

Here's a graphic of what she has done this year (you can click for a larger view).



One of her goals is to "rewrite the past." I don't think that the past can be re-written, because the "past" was never "written" in the first place. I still appreciate the gesture.

I have added Elizabeth's blog to the sidebar, and will be following her progress over the next year.

Hierarchy, musical and otherwise (a ramble)

I have been trying to write about hierarchy in music for quite a while, but I always find myself stumped, because I don't believe I actually understand what hierarchy is. I recently read that hierarchy is the way that men organize the world, but I don't totally buy it. Perhaps it works in some professions, but not in others. The idea that one adult person can actually be considered "better" (a more reliable player, perhaps, a person who arrives on time, perhaps, a person who is flexible with rehearsal time, perhaps) than another still baffles me, even though I have encountered it (and have been alternately attracted and repelled by it) for half a century.

I have always thought of imposing a hierarchy on a group of people as a childish way of organizing a world where s/he doesn't have much say in how things are going. My first encounter with hierarchy was as a kid violinist in all-city elementary school orchestra. My second year I was in the first violin section, so I childishly believed that I was "better" than the kids in the second violins. I also knew that since I was judged to be equal to my stand partner (who grew up to be a stellar violinist), I figured that I must have been as good as he was. He was my measuring stick. But those kids who sat on the first stand were a different kind of better. And I had no idea how to bridge that gap. My older brother was that "different kind of better," and I just assumed that it was an inborn trait.

I was an awfully competitive kid. In elementary school one of my goals was to read every book in the library. Another goal was to be the strongest kid in my school, and the time when my name was at the very top of the "monkey club" because of my prowess at climbing ropes, was one of the great achievements of my childhood.

When it came to school plays, I was never the princess. That role, and roles like it, were all given to girls who were prettier and more feminine than me. And once I was in junior high school, with its ample opportunities for being in after-school shows, I found myself to be cast as a member of the chorus. I knew every line of every show, and went to every rehearsal, but was never one of the people prized for their on-stage abilities.

In high school, as a flutist, I never ventured beyond the orchestra pit, but I set my musical sights high. I noticed that my flute-playing peers practiced, and I figured that if I practiced all the time, I could become a really good flutist. Great, even. There was no other option. I woke every morning at 5:00, practiced scales and arpeggios in the basement until 7:10, and then went off to school. I practiced at school during my free periods, and then practiced after school. Sometimes I went to concerts after dinner (Boston University and the New England Conservatory were a trolley ride away, and I might have read and done homework on the trolley) and sometimes I practiced into the night. I was driven to succeed.

But it wasn't until I returned to string playing after devoting sixteen years to the flute that I found any musical happiness.

I also found musical hierarchy again. I found string players who judged themselves by where they were seated in the section, and I found string players judging me for where I was seated in a section. Once when I played an Ellington program at the University of Illinois and was seated as principal viola (probably because I was the only grown-up amid a bunch of students), one of the section mates told me what an honor it was for her to play in my section, and how much she could learn from me because I knew so much about the music.

(You can all laugh here--I knew very little about the idiom, but the viola parts were easy and clearly bowed. This person was clearly doing what she thought she should do in order to get "ahead.")

After that experience I started noticing some social hierarchies that unfolded in orchestral situations. But those social musical hierarchies were happening in a "world" where everyone is insecure. And musicians who are not insecure about their playing are sometimes insecure about interacting socially. But among young people in their "pre-career" phase of musical life, I still find a deep love for music, though they might not want to reveal it to the casual section mate, for fear of seeming unprofessional. Then there are also issues of ego, passive-aggressive behavior, and the occasional narcissist-in-training to deal with from time to time.

If hierarchy is a male way of organizing the world, I don't think it applies to the musical organizations I participate in. There are more women than men in my day-to-day world of music, and there are more people who do not to ascribe to typical gender-based norms.

The musical possibilities for the listener have exploded lately. Even within the confines of European music from the 16th through the 18th centuries, there is more available to hear than ever before. And now we are hearing music by women from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries that rivals the music written by men from the same periods in quality. I still notice that adults (mostly non-musicians) who "consume" music (i.e. go to concerts) often choose their concerts by hierarchy: a known ensemble in a big hall, wins out over a lesser-known ensemble in a church somewhere, and known repertoire wins out over music that may be unfamiliar. My youngest brother, who goes to as many concerts as he can in the Greater Boston Area, which often means five or more times per week, has started organizing his concert-going by the ease of driving and of parking. That makes sense to me.

And then there's the musical social media world. Like in any field, a presence in the big social media apps (you know, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) is the thing that people think makes a musician stand out from the crowd. And when you gather musicians from all over the world and from multiple generations who spend their time playing "classical music" together, and give them smart phones, they can enter into an algorithmically-organized hierarchy that makes some people more visible than others. I guess you can also pay for visibility. I guess in that crowd and with that din you need to pay for visibility if you want to be seen or heard.

Any given group of children will organize themselves into a hierarchy. And physically grown-up children who go into politics or business, or education, or any field that depends on a hierarchy to succeed, will come to depend on that hierarchy in order to determine whether they are succeeding or failing in their lives. And then we have the price tag thing: how much someone is willing to ask for something they are selling determines its value, and from that we get a whole hierarchy of values based solely on how much something is perceived to be worth (the art market, the market for musical instruments). People talk about "marrying up," and that implies that they are marrying their way into a "higher" place in society, but for some "marrying up" means finding a spouse who has more ability to love, to listen, and to care for children than the family someone came from.

Maybe it's time to look at the childish evaluation of position in the world by hierarchy as just that. Childish. Why do we assume that because it is natural for children to organize themselves in hierarchies that it is appropriate adult behavior?

Friday, November 08, 2019

The Rewind: Ben shows us Eleanor Roosevelt hosting a show, with Henry Kissinger as a guest

The discussion here further explores the question of how the atomic bomb could be used by the US as a deterrent during the cold war, but it doesn't seem partisan to me. How times have changed.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Autographs

I have been searching the internets trying to find a few lines of French written in an autograph by Pauline Viardot about her ideal heaven as a vast library where she could find anything she wanted and could read to her heart's content. I can't remember the exact words (they were in French), but the sentiment has stayed with me for a very long time. I wish I could read them again.

My search did lead me to a website that sells musical autographs, and I did find quite a few of Pauline Viardot's autographs there. I also learned that Viardot was an avid collector of autographs herself. I can't imagine that Viardot was thinking about the monetary value of her autographs. Collecting autographs during the 19th century was all about connection and sentiment. Autographs were meaningful. Now they have monetary value.

It baffles me that monetary value can be assigned to pieces of paper that bear the signatures of people who are no longer living. Do the autographs of people who gave autographs often have a lesser value than the autographs of people who gave fewer autographs? And how is a value determined for musical manuscripts of lesser-known pieces? Do people collect autographs as investments? Do they appreciate?

And why is it that the same autograph seems to be sold by different companies? If you click on the screenshot below you will see that the same letter written by Pauline Viardot is being sold by eBay, AbeBooks, and Biblio, (for different prices). What's with that?

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

A little bit about cellist Keith Harvey (1938 - 2017)

The cellist who plays Ravel on the soundtrack of Un coeur en hiver (see yesterday's post) is so remarkable that I would like to offer a few links to his recordings. Listening to him play makes me very happy.



Harvey studied with Douglas Cameron at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and, directly upon graduation, became the principal cellist of the London Philharmonic. He stayed with the London Philharmonic for five years, and then joined the English Chamber Orchestra. He formed the Gabrieli Ensemble (violin, clarinet, cello, and piano) and spent a lot of time performing Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, and then the group became the Gabrieli Quartet.

Here's a wonderful camcorder video of a 1988 rehearsal of the Ravel Quartet with Harvey and the Gabrieli Quartet.
And here's a recording of a transcription of Achron's "Hebrew Melody," and one of the Ravel Pavane. These might "autoplay" forward to more tracks from this recording (called "Dedications") that he made with pianist Lynn Hendry for Cello Classics in 2012, but if that doesn't work, you can do a YouTube search for Keith Harvey and cello, and you will find more.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Un coeur en hiver

Claude Sautet's 1992 Un coeur en hiver is one of the very best films about music and musicians I have seen.



The substance of story is steeped in the music of Maurice Ravel: his Violin Sonata, his Duo for Violin and Cello, and his Piano Trio. The main characters are a luthier, his violin dealer partner (and friend), and a beautiful female violinist. The luthier loves his work, loves his friends, and loves music, but he is skeptical about the romantic idea of love. He engages in close friendships that do not involve intimacy (a little like Maurice Ravel, perhaps?).

The violin dealer, who moves effortlessly through the social demands of his profession, understands the emotions and desires of musicians. He is in love with a beautiful young violinist who is in the process of making a recording of music by Ravel, with the luthier taking special pains to get her violin to sound at its best for the recording sessions.

The credits begin with the Trio, but the "action shots" in the first half of the film, which involves relationships between two people, are of Ravel's music for two players. The action of the Trio enters into the narrative at the halfway point of the film, when it becomes clear that an unusual love triangle is forming.

I offer no spoilers, but I know that anyone reading this will appreciate the beautiful shots of the quiet violin shop, the relationship between a master craftsman and an apprentice, the gluing of violin ribs, the cutting and installing of a violin bridge, and witnessing the way a neck is attached to the body of a violin.

There is dinner discussion about the value of music and art that echoes the kinds of musical conversations that happen during the Ravel Piano Trio. We get to look at the world of music from the standpoint of some musicians, an instrument maker, a dealer, a manager, a few clients, a teacher, and a few intellectuals. We also get some nice shots of a French book store.

The acting is excellent, and the miming of violin playing by Emanuelle Béart is perfectly acceptable to the non-violinist, and perfectly adequate for people in the physically-violinistic know. The cellist (who does not speak) is played by cellist Dominique de Williencourt and the equally silent pianist Jeffrey Grice, who doesn't even get a name, are perfect in their roles, though the musicians on the excellent soundtrack of the movie are violinist Jean-Jacques Kantorow, cellist Keith Harvey, and pianist Howard Shelley

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Cheshvan: Prelude #2 from Preludes for 5775

In 2014 and 2015 I wrote a set of twelve piano preludes for the months in the Jewish calendar. I wrote this set in memory of my brother, Marshall Fine. Grief proceeds slowly, and the memories and nuances associated with family life seem to take at least one lifetime to understand.

I plan to post the preludes individually on YouTube, one for each month of the year. You can find the music for the whole set on this page of the IMSLP.



UPDATE: You can find a video of Prelude #1 (Tishri) here, and a video of Prelude #3 (Kislev) here.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

J.D. Salinger Exhibit at the New York Public Library

Last week Michael and I spent part of our one day in New York at the J.D Salinger Exhibit in the New York Public Library. We had to surrender our jackets and our cell phones, which meant that everything we saw had to be taken in in real time (no photographing and reading later). The experience was different because of that. I had to really pay attention to what I was reading.

I imagine that Colleen Salinger, J.D. Salinger's widow, and J.D. Salinger's son, Matt Salinger, who organized the exhibit, will eventually publish the letters and images of "stuff" in the exhibit, but for now I can hold the things I saw in a (freshly "cleared") corner of my memory.

As part of the Four Seasons Reading Club, Michael and I are reading through all of Salinger's published work (except for The Catcher in the Rye which is still fresh in my mind after fifty years). Michael has read all and taught some of Salinger's work. I never made it beyond The Catcher in the Rye, and now I know how much I missed.

I thought that Salinger spent his life as a recluse, and I also thought that he had stopped writing once he stopped publishing his work. But now I know that he continued to work (i.e. write) all of his life. He also moved (in plain sight) about the world without fanfare, because he didn't do anything to feed the publicity machine. He was able to live his life in quiet comfort because his books sold well (and still continue to sell well).

I learned a lot about Salinger's need for privacy. This was refreshing to me, particularly when we live in an era where people who have had success feel compelled to do everything they can in order to remain "relevant."

One of the display cases in the exhibit held Salinger's movie projector and a few reels of the many movies he owned like Hitchcock's The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes . And there were VHS tapes of those movies, some Marx Brothers movies, and Oliver!. Another case had his typewriter, little black books that he wrote in, yellow highlighting pencils, and a key ring with ideas written on punched little pieces of card stock. Another case held a little copper bowl that he made at camp when he was a child.

But it was reading his correspondence that really provided a window into who Salinger was, and knowing certain details about his life really helps me to understand and appreciate his work.

If you live in New York City (or plan to visit) I would highly recommend spending an hour or so in the Salinger exhibit.

Here's Salinger's obituary in The Guardian.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Rewind: Ben shares a Halloween surprise featuring the art of Edward Gorey

Oh that crazy Indiana weather!

Shades of “Stranger Things.” I snapped this screenshot from our trip home from parts east today.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Rewind: Ben introduces us to Mercedes Sosa



This is the first I have heard of the Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa (1925-2009), and I'm looking forward to hearing more.