Monday, July 30, 2012

Musical Thought for the Day

I have been reading The Violinist's Thumb And Other Lost Tales Of Love, War, And Genius, As Written By Our Genetic Code, and got inspired by Sam Kean's discussion of Toxo, the Machiavellian microbe, not to mention "Mussorgsky's Song of the Flea" (actually called "Mephistopheles' Song in Auerbach's Tavern"). And then there's this one.

Here's a translation of the original from Gothe's Faust:

Once upon a time lived a king
Who owned a handsome flea….
....a flea, hahahahaha .....a flea.

He cherished him and loved him
As though a son were he…
A flea, hahahahaha ...a flea ha etc….a flea…

He called the royal tailor
Who toiled for days and nights
To make the flea a doublet
And fancy purple tights.
….purple tights.

A flea hahahaetc

Our flea is dressed in velvet
And silks of golden hue
A ribbon o'er his shoulder
A jewelled order too...
...a flea! hahahaha...a flea!

A minister they made him
A diamond star he wore
And all his poor relations
Got orders galore...

The courtiers, male and female,
They were no longer gay.
The queen and all her ladies
Were pestered night and day, ha ha!

To scratch they were forbidden,
They had to bear the prick.
But we, when we are bitten
Know how to scratch... and kick!
Hahahaha etc

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Fun With Russian

Learning Russian is not easy, but I am having a lot of fun trying, alternating between youtube tutorials and a couple of textbooks. It is especially fun when textbook writers choose amusing inadvertent phrases to explain things like vowel reduction. I find that sounding out words in Russian is a little bit like "sounding out" music--perhaps a little bit like playing a familiar piece on a new instrument or in a new clef.

My favorite phrase so far comes from The Everything Learning Russian Book by Julia Stakhnevich:

Сумасшедший Вегетарианская

Something which I, of course, am (a crazy vegetarian).

Olympic Fever and the Power of Music

Yes. I have Olympic Fever.

I watched the opening ceremonies, and truly enjoyed listening to the children's choirs from all the British Isles (especially the choirs from Scotland and Wales) and the mixture of Shakespeare and Elgar ("Nimrod" and The Tempest). I enjoyed the spectacle of the first part of the history of Great Britain (or England, or the British Isles, or the United Kingdom), but I merely endured the blue-hued and overly-long salute to British pop music. Paul McCartney's performance of "Hey Jude," however, was remarkable.

People from (nearly) every country of the world speaking (nearly) every language of the world, encouraged by McCartney, sang the chorus together in full voice. The range is small, it is a repeating motive that spells out a major triad with a nifty ninth that resolves to the tonic (twice!), and then steps down to the fifth degree of the scale. It can go on forever, and the process of escaping the envelope of the octave has meaning every time.

And then McCartney did a "Pete Seeger": he had the audience sing without him. First the men, and then the women. Then he had them sing all together.

All of these athletes who are in London with one purpose in mind (to be the best they can be at the thing that they have given every day of their young lives to do), who will compete with one another with all they have, and who, in many cases, may not be able to communicate with one another through language, were able to communicate by singing the chorus of "Hey Jude" with all of their hearts. And they could sing it with all of the people who were in London to watch them do what they do better (faster, higher, and with more twists and turns) than anyone else in the world.

Such is the power of music.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Eine Kleine Medicine Musik (Old Crow Medicine Show, That Is)

Michael and I learn a lot from our kids. We made this video together last night.

Monday, July 23, 2012

"Being" an Anything, Particularly a Composer

Sometimes I wonder what "being" a composer is. I only really feel like one when I am writing, and when I am writing something that seems like the "same old, same old," I feel like either a lousy composer or not a composer at all. Stuff I have written (and there's a lot of it since I pretty much chain-wrote my way through my 40s) is written, and, like most music that hasn't been somehow "branded," it sits around dormant and silent. Once in a while I hear from somebody who has enjoyed playing something I wrote, and it feels pretty nice, but it is difficult to feel current about something that I did to the best of my ability a while ago, particularly when I spend a lot of my music writing time trying like hell not to inadvertently repeat myself.

Visual artists have it easy, perhaps. Take Cezanne, for example. He could paint fruit bowl after fruit bowl, and each one could be an original and meaningful piece of art that says essentially one thing: I am an example of the way Cezanne saw a bowl of fruit. We can enjoy any one of these Cezanne bowls of fruit at any time of year, and these bowl of never-decaying fruit can be found in multiple locations around the world. We can even enjoy them as reproductions, and (as evidenced above) in "collections" on the internet. We can enjoy them for their colors, for their composition, for their quality, for their Cezanne-ness, for their value in the art market, and for their influence on other artists and on art in general. And each one is a masterpiece.

Music, being not a "thing" exists mainly in time, but it does paint figurative pictures and does take up figurative space. Really great music written by really great composers (Haydn and Bach come immediately to mind, but there are scads and scads of others) is like the fresh new air of morning, piece after piece. I wonder if either Haydn or Bach felt like Cezanne did (hundreds of years later) while painting fresh pictures of fruit. I also wonder if either Bach or Haydn ever felt a little like the way I feel right now, which is in a state of creative defeat, or as (the character) Molly Dodd demonstrated when she (in the context of an episode of "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd") hosted the David Letterman show declared "our fields are fallow."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Someone Like Somebody That I Used To Know

Rachel and Ben are both home for the week, and they brought the two most popular current songs on the radio and sang them at the same time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Catherine II: Opera Librettist

The plot thickens.

Perhaps it's time to learn a little Russian.

I found a score for The Early Reign of Oleg, an opera by Vasily Pashkevich, along with Carlo Canobbio and Giuseppe Sarti, with a libretto by Catherine II.

[Sarti's name might ring a bell because Mozart quoted an aria from one of his operas (and identified his quotation) during the last act of Don Giovanni.]

Catherine must have had a serious change of heart concerning music (which she hated when she was young). She wrote eight more libretti, and founded the Imperial Opera and Ballet in St. Petersburg in 1783.

Why does this kind of thing NOT SEEM TO MATTER to regular historians? All Robert Massie seems to care about is intrigue, war, politics, and sex. Doesn't the fact that a woman with the mind of Catherine II might have had a lively musical court and a lively creative inner life? When he writes about Frederick the Great he mentions nothing special about the king's musical life.

Perhaps it's time for me to learn a lot of Russian.

Imperial Frustrations

I have been spending a lot of figurative time in the Russian Imperial Court of late. The interpersonal and political maneuvers of the "players" are fascinating, but I find it odder and odder that there is so little scholarship about music in the court. What I have found (and anyone who reads this blog knows that all roads lead to my fascination with Anton Ferdinand Titz) is either veiled (manuscripts that exist in only a few libraries) or simply wrong.

Take, for example, the 1708 Stradivarius known as the "Empress of Russia." This list, taken from the Cozio listing, shows the owners of the instrument.

There were two Empresses of Russia: Elizabeth (reigned from 1741-1762), the daughter of Peter I and aunt of Peter III, and Catherine II, who married Elizabeth's nephew, and became Empress in 1762 and reigned until 1796).

Pavel Berman has this bit of information on his website:
The violin takes it name from the daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I of Russia who took power in 1741 in a military coup after a period of obscurity under the regency of Anna Leopoldovna, and was crowned the following year. Although herself not highly educated she inaugurated a period of cultural development, abolishing the death penalty in 1744, founding the University of St. Petersburg, and bringing the first Italian musicians to Russia, including the Neapolitan Francesco Araia who wrote the first true opera sung in Russian, Cephalus and Procris. The Empress gave this valuable violin to her secretary and lover, Gribersky. The instrument, also known as ‘Empress of Russia’ is from a private collection and is not normally played in public.
Who is Gribersky? According to Robert Massie (who I believe is well informed), Elizabeth did have a musical lover named Alexey Razumovsky. He played the bandura. Alexey Razumovsky's nephew Andrey, by the way, was the "Razumovsky" who commissioned Beethoven's Opus 59 Quartets. Maybe Alexey didn't do so well with the fiddle.

The Cozio list has Catherine II as the next owner of the instrument. Perhaps Elizabeth gave it to Catherine to give to her husband Peter, who was a violinist (and according to Catherine, who had no ear for music, a bad one). Maybe this was the instrument that Peter played. Who knows? Maybe Elizabeth gave it to Catherine to keep for Paul, Catherine's son and the person Elizabeth considered next in line for the throne after Peter. Paul, by the way, was the person who commissioned Haydn to write his Opus 33 Quartets. Paul studied violin with Titz.

I hope that someone reading this post might know more about music in imperial Russia than I do! Please contribute anything you can.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


I tend to take a podcast on my daily walk, and lately I have really been enjoying the Freakonomics podcast. This may seem odd because money and what I do with much of my life tend to be mutually exclusive, for the most part; but it turns out that the study of economics covers far more than money.

The main reason I'm writing about this podcast here is because of the excellent musical choices that the producers make for the introductions and transitions in the podcast episodes. I was particularly struck by the way they used the Andante movement of the Schubert E-flat Piano Trio as background (or perhaps as a contrapuntal voice) in a discussion about health care. Time after time, and podcast episode after podcast episode, I take extreme pleasure in knowing that something that matters so much to me also matters to the smart people who put this podcast together. I'm also learning a great deal about the world.

Friday, July 13, 2012

John Philip Sousa's America: A Book Review

John Philip Sousa's America: The Patriot's Life in Images and Words
John Philip Sousa IV with Loras John Schissel
GIA Publications
214 pages $34.95 ($26.00 at Amazon)

My interest in John Philip Sousa has only marginally to do with his work at the leader of the Sousa Band. I know many of his more famous marches, and even some of his more obscure ones (as many Americans do), but my real interest in him is as a novelist. Several years ago I enjoyed reading his novel The Fifth String (that link went to a free e-book), a delightful piece of fiddle fiction that Sousa wrote in 1902. I found it very interesting that Sousa, who spent all of his professional time as the leader of a wind band, still had a soft spot for the violin, which was the instrument he played.

I hoped to read something about this in John Philip Sousa's America, but was disappointed to find that this 214-page book of captioned photographs, quotations, and informative anecdotes mentioned nothing about Sousa's life as a fiddle player or even as a novelist (though I might have missed a reference since the book doesn't have an index).

The photographs in the book are stunning, and they are printed on high-quality paper. They are reproduced the way they were taken, so the sepia photographs are boldly and brilliantly sepia, and the black and white photographs are crisply and clearly black and white. Music covers are reproduced in color, and the pages are set up beautifully. It's clear that a great deal of time, care, and money went into this publication, and it is a pleasure to spend a lot of time studying the photographs.

The book comes with a 77-minute CD of marches played by "The President's Own" United States Marine Band, conducted by Colonel Albert F. Schoepper and Colonel John R. Bourgeois.

You can learn more about Sousa and the Sousa Band here, but the photographs do look much nicer in the book, which, considering all the work that went into making it, is a bargain.

Pizza with Yellow Squash, Mushrooms, Kale, and Lemon

Our son Ben, who is here for a while, has been perfecting his pizza-making skills. Here is a pizza topping that he invented: an unusual combination of ingredients, including Yellow Squash,

which is now seriously in season.

It was sensational. I got Ben's permission to share this stroke of mid-summer genius.

He made this pizza with his own secretly-personal thin crust, topped with a thin layer of pizza sauce and a blend of Italian cheeses (real for him and Michael, and daiya for me). He sautéed lots of sliced mushrooms and sliced squash, put the vegetable mixture on top of the cheese, and added many small pieces of uncooked kale. He topped it all off with some lemon juice and olive oil.

Lemon juice!

He cooked this pizza in a 450 degree oven.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


[That's me back in 1971 as Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof]

While mindlessly traveling through places of my past on the internets, I thought about a camp I attended in the summers of 1970 and 1971. It was a fine arts camp in Stockbridge, Massachusetts called "Beaupre." There was drama (my "major"), dance (ballet, modern, Hindu, and Spanish), and art, and everyone took classes in everything. It was an intense experience for me, particularly the social part of it. Stationery was "currency," (mine was vanilla-colored and definitely not cool). Most of the campers were from what is now called the "tri-state area," and I was one of only a handful of campers from the state of Massachusetts. Yes, it is odd that I would be at an overnight camp a mere six miles from my family's summer home, but we were kept so busy that I never really thought about that.

Here's some footage of two of the ethnic dance instructors: Carola Goya and Matteo Vittucci (he just went by "Matteo.")

I was thrilled to find a Facebook group filled with alumni of that camp in those years, and decided that it was worth joining Facebook to read what they had to say about it. I recall that it was a group filled with alumni from my junior high school (the non-existant Weeks, for those who may know the lay of the land in Newton, Massachusetts before 1980) that drew me into the
Facebook vortex the first time.

In 2009, after sufficiently exploring pictures and posts from people I remembered from my past, I decided that Facebooking was not a healthy activity for me, so I stopped. I thought I had cancelled my account, but it seems that after three years away, everything had been buzzing along without me, and everything was still pretty much the same as it was. I communicated a bit with a camp friend or two, said hello to a couple of people who welcomed me back, said hello to a couple of people who never responded, and looked at a bunch of pictures.

Today I got a suggestion that I might want to "friend" someone very dear to me who died a few months ago. That gave me a jolt. I don't think I'll be looking at Facebook much in the future. I much prefer bloggery and e-mail as ways of communicating with the world outside my personal circles of local friends and family.

More (or less) About Music in Imperial Russia

I have learned from Robert K. Massie's biography of Catherine the Great (a great book I have just started reading) that Catherine the Great was one of those people for whom music gives no pleasure (Nobokov was such a person). Her husband Peter was also (according to her account, which might not be that reliable) a lousy violinist. How unthankful it must have been for Anton Ferdinand Titz to work for an employer (appointed for life, probably) who hated music.

Here are some recordings of music by Titz, and a short talk in German about him that are on YouTube;

And there are even a a few sonatas for violin and harpsichord. I encourage anyone with manuscripts of this music to either scan them into the Petrucci Library or send copies to me, and I will make modern editions to upload.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Have you ever noticed how often the melodic interval of the fifth is used in contemporary pop music?

It is a lot of fun to play with melodic fifths, which is what I happen to be doing at the moment in my new work in progress. For some reason having that interval of an ascending fifth running through my brain all the time makes me feel kind of perky inside. It is also the interval of unlimited possibilities. Think of all the "stuff" you can fit inside a fifth, particularly when you have different timbres to work with.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd

A truly great humanist who has "Davey McQuinn" as a pseudonym is offering the entire 5-year run of the series on YouTube. Those who remember the show might want to join me and Michael on a trip through the life of our favorite resident of New York's upper west side during the late 1980s. And yes, Molly was a musician.

Here's what we've all been waiting for.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

My Life in Sets of Scores, or All Dressed Up with No Place to Go

When I neared my 20-year mark as a flutist, I found myself feeling like I was all dressed up with no place to go. I had pretty much mastered the instrument and its repertoire, and took on the challenges of learning to play other members of its ancestral family (baroque flute and recorder). Because I am wired to work, I worked like crazy to acquire technique, and struggled like crazy with the challenges of the instrument. I'm not happy with my "flute voice" when I listen to old recordings, but objectively speaking (and I can be objective after 20 years away--with a return dip here and there--from the modern flute), I played the instrument really well.

Staying in shape on the flute (or on any wind instrument) is an issue. In order to play well, you have to be in top form. If you are not, it hurts physically as well as musically. I really did have to be in my "third hour" of the day in order to feel like I had any control over anything when playing the modern flute, so I made sure that I put in two hours of scales and exercises every day.

Through a set of circumstances (mostly professional, or attempts at being professional, i.e. working as a flutist) that still make me feel defeated, I very often found myself full of technique and ability, but with nowhere to play. In other words, I was all dressed up with no place to go. It was very disheartening. I did everything I could, but nothing seemed to work.

When I was 31 or 32, I decided to stop trying to get work as a flutist or a baroque flutist, and begin practicing the violin. My father sent a 3/4 size violin (one that my older brother used) for our daughter Rachel (who was way too small for it), and one day, around Thanksgiving, I picked it up and started playing it. I had played as a child, but stopped when I began the sixth grade. In other words, I had 20 years away. I remembered my way around first position, but had no clue about anything else. Abandoning flute work wasn't any problem. I never got any calls.

I knew that playing the violin was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and that was that. I had a lot of hard work ahead of me, and most of it was slow and repetitive. I'm sure that it would be tedious to some (especially my family, who had to hear much of it), but to me it was was mediation. It was medicine. It was therapy.

Now I have reached my 20-year mark as a violinist and violist, and find that a lot of the technique that I have acquired over the years has become almost second nature. I have finally broken through many of the physical barriers that used to make me feel inadequate when I play alongside my peers. I finally have control over my limbs and fingers, and can confidently enjoy the riches of the string repertoire. The 20-year-mark is so different for me now because the road to satisfying musicianship still stretches long before me, and I find that the acquisition of technique is always a means to a fulfilling end, with a series of greater challenges ahead of that. And the high-quality music seems to be endless.

The moral of this story? If something you have worked hard at over the years makes you feel frustrated and you can't see a fulfilling future in it, try something that makes you feel like you can proceed with purpose. The millions of accomplishments you get along the way make up for the disappointments associated with the path that didn't work, and instead of finding yourself "all dressed up with no place to go," you might find yourself with a fabulous wardrobe that can keep you happy, even when you are just hanging around the house.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Struwwelpeter for Soprano, Baritone, and Piano

Herbert Hughes' (1882-1937) setting for soprano, baritone, and piano of an English translation of five selections from Heinrich Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter is now in the Petrucci Library.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Spuni Cuni fait

I was totally amused by this letter from Mozart to his cousin Bäsle, and like many other people I pondered the meaning of "Spuni Cuni fait." I found an answer in a Mozart Forum discussion that is no longer on line, but it's fortunate that I remember the gist of it:

"Spuni" means "spun," "Cuni" is like "Cony," which means rabbit, and "fait," is the past tense of the French verb "faire." Therefore Spuni Cuni fait (with capitalized nouns) would mean something that was spun from rabbit hair, like the shawl that Mozart's cousin Maria Anna Thekla Mozart (i.e. cousin Bäsle) is wearing in this drawing she made of herself here:

It could actually be the Spuni Cuni fait!

You can read more of the Bäsle letters (in German with a racy Mozart drawing on a facsimile included) here.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Nearness of Elly and Leo Wright

When I was adrift in Vienna in 1981, Elly and Leo "adopted" me. Though you would never think it from her English diction, Elly is from Vienna, and Leo came to Vienna after a big career in Europe and a stroke. When I knew Leo, he could only play with one hand. After I left Vienna, Leo continued to get his playing back. How wonderful it is to hear the "fullness" of Leo, and the beauty of Elly.

Remembering Leo Wright

Celebrate A Musical Fourth of July with a Four-Year-Old!

We don't happen to have an in-house four-year-old anymore, so I'm happy that this Cassidy's parents were kind enough to share this video of her impromptu (and heartfelt) set of recitations and songs appropriate for the day.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

What Money Can't Buy

I really enjoyed reading Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy (I got a Kindle copy right after hearing the interview I just linked to). Even though Sandel doesn't expound on ideas concerning music and art, reading it caused me to (as usual) expound on ideas I have had for a while concerning money and art and music.

The walls of our house are covered with priceless art. The bulk of it was made by members of my family. I would never consider trading any of it for shiny shells or currency of any kind. Money can't buy what went into these pieces of art, partly because they are not for sale, and partly because they weren't created to sell. What kind of a price could a person put on a needlepoint dodo-bird that my grandmother stitched on top of a drawing her brother made on a needlepoint canvas? And would my grandmother's other needlepoint pieces claim as high a price if I were to show them to an art dealer? Of course not. My great uncle put a few minutes into his drawing, and my grandmother probably put a few months into the needlepoint. Go figure.

We keep art made by our children on our walls because we love them as pieces of art. Our family gallery is exclusive, and its content is truly priceless.

Even if I had tons of money and could afford to buy the best instruments in the world, rent the most expensive halls, hire the best musicians money could buy to play with me, and, through the sheer power of money, convince people to come to my concerts and praise my playing, I would still play pretty much the same way I play as a member of the un-moneyed class. Money can't buy me the things that I would like to improve in my playing. Money can't buy me a better voice. Money can't make me taller. Money could, I suppose, make me look younger, but it couldn't actually make me be younger. It can't make me smarter. It can't improve my memory. I suppose if I had lots of money I could "buy" the friendship of people who also have money, but I prefer to have friends with talent and brains who like me for who I am and not for what I have.

If I were to secretly buy a recording company, have that company hire great musicians to record music I write, and organize the best promotional campaign that money could buy, I bet people would take me more seriously as a composer, particularly if I could give the appearance (when I made one) that my wealth had been generated by my success as a composer. If it were to come out that I actually owned my recording company, and all my success came from inherited money or investments rather than from talent, I bet people would stop taking me seriously. Therefore, I'm much better off letting the music I write be taken for what it is by a relatively small number of people.

We live in a musical world of illusions, at least in the classical field. One illusion is that talent generates success, and that success must therefore be the result of talent. Another is that success as a performing musician or as a composing musician generates money and fame. I think that most un-moneyed musicians (at least in non commercial fields) operate at a subsistance level. And the DIY movement (publishing yourself, arranging your own travel, paying your own expenses, and doing your own publicity through social networking) means that you spend more time on your "career" and less time on your music. I couldn't imagine dealing with the business aspect of creating a company to publish my music: the record keeping, the space and material needed for production, the business expenses, the accounting, and the copyright stuff, not to mention the feelings of disappointment I might have when pieces don't sell, when nobody seems to want to buy the fruits of my labors. I think it's much healthier for me to make the music I write available for free for people who want to play it. I guess that makes it priceless: something money can't buy.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Bowing Terminology

It always struck me as odd that music published during the first decade of the 20th century by Carl Fischer and many other publishers would have printed explanations of the up-bow and down-bow signs in their music. I always imagined that anybody playing anything beyond beginning violin music would know these things. Maybe the publishers weren't counting on the symbols always being viable in the future.

The upper left-hand corner of the first page of the Schubert Sonatas that the above picture comes from gives some nice translations that reveal just how colorless the words "up-bow" and "down-bow" actually are. Many of my beginning students get boggled by this terminology, because when making a down-bow stroke on the lowest string, your hand moves upwards.

The German words are confusing for the same reasons.

But look at the French words: Tirez, which translates as to draw or pull, which is what it feels like we are doing when we start a bow stroke at the frog and end at the tip (and on every string). Likewise Poussez means to push, which is what it really feels like we are doing when we begin towards the tip and end at the frog. Best of all, these French terms are verbs, implying that those signs signify some kind of action or motion.

N.B. The copy that I found in the Petrucci Library (and used for the above picture) was published by Carl Fischer in New York in 1906. My paper copy, which was one used by my father when he was a child, and perhaps even used by his father--who knows--was published in New York by G. Schirmer in 1908 (using the same plates, by the way). It doesn't have the German or French translations. Only the English "translations" of the symbols.