Thursday, September 19, 2019

Curious George Goes to the Conservatory (Marshall Fine, guest blogger)

by Marshall Fine after H. A. Rey
(Based on Scherzo from Shostakovich Symphony #1)

I have it on very good authority that the piece you are about to hear was written with help from a monkey.

Interested? Curious to know why?

One day Curious George was wandering down a city street, when he heard all sorts of noise coming from the music conservatory. He knew what music was, but was this music? And why was this noise being made at all, when every other building in the area was quiet? So he decided to go in at the big front door. Then he saw another set of doors--so he opened those too. It was a big concert hall. But instead of music, there was an ugly sound from the string instruments on stage:

(Shostakovich Symphony #1, Scherzo, first two bars)

“Hold it! Cellos and basses!” called the conductor, rapping the stand with his baton. “Can’t you people play together? Let’s try that again. Slower and not so loud.”

(Fig. 11 to fig. 12, cellos and basses only)

“No, no, no, it’s still not together,” the conductor complained again. “Do it again, please. Slow and soft this time. And make sure it’s clear!”

(last six bars before fig. 23, violas and cellos only)

Rap! Rap! Rap! The conductor stopped again. “Check the parts at break,” he growled disgustedly. “Let’s try another place. From 4 to 5. And make sure it’s in tune!”

(Fig. 4 to fig. 5, tutti strings)

It made such an ugly noise that Curious George clapped his hands over his ears and screamed as only a monkey can!

“What was that??” exclaimed the conductor. Then he turned and saw George. “You! Out!!” Poor George had to leave the concert hall.

He went down a flight of stairs, through a door, and found himself in a long hall with door after door stretching out on either side. Practice rooms, he realized. It wasn’t getting any better. The noise from all these rooms sounded just like the concert hall. In the first one he came to, he heard a piano, just banging chords at the bottom and top of its range.

(First three bars of fig. 22)

Interesting! He went in quietly and sat on the pedals, so that he could see what the player was doing. But the very next chord just hung on and on! The pianist looked down, saw George, and the next instant gave him a terrific kick. George fled in a great fright down the hall.

He stopped again to catch his breath and found himself in front of a violinist who was playing nothing but his open E string. (Beginning here and concurrent with narration: 2nd violins, from fig. 6 and cut off on cue) The door was ajar. He went in; luckily the violinist had his eyes closed. But soon enough he opened his eyes to look at his bow, and saw Curious George as well. (Cutoff cue!!) Once again George had to flee to evade a kick.

Then he found himself in front of a door behind which a snare drum was beating:

(Fig. 7-8, snare drum)

Next door to this was a pair of clarinetists. They were arguing over a tune.

(Fig. 8-9, clarinets. 2nd clarinet mistuned in B-flat)

“You’ve got the wrong instrument!” yelled the first. “No, you’re just plain out of tune!” rejoined the other.

Actually George was getting the hang of this music, so he pointed at the first one, whose clarinet seemed a little longer.

“Who the blazes are you?” the second growled at George; then suddenly he looked at his own clarinet and realized he did in fact have the wrong one. He changed instruments and they played again.

(Repeat excerpt, 2nd clarinet in A)

But then the argument broke out afresh! The second said, “It’s in three, like that drummer next door.” But the first replied, “No, it’s in four, can’t you feel the phrase?”

George didn’t know what three or four meant here, but he could hear that some notes still seemed out of tune. “Hu-hu-hu-hu!” he exclaimed, putting his hands over his ears. That sent the players mad! “Who asked you? Dirty monkey! Out!!” And again George had to flee.

This time he found himself in front of a larger room with a brass quartet, three trombones and a tuba. They were practicing long held chords. The tuba player was running out of breath before the others.

(Fig. 21-22, trombones and tuba only)

Manners, it seemed, were called for, so he did the same as he’d seen his master do: he knocked. The door opened.

“Who...who...” he fumbled out, in his most refined monkey talk. They introduced themselves, but George could not understand a word.

There was a word, somewhere, that meant he wanted to know something. There! he had it! “Why...why...” he addressed the tuba player.

But that was as far as he got! The tubist exploded, “It’s all about you, monkey. What gives you the nerve to teach us? Get out!”

At this point the conservatory director came up. Student after student had been to his office, all saying the same thing. The brass players laid their horns aside, took one limb each of Curious George, and marched him out the front door with the director leading the way. BUMP! OOF! he went flying and landed hard on the bottom step. And there he lay, hurting with pain and shame. Was this what music-making was like? Forget it!

Just as he had made his mind up to go home and never come back again, a young man came down the steps. “You must be the monkey I’ve just heard of.”

Curious George just nodded.

“You just come back in with me. I’ll hide you. Then you can tell me your story--oops, I mean, show me.” And he took George by the hand and led him back into the building.

George took the young man downstairs to the practice rooms. First he showed the young man the piano room. The young man nodded. “That’s called voicing. She’s just beginning. Her teacher says she has to learn to balance the notes in a chord. I know because I play piano too.”

Then George showed him the violinist’s room, where the poor boy was still trying to make a good sound on his open E. “His bow isn’t straight,” the young man explained. “His teacher sent him down here after only ten minutes of his lesson.”

Then they went to the clarinetists’ room, where the drummer was still hard at work next door as well, though he had changed over to a triangle.

(Fig. 8-9, clarinets 1-2 and triangle)

“My God, what an interesting rhythm! I wonder...I think I can make something of that.” Then, bypassing the brass room, the young man took George to a back staircase, where they went up and listened through a door without opening it. It must have been the back door of the concert hall, for there was the same thing as George had first heard...

(Repeat first two bars)

...the music was still falling apart the same way no matter how they rehearsed...

(Repeat the last two bars before fig. 5, tutti strings)

...the conductor was still yelling that it was out of tune! And no one came by to disturb them.

“Upstairs, come on now,” said the young man. I know a room where I can hide you. It’s my teacher’s office. He has not been pleased with me. He doesn’t understand the music I’ve been writing lately. But come, he is not here anymore today. We will stay tonight and you can show me what to write. A satire on this place. I’ll get even with my teacher, and I’ll get you even with the people who kicked you around.”

And that was what they did! Young Dmitri Shostakovich wrote, and played, and wrote, and played some more, always based on the noises George had heard; and whenever he did something George liked, George would let out a robust “Hu-hu-hu-hu!!” They produced this piece in a day and a night; and then the next morning he set George free outside the conservatory to return to his master.

The rest, as everyone who knows Soviet music recognizes, is history.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the piece written with the aid of Curious George: the Scherzo of Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Symphony.

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