Friday, July 30, 2021

This Was Toscanini

This Was Toscanini: The Maestro, My Father, and Me by Samuel Antek and Lucy Antek Johnson Brown Books Publication Group, 2nd Edition; August 17, 2021 184 pages

This is a reissue of Samuel Antek's This Was Toscanini that was posthumously published in 1963. The 2021 second edition is clothed in a memoir written by Antek's daughter Lucy Antek Johnson, who offers a beautiful portrait of her father's life as a violinist in the NBC Symphony, the conductor of the New Jersey Symphony, and an excellent writer and keen observer of all things musical. Lucy Antek Johnson offers a beautiful prelude to the book, gives an introduction to each of Samuel Antek's chapters, and provides an excellent coda that follows the abrupt end (not an ending) to her father's book. Antek never finished the book because he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of forty-nine, when his daughter was just twelve (in January of 1958).

I have read many memoirs that tell stories about life in the NBC Symphony, and I have heard countless stories about Toscanini (some, from second-hand experience, not terribly flattering; and some, from second-hand experience, lauditory). When the opportunity came up to get a review copy of this book to write about, I jumped at the chance.

The book arrived yesterday afternoon. It is beautifully printed on heavy paper, and is filled with beautiful photographs. I recoginized the candid in-rehearsal photographs of Toscanini taken by Robert Hupka from seeing them on the walls of my friend Anne's house. Anne got them from her father, Mischa Mischakoff, who was the concertmaster of the NBC Symphony, and one of Arturo Toscanini's closest associates.

This book is unusual. Samuel Antek does talk about Toscanini as a man, but only in the context of music. Antek's observations come from sitting in first violin section of the NBC Symphony from Christmas 1937 until April of 1954 (the entire run of Toscanini's association with the orchestra), being on tour with Toscanini in South America and in the United States, and being invited to Toscanini's house to discuss the Verdi Requiem, a piece Antek was preparing to conduct with the New Jersey Symphony.

The book is generously peppered with Toscanini's Italian outbursts (particularly Non mangiare le note! and Vergogna!), enhanced with stories told to Antek by Toscanini about working with Verdi, and specific discussions of dynamics, phrasing, balance, and articulation that make me want to pay more attention when I am practicing. Antek devotes an entire fascinating chapter to Toscanini's interpretation and preparation of Weber's Oberon Overture.

It seems that the "magic" of Toscanini was to strive tirelessly for his personal ideals in music making without ever compromising. He was extremely demanding of himself in his humble service to the music at hand, and to music in general. He demanded (by example and by direction) that the people he was making music with be dedicated to the details that he wanted to hear, and in doing so he could come off as emotionally volatile and even tyrannical. But despite all of the tantrums, the insults, the repetition, and the shaming (Vergogna), the musicians in the orchestra loved him, and became better musicians because of working with him.

After finishing the book (I think I read it in three sittings over the course of two days), I realized that most of the Toscanini stories I had heard over the years from musicians who did not know Toscanini personally must have come from the first 1963 edition of This Was Toscanini. I'm so glad that Lucy Antek Johnson has expanded, contextualized, and illustrated this beautifully written portrait of a singular man and an extraordinary time in American musical history.

Times have indeed changed. But just because this document comes from a period in American musical life when big city professional orchestras were "manned" mostly by male players and conductors (some who behaved in ways that are intolerable today), this book should not be ignored by people striving for a more equitable musical future. It is a beautifully written and beautifully produced document that offers us a glimpse into a golden age in American music making.

Lucy Antek Johnson's coda includes a statement from George Szell, "Toscanini was a truth seeker. . . . There was before Toscanini and after Toscanini."

I'll end this post with a little taste of text taken from the chapter "Playing with Toscanini":
It was an arresting experience to sit on the stage facing him. His face was broad and muscular, its bone structure bold. Standing on the podium, he seemed almost tall. But I was someewhat surprised every time I spooke to him to realize how small he actually was. The most outstanding feature of his unusally handsome face was his eyes, which had a strange and enigmatic expression. Toscanini was, of course, very nearsighted, but in spite of this, on the podium, he never wore his glasses. When he had occasion to refer to the score, he brought it up to within an inch of his face, as thought smelling it, or bent down to the music on the stand. But though he seemingly had poor vision, he could spot the slightest bow movement of a bass player thirty feet away or the movement of a violinist at the back of the orchestra. The actual expression on his face closely resembled that of a blind person; his eyes had that vacant, staring quality of somehow not being focused. When he addressed himself to a section of the orchestra, he seemed to be looking through it, not at it. At times this puzzled the players, particularly when he lashed out at one of them with a venomous comment. We were never quite sure at whom he was looking, for his unfocused, angry stare seemed to be accusing us all.
I think that this book would make a great present to give to friends who are musicians, friends who love music, and maybe it would be a great present to give to yourself.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Amanda Maier: Tranquillamente from "Six Pieces for Violin and Piano" transcribed for string orchestra

I have been spending some time during the past couple of days with Amanda Maier:

The score and parts for the transcripion (as well as for the violin and piano original) can be found on this page of the IMSLP.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

In Theory, In Practice

The word "theory" gets passed around often in online string teacher discussions. Suzuki-informed string teachers talk about it as something other than playing (like note reading) to include in their lessons. Piano teachers, at least from my experience, use it to analyze the music that students are playing. In my high school Music Theory class (where you could earn as many credits as you could taking a math class or a chemistry class) we were taught functional harmony, which would, in the 1970s, be considered "common practice." My teacher taught it functionally and rather dryly. I remember at the end of the semester, when he informed us that we now knew the whole harmonic vocabulary in music, I asked him (in all seriousness), "What about the harmonies that Brahms used?"

The next year I took counterpoint. We worked methodically through the Fux Gradus et Parnassum, and I learned a great deal. I didn't realize until decades later that the exercises we did were not written by Mr. Levenson, but I knew that they were corrected by him.

My next academic experience with music was at Juilliard, where we had a "Literature and Materials of Music" class, commonly known as "L and M," and informally referred to as "S and M." There were times where harmonic analysis was necessary. My theory experience in high school didn't help me much, so, regardless of how well I was taught, I was not able to identify harmonic progressions by theoretical names. It was not because I hadn't worked at it. It is because for me context is everything. I can identify most pieces of the "standard" repertoire within a measure or two (at any point in a piece), but I can't do an "on the spot" analysis of the harmonic progression. Some people can. I know many people who think of the harmonic analysis of something that they hear first, before listening for the things that I hear first, like voicing, instrumental or vocal color, and where the phrase has been and is going.

Perhaps it has something to do with absolute pitch. I know that my high school theory teacher had it, and I believe that the people I know who can do analysis on the spot have it as well. I wonder if context, for those people, is an afterthought.

Now that the roles I play in the world of music are pretty well set, I really enjoy the fact that my enjoyment of playing involves the delight of enjoying a harmonic progression without the burden of having to name it. As a teacher I also know that no matter how eloquently I explain tonality to my students, each student is on a personal path of musicianship, and each student will learn what is necessary to learn when they are ready.

And I have found that learning to understanding tonality through scale passages (and pieces) is the best tool. The other day a student was having trouble with a scale passage in a piece, and I opened up his "Weights and Measures" book to the scale piece in the key of the troublesome passage. He played some of the "Weights and Measures" (W and M, if you will) piece, and then went back to the passage he was struggling with. It was no longer a struggle because his ear could grab onto the tonality; and the hand, if all is clear in the ear department, can react in a relaxed way.

I remember back in the early days of the musical blogosphere there were a lot of people posting their unpublished writings concerning music theory. These people have moved their writing away from the general blogosphere and into academic spaces. I thought that I could find references to them in some of the posts I have made over the years about music theory, but I couldn't find anything specific. Here is my array of posts that mention "theory."

What I learned from my internet-based experience is that "Music Theory" as an academic field is now a far cry from analyzing form, voicing, and harmony, which are tools helpful to composers and performing musicians. It is now more a branch of musicology, and a person who writes about music theory is considered a music theorist.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Lift Every Voice (and give the composer credit)

I just finished listening to a Radiolab mini-series called "The Vanishing of Harry Pace," which I recommend highly. But I was struck that in the final episode, a history of the song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," there was detailed discussion about James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the poem, and then it was (passively) mentioned that the poem was "set to music." There was no mention about the person who wrote the melody.

The melodic and harmonic setting of the text has always struck me as something written by an excellent composer, and I wondered if James Weldon Johnson was indeed a composer of music as well as a composer of poetry.

It only took me two minutes (even with serious wireless delays) to look up James Weldon Johnson and music, and learn that James had a brother who was the composer John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954). I also learned that John Rosamond Johnson set his brother's poem to music.

Why, with all the brainpower and investigative reporting skill that the Radiolab staff has in their operation, didn't they take the opportunity to give listeners this very important information?

Here's an article about the song from the July 4, 2021 edition of Good Black News, which is where I got the above picture (John Rosamond Johnson is clean shaven, and his brother James Weldon Johnson has facial hair).

You can read more about him here and here, and you can find more of his music on this page of the IMSLP.

The first installment of the podcast talks about how a lot of Black composers wrote (offensive to so many twenty-first-century ears) minstral songs, and the hosts even mention "Under the Bamboo Tree" by name. Just imagine how interesting an additional episode that actually considered the lives of the composers involved in Black Swan Records (rather than just the business people and the performers) would have been. It boggles my mind to learn (on my own) that the music for "Under the Bamboo Tree" and "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" was written the same composer.

UPDATE: I made an arrangement of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" for String Orchestra. You can get the music through this link.

Extra: The Songs of Cole and the Johnson Brothers (A lecture demonstration from Lisa Williamson)

Wait to watch this after reading the post right above!

Marked-up "Mole Unit" from "Weights and Measures" for Violin

One of my violin students suggested that I should make some tutorial videos for "Weights and Measures." I thought I could accomplish more (in less time) by marking up the first scale piece of the set. The beauty of keeping these pieces in the IMSLP on PDF is that teachers can print up multiple copies and apply bowings, fingerings, and dynamics of their choice. I find practicing this group of scale pieces a great way to warm up (on any instrument), and for students they provide a great way of actually hearing tonality (and its modal sisters) while they are playing. There is one one-page piece in each key-- first minor, then major.
[click for a larger view]

You can find the whole set, in the original for solo recorder, and set up as duets for any instrument to play with violin or viola, on this page of the IMSLP. The soprano recorder/violin set is particularly fun to play down the octave on the viola.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Haydn Musical Clock Fugue Hob. XIX: 16 for String Orchestra

I'm very pleased with the way that our Charleston Summer Strings orchestra played this transcription I made of the sixteenth of thirty-two pieces that Joseph Haydn wrote for Flötenuhr (musical clock), so I'm sharing it here.

The score and parts are available on this page of the IMSLP.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Jacques Barzun, Guest Blogger

Jacques Barzun, is no longer with us. Music in American Life, a book first published in 1956, reflects on musical life in America a few years before I was born. It concerns music in American life when my parents were starting out in music. Here is what Mr. Barzun has to say about the role of managers in the business of American concert music:
The Manager's Handiwork

The first thing an intrested concert-goer learns is that the great musical artists are the creations and also the sport of managers, on the one hand, and the regimented citizens of the union on the other. "How can I get a good manager?" asks the young violinist fresh from prize-winning at the conservatory or perhaps fresh from a European success. There are two agencies and only two that can insure a top-flight career in the United States. Both regard their work as Marcus Aurelius did the maintenance of the Roman Empire. What lies outside must be vanquished or absorbed. The managerial circuits handle a limited number of performing animals who must jump through pre-established hoops. Fees, schedules, territory are not only set but irrevocably imposed, so that anything like a natural rise in fame or fortune is well-nigh impossible. Artists are sold to local groups in packages--one high-priced and several thrift-shop items. As a $250 number, it is not even possible after paying one's expenses to make a living, which means that a piano tuner is better off than the pianist he serves. New talent, regardless of merit, must wait till the machine offers a "slot."

The last bitter dose for the enterprising wayward is the need to make the program conform to the supposed tastes of the audience. The violinist must have a large repertory of "little pieces" for both the main course and the encores. The vocalist must be lavish with coy numbers, for the lieder program has all but disappeared. And the pianist (as Debussy suggested) must be able to lift the piano with his teeth. It was ever thus and the serious artist, even when managed to the hilt and presumably fulfilling his destiny, complains that he cannot introduce those modern works that have usually been dedicated to him--in hopes. If he is a native or foreign-born nationaliist he also regrets that American music is slighted in favor of European.

Ultimately, all these grievances are chargeable to the public. The provinces mistrust themselves and one another, and all want the latest New York success; a reputation in Cleveland is of no use elsewhere: San Francisco won't listen. To obtain New York notices, the aspirant must give--at his own expense--a Town Hall recital. But even glowing notices will not open the doors of the managerial Kremlin and will not be read in the hinterland. The smaller New York managers and the local ones in the provincial cities can only compete on sufferance with the great circuits, because their constituents, the public, are ignorant, timid, and snobbish.
Jacques Barzun died in 2012 at the age of 104. Much of what he says is (sadly) still true, but I like to think that as a society, even in America (and particularly in the "provinces") we have made a little progress. It is interesting for me to reflect on "the old days," and understand the struggles that so many musicians faced during a time that many of us consider a kind of "golden age" of musicianship. Music in American Life is, unfortunately, not part of the rather extensive Jacques Barzun collection in the Internet Archive, but you can find a used paperback by way of Amazon. I borrowed my copy from a local university library.