Monday, January 21, 2013

Hyde Park on Hudson

I haven't published anything here for almost two years. That time I spent teaching and performing in Australia. Some of what I've done in Armidale NSW is published in a different form; take a look on YouTube and/or on my website. I'm now back in America--at least for the time being--and I had been thinking about writing again. But I couldn't anticipate that my first piece in two years' time would be about a film.

Here I am in Lexington, Kentucky--of all places, some people might add. But what I had hoped turned out to be the case: there's a very nice movie theatre which plays independent new films and nice oldies. So to celebrate MLK Day I went to see a movie about FDR. It's called Hyde Park on Hudson, which is actually not so far from where we used to live north of NYC. Hyde Park is where FDR used to live when he didn't have to be in DC. The film is really about the president's affair (whatever its exact nature) with a distant cousin, Daisy. At the same time, there's the visit of the British king & queen (that's the king we all know from The King's Speech) and there's lots of fun stuff along with really beautiful aspects of FDR as a person--his relationship with Daisy at its best, his fatherly care for the much younger king. That the Daisy in the movie (perhaps not the one in reality) felt also betrayed by FDR (who, after all, had many girl friends) makes the film in a way even stronger: it's not just a 'nice' fairy tale.

But what struck me most--sorry, can't help it--was the music in the film, both on- and off-screen. The "theme song" is clearly based on the song "When I Fall in Love" (although I doubt that 5 % of the audience will recognize the opening motive), and very nicely done. (I just looked it up and "When I Fall in Love" is an early 1950s song; not that it matters.) But then there's the on-screen music in the form of various bands performing for FDR. Not only is the music that's played so sweet, the best is how the people in the film--not least FDR himself--clearly like the music in a very physical and lovely manner. You see FDR sitting in his chair, tapping the beat with his right arm, and the household staff nodding their heads along with the music. I think it's so nice because it seems to me that this is something we no longer have in the popular music (if that is the correct terminology) of today. Well, at least not in this friendly kind of way.

FDR's affair with Daisy starts out by him taking her for trips in the car. Finally, he gets rid of the body guards and is alone with Daisy in the middle of the fields of upstate New York. He lights a cigaret and turns on the radio. "Moonlight Serenade". "I love that song," says Daisy. You can tell that she means it.

I don't think I realized it when watching the film, but I realize now: They both loved music.

Nice.

        

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Conducting Hänsel und Gretel

When I was in Austria recently, I picked up Peter Planyavsky's rather disturbing book about his 35 years as organist of the Stephansdom in Vienna. The book is quite appropriately called Gerettet vom Stephansdom (Saved from St. Stephen's). You wonder how Planyavsky managed to spend such a long time in a outrageously difficult working place. The book is full of horror stories: lots of mediocrity, of course (and this is the big cathedral of the music capital of the world!), lots of utterly hypocritical priests (not all of them, thank God). That Planyavsky—who is one of the very best improvisers alive—was nevertheless able to bring lots of great music to the church is a miracle. Anyway, if you read German and you have some kind of connection with church music, by all means read the book.

I feel a bit of a connection with Planyavsky, and funnily enough, I've just retired from church music myself after some 35 years of professional involvement in it (though thank goodness I've not been a cathedral organist for 35 years). Like Planyavsky—he calls himself an agnostic—I don't feel particularly religious in the narrow sense of the word, and I've been increasingly aware that that made it impossible to function well as a church musician. Plany sees this differently: to him, agnosticism is not in the least an objection to being a good church musician: "You don't need to believe in witches to conduct Hänsel und Gretel," he writes with his wonderfully dry sense of humor.

"But one has to know what a fairy tale is, what a witch is, and what the story wants to bring across. Most of all, however, one needs to try and understand what went on in Humperdinck's mind as he set the text to music exactly the way he did."

I have thought about Plany's comparison for days and spoken to a number of people about it. My initial reaction was: "Of course, he's completely right." In fact, I thought, it would be a real problem for a Hänsel und Gretel conductor to believe in witches. I mean, how the heck are you going to conduct Hänsel und Gretel if you believe that witches actually exist?!

And so I mulled things over for a long time until, finally, I came to a different conclusion. Here's the problem: If I—and I confess to not believing in witches—were to conduct H & G, I surely don't have to deal with a stage director, singers, and an audience who—at least allegedly—all believe in witches. In fact, if after the show I met a five-year-old who was really scared of the witch in the opera, I would surely tell her that, look, witches don't exist for real, you know.

Now try working in a church, especially in America, and not believing in the virgin birth, the resurrection, water turning into wine and all that jazz in a literal sense. I once worked for a minister who objected to the song "We three kings of Orient are." "Look here," she said. "They were not kings, but magi, and it doesn't say there were three of them." So much for her analysis of one of the better stories in Christian mythology, but how was I ever going to tell her that, well, this was of course mythology? To another minister, with whom I thought I had a really good working relationship, I once mentioned a bestselling author of books on early Christianity He simply dismissed the whole author with a "We don't do that sort of thing." Huh? An advanced degree in theology and no interest in a middle-of-the-road scholarly book on what happened in the early church? I once had a choir member who went to a seminar at some church where the free-thinking presenter had had the chutzpah to suggest that the physical reality of the virgin birth was, perhaps, not so crucial to Christianity in today's world. "If that's not true," she said disdainfully, "the whole fundament of my belief is gone."

Now imagine the whole opera company plus the audience all believing—or telling themselves they're believing—in witches. "But you know, the conductor doesn't believe in witches!" "What?! He doesn't believe in witches?!" "No—he thinks it's all just a fairy tale!" "O my... But how can someone conduct H & G without believing in witches?!" "You're right—we had better get someone who believes in witches."

In dulci jubilo

The other day, a colleague asked me about a well-known Bach organ piece, the chorale prelude on the medieval German Christmas carol "In dulci jubilo" from the Orgel-Büchlein, BWV 608:

"What's the current interpretation of Bach's In dulci jubilo in canone all'ottava—the one with quarters in the left hand and 9/8 in the right (3/2 in the pedal)? Can I play the quarters in dotted rhythm, is that a cop-out, or is it considered stylistically correct? My mother played it the other way, and it's a nice challenge, but I'm thinking it's probably out of date."

The colleague asked a bunch of colleagues about this and I think the results will be published in the newsletter of the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists (of which I am, still, a member). But I thought I might put what I wrote here as well. (When playing the piece again the other day I was reminded of some tricky passages and I want to write something about fingerings some time soon—but for now, this is it.) So, here we go.

I don't know what the current interpretation is—that probably depends on the country one lives in, one's teacher, and one's religious views (in matters of performance practice, I mean). To me the question is, What is gained by playing two-against-three? In terms of actual hearing experience, not much, IMHO. In fact, I think a listener in 1715 would have been bewildered by the incomprehensible, "shaky" rhythm and by the de facto strangely arpeggiated chords. It is true that Bach's writing could be unconventional, but he was not an eighteenth-century kind of Stockhausen or Carter.

That two-against-three is hard to play may sound trivial in itself; the real point is not that it's difficult but absurdly difficult in the context of Bach's music (not to mention his contemporaries). In fact, it would make this piece rhythmically the hardest Bach organ piece by far—more so, than, say, the hypercomplex five-part Vater unser from Clavier-Übung III. Bearing in mind that the Orgel-Büchlein was intended (according to Bach's title page) for beginning organists, I simply don't buy that level of complexity. All in all, my best judgement is that it's best to adjust those evenly notated quarters to the triplet movement, taking Bach's hints in mm. 25, 26, 28, 30 (I am aware that one can also use this as evidence to the contrary).

The pedal cantus firmus, BTW, was surely intended to be played an octave lower using a 4-ft. stop; no organ would have had a high F-sharp in Bach's time—in fact, very few European organs do today. The facsimile I have in front of me is to small to see if there's any indication, but I personally think it's quite possible to play the extra tenor voice in the last two measures (dare I call it the quinta vox) in the pedal as well—of course with the same 4-ft. stop and therefore also an octave lower, obviously with the left foot (and yes, I think toe-toe-toe-toe will do fine). Remember that the piece—as almost all of Bach's organ music—was written on two, not three, staves; the separate staff for the pedal is largely a later invention. In any event, the double pedal ending feels very idiomatic to me.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

From the Septuagint to Judy Collins

One thing I like very much about my community intermediate Latin class is that it is so intergenerational. Of the four students in the group, one is a sophomore in high school, another one his dad; I think it would be fair to describe the remaining two as seniors. It's a very nice group, and they're making excellent progress in their Latin studies. (With one 90-minute class meeting a week and very little homework, they move at about the speed of a good high school class.)

It is very important to me that all the students in the class are comfortable at the level we're working at, but it's perhaps understandable that, in some ways, the class focuses around the teenage boy. He seems remarkably dedicated to his Latin studies, obviously doing all the work in his spare time. His parents clearly support his studies a great deal, and it's quite beautiful to see the kid and his dad interact in class. The boy is often the first to volunteer reading in class, in fact, he'd happily read on for pages if only we'd let him... There is, however, absolutely nothing nerdy about him.

Anyway, the other day we were reading the chapter in our textbook about numeri difficiles—difficult numbers. When we got to the word septuaginta, "seventy," I couldn't resist saying a few words about the septuagint: the Ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew bible, allegedly crafted by 70 scholars. We talked a bit about what might be the importance of the septuagint for us and I pointed out that, in some cases, the text may reflect versions of the Hebrew bible that we no longer have in the original. Having the translation is obviously not as good as having the original, bet still better than nothing, I suppose.

"Imagine," I said, "that we didn't have Shakespeare's Midsummernight's Dream in English—that it was somehow lost early on—but that we did have a German translation from, say, the 1650s. That would obviously not be nearly as good as Shakespeare's original, but it would be a lot better than not having the play at all. In fact, you could probably reconstruct Shakespeare's original to quite an extent from such an early translation."

"Or," I went on, "imagine we didn't have the Beatles' own recording of 'Yesterday,' but only Judy Collins covering it on an early 1970s LP. That might not be quite as good as the Beatles' own version, but it would be a LOT better than nothing. In fact, come to think about it, it might almost be better than the Beatles' own recording."

To my delight, both my young student and his father protested. Surely, I was pushing things just a little too far. Judy Collins covering a Beatles song, OK, good enough—but better than the Beatles?! You gotta be kidding. "Look," I said, "if we finish this lectio in time, I'll play you a recording of Judy Collins covering a Beatles song that's actually better than the Beatles' own recording."

We finished the reading quickly and even managed to squeeze in an extra exercitium, so while the class was packing up, I quickly found the record and put it on the turntable. My student, his dad, and I listened to Judy Collins's superb version of "In My Life." "Can you hear the double bass?" I asked my student. "Very subtle," he agreed. More superlatives about Collins's recording ensued.

"You see," I said to my student, "I shouldn't be saying this, but to me, this is far, far more important than learning Latin."

My student agreed, thank goodness. I think I saw his dad smiling.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Learn Ancient Greek

I am about to start up my Greek classes again, and this is something I've been very proud of: I have been teaching Ancient Greek in two variants since last September, one class focusing on Book One of Homer's Iliad, another reading bits and pieces from the Greek Bible. Greek, of course, is not so terribly easy, but way back in high school, after three years of Latin and two of Greek, I decided that Greek was the cooler language of the two: that it was basically much friendlier, much nicer than Latin. I still think so, even though today my Latin is much better than my Greek. That, of course, is why I teach Greek: no better way to learn than by teaching it!

Anyway, the other day I found this lovely little Greek textbook on a friend's bookshelf. I wish I had known it earlier, as I might have used it for my classes last year. In fact, if I would start a new beginners' class now, I might use it, as it is a very nice introduction and written with a lot of humor. The book is Learn Ancient Greek by Peter Jones, a professor at the University of Newcastle on Tyne.

There's a number of things I love about the book. One thing is that Jones doesn't even bother printing the accents. I think this is such a good idea, as learning the accents from the beginning makes the work unreasonably difficult, and really, there's not much reason for a beginner (or for anybody learning Greek for fun, for that matter) to bother with them.

Equally unorthodox is how Jones doesn't much bother to distinguish between Attic (Sophocles), New Testament Greek, and the Homeric dialect. Rather than emphasizing the differences from the outset, you might as well start with the—let's face it, many—things the dialects have in common.

But the best part of the book is that it's so funny, and in a very pleasant way. Here is some pretty witty wisdom right from the Introduction:

Talk about learning ancient Greek and someone is bound to ask 'Ancient Greek? What use is that?' The answer, I suppose, depends on whether you think pleasure is useful. Being a joie de vivre man myself, I can think of few things more useful than pleasure, but I do not want to stop anyone being as miserable as sin if they so choose.

I mean, all these crazy discussions about why high school students have to learn Latin—their SATs, learning other Romance languages later, the Beauty of Vergil—one gets really tired of it. Greek is even harder to tackle—except if you think Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Herodotus are simply vastly important to one's understanding of society, and that reading these authors in translation, like it or not, is watering them down big time.

But really, such discussions are useless in the end. Either people understand you and you don't need to tell them, or they don't understand you and, in all likelihood, never will. That's why I love the way Jones deals with the problem. Why Greek? Hey, it's so much fun! And of course, it is!

Here's another great little paragraph, dealing with this silly idea of "dead" languages:

As for ancient Geek being 'dead', that is the sort of claim made only by those ignorant of the language. I waste no more space on them.

Yeah Professor Jones! That'll teach 'm. Of course! How can anybody who has read aloud two lines from the Iliad or, for my part, a paragraph from the Gospel of Mark in the orginal language maintain that this language is dead? Hey: you just read it, with feeling I hope, and through your voice, Homer (or Mr. Mark) spoke. Dead? Alive? It all depends on you reading it—or not, of course.

To be fair, I don't think the book will suffice if you really want to learn Greek: it's meant as an introduction, and that's what it is. An enthusiastic group of language lovers with the help of a teacher I'm sure can work through it in a semester, very comfortably in two. High school teachers will probably look down on the book, but actually, I think it would be a great basis for an after-school program (or even an official one-year course) in Greek.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Einstein, Truth, and Beauty

I have recently committed myself to a rather voluminous project of study; in fact, this could easily keep me busy for a few lifetimes. My hope, though, is to make it a finite endeavor to begin with—hopefully completed within a year or so—and after that to expand on it throughout my life. I know that sounds kinda ambitious—but anyway, there I am.

The topic of this project are some 120 great humanitarians. I cannot possibly hope to study their lives and work in detail, but my plan is to at least get an idea of who these people were, of their thoughts and their contributions to mankind. What exactly I'll do to study these people will depend on the nature of each individual humanitarian. The order in which I'll study them is my very own, determined for me—I hope—through spiritual guidance. (You can also call it fate if you like, but I like the other term better.) I intend to write at least a few paragraphs about every humanitarian I'll be studying, I imagine in relation to my own life and work to the extent possible.

The first person on my list is Albert Einstein. Now I am a musician and I like languages and I especially like teaching both music and languages; I know next to nothing about physics and as so many people, I was traumatized by a mathematics teacher in high school. So you might think it's a bit weird for me to start off this project with Einstein.

My first thought was that Einstein played the violin—as a hobby, of course. In fact there's a famous anecdote I heard years ago (and I haven't checked it yet, but even if it isn't true, it's still a good story). Einstein apparently played string quartet with some really famous professional musicians. One day, as they're winding their way through Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven, Einstein messes up—he comes in to early or too late, or he plays too fast or too slow, I don't know. His fellow musicians—the pros—are kind of annoyed by this amateurish business, and one of them has the chutzpah to quip at Einstein: "Hey—can't you count?" Einstein, drily: "Of course not!"

Unfortunately, I have every bit of understanding for the pro—look: I am a professional musician, alright? But how can anybody not totally love Einstein's reply? In fact, this remark alone makes Einstein a great humanitarian to me!

So anyway: I got a copy of The Einstein Reader from my wonderful local independent bookstore and started right away. I'm not even on page 10 and already, there is something so strong, so beautiful, so true that I wanted to write about it immediately. As you read this first quote, bear in mind that I recently retired from a 35 years as professional church musician and that I have been teaching in universities for some ten years.

"Both churches and universities—insofar as they live up to their true function—serve the ennoblement of the individual."

That to me is the best definition of what churches and universities should be about, and I think that's why I wanted to make music in churches—and, I suppose, why I want to teach in university. But of course, the catch is the clause in the middle of Einstein's sentence... As for churches—I've worked in at least a dozen of them for a shorter or longer period, so perhaps my opinion is worth something: I honestly don't think any of those places lived up to its "true function" as defined by Einstein. That sounds a bit disappointing, and believe me, it is! But let me put it this way: I'll keep looking and if I find one, I'll let you know, OK? (I'll hold off on my opinion about universities until I've taught at twelve of them or for 35 years, whichever comes first.)

Even though, Einstein goes on to say, "the essential unity of ecclesiastical and secular cultural institutions was lost during the 19th century, ... no one would have been taken seriously who failed to acknowledge the quest for objective truth and knowledge as man's highest and eternal aim."

Wow! Objective truth and knowledge! I'm not sure how politically correct these values are in today's society, but I suppose I'm old-fashioned enough to subscribe to this. You may think that objective truth is a rather absurd ideal for a musician. Does not every pianist play Beethoven his or her way? In fact, is that not exactly what makes it interesting?

Perhaps. But in my own little way, as a musician and music teacher, I think I am aiming for some kind of objective truth. That is why knowledge of music history and music theory are so important to me as a performer and teacher. But look at it in a slightly different way: Is true Beauty not the highest form of objective truth anyway? Is not the gift of a great humanitarian artist to reveal, through the Beauty of his art, some glimpse of eternal and utterly objective truth?

I would certainly like to think so.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Email from a Student

I have written at least once before about a Very Good Student, and my faithful readers will perhaps remember to imagine the tongue in my cheek when I talk about "good" students (they're all "good," of course, and I like working a lot with all of them!). On the other hand, sometimes students do something that's so nice it's worth blogging (and, I suppose, bragging) about. Here's another of those Great Students I feel really honored to work with.

This young man studies harpsichord with me. Now, from the first moment I heard (and saw) him play the harpsichord, I knew he had a very special gift for the instrument and its repertoire. That is quite remarkable, because from his background, you would not at all expect a special interest in Baroque music (he loves Bach!) and even less a special "feel" for the specific way the harpsichord works. When you see this man play the harpsichord, you realize it's actually a very subtile and sensitive instrument—which of course it is, but only if you're willing to think that way!

So I've been working with this student for a little over a year, and on the whole, he's been great to work with. That's not to say there are no problems, but he's taken on a lot of what I've told him. What's perhaps even more important, he's matured a lot as a music student, taking his work so much more seriously now—which I think is really fantastic.

A while ago, my student was working on a very tricky variation from Bach's "Goldberg" Variations. We disagreed about the interpretation of some of the ornaments, and I suggested he'd look at the facsimile of the first edition. Lo and behold, the next time I saw him he said he'd actually looked for the facsimile in the library, but they didn't have a copy of it. Well, I said, you should have emailed me last night and I would have brought my copy in for you today. Ah, he said, you're right, that would have been good. Even better, we both agreed that, of course, it was his responsibility to ask me.

So the other day, he emails me out of the blue. He's now working on a different Bach piece. He has this great way of emailing me: "Professor?" —as if he's calling me in the corridor in school. Then, in just a few words, he tells me he has trouble with one particular measure in the piece. Can I help him out by suggesting a fingering for this tricky passage?

I so loved getting this question from him that I put off making my fruit salad (we had a birthday in the family) and looked up the piece in question. Within a few minutes, I wrote him back with a fingering for those two measures (you always want to look at a particular measure in its context), but the question inspired me so much that I spent an hour or two looking at that passage in more detail, trying to understand why I actually used that particular fingering by looking a little bit "under the surface" of the notes.

OK, so keyboard fingerings are a huge area of interest to me—as a player, and even more as a teacher, and I'll write a lot more about it some day. But the great thing is that this student asked me for help. So simple, so clear, so straightforward. Wonderful. I love it.