Gretna Music's Blog

About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

April 9, 2018

Mahler at the LA Phil, a Trumpian Swamp, and Miss April

I heard (and saw) Das Lied von der Erde Saturday evening. The production added ‘cinema’ made by Teatrocinema of Chile on a semi-transparent screen behind the orchestra. The singers in costumes with a few props appeared in real time and space through the landscapes and phantasmagorical scenes projected onto the screen. (You can see photos on Twitter.) The production was very creative but, for me, a person curiously rooted in the 19th Century, a bit distracting from the sublime music. Our seats faced across Disney Hall, about 10 ft in front of the podium and 20 feet above stage left. So to see the orchestra I had to look about 20 degrees down and to the right. To see the screen we had to turn about 45 degrees to the right and, to read the translations (total of 158 lines), to look up almost to the ceiling above the screen. (I should have read the translations — not in the program and passed through several languages from the original Chinese  before the performance.) 

The singers, Russell Thomas, tenor and Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano, were wonderful but their position behind the screen and orchestra (probably near the organ pipes about 20 feet behind the percussion section) slightly diminished their 'presence,' if you know what I mean. Instead of a pit, there was an entire onstage orchestra in front of them. When Mumford sang with Denis Bouriakov, the principal flutist, the balance seemed slightly too much in favor of the flute. But I do like to hear the flute played so well and it usually is the victim of imbalance, at least in its lower registers!) 

All was conceived and directed by the MacArthur genius Fellow-in-Residence, Juval Sharon. His pre-concert (“Upbeat Live”) rapid-fire lecture beforehand was moderately illuminating — Mahler was basically ‘operatic’ and coming off several life disasters — even though the audio system failed (unusual for those polished productions). On the podium, Gustavo again proved he is the “Real Thing” so the music was exquisite, spanning a huge gamut between carefree joyfulness to utter despair, sometimes signaled by the terrifying growling of the contrabassoon. 

Will this concept of the live classical "music video" take its place alongside Beyoncé, U2, and Bruno Mars? 

As usual, I wished Mahler’s SBE (subacute bacterial endocarditis) could have received the benefit of modern diagnosis and antibiotic treatment that became possible in the 1950's. But, maybe restoration to better health might have blunted his premonition of death that he so brilliantly captured in so many of his works, especially the 9th Symphony and Das Lied. Pathology as muse, so to speak. "Mahler's idea of leave-taking at its best" that, in the life of the great Dr. Lewis Thomas, changed with his own aging into what it may be for many of us today, ". . . the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything." (Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, 1980.)

Happier thought: The road on which our tiny Interlochen cottage has rested since the 1940's bisects a large lot on Green lake around from the Interlochen Center for the Arts. The house is far closer to the lake than permitted by current code, and the section of the lot on the other side of the road is unusually large. But that section is unusable because it is a Trumpian swamp that never dries out. There are two old shacks on it, one rotting and sinking into the swamp but the other, facing and close to the roadside, still can serve for storage. 

Or for composing music, as Mahler did in his third (and last) summer composing hut. I have debated the idea of preserving ours — as we accumulate the inevitable clutter that seems to build up in both of the other homes in our ‘real estate empire' (as Phil DeMuth calls it). So maybe I will replace the roof shingles with metal and put on a front like this. A plaque (auf Deutch) will mark it as a replica of Mahler’s hut in Dobbiaco on the Italian/German border where he wrote the 9th and Das Lied. Our hut is almost identically proportioned and will be better maintained than Mahler's has been, at least until the contrabassoon comes for us.

Our friend Amy Jo Rhine, daughter of retired Lebanon High band director, Bob Rhine and the 3rd hornist in the orchestra, was on vacation but present in spirit. She was 'Miss April’ on the concert program, as her mother called her. Too bad we didn't see her. There are great horn parts in Das Lied.

October 11, 2017

Have you Lost Your Sense of Smell?

I still can’t get my mind around the fact that a mysterious agent, whatever it is (or they are), that can cause Parkinson’s Disease (PD) probably enters the body through the nose or the mouth. It, or its evil effect, travel to the brain through the olfactory or the vagus nerves, the former from the nose, the latter from the gut! 

That initially outrageous idea reminds me of a similar drama decades ago when we all knew for sure that stomach ulcers were caused by stress and too much acid. We were shocked when courageous researchers steadfastly asserted that helicobacter pylori, a typical bacterial resident in the stomach usually minding its own business, could occasionally go berserk and dig a hole. Now we add antibiotics to our treatment regimen for ulcers!

A PD agent is probably not a bacterium, virus, or even a tiny newly-discovered prion, but it could behave like H pylori. Or like a zebra mussel, living a quiet peaceful life in lakes in another continent only to become aggressive and devour all its neighbors when introduced into the apparently nurturing environment of the American Great Lakes. (Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee just used that analogy to try to understand the behavior of some metastatic cancers in last week's New Yorker.) Perhaps certain people are destined for Parkinson's because they unknowingly provide a similar favorable environment for mysterious agents that may be ubiquitous and harmless for most other people.

A recent editorial in NEUROLOGY reminded me that although loss of the sense of smell becomes increasingly likely as we age (isn't aging a relentless wearing-out process?) a substantial (but yet unspecified) proportion of people with hyposmia (reduced) or anosmia (absent) develop Parkinson's, or some form of dementia, possibly including Alzheimer's. My father lost his smell years before symptoms of his dementia appeared in his late '80's. As I pointed out in a previous post, loss of hearing too is not necessarily a 'normal' or inevitable part of aging.

Detecting the earliest evidence of Parkinson's disease among healthy patients could help us test and develop methods to prevent or slow future progression to the typical disabling features of the condition, such as impairment of walking, moving, thinking, and speaking, and tremor, before those symptoms appear when the loss of the critical dopaminergic neurons in the midbrain is complete. According to one hypothesis (Braak), the process usually starts low in the brainstem and very slowly marches upward over years. When it reaches the cerebrum, if you are still alive, the 'late' complication of dementia may ensue 

Degeneration of the olfactory bulb (a tassel-like structure attached to the bottom of the brain just above the nasal cavity) is a common cause of impaired sense of smell and may provide the earliest clue to future PD. The bulb rests upon a thin fragile plate of bone punctured by tiny holes, the lamina cribrosa, through which wire-like nerve fibers (axons) transmit olfactory signals from 6–10 million smell receptors in the nose. 

The olfactory nerves are also called the first cranial nerve (the second transmit vision and the eighth bring sound into the brain); transmit signals gathered by the receptors from the bulb to the brain. (All cranial nerves are paired, one on each side.)

Once an odorant enters the nose, it interacts with the receptors located on the surface of the olfactory cilia and a chemical reaction generates a crescendo of action potentials (signals) in the olfactory nerve. These signals project to higher brain regions involved in conscious thought processes and the limbic system, generating the emotional, motivational, and memory context. 

Approximately 1,000 of human genes participate in recognizing odors. Thus, we can distinguish 4,000–10,000 distinct odor molecules, a scientific discovery that earned a Nobel Prize in 2004. 

Olfactory dysfunction impairs the satisfaction gained from foods and inhibits the detection of environmental hazards (e.g., toxins, fire, spoiled foods, and natural gas leaks). Diminished olfactory inputs also dampen the initial phase of digestion responsible for stimulating exocrine secretions in the mouth, stomach, the secretions that facilitate the absorption and assimilation of micronutrients and fatty acids and contribute to the nature of the microbiome in the host by governing the gut pH.

The prevalence of all-cause hyposmia in the US adult population is discouragingly high: between 13.5% and 24.5%, and increases incrementally with age (17.3% of 60- to 69-year-olds, 29.2% of 70- to 79-year-olds, and 62.5% of 80- to 97-year-olds). Men and African Americans have the highest prevalence of hyposmia. Only 9% of adults actually report a loss in their sense of smell, an observation that suggests a substantial number of cases go undetected (and that a substantial number of people old enough to afford wine judge its quality only by the price of the bottle).

Ninety percent of people with sporadic (not familial) PD, have olfactory dysfunction. In addition, 4 prospective studies have shown that olfactory dysfunction is a risk factor for PD, but the conclusions drawn are almost exclusively from white and Asian populations with less than 5 years of follow-up. It turns out that African Americans have a higher rate of olfactory dysfunction but a lower risk that it will cause PD.

One underlying mechanism behind olfactory dysfunction in PD is the spreading and accumulation of Lewy bodies, enriched with intracytoplasmic inclusions of α-synuclein that arise from peripheral inputs at the olfactory epithelium or the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus nerve emerging from the stomach.

If you read this and know, or discover, or suspect, that you have impaired sense of smell, don't panic. Among those percentage ranges above, the data does not allow us to separate those with a risk of any neurologic disease, though one can suspect that  the risk is greater if you fall into one of the younger age groups. It is important to be aware of the problem, in case preventive therapy emerges, and to rule out common non-neurologic causes, such as a lifetime of repeated or chronic upper respiratory infections. 

Most doctors, even neurologists, don't test for hyp- or anosmia and that's a shame. The first step in a test would be to ask a simple question: "How is your sense of smell?" If the answer is not "great," then simple office tests, like The Brief Smell Identification Test (BSIT), can quickly and accurately detect and roughly quantitate the degree, just as an audiogram or vision test does.

As of today, we don't have any treatment that will prevent Parkinson's but it is only a matter of time until we do. That might prove to be an active therapy or strict avoidance of a possible multitude of agents -- in the air or food -- that may be a cause. Scott Pruitt and his EPA are now probably going to provide us with more cases for study.

April 20, 2017

"Coachella is Certainly a Place to See Live Music...."

I try to hard understand the enormous changes in music taking place during my lifetime. As an child, I loved hearing the Cleveland Orchestra in my hometown, but the music that orchestra makes today, though by some measures at an even higher level, is no longer what most people mean when they play or speak of “music.” 

Performing arts organizations of all sizes, from small Music at Gretna to the massive Metropolitan Opera are scrambling to retain audiences to support their missions without having to drain dry the wells of patronage. For too many people our music tends to be “classical” in the worst sense of that term: old music outmoded and forgotten. I find myself a little sheepish when I respond to the question: ”What kind of music do you play?” The response is usually a conversation-stopping, “Oh.”

That all came up again this week in my winter hometown, Palm Springs California. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival ("Coachella") came to Indio. Though that is 22 miles away, many of the expected 200,000 "fans" paying at least $400 for general admission, some arriving in VW vans, some on commercial flights, some in private planes from LA or Bermuda, spilled out into the restaurants and hundreds of hotels in Palm Springs. The promoters expect to "gross" way over $100 million and pay headliners each $3-4 mil to perform. The 345 restrooms and 6 stages inside huge tents on 700 acres of desert are astounding. The event presents "a whirlpool of commercial potential" according to The New Yorker.

Read more by John Seabrook and Carrie Battan

January 26, 2017

Abbado, Lucerne, Mahler

Just before the New Year I purchased a DVD of Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Mahler's Ninth Symphony. The Ninth was Mahler's farewell to the world: "Each passing minute takes us closer to the grave. Death is awful in its inevitability. We will rage and fight against it, but in the end, something bigger than we can imagine will force us into acquiescence." (Shirley Apthorp in the liner notes) 

The 'Ninth,' probably in the Bernstein recording, gave rise to the despondent "Late Night Thoughts While Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony" by Lewis Thomas, contemplating late in his life the possibility of nuclear armageddon that seems to have crept back into my consciousness since November 4. 

Mahler's end was premature in 1911 at age 51, caused by subacute bacterial endocarditis, a condition from which he could have been saved 50 years later by antibiotics and, if also needed, cardiac surgery. Abbado was about 76 years old when he conducted this recording, five years before his more timely, but no less regrettable, end.

The performance, in contrast to the Bernstein recording, is, according to Apthorp, "fluid" rather than "angular," "driven" rather than "accepting," and "talkative" where Bernstein was "silent." However you try to describe it in mere words, the amazing performance kept our entire party on New Years Day totally rapt after dinner. No one asked to me to check football scores! We all respected the "Abbado Pause" -- after the last quiet note died away. Speechless, we wiped away tears.

Everything about the DVD is exquisite: the musicians, hand-picked from the best orchestras in Europe; the filming that, I hesitate to say with Lucerne on my bucket list, offers many advantages over what any member of the large audience in the hall, Kofi Annan and Simon Rattle included, was able to experience; the sound, better of course on a good system but lush and full with earbuds; and especially the view from all angles of Abbado conducting without a score a work he has known all his life. Orchestra members, entirely immersed in the music, effortlessly moved and swayed with him.

Armageddon is not part of the business model of Amazon. Within days my inbox delivered an offer: Mahler Symphonies 1-7 recorded at the Lucerne Festival by Abbado and his orchestra. I snapped up a "like-new" package of 4 DVD's from one of the "other vendors" for $43 plus shipping! I only discovered several weeks after it arrived that the producers had slipped in a bonus Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto by Yuja Wang and Five Rückert Songs by the sublime Magdalena Kožená, mentioned only in small print on the album cover. 

More art has probably been inspired by the Resurrection than by any other 'event' in human history. None comes closer, in my view, to matching the profundity of that idea than the recording in this set of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, No 2. Mahler was, of course, born into a Jewish family. Why can I not understand why anyone experiencing these performances might not be overwhelmed by humility? 

I will not "rage and fight" against death when that time comes. But I will include these amazing recordings on my final "playlist."

December 10, 2016

On Optimism and Despair

Zadie Smith spoke in Germany on November 10 on receiving the 2016 Welt literature Prize. Reading the transcript in The New York Review of Books (December 22, 2016) cheered me up. For a few minutes. Here's how it ends:

If novelists know anything it's that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world--and most recently in America--the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.

October 30, 2016

There are Few Places like Mt. Gretna

Far from just a simple village Mt. Gretna is a quilt of fragments of several municipalities that gives new meaning to the word "balkan." Our Balkan Mountains are a few square miles of gentle forested Appalachian foothills and their highest peak "Governor Dick" hill, elevation, 666 ft. Water runs down it's slopes into all parts of Mt. Gretna, eventually ending in the majestic 10-acre Lake Conewago.

The only residents who can legally claim to live in "Mt. Gretna" are the approximately 200 households in the "Borough of Mt Gretna" that also calls itself the "Pennsylvania Chautauqua," and thus has two governing bodies and budgets. Others live in sections called Campmeeting, Mt. Gretna Heights, Conewago Hill, Timber Hills and Stoberdale, actually residing in the corners of townships: South Annville, South Londonderry, West Cornwall, all meeting the Borough near the post office. 

The only remotely common features of the community are the Fire Company, the Sewer Authority and the Post Office. Most walks to the post office (or flow through the drains) cut through several school districts and gerrymandered electoral districts. Even the county court house can be confused about the latter. My district  extends all the way to the Philadelphia 'Main Line,' its shape often likened to an pouncing dragon with part of Gretna in its teeth. Among the main unifying Gretna ideas is the prevailing conviction that attempts to consolidate services among these quilt patches are actually schemes to increase taxes, though most Gretnans, like Californians, live unaware of the fault lines they cross every day.  

As a results of these peculiarities, the actual population of Mt. Gretna is indeterminate. Typical guesses range from 1,600 to 2,200 people, the higher figure for summer. Many residents join one or more organizations like The Outdoor Art Show, Gretna Theater, Gretna Music, Cicada, Heritage and Bible Festivals, Historical Society, Chautauqua Summer Programs and Foundation, Organ Concerts, Arts Council, Socrates Cafe, book and film clubs, and others. Some members of each view 'the others' with suspicion or jealousy as competitors. They actually do compete -- for contributions, audiences and venues. A list of Gretna 501c organizations would fill a page! And, I should add: there are five restaurants, several small businesses and, get this, a Roller Rink and Psychiatric Hospital! 

Alas, our narrow gauge railway, three hotels and an amusement park vanished during the last century.

And though our forested hills are now surrounded by a sea of recently-harvested cornfields where Trump signs sprout like weeds, political inclinations of Metropolitan Gretna remain largely unpolled and uncertain, though it is fair to guess that, owing to a concentration of artists, writers, gay couples, professors and professionals, the place is an oasis of liberalism in our conservative "Alabama" middle of Pennsylvania. 

My post-office walk takes me through two townships into a borough, two electoral districts and three ecclesiastical domains. Yesterday while crossing the Campmeeting, founded in 1892 and home of the Annual Bible Festival, I came upon two golden-agers engaged in a violent shouting match -- I dare not repeat most of it -- and on the verge of a fistfight. My approach enabled one to scamper away to safety, shouting back over his shoulder. 

"I only asked why he had a Hillary sign in his front yard," said the remaining octogenarian. "Why should he take offense? I only asked him to tell me what Hillary has ever done to qualify herself for President. Why can't we have a reasonable discussion? I read everything, learn from the internet and TV and stay well-informed. I'm a good citizen and welcome other opinions. I just wanted to know." 

"You certainly must be a good and well-informed citizen," I affirmed, trying to avoid replacing the escapee as a target. "I too enjoy rational discussions as opposed to trading insults."

But he continued, "I just learned why the Ambassador was killed in Benghazi!" "Why," I cautiously asked. "He had discovered that Hillary and Obama were running a drug cartel and so they didn't rescue him when the terrorists attacked." It seems Trumpism has even infected us here.

Finally, I should mention the most important unifying feature of Mt. Gretna: people choose to live and come here because they love it, albeit for varied reasons, and want to participate. Perhaps that also explains a strong resistance to change. We are a community to which almost everyone volunteers time and effort, and thus each of us has an identification beyond just 'resident.' We know most of our neighbors and take care of one another, meet often, serve common though diverse, goals. We don't always agree and discussions sometimes become heated, but when you need help, there is always someone to call.

So now you know why there is chamber music here.

October 18, 2016

Shakespeare 'removed' from Yale?

At a chance meeting the Development Director of a local orchestra gave me two tickets to their evening concert. In the lobby afterwards, sipping sweet cranberry juice, we encountered an impeccably-dressed young couple, clearly well-bred, well-heeled and probably professional, with their equally pretty daughter who looked to be about 13 years old. 

Emi is likely to approach teenagers and children in such situations: “It’s so good to see young people at concerts,” she says to strike up a conversation with strangers. 

The father said proudly, “Heather plays in the Youth Orchestra.” Emi replied that was wonderful, especially in view of the fact that music education has been phased out of so many schools, and brought me into the conversation to tell me that. Then the father remarked that it’s tragic that even Harvard and Yale are "removing Shakespeare."

Taken aback, I replied with something like, "That can’t be true. You must be mistaken.” The man, suddenly cold and defensive, replied, “I am correct. And you are talking to a member of the choir” meaning, I assume, that he strongly disagrees with that terrible decision. He turned away, not interested in any more conversation and led the family to safer territory.

When I got home, puzzled by the angry response and pondering the sorry fate of Stephen Greenblatt, Harold Bloom, and others, I -- of course --  'Googled.' The first result at the top of the page was from

Yale Students Demand Removal of White Authors from Curriculum

Under this (deliberately?) misleading headline Breitbart reported that a "group of Yale students” had circulated a petition to remove a course on English poets from the list of courses required for graduation with an English major — because the poets are all white men. The article implies such behavior should be expected from a school ironically not so diverse as it likes to flaunt because (quoting an earlier Yale Daily News), "97 percent of political contributions from Yale employees go to Democrats." 

Further down the list I found that last May the Yale Daily News had more accurately reported on the petition signed by 160 undergraduates (among 5430). English majors take 14 courses in their major field.

Student petition urges English department to diversify curriculum

"It urges English department faculty to reevaluate the undergraduate curriculum, as well as reconsider the current core requirements and introductory courses. It particularly criticizes the Major English Poets sequence, a longtime prerequisite for the major and “perhaps the most distinctive element of English at Yale,” according to the department’s website. The petition calls for the abolishment of this prerequisite and for the pre-1800/1900 requirements to refocus and include literature relating to gender, race and sexuality. [more]

Eventually I learned that a report published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has revealed that only four of 52 highest-ranked schools still have a Shakespeare requirement 
The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile 2015 
Researchers determined that Harvard University, the University of California-Berkeley, Wellesley College and the U.S. Naval Academy are the only four schools in the U.S. News & World Report’s 52 highest-ranked universities and colleges which require English majors to take a course on Shakespeare to obtain their degree.
The key word is "required" not "removed."

Obviously some Yale students don't just swallow meekly what they are served (something I learned in college), as, it seems, do readers of Breitbart. And it's sad that two sides of important issues no longer discuss them rationally (they do at Yale) before permanently locking up their views behind the lines on either side of a battlefront. We can hope that Heather will learn in the youth orchestra to play well with and listen to others.

September 23, 2016

End of Summer of Love, 2016

Our summer season ended on the 15th anniversary of September 11 with a "Tribute to Enrique Granados" by violinist Nancy Bean, cellist, Lloyd Smith, guitarist Allen Krantz, and mezzo-soprano, Elizabeth Shammash. That last program was diverse and exquisite. Our small offering of Granados' tonadillas should tempt you to listen to more, especially his wonderful piano music, and remember the sublime pianist Alicia de Larrocha. Granados can be neglected, perhaps partly because he perished prematurely aboard a torpedoed ship on an itinerary changed at the last minute so that he could play for President Wilson before returning to Spain from the premiere of his opera Goyescas at the Met.

Music of love v. terrorists and torpedos.

The weather was cool and breezy, and the Gretna community, devoid of the usual strollers and visitors after Labor Day, was unusually empty, calm, and quiet. It occurs to us that the early weeks of September would be a good time for future special events in the Playhouse, say a conference on Music and the Brain, or an in-depth exploration of the life and works of Brahms, or of Spanish composers. A true "Festival." 

Ombra mai fù
At our September breakfast board meeting, we toasted one of our most successful seasons with mimosas and shared favorite memories of the summer, the fourth in a row that ended "in the black." We pondered why our fortunes have been so bright during a time when classical music audiences are not growing and other similar organizations, especially orchestras, are suffering. 

It may not be an oversimplification to answer that our success -- like our 41-year sustainability -- results from the fact that for a growing number of people, our music has value far above the price of the tickets. We don't speak often of the "audience," nor think of ourselves as "providers." Music at Gretna is all of "us" whether on the stage, in the seats, on the staff, on the board, on a committee, on the volunteer staff or on the mailing list. Everyone talks of "we," all truly the owners of an organization who value and promote our mission to keep on making good music. Our concerts send us home with warm feelings of pride and ownership. And that inspires amazing generosity.

That's not to minimize the efforts and talents of our President, Gil Feinberg, our staff, Suzanne Stewart and Carl Kane, and all the fine musicians who graced our stage, porches and living rooms this summer. 

If maximizing "butts in the seats" were our mission, there would be no "we."

Our current financial solidity will allow us to reset the delicate balance between risk --necessary for excellence of any art -- and fiscal responsibility, necessary for the survival of any artistic organization. Since we nearly fell off the fiscal cliff five years ago, we have been operating closer to the responsibility end of the spectrum. Now, after careful stewardship of growing resources and a mountain of good will of a growing "us," we can reach farther in the same and different directions toward artistic creativity and excellence. Although that won't necessarily be toward more 'celebrated' performers, we are pleased that one direction will be to the Ware Center in Lancaster, in March 2017, where, in continuing collaboration with Millersville University, we will present violinist Hillary Hahn. Next Summer we will return to our longstanding tradition of chamber music on Sunday evenings: eight Sunday evenings in July through Labor Day, and perhaps more after that.

We hope we added some love to your life this summer. You have certainly added it to ours. We resume our schedule at Elizabethtown College on Saturday October 22, with pianist, Robert McDonald, Curtis and Juilliard faculty member, in loving memory of Nancy Hatz who cherished her role in his career.

* Ombra mai fú
 Never was the shade
  of a tree
  more delightful
  and cherished.

August 29, 2016


Notes for our concert on September 4

Of tonight’s composers, four French and two Italian, the oldest (Lully) was born in 1632 and the youngest (Leclair) died in 1764, about fourteen years after Bach and Handel. Those 132 years fit into the period labeled by later generations as the “Baroque.” 

The word “baroque” is rooted in the Portuguese word, barroco (“misshapen pearl”) but was transformed into an adjective meaning of “over the top” in degree of florid embellishment when first applied to art. The critic who probably used the word in music for the first time, attached it to Rameau’s first opera, Hyppolite et Arcie. He didn't intend to compliment, but rather to accuse the composer of hubris in daring to try to surpass a predecessor (Lully) in advanced harmony and orchestration, exuberance and dramatic emotional expression (a response similar perhaps to my first reaction to “Chicago the Musical”) and inadvertently named an entire period in music history. 

Another way to think of tonight’s music is that it comes from the “period of the basso continuo.” That concept, according to Richard Taruskin, “focuses on harmony, . . . culminating in the full elaboration of major-minor tonality as a governor—and generator — of musical form.”  That culmination led to the rise of instrumental music in the second half of the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century instrumental and vocal music “vied for dominance" going into the following “Classical” period (Haydn and Mozart and Vienna). Basso continuo music tended more to instruct (in religion, for example), impress, and express feelings; music in the Classical period aimed more to please and entertain. Music from the Romantic period in the 19th century, “often seems to want to share—even impose—feelings.” (Kerman)

Basso continuo composers often wrote only two lines, the bass line and the treble, leaving to the performers to fill in the harmony (chords) and also to embellish the melody line that on paper could be starkly simple, thus improvising and ornamenting as jazz players do. The bass line could be played on any low instrument, often a viola d gamba, bass lute or theorbo, later on a cello or even a bassoon. A keyboard instrument, usually a harpsichord, provided the chords. 

Tonight’s composers generally wrote the music they played -- and played the music they wrote, in contrast to the Romantic period that elevated composers to godlike or genius status, their music to be played by “mere practitioners of music” (a term I first heard from a Dean of Music at Yale [referring to other schools] in his welcoming speech to an entering class of music grad students). 

The same 132 years we we are talking about saw the origin of the public concert, demanded in part by larger ensembles required for symphonies and concertos. These years also overlapped a movement called The Enlightenment. Thinkers (or ‘philosophes' whom we might call today public intellectuals), like Voltaire and Rousseau, veered away from the great scientific discoveries of Galileo, Newton, and Leibniz toward the social sphere. They were less intent on controlling natural forces by science than on turning these forces to human problems, like public morality, education, and politics. If that sounds familiar, it’s because two ‘products’ of the Enlightenment were our Declaration of Independence and Federalist Papers, and especially the idea of “the pursuit of happiness,” through the efforts of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Both of them probably heard, and in Jefferson’s case, may have even played, some of the music we will hear tonight.

The term “authentic” to describe performance of music like tonight’s has been largely abandoned partly because using replicas of ‘olde’ instruments alone does not necessarily ensure an effective performance. Now we speak of “historically-informed performance” (HIP) that attempts — based on scholarship but obviously not recordings —  to closely reproduce what the composers and their audiences expected to hear. Nevertheless, though we certainly would play the music of Lully and Leclair differently from that of Liszt or Ligeti, our contemporary listeners, conditioned by the “canon” that now includes several more centuries of music, bring different musical experiences and expectations that performers in our time must also take into account. Music is after all, the language to communicate what these composers still have to ‘say’ to us in the 21st century.

Jean-Baptiste Lully: “…a Florentine boy who had been brought over (to France) in 1646, aged thirteen, to serve as garçon de chambre to Mme. de Montpensier, a Parisian lady who wanted to practice her Italian.” He eventually “found work as a servant to Louis XIV’s cousin, Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orleans (known as the “Grande Mademoiselle”), and as a dancer and mime at the royal court, where he danced alongside, and made friends with, the teenaged king. Upon the death of his violin teacher the next year, Lully assumed the man’s position as court composer of ballroom music.  His rise to supreme power was steady and unstoppable, for Lully was an Italian-born French political manipulator of genius. Shortly after the founding in 1669 of the Académie Royale de Musique, Louis XIV’s opera establishment, Lully managed to finagle the rights to manage it.  From then on he was a musical Sun King, the absolute autocrat of French music, which he re-created in his own image. His works would dominate the repertory for half a century after his death [from gangrene after stabbing his foot with his conducting staff].  His style did not merely define an art form, it defined a national identity. La musique, he might well have said, c’est moi.” (Taruskin)

Attilio Ariosti: Born into the Italian middle class, he became a monk in 1688 at age 22 but soon left the order and become a composer in the court of the Duke of Mantua and Monferrato. He became a deacon in 1692, the same year he achieved the post of organist at Santa Maria dei Servi in Bologna. In 1697, he went to Berlin at the request of Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, the first Queen of Prussia, an enlightened patroness of the arts with a keen interest in music, like King Frederick ‘The Great’ a half century later. After enjoying the favor of the Queen, Ariosti wrote and collaborated in the writing of a number of stage works performed for the court in Berlin. He resided in Berlin as the court composer until 1703.

François Couperin: Called le Grande to distinguish him from his brother, François Couperin has also been called “Bach’s greatest keyboard contemporary.”  At age 18 he officially inherited his father’s position as organist at St. Gervais in Paris. Later he became harpsichordist at Versailles. He amassed a large quantity of harpsichord pieces in elegantly engraved editions, published books about the ways he would have his works performed, and also established a reputation as a writer of single character pieces of which each of these short pieces is an example. Couperin was the “poet musician par excellence,” who “believed in Music to express itself in sa prose et sed versa (prose and poetry). He believed that if we enter into the poetry of music, we discover that it is belle due la beauté (more beautiful than beauty itself).” (Jordi Savall) Couperin’s music directly influenced not only Bach but also Brahms (who edited some of his works), Ravel (Le Tombeau de Couperin) and Richard Strauss (Dance Suite and Don Quixote).

Jean-Philippe Rameau replaced Jean-Baptiste Lully as the dominant composer of French opera and is also considered the leading French composer for the harpsichord of his time, alongside François Couperin. Little is known about Rameau's early years, and it was not until the 1720s that he won fame as a major theorist of music with his Treatise on Harmony (1722) and also in the following years as a composer of masterpieces for the harpsichord, which circulated throughout Europe. He was almost 50 before he embarked on the operatic career upon which his reputation chiefly rests today.  “The Rameau style was the Lully style advanced—in no way challenged, but intensified: richer in harmony, more sumptuous in sonority more laden in texture, more heroic in rhythm and rhetoric, more impressively masterminded than ever” (Taruskin), err, more baroque?

Jean-Marie Leclair is the only composer on tonight’s program who was murdered, stabbed perhaps by an ex-wife thus making problematic the ending of tonight’s theme of love music. He was born in Lyon, but left to study dance and the violin in Turin. In 1716, he married Marie-Rose Casthanie, a dancer, who died about 1728. Leclair returned to Paris in 1723, where he played at the Concert Spirituel, the main semi-public music series. In 1730, he married for the second time. His new wife was the engraver Louise Roussel, who prepared for printing all his works from Opus 2 onward. Named ordinaire de la musique by Louis XV in 1733, Leclair resigned in 1737 after a clash over control of the musique du Roy. Leclair was then engaged by the Princess of Orange – a harpsichordist and former student of Handel – and from 1738 until 1743, served three months annually at her court in Leeuwarden, working in The Hague as a private maestro di cappella for the remainder of the year. He returned to Paris in 1743 and lived there for 21 years before his tragic death. The Sonata in G Major is one of about 60 he wrote for one violin—among many others for two violins.

July 25, 2016

More Music of Our Summer of Love

Notes for July 31 concert by the Wister Quartet and Cynthia Raim, pianist
Antonín Dvořák, Romance in f minor, B. 39 
Dvořák was a musician of wide and eclectic background. As a teenager he played in the Prague conservatory orchestra when it needed augmentation for big works like Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, and then began his career as a fervent Wagnerian. In 1863 he played under Wagner in a concert that, among other things, introduced the preludes to Tristan and Die Meistersinger to Prague.
The term “romance” (Spanish: romance/romanza) has a centuries-long history. Applied to narrative ballads in Spain, it came to be used in the 18th century for simple lyrical pieces not only for voice, but also for instruments alone. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Music, “romance” implies a “specially personal or tender quality,” hence we found it most suitable for our “Summer of Love.”

Dvořák wrote this Romance for Violin and Orchestra  for Josef Markus, leader of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra in Prague to play at the annual concert of the orchestra at Žofín Palace He derived the work from the slow movement, Andante con moto quasi allegretto, of his String Quartet No. 5 in f minor, composed in 1873 before he was widely known. Adolf Čech conducted the first performance of the Romance in December 1877. The quartet was neither performed nor published in his lifetime. 

The version of the Romance in F minor for violin and piano, dedicated to the violinist František Ondříček, was also not published in Dvořák’s lifetime. It is in sonata form: a graceful melody leads to a theme of similar character in a contrasting key, followed by a more restless theme and eventually to an episode of strident chords. The original calm mood prevails and the themes return before the work ends in F major.

Herbert Murrill (1909 - 1952)String Quartet 

Herbert Henry John Murrill, an English composer with a distinctive and versatile voice, had wide-ranging musical sympathies and a far greater output than the tiny amount so far performed or recorded might suggest. His untimely death from cancer led to neglect during the latter half of the 20th century, as was true for several other British composers who, through war or ill-health, died young: Browne, Butterworth, Coles, Farrar, Hurlstone, Kelly and Whitlock, to name a few. Recent research and publications by Michael Barlow and Relf Clark may help to rehabilitate Murrill’s reputation.

Son of a “cork merchant’s clerk,” Murrill was born in London and attended Haberdasher’s Aske’s School in Hatcham before his musical talents won him a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music. He gained a similar award to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied for three years with York Bowen (for piano), Alan Bush (for harmony) and Stanley Marchant (for organ and choir-training). In 1928 Murrill ‘went up’ to Worcester College, Oxford as organ scholar. Several early songs survive from his Oxford period. He took a full part in the musical life of the University becoming President of the University Musical Club. On leaving Oxford he served as organist of Christ Church, Lancaster Gate and St Thomas’s Church, Regent Street, London.

The immediate pre-war period seems to have been a time of personal turmoil for Murrill, judging by the emotional outpouring of this four-movement String Quartet (1939). As Robert Schumann dedicated his string quintet (see below) to his wife Clara, Murrill dedicated his to the Leighton Quartet and its cellist, Vera Canning, whom he married in 1941. The opening Allegramente is cast in a minor. The heart of the work is the sinewy slow movement, Andante molto moderato, marked at its climax con intensiti, that Murrill requested to be played at his funeral.

Robert Schumann, Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 

In January 1842 Schumann went into one of his recurrent depressions. “I’m very bad with Clara… Much drinking…. Always sick and melancholy… Still sick [14 February].” These symptoms may have been associated with Clara’s preparations for a long concert tour. Schumann had agreed to go with her, but he really wanted to stay home and compose. After returning alone from the trip in March—their first separation since getting married—he worked on counterpoint exercises and fugues, something he often did as therapy when he was depressed and thinking his life was “miserable.” He also studied quartets of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, but by April still depressed and “drinking too much” he couldn’t compose. Fugue exercises with Clara near the end of May seemed to help. 

Just before his 32nd birthday in June ideas suddenly began to flow. He composed daily for two weeks and finished three(!) string quartets on June 22. To Clara he announced, proudly, “three children, barely born, and already completed and beautiful.” That was a stunning achievement.

Though exhilarating, the achievement left Schumann feeling exhausted and drained, in “gloomy melancholy.” He had moved into a “quiet little nook” of his apartment in order to work undisturbed. In August he recuperated during a brief vacation with Clara in Bohemia where they visited Austrian Chancellor Metternich in his castle. Schumann was in such awe of the “great man . . . his big, wise eyes, his firm robust stride, and above all that clear, distinct voice,” that when Metternich offered his hand, he was “too embarrassed to take it.”

After this holiday Clara reported herself pregnant again (“hopefully”). Schumann responded with “a bad hangover” on her birthday. Psychiatrist Peter Ostwald continues: “Whether these announcements were directly related is unclear, but his feeling of simultaneous elation and depression seems to have generated a composition that has become one of the pivotal chamber music works of the 19th century, the Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat major, Op.44.”

Written for Clara and dedicated to her when eventually published in 1843, the quintet is like a small piano concerto. Clara could perform it at home in the typical chamber music drawing-room or in a medium-sized hall like ours for the public, without need for a symphony orchestra. The combination of piano and strings was not new, but earlier similar works by Boccherini or Schubert had included a double bass. Schumann’s combining the piano with a string quartet served as a model for later works by Brahms, Dvořák, Elgar, Goldmark, Spohr, Thuille, Reinecke, Taneyev, d’Indy, Franck, and other composers.

While finishing the piano quintet, Schumann began to feel ”melancholic” again. He may have had “seasonal depressive disorder” (SAD), and after a few “dreadful sleepless nights” he rapidly gave birth to another giant in the chamber music canon, the Quartet for Piano and Strings, op. 47, also in E-flat major. No wonder we call 1842 Schumann’s “chamber music year.” And you can see why the connection between madness and creativity can be so intriguing.