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

December 11, 2012

MEMOIR: Ted Kramers, with Dave Brubeck and Richard Strauss

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

We just learned that a former neighbor in Mt. Gretna, Ted Kramers, passed away last week. Ted was well into his nineties and still vigorous. He told me the following story about 10 years ago. It's the same story that Alex Ross relates in The Rest is Noise (p 343, Zero Hour: The US Army and German Music, 1945-1949), naming Ted as "John" Kramers. Other differences in our two accounts may relate partly to Ted's memory. He was in his late 80's when I spent several hours with him to record the details. (My memory is no better but I wrote notes.)

In April 1945 Ted, a major in a Civil Affairs unit, entered Germany with the 103rd Division of the US Army. The division moved east toward Munich and turned south toward Garmisch, Innsbruck, and the Brenner Pass, to link up with other American forces moving north from Italy. They felt safe, he said, and “loose” because they realized the Germans were on the run and the end of the war was near. But they were aware that they might stumble upon a “redoubt” where loyal units of the SS or Wehrmacht could make a last stand in the remote southern corner of Germany. Ted also remembers feeling then, as he said most American soldiers did, that the German army usually “played by the rules” and so he planned to be careful to “handle things correctly” as he dealt with the formalities of ending the war. Meyer Levin, in the Saturday Evening Post, described Ted as “a spirited fellow who whistled through a youthful blond moustache.” Ted’s wife, Ellen, confirmed that; his moustache by then white, Ted “wanted to move at the head of the pack” on their many tourist excursions all over the world.

Ted and his driver, Sgt Griess, went ahead of the division to locate a place for their next headquarters in Garmisch. On route they encountered survivors fleeing from Dachau and also were ordered to take the surrender of a small unit of Hungarians—who rewarded them with a huge supply of pretzels. Ted was anxious to find a headquarters because the Division was close behind. They were scouting for a large building on enough land for 30 large military vehicles and many more small ones in a protected location. Such would be preferable to pitching tents in an open field. 

They came upon such a place without much difficulty in the suburban outskirts of Garmisch at Zoeppritzstrasse 42: a large three-story mansion in a spacious glade surrounded by tall trees nestled in the Loisach Valley of the Bavarian Alps. The view of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, was magnificent. According to protocol, Major Kramers waited in the jeep while Sgt. Greiss approached the villa and knocked on the front door. A tall, straight-backed and courtly man wearing a jacket and tie opened the door and spoke in good English. Sgt. Greiss politely requested that he and the other occupants of the house come out and talk to Major Kramers. Ted respectfully asked the man and his family to leave in 20 minutes with any possessions they would need so that the Americans could temporarily occupy the villa.

When Ted and Sgt. Griess returned to the villa about 30 minutes later, the owner led them into a large salon with a piano and served tea and cakes. Ted thought him to be an unusually gentle and modest man, especially compared to other Germans he had encountered during his brief sojourn in Germany. The man sat at the piano and played excerpts from “Der Rosenkavalier.” By then Ted, a reluctant violin student in his Philadelphia school days, realized that the owner of the villa was none other than Richard Strauss.

Ted met a younger woman, probably Strauss’ daughter-in-law Alice who served as his secretary, another man, probably Strauss’ son Richard, and another woman—Ted never learned her identity but she was probably Stauss’ wife Pauline. Far from the frail old man described by some commentators, Strauss appeared to Ted as a healthy, sturdy, and proud man who “still had all his marbles” despite his obvious advanced age (79 years).  

Strauss built the mansion in 1908 according to a design by himself, his wife, Pauline, and Emanuel von Seidl, brother of the architect of the Munich Museum. The family initially intended the villa to be a summer home, but after financial reverses--a British bank confiscated his assets after WWI--and during the rise of the Third Reich, they found refuge there and a permanent residence. As the war worsened, Strauss's son and his family were forbidden from shopping in "Aryan" shops and could not go out for fear of being beaten up. Strauss himself was spied on.

Strauss modestly described himself as “a first class second rate composer” and was listed in the Garmisch telephone directory (according to his friend, the tenor, Hans Hotter) as ”Dr. Strauss, Richard, Conductor,” and not, as you might assume, “Composer.” 

At the time of Ted’s visit Strauss was arranging Der Rosenkavalier, an opera he had written many years earlier, as a suite for orchestra, in part to produce a legacy of value for his family. The image of Strauss’ fingers on the piano keys stayed with Ted and he always sat in the front row at our concerts for just that reason. The encounter was short because Ted was ready to take possession of the house. 

Ted doesn’t know where the Strauss family went that day but believes that they learned within hours that they could return immediately; the Army was ahead of schedule and passed through the town without stopping. Neither Ted nor any other Americans ever occupied the villa. 

After the war, having briefly accepted the post of head of the Reich Music Chamber (probably without an opportunity to decline and, he believed, “to do good and prevent even greater misfortune”), Strauss was automatically classified as “Grade I Guilty” by a denazification court and lost more of his assets. Many of his musician contemporaries treated him with contempt because he remained in Germany during the war and even conducted for the Nazi elite. (Toscanini said, "To Strauss the musician I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it on again.") In 1948 he was exonerated and reinstated as a German citizen. By then he and his family had been in exile in Switzerland where he wrote his exquisite Four Last Songs and Metamorphosen. Eventually he and his family returned to the villa in Garmisch several months before he died there in September 1949. Pauline passed away in 1950. The grandchildren still maintain the home (and a web site).

Other, more welcome, knocks at the same door about that time came from American musicians stationed with Army bands in the area. One of them, Dave Brubeck, wrote to me and certainly others: “I was stationed in the Army at Eibsee near Oberammergau, and often would pass by Richard Strauss’ home. I never had the nerve to go knock at his door, although I wanted to.” Pittsburgh Symphony oboist, John Delancie, did knock. The eventual result was the Oboe Concerto that Strauss completed later in the year in Switzerland. Leonard Bernstein was also in the neighborhood.

Ted Kramers received more publicity for his participation, a few weeks later, in one of the many “liberation parties” that roamed the countryside looking to free famous captives. His party freed ex-premiers Daladier and Raymond, De Gaulle’s sister, and Generals Gamelin and Weygand from the prison castle of Itter, a high class branch of Dachau used to lock up important prisoners. They “weren’t merely out for sport,” according to Meyer Levin who traveled with one of the liberating units. “They went out in advance of their main elements because one day was often the margin needed for rescue. To the very last, the Germans were dragging important prisoners to the remotest mountains.”

We will all miss Ted.

December 5, 2012


by Carl Ellenberger, MD

To segue from the Nov 22nd post about the importance of recording of classical music--I am about halfway through Reinventing Bach--I hope you have discovered the magazine, Listen: Life with Classical Music, published by ArkivMusik. Responding to suggestions in my e-mailbox, I have purchased countless recordings from ArkivMusic over the years, ample evidence that the industry remains alive and well, even now when you can't find a neighborhood record shop selling 25 versions of Beethoven's Fifth. (To subscribe to 4 quarterly issues go to Listen. They are well worth $14.95.) Some articles are available online. The following tidbits caught my attention in the Winter issue.

"By studying encyclopedias and publisher catalogs, people have determined that that there has been about two million hours of music written since the Renaissance. And only about a hundred thousand hours of unduplicated music has been recorded. That leaves us one-point nine million hours to work with."

That wild estimate--but you get the point--came from Klaus Heymann, Founder of Naxos. He thinks physical CD's will be important for the next five or ten years, but "my estimate is not quite so rosy as some in the business, such as [one recording executive] who estimated the the CD would still be fifty-five percent of their business in 2017.... I estimated it to be only about 25 percent of our business by then." The remaining 75 percent, of course, would be "digital," streamed from the internet.

"Naxos also has one of the largest databases of classical recordings...nearly seventy-thousand albums from more than four hundred labels now--but it's so much more than a classical jukebox. You can search for a work by instrumentation, playing time, country of origin, year of composition, published. With all the liner notes and the hundred or so books we have published over the years, we have more content than Grove. There are more composer bios in the Naxos Music Library than on Wikipedia. It is a tremendous resource for students, teachers, program planners, radio stations, artists." Heymann lives in Hong Kong and New Zealand.

This month Esa-Pekka Salonen and his Philharmonia Orchestra with Touch Press will launch an iPad app called The Orchestra that looks at that amazing organization's inner workings. (What if Congress worked like an orchestra!) It features eight pieces of music through which the the musical and historical evolution of the orchestra is explained and experienced. iPad users can run several windows simultaneously: while the main screen may show the full orchestra performing, smaller windows can show the conductor, a diagrammatic layout of the orchestra that pulses in proportion to the amplitude of the section playing, video feeds of any of the musicians, a scrolling score and a graphical score of the sounds. 

Also included in The Orchestra is technical and historical commentary such as this by LA Times critic Mark Sved: 
"Having been asked too many times by composers to be gruff or comical, the bassoon got the reputation for being the clown of the orchestra, Bassoonists hate that label, of course, but like all great clowns, this baritone, double-reed instrument could just as easily be called the soul of the orchestra."
It is also possible, Mr. Sved, that certain people choose to take up the bassoon. ("Bassoon is not a great social ticket in high school." --Garrison Keillor) Bassoon students I knew at Eastman seemed to be a unique breed even before gaining much orchestral experience. Among other stunts they were experts of the pratfall, usually at inopportune times down the grand marble staircase at the far end of the Eastman foyer. (Their bassoon cases were empty.)

In case you are unconvinced of the vitality of the classical music recording industry (Norman Lebrecht?), here's a sampling of current recording labels from Listen, some of them personally produced by the musicians themselves: EMI, Virgin, Delphian, Harmonia Mundi, Sony, Naxos, Chandos, Deutchegrammophon, Decca, Analekta, Bis, SDG, Ondine, CAvi-music, Tactus, col legno, Opera d'Oro, Orfeo, Sono, Pentatone, Delos, Opus Arte, Atma Classique, Passacaille, LAWO, Evil Penguin, Globe, Philips, outhere, Avie, Naïve, DaCapo, Steinway & Sons, Linn, Hyperion, ECM, Tafelmusik, Alia-Vox, Accent, Sono Luminus, Reference Recordings, Chanticleer, Signum Classics, Ancalagon, etc.

November 26, 2012

Andreas Scholl

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

The last time Gretna Music brought a countertenor to Lancaster was in the late 1980's.  When Michael Dash, a giant African-American who had sung several roles at the Metropolitan Opera, sang the first note of Händel's "Furibundo," I deliberately watched the collective jaw-drop of all 425 listeners in St. James Church, who minutes later sprang to their feet to cheer. Equally astonished were staid native Lancastrians passing him on the street: they must have assumed the Eagles were scrimmaging in the provinces. "Furibundo," a Spanish word loosely meaning "raging maniac," was about the last sound you would expect to come from the lips of a fullback in a soprano voice.

Your next question is probably "so what is a countertenor and why do they exist?" I'll tell you that and then address another question that bothered me: Why did Händel cast a countertenor in a heroic male role, a King no less, such as the one Andreas Scholl sang last year at the Met in Rodelinda with Renée Fleming? Or for that matter also in the role of Julius Caesar?

The answer to your question has to do with the historic Roman Catholic Church (what doesn't? see "Threats to Music" Oct 20) and barbers. In the 16th century the Pope banned female singers in church and on the stage. For composers that was like having to write for a choir without soprano or alto sections. Popes and Cardinals, of course, continued to commission music requiring high voices and it was the Italians who had the greatest need for them in their operas (think Monteverdi, etc, and Handel, who spent 6 formative years in Italy). 

Fortunately (in one sense) Italians were crafty enough to figure out a solution. They learned that if a boy was castrated (barber-"surgeons" usually did it) between the ages of 8 and 13, their pre-pubertal high voice would remain for the rest of their lives. As an added benefit, without a pubertal testosterone surge their bony epiphyses (bone joints) would remain open longer and their arms, legs and ribs would attain greater length. With larger chest cavities breath control could be developed beyond that of an average female singer and their voices become more powerful--even while their vocal apparatus remained that of a young boy. 

It is estimated that over three centuries as many as 4,000 Italian boys a year were subjected to the snip (some probably encouraged by "stage parents"). Of course, most never developed into great musicians. Some who succeeded after intensive training, however, became the first rock stars of the modern music world, not only in the sense of musical prowess but also by attaining great wealth and celebrity and in becoming sex objects exactly as rock stars are now (but with no-risk guarantees for "bored wives" -- Norman Lebrecht). (See "The Castrato and his Wife" by Helen Berry; and know that castration does not always preclude erection.) Despite Popes and Cardinals outlawing the practice (that they created), making castrati peaked in the 18th century and finally ended only after the turn of the last century. Recordings of Alessandro Moreschi, the "Angel of Rome," document the last gasp of the barbaric tradition. By then women were allowed to sing in public, even by Popes.

Though castrati (and barber/surgeons) do not live on, the music that Händel and eventually English as well as Italian composers wrote for them does. An astonishing amount continues to be discovered and brought to life like gold from a newly-discovered mine, especially during an ongoing early music boom that began during the latter half of the 20th century. The much smaller boom of countertenoring, starting with Alfred Deller, follows, I presume, the desire to perform this music in a way close to the way it was originally intended. (We now speak of HIP, "historically-informed performance" to distinguish it from the discredited "authentic," too often a refuge for less capable playing on "primitive" instruments.)

A countertenor is thus a male singer who naturally would sing in the tenor or baritone range, but who has cultivated his falsetto range by "vibrating only the ligamentous edges of the vocal folds while leaving each fold's body relatively relaxed." Women can do the same, but listeners are less likely to notice the transition into falsetto high in their higher range. The falsetto range, less adorned by harmonics--higher frequency waves superimposed on the fundamental pitch--sounds more pure, as does a flute compared to an oboe or violin. Just about any adult can employ a falsetto. 

Regarding my question about why Handel cast a countertenor in the role of Bertrarido, hero and King in Rodelinda, practicality may be the best answer. After moving to London in 1713, becoming a naturalized British subject in 1727, and achieving fame as a composer of Italian operas, Handel hired Francesco Bernardi Senesino (1686 – 1758), a celebrated Italian contralto castrato as a lead male singer in his company, the Royal Academy of Music, for a handsome salary. Senesino remained in London for much of the succeeding sixteen years, became a friend and associate of many in the highest levels of society, and created seventeen leading roles for Handel including Giulio Cesare, Orlando, and Bertarido in Rodelinda. Composer and singer never got along well and eventually had a tumultuous falling out. 

By then public interest in Italian operas was waning and Handel turned to oratorio, Messiah (1741) his sixth, almost instantly establishing his position for posterity. Over its millions of performances the voicing and instrumentation of Messiah has varied tremendously, including occasional singing of the alto part by a countertenor. Perhaps to get back at the Popes, parts written for countertenors, like Giulio Cesare, are now sometimes sung by women! ("pants" roles)

Wednesday, December 5, 8:00 PM
Steinman Hall, Ware Center, Lancaster, 
Tickets: 717-361-1508; gretnamusic.org

November 22, 2012


Every so often a new book enters my world like a Hamas rocket landing in Tel Aviv (well, no analogy can be perfect). Such a book, Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie did so yesterday heralded by a a review, as brilliant as the book itself, by pianist Jeremy Denk ("Why I hate the Goldbergs," Nov 7), "the best music writer in America" according to music-writer Alex Ross of The New Yorker

Elie: "So familiar is the language of revival that we can overlook how fully it pervades the discussion of the arts--classical music, opera, painting and scupture, dance, literature, drama. The good thing is going out of the world, threatened by questionable forms of progress, and stands in need of revival. This is the story our society has told itself about the arts for a century or more--really ever since the arts were firmly established in this country--and the arts themselves thrive on the notion that they are threatened with extinction.... The drumbeat of revival in classical music--often set up in opposition to the shriekback of a popular culture enchanted with technology--obscures the fact that, for most of a century now, technology has been the means of classical music's survival."

Elie tells a fascinating story of the "revival of a traditional art through the technology that was supposed to be its undoing...the reinvention of Bach in the age of recordings." 

And be reassured that " the sudden ubiquity of recordings...didn't stop people from playing music "live." Perhaps "the spread of recorded music dealt a blow to amateur music-making and to music in public life--and that it banished classical music to the margins. But it is impossible to deny the extraordinary quality of the music-making in...the sixty years between the time when Pablo Casals recorded Bach's cello suites in London and Paris and the introduction of the iPhone in California. That was a golden age, and we know that it was because we can hear the music for ourselves."

I have read a lot about JS Bach, but Reinventing Bach is a revelation. After reading Jeremy's review, I downloaded the book ($12.99) to my eReader.

November 8, 2012


I attended a wonderful performance at the Berkeley Art Museum by the Chamber Chorus of the University of California directed by Marika Kuzma. The 40-member ensemble stood on a cement floor in the center of an installation by graffiti artist Barry McGee -- below a damaged minivan hanging by its rear axle off the edge of a cliff (one of the museum's many balconies), its contents having spilled into the performance space as its hapless occupants tried to claw their way back up to the road (a higher balcony). (I took the installation as a metaphor for the fiscal cliff....)

The sound space was perfect for a cappella singing of liturgical music because the music could echo around in nooks and alcoves of several stories of the spare cement-block interior for as long as 2-3 seconds. The program marked the closing day of the (usually very secular) museum's exhibit, "Devotions" and was divided into two halves: music from the Byzantine liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and from the Roman Catholic Mass, each half offering representative prayers. The East was represented by wonderful Liturgies 1,2,3 by the contemporary Ukrainian composer Roman Hurko, as well as Arvo Pärt and Rachmaninoff; the West by selections from Vaughn Williams' Mass in G and settings by John Taverner (The Lamb by William Blake) and Trevor Weston (Ashes from Psalm 102), both living composers.

The performance was exquisite in every respect and moving even to a secular listener. The young singers, almost all undergraduates, or recent ones I presume, sang in perfect tune and ensemble, over a broad dynamic range, responsive to the able direction, the perfection of their technical ability matching the perfection of the liturgies. The performance was worthy of any of the great halls in the country.

Immediately outside the doors to the museum, still open for usual traffic, college street life continued oblivious to the sublimity inside: ethnic restaurants buzzing with patrons, street vendors with wares spread out on the sidewalks, small groups of students with backpacks or guitars in tattered jeans and shorts, cyclists weaving around them and defying cautious drivers as well as aged long-haired permanent denizens of the town doing the things they have done since the glorious '60's. 

Inside the museum a diverse crowd of young and old, some of the latter with long gray hair and ponytails, was only partly accommodated by the small number of folding chairs grabbed immediately after they were lifted off a single rolling cart 5 minutes before the concert. The majority of the audience stood around the back of the space and hung over many-levelled balconies surrounding it: young girls in tight shorts who I might have expected to see in cheerleading practice or trolling outside, young boys in baseball caps without their skateboards. An infant contributed to the sounds randomly from the depths of the museum. Strolling past the performance with bemused curiosity but not stopping to listen were families with children who had decided to check out the museum as part of their casual Sunday afternoon.

Admission was free to museum members (and at least one friend). Others could pay $10 at the museum entry desk--or just walk in to the concert. No ushers or ticket-takers were in evidence.

Few in that audience would think of the difference between this experience and what it would take for Gretna Music to field such a concert: an organization with a board of directors, volunteers, paid staff, office and other overhead, production costs, computerized ticketing, insurance policies, marketing expense, hall rental, transportation and housing costs, budgets, cash-flow statements, auditors.....ad infinitum (including frequent and regular meetings). 

We use the same software that concert managements use to set their artist fees. It predicts ticket receipts in any given venue and so they set their fees to match those receipts. We take the risk (of inadequate sales); they (or unmanaged musicians) take the money stipulated in the contract. To pay our costs beyond the artist fees (or the fees themselves if we fail to sell enough tickets) we must come up with additional revenue: from contributions, fund-raising projects like raffles, our Tour of Homes, and sales of stuff.

Sales of what stuff? T-shirts, CD's, candy, coffee, etc, the usual stuff, and the total receipts are always disappointing. That's why at almost every concert I attend -- Disney Hall, Verizon Hall, etc -- you can purchase wine and spirits at bars in the lobbies before the concert or at intermission, and in many halls you have several choices for food. 

You can imagine the obstacles to selling wine and spirits in a rural region. (Pennsylvania has a state "Liquor Control Board" and we are in James Carville's "Alabama" section of the state.) (Suggestions appreciated.)

I was inspired to write all this after reading: Aspen Music Festival Overwhelmed With Applications After Colorado Legalizes Pot. Great satire! But I'm serious about the wine. Aside from its economic benefit to Gretna Music, just like blazing a 'fat spliff' savoring a glass of wine can be a great accompaniment to a good concert.

November 7, 2012


"music with neither end nor beginning, music with neither real climax nor real resolution, music which like Beaudelaire’s lovers, ‘rests lightly on the wings of the unchecked wind.” --Glenn Gould
Rather than repeat the legend (possibly true) of a pupil of Bach, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, giving private nocturnal concerts for the insomniac Count Kaiserling around 1741, let us turn to the estimable pianist and commentator, Jeremy Denk. During a “Goldberg” week on NPR last March Jeremy, who has played in Gretna several times, talked and wrote about “Why I hate the Goldberg Variations." I’ll let him speak for himself and recommend that you listen to his programs (Jeremy Denk vs. The Goldberg Variations: The Musical DNA) online at NPR Music. (Irony is Jeremy's middle name; he doesn't really hate 'the Goldbergs.')

Then you will be prepared and eager to hear Anne-Marie McDermott play 'The Goldbergs' and two Haydn sonatas in Leffler Performance Center at Elizabethtown College on Saturday, November 17, 2012, 7:30 PM. The work is one of the 'Monsters' of the canon to be performed on the new Ted and Betty Long Steinway. Tickets: $20/15 (or less if you subscribe) available on www.gretnamusic.org or by calling 717.361.1508.

And you will find you have also discovered Jeremy's hilarious blog: “think denk”. 

November 2, 2012


One of the changes over my lifetime has been the decline in value of grand pianos. Most are now worth their weight in books, like those hundreds of books I have accumulated during 60 years of careful collecting, which is approximately the same as their weight in the mulch dumped from a truck onto our driveway in the Spring. An exception has been Steinway pianos (and a few others like Bösendorfer and Fazioli), which have maintained value. 

A few months ago a next-door neighbor in the process of downsizing was was happy to give us a 100-year-old Aeolian (the Volkswagen of pianos in the first half of the 20th C, long ago eviscerated of its player mechanism) for the cost (in muscular energy) of moving it from his living room -- and precariously rolling it down the street -- into our living room. The ancient beast can still almost play a Mozart sonata by itself. Instead of a piano in the parlor most Americans have a home theater system in the living room and an iPod in their pockets, and offspring, talented or not, strum an electronic instrument in their bedroom or garage.

So I can boast that in more civilized places like Mt. Gretna a surprising number of grand pianos, Steinways and Bechsteins among them, still slumber quietly in  dark ancient cottages, some tended with loving care by retired music teachers.

When I learned that the Board of Directors of Elizabethtown College had purchased a Steinway Grand for the Leffler stage to honor the 15-year tenure of President Ted and Betty Long, I must admit I was perplexed. There were already two Baldwin pianos on the stage, one of them ours, which, which regulated and voiced properly (they usually were not), could produce a sound indistinguishable from a Steinway, at least to the ears of >99% of the listeners. I could think of other ways of making music better at the college, ways that, as the Longs illustrated so perfectly, involve people rather than instruments or buildings: an endowed artist professorship, for example, or a permanent residency for an eminent ensemble of artist teachers. But then many other gifts would have been even less appropriate: a gala concert by a 'superstar' whose fee approached or exceeded the cost of the Steinway. That would have been soon forgotten and illustrated only the lack of a relationship between the quality of music and its perceived monetary value. The Steinway should allow for exquisite performances for the remaining existence of humanity on planet earth.

New Yorker, Jan 30, 2012

For our part in honoring the Longs we conceived the "Monsters of the Steinway" concerts that will begin on November 17 and extend into next Fall. This winter the new Steinway will deliver performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations under the capable hands of Anne-Marie McDermott (November 17); Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata with Joel Fan (February 23); and in a special recital by one of our time’s most celebrated keyboard artists, Emanuel Ax (March 19). Rest assured that "Monsters" does not refer to any of the pianists but rather to their monumental repertoire: the Goldberg's, the Hammerklavier, Schubert's B-flat Major Sonata, and Ives' Concord Sonata. The complete programs are on GretnaMusic.org and the next edition of this blog will preview the November 17 performance of The Goldbergs.

October 28, 2012


"If you are looking about for really profound mysteries, essential aspects of our existence for which neither the sciences nor the humanities can provide any sort of explanation, I suggest starting with music."

The great Lewis Thomas spoke of what we now have to specify as 'classical' music, the above from an essay, "On Matters of Doubt" in Discover and later collected in Thomas' book of essays published in 1980, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony. That collection came late in his life after a distinguished career as a research pathologist--and Dean and Chancellor at Yale, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Rockefeller Institute--and essayist addressing many of life's eternal questions.

"I can remember with some clarity what it was like to be sixteen. I had discovered the Brahms symphonies. I knew there was something going on in the late Beethoven quartets that I would have to figure out, and I knew that there was plenty of time ahead for all the figuring I would have to do. I had never heard of Mahler. I was in no hurry. I was a college sophomore and had decided that Wallace Stevens and I possessed a comprehensive understanding of everything needed for a life."

Among the many of Thomas' insights I hold with me is that the prolonged childhood of homo sapiens evolved out of the fact that using that long childhood development period to learn languages gave some humans a "selective advantage" (becoming the fittest to survive); and is the best time of life when a human can truly learn a language. It's the only time to learn to play music, a very special language. One can still learn serviceable French or Chinese as an adult but never successfully become a performer of music after the age of 20 years unless you have laid down firm cerebral hardware before adulthood. So far as I know, Thomas didn't attain proficiency as a performer. As a college sophomore at age 16 and Harvard medical student at 19, he had other passions, but he did listen to music regularly and seriously at that critical age and thus developed his life-long passion for listening.

Once asked how we might send signals from Earth to announce ourselves to whatever life there might be in outer space:

"Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later." 

Thomas eventually did discover Mahler's music. The title essay in the collection, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, one of his last essays, is his saddest of all. When Mahler wrote the Ninth he was aware of his own approaching death, having already experienced early symptoms of what we now know was bacterial endocarditis. When he first listened to the ninth, Thomas "took the music as a metaphor for reassurance, confirming my own strong hunch that the dying of every living creature, the most natural of all experiences, has to be a peaceful experience.... Mahler's idea of leave-taking at its best."

But near the end of his life Thomas began to "hear it differently. I cannot listen to the last movement...without the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything, the end of humanity...a world in which the thermonuclear bombs have begun to explode...." "This is a bad enough thing for the people in my generation. We can put up with it. I suppose we must. We are moving along anyway, like it or not.... What I cannot imagine, what I cannot put up with, the thought that keeps grinding its way into my mind, making the Mahler a hideous noise close to killing me, is what it would be like to be young."

Since 1993 Lewis Thomas has not had to worry about the end of humanity. For those of who still must, listening to music may help. 

October 20, 2012


Discussing his book (Hallelujah Junction; Composing an American Life) composer John Adams sensed a "suspicious" and “vaguely subversive” view of the arts among the American public. I suppose that view is held mostly by a portion of Americans, possibly an increasing one that has less experience of the arts, at least with what I thought were 'arts' -- in contrast to activities now covered in 'Arts and Entertainment' sections. Wendy Steiner (The Scandal of Pleasure) and Richard Taruskin (The Danger of Music) address similar issues.

Threat from the Arts is nothing new. Taruskin quotes St. Augustine (4th C.E.): “…more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned criminally….” 

The Prophet Muhammad (7th C.E.) commanded, “Those who listen to music and songs in this world on the Day of Judgment molten lead will be poured into their ears.”  (No Fatwas, please!)

A 12th century Bishop of Chartres complained of the singing in Notre Dame: “Music more easily occasions titillation between the legs than a sense of devotion in the brain.”

Divas in the Convent was released in April. For the general reader it is an abridged version of Craig Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art & Arson in the convents of Italy, which is, contrary to its scandalous title, a scholarly study of 16th- and 17th-century music and female monasticism. The trouble began in the 1550’s when cloistered singers started to embellish chant (Gregorian and otherwise) with polyphony (singing in parts). The singers were women. Church officials (men) were more than suspicious. They feared that the nuns would “sing to the world and not to heaven” and realized that singing was their only way to get 15 minutes of fame, certainly inappropriate for nuns. The master inquisitor collected testimonies and issued prohibitions, forbidding polyphony and instruments except the organ. (Washington Magazine, October 2012)

October 11, 2012


by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Musically educated kids do better in school, with stronger reading skills, increased math abilities, and higher general intelligence scores. Music even seems to improve social development, as people believe music helps them be better team players and have higher self-esteem. “Based on what we already know about the ways that music helps shape the brain, our study suggests that short-term music lessons may enhance lifelong listening and learning,” said Dr. Nina Kraus of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. “Our research captures a much larger section of the population with implications for educational policy makers and the development of auditory training programs that can generate long-lasting positive outcomes.”

The media has 'retweeted' these results here, and here and in many other places, for those not accustomed to reading scientific journals. The conclusion is based on interpretation of "auditory brainstem responses" (ABR), brain electrical potentials responding to sounds and recorded from the scalps of college students after being filtered (the potentials, not the students) though a unique electronic system. A greater "signal-to-noise" ratio of the response, Dr. Kraus believes, is a result of musical activity--practicing, playing, listening--for years during childhood and adolescence.

Quoted in Scientific American, Dr. Kraus said: “To learn to read, you need to have good working memory, the ability to disambiguate speech sounds, make sound-to-meaning connections. Each one of these things really seems to be strengthened with active engagement in playing a musical instrument.”

That beneficial effect of early (in life) musical training has become a hot topic lately, just at the time that funding for music education is being withdrawn from many American schools. Dr. Kraus' results are more convincing than most other studies that compared groups of musically-trained subjects with groups of them not musically trained. Most of those studies found an association but did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. Which is the case? Are musically-trained children more likely to perform well on a variety of tests of cognitive ability? Or are children with higher IQs are more likely than their lower-IQ counterparts to take music lessons?

I hope Dr. Kraus' model--especially the correlation of increased signal-to-noise of filtered ABR's with lasting increased abilities--proves valid (it may have already been but I just discovered it yesterday) because it seems to confirm what some educators have intuitively believed for a long time, not to mention what I have wondered about myself. That also includes the health and cognitive benefits of practicing and playing the flute well into old age! It seems to me good mental and physical exercise, and sometimes even meditation--when I mindlessly run through scales while my brain remains in neutral.

Addendum: January 11, 2013: Another study from Germany, carefully controlled and planned, produced similar but more specific results that are, "... consistent with and extend previous research by suggesting that children receiving music training may benefit from improvements in their verbal memory skills."

October 10, 2012


"Chamber music in Lebanon County? C 'mon!" 

We heard that a lot at the beginning and still do occasionally from the denizens in Pennsylvania Dutch country, or, as we like to shoot back: "Buggyland." Although hard-core of chamber-music devotees came out of the woodwork to our first concerts in 1976, most of our neighbors were nonplussed (or hostile) so in year two we prudently thought we should do something for them, not only because they owned the place where we played. Hence came -- with a little arm-twisting because the band charged a fee ("don't they play for the love of it?") -- the New Black Eagle Jazz Band for their first of 36 annual celebrated appearances at Gretna Music. The 'faithful' attending (free) Sunday morning New Orleans Worship Services still spill out into the streets around the hall. 

Ben Shankroff points out that we may have broken from local traditions: the "not-from-around-here" and the "we-don't do-that-because-we-never-did-that" traditions. 

In the 1920's Lebanon native Whitey Kaufman and his "Pennsylvania Serenaders" broke out too. After attending Lebanon Valley College, just down the road apiece from Mt. Gretna, his 11-piece dance band recorded for Victor and appeared in hotel ballrooms, nightclubs, and fraternity houses around the country. Rumor has it they also played a mansion in West Egg. Gatsby might not have danced to Whitey's music but his guests would have -- all night. Ben is particularly partial to "Paddlin Madelin Home" that Whitey wrote himself and I can hear why. It can brighten your day.

Some music you just can't imagine not dancing to, like the Badinerie from Bach's Suite in b minor or the Allegro of Schubert's Rosamunde Quartet. In fact, if you don't feel like dancing, you are either moribund or the players are not communicating. After the first half of our Momenta Quartet's concert on August 24 (2012) when Thomas Baird and Stephanie Sleeper danced (in 'authentic' 18th Century style--ooohh) to the music of Beethoven and Schubert, I regretted that no one came out to dance to the Schubert quartet in the second half. "All music is either a song or a dance" is a bit of a stretch, but there is no question that music and dance were once considered one art. And everything you can say about music -- as unsatisfying an effort as trying to describe the French language in English -- and the place of each in human evolution, is nearly identical.

October 8, 2012

Treasure Your Hearing

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Our sound guy, Jack Nissley, will tell you that I have complained that our jazz concerts are too loud since Adam and Eve. I point out that Allen Krantz’s unamplified guitar can be heard well from any of the 720 seats in the Playhouse, but the next night electric guitars may be played through two 10-foot banks of speakers (destroying directionality because the sound seems to come from the bank nearest you, not from the guitar) through a sound board as large as some pianos. I suspect the same sound level would fill Hershey Stadium. Most recently Jack said that the performers' stage monitors were so loud that he just transmitted their sound to the hall without amplifying it.

Imagine my reaction on a nearby porch after one of these concerts when a neighbor appeared in this T-shirt!

I am indeed old. And I have lost significant hearing over a lifetime playing and attending concerts. I have “presbycusis,” a word that implies (falsely) that hearing loss that comes with aging is ‘normal’ at a certain age or inevitable. Typically, my high frequency sensitivity (>2,000 Hz) is what I have lost, so in some situations, like loud parties, I have trouble understanding speech, distinguishing the sibilant “s” from “f” from “t” unless I watch the speakers’ lips. Fortunately, I don’t have any trouble hearing music (if not painfully loud).

There are two main reasons for progressive age-related hearing loss: 1) the DNA in your inherited genome, and 2) the cumulative effect of a lifetime of exposure to sound. The former you can’t avoid; the latter you can. The pictures help us to understand the reason. Sound (vibration of air) enters the ear and causes the eardrum to vibrate. The vibration is passed by the three “ossicles” (bone) to the cochlea, a small delicate organ embedded in the thick temporal bone (for protection). The ossicle at the end of the chain, the stapes (looks like a horseshoe), acts like a drumhead on the bell-like opening of the cochlea and the sound travels though the bore of the cochlea, as if backwards through a french horn, all the way to the narrow “mouthpiece” end of the coil, stimulating the microscopic hair cells that line the bore as it passes by. 

If you were a hair cell living near the opening of the cochlea it would be like sitting under a drumhead, and these hair cells are the ones that resonate with higher frequency sounds and thus may be the most vulnerable to damage. Loud sounds cause hair cells to disappear, as putting mileage on your car thins the treads on your tires -- very slowly and imperceptibly. You can replace a tire but you can’t replace hair cells and they don’t regenerate. So the number of hair cells you possess at any time in your life is the maximum you will have from then on. You can destroy hair cells with loud sounds during any time of your life but may not notice hearing loss until enough of them are gone. By then it is usually too late because you have permanent hearing impairment.

Early in life we may be cavalier about exposure to anything, especially loud rock music if it is essential to our emerging identity. Some musicians are beginning to be aware of the problem. The next time you ‘see’ an orchestra watch the woodwind players who sit in front of the trumpets and trombones. If there are no sound-blocking baffles behind their chairs, you may see them insert ear plugs when the brass play exuberantly. The orchestra pit may be the most hazardous environment; players are trapped in sounds from all directions.

There is some suggestion that sustained sounds (2-30 minutes, depending on loudness) are more damaging than sound that is periodically interrupted. But it certainly makes sense to avoid loud sounds altogether, if only by carrying a pair of earplugs in your pocket.  Just remember a first sentence in a recent issue of Consumer Reports: “Our shoppers purchased ... 48 hearing aids ... ranging from $1,800 to $6,800 per pair.”  But they don't replace normal hearing and come with their own set of problems, especially for people who enjoy music.

Warning: If your hearing loss is only in one ear, you may have an acoustic neuroma.

October 6, 2012


Even before we started our first week of August, low-level background noise--at the post office, on the street, at the Timbers--swelled into a resounding crescendo: “How can you expect anyone to come to 17 concerts in one month?” I attended less than half of them, only partly because our accelerating board meetings--to address this very problem--took place on concert nights. On other occasions I had to host musicians rehearsing for performance the next night. Not to mention the cost of so many tickets at once. Even if you are a chamber-music nut, two concerts on one weekend is a challenge.
Doris Lederer, Anna Polonsky, and Jim Campbell
Needless to say, we are re-visiting our schedule for next summer. 

Our first 10 years of success (1976-1985) were enviable enough so that others jumped onto the Gretna bandwagon to offer their favorite music. But as Alban Berg admonished a young George Gershwin, “Music is music.” We now share our audience with a lot of different kinds of it every summer. And unlike New York’s Chautauqua Institution, we don’t have thousands of people living on campus to populate several events going on at once.

Our recent strategy had been to balance popular performers--Vienna Boys Choir, Canadian Brass, Capitol Steps--against less celebrated but equally superb artists known to a smaller circle of cognoscenti. We came to learn that when we present blockbusters to make a profit, and pay an artist fee that in some cases approaches the cost of a BMW (that most Americans would no doubt choose instead), just one miscalculation (or thunderstorm) can sink us. The cognoscenti and others, by the way, were rewarded elaborately by the inexpensive superstars who played for an exquisite Audubon farewell concert on Labor Day weekend, including the three pictured above.

Incidentally, ‘classical’ music is really not the 'permanent collection' locked in a dusty canon for centuries, but a vibrant, exciting, and growing art attracting a surge of young players and composers around the globe, from Shanghai to Caracas to Kinshasa. (In case you haven’t noticed.) Unlike a painting by Rembrandt, also timeless but impossible to update, a Beethoven string quartet can be played in myriad ways, different for each generation and performance. But in our country one generation has been deprived of music in school and will never hear, or want to hear, a string quartet by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn. Although audiences distilled from millions in metropolitan regions like Los Angeles or New York show up in concert halls regularly, the economics of filling seats in the Playhouse in central Pennsylvania are increasingly perilous. Potential audience members may be unaware of most of Beethoven’s 55 piano sonatas and string quartets and may never have heard one of Bach’s 212 cantatas or any of Haydn’s 108 symphonies. Or even know that modern Beethovens live among us. Musicians know and have played all these works for centuries for good reasons.

So we asked ourselves and our friends, “Are there enough people ‘around here’ who still value the music that has nourished religions and cultures through the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment and two World Wars, for 800 years?” Or has the time come to settle for other kinds of ‘arts and entertainment?’ 

A resounding “No!” came fast, loud and clear from our usual suspects, especially those on our board, in all the ways they could have expressed it. 
The answer from the Gretna community has not yet been clearly audible. 

Call me an old fossil, but I have believed, with the eloquent Paul Paulnack of Boston Conservatory, that “music is a basic need of human survival... one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we cannot with our minds.”  Hollow words, I suppose, to someone who hears human-generated sounds during every hour awake--but hasn’t listened much. 

We would be interested in hearing from you, having read this far. Respond to this post if you have an opinion.

Programs of our substantial winter season at Elizabethtown College and in Millersville’s Ware Center in Lancaster will appear here soon.

October 1, 2012


A new player in the opera-accessible-to-all industry, this one broadcast on TV on the civilized West Coast last weekend. 

A wonderful singer, great production of Salome. (Click on the arrowhead to see the trailer.)


Welcome to the new Gretna Music Blog. I'll be one of the bloggers but anticipate more once we get our feet on the ground again. We have just finished our 37th year, the fiscal year that ended yesterday, September 30, and 37th summer season in the Mt. Gretna Playhouse. The excitement of 17 concerts (all in August and obviously more than many people could handle) has given way to the peace that Gretna residents treasure for the nine off-season months of each year and exquisitely expressed in Madelaine Gray's photo appearing in the current Mt. Gretna Newsletter (no. 133).

This year we gradually became aware of a looming shortfall between revenue from ticket sales and contributions and expenses as we studied cash-flow projections as early as January. It was nothing new for panic to set in as each summer approaches and expenses mount but concerts have yet to begin--but this year the deficit was on a scale unprecedented. We may never understand all the causes--the concentration of 17 concerts into one month, the selection of artists, the repertoire, the diverse mix of different styles of music, the changes in local and American culture, the weather--the list is endless. But the problem has spared few other artistic institutions in recent years, from The Philadelphia Orchestra to dozens of local opera theaters, museums, and dance companies. More than a few have gone out of existence.

Led by President Susan Hostetter, our board moved into crisis mode and began to meet at least twice a week beginning in July, all thirteen members becoming engaged. We discussed all options, including "a soft landing," ending immediately, at the end of the summer, or after the winter season in Elizabethtown. But no one relished going out of existence and so the board raised $76,000 in a matter of weeks (still increasing) to keep us alive. 

The new Gretna Music will be closer to our original vision: uncompromising quality of music in the tradition stamped for better or worse with the label, 'classical' that has met the test of time for centuries and is still alive and well, albeit more appreciated in some places than others where it has been drowned out by a flood of other kinds of entertainment. 'Classical' does not mean 'the permanent collection.' Instead, it changes with time and we intend to keep up, realizing that, although our audience has lived different lives than Mozart's, he, and Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, and others, still speak to us, as do modern and contemporary composers. Through our crisis we learned that we have a appreciative and loyal band of followers who share our vision. We would not be alive now without them and so I can end today with a heartfelt thank you to all! We welcome your comments and suggestions.

Our Winter Season begins on Saturday, November 17, with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, playing Bach's Goldberg Variations on the wonderful new Steinway in Leffler Hall.

Carl Ellenberger