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

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.