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

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.

July 22, 2016

Gretna Music 森林公園-yoku

The distinctive location of our concert hall deep in the forest has helped attract audience to our concerts. The same music in a high-school auditorium or a community center probably would not have lasted for 40 years. And the Mount Gretna Playhouse, rebuilt in 1995 to replicate an 1892 structure, is well-sized for our music (like the Schumann Piano Quintet on July 31) and has pretty good acoustics for an outdoor (and even indoor) venue. Of course the surrounding Gretna community is quaint and distinctive. And there is the Jigger Shop. . . .
A neighbor, Fred Opalinski, just called my attention to another reason for the attraction. Twenty five years ago Japanese scientists reported on a small study that suggested walking in a forest could provide a lift in mood and relieve stress. They wondered whether doing most anything -- just being -- in a forest might be more beneficial to health than in an urban setting. Apart from the calming visual images and forest sounds, they wondered whether "phytoncides," natural substances released by plants into the environment, might cause salutary effects. 

They introduced the term, shinrin-yoku, "forest bathing," to emphasize that we might actually breathe in "components emitted from the forest," not simply escape the toxicity of urban air. Forests, they theorized, may provide an opportunity to visualize, touch, listen to, and inhale nature. More broadly shinrin-yoko means bathing in biodiversity in an environment more like the one in which humans for millennia have evolved. We haven't had the additional hundreds of centuries necessary to evolve into a species well-adapted to urban life (and air). 

Research since then, reported in TIME (July 26) and also reviewed (for scientists) in The Journal of Physiological Anthropology (2015;35:1), begins to try to answer why and how spending time in forests may relieve various symptoms and possibly improve your health. 

As I pointed out in previous posts, humans have always made music, even when we were hunter-gatherers. No further evolution is required for that. I just returned from a magical week of music at Interlochen (see Jul 12). Talk about trees!

For our part we say that for the modest price of a concert ticket you can engage in healthy 'forest bathing,' shinrin-yoku, while you listen to good music. Better than pumping iron or jogging!

July 12, 2016

Changing of the Guard at Interlochen

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

More than once as I slowed my car to turn into the Interlochen gates during a visit last week, I noticed, just feet from my rear window, massive bumpers and headlights flashing by impatient drivers of pickups, most likely towing a brace of jet skis or dirt bikes. As I turned, they roared past jeering and displaying derisive hand gestures that date back to ancient Greece. Their drivers resented me, an effete 'artsy' person delaying their vacation at the state park that shares the isthmus between two lakes with the Interlochen Center for the Arts. 

But once through the new gates (required by Homeland Security, I was told) I felt comfortable and secure in a place I had called home for ten summers many decades ago. The blue lakes, towering pines, and cacophony of music from every direction is my concept of heaven. Where else could you hear one orchestra playing Mussorgsky with your left ear and another playing Brahms with your right, while directing your view between the dedicated kids on stage and sailboats skimming across the lake beyond?

The venerable 89-year-old Interlochen Center for the Arts will soon select a new President, the first in 14 years, to guide the institution in its mission,

"to inspire people worldwide through excellence in educational, artistic and cultural programs, enhancing the quality of life through the universal language of the arts."

and, as Founder, Joseph E. Maddy, wrote:

"to develop and enhance the mental, intellectual and creative capacities of our nation's young people, to bring forth their innate potentialities, to prepare them for the cultural, intellectual and moral leadership so necessary for this nation's survival."

My ten summers at Interlochen accomplished both versions of that mission for me -- at least the parts about enhancing capacities and bringing forth innate potentialities, not to mention the life-long friendships. The experience definitely shaped my life more than any other, excepting perhaps that at Yale Medical School. 

The mission has become even more critical in today's world, though the country (and beyond) must be a better place because of the presence of over 120,000 other Interlochen alumni. They populate not only 17% of the chairs in US orchestras (not fact-checked), possess hundreds of Tony and Grammy awards, but also inhabit all other occupations. Among them are the current Interlochen Board President, former Managing Director at Goldman Sachs, and Vice President, a Professor of Ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins. Early music and arts education prepare kids for almost anything.

Interlochen nurtures children as young as 3rd graders in a creative artistic environment, guided by capable and caring people, at a time in their lives when they are most receptive. (By college age it is too late to decide to become a musician.) It replaces opportunities withdrawn from many public schools and often not present in homes. Imagine how it feels when your childhood friends value making music, art, dance, drama and poetry as much as prowess in 'hitting' one another on the football field. The competition is just as keen but the qualities and skills developed last a lifetime. 

environment, both natural -- 1,200 wooded acres between two large glacial lakes -- and human, is crucial. Living with others who share similar values and aspirations, students play in an orchestra conducted by some of world's best conductors like JoAnn Falletta (or John Phillip Sousa in the past). A concertmaster of a major orchestra, like Martin Chalifour of the LA Phil, may join them in the violin section. They accompany soloists like Van Cliburn (in my day) or Yo Yo Ma, and study their instruments and chamber music with artists like flutist Paula Robison. They see and act in Shakespeare plays, attend dance concerts by the Martha Graham Company (or by cabin mates), meet authors, poets and composers (like Howard Hanson or Aaron Copland) and try to emulate them. A cabin counselor may be a band director or a jazz pianist. Role models are limitless and diverse, cabin mates may be aspiring writers, painters, film makers, or Broadway singers. The server in the cafeteria line or the lifeguard may be a clarinetist or an actor. All of these people are potential life-long friends. Students hear efforts of their teachers and colleagues and play for one another. Their parents or grandparents may have been 'campers' in years past; some may even be working on campus.

During the school year the Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding high school, distills and intensifies all these activities for 500 high-school students in a similar, albeit cooler, environment. They have graduated 43 Presidential Scholars, almost one each year. Interlochen Public Radio broadcasts news and information from one station and classical music and jazz from another. The College of Creative Arts offers continuing education for adults and Interlochen Presents, a performing arts series, stages hundreds of student, faculty, and professional performances and exhibits each year.

With an annual operating budget over $40 million and an endowment valued at $120 million, Interlochen is a non-profit corporation but the culture is anything but "corporate." It does not exist to financially enrich stockholders or executives. Instead, all the 'stakeholders' of Interlochen aim to enrich the lives of younger generations, and thus the lives of all of us. Board members are not paid and some faculty and staff accept less than usual financial compensation in return for just being there and participating. 

Interlochen is a "chautauqua" in the generic sense of that Iroquois name of a lake in New York (as Native American Odawa people named the two Interlochen lakes: 
Wahbekaness and Wahbekanetta), an oasis where the best efforts of younger generations of humanity are nurtured and protected during critical developing years from the terrorized, polarized, 'open-carry' society around it. That environment is made and tended by hundreds of people, all with different backgrounds, talents and responsibilities, and history and memories. Not surprisingly, loyalty to Interlochen probably surpasses that to most other institutions of its kind. Alumni comprise a vast and generous resource for sustaining and promoting the environment. 

The new president will know that the Interlochen Environment is also fragile and easily perturbed. S/he should be assertive and powerful in maintaining and advancing Interlochen's place in a world increasingly harsh for the Interlochen mission, but at the same time set and protect the Interlochen Environment: facing both outwards as an effective, sometimes ruthless, corporate CEO and inward as a caring, listening, supportive leader of a large family, enabling all to achieve their greatest potential. S/he should carefully and sensitively replenish the institution with new people and ideas, increase diversity and opportunities for as many socioeconomic levels of younger generations as possible, including the most outstanding members among them, to share the Interlochen experience.

Read more at Interlochen.org.