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Ludwig van Beethoven would have turned 244 this week. belushi beethoven

Everyone knows Beethoven. He wrote “Da-da-da-dum” and “Ode to Joy.” He’s the scowling visage parodied by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live. He’s the plaster bust on Schroeder’s toy piano.

Ask anyone to name a classical music composer and nine out of 10 will utter his name. Even those with no familiarity with classical music know he’s the one who rolls over to tell Tchaikovsky the news.

So it’s not surprising that symphonies program his music more than anyone else’s, and often devote entire festivals to the music. schroeder 2

It would be silly to call anyone the “greatest” composer, but Beethoven — along with only Bach — is the one most often given that honor. Such is his power as a producer of human emotion through the ear canal, that his only real rivals in European art music are Bach and perhaps Mozart. That doesn’t mean he is everyone’s favorite composer. There are many who cannot stand his relentless pounding and drive. And surely among “great” composers, Beethoven probably has the third-most detractors, after Schoenberg and Wagner.

But it would be hard to find anyone who has altered Western music history more directly and obviously than the scowling master from Bonn. michael christie

“There are many reasons one could say Beethoven’s music is the greatest. His music speaks to the listener from the first note,” says conductor Michael Christie, music director of the Minnesota Opera.

It isn’t just that the music is familiar, it’s overpowering. It’s big, loud, sublime and of an intensity unheard before him.

“Just take the opening of the ‘Eroica’ symphony,” conductor Joel Revzen says. “The first two chords. Haydn or Mozart used a slow introduction to prepare us for what is to come. Beethoven takes a hammer and hits you over the head with it.”

Two crisp E-flat chords, and we’re off to the races.steve moeckel

“You can listen to one chord and know it’s Beethoven,” conductor James Sedares says. “He had a voice that was completely unique for his time and always.”

Violinist Steven Moeckel has given wonderfully insightful performances of Beethoven’s violin concerto.

“This may sound cheesy, but it feels, when you play it, Beethoven got a glimpse of heaven. Audiences are taken on this journey, so epic. Beethoven is on a heroic scale — and he means to be.”

Difficult to appreciate

But why does Moeckel qualify it? “It may sound cheesy … . “

There are several things that stand between us and Beethoven, and make both the performance and appreciation of his music difficult.

Beethoven’s music is about big ideas, such as heroism, nobility, struggle, brotherhood. He believed in them; the question is, do we? Or have such ideas been rendered into toothless bromides and platitudes?

Can we still understand Beethoven’s music after the trenches of World War I, after Auschwitz, after all the dehumanizing misery of the 20th century?

Music historian Richard Taruskin has written about the difficulty of accepting the grand vision of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its paean to universal brotherhood.

“Why? Because it is at once incomprehensible and irresistible, and because it is at once awesome and naive,” he wrote.

“We have our problems with demagogues who preached to us about the brotherhood of man. We have been too badly burned by those who have promised Elysium and given us gulags and gas chambers.”

You can hear the problem in many modern performances of Beethoven. The conductor no longer believes in the grand ideas and falls back instead on the music’s obvious rhythm and drive. There’s a great divide between the conductors who performed before World War II and those who came after.james de preist

“I look for the old depth and breadth of expression that was there and can be retrieved if we listen to the right master,” the late conductor James DePreist said. “And most of the right masters are dead.”

You listen to recordings by Wilhelm Furtwangler or Willem Mengelberg and you hear a Beethoven different from that of Roger Norrington or David Zinman.

To many modern ears, the older performances seem melodramatic and overwrought. The modern performances seem cleaner and less fussy. The older conductors interpreted the music and massaged its rhythms. They conducted by phrase length, not by bar length, and they knew the rhetoric of performance and often spoke to their orchestras about the philosophy and meaning of the music. Modern conductors speak of the notes.

But Beethoven was clear about this. In the same way a great actor interprets Shakespeare when performing as Hamlet, and makes pauses and emphases, the musician was asked by Beethoven to do the same.

“The poet writes his monologue or dialogue in a certain continuous rhythm, but the elocutionist, in order to ensure an understanding of the sense of the lines, must make pauses and interruptions at places where the poet was not permitted to indicate it by punctuation,” Beethoven told his friend Anton Schindler. “The same manner of declamation must be applied to music.”

‘Writing for history’

But ours is an unheroic age. We reserve the word for firemen and soldiers, who certainly perform courageous acts. But a hero is more than that. Mythologically speaking, a hero is the individual who translates the will of the gods into history.

This is no small claim: A hero changes the world. Beethoven certainly did.

There is good reason to be suspicious of such things now. Too many have changed the world for the worse.lawrence golan

But Beethoven, born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770, clearly saw himself as a hero. He knew he was changing the world. He championed freedom and democracy in a restricted and aristocratic age.

“He changed the world of music,” conductor Lawrence Golan says. “Right off the bat, with the first chord of his first symphony. It was revolutionary at the time.”

He performed for the aristocracy and slummed with the nobility, but he told Schindler, “My nobility is here,” pointing to his heart, “and here,” pointing to his head.

“We’re clearly looking at big ideas in Beethoven’s music,” conductor Timothy Russell says. “Mozart wrote for an audience, but Beethoven knows he’s writing for history.”

History, however, has moved on.

Disposable music

For the 21st century, music has mostly become entertainment. Music written to be pondered and meditated upon does not fit into the jigsaw puzzle of a niche-market audience, where music is used and discarded in months.beethoven bust

“Beethoven wrote Velcro music and this is a Teflon Age,” DePreist says.

“We have deconstructed the 19th century and have an initial impulse to jettison so much of it. But the idea that the 20th century — or the 21st century — would simply supplant the 19th was absurd,” he says. “But we have much to learn from every century.”

The difficulty has been to separate the desire to be free from the past — which is an honest desire — from the tendency to ignore the past and refuse to look at what the past teaches us.

“It teaches us more than the notes of the stylistic things,” DePreist says.

Art has a responsibility to challenge people, says Moeckel.

“To broaden their horizons, and, so, if you don’t like it, that’s fine, but let’s talk.”

And what he confronts us with is the struggle of being alive.Joel Revzen 1

“Beethoven was a man who struggled every day of his life, a man shaking his fist at the heavens constantly,” says Revzen. “It is the human condition to struggle against adversity, whether socially, politically or one’s physical limitations. It is the struggle of the human condition through eternity.”

If you want to relate it to the contemporary world, he says, just think of what the people in in Syria or Afghanistan are going through just to survive, “or the people who struggle against oppression every day around the world, or the people who struggle in this recession.”

“How can I survive until tomorrow in hopes maybe my life will change?”

It is that engagement with the big things that drives Beethoven’s music and gives it such power to move us, even when we are suspicious of its meaning. The problem is ours, not Beethoven’s.

“There is still a message in the ‘Eroica’ or the ‘Ode to Joy,’ ” conductor Benjamin Rous says.

“Our time is broken in a way Beethoven’s music isn’t. Maybe a broken era needs an art that is whole.”

Three creative periods

Critics, biographers and historians divide Beethoven’s life and work into three periods: early, middle and late.

Since Beethoven, the tripartite division has come to fit the careers of many artists, but it began with the composer.beethoven young man

His Early Period features music that imitates the style of Haydn and Mozart, and although the music sometimes strains to escape the bonds of that style, it’s thoroughly Classical.

His Middle Period contains most of the music for which he’s best loved: the “Eroica” symphony, the “Emperor” concerto, the “Archduke” trio, the “Appassionata” sonata. It is big, brawny, heroic music that strains to escape not just the style but the very limits of the musical instruments of his time, the philosophical and religious conventions of his era, and sometimes the very heart in his breast. It is loud, pounding music.

“He grabs you by the collar and says, ‘I’m Beethoven, and I have something to say!’ ” says Revzen.

There are a lot of musical exclamation points in this very publicly aimed music.beethoven primary portrait

It is in the Middle Period that Beethoven staked his claim to being the first Romantic composer, emphasizing emotion over formal restraint. But, as conductor Benjamin Rous puts it, “He started out as Classical and ended up as Romantic, but in reality, he was Classical and Romantic at every moment in his life.”

Finally, Beethoven’s Late Period defines the term for all others: The music becomes more inward and searching, it has left behind the formal constraints of the time and experiments with new form, new meaning and expression. His late quartets bewildered not only the audiences of his time but the musicians who played them.schuppanzigh

“Do you imagine, when the spirit speaks to me, I have your wretched fiddle in mind?” he asked violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whose string quartet premiered most of Beethoven’s late quartets.

Beethoven’s late music remains a challenge for many listeners. The “Grosse Fuge,” was his final movement to the string quartet op. 130, but was a movement so difficult for both listeners and performers that when Beethoven originally submitted it for publication, his publisher requested he substitute something easier. It is still work to listen to, albeit work with a tremendous payoff to those willing to dive in.

The rondo he wrote in its place as the quartet’s finale turned out to be the last piece of music Beethoven wrote before his death.

A gut reaction

Ludwig van Beethoven was probably history’s most famous sufferer of irritable-bowel syndrome. It made the composer’s life miserable and likely accounts for the scowl he wears in almost every portrait.

“The cause of this must be the condition of my belly which, as you know, has always been wretched and has been getting worse, since I am always troubled with diarrhea, which causes extraordinary weakness,” the composer wrote a friend in 1801.beethoven death mask

It was a problem that plagued him his entire life, and its likely cause is what killed him.

This may seem an undignified way to introduce “the greatest composer in history,” but you have to do something to clear away the idolatry that accumulates around a world-changing figure, to see him as a man rather than a demigod.

Otherwise, when we spin panegyrics about the man’s greatness, our eyes will glaze over, reading it as conventional boilerplate.

So, it must be said that this colossus who changed music and directed its course for more than a century was in reality a short, stocky German with a provincial accent, boorish manners, who wrote in bad grammar and frequently uttered banal platitudes as if they were earth-shaking profundities.

He was born in Bonn in 1770, and his drunken father tried to pass the child off as a prodigy, like Mozart. But Beethoven’s virtues were not Mozart’s: He had none of the grace and felicity of Mozart; his music grew from hard work and infinite rewriting.

Beethoven went to Vienna to make his fortune as a piano virtuoso and found many aristocratic patrons. He frequently insulted the hand that fed him.

He told one of his patrons, “Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am through my own efforts. There have been thousands of princes and will be thousands more; there is only one Beethoven!”beethoven ear trumpet

But just as he began to achieve fame, his hearing started to fail. In later years, he was completely deaf: At the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, a soprano had to turn him around onstage so he could see the applause he could not hear.

Each new piece found both acclaim and criticism: Conservatives disliked the profusion of ideas in the music, finding them confusing and the works too long and difficult; admirers recognized in his work overwhelming emotional power.

By the time of his death, in 1827 at the mere age of 56, he was generally acclaimed as the greatest composer in the world. More than 20,000 people attended his funeral.

It is only in recent years, after scientific analysis of a few strands of his hair, that we know how the composer died: It was lead poisoning, probably by drinking wine from a lead-lined cup, that slowly killed the composer and probably caused his lifetime of colic.

The ‘Mighty Nine’

Beethoven’s nine symphonies are the cornerstone of classical music. Every conductor cuts his teeth on them; every audience expects them.

Their monumentality influenced every composer who came after him for at least a century, and even now, it’s impossible to dip into classical music without addressing “The Nine,” as they’re known.

But the symphonies are very distinct; each has its own personality. Collectively, they are probably the best entry point for discovering the music of the titan, Beethoven.

There are many sets of them on CD, spanning nearly the entire history of recorded music. The first complete set of symphonies was recorded in 1920 and since then there have been at least 100 traversals. There have been 60 full sets sold since 1960. Herbert von Karajan recorded them all four times, Bernard Haitink and Eugen Jochum each did it three times. Any conductor worth his salt wants to prove his mettle by tackling the nine.

There is no one “best” set — pretty much everyone is agreed on that point — but if you want them all in one package, you could hardly to better than the set with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin recorded on Teldec. Both the performance and engineering are tops. Teldec makes the orchestra sound like it’s in your room with you. Barenboim has a unified and coherent view of the cycle which is intelligent and emotionally persuasive.

But for some, it will feel old-style. It is. If you want the modern huff-and-puff race to the finish, then you should look to John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique on so-called original instruments.

You could hardly find two more different views of the music, but both are played with commitment and musicality. (Avoid the Norrington sets, which are dreadful and downright unmusical).

One-by-one

There are many who insist the best way to acquire the best of them is to get them individually and not in complete sets. Different orchestras and different conductors respond to certain symphonies better than others. David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, for instance, cannot be beat for discovering the wit and verve in Beethoven’s first symphony, but they don’t really believe in the nobility and heroism inherent in the bigger, odd-number symphonies, like the Fifth. For that, you have to go to an old-order conductor, such as Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic, which recorded the most harrowing and emotionally wrought versions of the Fifth Symphony.

Any choices among the symphonies will be idiosyncratic: As listeners we are just a variable in our sympathies as the conductors themselves. You may want the bounce and beat of a modern performance, or you may be more moved by the old tradition.

These are a few of my suggestions, along with some information about each of the Nine.

Please note that modern critics aren’t the only ones who are idiots.

Symphony No. 1 in C

First performed: 1801.

david zinmanBeethoven’s first is his lightest, brightest and funniest, an obvious imitation of the spirit of his teacher, Joseph Haydn. Its jokes begin with the very first notes: a dissonance in the wrong key!

Initial critical response: One critic called it “a caricature of Haydn pushed to absurdity.”

Suggested recording: No one has captured the wit of this symphony better than David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich.

Symphony No. 2 in D

First performed: 1803.

bernard haitinkNow considered one of Beethoven’s “shorter, lighter” symphonies, it was a large symphony by the standards of the time and a challenge for its first audience.

Initial critical response: The Leipzig critic called it “a gross enormity, an immense wounded snake, unwilling to die, but writhing in its last agonies, and (in the finale) bleeding to death.”

Suggested recording: Bernard Haitink and the London Symphony.

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, “Eroica”

First performed: 1805.

bernstein youngThis immense symphony single-handedly changed the course of music history; twice as long as the standard Haydn symphony and built on ideas of heroism, with a great funeral march as a slow movement.

Initial critical response: The leading music journal of the day described it as “a daring wild fantasia of inordinate length and extreme difficulty of execution. … There is no lack of striking and beautiful passages in which the force and talent of the author are obvious; but, on the other hand, the work seems often to lose itself in utter confusion.”

Suggested recording: Many modern performances are too tame. For the needed heroism and grandeur, and the sheer visceral excitement, try Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

Symphony No. 4 in B-flat

First performed: 1807.

claudio abbado 2Robert Schumann called it a “graceful Grecian maiden between two Norse giants.” It seems like a retreat after the furious charge of the “Eroica,” but if it is less noisy, it is subtly subversive, with an introduction in the “wrong” key.

Initial critical response: Carl Maria von Weber wrote a review in which the orchestra instruments all bitterly complain about having to play this symphony and then are threatened with being forced to play the “Eroica” if they don’t shut up.

Suggested recording: Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic are as elegant as it gets.

Symphony No. 5 in C-minor

First performed: 1808.

wilhelm furtwanglerFor two centuries, this has been Beethoven’s calling card, the primal symphony, restless, turbulent, an epic struggle to wrest a triumphant C-major out of an obsessive C-minor, and with more than 700 relentless iterations of the iconic rhythm: “Da-da-da-dum.”

Initial critical response: French critic Jean Lesueur said it was such exciting music that it shouldn’t even exist.

Suggested recording: The music is so familiar, and so emotional, it’s hard to play now without irony, but when attacked with conviction, it still packs a wallop. Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Vienna Philharmonic are still the champs in a pre-stereo recording, but in modern sound, Carlos Kleiber and the same orchestra come very close.

Symphony No. 6 in F, “Pastoral”

First performed: 1808.

bruno walter 2This is Beethoven’s musical picture of nature, complete with birdcalls and thunderstorm. But it’s also one of the composer’s most tightly argued pieces musically, with much of the symphony drawn from the first two bars: It’s a miracle of concision, even when most discursive.

Initial critical response: Berlioz agreed with critics, “as far as the nightingale is concerned: the imitation of its song is no more successful here than in M. Lebrun’s well-known flute solo, for the very simple reason that since the nightingale only emits indistinct sounds of indeterminate pitch it cannot be imitated by instruments with a fixed and precise pitch.”

Suggested recording: Every critic’s choice in this seems to be Bruno Walter and the pickup Columbia Symphony Orchestra.

Symphony No. 7 in A

First performed: 1813.

arturo toscanini 1Richard Wagner called this the “apotheosis of the dance,” and it is the most rhythmically driven of all symphonies; the second movement hardly contains anything but its rhythm. It all comes together in a Dionysian paean to the spirit of life.

Initial critical response: Weber expressed the opinion that Beethoven “was now ripe for the madhouse.”

Suggested recording: Even though it’s a pre-stereo recording, you have to hear Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony in a driven performance that wrests every ounce of power out of the score.

Symphony No. 8 in F

First performed: 1814.

georg solti 1The composer looks backward with a smaller, almost Haydnish symphony, full of Haydnesque “jokes,” such as the metronome tick-tick of the second movement.

Initial critical response: One critic wrote that “the applause it received was not accompanied by that enthusiasm which distinguishes a work which gives universal delight; in short — as the Italians say — it did not create a furor.”

Suggested recording: Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony give a brawny performance of this work and include a really fine Symphony No. 7 as well.

Symphony No. 9 in D-minor, “Choral”

First performed: 1824.

bernstein oldBeethoven’s magnum opus, which adds singers and chorus to the symphony and expresses the composer’s view of universal brotherhood and the joy of the cosmos. At more than an hour long, it is immense and usually performed for ceremonial occasions.

Initial critical response: “Beethoven is still a magician, and it has pleased him on this occasion to raise something supernatural, to which this critic does not consent.”

Suggested recording: Despite mangling the finale by changing Beethoven’s “Freude” (“joy”) to “Freiheit” (“freedom”), there is no more committed performance than the one given by Leonard Bernstein at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 with an orchestra composed of musicians from many orchestras in both East and West Germany.

“We need ice,” she said, just as he had gotten his shoes off. “There must be an ice machine somewhere. All motels got them, don’t they.”

“OK.” And he started to pull his shoes back on.

“And what about a Coke machine? Did you see one when we came in?”

“No, but I’ll look.”

“If they have one, I want a Dr. Pepper, OK?”

“OK.”

Vernaise pulled her sweater up over her head and caught her elbows in the wool. She looked like an animal trying to wriggle out from under a tarpaulin. When it finally came loose, her glasses were lost and she had to dig through the sweater as if it were a suitcase.

“Here they are,” she announced, but Bill was already off in search of ice and drink. The smell of wet wool was everywhere.

The weather in the mountains had been just awful and they abandoned their campsite for the Capri 700 motel with gingerbread decorations on the veneer four-poster bed and scenes from Pompeii framed around the walls. The TV had cable and adult video. Vernaise had chosen it.

“No ice,” Bill slammed the door. “But here is a Mountain Dew.”

“No Dr. Pepper?”

“No.” He looked at her in her underwear. It didn’t fit. The elastic in her panties was all stretched out of shape and her bra was too big. Her breasts looked like hard boiled eggs rolling around in cereal bowls.

“The rain looks like its getting worse,” he said. “I think we did the right thing.”

“No shit. I’m soaked,” she said with more than a hint of whine in her voice. “Even my bra is wet.”

She unhooked it and hung it over the towel rack in the bathroom. It looked friendless.

The pasty marks it left on her back and sides was a topographic map. Red lines on clammy, white skin.

Bill pulled the tab on her Mountain Dew and took a slug himself. “Here.” He offered it to her.

She took it and turned the knob on the TV. As the tube crackled and whistled while warming up, she sat on the edge of the bed and sipped her drink. A game show came on and she got up and spun the dial.

“Nothing but game shows.”

“What did you expect in the afternoons?”

“But what about those adult videos? They gotta be here somewhere.”

Bill started taking off his wet clothes. His shoes squeaked; his socks left wet black lint between his toes. His thighs stuck to the damp denim of his jeans. His scrotum shriveled.

“Isn’t this romantic,” she sighed.

“Your glasses must be fogged.”

“No, I mean, here we are in a motel, pretending to be married. And we can spend the whole night together in bed.”

“That’s what we would have done in the tent.”

“But this is different. Everybody camps together. Staying in a motel is something that would give Mom shitfits.”

Bill unbuttoned the last layer of flannel shirt and peeled it back from his skin. “That makes it romantic, huh?”

“Sure. It’s exciting.” She turned the dials some more and settled on Family Feud.

He walked to the bathroom, picking up rug lint on the bottoms of his wet feet, and turned on the hot water for a shower. The water was hot enough, but the spray from the shower head was a mere drizzle. “Hey, there’s no soap.”

His voice sounded to Vernaise like it came from an oil drum. “I’ll look through the pack  and get ours.”

She pulled nearly everything out of the pack — it was all damp. She found the soap and it was already lathering. “Here it is.”

“Thanks. Want to join me?”

“I never take showers. Only baths. Bad for my hair. It gets all frizzy.”

He was already burbling and sloshing before she finished her sentence. She went back to Family Feud.

As she was watching, she unconsciously started pulling off her panties. All Bill heard was a horrible scream.

“A tick! A tick! Get it off!” She had found it clinging to her skin just above the dark line of her pubic hair. She jumped and wiggled her hands aimlessly in the air. “Get it off! Get it off!” Her voice was an octave higher than usual.

He ran into the bedroom, not knowing what to expect and dripping like a mop. He saw Vernaise performing a St. Vitus dance in the middle of the floor. “Get it off! AAAAAAAHHHH!”

“Calm down. Let’s see.” Sure enough, there was a tick burrowed in. “Calm down, we’ll get him off.”

“Now! Now! Don’t wait!”

“Lie down. Sit still. Let’s see.”

She sat down on the bed and then lay down. Bill tried to brush off the offending spot, but it wouldn’t move. “I’ll try a match.” He rummaged around through the pack and found the watertight capsule. He lit one and blew it right out. He applied the smoking end of the match to the tick’s head, but it wouldn’t pull out. He tried again. Then he tried dousing it with mercurochrome from the first aid kit. It looked pretty all in red, but it didn’t budge.

“I’ll have to pull it out,” he said, and grabbed the tick’s body and yanked. The body came, but the head stuck firm. Vernaise thought she would be sick. Bill somehow grasped the remaining head between two fingers and it pulled loose, taking a sliver of skin with it.

“Yuck. Yuck. Awful. I’ll never go out in the woods again.”

“Come on, it isn’t that bad.”

“You wouldn’t say that if it was your body. I feel so unclean. I gotta take a bath.”

Bill just stood there, dripping, naked, holding a tick’s head in his fingers and wondering if it were time for a tick check of each others’ bodies.

The tub filled and Vernaise sloshed in. “Yuck!”

2

The mood had been ruined for Vernaise. All she could think about was crawly things. Bill found a Marx Brothers film on one of the cable channels and reclined on the bed, watching the film between his feet. Vernaise  dried off and wrapped herself in a blanket. The red lines on her body had faded somewhat, but her skin, no longer clammy, was still wet.

“Bring those lips over here,” said Bill, in the way of being romantic.

“No, I couldn’t. Are there bedbugs in the bed? Fleas?”

“No. Don’t be silly.”

“Silly?”

“Sure. It was just a tick.”

“Just a tick?”

“Yeah. It won’t kill you.”

“Men!” She was only 19, but already she knew the curse that described all that was wrong with the universe.

Duck Soup.”

“Huh?”

Duck Soup. Marx Brothers. It’s on.” He gestured toward the tube but she didn’t seem interested. She sat on the edge of the bed, turned away from Bill.

“Don’t be that way,” he said, reaching across the bed to squeeze her boiled eggs. She jumped up, taking him with her and he fell, flat on his nose on the floor.

“AAAGGHH!”

She screamed, too. “Bill! Are you OK?” His nose was a bleeding pancake.

“What’d you do that for?” He sounded a little like an oboe. “Why’d you pull away?”

“You scared me. Besides, I don’t feel like it, after the tick and all.”

“Jesus.” He held his nose and walked naked to the bathroom where he pulled off a skein of toilet paper and mopped his schnoz with it.

“It’s swelling,” he yelled from the oil drum.

3

They slept in the bed with its stiff sheets and hard mattress. Bill’s arm wrapped around her. She had her back to him. Once, in the night, she had to get up to pee. He hardly noticed.

The next morning, it was still raining. One of those warm April rains that rises in steam to your nose and saturates the air with humidity.

Bill could hardly breathe. His right nostril was split and a black plug of blood hung on the fleshy part. The nose was not only larger than it should be, but bent, too, he thought.

Vernaise rolled over towards him, opened her eyes to a slit, barely aware of the daylight. She saw the plug of blood and let out the beginning of another scream, but caught it mostly in her throat. In the haze of sleepiness, she thought it was a tick, or it reminded her of the tick she had.

It wasn’t a pleasant way to start off the morning. She lifted the sheets and looked down at her crotch. The tick was gone. Hardly even a little ring of redness remained.

“Damn, my period started,” she said. It was regular as the full moon, and because of that dogged dependability, she purposely refused to keep track of it, and it surprised her punctually every 28 days.

“Huh?” Bill honked. He was just waking up, too. In fact, he didn’t want to wake up. He wanted to stay asleep. But he slowly became aware of something wet in the bed, and consciousness jumped him like a bandit.

“What’s that? Oh.” He knew as soon as he asked the question. This wasn’t a new thing in their relationship.

“I’ll get a towel.”

He got up, walked to the bathroom, stood over the toilet and drained for a minute or two, grabbed one of the face towels and wiped the clot off his nose, brought the towel back into the bedroom and handed it to Vernaise.

“No, I don’t want your bloody old towel,” she said. “I want a clean one.”

“OK.”

He walked back into the bathroom, picked up another towel and stood there for a minute, as if he had forgotten what he was doing.

It is important to realize that men don’t, in such situations, actually think about love or relationships. They wouldn’t have the vocabulary for it even if they had wanted to. But there were fleeting sensations and images flashing across the inside of his skull. He stood there and thought about the wet, sticky part of the mattress. He thought about Vernaise demanding a clean towel. It reminded him of the time she wanted a sticky bun for breakfast, and when he went out to the 7-Eleven and brought one back, she had complained it wasn’t the right kind of bun. He shoveled that thought on top of his memory of the red-striped skin from yesterday under the elastic of her underwear. That soaked over the thought of the way her voice rose an octave when she got upset. It not a pleasant squeak in her voice. More like a door that needed oiling. Annoying. Oh, and he thought about her mother. Large woman. Muu-muus. Teased hair. They say you can tell what a woman will become by looking at her mother. He pictured her mother with Vernaise’s face. He pictured Terry Bradshaw passing to Lynn Swann in the Super Bowl. He was losing focus.

“You have the towel?” she asked from the next room.

“Oh, yeah.” He remembered why he was there.

Vernaise sat on the edge of the bed, feeling a little logey. Perhaps it was the time of month, perhaps it was the interrupted camping trip and the lack of sleep. She looked toward the bathroom and saw only Bill’s behind as he stood there like a statue with his head cocked to the side.

She had been attracted to him, she realized, because — well, now she was wondering. She thought it was because he seemed older and more experienced. But she realized now that he wasn’t really. He played in a band, but then, it was only a garage band. He took her places. They had sex. She liked that. Mostly.

She tried to remember exactly why she was with Bill. Probably because he asked, she realized. Being wanted is the most potent aphrodisiac.

But she also admitted to herself that she already knew he wasn’t the one. Her thoughts were more direct than his. She didn’t wander: She compared him with Paul. She compared him with Shelley. Then with Al and Frederick. She had a mental tab column in her head.  Make a list. Looks. Potential. Sense of Humor. Check, check, check. Al gets a double check here. Oh, and Ted, too. She had forgotten Ted. She hadn’t stayed with any of them longer than she did with Bill, but she wasn’t really sure why.

Later in the morning, still in the room, since there was no place to go for breakfast, they mixed up some of their trail food — a strawberry shake that tasted less like strawberries than liquified cardboard.

They signed out of the room at noon when the maid knocked, went back to the campground and struck the tent. It was twice as heavy with all the water soaked in. They threw it in the trunk.

“Some romantic weekend,” he said.

All he could think about was the squeaky hinge. All she could think about was the tick.

 

word 4
“I’m confused by language,” said Stuart.

I wasn’t sure what he meant. His language confused me. I assumed he meant that he found certain sentences and paragraphs deliberately obfuscating.

“Many people are confused,” I said. “Politicians use language deliberately to confuse, and so do corporations. Mystify. Mystify. Vague it away.”

“That’s not what I mean,” said Stuart. “This is all true, and I am always scratching my head over what comes out of a politician’s mouth. But my confusion is much more basic: Language itself. Speaking. How does it work? How does it function?”

Stuart had the look of a bunny rabbit looking at a hatchet, with the concentration and intensity, but also the complete lack of comprehension.

“I mean, take the same sentence or phrase said by an Alabaman, a Brooklynite and a Calcuttan. The sounds they utter are utterly different, yet, we can understand each immediately. So, it cannot be the sounds alone that convey meaning. The Awe-stryl-yin ‘Good Die’ is never taken in New Jersey to be about death. We can parse it out just fine.

“The New Yorker who asks his friend, as Woody Allen had it, ‘Jeet jet?’ and answered, ‘No, jew?” It just means they’ll go to the deli and get a pastrami sandwich.

“So, of course, we don’t speak in words. How could we? Just try it. Speak the sentence out slowly and with clear articulation for each syllable: ‘Did you eat yet?’ and ‘No, did you?’ and you realize you sound like a synthetic recording, like Stephen Hawking or something.

“No, we speak in whole sentences, or at least in well-rehearsed phrases. ‘I’m going to go to the store’ is really ‘Ime gonna go tooda store,’ or, ‘tooda stow,’ if you are in a different region, or in another place, ‘staw.’

“In fact, the letter ‘R’ by itself is a summation of the problem. Howcum we can understand words with the letter ‘R’ even though it varies from the veddy veddy British ‘D’ version to the rolled burr of the Scottish, to the little flip of the tongue in Spanish and then to the back-of-the-throat gutteral French ‘ghghgh…’ the voiced uvular fricative.”

And here Stuart gargled something in his throat that sounded very much like a possum expiring on a kitchen floor.

“Merci,” he says, “Meghghgh-see.”mr yunioshi

“And then there’s the undifferentiated liquid of Asian languages, which we make fun of, not understanding that ‘L’ and ‘R’ are such close relatives. ‘So solly,’ says the vaudeville Chinese stereotype. And ‘flied lice,’ and its opposite, ‘rotsa ruck.’ You cannot help but throw up a little in your mouth, thinking of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s really embarrassing.”

“More than embarrassing; even more than offensive. It is tin-eared. That’s not what’s going on with the undifferentiated liquid.

“But then, there’s the American ‘R,’ which is probably the single most distinguishing giveaway to an American accent whenever an American attempts to speak another language. ‘Moochas grrrassee-aas.’ That rhotic  ‘R’ hangs in the mouth way too long. ‘RRRRRRRRR,’ like some dog growling when you get too close to his bone. ‘Murrrrr-see boe-cooo.’ Americans speak in such a rhythm that you almost have to stretch the ‘R.’

“But then, we stretch out our consonants, too. Listen to Mexican speaking and you hear the clipped, quick syllables rattle by. Then hear the American imitate him and you see a slow train entering the freight yard. I am grateful whenever one of our presidents attempts to say a few phrases in Spanish, but I also cringe at the wrong rhythm. It’s like a Republican playing jazz. The beat is all wrong, to say nothing of the nasality of the American voice, which — thanks to the prevalence of Valley-girl speak — is only becoming more and more unavoidable in American speech. At some point, American English will pass French for the ‘most-nasalicious’ trophy.

“I used to love English, the sound of it, the sense of vocal pleasure achieved by sounding out those luscious consonants. We conventionally say that French is such a beautiful sounding language, or Italian. And they are, in their own way. But usually we say such things to distinguish our own lack of appreciation for the language we were born into.”

“Yes, my wife likes to try to ‘hear’ human speech the way we hear bird calls or cattle lowing,” I finally get a word in edgwise. “She asks, ‘What is the sound of human speech,’ not meaning what is the content of the language, but what is its animal timbre. She tries very hard to filter out the semiotics and syntax and hear what is said the way we hear whale singing or coyotes howling. It’s nearly impossible, because we understand our mother language so instantaneously as it is spoken. There is almost no time lag there to climb down into and grasp the sound waves. The closest she gets, she tells me, is when she hears children playing in the schoolyard. A human flock of cackling birds. But it’s hard to hear it without being blocked by knowing what is said.”

“Yes,” said Stuart, “and if you do manage to do something of the sort, you realize now what an ugly direction American speech is taking, how whiny it has begun sounding, with all that torpor and nasality. I think of, say, John Gielgud speaking Shakespeare and I love the words that leap crisply from his lips, the deliciousness of them, lovingly shaped and tasted as they are spoken. And then you compare that with, say, Taylor Swift — and I’m not picking on her for any reason other than she is so typical of young American English — and you hear a slow, unconsidered whine. Valley-girl-ism. It’s everywhere. Even our best actors and actresses are now infected with it. In our own lifetime, we have seen the evolution of American English.

“And if it has changed so much in so short a time, I mean the sound of it, the way it is produced in the throat and mouth, imagine how much it has changed since the time of Chaucer. ‘Whan that Aprille with its shoures soote …’  How long before the language of, say, Franklin Roosevelt in an old newsreel, sounds as archaic as that? And I’m not referring primarily to the change in vocabulary, but merely the alteration in vocal production, the next great vowel shift.”

“Yet,” I said, “we can still, if we pay attention, hear Chaucer and understand it. At least for the most part.”

“That is precisely my original point,” Stuart said. “How can it be that when a New Yorker says, ‘youse guys’ or a Virginian says ‘y’all.’ The fact is, as I said, we don’t speak words, but sentences and phrases, all balled up into a little melodic jingle.

“Take a simple sentence, like ‘Please hand me the lamp, I want to plug it in.’ What we really say is something like, “Pleez/ hanmedalamp/ eye wanna plugidin.’ Words elide into tiny musical phrases, like ‘hanmedalamp.’ If there is a single linguistic unit there, ‘hanmeda,’ it is that tune. But the tune changes radically when you say it in another regional accent. In a Yiddish accent, you ask for the ‘lemp.’ In a Downton Abbey voice, you call it a ‘lahmp.’ In a Southern drawl, you ask for the ‘layump.’ These accents cannot even agree on the number of syllables in the word.

“Yet, we absorb the meaning of the sentence easily, no matter which version we hear.

“This tunefulness is that makes it so hard to learn a new language after a certain age. You want to hear the words a Frenchman speaks to you, but he isn’t speaking words, he’s speaking phrases. You are trying to parse out the sounds you have heard into discrete vocabulary, but you cannot do it in anything like real time. The lag is too long. You need to learn a new language not by reading it, where it is separated with little lacunas between type, but in the long swirl of phrase and sentence, as she is actually spoke.

“So, ‘Como esta Usted’ become ‘co-mwes-taoos-ted.’ And I’m not even taking into account the problem of hearing a Hispanic ‘D,’ which slides between the tongue and teeth like an Old English thorn.”

“You mean the ‘TH’ sound?”le monde

“Yes. You know, when I go to France, I have little trouble reading Le Monde or Le Figaro. But I have the hardest time understanding the concierge or waiter when he asks me a question. I can navigate the type fairly easily because it is all divided up into words, many of which are cognates in English. And it isn’t just that French is so differently pronounced from its spelling. I have the same situation in Mexico with Spanish. Easy to read, harder to hear. And the Spanish is not pronounced at variance with its orthography. But the problem is that the French waiter isn’t speaking in words, but in phrases, in melodies. And I am a toddler, having learned words built with my alphabet blocks.

“The point here is that I can hear my own language spoken in a variety of melodies or accents, even radically different from my familiar usage, and seem to have no difficulty accommodating the changed pronunciations, but have such a damnedly hard time wrapping me ears around even the most proper spoken French.

“I remember the character actor Luis van Rooten, who wrote a series of nursery rhymes in French, which, when spoken out loud, sound like English spoken with a comic French accent. ‘Un petit d’un petit s’etonne aux Halles,’ or ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.’

“I am certain that a Frenchman has the same situation hearing the Marseille accent or the Parisian one, and sails through the different melodies with no problem, but has the devil of the time hearing clarity in English spoken even by Gielgud.”

“You remind me of Lady Mondegreen,” I said. “Hearing language not in words, but in a smear of sound in a phrase. Our hearing is amazing, when you think about it, how we can absorb whole sentences, or chunks of them, without ever thinking of them broken into words. But we can also mishear them. Which only proves it is the melody we are listening to and not the words.”

“Lady Mondegreen? Who dat?”

“You know, a mondegreen, when you mishear something. Like in the folk song, ‘They hae slain the Earl O’Moray and Lady Mondegreen,’ which was originally ‘and laid him on the green.’ It’s now the official word, like a pun or Spoonerism or Malapropism, for misheard lyrics, or misheard language in general, like the famous ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ in the Jimi Hendrix song.”

“Yes. Mondegreen. I’ll remember that. It’s my point exactly. When we speak in phrases, we often elide the sounds in them into other sounds, not always clearly related. I remember the story of the kid who drew the Nativity scene with all the usual figures and a fat man beside the manger. ‘Who’s that?’ she was asked. ‘That’s Round John Virgin.’ As we speak it, the ‘D’ of ‘round’ and the ‘Y’ of ‘yon’ scrunch our tongue into making a ‘J’ sound, not a simple ‘DY’ sound. And we hear it in ‘John.’ ”glodderbin toad 1

“An old friend of mine remembers when he was camping with his girlfriend and he was inside the tent trying to wrestle with the tent poles while she was outside giving moral support. Then she yelled with some joy and excitement, ‘Look, look, a Glodderbin toad! A Glodderbin toad!’ He poked his head out of the canvas looking at the ground all over. ‘No, up there, in the air — a glider being towed.’ You have to say it in a Southern accent.”

“Ah, the Bufo glodderbinensis. Perhaps one day, some scientist will give a newly discovered toad that name and your friend will be vindicated.”

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach is the alpha and omega of music.

It’s one of the few things most musicians agree on. The question is whether to pay attention to the alpha part or the omega part.

For many, he’s the beginning of 250 years of the classical-music tradition: During most of that time, his music was the earliest regularly programmed and, for composers, the model of what good music should be.janus coin

Beethoven called him “the father of us all.”

But for an increasing number of listeners, he just as importantly is the culmination — the end — of the long tradition of polyphonic music dating back to the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Like the Roman god Janus, he faces both directions at once.

He is the hinge on which the history of music turns, the hinge between early music and our modern tradition.

J.S. Bach was born 325 years ago in the dead center of what now is Germany. In 1685, it was the town of Eisenach in Thuringia.

eisenach 1647

So many of his family were musicians — uncles, cousins, grandparents — that in parts of Germany at the time, Bach was a slang term for musician the way “Einstein” is sometimes used for a scientist. His father was Eisenach’s bandleader.

The young Bach was a spirited fellow — caught once with a girl in the choir loft; another time, he fought a duel in the streets; and later, for another offense, spent a week in jail.

He must have had a very passionate side, given his two wives and 20 children, even in a cold German habitat.

He joined the family business, as it were, and had a series of musical jobs for the rest of his life.thomaskirche leipzig2

His career can be divided into three distinct parts. From age 18 to 32, he was a church organist, mostly in the city of Weimar. From 32 to 38, he wrote secular music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen in Cothen. And from then until his death at 65, he was in charge of all music at St. Thomas Church in Liepzig.

At St. Thomas, he wrote a new sacred cantata every week for five years. About 250 of them survive: They make up a third of his output.

The composer didn’t get around much; few people did back then. All these places were within 50 miles of each other.

bach ms 2

The High Baroque

We call J.S. Bach a Baroque composer, but what does that mean?

Mostly, it means energy, emotion, drama and density.baroque art

From roughly 1600 to 1750, whether it is the painting by Rubens or Rembrandt, the poetry of John Milton or the counterpoint of Bach, Baroque art embraced its own artifice and reveled in florid extravagance.

You can listen to the music of Bach like any other, of course, letting it flow over you. Its tunes are memorable and its rhythms and harmonies are always interesting and pleasurable.

But Bach’s music offers special rewards that you can uncover if you try listening with your attention focused on these three things:bach canonic portrait

* Counterpoint: Much of Bach’s music is written in counterpoint, which means the playing of multiple melodies at the same time, overlapping each other. You can pick the top line and hear it as the “main tune” or you can listen to the subordinate parts and discover a tremendous richness of detail and meaning. Bach wrote many fugues, which are pieces of music in which the same melody overlaps itself in a different key, and races after itself (“fugue” comes from the Latin word for “flight,” as in “tempus fugit,” “time flies”). Listening to a fugue is like juggling with your ears.

* Bass line: Bach’s music has a forward movement driven by a clear and distinct bass line. You will find the music opens up for you if, instead of listening to the main tune, you focus on the lowest notes and see where they go: They will always guide where the top melody can settle. The 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms used to cover up the upper staves of music when looking at a new piece of music, and concentrate on the bass line. “That’s how you can tell if the music is good or not,” he said. You learn new things, like the way a football play opens up if, instead of keeping your eye on the quarterback, you follow the left tackle or linebacker.

* Dissonance: Oddly, for music that’s so listener friendly, Bach is one of the most dissonant of composers. It hardly sounds that way, because the sharp conflicts of notes are always resolved into a satisfying and harmonious manner, but the great emotional depth of Bach’s music — and its tremendous sense of humanity — comes in part from his use of dissonance as a metaphor for human suffering. (In an experiment, you might play one of Bach’s chorale hymn settings, such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and play only the offbeats — it will sound surprisingly like Schoenberg.)

One of the canards about Bach’s music is that it is somehow academic and mathematical; the truth is, he was all over the map.

There is a core of irrationality in Bach’s music, a Dionysian freedom: You never know where he’s going next.

When Bach was working, music for church or concerts was polyphonic; that is, written not so much as a melody with accompaniment but as multiple melodies played one on top of the other to make a single whole.

Bach had an astonishing facility for combining separate lines and overlapping melodies with themselves, sometimes at different speeds at the same time, sometimes turning a melody upside down or playing it backwards.

There are worlds within worlds, and the contradiction of seeming to be the epitome of both order and spontaneity.WTC prelude 1

His music may have wheels spinning inside wheels, but it’s always surprising, like the C-minor prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, which begins with a repeated rhythmic figure, unchanging over a constantly shifting harmony, but about three-quarters of the way through, he simply gives up on the pattern and takes off on a flourish of notes like a skyrocket spinning in air, and just when you get comfortable with that, he settles into a melismatic cadence that keeps promising to come to a rest but refuses to stop.WTC prelude 2

Or that moment in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto where everyone stops for fully five minutes to let the keyboard wander off on its own for a brilliant cadenza, essentially a rhapsody on a dominant pedal, that seems to find every possible permutation of its ideas, before the orchestra re-enters to conclude the piece.

Barroca

The word “Baroque” comes from the Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl, and it was initially applied to the art of the period as an insult, by the calmer minds of the era that followed.

The history of art is an alternation of periods that idealized order and simplicity with a succeeding age that valued emotion and drama. The Renaissance calm gave way to a Baroque frenzy, just as the Neo-classical stability of Haydn and Mozart gave way to the Romantic yearning of Berlioz or Wagner.Greek sculptures

You can find this alternation as far back as you want: The Hellenic stasis of the Parthenon frieze in ancient Greece gave way to the wild extravagance of Hellenistic sculpture of the time of Alexander the Great, with its writhing figures and tortured faces. The dour Romanesque of the early Middle Ages gave way to the bustling aspiration of the Gothic.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche named the guiding spirits of the alternating eras Apollonian and Dionysian. They also are called Classic and Romantic.

Perhaps one of the reasons the music of Bach speaks to us again so strongly, through the newer interpretations, is that we’re currently entering another era of Baroque sensibility. The virtues of Bach’s time are re-emerging: variety and diversity rather than unity, the recycling of artistic material — Bach was not afraid to reuse material; he was one of the original samplers — and a mixing of high and low cultures. Bach used dance rhythms as the basis of much of his music, the way Duke Ellington and Chubby Checker might have.

(A modern version of the Baroque suite, with its allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, might be an orchestral suite made up of a fox-trot, a waltz, a tango and a Charleston.)

Postmodernism has become a neo-Baroque, and Bach is speaking our language once more.

brilliant bach

Bach-Werke Verzeichnis

Bach’s output was enormous: The complete works fill 155 CDs in one collection. There are more than a thousand numbered compositions, running from music for solo violin to grand vocal works for multiple choruses and orchestras. Half the music was written for church services.

Much of the music is among the best known and dearest loved in the repertoire. Even those with no interest in classical music know his Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor for organ — it’s played endlessly every Halloween — and the Prelude to his first Suite for Unaccompanied Cello can be heard in several television commercials, including one for American Express.

His music connects with a lot of different audiences.bach at organ horizontal color copy

Culture wars

The problem is, there are two primary constituencies for the music of Bach, and the difference between them might as well be between red states and blue states: It’s a culture war.bach statue 2

The older tradition plays a beautiful Bach, with long, flowing melodic lines and a profoundly emphasized bass line, with clearly delineated harmonies. It is the Bach that for many, including Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, “is the only argument proving the creation of the universe cannot be regarded as a complete failure.”

The composer Debussy said, “Bach is our lord of music. Every composer would do well to pray to him before commencing work.”

This is the Bach we inherited, thick with 250 years of performance tradition. It is Bach as the Alpha of our music. For this contingent, Bach is something universal, primordial, fundamental: Homer in music, or Shakespeare.

The name Bach in German means “brook” or “stream.” “He is not a brook,” Beethoven punned. “He is an ocean.”

But that’s the Bach who is the first modern composer; there’s a rising contingent that views him instead as the culmination of a century and a half of an older music tradition — The Omega. It is a Baroque style of playing completely at odds with the traditional symphonic approach.

The younger tradition mistrusts such grand religio-philosophical interpretations as pretentious piffle. And for them, as for the conductor Arturo Toscanini, “Tradition is just the last bad performance.” They want to clean the browned varnish from Bach and find the bright colors underneath.

These new historically informed performance-practice people want to dance, dance, dance, and they emphasize the rhythm and up the tempo, sometimes approximating speed metal.kimberly marshall

“Sometimes the tempi have become absurd,” says organist Kimberly Marshall. “You’d think you were playing your LP at 78 rpm, like the Energizer Bunny or something.”

The revisionists quote poet Ezra Pound, who famously averred that “music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance.”
And they believe they’re performing the music in a more authentic way, meaning, the way Bach would have performed it himself. Usually, on the musical instruments that Bach would have known: valveless horns and trumpets, oboes with few keys, wooden flutes and short-necked violins with light bows. They strive to recreate the sound that would have resounded in Bach’s ear.

And this is the sticking point: Like believers in competing religions, their dogmas are irreconcilable. Whose ear is more important? Bach’s ear or the contemporary listener’s ear? After all, we can never have 18th-century ears. Too much has happened since.

“The loudest sound Bach would have heard might have been a door slamming,” says conductor Benjamin Rous, who began his career leading the Boston Baroque Ensemble at Harvard University. “If you wanted to give our listeners the experience that Bach had, you’d have to create a world without the last two centuries of history.” So, pick your side and make your argument.
hamlet burton

“It’s like politics,” says cellist Blythe Tretick of the trio Paradisa. “You get into some pretty heated discussions about these things. You can’t win, because it’s a matter of taste.”

Unexamined through all this is the basic premise that music should reflect the composer’s intent. It’s taken as an axiom. But few people are asking why. We don’t insist that Shakespeare be performed outdoors, with boys playing the women’s parts and with the rhetorical delivery of its actors. We don’t blanch at Richard Burton playing Hamlet in suit and tie.

So why do we argue over whether Bach’s musicians played with a vibrato or not? Shouldn’t the music be played to mean the most to modern audiences, the way we do with Hamlet? How much is composer’s intention and how much merely the limitations and conventions of his age? And is a performance something alive, or a museum piece under a vitrine?

Rock ‘n’ Roll

Perhaps this is the underlying truth of the historical-performance people: Unacknowledged by them, they aren’t so much re-creating historical fact as reflecting contemporary taste. We have grown up with a popular music based on rhythm and energy, so we may well now prefer our Bach the same way. Perhaps our ears are attuned to the virtues of Creedence Clearwater Revival bach with electric guitarand feel more comfortable with a Bach that sounds very like it.

And, too, after a violent century, we have become a little more circumspect about claiming the great philosophical ideas and universal truths we found in Bach’s music and that too often justified war and genocide. We have been humbled into seeking a more modest music.

Yet, the emotional and spiritual profundity is there, goading us into recognizing that if the current age is modest, the universe is still infinite, and someone with the genius to write the Mass in B-minor or the St. Matthew Passion is a brilliant mirror to that something bigger than our paltry selves.

You pays your money and takes your choice

Both styles of Bach performance are generously represented on CD. Arkivmusic.com lists more than 5,700 recordings.stern st. john pair

You might compare the recording of his violin concertos by Isaac Stern (old style) with those by Lara St. John (new style). You’ll get whiplash going from the first to the second.gould copy

The older style is warmer and richer; the newer style is bouncier and more rhythmic — and a whole lot faster. Discover which performance tradition speaks best to you.

One CD everyone should own is Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the “Goldberg Variations.” It’s not only one of the greatest Bach performances on disc, it’s one of the greatest recordings of all times: exuberant, manic in places, and with its counterpoint always clear. It has never been out of print. It’s neither old school nor new school: It is Gould school. Sui generis.

Here are other recordings to check out.

3 traditional recordings you can’t do without

old bach trio

* “Bach: The Great Solo Works,” with Rosalyn Tureck, piano. Tureck was a Bach specialist, and here she shows just how Baroque the composer could be, in a disc of lesser-known works. A must-have.

* “The Brandenburg Concertos,” with the Marlboro Festival Orchestra, Pablo Casals, conductor. This is old-style Bach, including a piano instead of a harpsichord in the Fifth Concerto (played by the great Rudolf Serkin).

* “Well Tempered Clavier, Book I,” with Daniel Barenboim, piano. Barenboim uses all the possibilities of the piano — pedal, arpeggios, strong bass notes — to make a heroic performance of this iconic music.

Revisionist Bach

new bach trio

* “Six Suites for Violoncello Solo,” with Anner Bylsma, cello. The music is played on a Baroque-style cello (the Stradavarius “Servais” instrument from the Smithsonian Institution) and shows it off at its best.

* “The Brandenburg Concertos,” with Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor. Harnoncourt is one of the leaders of the “original instruments” movement, and he buffs up and shines Bach’s chestnuts with a fresh vision.

* “Bach Cantatas,” with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus, Ton Koopman, conductor. This DVD includes performances of five of Bach’s church cantatas, including the famous Nos. 140 and 147 — with the chorus “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” — and his secular “Coffee Cantata,” which was essentially a singing commercial for the composer’s favorite coffeehouse.

Bottom line

The fact is, the music is so strong, so compelling, so moving — so graceful and so inevitable — that almost any performance will leave you in awe of the imagination and humanity of the grumpy little burger who wrote it.

It hardly matters if its the clever intertwining of voices in a Two-part Invention or a cantata in praise of a good cup of coffee or the cosmic agony of the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion. graph

A former editor of mine created a little mind-game of an intellectual Cartesian co-ordinate system. Up and down its ordinate you map a person’s depth — how profoundly he or she can think and feel, and avoid cliche and generalization, with maybe Justin Bieber on one end and, say, Nelson Mandela near the other. And along its perpendicular abscissa you can map a person’s “width,” or how broad are his or her interests and competence.

There are people with great depth in a narrow band. They have a Ph.D. and know everything there is about the design of active site-directed irreversible enzyme inhibitors, but never heard of the infield fly rule. And there are those with a tiny dabs of knowledge in a very wide field — “Jack of all trades but master of none” — but very few, as my old boss pointed out, that score in both depth and width.

There is Shakespeare; there is Homer; there is Johann Sebastian Bach.

Alpha and Omega.

 

Grouse audubon
We all have lots of things to be thankful for, and a host of other writers and reporters will be checking them off for us during this week, in blogs, on Facebook, in newspaper Op-ed pages and in the closing feel-good segments of the evening news. And over the Thanksgiving turkey on the day that is the starting gun to the professional Alka-Seltzer season.

I’ve got a lot to be thankful for, too.

But I feel the gratitude has been adequately covered by the mainstream sentiments. So, I want to look at the other side: I’m such an unreconstructed contrarian that I like to find those missed opportunities, things we were never given the chance to be thankful for. honey boo boo

Like a TV-scape that could have been free of Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty and Pawn Stars, if only wiser heads had prevailed.

Or a decision not to make a sequel to Survivor, or to keep American Idol and its clones wheezing along season after tedious season.

So I’ve made a short list of things we cannot, in all honesty, claim to be thankful for.

–Like cell phones brrrrting-out in the adagio movement of symphonies.

–Like junk mail and the tonnage of mail-order catalogs clogging the mailbox — sometimes two or three identical catalogs delivered the same day. Can they afford to be so profligate? At least they keep the recycling bin full and humming.

–Like cable TV bundling, forcing you to buy a dozen useless channels in order to get the BBC news. andrew weil

–Like pledge breaks on PBS, and its endless, insipid Yanni at the Acropolis or Andrea Bocelli “specials,” to say nothing of snake-oil salesmen giving us pep talks on vitamin supplements, nutritional fads or investment advice. Please, just ask for money and spare me the week of unwatchable TV.

–Is there anyone in the country who doesn’t find Flo’s car insurance ads cloying and smarmy?

–All those Linked-In updates from people you never heard of.

–A literal-minded Supreme Court majority
Justice Scalia testifies on Capitol Hill in Washingtoncompletely lacking in common sense. “Ars lexis,” indeed: “The law is an arse.” I can only imagine Antonin Scalia reading T.S. Eliot: “This is a lie. The man who wrote this poem was 23; he was not old and, according to photographs of the time, he did not wear the bottoms of his trousers rolled.”

–Robo-calls from political candidates and police benevolent societies. I don’t talk to machines.

–Chatty, chummy waiters who will be serving me tonight.

DON’T FORGET TOP TEN LISTS

Hmm. This list goes on: Stomach viruses, daytime talk shows; network sweeps weeks; movies based on television shows; Broadway musicals based on movies; movie versions of musicals based on movies. Then there is Sarah Palin, jokes about Palin, jokes about her trailer park progeny.

Technoweenies, Spotify, people who talk out loud during movies, small portions of cold food. brickleberry 2

And more: Twilight and its sequels, movie sequels in general, Jennifer Lawrence rumors, Jennifer Lawrence facts, baby bumps, Kim Kardashian’s steatopygia as ubiquitous as waving flags in a right-wing TV election ads.

For that matter, any election commercials. Cheaply made gross-out animation on Comedy Central. No, it’s not funny just ‘cause it farts.

Promos on local TV news pretending to be actual journalism.

The deluge of so-called news stories that begin “5 things you didn’t know about …” I didn’t need to know.

How about celebrity non-singers who pulverize the national anthem at sporting events?

All that spitting and scratching during the World Series.

Hundreds of cable channels available and still nothing worth watching. prince harry

And there are too many Kardashians. Do they multiply like tribbles?

A short list of other celebrities for whom I am not grateful: Prince Harry and his ginger nethers; Kristin Stewart and her sullen pout; Miley Cyrus and her tattoos; Amanda Bynes and her ilk; Taylor Swift and her break-ups;   Chris Hemsworth and his hair; Le Bron James and his self-esteem.

I’m sure you have your own list, but I’m sure it includes Adam Sandler.

DAY OF DISCONTENT

So for all this — most of which can keep a curmudgeon in fruitful dudgeon for a year — I am suggesting that we create a new national holiday.

We have a national day of thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November, so why not a national day of remonstrance the fourth Wednesday?

After all, All-Saints Day is preceded by its opposite, Halloween, so why shouldn’t Thanksgiving be ushered in with a day of sour apples and vinegar? Instead of turkey, we could eat grouse.

We could have the bellyaching over with even before we start over-eating turkey and stuffing.

It could be a national day to celebrate all the politicians we’ve elected. I can’t think of a more appropriate day unless it is April 15.lewis black

Lewis Black could be spokesman.

It would be a day we would all eat sauerkraut and wear tight shorts, a day to give the lie to ideas of ”peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.”

The holiday would be called the Day of Discontent, but more informally, we could call it Kvetchmas. And even more than Thanksgiving, it would make the appropriate beginning to the holiday commercial frenzy.

Of course one of the complaints celebrated during Kvetchmas would be the proliferation of spurious holidays.

BSO
It’s odd, considering how old much of it is, that classical music is so recent an invention.

We think of classical music as being longhair music written by dead White guys. But, in fact, Mozart didn’t know he was writing classical music. He was just writing music.

“There’s only two kinds of music: good and bad,” jazz icon Duke Ellington said. (Mozart is in the first group.)

Bu something changed over the centuries: As mass audiences grew to like popular music, the kind of music written by the older composers was relegated to a new category: classical.

“Classical music is the kind we keep thinking will turn into a tune,” humorist Kin Hubbard wrote in the 1920s.bugs plays piano

And, increasingly, audiences diverged; one group went to the dance halls, the other to the concert halls. Classical music became marginalized, especially in American culture. It became a target for the Three Stooges and Bugs Bunny.

Yet a hunger for music that addresses larger and more complex issues has always existed alongside fiddle tunes. Even in the world of rock music, some music is understood to be more important than others. Radiohead has serious fans that would look down their noses at, say, Justin Bieber.

The distinction should be made, not so much between classical and pop musics, but between music created primarily as an entertainment and music that attempts to express more profound human issues.

There’s nothing wrong with entertainment. We all love a good song. But it isn’t the only thing there is. And we should not judge the one by the standards of the other.

Everyone knows what to listen for in popular music. They have a lifetime of dealing with it. The beat, the tune, the words, the instant gratification.

Rock music now has the “wow” factor, the light and spectacle. And now that’s what people expect, to be bowled over emotionally, to get their juices pumping.

Classical music is emotional, too, but it’s more interior and subtle. And it’s dramatic in ways audiences just aren’t familiar with anymore.

Drama is the key word: Like a play or a film, classical music deals with multiple characters (called themes) as they interact over time, and where you start isn’t where you end. Like I’ve written before: Classical music is movies for the ear.

Popular music is a place; classical music is a journey.

Listen to Mahler and one movement may take 45 minutes. But there are so many ideas juxtaposed in so many different ways that your mind starts spinning. You connect A to B and then A to C and then C to F. It’s all interacting in different ways.

You have to come to the concert hall prepared for that journey. You have to come equipped.

There are five important ways classical music differs from pop.

* Its length.

Classical music is almost always longer, In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida notwithstanding. Pop music may be likened to music videos, classical to a full-length feature. The plot takes longer to develop.

* Its dependence on harmony both structurally and expressively.

A sonata is built on D-major or F-minor, and the elaborate and subtle changes in harmony are both the structural and expressive content of classical music. You don’t need to know the name, but you feel the changes of harmony in your chest, physically.

* Its reliance on variety and contrast.

Unlike pop, which sustains a single clear mood, classical moves constantly, now fast, now slow; now loud, now a whisper. It seldom keeps a single mood for long, but asks you to compare and contrast.

* Its multiple simultaneous voices, or counterpoint.
Fugue

Whether it’s a fugue or a quartet, there almost always is more than one thing going on at any given moment. You have to be able to hear two or more things at once.

* And finally, on the importance of “active listening.”

That is, the importance of paying attention and following ideas as they change and develop through the course of the piece.

Memory is the important part. You need to have a musical memory of some kind to distinguish between what happened before and what happens now.

You have to pay attention, the way you would when reading a novel, keeping track of what’s happening to Raskolnikov at any given time and how he changes over time.

Of all these things, harmony is the hardest to discuss in words. There is no non-musical language to express the modulation from D-major to A-flat. You have to hear it.

Or you try to describe it in words that can’t possibly mean anything to a non-musician: An enharmonic shift, followed by a run around the circle of fifths. How about the Neapolitan relationship? Does that mean anything to you? Didn’t think so. But you can hear it without naming it. Like the way you can hear the “changes” in 12-bar blues. You can feel when the phrase starts anew, with each round of chord changes.Brahms Fourth

It’s only more extreme when you follow the same kind of repeating chord changes in the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony: You feel the drive of those harmonies racing to the finish line.

Harmony is the emotional effect created by playing several notes at once as a single idea. It also is the movement from one set of notes to another, and the emotional effect created by that shift.

Western music has the idea of expectation and release in it. Play a dominant-seventh chord and then try to stop. You can’t do it comfortably. You have to have it resolve.

Harmony, more than rhythm, provides the forward motion of classical music.

Of course, pop and classical aren’t mutually exclusive genres. It’s more of a spectrum of intent: There is pop that tackles serious issues and there is classical music meant merely to entertain.

And there are many classical musics from around the world: Indian, Chinese — and for many of us, American jazz — are classical musics. They all tend to be longer and more complex than the popular music from those same cultures.

Classical music isn’t only music with violins and oboes. It can be made with synthesizers or electric guitars, as any fan of Philip Glass or Steve Reich knows. Classical is not a style but an approach; not a sound but a way of thinking about music and what music means.

If all this makes classical music sound like work, well, it is. It requires more from the listener. But there is a reward for all the effort you put in.

It reaches depths of our souls that everyday music just doesn’t.

And it satisfies the hunger that poet William Carlos Williams defined: something that is difficult, but “men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

Popular music deals with thoughts and emotions that are understood and already defined; classical attempts to understand things that we don’t yet fully grasp: the big questions of life and existence that don’t have simple answers.

Like all fine art, it seeks rather than finds, it defines questions rather than provides answers.

It’s a richer experience, and some people gravitate into it with age and maturity. People can graduate from pop to classical music, but it seldom happens the other way round.

casals
What is classical music?

It can be hard to pin down. Many have tried to define it; certainly, they believe they can know it when they hear it. But the outlines of what we define as classical music are unhelpfully squishy.

Is it merely European aristocratic music from the 18th through the 20th centuries? Certainly the audience for Mozart’s Magic Flute wasn’t aristocratic. And Italy’s appetite for opera is wider than the upper crust.

Is it orchestral music? Not if we count Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello. Is it instrumental? Not if we count the masses of Palestrina.

It is often called “art music,” as if music in other forms could not aspire to the condition of art. Tell that to Frank Zappa. And frankly, much of the music played in concert halls was never intended to be more than entertainment, albeit of a refined order. Not everything is the St. Matthew Passion; some of it is just Skater’s Waltz.

To look at what we call classical music, we should consider: What is the central question of classical music? That is, what question does classical music answer?

And by that, I mean not only European classical music, but all those around the world, from Indian ragas to Chinese opera.

The question is so banal as almost never to be asked. What is the central question to all classical musics?

It is this:

“How do you make a piece of music last more than three minutes?”

Popular music consists of songs, and, in our culture at least, that means a 32-bar song that you can repeat over and over. But imagine listening to Memories repeated for half an hour and imagine the tedium. It would be my substitute for pistol and ball.

Whether it’s folk songs or rock and roll, the idea is to get in and out quickly, establish a mood and then finish it off.

Yes, there are exceptions in popular music, from In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida to Duke Ellington’s Reminiscing in Tempo, but a case can be made that they are “classical musics,” also.

When we ask the first question, a second question arises immediately:

“Why should a piece of music last more than three minutes?”

And it is here that we come to the difference between popular and classical musics: the difference between simple mood and complex emotional developments. Between a New Yorker cartoon and a Tolstoy novel. cartoonA song gives us a passing mood, seldom offering any narrative complexity (it may offer psychological complexity and even complexities of melody or key structure, and a great song usually has something of this). But a symphony, like a play or a movie, starts in one place and takes us on a journey, leaving us someplace else at the end.

The time spent allows for not just complex emotions, but a sequence of emotions that interact.

You can think of it this way: Classical music is movies for the ear. There are characters, there is development, there is a plot and plot twists. Fight scenes and love scenes, perhaps a mystery, perhaps a road trip.

It presents ideas in time in a way that makes sense to an audience listening for them.cellar 1

Most young filmgoers know the habits of filmmakers so well, for instance, that their expectations become part of the appreciation of the film: They know what to expect when the teenager opens the cellar door and goes down to the dark to investigate that funny noise, and they are delighted if the filmmaker does something fresh and new and upsets their expectation with a surprise.

Classical audiences also know what to expect and are delighted when a composer takes a left turn and expresses a new way to think about it.

It is often thought there is special, arcane knowledge required to enjoy classical music. And, of course, there is a lot of specialized language. There is with films, too — key grip, D.P., fade, dissolve, two-shot — but you don’t need to know any of them to enjoy a film. It is the same with symphonies or sonatas.

It isn’t the words that matter, but the sounds. You don’t need to know the words to enjoy the music.

These are words about wordless things.?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

When you see a gun being put in a desk drawer in the first half of a movie, you know instinctively that it will be used in the second half.

When Beethoven’s audience heard C-major sneak into the first three movements of his C-minor symphony, they knew it would come out blazing in the finale: They waited in suspense to hear how he would do it.

This is the appeal of classical music for its audiences.

This isn’t something technical only a musician would know. “Major” and “minor” are simply words: It is the emotional shift that matters, from the tight, constricted, frustrating feel of the opening of the symphony to the ecstatic release of the ending. It is an emotional journey, and one that you could not accomplish in a simple song.

It’s also part of what distinguishes classical music from its popular cousin. Popular music is like a commercial: short, punchy, memorable; classical music is like a novel: long, involved and with many characters and a slowly achieved resolution.

None of this is meant to denigrate popular music or songs. I love a good tune as much as the next person. But popular and classical musics are attempting very different things.

You couldn’t pack all of Indiana Jones into a three-minute trailier.

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