Eisler’s on the Come and Go: Eisler, Dylan, Guthrie, And a Question That Persists

Hanns Eisler is another one of those composers you think you’ve never heard of, but actually are sorta kinda peripherally acquainted with, in a “huh-well-that’s-useful-to-know-for-Trivial-Pursuit” kind of way.

He’s the guy – well, one of the guys — you can thank every time you get that Bob Dylan earworm, “The times, they are a-changin’” stuck in your head. Dylan cites as a big influence Bertolt Brecht, whose musical revue “Brecht on Brecht” he saw in 1963. Brecht and Eisler collaborated frequently, with Eisler setting the writer’s words to music. Song of the Moldau, which was featured in that revue, was one such collaboration. One of the lines in Song of the Moldau, at least according to some translations, is “The times are a-changing. The last shall be the first/The last shall be the first.”

But Eisler is more than just a one-hit pop-culture curiosity – he’s got quite a lot to tell us about our messed-up country. Continue reading

Dainty Flowers Amid the Cacti

Barber. Violin Concerto. Shostakovich. Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 99. London Symphony Orchestra. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg on violin. EMI Classics. 1992.

So when I set out to write this post uhhhhhhhhhh like months ago? Yeah months, the plan was to detail a sad/gallant tale of capitalism versus communism, of how strife produces beauty, to perhaps begin understanding why there are relatively few well-known American composers. And I guess it’s still about that, but after my customary bit of internet research, it also morphed into a little bit of a “trust, but verify” story, no matter how solid you may think your knowledge is.

The liner notes here detail how the Barber and Shostakovich works on this CD share the commonality of a “difficult birth, though the difficulties were as different in nature as the works themselves.” That bit about different difficulties has got to be one of the great liner note understatements of our time. Continue reading

A Library-Like Atmosphere

balakirev_libraryI made my first trek ever to the New York Public Library to research that last blog post, as Rimsky-Korsakov’s memoirs mostly aren’t available online.

I mentioned my library-visiting intent at a gathering earlier in the week, and was intrigued by a) the extreme level of horror my friends expressed that I had never been and b) the fact that their horror was primarily related to my lack of visiting the main branch to see its beauty. As opposed to say, being mortified that I don’t read enough, or that I still buy books, or that my reading tends towards teen-level dystopic fantasy. I also haven’t been to the Brooklyn Public Library, although, as I assured one snarky friend, I HAVE been to the public library in my hometown – admittedly, probably most recently in the ‘80s. Also, nobody asked, but I could have navigated the libraries at the University of Chicago in my nightmare-filled sleep. Continue reading

Remember My Name: Fame and Mily Balakirev

Hoo, boy, the new wordpress media player sure doesn’t do all the things the old yahoo player did. Dear technology: sometimes, change for change’s sake isn’t good. Anyhow. I will try and go through all my old posts and update them, groan, when there is time. Meantime…

Here are some random facts about Mily Balakirev. “Who?” you may ask. Bear with me. Continue reading

Sofia Gubaidulina and THE Scream

On Friday, when I learned that Chechens were suspected in the Boston marathon bombing, I found my thoughts turning to composer Sofia Gubaidulina.

I mis-remembered many things about the one Gubaidulina CD in my collection, which my father gave me sometime in college, I think, after both the bassoon and Russia were well developed themes in my life.

I remembered that Gubaidulina was Armenian; in fact she is Russian and Tatar. I remembered this CD, which consists of the “Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings” and a couple of other chamber works, as primarily a soothing soundscape, except for one shocking moment. In fact, much of the work – no, all of it – seethes cloudily, an ocean simmering.

I did, however, remember that one moment correctly. A little more than halfway through the fourth of five movements, the bassoonist, set upon by the low strings in the title, lets out a most unexpected scream – a scream of anger, of not-belonging, of inability to deal. Of rage against the machine. As I recall, I was doing homework, not really paying attention to the music in the background the first time I listened to this, when this scream came out of nowhere, and freaked the crap out of me. Continue reading

On Granville Bantock and Sticking to Your Corduroys

Granville Bantock, who has three CDs in dad’s collection, proves a number of adages for me: stick to what you know; don’t lose your head in the clouds; and stop well shy of overkill.

Bantock, a British composer around the turn of the 20th century, was well traveled, and probably super smart. Before he took an appointment with the Tower Orchestra in New Brighton, he toured around the world conducting musical comedies. He was enthusiastic about the Middle East, “launched into learning Persian and certainly owned Arabic books all his life,” according to liner notes. He sounds a fun sort: “Bantock was noted for his liberal views and is reputed to have been the first British academic to have attended a faculty meeting dressed in corduroys!” the liner notes further say. Continue reading

Freud, Schmeud: On Bach’s Sons


More wigs!

Yet more wigs!








I started out listening to the seven CDs by Bach’s sons in dad’s collection with a bad attitude. I was like, this is going to suck, these guys are going to be mere shadows of Bach, and it’s still going to be Baroque, and I’m so, so tired of Baroque, and grumble grumble WHEN DO I GET TO BEETHOVEN? I was basically approaching it with the preconceived notion that, as Tim Page, the chief classical music critic for Newsday at the time, writes in one set of liner notes, “One need not be a strict Freudian to suspect that those members of Johann Sebastian Bach’s family who followed him into the music business must sometimes have had a rough time of it.”

But as I really started listening to these guys and reading about them, I realized that this wasn’t fair. Continue reading

A Forest of Violins and Bassoons

I am reading some E.M. Forster because the Interwebz tells me he’s quite the classical music maven, and I came across this happy little vignette in “A Room with a View” that must needs sharing:

“It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not; with a painted ceiling wheron pink griffins and blue amorini sport in a forest of yellow violins and bassoons.”

I gotta get me this ceiling.

Bach’s Influence, From Disco to James Bond

Bach’s influence is felt, to this day, everywhere. Not just in classical music, or in pop music, but in books, movies, art.

Back, gods, more than a year ago, I went to a Lyonel Feininger exhibit, because I had stumbled across an image of the painting above, titled “Newspaper Readers.” It caught my eye because I’m a journalist, and I’m tall, and, I don’t know, I like orange skies with yellow blobs floating in them.

At the exhibit, I stumbled into the realization that Feininger deeply loved Bach. Feininger, born in America, studied the violin as a child, and first made his way to Germany, where he would live for much of his life, to study music. Art became his primary calling, but he called music “the language of my innermost self.” Bach was especially an influence – to the extent that a friend presented Feininger with a fugue on his 50th birthday, inspiring him to begin composing fugues of his own. You can also see the influence of Bach on his paintings. Wrote Feininger, “Bach’s essence has found expression in my paintings. The architectonic side of Bach whereby a germinal idea is developed into a huge polyphonic form.” Continue reading