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

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

Happy Birthday, Very Quietly, To You

Today is my mom’s birthday.

Mom has been super-helpful to me throughout this blog-ject so far. She helped me pack up CDs upon CDs upon CDs. She dredged her memory for random factoids. She hasn’t yet thrown out the complete scores to Mahler’s symphonies – yes, all of Mahler’s symphonies – in a fit of cleaning rage. And she has supported and encouraged this blog even when she feels I might be over-sharing.

I had in mind to say happy birthday by writing a history of classical music composers who have somehow incorporated the happy birthday song into their work. This list, it turns out, is shorter than I envisioned, for two reasons. Continue reading

I’m Cheating On Bach With Ducks That Snort Helium

P.D.Q. Bach, Music for an Awful Lot of Winds & Percussion. Telarc. 1992.

I’m cheating on Bach today with P.D.Q.

As I’ve already mentioned, Bach had a lot of kids. Many of them were musical. There was C.P.E., J.C.F., W.F., and of course, P.D.Q., the “last and oddest of Bach’s 20-odd children,” who lived, in possible inspiration for Benjamin Button, from 1807 to 1742. He was “rediscovered” by Professor Peter Schickele, who has unearthed more than four score of this forgotten child’s writings. Continue reading

On Malcolm Arnold And Drinkin’

Malcolm Arnold. Dances: Scottish, Irish, Cornish, English. Sarabande & Polka from ‘Solitaire.’ The Philharmonia, Bryden Thomson. 1990

Most of my dad’s CDs, I went home and packed up early this summer. But a few of them have been in my own collection – meager in comparison to his – for years, including this one.

I stole this CD during my senior year in high school, when I played the bassoon solo in the second movement of Arnold’s “Four Scottish Dances” as part of this thing called All-State Band (I wonder if it’s still around?), where you go away for a few days, rehearse a few pieces, and then perform them for an audience of parents and band directors, mostly. Continue reading

Malcolm Arnold: That Vacuum Cleaner Sounds a Leeetle Sharp

Malcolm Arnold. Symphony No. 2; Concerto for 2 Pianos (3 hands); A Grand, Grand, Overture; Carnival of Animals. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley. Nettle & Markham Piano Duet. Conifer Classics, 1994.

The letter ‘A’ has been filled with oddball composers. Drunken composers, high-road and low-road and road-less-traveled composers. Serious, strictly classical composers and light, jazzy composers, melodic and not-so-much. Composers of pieces for typewriters and parrots and cows and four feet and fans. Deeply tormented and mostly fancy-free composers.

So it’s fitting to end with Malcolm Arnold, who unites all these things in one man. Or even in just this one CD. As the Guardian wrote in his obituary in 2006, “Arnold believed that music had to embrace all human experience, including the plain daft.” Continue reading

The ‘Noble Density’ and ‘Mellow Puffs’ of Vyacheslav Artyomov

Vyacheslav Artyomov. Hymns. Melodiya.

This is a CD I bought dad as a gift while I was living in Russia. This was something I did from time to time, bringing him music from whatever odd place I had been, in an attempt to confound him by finding something he didn’t already know about that he might like.

I bought this CD knowing nothing about its contents. This was the mid-90s, when the Internet was only just getting started – not even, really, in Russia – which hindered, ahem, research. And many of Moscow’s stores were still holding onto their actively anti-consumer past, making it hard for someone whose Russian was sketchy to solicit help. Such was the case with the place where I bought this CD, the exceedingly Soviet Dom Knigi (House of Books), located on the even more Soviet Noviy Arbat street. Continue reading