The oldest instrument?

In the interest of keeping things somewhat light and pleasant around here on a holiday-weekend Friday night, enjoy something truly gorgeous.

Simplicity itself; just variations on a most basic theme, yet heartbreakingly lovely just the same—calming, elegant, mellow, engaging, and utterly spellbinding. This is one of those pieces that really bring Congreve’s old “music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” adage right on home.

Claudia Antonelli, in case you didn’t know, is generally regarded as one of the world’s best-ever harp virtuosos, and rightly so. If you’ve never seen a harp being played live, it’s a helluva mind-blowing experience. The European pillar harp with pedals, see, is one of what I refer to as a full-body-involvement instrument—fingers, arms, back, legs, feet, all come fully into play for the harpist, as with the pipe organ, say, or the double-neck, ten-string (per neck, that is) pedal-steel guitar. It all depends on which variant of the harp they might be playing at the time; some of the four or five-string handheld harps are so simple and basic they can look downright primitive in comparison. Because, y’know, they are.

Don’t hate it me ’cause it’s beautiful, y’all.


Emperor of Emperors

Last night in the wee, small hours, I was lying in bed listening to the radio when I heard the familiar strains of the intro to Beethoven’s rightfully beloved Piano Concerto No 5, otherwise known as the “Emperor” concerto. Those who aren’t orchestral music afficionados might know it from this Immortal Beloved scene.

Actually, that scene isn’t quite historically accurate; to begin with, Beethoven never publicly performed the Emperor himself. To wit:

That particular scene did not happen, as Beethoven was no longer playing in public by the time he wrote “The Emperor “. However, an incident DID happen at an earlier concert Beethoven gave.

First, the scene must be set. In Beethoven’s time, there was rarely a conductor when it came to piano concerto performances. The pianist also conducted the orchestra, as the pianist was also usually the composer as well.

There was no electric lighting then; candles and candelabra were used, and the pianist usually played from his own score. Thus, there were usually two candles on the piano to illuminate the score

In a piano concerto there are often huge passages of music where the piano doesn’t play, and it was in one of these places that Beethoven, now CONDUCTING the orchestra, forgot about the two candles, and in an exuberant and sweeping gesture, knocked over both candles, much to the amusement (and laughter) of the audience. Beethoven himself was not amused, but rather mortified. BUT HE DID NOT WALK OFF THE STAGE. He was too busy conducting despite the little mishap.

The incident is related in Alexander Thayer’s biography of Beethoven.

There were somewhat similar incidents, if I remember right (and I may very well not, mind) at the premiere performances of his disastrous Fidelio, the 5th Symphony, and the 9th Symphony.

Now as y’all know, I am regularly annoyed by the contemporary tendency, on the part of players and conductors alike, to rampage through their arrangements as if the primary objective was not to do the compositions justice, nor even to just bring some wonderful music to life for the audience, but simply to get through the piece as fast as they possibly can. As if they were on some kind of clock or timer or something, or maybe that they thought there was a cash prize for the quickest time.

Happily, in the version of the Emperor I heard last night there was no sign of any such madness. It was so perfectly executed I actually crawled out of bed and rolled over to the iMac to crank the volume up loud before the first movement was done, waving my arms over my head madly as if I was leading the orchestra myself. It really was that good. Even in the third movement, the Rondo/Allegro, the pianist refused to rush or otherwise molest the piece. All the joy and majesty of Beethoven’s essential staple for the piano repertoire was captured and transmitted to the listener’s ear flawlessly, with conductor Vladimir Jurowski leading the Staatskapelle Dresden with faithful attention to pianist Hélène Grimaud’s lead.

The whole thing was as thrilling an example of artistic collaboration and cooperation between soloist, conductor, and orchestra as I ever did hear. And believe you me, I’ve heard plenty over lo, these many years.

After I had found the below vid on YewToob and cued it up for an encore, I then set out to learn more about this Grimaud woman; I’d heard of her before, but didn’t know much about her beyond what she’d just shown me with her masterful rendition of the Emperor. From her own website:

Talking at the time of recording, conductor Vladimir Jurowski commented “For me the most admirable and also the most unusual thing about Hélène’s music making is the spontaneity – in the moment of music-making its born anew…and that’s why it’s always an extremely gripping adventure to make music with her.”

Reviewing the album The London Times wrote “this Emperor concerto ditches the monument approach for the excitements of febrile drama and crisp attack” and the Philadelphia Enquirer commented “The star of the disc is Helene Grimaud, and rightly so: She usually has a firm intellectual and technical grasp on whatever she’s performing, and that’s particularly the case here. It’s penetrating, dry-eyed Beethoven rendered with such technical clarity that you realize there’s even more to the piece than what usually meets the ears.”

Even that effusive praise doesn’t do the lady justice, if you ask me. Listen for yourself and see if you don’t agree.

Well blast it, another vid you might have to click over to YewToob to watch, looks like. Ah well, it’s definitely worth the trip.

Sounds of the season, and a bleg

Okay, I think we’re close enough to Christmas by now to allow me to get away with this year’s repost of one of the very best serendipitous barside a cappella get-togethers in all of human history.

I’ve told the story behind this lovely recording before here, but it always bears repeating: the brilliant and hugely popular vocal ensembles Chanticleer and Cantus, during their annual joint Christmas-season tour, were hanging out at the hotel bar together after a show when they were suddenly inspired to burst into song, performing Franz Biebl’s gorgeous setting of the traditional Ave Maria before a rapt if unsuspecting audience.

The results are nothing short of miraculous; as many times as I’ve watched this vid, I still can’t help but think to myself that, to quote Salieri’s unforgettable line from Amadeus, “This was a music I had never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the very voice of God.

And this is where the bleg comes in, folks. See, there’s this fantastic Christmas album—recent, I believe, since I don’t recall the local classical-music radio station playing it before this year, although admittedly I pretty much missed out on last year’s Christmas completely—off of which I’ve been hearing a sort of mashup/medley for solo piano of Beethoven’s Für Elise with “We Three Kings.” I thought the album’s title might have been something along the lines of A Very Beethoven Christmas or Christmas With Beethoven or something along similar lines, but I cannot for the life of me remember what the dickens it actually was/is called.

Believe me, I’ve tried; I spent the last three hours Duck Duck Go’ing every permutation of “Beethoven” and “Christmas” I could conjure with and came up straight snake eyes, every single time. BUT…I did run across what I suspect might be it:

The only related info I’ve been able to locate online, other than a mere handful of vids on YewToob, is the “Classical Carols” book of sheet music on Amazon. No albums, CDs, tapes, or other audio-recording media at all. I’m stumped, I confess. So if anybody out there has any information for me concerning this elusive Beethoven Christmas album I may well have hallucinated, do speak up in the comments.


If it ain’t good, then what good is it?

Dennis Prager has really pressed one my buttons with this one.

The Left — meaning progressives, not necessarily liberals — loathes the fact that conservativism preserves the past. That is why “change” is one of the most cherished words in the Left’s vocabulary. There is nothing more threatening or, perhaps more important, boring, to a leftist than preserving the past. “New” and “change” provide leftists meaning and excitement.

As one involved in the music world (I periodically conduct orchestras), I have always been struck by how important it is to orchestra CEOs, music professors and especially music critics that as much “new” music be played as possible. If a conductor prefers to program the classics, he is deemed a reactionary, while conductors who regularly program new music are heroes in the music world.

Music critics rarely discuss the question that preoccupies conservatives: Is this new piece of music good, let alone nearly as good as the classics? What matters to music critics is that the music is new — and, these days, that it was composed by a nonwhite person, ideally a woman.

Conservatives ask whether new music is good enough to warrant being played. They are preoccupied with excellence, not with newness or “change.”

This difference between conservatives and leftists/progressives applies to virtually every realm of life.

It explains the decision of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of English to remove a large mural of Shakespeare and replace it with a mural of a gay female poet of color. No one in his or her right mind thinks that this poet is the equal of Shakespeare. But the members of the Penn English Department are not concerned with literary excellence. Shakespeare’s picture wasn’t replaced because his writing was surpassed. He was replaced because he was male, white and straight. And most of all, he was replaced because he was old. He is an “old (or dead) white European male,” in the words of the Left.

Change and newness are so vital to leftists that a progressive who cared first and foremost about excellence would cease to be a progressive.

Early this past summer, I sat down and composed a lengthy e-mail diatribe for the local classical-music radio station on this very topic, although I never did bother to hit “Send.” Said station, WDAV, is attached to Davidson College, and the hosting staff is shot through with kneejerk Progtards who are not at all shy about making their political leanings perfectly clear on-air.

The hell of it is, DAV is hands-down the best classical station I’ve ever listened to, among all the stations in all the cities I’ve lived in over the years. They don’t play nearly as much of the wretchedly tedious “new classical” dreck the stations in NYC, ATL, and New Orleans muck up their airwaves with. As far as their programming selection goes, DAV is, umm, sweet music to my ears.

Yeah, I know. Sorry, couldn’t help myself there. Don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful, aiiight?

Anyhoo, I listen to DAV pretty much all day and night, and enjoy it tremendously, the exception being the ever-winsome Rachel Stewart’s Sunday morning show, “Biscuits and Bach.” It’s devoted exclusively to the Baroque composers, see, and Baroque aggravates me like bamboo shoots under the fingernails. Verily, I do despise that shit. Well, Scarlatti I like a lot; same-same for the great composers for guitar at the fag-end of the era like Giuliani, Boccherini, and Paganini*.

Bach, Handel, all the rest, though? Humbug, I say!

Over just this past year or thereabouts, as if to intentionally annoy me further still beyond the occasional not-so-sly digs at Trump from the aforementioned hosts, the station has put several new programs into the regular rotation, all of them exercises in drooling PC.

One in particular focuses on “marginalized composers,” mainly females, who have been unfairly short-shrifted because you fiendish classical fans are so goddamned MISOGYNIST you refuse to listen to the flavor-of-the-month LGBTQZRWNmXXX Composers of Color, damn your eyes, despite their all CLEARLY being the equals of Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin rolled together into one awesome wad of talent and inspiration.

Another gruesome offering, airing a couple afternoons a week at 2, I think it is, lionizes unknown Neegrow composers as the put-upon musical saints they all are, unjustly oppressed by De White Man because RACISM!!!, you rotten BASTARDS.

Then there’s Concierto, a show which I hesitate to lump in with the others, because it’s actually quite damned good and I like it a lot.

Concierto is a weekly program of classical music presented in Spanish and in English. The program features music by Latin American and Spanish composers and musicians. With Concierto, WDAV extends a welcoming hand to the fastest growing ethnic group in the Carolinas, while also seeking to introduce new listeners to the pleasures of classical music.

Concierto es un programa seminal de música clásica presentada en español e ingles. El programa cuenta la música clásica por compositores y músicos latinoamericanos y españoles. Con Concierto, WDAV extiende una mano de bienvenida al grupo étnico que está creciendo más rápido en las Carolinas, y a la misma vez también buscando a introducir nuevos oyentes a los placeres de la música clásica.

Spanish translation included above because of course it was.

These shows, plus a couple others I’ve labored mightily to put out of my mind, undermine their own raison d’etre by confirming that skin color, sex, and/or political opinion make seriously piss-poor criteria for judging compositional ability. Trust me, if these over-entitled hacks have indeed been “marginalized,” then they all came by it honest, and richly deserve to be. I endure these shows by the skin of my gritted teeth, and can say with no little authority that the “music” these talentless tyros are putting out is truly the pits: screechy, skrawky, aimlessly atonal clappa-trappa devoid of any semblance of melody, coherence, or worth. It is literally excruciating to listen to. Which, believe me, you shouldn’t. Nobody should.

But hey, it’s New, it’s Nonwhite, it’s Transgressive—for your standard-issue liberal dumbass, it checks all the necessary boxes, so what’s not to like? What it assuredly is NOT, is good. Not by any standard for “good” I can recognize or endorse, it ain’t.

So much for the outdated stereotype of classical-music mavens as stuffy, rigid, ultra-conservative old gits who poot dust and cobwebs; wear monocles, cummerbunds, and spats, even at home; and lounge about in their fancy-schmancy home “libraries” or Gentlemens Clubs gassing on about the lamentable state of the Modern World, to the eternal irritation of their long-suffering manservants. It just ain’t so anymore, if it ever even was. Nowadays, classical music-lovers are all yuppie-puppy standard-issue shitlibs: affluent, self-absorbed, smug, and entirely insufferable. Nice thing is, it makes all that beseeching and imploring for donations during the annual Fall Fundraiser so easy to ignore without feeling the slightest twinge of guilt over it.

*A bit late for Baroque on a couple of those, I know. In Scarlatti’s case, he’s generally considered to be the “bridge” between the Baroque and Classical periods, much the way Beethoven is thought of as being the same between Classical and Romantic. So there.


Hyeppeh Joomteemf ‘n’shit, yo!

So earlier on this most auspicious of several other Nigger Day! holidays we now have strewn carelessly about the calendar like junk vehicles, broken toys, and stolen bric-a-brac across the dead brown grass of a Darktown front lawn, the local classical-music station spent the afternoon highlighting the “contributions” to the orchestral music oeuvre (not so auspicious, actually) of Black Composers (if any).

I used that “if any” aside sarcastically, yes, but advisedly too. Because apparently, there are indeed a handful of uppity Neegrows who claim to be composers of symphonic music. After enduring a painfully wretched interlude of truly godawful sqwronk and blorgle, including one “composition” featuring a male singer for whom one couldn’t help but feel a certain measure of pity as the poor fellow tried manfully, but all in vain, to locate some semblance of melody somewhere in the unmusical, atonal mosquito repellent this alleged Black Composer™ dared to claim as his own. As I was desperately cramming bits of toilet paper, styrofoam packing material, asbestos swatches, and cigarette filters up against my eardrums to blunt the agony, I realized that, as a huge ST-TNG fan, I had heard this material before:

You guys may think I’m just being funny here, but I swear that’s what this crap sounded like. Seriously.

Which doesn’t mean that there are NO black classical-music composers worth lending an ear to, mind. I know of at least one: the great Justin Holland, a true-blue, gin-you-wine-article American Original of the classical guitar.

Justin Holland (July 26, 1819 – March 24, 1887) was an American classical guitarist, a music teacher, a community leader, a black man who worked with white people to help slaves on the Underground Railroad, and an activist for equal rights for African Americans.

Holland was known nationally, not only as a musician but also as a civil rights activist who worked in the same national circles as Frederick Douglass. His goal was to develop his personal growth, in order to stand as an example for others to see. As a teacher, he deliberately chose a “cautious and circumspect” bearing, keeping his relationships with students strictly professional. He chose work that was considered honorable and held high standards, and the professional respect that accompanied his position aided his civil rights goals.

A measure of his success in showcasing the admirable African American to the world came after he died, when he was given eulogies, by white people as well as African Americans, about his skill as a musician and his personal character.

…In 1845 he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in the Western Reserve, where he worked on his dream of complete acceptance for African Americans by white Americans, with complete equality. Cleveland was another place where white people were sympathetic toward African Americans. He saw the area as a place that gave him the opportunity to work toward that goal. He consciously embraced education and assimilation as the best ways to overcome racial barriers and prejudices. He looked to European culture as a source of admirable standards (and hoped that middle-class Americans around him would associate him with those standards as well.) He spoke of his own music in terms of European excellence, teaching the “correct system” to fret the strings on the guitar, as done by “the best Masters of Europe.” He also wrote a 324-page treatise on subjects of moral reform.

The standout thing about Justin Holland is that, nearly unique among classical-guitar composers and performers, all of Holland’s work proudly bears a readily-identifiable Made In America™ stamp. To wit:

All of his stuff I’ve ever heard—and I’ve heard quite a bit over the years—is like this: lush, gorgeous, with all the Spanish or Italian influence sanded off to leave nothing but pure America the Beautiful shining through. If you listen close enough, you can hear the earliest stirrings of another distinctly American form in there: jazz.

Pretty, no? So here’s to ya, Justin Holland; God rest ye, and long may your beautiful music endure. You are a credit not just to your race, as they used to say, but to your art, and to your nation as well.


Above their station

The Wokester punk-ass cockholsters dare to dream of cancelling Tchaikovsky now? SRSLY?!?

I see poor old Tchaikovsky is getting canceled by world-renowned ensembles such as the, er, Cardiff Philharmonic because he has stayed silent when he should have been noisily distancing himself from Vladimir Putin. As our friend Laura Rosen Cohen has pointed out, Peter Ilyich was quite the Ukrainophile: he used to summer there every year, just like many American politicians and money launderers. Nevertheless, his boots were on the ground far more often than Lindsey Graham’s: There are statues of Tchaikovsky and museums to him in at least two northern Ukrainian towns, as well as in Kiev.

So I thought, as compensation for disappointed Cardiff Phil customers, we’d have a little Tchaikovsky for our Sunday musical selection. Of course, ours is a department of songs, so you’ll have to suffer the great Russian with an American lyric – and, indeed, with a British lyric.

Our story begins in 1939. Well, actually, it begins in 1869. That’s when Tchaikovsky’s fellow composer Balakirev proposed Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a subject to young Pyotr Ilyitch. The resulting “fantasy-overture” uses the Bard’s characters and themes for a series of musical contrasts, starting with the reflective clarinet-and-bassoon melody representing the star-crossed lovers’ pal Friar Laurence, next a stormy passage for the feudin’ an’ a-fightin’ Montagues and Capulets, and then the famous soaring love theme…

As it happens, Pyotr Ilyich is a long-time favorite of mine, and the Fantasy Overture one of my favorites among his works, although I must point out that I like Tchaikosvky well enough that I can’t really think of any of them I find off-putting. The FO stands out in the Tchaikovsky catalog, with its strangely ominous and dark opening section:

Yep, we have ourselves another brilliant SteynMusic post here, folks. Incredibly, Mark missteps slightly with the next bit.

In the context of the full piece, it’s as if the composer is either too cool or too serious to let rip with the theme and blow the roof off.

Think so, do ya? Well, I don’t know what we’re to make of the thunderous close-out, then.

If that don’t blow your roof off but good, then I’d say you got yourself one hell of a stout roof. When Tchaikovsky’s signature drumroll begins its thunderous, crashing announcement of the final bars it’s some truly stirring stuff, and no mistake.

The story of What Happened Next takes some truly wild twists and turns from there, even by SteynMusic standards. Highly, HIGHLY recommended, people.

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