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Sunday, December 19, 2004
  Donna Elvira: Chi è lá
Don Giovanni: Stelle! che vedo!

Listening to Donna Elvira converse with the two criminals, I wonder if this is good recitative. It sounds good. But is that because the singers, Teresa Berganza, Ruggiero Raimondi, and Josè Van Dam, know what to do with just a few notes? Or did Mozart chose the right few notes to repeat so frequently? I miss the picturesque recitative we heard in Bach's canata not long ago. Not an opera singer myself, I don't know what a singer wants in recitative.

At this point in history, if I am not mistaken, recitative is about to appear in string quartets and symphonies. Is Donna Elvira's the type of recitative that is expressive or clear enough to make that leap? 
  Don Giovanni Act I, Scene 5, a) No. 3: Ah, chi mi dice mai/Chi è lá
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 8 Tracks 28-30

Yesterday morning, before the sun rose, I opened the cold door to my small car parked near the entrance to Washington park. As I drove away from the leafless trees, turned at the end of the block, I turned on the car radio. It was tuned to the classical music station, WGUC. Sadly, this is the only classical music station in Cincinnati and because their concept of classical music is a little soft for my tastes I often prefer the news. I recognized the tune I was hearing as Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks. I listened, thought about changing the station, then listened some more.

I was reminded of Donna Elvira. It was the descriptive quality of Strauss' music that made me think of her. Often, in Till Eulenspiegel, the music comes so narrowly close to noise that the listener is thrilled to be able to hang on to some sense of organization and to grasp the musical painting Strauss envisioned. With Donna Elvira it is a bit different. Though sudden scales in the strings and large melodic leaps in her line convey her anger toward Don Giovanni she never reaches a scream or otherwise ugly sound. And we then hear, in her voice, the beauty Don Giovanni was interested in violating.

As far as we can know, it is only by circumstance that the genius of Mozart lived at a time and place not interested in pushing the concept of music toward clusters and extremes. For the composers following him, it is a lucky circumstance. More than his contemporaries or predecessors, Mozart was sensitive to the meanings pitches and rhythms can have. And the musical language we encounter in scenes like Dona Elvira's has enough to teach composers of any time and place. Strauss could not have expected his listeners to comprehend the music in Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks without Mozart's music of moderation as a point of reference. 
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
  approaching Don Giovanni

My favorite image of the mythical Don Giovanni is in Fellini's 1976 film, Casanova. Casanova, brilliantly cast with Donald Sutherland as the ladie's man, is at a dinner party when he hears that Don Giovanni is present. We see the Don only briefly, his silhouette moves through a nearby passageway. Casanova is interested and takes note.

Why would this mysterious character be so interesting to the young Mozart? Whatever our speculation on that point, the Don reminds us that Mozart's music is not the music of a charmed life. That Mozart was not the good little baby that nowadays drools in front of a mirror which has a dinky music box that plays some version of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" Mozart himself would never have recognized. Mozart is not the model we should have for our children anymore than Don Giovanni. Wolfgang Amadeus is in our history as an intensely tragic figure whose music belies his suffering. 
Tuesday, December 14, 2004
  Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 488, Allegro (first movement)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 8 Tracks 12-27

When I was younger, less calm of mind, I did not like to listen to Mozart's piano music. Man, did I love Schoenberg, though. I still do but I have grown to understand what to listen for in a piano concerto like this one that has so many darn scales. Mozart loved to fit things together. He loved that logic that no theorist could pin down. That elusive quality that fits things together in a way that can only be described as musical.

There is a joy for music in Mozart's work that I have heard in one other composer. Oddly, perhaps, that composer is Boulez. Though so far apart in style and time, the two share a quickness in mind and a delight for their craft.

It is a shame, and I think safe to say, that there will not be a Third Viennese School. The patrons of the first and the self-importance of the second are forever gone from this earth, now cluttered with radio stations, TV, and electric guitars. What could it be like, if, somehow, it were possible? From the first Viennese composers we have the desire to see the world politely. It is the philosophy of the Enlightenment expressed through Major and minor scales and their attendant triads. Realizing the weakness of reason and the persistence of war, the second Viennese put raw flesh on stage (so to speak) and pulled from it the tone rows that they believed indicated a new path. But what path is there when we can see the whole world at once? 
Sunday, December 12, 2004
  ...and even a few more words for Haydn's variations.

As I've mentioned, the compelling feature of these variations is not how they vary. Though the chromatic supporting lines may entrance us while we are reading the score as they may have motivated Haydn to put pen to paper, it is the tune that holds our attention. We adore this tune, as Haydn did, and wish it to change very little. (Could you imagine variations on Eldewiess?)

There is nothing in the tune to confuse the listener. For instance, the one chromatic pitch does not obscure the implied harmony but instead strengthens "Sol" as we prepare to leap to the high "Do" that brings us near the conclusion of the anthem. The ability of the tune to speak so meaningfully, to rely on your ear to understand a 'D' Major seventh chord, is the legacy of cruel Amaryllis. And on this side of the Baroque, our music makes a shift from a primarily singing tradition to a primarily instrumental tradition.

It is, perhaps in part, the lure of weird chords that comes over one while looking at the five lines and four spaces that would encourage Haydn's students and the generations after them to continue the exploration confusing chromatic lines and clever acoustic devices. One could argue that a failure of contemporary classical music (there are as many failures as successes, at least) is the failure of educating listeners to learn the extended vocabulary offered by instrumental music. In other words, the frustration of Schoenberg's audiences wasn't because he couldn't write a good tune. It was because the unhappy listeners couldn't sing his kind of tune. And ultimately, always, music is an art of singing. 
Saturday, December 11, 2004
  I have at least one more thought about Joseph Haydn but I haven't gotten it organized just yet. Meanwhile, I enjoyed this post about him which I came accross via the Fredösphere
Friday, December 10, 2004
  More on Haydn's anthem...

I was thinking of this tune while I drove across Westward Northern into Over The Rhine, my drive home four days a week. As I approached the viaduct and the familiar train yards came into view, I was strangely reminded of Sir John Gielgud's outstanding performance in the 1980 film "The Formula." He plays an aged German scientist. Complaining about having suffered the indignities of Germany's defeat in 1945, his character describes the Russian soldiers (peasants) who took over his apartment, (I paraphrase) "They kept flushing the toilet! And there it was, the German Empire defeated by men who had never seen a toilet!" 
  String Quartet Op. 76, No. 3, Hob. III. 77, Poco adagio, cantabile (second movement)
Franz Joseph Haydn
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 8 Tracks 7-11

On Mondays I have been driving up to Mason, Ohio as a visiting artist. My project there is to assist some of the first and second grade classes of Mason Elementary School in writing anthems. By this time we are halfway through the project--the end product being a unique song book and recording--and the anthems that have emerged from these young minds are all, as one would expect and want in an anthem, very easy to sing and remember. These are memorable tunes because the composers have either borrowed a tune (Twinkle, twinkle for instance), modified a tune (Are You Sleeping can be taken in so many directions), or simply made good use of the Major scale (Sol-Do seems a popular point of departure).

Like these young artists in the growing community of Mason, Haydn borrowed a tune he learned as a child, made it his own, and knew the significance of each scale degree. In this tune he accentuates the gravitational pull of 'Do.' He leaps only when he is fully confident and follows such a leap with descending steps. Most importantly, he is repetitive.

The variations, described in the anthology as a "study in nonharmonic tones," never upstage the tune but rather provide the listener an excuse to hear this heartwarming melody five times. 
Tuesday, December 07, 2004
  The Return of Isaac Martin

The worst of it is that I have not been reading other people's blogs. Almost sheepishly I would glance at a page I once visited four times a week. My visit would be brief. I would feel the nostalgic affection mixed with guilt known to be attached to the library book years overdue or the Uncle I never thanked.

To return to a project unfinished, a hobby once enjoyed, I post these 92 words as a first step on a journey already begun.

More to come soon. 
In January 2004 I starting writing an opinion for each selection in the Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music. Now, more than a year later, I am almost finished. Soon, I will have an archive full of opinions on the music we so carelessly call "classical." And no one can stop me.

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Director of the Contemporary Performer's Workshop... Music Teacher for St. Aloysius Gonzaga School... Principal 'Cellist of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra... Composer

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