This is what happens when they let long-married, refrigerator-sharing people have magnetic poetry sets. We move the words around a lot, between the two of us, usually when we are waiting for our geriatric feline hospice patient Hodiamont to finish eating one of the six to eight meals that he must eat daily to maintain his wraithlike corporeal substance. (He eats a special food for cats who have thyroid disease but who are allergic to the standard medication, which Hodiamont is.)
Anyway, I liked this one, so I thought I’d take a snapshot of it with the iPad to preserve it. The authorship breakdown is five lines by Mr. Christian Saller, four lines by Mrs. Christian Saller, but I will leave it to you to guess who wrote what.
And yes, the little word magnets, which are more than a decade old now, could use a good scrubbing. They don’t look nearly that dirty when they’re not blown up, but still that is no excuse for the filth. I will leave it here as a chastening exercise (as well as a reminder to bust out the Dr. Bronners, stat).
One hundred and ten years ago yesterday, when another culture war was under way, a concert took place at Musikverein Wien, in which Arnold Schoenberg (I prefer the Americanized spelling that he adopted late in life) conducted music by himself (his Chamber Symphony Op. 9), Alexander Zemlinsky, and Anton Webern. It’s known as the Skandalkonzert because violent skirmishes erupted among audience members during Alban Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, and the concert could not be continued. Mahler’s sublime song cycle Kindertotenlieder was canceled on the spot. (Likely just as well, since grief-stricken art songs about dead children are known to kill a vibe, especially after the adrenalin rush of a literal brawl.)
Even though I missed the concert centenary by a decade and a day, I thought I’d share some notes I wrote about Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, for a 2016 St. Louis Symphony program that also featured works by Holst and Vaughan Williams. The Bergsongs are the most underperformed of that lot, so I have extracted those notes from the original program.
This program presents three intensely unorthodox works. One has remained extremely popular since its premiere, which might mitigate its essential weirdness. The other two pieces—widely admired today, if underperformed—were maligned and misunderstood when new. The partial premiere of the Altenberg Lieder could scarcely be heard over the heckling, which soon devolved into a riot. The response to Vaughan Williams’s Flos Campi was less hostile but still fell short of enthusiastic. Even Holst, that extraterrestrial tone painter, failed to appreciate his old friend’s cantata-concerto hybrid. “I couldn’t get hold of it,” he confessed sadly, after the 1925 premiere. Whereas both of the English composers’ suites contain only wordless vocal music, Berg’s songs supply actual lyrics, in German. But the combined effect of Altenberg’s oddball koans and Berg’s strangely shifting sonorities only serves to destabilize. Abstract and irreducible, the music inhabits a zone of infinite expression. It tells a story that language can’t betray.
Alban Berg was a remarkable man for many reasons, but his resilience undergirds all of his other strengths. It allowed him to continue composing against formidable odds. Sensitive and severely asthmatic, he took piano lessons from his aunt, but his early training was spotty at best. For most of his career, he endured toxic levels of vitriol and scorn. Music critics in Vienna, where he lived all his life, were notoriously vicious, and his so-called supporters weren’t always much nicer.
Take his master and mentor Arnold Schoenberg. Their relationship began in 1904, when Schoenberg, then 30, accepted the 19-year-old novice as a student. For the next six years, Berg was his most loyal disciple. Five Songs to Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg (usually shortened to Altenberg Lieder, or Altenberg Songs) was Berg’s first major venture as an independent composer. Whether Schoenberg deliberately sabotaged his former apprentice remains unclear, but the March 1913 premiere, at the Vienna Musikverein, was an unqualified debacle. As the concert’s organizer, Schoenberg deserves much of the blame.
The planning was slapdash, the rehearsals subpar. On a set list that also included works by Webern, Mahler, and himself, Schoenberg programmed only the second and third Altenberg songs, flouting the work’s cyclical coherence. Even worse, the soprano who had been hired to sing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder flatly refused to perform the two Berg numbers, so a tenor was pressed into service at the last minute. Berg based the Altenberg Lieder on the mildly bawdy, epigrammatic blank verse of Peter Altenberg, but it’s unlikely that anyone heard more than a word or two in the general din. The first song was barely under way before the jeers escalated to physical violence. After some damn fool whipped out his pistol, the cops showed up. They broke up the so-called Skandalkonzert and sent everyone home.
Adding insult to injury, Schoenberg delivered a harsh critique a few weeks later. The compact, cryptic style of composition wasn’t working, he announced; Berg should go big or go home. Deferring to his master’s judgment, he abandoned his lieder. Until his sudden, squalid death at age 50, from an infected insect bite, Berg focused mainly on two eternally radical operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, which kept his posse of haters fuming for decades. (Some of the meanest and most wrongheaded gibes in Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective involve Berg.) A complete version of the Altenberg Lieder wasn’t performed until 17 years after the composer’s death, when Jascha Horenstein conducted it in Paris.
The cyclicity of the five lieder plays out on numerous levels. The opening “Seele, wie bist du schöner…” is prefaced by a sumptuous orchestral interlude teeming with odd sonorities. Theory nerds may notice that Berg employs elements of 12-tone composition a full decade before Schoenberg codified serialist technique. The concluding song in the cycle, “Hier ist Friede” (“Here Is Peace”), is similarly framed. Luscious and sinister, it plants a woozy kiss on the short stack of postcards and releases them to oblivion.
The great German baritone Matthias Goerne recently performed selections from Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Fabio Luisi. I wrote about the program, taking some time to digress about the so-called War of the Romantics, one of the dumbest but funniest culture wars ever to consume the second half of any century.
I had hoped to include some supplementary boxes, but I fear those might have been cut from the program, so here is the (unedited by anyone but myself) version of the notes.
Luisi Conducts Mahler and Brahms
By René Spencer Saller
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911): Selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Mahler accepted his first paid conducting gig when he was only 20, presiding over third-rate operettas at a spa in Upper Austria. From then on, the ambitious and cash-strapped composer spent his entire life as a professional conductor, holding posts in Ljubljana, Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, Hamburg, Vienna, and, at the end of his life, New York City. From the podium, he demanded much from each musician but gave even more, responding to the orchestra with an electric empathy and an intense physicality. Widely considered among the greatest conductors in the world, he applied his galvanizing intelligence to other composers’ scores, reinvigorating the repertoire and setting the interpretive bar impossibly high for future generations of professional maestros.
By 1888, when he began his Second Symphony, he was, if not as famous as he would someday become, widely well-regarded—as a conductor. As a composer, however, he felt misunderstood and undervalued, the eternal underdog. He wasn’t wrong. The disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in late 1889 hit him hard. Because of certain ugly socio-political and cultural realities—most obviously, an antisemitism so pervasive that it’s only remarkable in its occasional absence—Mahler’s career would be rocky, never mind his formidable talent and drive and his voluntary conversion to Catholicism.
After receiving a terminal diagnosis of heart disease in 1907, Mahler resolved to compose as much music as possible, of the highest possible quality, culminating in a flurry of late-life masterpieces, including Das Lied von der Erde, Symphony No. 9, and the unfinished Tenth. And despite being fired regularly for factors unrelated to his job performance, he kept conducting, leading the New York Philharmonic in the last two years of his life. He died at age 50, from complications of the heart condition that had been diagnosed four years earlier.
In Mahler’s distinctive sound world, song and symphony are closely intertwined, even interdependent. His first four symphonies are called his Wunderhorn symphonies because they incorporate so many of his settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). This fanciful collection of German folk poetry, originally published between 1805 and 1808, was praised by literary luminaries like Goethe, who wrote of his hope that “this little book would find a place in every house where bright and vital people make their home…. Best of all, [that] this volume might lie on the piano of the amateur or master of musical composition so that these songs might come into their own by being matched to familiar and traditional melodies, that they might have appropriate tunes fitted to them, or that, God willing, they will inspire new and significant melodies.”
Eventually consisting of three volumes and a thousand or so poems, the Wunderhorn collection did indeed inspire a generation or two of Romantic composers and their successors. Among many others, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Richard Strauss, and Schoenberg all wrote settings of these provocative and often grotesque fairy-tale poems, which touch on everything from famine to frivolous flirtation; from doomed drummers to fish prophets; from the magical riverine journey of a mower’s golden ring to the brutal execution of a child. The tales are spooky and preachy, pious and violent, funny and profound. For years they ignited Mahler’s imagination like nothing else.
Between 1887 and 1902, the year of his momentous marriage to Alma Schindler and the completion of his Fifth Symphony, Mahler set more than a dozen poems from the Wunderhorn collection for voice and piano or orchestra, and a half-dozen or so of these story-songs surfaced in the first five symphonies. In 1899 he published 12 of the Wunderhorn songs in the collection titled Humoresken (Humoresques)—informally, and confusingly, also known as Mahler’s “Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.” Although Mahler had originally conceived these songs for voice and orchestra, he was shrewd enough to create alternative arrangements for voice and piano, tailored to the growing sheet-music market for amateur musicians.
Not all of the poems in the Wunderhorn collection are actual folk relics; some appear to be imitations or homages. The two editors, Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, could also be described as authors—not so much disciplined collectors and compilers as resourceful recyclers and fabulists. The authenticity of any given tale mattered less to them than its entertainment value, and if they needed to invent certain details in the service of a greater truth, so be it. At any rate, Mahler, who was almost as sensitive to poetry as he was to music, took additional liberties with his source material, adding lines and verses as he saw fit. In fact, he wrote his own text for the 1892 song “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life), which also served as the penultimate movement of his Fourth Symphony.
In addition to “Das himmlische Leben,” five other Wunderhorn songs functioned as pivotal movements in Mahler’s symphonies, including two featured in this concert: “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” and “Urlicht,” which did double duty in his Second Symphony as the Scherzo and fourth movement, respectively. Nicknamed the “Resurrection” Symphony, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor deals with death and rebirth, in the Christian tradition.
Born into a large and poor Jewish family, Mahler was still technically Jewish at the time of its composition. His interest in the spiritual aspects of Christianity predated his official conversion to Catholicism, in 1897, when he was 37 years old. Part of the reason he needed to make his faith a matter of public record was pragmatism, or self-preservation: the ever-worsening antisemitism of late 19th-century Austria made it impossible for a Jewish man, even an eminently qualified one, to land the desirable conducting posts, especially in Vienna, where Richard Wagner’s widow Cosima, the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, and a vicious antisemite, still exerted enormous influence.
A Closer Listen
1. “Rheinlegendchen” (Little Rhine Legend). Set in G major, with a 3/8 meter reminiscent of a Ländler, the richly evocative “Rheinlegenchen” is lightly scored—just a wind quintet with strings. It was so popular at its first performance that the audience demanded an immediate encore. The lyrics are sung from the perspective of a lovelorn young mower, who imagines what might happen to a ring tossed into the Rhine. The ring eventually ends up in the belly of a fish served at the King’s table, at which point, the mower predicts, the absent sweetheart will be unable to resist returning the ring—and returning the mower’s love. Throughout the song, Mahler sprinkles folk-inflected, improvisational-sounding riffs and licks, imparting a rollicking, rural flavor to the “little Rhine legend.”
The world premiere of the song took place at the Hamburg Konzerthaus, in October 1893, sung by Paul Bulss and performed by the Julius Laubesche Kapelle under Mahler’s own baton.
2. Composed in the summer of 1898 and published the following year, “Wo die schönen Trompete blasen (Where the Splendid Trumpets Sound), in C minor, is a strangely subdued song in which the singer assumes two roles: an ardent young woman and the soldier she loves, who may be a ghost—or, if not yet a ghost, a future ghost. Mahler contrasts the swooning, almost hallucinatory waltz of the lovers’ union with the doomy, inexorable 2/4 beat of the marching army, with its “splendid trumpets,” which are typically and unexpectedly soft when not actually muted. The song was first performed, along with “Das irdische Leben,” on January 14, 1900, sung by soprano Selma Kurz, with Mahler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.
3. Completed in 1892 and first performed that December, in Berlin, “Verlor’ne Müh” (Wasted Effort) is another he-said-she-said dialogue song, with the singer again performing both male and female roles. Mahler deploys a lilting, Ländler-like 3/8 rhythm, along with sassy interjections and imitations. The comical lyrics are in the Swabian dialect (related to Alsatian and other Swiss-adjacent forms of German) and dramatize a persistent village maiden’s failed seduction of a young man, who not only rejects her offerings of “tender morsels,” “nibbles,” and “my heart,” but persists in insulting her, with increasing harshness, as a “foolish girl.” Her beloved, an obstinate and unloving prig, might get the last word, but the maiden gets the last laugh. (It’s safe to say that most of us, including the long-dead Mahler, would greatly prefer a leisurely meal with this agreeable, lamb-tending creature than another negging session with Buzzkill Boy.)
4. Mahler composed “Das irdische Leben” (The Earthly Life) sometime after early spring 1892. He shortened the source poem, originally titled “Verspätung” (Delay), but retained the haunting poignancy that befits a song about a child who begs his mother for bread until he starves to death: “And when at last the bread was baked/The child lay dead upon the bier.” Divided—and typically muted—strings convey the bereaved parent’s torment, that churning grief and choking helplessness. Early on, Mahler conceived of his Fourth Symphony (1899–1901) as a six-movement work that would also feature “Das irdische Leben” (The Earthly Life). This gritty ballad, a kind of proto-Kindertotenlied, serves as a dramatic counterpart to the celestial joy and abundance of “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life), the spiritual climax of the Fourth Symphony.
5. Set in the remote key of D-flat major, “Urlicht” (Primal Light) functions in the Second Symphony as a transition, or a kind of introduction, to the finale. Mahler composed it in 1892 and orchestrated it the next year. His tempo indication is “Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht” (Very solemn, but simple). Originally written for mezzo-soprano or contralto, the singer’s radiant innocence transforms a simple declaration of faith into a passionate rhapsody. Listen to the winds curling around the singer’s voice; they seem to complete his thoughts, much as birdsong bends the night sky toward morning:
I am from God, I want to return to God. The loving God will grant me a little light, Will light my way to blissful life eternal and bright.”
6. Mahler repurposed “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (Saint Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish,” in C minor, as the third-movement scherzo of his Second Symphony. Composed in summer 1893 and set in a dreamy 3/8, the song is marked “In ruhiger fließender Bewegung,” which in English means “In quietly flowing motion,” a fair description of its sound, if not its ironic humor. A magically twisty clarinet melody slips through skittery cross-currents of pizzicato and bowed strings as the singer describes the aquatic audience’s rapt attention to Saint Anthony. Like any good joke that lands, the song builds suspense through repetition, concluding with this devastating punchline on misplaced piety:
The crabs still go backwards,
The cod are still bloated,
The carp are still gorging,
The sermon’s forgotten.
The sermon was pleasing.
All stay as they were.
7. The intense and jarring “Revelge” (Reveille), also in C minor, depicts a death march: rattle-trap drums and strident trumpets, stomping feet and rotting corpses. The soldiers might as well be zombies, grimly enacting their pointless rituals at every predawn reveille, compulsively charging and slaughtering. The speaker is an army drummer, an adolescent, in fact, who has been wounded in battle and is now being left for dead, even trod on, by his marching comrades. The young drummer’s lament is all the more heartbreaking for its growing self-awareness:
“I will well play my drum
or else I will lose myself completely.
The brothers, plentiful sowed
tralali, tralalei, tralalera,
they lie as if they’ve been mowed.”
A revenant, he returns to his darling’s home, not yet aware that he’s dead. (Listen for the col legno strings, meant to mimic the grinding, scraping sound of bone on bone.) That morning, in a ghoulish twist, the drummer’s bones and those of his comrades appear arranged “in rank and file, like tombstones” at her front door, with the drum out in front “so that she can see him.” Mahler composed this song in July 1899.
8. Composed in summer 1901, around the time that he was beginning his Fifth Symphony, “Der Tambourg’sell” (The Drummer Boy) was the last of Mahler’s Wunderhorn settings—and wouldn’t you know it, it’s another song in C minor from the perspective of a doomed young drummer. This time the singer and first-person narrator is in prison, not underfoot on a bloody battleground, but he’s dying all the same: marched from his cell to the gallows. Never mind that he’s still a child—too young to fight, but old enough to be killed. The music, a protracted funeral march, is somber, even sepulchral.
As with “Revelge,” Mahler conjures up all manner of spooky effects from col legno strings. In an elegiac address to everything he can see on his march to the scaffold, the singer ticks off a series of farewells, repetitively, almost self-soothingly—think Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, only infinitely sadder—before closing with a pair of final, heartbreakingly understated “Gute Nacht”s. Mahler’s indications call for the first “good night” to start loud, then go suddenly quiet; the second is supposed to be sung “mit brechender Stimme” (with broken voice).
If all this sounds a bit morbid, it might help to remember that Mahler had almost died that February, when he woke in bed to find the sheets soaked in blood from a hemorrhage. He would marry the next year, but he would die within the decade, after suffering the grievous loss of his eldest daughter, Maria, who succumbed to scarlet fever.
Col legno is a shorter form of the musical term col legno battuto, which is Italian for “with the wood being struck.” It’s essentially an instruction from the composer to strike or, more rarely, scrape the violin, viola, cello, or bass strings using the wooden part of the bow, normally used as the handle, instead of gliding the hair part over the strings in the conventional way. The col legno technique turns the stringed instrument into a distinctive percussion instrument. Hector Berlioz famously exploited the hollow, unearthly timbre in Symphonie fantastique, transforming the strings into cavorting skeletons.
In May 1883, Brahms turned 50. Richard Wagner, his esteemed adversary, had died a few months earlier; Clara Schumann, his intimate friend, cheerleader, and steadfast muse, was nearly 64 and quite frail; he had already outlived many friends and musical mentors. Yet he was robustly healthy, if somewhat fat, and had a lust for life—as well as for young women. That summer he followed one of them, the contralto Hermine Spies, to Wiesbaden, on the Rhine. There he composed his Symphony No. 3. It had been six years since his previous symphony, another product of a single fertile summer.
Although he continued to tweak the score until its publication, the Third was a triumph from the start. After he sent the score to Clara, she gushed, “From start to finish one is wrapped about with the mysterious charm of the woods and forests…. [By the finale] one’s beating heart is soon calmed down again for the final transfiguration which begins with such beauty in the development that words fail me!”
Except for the predictable demonstration from the Wagner Club, whose members briefly disrupted the Vienna premiere, Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 was hailed as a masterpiece by audiences and critics alike.
A Closer Listen
The shortest of Brahms’s four symphonies, the Third is formally rigorous and tonally inventive, thematically integrated and rhythmically complex. Unusually, all four movements end softly, even the seemingly heroic finale. The first movement begins with two audacious wind chords, a strong F major succeeded by a more tentative diminished chord—preparation for a series of wrenching major and minor shifts. Harmonic ambiguities and metrical instabilities abound. The figure that haunts all four movements, in various configurations, is the bass line: F–A-flat–F, Brahms’s personal motto. It stands for “Frei aber froh” (Free but happy), a play on his friend Joseph Joachim’s motto “Free but lonely.”
The more lyrical main melody is borrowed from Robert Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony. First presented by the strings, this theme imbues the entire work. It is an obvious tribute to Brahms’s late friend, the man who hailed the 20-year-old tavern pianist from Hamburg as the next Beethoven and set him up as his musical proxy in the so-called War of the Romantics—as the foil to Wagner and all that he represented. But as biographer Jan Swafford persuasively argues, Brahms’s Third recalls another Rhine besides Schumann’s, another monumental forefather: Wagner’s “atmospheric string textures,” his “grand triadic leitmotifs and themes” echo throughout. Ever the reconciler, Brahms united his mentor and his supposed rival in a symphony that ultimately stands for nothing beyond itself.
Aside from the occasional duel, the War of the Romantics was mostly bloodless, but it galvanized concert-music culture during the second half of the 19th century. Every critic, composer, musician, and reasonably well-educated person in Central Europe wound up in one camp or the other. The opposing sides made Wagner and Brahms their proxies in a culture war that dragged on for years after the composers’ deaths. Although 20 years older than Brahms, Wagner represented the progressive faction. Part high priest, part revolutionary, he aimed to create the “music of the future,” a distillation of all the arts culminating in his “universal music drama.” Liberal-minded and relatively modest (or at least not messianic), Brahms was cast, perhaps by default, as the conservative. Most of his compositions could be classified as absolute music—free, at least explicitly, of any programmatic associations—and he chose to adapt conventional forms rather than invent new ones.
Yet the composers admired each other, in a lopsided way. During a visit in 1864, Brahms, a superb pianist, played for the maestro, who intoned equivocally, “One sees what may still be done in the old forms when someone comes along who knows how to use them.” In his diary he recorded, somewhat grudgingly, that Brahms was “no joke.” Brahms, by contrast, collected and studied Wagner scores, repeatedly declaring that he was “the best of Wagnerians.” When he was notified of Wagner’s death, he put down his conductor’s baton and announced, “Today we sing no more. A master has died.”
A very fine organist passed on a fellow very fine organist‘s compliments on my recent annotations to his recital today on the Lay Family Organ at the Meyerson in Dallas, and he even urged patrons to read them, which goes way beyond my wildest expectations for this Sunday. Obviously, getting compliments is a nice boost in general (unless, I guess, the compliments are coming from actual Nazis—poor Orff!), but for me, someone who is constantly aware of my overall organ ignorance, especially when it comes to the technical details that are at the very heart of organ artistry, I know just about enough to feel unequal to the task. At any rate, I’m always especially nervous about writing organ notes because I’m not an organist. I do know several organists, though, and I know how scrupulous and knowledgeable they are (and how likely to notice errors). One of my favorite classical critics, the prolific freelancer and longtime Dallas Morning News critic Scott Cantrell, trained as an organist, and I know he attends all those concerts. I have extra incentive not to screw up and embarrass myself in front of someone I respect so much.
Most of all, though, I don’t want to mess up the organ notes because I genuinely believe that more people would be interested in the pipe organ and its glorious repertoire if they knew more about it. I do not want to be a bad ambassador. Speaking for myself, I probably wouldn’t have become interested in the pipe organ if I hadn’t happened to have wandered into a free recital at the Notre-Dame Cathedrale in Paris, when I was a cash-poor and awe-struck 19-year-old fille au pair from Missouri who had never visited a city bigger than Chicago or older than New Orleans. If there was a program, I didn’t see it, and to this day I can’t remember what I heard, only that I loved the way the chords inhabited my body for a time, how the sounds could be felt as well as heard, inscribed on my musculoskeletal system like notes on staff paper.
To this day I feel certain that more lives would be greatly enriched by regular exposure to the king of instruments. You could listen to nothing but J.S. Bach fugues for the rest of your life and still find plenty to discover, but you don’t have to stop there, and you won’t want to after you get to the rest of the repertoire. Maybe you will find yourself drawn to the Bachian rigors of Max Reger, or the trance-inducing tintinnabulations of Arvo Pärt, or the languorous chromaticism and birdsong mimicry of Olivier Messiaen, or the sublime and inimitable Franckness of César Franck, but I urge you to give it a shot, especially if you associate the pipe organ with dreary sermons or civic occasions (in which case, I prescribe an immediate dose of Charles Ives’s organ music, stat!).
I’m already falling behind on both my blog content goals and my annotation schedule from my miraculously patient clients, so here are my program notes for the wonderful Christian Schmitt program. Insofar as all my links seem to be going bad, I’ll just cut and paste them from my Word document rather than linking you to the Dallas Symphony website, where they also appeared, as well as in the printed program. I extend my eternal thanks to all the organists who keep this vital art form alive. And the rest of you should try to find a local pipe organ recital in your cities and see if this music speaks to you the way it does to me and so many others.
Schmitt Organ Recital
By René Spencer Saller
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750): Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582
Although regionally famous for his mind-bending organ improvisations and locally infamous for his hot temper, Bach lived in relative obscurity. He spent his entire life in Germany, where he was born. As an organist, a court musician, a choir master, a music teacher, and the father of 20 children, he was probably too busy to tour the continent. Yet somehow he cranked out more than a thousand compositions, in every major genre except opera. Many scholars estimate that he wrote about twice that much. Although few of his compositions were published during his lifetime and most of his original manuscripts were lost, his contributions to the solo organ repertoire are incalculable: at least 200 known works.
The Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor is among the finest of these. The passacaglia form calls for a series of variations over a repeated bass figure (basso ostinato—Italian for “obstinate bass”), usually in 3/4 or 3/2 meter. The genre was already more than a century old when Bach composed this, his only surviving organ passacaglia, probably in Weimar between 1708 and 1712. Somewhat unconventionally, he crossed the passacaglia with a chaconne—a related form that also features a basso ostinato—and created a spectacular double fugue.
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935): Annum per annum for Solo Organ
When Pärt was born, his native Estonia was an independent Baltic state. Five years later, the Soviet Union launched an occupation that would last for the next half-century (not counting a three-year stint under German rule). Although he attended conservatory, Soviet bureaucrats went to great lengths to prevent Pärt and his peers from hearing any music created outside the Soviet Union, aside from a few contraband scores and tapes here and there.
Although commentators today call him a “holy minimalist,” Pärt first embraced the neoclassicism of Bartók, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev before shifting to the serialism of Schoenberg. Most of the music Pärt preferred was banned by Soviet censors. Frustrated, he immersed himself in the study of plainsong and Gregorian chant—the sacred roots of early European polyphony. By focusing on the distant past, he found an original voice: austere, tonal, liturgical, and deceptively simple. He was particularly inspired by a technique he called tintinnabulation, which refers to the ringing of bells, or more specifically, to the way that sound resonates, how it blooms and decays in space over time.
In 1980 Pärt fled the Soviet Union for Vienna, later settling in Berlin. That same year he composed the organ mass Annum per annum for the 950th anniversary of the Speyer Dome Church. The mass is dedicated to Saint Mary, Mother of God and the guardian of the dome; to Emperor Conrad II, the founder of the dome; to St. Cecilia, the patroness of musicians; and to Leo Krämer, the organist at Speyer Dome Church who premiered the piece.
Annum per annum consists of five movements, all variations on cantus firmus, the literal Latin translation of which is “firm song.” In polyphonic music the term refers to the foundational melody, the source from which all subsequent musical procedures spring. Each of the five movements contains an introduction and coda, although Pärt indicates in the score that these may be omitted by the organist if desired. The movements are distinguished by the letters K, G, C, S, A, which refer to the five ordinary parts of the Catholic mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei).
Annum per annum is best known for its dramatic opening, in which the organist holds a gargantuan, loud-as-God chord, and then lets the notes dissipate as the air is shut off. The effect is experienced by the body as much as the mind—and who knows, maybe even the soul.
César Franck (1822–1890): Choral No. 3 in A Minor
As a composer, Franck was something of a late bloomer, although his life in music began quite early. His greedy father bullied him into the role of child prodigy on the piano-recital circuit, and he was relieved when the passage of time ended that phase of his career. Introspective and painfully awkward, he preferred poring over his counterpoint exercises and experimenting with new organ registrations. After angering his father by leaving the family home in his early 20s, he supported himself by teaching music.
A few years later, after his marriage, Franck became a church organist, a position he cherished and retained for the rest of his life. He was widely beloved by his apprentices and students at the Paris Conservatoire, who called him Pater seraphicus (Seraphic Father). His harmonic language was indelibly marked by the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll instrument that he played for more than 30 years at Ste. Clotilde. Its rich array of stops allowed Franck to create the unique sounds and textures that characterized his compositions.
In the summer of 1890, Franck suffered a head injury after a horse-drawn trolley collided with the cab in which he was riding. Although he dismissed his symptoms as minor, they quickly worsened, and before long he could barely walk, much less fulfill his duties at the Conservatoire. He hoped to recover over vacation, and he felt well enough to compose three remarkable Chorals in just two months, completing Choral No. 1 on August 10, Choral No. 2 on September 12, and Choral No. 3 less than two weeks later. But almost as soon as he resumed teaching, he caught a cold that turned into pneumonia. He died on November 8, 1890.
The Choral No. 3 in A Minor, the last of the set, opens with a glittering two-part Toccata surrounding a lyrical Adagio, which introduces a new theme, rapturously sung by the Trompette over soft accompaniment. Although the Choral is consistent with genre conventions, Franck finds ingenious ways to combine his three main themes, weaving them into a spectacular polyphonic tapestry. You might detect the influence of Liszt, particularly his “Weinen, Klagen” Variations, as well as traces of Bach and Beethoven, but Franck retains his unmistakable Franckness throughout: psychedelic but also heavy, an unlikely mixture of the delicately ornate and the sludgy-visceral.
A quick note on nomenclature: the word choral, as Franck understood it, refers not to the chorale, or Lutheran hymn-melody, but simply to an original theme harmonized in the style of a chorale.
Theo Brandmüller (1948–2012): “Die Kruezigung” (The Crucifixion) and “Pieta” from Sieben StückezurPassionszeit (Seven Works for Passiontide)
Born in Mainz, Germany, Brandmüller began making his first public appearances as a pianist and composer while still in his teens. From 1968 to 1972, he studied music education and sacred music in Mainz and Detmold. He underwent additional training in composition with Giselher Klebe from 1970 to 1975, then with Mauricio Kagel in Cologne and Cristóbal Halffter in Madrid. In 1977 and ’78, Brandmüller studied organ with Gaston Litaize and composition with Olivier Messiaen in Paris before transitioning to a teaching career. At the time of his death in 2012, following a sudden illness, Brandmüller was a professor of composition, analysis, and organ improvisation at the Hochschule für Musik Saar, in Saarbrücken, Germany, and the recipient of many international awards and prizes.
Brandmüller composed Sieben Stücke zur Passionsveit, from which “Die Kruezigung” and “Pieta” are extracted for this performance, in 1983. In addition to organ, it is scored for metronome and speaking voice. Brandmüller was at the console for the world premiere on April 26, 1983, at the St. Georg parish church in Mainz.
The Composer Speaks
“The thoughts of the seven small musically related pieces revolve around the events of the Passion. Realistically ‘described’ details of the passion theme become—increasingly clear—visions; melodic sound-shapes emerge from the rhythmically bizarre initial position; the central piece, The Sweat Cloth (of Veronica), thanks to its sound mirrored form, is a reflection of today’s situation, our current situation!
“A sarabande (The Crucifixion) and a circular canon on ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (from Bach’s Mass in B Minor) conclude the cycle.
“All seven pieces are inspired by the passion cycle of the sculptor Richard Hess, whose unembellished, deeply felt reliefs begin to speak musically.” —Theo Brandmüller
Born in Lyon in 1844, Widor seemed destined to serve the king of instruments. His father was the organist at Saint-François-de-Sales for more than 50 years. Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who revolutionized the pipe organ for the French Romantic age, was a family friend. In 1870 Widor was hired temporarily to play organ at Saint-Sulpice, in Paris. He held on to the job until 1934, just a few years before his death at 93. (He was even buried in the crypt of Saint-Sulpice.) Among his many compositions are 10 organ symphonies; three symphonies for orchestra with organ; and Bach’s Memento, six original arrangements of music by J.S. Bach.
Nicknamed after the architectural style of the two churches to which they were dedicated—the gothic Saint-Ouen abbey church in Rouen and the Romanesque basilica of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse—Widor’s last two symphonies represent his crowning achievement for organ. The Ninth, or “Gothic,” repurposes the Christmas Day Introit “Puer natus est nobis” (Unto us a Child is born), and the 10th, or “Romane,” uses the Easter Gradual “Haec dies quam fecit Dominus” (This is the day the Lord has made). In honoring the churches, these two symphonies also pay tribute to the organ builder, Cavaillé-Coll, whose state-of-the-art instruments grace each structure—and inform the music of each symphony. Widor himself debuted the “Gothic” in its namesake church in Rouen.
Widor’s “Romane” Symphony takes full advantage of the rich sonorities available on the Saint-Sernin’s Cavaillé-Coll. In his later years, Widor came to believe that organ music should derive its themes from sacred music; his 10th Symphony, like its predecessor, is steeped in plainsong.
In his preface to the published score, Widor described his Easter Gradual “Haec dies” theme as “an elegant arabesque ornamenting a text of several words—about 10 notes per syllable—a vocalise as elusive as birdsong; a sort of pedal-point conceived for a virtuoso free of restraint. The only means of holding the listener’s attention with so fluid a theme is to repeat it incessantly. Such is the plan of this movement that sacrifices everything to the subject. Here and there the composer has somewhat timidly embarked in development, but this departure is quickly abandoned and the original plan of the work resumes.”
Franz Liszt (1811–1886): “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen”—Präludium nach J. S. Bach
Franz Liszt, the first superstar piano virtuoso, retired from concertizing at the peak of his fame, when he was 35 years old. A year later, the handsome and charismatic Hungarian set up house in Weimar with Princess Carolyne von Sayn Wittgenstein, whom he had met on his last tour and hoped to marry, pending a papal dispensation. While Liszt served as Kapellmeister to the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he also cultivated a flock of eager young acolytes, including his daughter Cosima’s future first husband, Hans von Bülow. Up to that point Liszt had only played organ once in public, but he was a quick study. He composed most of his organ music during these Weimar years, while also conducting the works of other composers he admired, especially Beethoven; Berlioz; and his second future son-in-law, Richard Wagner, for whom Cosima left Bülow.
One composer Liszt held in particular esteem was J.S. Bach, who had, more than a century earlier, spent several productive years in Weimar. In fact, Bach was working in Weimar when he composed the church cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (“Weeping, lamenting, fretting, fearing”), BWV 12, for Jubilate, the third Sunday after Easter. He led the first performance at the court chapel in Weimar on April 22, 1714, the same year that he was appointed Konzertmeister, a post that required him to write and perform a new church cantata every month.
One reason for Liszt’s renewed interest in the organ: Bach’s complete organ works, which had only recently been published for the first time. Among Liszt’s first completed works in Weimar were his piano transcriptions of a half-dozen of Bach’s preludes and fugues for organ.
Liszt composed his variations on “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” in 1859, as a prelude for solo piano. After his daughter Blondine died in 1862, he extended the prelude into a set of 30 variations, turning it into a kind of elegy for her. He transcribed the work for organ the next year, while living in Rome, where he had moved in a last-ditch (and ultimately futile) effort to get the Pope to annul his lover’s marriage.
The Venezuelan pianist and composer Gabriela Montero
On February 23 through February 25, Marin Alsop conducts the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in a fantastic program featuring two contemporary works and one beloved warhorse. The concert takes place at the Meyerson, as usual, and you can buy tickets on the website.
Rather than post a link or embed the notes in a pdf, I’m just going to cut and paste them here. They’re also published on the DSO website and in the printed program books if you’re lucky enough to visit the Meyerson this weekend.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously observed. In Scheherazade’s case, the meaning of “live” is literal: her very survival depends on her gift for the gab. The stories she uses to captivate her murderous sultan-spouse aren’t her own inventions, but they don’t need to be. Her voice compels. It keeps her alive in the story, in every possible sense.
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov based his 1888 symphonic suite Scheherazade on a translation of The Thousand and One Nights, a collection of tales so ancient they might as well be encoded in our DNA. But before Scheherazade, which closes the concert, Maestro Alsop presents two equally colorful and compelling, if less familiar, offerings from the 21st century. In these richly imagined works, both composed within the past five years—by two distinctive Latin American women who happen to share the first name Gabriela—the woman’s voice never falters: it’s at the forefront, no longer exoticized or filtered through a male composer’s imagination and centuries of legend. Defiantly alive, emphatically themselves, Ortiz and Montero live by their own stories.
Gabriela Ortiz (born 1964): Antrópolis
Born in Mexico City to folk-musician parents, Ortiz started playing piano at eight and knew that she wanted to be a composer before she entered her teens. She studied at the National Conservatory of Music with Mario Lavista and at the National University of Mexico with Federico Ibarra. In 1990, after receiving the British Council Fellowship, she studied in London with Robert Saxton at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In 1992 she received a scholarship from the University of Mexico that funded a doctorate in electroacoustic music composition with Simon Emmerson at The City University in London. She currently teaches composition at the Mexican University of Mexico City, and her music is published by Boosey & Hawkes.
The recipient of many honors and awards, including the National Prize for Arts and Literature (Mexico), as well as Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships, Ortiz has composed operas, orchestral works, music for chamber ensembles, and dance and film scores. Recent commissions include Clara for orchestra (The New York Philharmonic); Altar deCuerda for violin and orchestra (The Los Angeles Philharmonic); and Tzam for orchestra (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra).
Ortiz was named a member of El Colegio Nacional (The National College) in 2022. Created in 1943 by presidential decree, this exclusive honorary academy brings together Mexico’s leading artists and scientists, who deliver lectures and seminars in their areas of expertise. Also in 2022 Ortiz was appointed curator of the Pan-American Music Initiative in conjunction with The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, an enthusiastic promoter of Ortiz’s career.
Ortiz’s parents cofounded Los Folkloristas in 1966, when Ortiz was a toddler. Members of this legendary ensemble continue to serve as ambassadors of traditional Latin folk music, which is also Ortiz’s goal—or one of them, anyway. Loaded with intoxicating polyrhythms and spiky syncopation, the orchestral piece Antrópolis evokes and reimagines the popular Mexican dance music of the 1940s and ’50s. Antrópolis, which might be translated as “Human City,” is scored for an unusual array of percussion instruments (bongos, maracas, cowbells, glockenspiels, and more) and opens with a spirited, lengthy—and dare I say deeply funky? —drum solo.
Fulfilling a commission by the internationally renowned Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, Ortiz completed Antrópolis in early 2018. Prieto led the Orquestra Sinfónica in the world premiere on April 1, 2018, at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, in Mexico City.
The Composer Speaks
“I really enjoy dancing, for many years I went to all the clubs, visiting the Colonia Hall, the Los Angeles Hall, the Mexico Hall…. I really like the mambo; I am an admirer of Pérez Prado….
“I have always wanted to do an orchestral piece… but suddenly, why not, make it fun, sometimes everything is so intense, so why not do this side of enjoyment, pastiche, potpourri of dance clubs and lounges, especially the old ones, which are the ones that I like best.”—Gabriela Ortiz, excerpted from a 2018 interview
Gabriela Montero (born 1970): Piano Concerto No. 1, “Latin”
An improviser of breathtaking skill and ingenuity, Montero ranks among the most original pianists on the planet. Like Ortiz, she collaborates regularly with the conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto. In 2015 Montero won a Latin Grammy Award for her album Ex Patria, a meditation on her native Venezuela. She combines virtuosic technique with a prodigious imagination, capable, at a moment’s notice, sometimes at the request of an audience member, of whipping up a complex set of variations, adorned with harmony, counterpoint, and an infinite array of rhythmic patterns and procedures. Like a seasoned jazz musician, she can compose so fluently, so spontaneously, that it seems like a form of thinking out loud, or some kind of spooky prescience. She reminds us that the word “prodigy” is derived from the Latin word prodigium, which means “omen” or “monster.”
Montero performed the world premiere of her Piano Concerto No. 1,”Latin,” in 2016, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and released a recorded performance of it with Prieto and the Orchestra of the Americas on Orchid Classics three years later.
The Composer Speaks “My story is a modern one, in many ways. I was born and raised in Venezuela until the age of eight, at which point my family moved with me to the United States for a decade. I landed at the Royal Academy of Music in London in my early 20s. I am a globalized, Latin American woman raised on a diet of European classical music with multiple, circumstantial side dishes of Pan-American folklore.
“I also consider myself to be a musician whose primary role is to tell stories that reflect the wide gamut of human experience across both time and geography. Every era and continent has its story to tell, however joyful or troubling, from Renaissance Europe to the contemporary Americas, and composers are well positioned not only to tell it, but to provide a unique form of social commentary.
“The piano is my chosen instrument as a performer, but not my only narrative tool as a composer and communicator. It should come as no surprise, then, that my first concerto should be written for the piano as solo instrument, and that it should employ traditional, European musical structures to tell my contemporary story as a well-traveled Latin-American woman.
“In a process of musical osmosis—a natural consequence of the globalized, interconnected world in which we now live—my Piano Concerto No. 1, the ‘Latin’ Concerto, honors the musical traditions that have shaped me, while inviting the cultural idioms of my native continent to the concert halls of Europe and the wider world. European formalism and the informality of Latin America’s rich, rhythmical identity merge in a complementary dance of both the joyful and macabre.
“Writing my Concerto, I set out to describe the complex and often contradictory character of Latin America, from the rhythmically exuberant to the forebodingly demonic. Unlike my previous work for piano and orchestra—the specifically Venezuelan polemic Ex Patria (2011), a musical portrait of a country in collapse—the ‘Latin’ Concerto draws upon the spirit of the broader South American continent. For every suggestion of surface celebration in the first-movement Mambo, for instance, there are undercurrents of disruption. The third-movement Allegro Venezolano, which cites the well-known Venezuelan Pajarillo, is interrupted at times by the dark arts of black magic, a symbolic reminder of the malevolent forces that, too often, hold our continent hostage to tyranny in its multiple guises. —Gabriela Montero
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908): Scheherazade, Op. 35
The American novelist and photographer Carl Van Vechten once called the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov “a musical Eurasian.” To 21st-century ears, that label sounds problematic (not to mention inaccurate), but Van Vechten—a white man deeply committed to the Black-led Harlem Renaissance artistic movement—meant it as a compliment.
Scheherazade was inspired by The Arabian Nights or A Thousand and One Nights, an ancient compendium of Arabic, Persian, and Indian tales. Rimsky-Korsakov titled his symphonic suite for the heroine whose dilemma frames the tales: Scheherazade, who keeps her homicidal freak of a husband from killing her by hooking him on her fiction. After each new cliffhanger, the story-loving sultan postpones her execution, night after night, until finally he decides to spare her.
Although Rimsky-Korsakov acknowledged that Scheherazade consisted of “separate, unconnected episodes and pictures from The ArabianNights,” with a unifying theme representing Scheherazade herself, he tried not to get bogged down in too much extramusical detail. In his memoir he described his artistic goals: “All I had desired was that the listener, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale marvels and not merely four pieces played one after another and composed on the basis of themes common to all four movements.”
Seascapes and Soundtracks
Rimsky-Korsakov’s descriptive titles refer to iconic scenes in the collection, not to specific stories. The first, “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” juxtaposes a harsh, articulated theme, which may represent the Sultan or possibly Sinbad, and a sinuous legato motif, sung by solo violin, that suggests the beguiling voice of Scheherazade herself. The concerto-like second movement, “The Story of the Kalender Prince,” highlights various solo instruments and instrumental groupings as it enacts the many transformations of a masquerading prince. The most overtly Romantic movement, “The Prince and the Princess” is a rapturous romp that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack of a late-1940s Hollywood melodrama.
Shipwrecks, Seductions, and Salvation
The finale contains three parts: “Festival at Baghdad,” “The Sea,” and “The Ship Is Dashed Against a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior.” Like the first movement, it opens with dramatic elaborations of the contrasting Sultan and Scheherazade themes. The mood is lively, almost nerve-wracking in its profuse variations. Strings scurry, brass stutters, and as the hysteria mounts, in come the lordly trombones intoning their grim message against a maelstrom of strings, winds, and percussion. A more ominous passage ensues, pierced by the doomy clash of a gong. Then, accompanied by gentle winds and delicate harp, Scheherazade sashays back with an acutely seductive take on her by now familiar violin theme. She has saved her own life and maybe the soul of a despot, too. As the suite closes, the violin holds one long, impossibly sweet and sustaining high note.
Copyright 2023 René Spencer Saller.
Please email me at email@example.com if you would like to reprint these notes.
Portrait of Felix Mendelssohn by Wilhelm Hensel. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, for which I am the longtime annotator, is putting my program notes online again, on their elegant and well-appointed website, which means I no longer need to download pdfs (although I might end up doing this eventually, if the links wind up as broken as the ones on some of my other pages, a deficiency of which I am regrettably aware and that I have resolved to correct eventually). But in the meantime, yay! Even though I have a backlog of program notes (hundreds of batches by now, I’m thinking), I prefer talking about concerts before they happen, if at all possible, because that means a few more people who might not have known about the concert otherwise will benefit from the advance notice and buy tickets for what promises to be a transcendent experience.
I wrote about Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang Symphony, sometimes referred to as his Symphony No. 2, for the upcoming performance on March 2-5, at the glorious and acoustically superb Meyerson. Conducted by Paul McCreesh, it should be a fantastic concert: also on the program is Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens, a setting of a Milton poem. Along with the DSO and the DSO Chorus, the roster includes sopranos Susanna Phillips and Sari Gruber and tenor Nicholas Phan.
You can read my program notes here (just scan down a bit, and be sure to click on the little plus-sign icon on the right to read the full essay for each composer/work). I do retain the copyright, so if you have any interest in reprinting them, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the greatest-ever native Missouri songwriters died yesterday, on February 8, 2023: Burt Bacharach, born on May 12, 1928, in Kansas City, Missouri. It seems presumptuous to hope that the immortal pop genius, whose music I have been enjoying since I was in utero, will rest in peace any more peacefully if I pipe in to mark his passing, and everyone knows that 94 is a ripe old age indeed. Even so, it seems only right to observe that we won’t see his likes again: a songwriter who could write for so many distinctive voices and somehow make them sound more distinctively themselves without sacrificing what made his own songs, especially his collaborations with lyricist Hal David, so instantly recognizable. Despite being a fine pianist and a serviceable singer, Bacharach was a songwriter in the pure composer tradition: an artist who wrote primarily for other voices. I suppose I should mention that he studied with one of my classical-music heroines, the iconic Nadia Boulanger, especially since this blog is mostly about classical music, but Boulanger has been dead a lot longer, and I’m not likely to give up my campaign to make her a household name anytime soon. So.
Here’s a song my mom put on the family turntable often, a song I loved from the first instant I heard it. She summarized the plot of the movie Alfie for me in such a way that makes me never want to see the movie, and not because she made it sound terrible but because she made it seem more beautiful than I’m guessing it actually was, and I know that’s mostly because of the power of this song. The song tells me all I need to know, and it’s perfect.
Thank you for giving this nonbeliever something to believe in.
Please know that if I did not successfully embed this video, you can seek it out yourself on YouTube. Just look for Dionne Warwick singing “Alfie,” then go ahead and do yourself a favor and listen to all the Bacharach songs that pop up in your feed or in your subconscious memory. I’m sure if you have been sentient for longer than a half-decade, you’ll know at least a few of them by heart.
So far this week, I have rewritten some notes* about a contemporary composer for a major new client—some notes that may well end up translated into French when the piece is performed in Paris—and I have also reviewed numerous proofs and edited several performer bios, among other satisfying duties associated with my various music-related freelance jobs, but my most exciting achievement by far is the progress I just made befriending the neighborhood murder. I don’t care if my neighbors think I’m crazy (although I can’t help hoping they didn’t overhear my shrill endearments to the uppermost branches of the silver maple) because I’m certain that the crows understood and are beginning to associate me with the corn and other seed. Once I’m sure they trust me, and possibly as soon as tomorrow, I’m going to make them some hardboiled eggs. Share your corvid inducements in the comments section if you have wisdom to share! (I hear they like roadkill, but I’m not prepared to acquire or handle it.)
*I will share them once they’re in print. I’m too superstitious to say much more until then.
Just to get this out of the way first, I had some trepidations when I started this biography. As a native St. Louisan, I feel reflexively defensive about Chuck Berry and his complicated legacy, which in many ways mirrors the city that spawned him (us). As with most native St. Louisans, there aren’t too many degrees of separation between us. Decades before I got to interview Chuck Berry in person, I heard story after story from people who met him or knew him or had minor dealings with him. My own mom, a public schoolteacher who moonlighted as a waitress for extra money, served him and one of his very young blond dates on a couple of occasions. She said he was polite and friendly and a good tipper. A perfect gentleman–who was fucking an apparent teenager.
Berry is definitely the most charismatic person I have ever met and probably the most significant person I have ever interviewed, and I didn’t get much time with him–maybe 20 minutes or a half-hour, and I wasn’t allowed to use a tape recorder, which both amused and irritated me, since I’m a stickler for quoting people precisely, and, to put it mildly, Chuck Berry resists paraphrase. He had the most peculiar and poetic way of phrasing things, a sort of ur-Country Grammar lexicon that is impossible to replicate. Some of his gnomic locutions reminded me of my late grandmother’s sayings; others seemed unique to him. After our interview, I literally ran to my office and transcribed my notes right away, so I would be able to capture as much of that sui generis voice as possible. I could still hear his voice ringing like a bell in my brain, and I could still feel the grasp of his enormous hand, the force of his singular star power. Most celebrities (especially septuagenarian celebrities, as he was at the time) seem smaller and more ordinary in real life. Not Chuck Berry, though: even eating chicken wings in a goofy captain’s cap, he was majestic, mysterious, suffused with dark energy disguised as mere genius.
I knew before I started Smith’s comprehensive and unstintingly honest but enormously sympathetic biography that his would need to be an unauthorized biography. Berry was protective of his privacy and his legacy, and his family no doubt feels that Berry’s own biography is definitive. But as fantastic as Berry’s autobiography is (for one thing, it replicates his voice exactly, which makes sense since he actually wrote it), it conceals as much or more than it reveals. This is going to sound like a strange comparison, but in many ways Smith’s great challenge is similar to the one faced by Jan Swafford in writing about Johannes Brahms, another genius perv who wore mask over mask over mask and drenched every meaningful extramusical statement in irony. With a subject as complex and contradictory as Berry or Brahms, how can the biographer tell if you have found his “true” self and not another mask? More likely the “true” self is this multitudinous assemblage of lies, myths, delusions, and unconscious compulsions, but it takes a biographer as talented as Swafford or Smith to present the subject in all its irreducible complexity. It helps that they’re both very good at writing about music qua music, which is, after all, the language Berry and Brahms spoke best.
Despite my pledge to use the library rather than buy more books, I ended up ordering a copy of Chuck Berry: An American Life after I finished the library book. I don’t write about pop music anymore, so I won’t use this as a research source the way I refer to my Swafford bios or my music encyclopedias, but I want to have this in my collection, and I want to be able to press it into the hands of the next blowhard fool who says something ignorant and dismissive about the man who gave my city, nation, and world so many priceless gifts.
In the event that anyone wants to read my short interview with Berry, I cut-and-pasted it below, since it’s old enough to be getting unsearchable, at least in the existing RFT archives:
Riverfront Times, October 17, 2001 Somewhere around the middle of the long, long list of things that make Radar Station sad, somewhere between kitten torture and the demise of the bustle in ladies’ skirt fashions, is the fact that St. Louis rock icon Chuck Berry doesn’t get the respect he deserves in his own hometown. Sure, he’s got a bronze star on Delmar, his monthly gigs at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room always sell out, and Gov. Bob Holden and Mayor Francis Slay are scheduled to present him with “proclamations of his greatness” at his big birthday bash at the Pageant on Oct. 18. These honors notwithstanding, when your garden-variety St. Louis hipster utters Berry’s name, it’s likely to lead to a crack about coprophilia and underage girls, not a serious discussion about his astonishing musical legacy.
It’s partly his own fault. Anyone who’s seen Berry in concert recently is painfully aware that he phones in his performances more often than not, seldom bothering to rehearse with his pickup bands or even tune his guitar. No one held a gun to his head when he outfitted his employee bathrooms with hidden video cameras. No one forced him to record the staggeringly stupid novelty jingle “My Ding-a-Ling.” But what does it say about the kitten-torturing, bustle-slighting world we live in that this infantile paean to Berry’s illustrious pee-pee remains his all-time biggest hit, bigger than “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Little Queenie,” “Maybellene,” “Nadine (Is It You?)” and “No Particular Place to Go”? What does it say about us that we’d rather make poop jokes than talk about the poetic brilliance of lyrics such as “with hurry-home drops on her cheeks” or “as I was motorvatin’ over the hill” or “campaign-shouting like a Southern diplomat”? Indeed, we’re mindless sheep, too busy playing with our own ding-a-lings to appreciate the legend who duck-walks among us.
In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter whether we make dumb gibes or issue proclamations. Berry’s legacy is right there on his records: those slithery, wild, scabrous guitar licks; those groin-grinding jump rhythms, that heady elixir of honky-tonk and R&B — the very essence of rock & roll, in all of its primitive, spastic, id-centered glory. Without Berry’s quicksilver genius, rock music as we know it would not, could not exist.
Radar Station had the singular pleasure of interviewing the brown-eyed handsome man in person last week, when he met with us at Blueberry Hill. At nearly three-quarters of a century, Berry looks dapper and alert. Wearing a black windbreaker and his signature captain’s hat, he sits at the head of the table, in front of an uneaten basket of hot wings and a glass of what looks like orange juice. He urges us to move closer — not because he’s trying to get fresh with us but because he’s a little hard of hearing. Radar Station (who suddenly feels too cute to be 9,460,800 minutes over 17) finds his gallantry irresistible, if absurd. He fixes his cloudy black eyes on our face and, when asked how he’d like to be remembered, politely informs us that he doesn’t care. “People’s opinions can’t be altered,” he observes cheerfully. “Realizing this, I’ve found much pleasure and peace.” Asked to name his favorite song, he says, “It’s just like kids — how can you say you love your boy more than your girl, your angel more than your brat?”
Berry doesn’t seem to mind being interviewed, but he doesn’t like to indulge in freeform reminiscence: “A guy came in, some college student. He set down a hand tape-recorder, and he said, ‘Chuck, I’ve been waiting for this moment for six years. Go ahead and talk.’ I said, ‘Well, then, we’re done now. You ask the questions — I’ll answer anything you ask, but I’m not just going to talk. You can even ask me what kind of underclothes I’m wearing, and I’ll tell you.'” Radar Station, a helpless literalist, takes the bait and asks him. “Good ones,” he responds with a wide, sly grin. “Briefs today, but I own a variety.”
Having established this important information, we ask whether he has any comment on the lawsuit his longtime pianist Johnnie Johnson filed recently, wherein Johnson claims that he deserves co-writing credit on most of Berry’s classic songs. “It’s not Johnnie that’s doing this,” Berry says sadly. “I’ve known him 40 years. Someone inspired him to go along with him and seek their desire to try for an easy dollar. At the Pageant’s grand opening, I talked to him for 20 minutes in the dressing room. At that time, I didn’t know [about the lawsuit]. If I would have known, I would have popped the question: ‘Hey, baby! What’s up with that?’ But he never said a mumbling word.”
Berry, who intends to keep rocking for the next 20 years, isn’t holding grudges. Besides playing out regularly, he’s recording a new album, which has been on the back burner since 1978. He claims he’s written nine new songs, but he doesn’t want to estimate a release date. “I thought last March, but I might as well not predict anymore. It will take the application of time, will and effort,” he says. Berry’s daughter and son, among others, will probably back him up. “I have to let them do something, or else I’ll pay family dues,” he cackles. “Even Keith Richards or Johnnie Johnson — I’d welcome them if they wanted to play. A lot of people would be surprised. All I want is a good song.”
Chuck Berry celebrates his 75th birthday on Thursday, Oct. 18, at the Pageant, with special guest Little Richard.
Did I think this was a transcendent work of indescribable genius? No, I did not. Did I think this was as good as Chronicles I? Nope, not that either. But it’s worth five stars because it is worth five stars to me, a lifelong Dylan fan, to know what Bob Dylan thinks about popular music and sundry other topics, ranging from the natural advantages of polygamy and the bland evil of divorce lawyers to the radical complicity of average citizens in war crimes, from the evolution of the “witchy woman” archetype to the disgrace of HUAC, from Tin Pan Alley to Laurel Canyon. It’s an enormous mess, a rambling assortment of insights and semi-fictionalized factoids. In other words, it’s classic Bob Dylan.
So what if some of the more fact-based passages (e.g., the list of classical compositions whose motifs were incorporated in famous pop songs) could have been (and quite possibly were) lifted more or less verbatim from Wikipedia pages and other public sources? Bob Dylan has the soul of a magpie. He understands that to be distinctively American is to be a gypsy, a tramp, and a thief (one of several songs he surprised me by writing about).
I’m glad my generous friend Phoebe gave me the audiobook; I loaded the CDs into iTunes and, over a few weeks, listened to Bob Dylan read his own words, along with a weird but effective collection of guest readers, including Helen Mirren, Renée Zellweger, Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Alfre Woodward, and Sissy Goddamn Spacek, of all people. I know there will be listeners who will want more of Bob’s voice than they get, but to me it made perfect sense to have such a diverse array of readers interpreting his sentences for him. That’s more or less the theme of the book: the philosophy of modern song, you might say.
A great song inhabits a different space, or it creates a new world. It both exists within time and beyond it, in our minds, after it has transformed us. Dylan loves to quote Whitman’s iconic “I contain multitudes” line (which I understand, having fallen back on it many times myself when writing record reviews). He even wrote the song “I Contain Multitudes” a few years ago. He clearly dgaf if you think his intertextual approach is a form of cultural or artistic appropriation, and I guess when it comes right down to it, neither do I (sorry, anonymous Civil War poets et al.). If he’s a plagiarist, he’s the generous kind who returns on the intellectual-property investment tenfold.