Monday, December 31, 2018

Just visiting

For a few hours I thought about going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. My wife was working, my cat was snoozing, I had no plans, and, having but one service at my own church on Christmas Eve (in a sanctuary large enough that there will never be reason for two), my Protestant self felt like maybe it needed a little more sanctified celebration. After the Silent Night with the candles comes Joy to the World, or O Come All ye Faithful, pealing forth at the stroke of the new day: the day itself. The preparation is over. The season of waiting has ended. Christmas has come.

It turns out they don't have a midnight mass at St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh. 10 p.m. is as late a start time as their flock wanted to stay up for, evidently. So this organist simply went home after the service ended at Third Presbyterian and waited for sleep to come. I stayed up until 1:30 anyhow; a little wired from all the sugar in the system, and the Christmas.

At noon the next day there was another mass (also at 10 a.m.). Catholics DO attend church on the day itself (and not just at midnight)--unlike Protestants, who are unobliged and generally uninterested, and as I was again free (this time both the cat and the spouse were sleeping), off I went.

I've been to St. Paul's for many organ recitals (mostly in summer), but I've never seen it as festive as for Christmas. Trees and poinsettias everywhere. And despite my concerns that people might be nowhere to be found (all in their own homes, with presents and family all day), there was quite a crowd. They didn't all look happy to be there; that was the part of the spiritual present I didn't receive. And the singing was just as lukewarm as I'd been led to believe by other Catholics about their brethren (at a midnight mass years ago that I was playing my wife was outed as a Methodist by someone there who said they could tell she wasn't Catholic because she was singing lustily). It reminded me somehow of those gigs I do at nursing homes where a few of the residents seem truly alive and interested and engaged, and the others, for whatever reasons of health or disposition, just aren't all there. That was also the case here. Maybe it is the case in heaven itself.

But the party was on, whether everyone's spirits accepted the invitation or not. The music was festive (brass and organ) and vigorous. And I was in a mirthful mood anyway. I also had occasion to be amused. Forgive me, relevant parties.

I am enough up on the latest, or at least reasonably recent, pontifical memos to know that the proper response to "the Lord be with you" is "and with your spirit"; however, some of the flock were still murmuring the old "and also with you" a half-a-dozen years later. Recalcitrance, perhaps?

There were a few Protestants in attendance. I know because at least one fellow nearby got caught out during the Lord's Prayer and forgot to stop after "deliver us from evil."

Speaking of delivering us from evil, there is still the old prayer to St. Michael, who is apparently quite the warrior, to deliver us from Satan, who lurks everywhere, and is very, very frightening. It is a very Medieval smelling petition, and involves my much more violence-friendly namesake, which is a strange sensation. It was said toward the end of the service...

which also included Silent Night. I had missed Midnight Mass, and imagined I would have an entirely different experience at noon the next day. I was wrong. The bulletins in the pews made it clear that all five of the masses, the three on Christmas Eve, and the two on Christmas Day, were to be identical. The only exception was the singing of Silent Night, absent only at noon on Christmas Day. But someone may have appealed to those in charge, (all the way to the Bishop?) because it was also included.

It feels a little odd to sing Silent Night at noon the next day, but I rolled with it. No candles, though. I appealed to the pastor's wife on the 24th to light my candle while I played the organ at my church, so I was not denied that experience. I even got to hold my candle while singing a phrase or two from the last verse which was partly unaccompanied (Christmas Eve surprise! You can do it, congregation!).

The Bishop delivered the homily, which was about what you expect it to have been about: the real reason for Christmas, and how all the rushing around and the materialism distract us from the point. I wonder if this sets up a great euphoria in some people, hearing the expected conventions delivered at the right time with the appropriate amount of restrained fervor. I only know that, as a creative soul, it is hard for me not to be a bit bored when I could have guessed at the entire contents of the homily in advance. But I am not typical.

Afterwards, of course, was the Eucharist. I have gotten pretty used to walking into strange buildings, and participating in services with congregations I am not a part of. I realize that there are many people who do not feel comfortable doing that, but during the year after my cancer when I was unemployed I visited a new church every week and got quite used to the procedure. On Christmas Day, there was more likely a variety of persons in attendance, including the aforementioned Protestant. I had decided not to go down front for the Eucharist on this occasion (to get a blessing) but it turned out there were several others who chose to do the same, including the lady in the same pew who seemed to know all the prayers very well--seemed to be in practice, in other words, but still didn't take the elements. I wonder why. I can guess, but I'll leave the individual stories, and reasons, to the people themselves.

The music was properly celebratory, often with brass and organ, including an enthusiastic (though hard to follow) introduction to Joy the World, which I did get to sing this year after all (our pastor left it off the list on Christmas Eve), and a lengthy concert before-ward which I missed most of because there was nothing on the website about its start time.

There seems to be, particularly in Catholicism, a sense of obligatory dispatch, or routine, the message being that "we do this everyday." Yet at the same time the calendar is thick with festivals and occasional periods of absence, bedecking the year with meaning, almost to the point where what is special can itself become routine. But it may be in the eyes and hearts of the parishioners themselves that ordinary time becomes extraordinary time. Some of those were obviously just there because their families made them come and were waiting to get home, others, simply jaded with many a Christmas celebration. And I could think of enough reason to be disappointing with a church that didn't live up to its founder's vision. But I still got a sense that there was something wonderful about this day and this moment in time, that Christmas had truly arrived. Perhaps it is only an invitation; we can let it gladden our hearts or not, as we choose. And no priest or parish can keep it from coming, or force its entry. But what they could do, which was to facilitate it, they did. The rest, as T. S. Eliot might say, is not our business.

Whatever combination of obligation and desire had led persons to the service that day, there was the old, familiar ritual waiting for them. And a sense of the special-ness of Christmas on top of it. The flowers, the Bishop, and the brass and organ music made sure to remind us of that. Was the verdict that of a duty dispatched, an ordinary event transformed, or perhaps an ordinary event that is never ordinary? I can't see into the hearts of the people there. I only know I felt uplifted, and went home a little bit changed.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Once more around the sun

This is the traditional time of year for the traditional year in review. If the anxiety over Christmas hasn't finished me off, I should look back on a year of accomplishments and see if there was enough there to justify one 584 million mile trip around the sun. Let's see...

I taught a couple of OSHER courses that were well attended and enjoyed. I gave two organ recitals at Heinz Chapel, one of the nicest places to play an organ concert in Pittsburgh, besides innumerable gigs and concerts and rehearsals. We went to Florida in the spring and managed not to piss off the crocodiles. In October I ran the Baltimore Marathon. It was my first marathon after cancer. The last 90 minutes were not pretty. But I made it to the finish and I have an illustrious crab medal to prove it. I looked awful by the 12th mile if that guy's reaction was any indication. But I'm tougher than I look. Also, I got a cat. She's feisty.

That can all be put in the "stuff I've done" column. But how much did it matter to anyone but me. Was anybody else affected?

For a positive answer to that I think back only a month, to the day I played a gig at the Presbyterian Senior Care's Dementia unit. It was Christmas time, and they wanted Christmas carols, which was perfect, because it meant I didn't have to practice anything. I could just show up and play melodies I knew by heart in arrangements I was making up at the time. Also I told stories and jokes and anything else I happened to think of. It was fun and relaxing.

I had also brought my computer along so I could play a couple recordings of organ pieces I'd played recently to share with the residents. At one point, after I returned to the piano to play another carol arrangement I saw a gentleman out of the side of my eye walking away with my portable speaker! I finished the piece and an attendant told me he'd get the speaker back for me. I packed up the equipment as soon as I was done.

After a few written pieces and some more improvisations I decided we should sing a few carols together. We sang Joy to the World and Silent Night. Before that we gave "Deck the Halls" a try. Anybody know the second verse? I asked. We tried to reconstruct it together. I hadn't sung it in years, and confessed that as a pianist I don't really pay enough attention to the words. But dementia patients who may forget what happened 30 seconds ago are still able to pull things out of the distant past, and they helped me put it together.

Fast away the old year passes ( don't want to know what those falalas are for! I said)
Strike the chorus lads and lasses...
follow me in merry measure....
troll the ancient yuletide treasure.....

I got by with a little help from my friends, including the nice lady who asked me the same question twice in a minute.

Afterward, in the parking lot, I wondered if any of them remembered that I had been there.

But I wouldn't forget. After all, my heart was still warm from singing silent night with all of them.

As, I'm sure, were theirs, even if they couldn't remember why.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018


I blame the Christmas specials.

I could blame my parents for letting me watch television during the holiday season, which might have more Freudian endorsement, but let's go with the shows themselves. Every year, somebody had to save Christmas. There was, therefore, a great deal of anxiety that Christmas might not happen.

The stories were not remotely realistic, of course, but they might just as well have been speaking to children of all ages. In fact, I think they were.

What if Christmas doesn't come this year?

Let's refine the question.

What if Christmas doesn't come well this year?

You know what I mean. Something has to happen in order for it to be a good Christmas. To carry the joy of the season. To be worth waiting around all year for. To give you that magical feeling that everybody around you seems to be preaching at you that you are supposed to have.

Counter to that, Blue Christmas services have sprung up around the country, telling people who are sad during the holidays that it is ok to be sad during the holidays. I don't know when the first one actually happened but I think it may have been started by Charlie Brown, who was honest enough at the start of the famed Christmas special to admit that he was depressed during the season and didn't know what was the matter with him.

If I had Charlie in my company right now I would tell him to own his melancholy. That Christmas is supposed to be an emotional challenge sometimes. That the light comes in darkness but that there has to be a darkness in order for the light to shine in the first place.

Also, don't let everybody else tell you how you ought to feel. They are frequently hiding something themselves. And un-challenged mirth can be pretty vapid, anyway.

But somehow, every year, there is, at least in the back of the mind, that feeling that what is supposed to happen might not happen. That certain customs have to be observed, certain people have to be seen, certain cookies have to be consumed, certain feelings have to happen at certain times.

I feel myself wanting to quote from that great Christmas movie, Star Wars: It's a trap!

Specific expectations have a way of doing that to us. Which is why, on this blog dedicated to music, I want to bring up (but not play, believe it or not for copyright reasons!) a particular piece of music.

John Cage most likely did not celebrate Christmas. He was a Buddhist. His philosophy of non-attachment probably informed one of his most famous pieces, 4'33", in which a pianist (in one of the multiple versions) simply sits at the piano and plays nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.

It is a piece about--and I use the term advisedly--our expectations, and how, if you put a border around it and approach it as if it has significance, any period of time, any event unfolding around us, can be considered art.

One of the traditions around this piece is telling stories about the odd things that happened that "were" the piece when we performed it. A student at a seminar in grad school told how a class sat silent while the piece was being performed by a professor until at last a door opened in the back of the large, bowl-shaped lecture hall and a student from a previous section came in to retrieve his umbrella. That was the piece.

When I played the piece, for a lecture on modern music, the piece was a bunch of senior citizens sitting listening to the hum of the flourescent lights and the noise of the traffic outside until one of them suddenly had an epiphany. "It's a piece about silence!" she informed her neighbor, a little too loudly. For the next minute there was a ripple effect through the room as everyone had to tell their neighbors what the piece was about. Then quiet resumed, and the lights hummed and the sirens pierced the air and calm carried us to the final "cadence."

The piece is about something different every time. You can't control it. You can't know what it will be. In fact, it is a little odd to think that a piece like that could produce anxiety at all, but like all things human, once a tradition gets going around it, that can happen. You expect something quirky and interesting to occur that you can tell a story about later or else it was a failure.

One time I played it for a prelude at a church service. I am not making this up. One of the working titles of the piece actually was "morning prayers" and since it lends itself to silent meditation it seemed like a good idea. It was also, on this occasion, connected with the morning sermon. I started the piece. We sat in silence. I ended it. Still silence. Restful, I thought, but I wonder if it was anything more.

I found out afterwards from my wife that a woman had entered mid-piece, saw everyone with their heads bowed in silence, and whispered "did somebody die?"

It was that one stroke on a blank canvas, like the retrieved umbrella, or the epiphany, the surprise surrounded by silence, that did it for me. But I'm a little weird.

In the end, it had meaning. What it meant, I couldn't tell you. But each performance had its own identity, and felt real. And, there was no way to make it happen. You just had to let it be what it was.

I'd like to suggest we approach Christmas with some of the same peace. I've title this blog 2,678,400 because that is how many seconds there are in a 31 day months, and, in my scheme (and on this website) the Christmas season and its concomitant decorations, lasts from about St. Nicolaus Day on December 6th, to Epiphany on January 6th. During that time, whatever happens, is Christmas.

there was also a recorder ensemble. Those are some pretty bad-ass recorders!
What is on your list of requirement? Try them. But if you don't get them all down, or if they don't turn out right--let's say you burned the cookies or your cat destroyed the tree or your best friend didn't like their present, or even if you lost someone you loved--that was Christmas. And it is special, and meaningful, because it is. And if anything really off-the-chart nuts happens it will make a great story later. That's one of life's great pay-offs. Present suffering can make future merriment. If you tell the stories the right way.

This year, Christmas was relatively conventional for me. I didn't have my wife with me on Christmas
Eve because she is working nights, and I'm not being invited to play as many Christmas programs as I used to because I'm still somewhat new in town and it's hard to break in. But I did participate in a wonderful Christmas Candlelight concert with my friend Tim at the Methodist church and there were some really nice cookies afterward. I had just enough raisin wine at another party to get a throbbing Christmas headache, and we finally got to sing most (but not all) of the important Christmas carols at my church.

It was different. By the old standards it may have been missing something. But it was Christmas. It wasn't like any of the others. But it was.

If you feel like you missed yours already, I can offer you this: Christmas in January. Or February. It can happen whenever it wants to. I used to celebrate late so I could enjoy the relaxation of it after a schedule of concerts, rehearsals, and services all month. And if you still don't feel it, maybe that's because you gave yours to somebody else who needed it very much and they are thanking God for you right now and you may never know that. Christmas has a funny way of leaking all over the place. It often doesn't do what we expect. And it may not appear in a welcome form, at least at the time.

But Christmas comes anyway. Recognizing it when it comes, and how it comes, brings joy in its wake.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Silent Night at 200

I'm going to do something I don't frequently do, which is to display a certain amount of ethnic pride here. In small amounts I don't think it can hurt anybody.

It so happens that I am part Austrian, so the fellows who wrote the famous Christmas carol Silent Night are of the same stock. My father grew up in a small Austrian village which is about an hour from Oberndorf, the town where the carol was written. His town is about 30 miles from Salzburg in the other direction.

The town of Zell am Pettenfirst, where my father grew up, as seen in 2010

The legend, with which you are no doubt familiar, is that on Christmas Eve in 1818 the parish organ broke down. Not having an organ available on that most special night of the year was a problem, but it was solved, apparently, by the use of a guitar (horrors!) and, by joining forces, the parish priest, who wrote the words, and the organist, who wrote the music, produced what has to be the most famous Christmas carol in existence.

I have long since past the point where I can swallow stories like that without some skepticism, and it seems that the text of the carol was written in 1816, so both parts of the collaboration did not happen on the same day. Perhaps my dramatic imagination (and yours?) thought of it all happening at once. Is it possible that the organ didn't break down either? Nobody has challenged this part of the story so far as I know.  What we do seem to know is that it was first sung on Christmas Eve in 1818, which means that this very evening it will be 200 years old. Or this afternoon, for those of us living in my time zone.

I've asked my Austrian father to read the text of the first verse, in German. His dialect ought to be fairly close to the one spoken by Gruber and Mohr. Sorry if you Leipzigers can't understand it!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

here is the commonly sung English translation:

Silent night, holy night,
all is calm, all is bright,
'round yon virgin mother and child,
holy infant so tender and mild,
sleep in heavenly peace!
seep in heavenly peace!

and a closer rendering of the actual German:

Silent night! Holy night!
All [are] asleep, [except for] a single light, 
Only the faithful, holy pair, 
Lovely youth with curly hair, 
Sleep in heavenly peace! 
Sleep in heavenly peace!

After his reading, I will play a few verses on our church organ, which, as of this moment, is not broken, though I am no stranger to organs that break down on Christmas Eve. The melody that I am playing is not quite the original: after it was first written, other people made slight changes in it as the carol became common property, and in this case, I think they actually improved it.

Silent Night in the dark with candles IS Christmas Eve for so many people now, and it is interesting to think that it owes its genesis to the inhabitants of a little Austrian village. I do, too.

Several years ago, while visiting the town of my father's childhood, I found a book chronicling the momentous happenings in that town of (then) under a thousand. Its voluminous 300-plus pages preserved events like the time somebody's cow got loose and wandered onto the road, stopping traffic (meaning a car). Or a list of every priest the town's single church had had since the 16th century.

You would not expect news like that to get picked up by Reuters and circulated globally. In fact, most of the news of the occurrences in that hearty metropolis would only be for the benefit of the residents themselves.

But something did emerge from a town like that for which a vast expanse of humanity is grateful. And because of my heritage, I can sing the carol with some sense, forged by personal connection, of its place of birth, and maybe the tiniest glimmer of what it would have been like to hear it on the night it was sung for the first time, in that little parish church like the one my father knew and which I've visited twice.

For the rest of you, I hope there is the joy of the season, and perhaps a much-loved custom, in hearing, and sometimes in singing, the carol each year, no matter where you are from.

Listen now as a pair of Austrians collaborates to bring you "Silent Night"!

Silent Night

(By the way, I expect full credit for Mozart, too!)

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Pastorale 2018

An astonishing thing happened on the top of the piano I was playing carols on for the folks at the retirement home. Ordinarily, you'll recall from my ten part series on the subject of Pastorals and shepherds, manger scenes tend to really emphasize the three kings, despite the Bible being silent on their number, and not calling them kings in the first place. They also only feature a single shepherd, even though there were "shepherds" [plural] "abiding in the field." This noticeable trend continues with our own church's scene as well as the one outside at the cathedral up the street. But on this piano I got a surprise.

It isn't just that there appear to be two (gasp!) shepherds: those figures on the far left flanking the king. It's also that there seems only to be one king. Since there are three camels on the right, I wondered (aloud) if that meant the shepherds got to ride the other two camels. I'm sure they have tired feet from all those years of standing at work all day and would appreciate it. Nice people over at that retirement community.

At any rate, this gives me a chance to introduce this year's entry into the pastorale derby, a charming if harmless little number by a fellow named Edwin Lamare. Mr. Lamare's piece came to my attention because a retired organist sold his collection to our former organist and it is now in the music office. I saw it, thought it looked like fun, and wanted to learn a few things about Edwin Lamare.

He was an English organist, but actually spent a few years here in Pittsburgh, as the organist at the Carnegie Music Hall, presiding at the organ which is now in disrepair. Somewhere online I came across his first program in Pittsburgh, from 1902, which happened to include this very piece. In another online source I can't find anymore was the story that his wife (I think he was on wife number three at the time) didn't care for the climate and wanted to leave. She got her wish in 1905. He next resided in Australia for a while. Mr. Lamare played thousands of concerts. He had a formidable technique. One of the things he occasionally liked to do is a trick known as thumbing down.

In the organist's version of this bit, nobody dies.* All it means is that, while playing one melody with the fingers of your hand, you let your thumb drop to the manual below it, and play some notes with your thumb so that you can make two distinct types of sound with one hand. The music in this section is printed on four staves, one each for the left hand and feet, and the other two for the right hand on both of its manuals.

The thumbing down bit occurs during the middle portion (:57) and is particularly tricky at (1:49 to 1:56) where, for two measures, the thumb is basically playing its own melody against the other fingers.

Otherwise, it's an innocuous little thing.

Edwin Lamare: Pastorale in E (1892)

*I'm referring to the custom of persons at the Roman Coliseum of determining the fate of gladiatorial combatants by displaying thumbs up (he lives) or thumbs down (he dies). I think they have something similar with Youtube videos now.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Sounds of the Season

There is a line in "A Christmas Carol" in which Marley's ghost laments that his spirit "never left the narrow limits of [his] counting house." The point for Marley, and for Dickens, is that one's spirit is meant to wander far and wide, not to be shut up in one little routine, and certainly not to neglect company with one's fellow human beings.

There are, in this century particularly, various ways to accomplish this, and though none can truly substitute for being in the room and experiencing togetherness together, humankind has cooked up some pretty ingenious ways to share ideas and experiences through vast amounts of time and space. During the Christmas season I find it particularly rewarding to mingle my spirit with many humans, some long dead, or living, or having lived, in far away countries, with very different approaches to the holiday season. This, to me, is a vital part of the season itself.

There are at least two holidays that bear the name Christmas. One is, of course, a secular holiday, and the other religious. But they have very different characters in addition to the reasoning at their core. Much of the popular secular music this time of year has to do with how the person singing it feels at Christmas, or how wonderful and exciting everything is. Like desert, it seems fine in moderation, but not particularly substantial as a main course. But, beside the lyrics, or the pedestrian musical stylings of some of them, there seems to be a parochialism of focus as well.

Non-secular Christmas goes back two millenia, and has seen great minds from many cultures contribute to the celebration, in all kinds of ways. Each year, I try to delve into a little bit more of that. It also helps give the holiday its own unique character every year.

For several years I've been leaving a trail of my explorations behind me, and you can hear many of these pieces this week at pianonoise radio.

But today on the blog I'm going to share something more recently recorded. It's a piece of music from a tradition in 18th century France where organists would create flashy arrangements of various carols. The carols themselves may not be familiar; some of them are becoming so to me, the longer I deal with this tradition.

On Saturday I had the privilege of playing at the candlelight worship concert that the First Methodist Church in Pittsburgh holds each year. At the dress rehearsal, as the choir began an unaccompanied carol, I knew what I would play for a prelude. I recognized the tune they were singing as one that those French organists of so long ago treated as the basis for their fascinating variations.

I'm happy to report that I was able to (re)learn the piece in one day, which is all the time I had between the rehearsal and the concert! Actually, I played the piece about four years ago so I had a little bit of a head start (and probably only spent a few days on it then, too.). The recording you will hear was made on Saturday morning at my own church before playing it that evening for the Methodists. It helped to firm up my interpretation, too, going before the microphone. Those things always make me nervous.

I hope you enjoy it. There are plenty more pieces in that tradition, a few of which I've recorded for my holiday program (and the forthcoming Christmas Day program also at Pianonoise Radio) and more which I will likely learn. It is a wonderful feeling to be conversant with so many different traditions and types of music and to be able to share them at Christmas, which is a much bigger thing than we are, or our cultural preferences. To be able to wander through the wide world, and learn from and engage with so many people from so many times and places, all with their fascinating takes on this massive midwinter festival, is incredibly rewarding.

And, somehow, at Christmas I don't feel that they are that far away.

Daquin: Noel 1

Monday, December 17, 2018

Amadeus as opera

One of the ways to approach the movie "Amadeus" is to think of it as opera--as a drama with a story and a lot of spectacle. There are in fact several things the movie has in common with operas that Mozart himself wrote.

The very first sounds we hear in the movie are the opening, crashing chords from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. They are the very opening chords from the beginning of the overture, and they are there to foreshadow the chords that will sound in the opera's final scene when the dead commandatore, whom the Don has killed, comes back from the beyond to drag him to his punishment in hell. In the movie, these chords are also there from the beginning, and then don't come back until near the end of the movie. In this case, they have been repurposed to represent Salieri, in costume, trying to kill off Mozart by commissioning a Mass for the Dead, and then scaring him into thinking it is for his own funeral. These chords also represent Mozart's father in judgement over his son (at least in Mozart's imagination) and their second use is during the scene in which Mozart sees his father, who is visiting Vienna. The father's first appearance is at the top of a flight of stairs with Mozart at the bottom. After the accompanying dramatic chords have ceased, Mozart bounds up the stairs joyfully to see this glowering individual clad in black crying "Papa!" In this case, the somber music seems not to make any sense, but it paves the way for the later sepulchral symbolism, not to mention hinting that Mozart's relationship with his father may be a bit complicated!

This kind of use of a recurring idea is common to art, and in opera can depict characters or ideas, as in Wagner's celebrated letimotives. But this motivic connection isn't used so bluntly in many of Mozart's operas, and, in the movie, this is really the only instance of a repeated musical cue. The other pieces used in the soundtrack are heard only once.

Mozart's opera Idomineo includes a character making a vow to God in order to secure victory in battle. Enlightenment thinkers were not keen on the idea of vows to God. There were several reasons they didn't work, among them that a contract needed to be between equal parties, and obviously God and a human are not close to equal. There is also no way to be sure that God accepts the deal (an anxiety that Salieri deals with in the movie by saying to the priest after he relates the death of his father "If you were me, wouldn't you think God had accepted your vow?"). Finally, the enlightenment thinkers were deists, who didn't believe God interfered directly in the affairs of men anyway.

There is a long tradition, in opera and literature (and Greek tragedy, etc.) of persons trying to get their way by vow and oracle, and generally coming to a bad end, because in the end, God, or the gods, or fate, turns out to be too strong, or just plain inevitable. Salieri tries to have his way and it doesn't work, either. Yet he persists in his plot to scare Mozart by coming to his door in a mask and asking him to write a Requiem.

Salieri's plan to wear a costume represents another operatic convention. In Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, for example, a major plot point revolves around two men dressing as foreigners to woo each other's girlfriends (in order to win a bet, which obviously makes it a great idea, right?). That the girls don't recognize the lads is essential in order to make this farce work. That Mozart would somehow not recognize Salieri, his close colleague, who in real life spoke poor German with an Italian accent, doesn't really make any sense unless you are so immersed in the drama not to notice.

Amadeus is full of such resonant connections. Even Mozart's own Marriage of Figaro, with its tale of servants one-upping their noble lords finds an echo in Mozart, the commoner with an attitude, somehow besting the aristocratically appropriate Salieri.

Of course, the relationship between art and life is often tantalizing, and Peter Shaffer plays this card frequently, as in the line about Hercules vs. the hair-dresser, or when Mozart's scolding mother in law morphs into the Queen of the Night (one of my students' favorite scenes).  Like Shakespeare's Hamlet, with the play inside the play, there are many levels to this movie. It is a movie whose characters are creative artists, whose subject matter seems to deal so often with artistic products, and whose story is itself another tale told by a creative genius. Like the character who wakes from a dream only to find himself inside another dream, there is no inside and outside. The works of art present in the movie (and some that are not) shine light on the plot of the "real life" itself. Mozart and Salieri, and everyone else in 1780s Vienna, are living inside the plot of their own opera. 

Oh, heavens!

I'm going to take a break from my Monday series on Amadeus for a couple of weeks due to the holidays. There will still be blogs on Mondays, but the subject matter will be different. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Shepherd sequel

Each year at Christmas I play a pastorale. This is a genre associated with the countryside and with shepherds. A couple of years ago I did a ten part series on them.

You might think I'd played all the pastorales that were to be played and said everything that needed to be said. But I found a couple more.

One came over an internet radio station two years ago when I had cancer. I thought it sounded lovely and made a note to play it when I recovered. I did, and for Christmastide 2017 I played it at an Episcopal church in town where I was a substitute.

One comment I received afterward was that I had gotten sounds out of the organ that they didn't normally hear. I hope that was a compliment ("One hears such sounds, and what can one say, but, Michael Hammer!")

I can't really take credit for the unusual sounds. In this case the composer himself specified an interesting combination of stops. It was one I don't think I've used before, and I've done some strange things with registrations. I'll think you'll know where I'm talking about.

The next year, when I had a job at Third Presbyterian, I made this recording. I hope you'll find it charming as well.

Lemmens, Nicolai. Pastorale in F

The holiday program is up at pianonoise radio.   You can also visit the homepage for more seasonal merriment.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


I could tell from the abruptness with which she stopped the choir and the expression on her face that somebody was in big trouble. I couldn't tell who or why because I was a little busy watching the score, listening to the choir, watching the conductor, and, of course, pushing all those plastic levers at the right time and with the proper degree of force. But we all stopped on a dime and waited to see who was getting the lecture.

It turned out to be three young men in the back who, while a small group of their colleagues were performing, took the opportunity to generally yuck it up, talking over and otherwise ignoring the live music at hand. This did not sit well with our conductor.

It shouldn't have. Afterwards, in conversation, I told her that she had certainly gotten the point across. And that it was completely necessary to do it. Because, sadly, there are a lot of people who have difficulty paying attention to anything they aren't involved in directly themselves. From the kindergartners who are so fascinated by the sounds coming out of their own mouths that they refuse to shut up and get in line so we can go to recess (this I recall was a recurring problem throughout elementary school and typically led to short recess periods), to the young adults who are similarly fascinated by everything they themselves think and feel and say and are sometimes blind and deaf to the world around them which, if they gave it a chance, might turn out to be more interesting than they are (O no! What will that do to my ego?!).

All this is simply a trait of human beings. But it includes musicians as well, and not just their public. Even the people making the music often seem to have little appreciation for listening to it if it is being produced by others. This suggests that there is a failure to communicate (sorry, cool hand Luke).

If I seem a little cranky today, let me channel a man by the name of Camille Saint-Saens who wrote a list of things that he said constituted people "who do not love music." One of those even included those who enjoy listening to Bach's C Major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier with the added melody by 19th century French composer Charles Gounod on top. You may not know what I'm talking about, but you've heard it at weddings. Saint-Saens thought Bach knew what he was doing and that the original should be left alone.

By comparison, I don't think it is being nearly so doctrinaire that people who love music ought to pay attention to it when it is being made, and that those who stop noticing when they aren't providing the sound themselves are not lovers of music. And, of course, like every one of us, they could stand to work on their self-absorption.

These particular young men were just going through a natural part of being human, and needed a reminder that there are bigger things out there, and that even if there weren't, there is the much needed reflex of respect to work on.

For many educators, that is probably the main issue. This is a problem of manners, nothing more. But I think breeding curiosity and desire to understand the thing itself would also help matters. It is an uphill battle to try to take people out of themselves and listen. But it enriches immensely--you and everyone you know. It is like a reverse infection, with positive symptoms. Let's hope we all catch it someday.

There is a fortune all around you. It is tax-free, but not free of effort. And, unlike those little green slips of paper with the dead people with wigs on them, it is freely available (mostly). The downside is that there is joint ownership with everyone else, and if that ruins it for you, I'm sorry. If you choose not to experience it on that basis, there isn't more for everyone else. There is just enough: plenty. And room for everybody if you ever change your mind.

I can't really explain it. You just have to be there. It's amazing. And you are constantly invited.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Goes to Motive

Seven years after the rumor of Mozart's poisoning by Salieri had consumed Vienna, the news had made its way to Russia. In 1830 Alexander Pushkin wrote a short dramatic poem about it. He did no research, and his portrait of the two composers might owe more to an imaginative interpretation of the poet's relationship with his own critics (guess which one they were?) than to anything historical, but it did supply a couple of necessary ingredients in the making of "Amadeus."

One of these is a motive. In the poem, Salieri has to inform Mozart of his own talent. Hardly the "conceited brat" of the movie, Mozart innocently runs some of his music by his older rival, who, unable to contain himself, exclaims "what depth, what profundity!" Mozart seems not to get the point. "What, is it good?" he asks. "My God, Mozart" returns Salieri. "You don't deserve yourself!" More to the point, Mozart doesn't even recognize his own genius. Salieri alone knows it ("It's I who know!").

Given that Salieri was the more successful composer, lauded by all Vienna, favored by the emperor, and with a string of box office bonanzas to his credit not just in Vienna, but in Paris and Italy as well, one might wonder what could have motivated a man like that to want to kill a less successful rival. There was, after all, enough room on the operatic stage for both of their productions (one composer couldn't write more than an opera or two in a single year, and the needs of the public were enough to keep several in business). What Pushkin does is to answer that question, and to do it well enough that what might seem like a long-shot answer is no longer even questioned by the public today. Of course he did it because he alone knew that he wasn't the greatest composer and it was killing him! The rest of Vienna might have thought he, Salieri, was the greater, but he knew the real truth, and he couldn't stand it!

I'm reminded of an essay by Mark Twain ("What is Man?") in which he makes plain that it is the desire to secure one's own approval that takes precedence over everything else; that even when rescuing another person from drowning, it is not an act of altruism stemming from the desire to keep another from harm, but because one's own scheme of values, one's own inner conscience, requires it. In the end, says Twain, we are answerable first and last to our own inner psychological needs. Thus, it didn't matter what Vienna thought, it mattered what Salieri thought. 

Since the drama that unfolds is all in Salieri's mind, there isn't any need for historical evidence to back it up. And it has the genius of transferring the drama from out in the material world of things and events and into the theater of Salieri's own conscience, and, by extension, into ours.

Because all of us, as the movie will make clear, are Salieri. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

oh......Christmas tree!

Today's guest blogger is Rosamunda Erasmus Hammer, aka Rosie Cat.

Hello humans!

I get to make the blog today, and if my human would stop shifting around while I type this I could do a lot better job. Are you finished human? Good.

(I'm sitting on his lap.)

Some of you think I am a very cute feline, but I am also a fierce jungle lion. I don't look dangerous because I am small. If my last humans had fed me enough I would be really big and you would run away so I didn't eat you. But you would not be able to get away from me. Yum. I love to bite things. I bite all the things.

Christmas is my favorite time of the year. There are so many things to play with. I love the thought of the wrapping paper and the ribbons and the strings ooh and the boxes you humans put everything in. I shred the boxes with my sharp teeth. I can't wait until they put up the Nativity scene. I like to be King Herod and attack all the people. That's not in your version of the story but it is in mine. I'm fierce. I like to scratch things with my claws. I have great claws. They are better than Santa's claws. I've heard about them. They are not that great. He is big and moves slow. I could take him.

But the best part is having a tree in the house. Don't tell my humans. I will wait for them to sleep and then I will go to town on all the pretty little things hanging from the tree. I have to work out, you know? Keep up my fizeek.

I can't wait for Christmas this year. It will be so awesome. Just thinking about all the boxes makes me want to go attack something. Bye!
now it is later and I just saw a vidaoh where the humans put the tree inside a cage so the cats couldn't get it. That is not funny. Don't do that, humans.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Old Habits

A colleague and I were discussing what can happen when you go back to a piece you learned some time ago. If the acquisition of the piece happened when you were still gaining technical skill, you may find yourself having some of the same old problems that you had the first time you learned the piece. I recalled a piano concerto I had worked on during my freshman year at the conservatory. Having grown up in a small town and then entered the conservatory deficient in formal training, I made a lot of progress, particularly during my sophomore year. When I returned to the piece after a period of a year in order to play it for a competition I had a nasty surprise waiting for me. "Oh no!" I exclaimed. "My wrists were like bricks!"

In the meantime I had learned a much more fluid way to treat my entire playing mechanism. And that endured so long as I was playing anything for the first time. But returning to an old piece before the improvement was like opening a time capsule. My body reverted to all sorts of old habits.

This is presumably why musicians sometimes express regret at learning pieces of music too soon. It isn't impossible, in my experience, to unlearn all of those old habits, to update one's approach to an old piece, but it does take a lot of conscientious work.

This is also one of the many helpful things about having a good teacher. Besides teaching you technique in the first place, they are able not simply to curb the enthusiasm of young people who want to learn the most challenging pieces before they are able to play them, they can suggest synonyms--pieces that have some of the same challenges and hopefully the same attraction, and that will prepare the student to play the piece they (and every other young charge on the planet) want to play.

There is hope in the process. Any great piece of music is worth visiting time and again, putting away, returning to, playing it in recital and for friends, putting away again, returning to it years later. Over time we should have refined our approach, learned new things about interpretation and how to use our bodies most effectively for the musical presentation. As an organist I am more aware of this process than as a pianist, for my organistic journey is newer. Nonetheless, I am sharing the piece below, one of the fun pieces in the organ literature, which I first learned a year and a half ago, and recording about six months ago. I play it better now. I played it better a week or so after the recording! But it's not a bad start on a somewhat challenging piece, and having already played it in concert once and to conclude a couple of church services and for a lecture recital, I look forward to many more occasions to journey through time with this exciting piece of music. Enjoy!

Vierne, Louis. Final from Symphonie no. 1

Monday, December 3, 2018

Well that explains it!

It started with a rumor. Rumors tell us why, and give an event purpose. They also comport with what we think we know about the way things work.

  “Mozart is dead,” a Berlin newspaper wrote in December of 1791, less than a month after his death….”Because his body swelled up after death, some people think he was poisoned.”
Although his doctors later went on the record saying his symptoms matched the same disease that carried off any number of his fellow Viennese that same winter, Mozart couldn’t just die that way. After all, he was young, and a genius. You can’t just die of some random disease when you are a young genius, right?

Nobody seems to have been saying who did the poisoning at this point. At least, we have no written accusations. In fact, if there was any poisoning, one of the hundreds of theories about Mozart’s death suggests that he may have been doing it himself, taking frequent doses of medicine that, not uncommon to the 18th century, had some ingredients in it that were harmful, like mercury, for instance.

It wasn’t until 1823 that a suspect was connected with the crime, and this bit is rather sensational. Antonio Salieri, a ripe old 73 years old, and probably in only partial custody of his wits, tried to kill himself. This much is history. And the rumor that swirled around Vienna afterwards was that he had confessed to the crime of killing Mozart.

People who were with him tried to undo the damage, claiming, in a signed newspaper article, that they had been with Salieri the entire time, and that he never said any such thing. And there is the story that on Salieri’s deathbed he dismissed the whole thing as nonsense.

But it was an attractive rumor. Even Beethoven’s friends were talking about it. We know because in the conversation books of the then completely deaf composer are the written queries and responses of those friends, and these seem quite certain that Salieri is guilty of the crime. Since Beethoven could speak, we do not have records of his answers.

The rumor persisted. It was, after all, very useful. It explained why Mozart had not made more of an impact earlier in the musical world. Musicologists of the succeeding century, often a combative bunch, liked to take out their ire for the non-recognition of Mozart’s genius on the fickle Viennese public, giving themselves the sacred duty of righting a great wrong, and giving the great man a reputation and a career supposedly denied him in life.

The people, on the other hand, the same ones who in many cases had made some of this operas and instrumental pieces the 18th century equivalent of smash hits, or at least minor hits, needed a reason that all of this came to such a premature end.

Every story needs a good villain.

Salieri was a foreigner. His music was going out of style.  And his last name even begins with an S.
I mean, what else could you possibly need?