Friday, February 28, 2020

Winter Carnival continues

There is something to be said for a winter celebration. When the atmosphere is forbidding, we who have to live in it like to find ways to make it more bearable. That's what many of our holidays are really about. Winter carnival season fits perfectly into the month that I like the least. That may not be exactly why it's there, but it works for me.

Lent began on Wednesday for most of the Christian world. Somewhere in the distant past, the church decided to have a period of fasting and self-examination to prepare for Easter, a little fast before the feast, which is an important part of each year's psychic sculpting. We can't feast all the time, and having to do without for a while should make it all the sweeter when the feast finally arrives. That theory works for some people, but not for the party-all-the-time crowd, who, however, lacked the discipline necessary to get themselves into power and thus effect the rules very much. But probably due to their overwhelming numbers, they were still able to make some impression. When Lent was introduced, many people's first reactions must have been: oh dear, this sounds like it calls for too much self-discipline. When exactly does it start? Because up to the last possible minute before it takes effect I want to party my brains out! And thus Fat Tuesday was born. And people created pancakes so they would have something to eat on said festival day. Doesn't my little history sound authoritative?

I can understand the need to make things a bit more cheery during these cold and dark winter months. I have need of it myself. This year I found a couple of fun musical selections to take my mind off the month. Last week I shared with you some variations on Yankee Doodle. This week, I thought it would be interesting to take one of Antonin Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, originally written for piano duet and then orchestrated, and translate it again for organ. I was planning to play it as a duet by utilizing the playback system, but then I decided to just try my own on-the-fly arrangement of both parts, which mostly meant having the secondo part in front of me and playing the upper part from what I could remember.

It's my musical version of a winter carnival. Took my mind off the immediate circumstances. Had nothing at all to do with what music needed to be prepared for anything. A little boisterous for all that, actually. I'll be playing some nice, restrained Bach for church this weekend. But in the meantime, here I am having some fun with an  ad-hoc organ transcription. Enjoy!

Dvorak: Slavonic Dance in g minor, op. 46 no. 8

the last weekly edition from the infernal month of February is at right now!

Friday, February 21, 2020

Your February Musical Doodle

I may have mentioned a time or two that I have no great fondness for February, a month everyone else seems to enjoy greatly when they aren't complaining about the snow and the cold. In the popular estimation, January is the great villain, and lasts inordinately long, particularly when the Christmas tree is on the curb by the 26th of the previous month. I will, however, stick up for its successor as a legitimate claimant for the title of suckiest month, at the very least on the basis of inertia, which is what happens when one's defenses are all gone after three months of cold and dark and all of the good holidays have been squandered by a society in too much of a hurry to wait until we actually need them.

It can also make you grouchy.

In the past, I've survived the worst weeks of the year by finding something cheerful to occupy me. I will customarily by a box of kid's cereal each February, like Fruit Loops or Lucky Charms (I abstain the rest of the year). I also make a cheery pie or two.

Then there are musical pursuits, which can be charming in their own right. This year one thing led to another and I came across a set of variations by a living Italian woman named Carlotta Ferrari on the old American tune "Yankee Doodle." It's a doozy. She's a very prolific composer, and she likes to use various synthetic (newly created) scales to put the tune into different guises.

It just so happens that all of her music is available at the International Music Score Library Project, and it is under a Creative Commons License, which means I don't have to worry about getting sued for sharing her music with you. All I have to do is tell you who wrote it, and, as a bonus (which is technically not required of me), where you can find the music if you want to play it yourself.

I spent a couple of days learning and recording this piece, which did make a positive difference in my mood. I hope you have a sense of humor so that it can act positively on yours.

listen to   Carlotta Ferrari: Yankee Doodle Variations

Friday, February 14, 2020

It's not you, It's us

I may have been a little hard on Fred Chopin a couple of years ago. I shared a little waltz of his, which has since become a Valentine's Day staple around here, and suggested that he had written it in order to break up with his girlfriend--actually, to break off their engagement. It seemed better than a text message, but still.

I'm not sure now where I got the information that led me to that conclusion, but a Chopin biography I read more recently says that in fact Chopin very much wanted to marry the young woman, but her parents didn't think Chopin was marriage material, and they made her break it off. It was a distraught Chopin, then, that wrote that little waltz, not an irresponsible one.

When you are dealing with human motivations and behaviors you have to be careful. It is easy to deify persons of genius, and to think they can do no wrong. Scholars today general do not fall into that trap as they did in centuries past, and will often remind us, as Malcolm MacDonald did in his biography of Brahms, that regarding Brahms's emotional life "like most of us, he tended to make a mess of it." They are human, after all.

But it isn't all about individual choice, either. There are always powerful prejudices over which we have no control. One of them was that for centuries anytime a girl's parents saw a musician coming they presumed he was no good. Artists in general don't tend to swim in money, at least not their own. Some of our greatest have made piles of the stuff for subsequent generations: Mozart has spawned an entire industry and created who knows how many jobs by now, but it took awhile to take off: this was paying it forward two centuries before dot coms were not expected to turn a profit for a decade.

Chopin himself seems to have made a decent living by the end of his short life, mostly be selling his compositions (his unique brand of piano playing didn't fit the contemporary fad so his performing career was not very successful). That seems hard to believe given that there could not have been many who could actually play them, but it worked, apparently.

Still, in a capitalist economy, the people who create things can never really compete with the people who distribute them. Better to marry a merchant, a man of business. Or at least a musician who, like Clementi, went into business manufacturing piano so he could play them on the side.

Chopin spent most of his adult life in exile in Paris, away from his native Poland, and apparently without his early flame. The scholar who wrote the article for the New Grove dictionary thinks he barely even missed Poland, perhaps in order to counter  earlier writers' descriptions of an eternally homesick composer who turned out native dances as a source of ethnic pride and grief management.

The image of a composer seems to change with every generation. New evidence emerges, new writers see themselves or their era in their subject, reputations have to be made challenging the status quo, so that the more one reads the less sure one can be that they've gotten it right. And this is all before the era of fake news and bots.

But I'd like to apologize to Mr. Chopin. I think there is a very good chances that he was dealt with unjustly in this case. He may not always have been the easiest fellow to deal with, and his subsequent relationship with George Sand was stormy enough, but I'll let him and his frustrations rest in peace and not assume he had any more control over his destiny than most of us.

And in any case, he left us a very nice waltz.

see what I got you for Valentine's Day on

Friday, February 7, 2020

The not-so-great divorce

I just sent away for Quentin Faulkner's book "Wiser than Despair," a book whose existence I just discovered despite it being published some eight years ago. In it, the university professor will, as I understand it, share a number of observations, quotations, and thoughts about the church and the arts. I've been a sucker for books like that for at least a decade, because it seems rare that anybody would wish to discuss an amalgamation of the two areas.

The church and the arts seem to have parted ways three or four centuries ago, although even then they had a tenuous relationship. Now most serious artists practice their craft outside the walls of the church, frequently on a purely secular basis, even though art by definition asks the great questions of existence, which, according to some theologians, is exactly the point of religion. Only the church doesn't like the questions; it is more about giving the answers, and keeping people under control. Artists, like prophets, tend to get in the way of that. Experience with the arts can provoke strong emotional responses, which are frowned upon in many Sunday meetings, and cause one to think, which can also be a danger to an institution that often insists it has already done your homework for you.

Inside the church, there are arts with a small a. Music is generally allowed, although organists recognize that anything instrumental is often banished to before and after the service, while people are talking over our efforts. What is welcomed as a part of worship is mass participatory music, which has to be simple and repetitive, though sometimes a choir, still the subject of controversy because its anthems can be complicated, will be in the mix. The visual arts make minor appearances in only a few churches, and very occasionally even dance is allowed. But this is rare. And in any case, simplicity is the rule. It is probably just as well the Creator hid some of his stranger creatures thousands of miles under the sea--we don't seem to warm to the idea that diversity and complexity might actually be a part of the created order.

Hiding the arts from people may have been one of the wiser things the church did in terms of seeking mass popularity, which is clearly the aim here. Some of us will feel that a great deal has been lost in the process, but we would be in the minority.

The book should arrive in about a week. Most of its predecessors have, while interesting, not changed my life in any measurable way, but at least the authors have been interesting traveling companions. There have been sketches about Christian art, though eventually each has to admit that not much of it is practiced inside the walls of the church.

We are an interesting species. We have to have rituals, and a sense of predictable security. The arts tend to rouse us outside of that comfortable slumber. Occasionally we will respond positively--at a safe remove. The rest of the time it is the artists who had better be at a safe remove, like the mystics and the thinkers that the church has always found a place for behind the walls of their own institutions where they can't hurt anybody.

Still, they are there. I wonder how people can sleep at night.