In the Wind. . . .

August 14, 2015

Total Makeovers

In the March 3, 2005, issue of the Lincoln County News (our local weekly paper in Newcastle, Maine), under the headline, “Family puts real in reality TV,” we read that Del and Fran Pelletier’s granddaughter Christina appeared on the ABC television program, Total Makeover. Del said, “She’s 26 and we were happy with the way she looked as she was, but she did have my ears that kind of stuck out from her head through her hair, and she had a trifle too long nose.” (Ouch!) When the show was over, Fran said, “She was stunning . . . I thought she looked very much like a young Jackie Kennedy.” (Apparently Del was no longer available for comment.)



Today we revere the music of Johann Sebastian Bach as an essential cornerstone for all that followed. But while he was at the pinnacle of his creative career, the world of music had moved on. Franz Joseph Haydn was eighteen years old, roaring away at the start of his prolific career when Bach died in 1750, and even Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach (born 1714), fifth child of the great Johann, was helping to blaze the trails that would leave his father’s work in the dust, stylistically. There are lots of legends about J. S. Bach’s manuscripts being used to wrap fish and the like, and I freely admit that I am not up to date on the scholarship about how all that actually happened. But it’s clear that Felix Mendelssohn had an important part in reviving interest in Bach’s music, some seventy-five years after his death. I remember reading a quote from a letter Felix wrote (was it to his sister Fanny?) in which he described practicing Bach’s music on the organ for hour after hour, and then walking the streets in the figures of pedal passages, a recipe for a citation for jaywalking in today’s world.

James Hewitt (1770–1827) was born in Dartmoor, England, and arrived in New York City around 1792. By 1805 he was working part time in Boston and shuttling back and forth between those two cities, in the days before the expensive and frustrating Delta Shuttle. He wrote a keyboard sonata called The Battle of Trenton, which depicts General George Washington mustering his troops, crossing the Delaware River during the night of Christmas, 1776, attacking and defeating the British. The popular tune Yankee Doodle figures prominently, and there’s a raucous celebration following the victory.

The tunes are simple, and the harmonies seem childish, as the musical language of America during the Revolutionary Era was far behind that of Europe. It’s interesting to note that Hewitt and Beethoven had exactly the same life span, and around 1805 when Hewitt wrote The Battle of Trenton, Beethoven was in the heart of his “Middle Period,” during which he churned out such tuneful ditties as his Symphonies 3–8 and the “Waldstein,” “Appassionata,” and “Hammerklavier” sonatas.

Harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick revived The Battle of Trenton in the 1940s, and E. Power Biggs famously recorded it on the organ in 1960, with his distinctive voice narrating the subtitles. I loved playing that piece on my childhood recitals, and put the subtitles before the audiences using Magic Markers and poster board.


Getting to know you . . .

A year or two ago, Wendy and I saw the revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes on Broadway. It was a lot of fun with lighthearted music and some goofy gangster stuff. But recently, Wendy and a friend saw the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. She had seen it years ago, loving as we all do the sing-song parts of it. “Shall we dance? Ba-dum bum bum . . . ” This time, she reported how the production brought out the dark side of the story—the personal tensions, the racism, and imperialism that must have been glossed over before.

Revisiting another Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece, Oklahoma, we see more into the depth of class warfare between farmers and cowhands, and the angry, brooding Judd Fry has all the makings of a mass-murderer.


The King of Ragtime

We woke up this morning to the news of the death of Gunther Schuller—tireless educator, conductor, and composer. As a young man, he was a precocious French horn player, playing under Arturo Toscanini as a teenager, joining the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the age of nineteen, and moving on after two years to join the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera.

In 1963, Aaron Copland invited Schuller to teach at the Berkshire Music Center (now Tanglewood), where he served as artistic director from 1969 to 1984. He published more than 180 compositions, one of which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and he was an innovator, introducing the concept of serious study of jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he served as president for about ten years. Besides all that, Gunther Schuller was part of a snazzy revival that had a real impact on the musical life of this country in the last decades of the twentieth century.

J. S. Bach left us more than a thousand pieces of music, those that were left after wrapping the fish. Scott Joplin’s oeuvre comprises forty-four “Rags,” one ballet, and two operas—a miniscule body of work—but it’s hard to imagine the course of American music without it. His was a unique style—a new invention—purely American music. Joplin’s ragtime dances were the forerunner of “Stride Piano,” as developed by Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and others. Composer/scholars William Bolcom and William Albright were aware of Joplin’s music in the 1960s, and with their urging Joshua Rifkin released the recording Scott Joplin: Piano Rags on Nonesuch Records in 1970. It sold 100,000 copies in the first year and ultimately was the first million-seller in the Nonesuch catalogue.

In 1973, Gunther Schuller formed the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble and released The Red Back Book on Angel Records. Schuller’s engaging arrangements of Joplin’s music for small instrumental ensemble took the music world by storm, and the recording was awarded a Grammy for “Best Chamber Music Performance.” Because of previous engagements, Schuller was not able to answer film producer George Roy Hill’s invitation to write the musical score for his new movie. Marvin Hamlisch answered the call, and with the strong inspiration of The Red Back Book, the score for The Sting (starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, released in 1973) continued the nearly manic revitalization and immortalization of Joplin’s wonderful music. Joplin’s greatest hit, “The Entertainer,” is still popularly known as “The Sting.”

I especially love the scene in which Lieutenant Snyder of the Joliet Police Department chases “Hooker” (Robert Redford) and loses him as “Hooker” leaps off the roof of an “El” station, and runs off into the distance. Snyder hollers after him in a Cagney-esque snarl, “Hooker, I’ll get you, Hooker,” as the orchestra sweeps into Joplin’s “Cascades.” Wonderful.

Hamlisch had specifically taken inspiration from Rifkin’s piano style and Schuller’s orchestrations. When Hamlisch won the Academy Award for Best Original Song Score and Adaptation, Schuller harrumphed that Hamlisch “got the Oscar for the music he didn’t write, arrangements he didn’t write, and ‘editions’ he didn’t make. A lot of people were upset by that, but that’s show biz!”

Later in 1973, E. Power Biggs Plays Scott Joplin on the Pedal Harpsichord was released by Columbia Records. The jacket photo showed Biggsy in a snappy striped double-breasted suit with an enormous bow tie, holding a straw hat against his chest, with an old-time steamboat in the background. This was late in Biggs’s career—he died in 1977—and it was a pretty cool project for a stuffy old Englishman, out in the noonday sun. The harpsichord he used (I believe he owned it personally) was a clattering, jangly affair, like a herd of banjoes, but I’ve got to give the guy credit as a hot-shot!

I was in high school when all this was going on, and I loved that music. I bought the big white book with the green maple leaf on the cover, and before I was done, learned all the rags. And when I was a freshman at Oberlin, my teacher, Haskell Thomson, surprised his organ class with a leisurely, sensitive rendition of “The Entertainer,” played on the Steinway in his studio. 


Take a fresh look.

In recent years we’ve witnessed a number of literary makeovers. New translations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and the plays of Socrates have shed fresh light and understanding on those landmarks of the history of literature. Those huge efforts are analogous to the revitalization of the performance of early music. Pioneers like Ralph Kirkpatrick, Igor Kipnis, and Wanda Landowska were followed by the wave of brilliant harpsichord makers such as William Dowd and Frank Hubbard. Gustav Leonhardt was an early champion of the revival of the harpsichord and of thoughtful performances of orchestral and choral music of the Baroque era. Nikolaus Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner joined the ranks of conductors and impresarios who accomplished huge recording projects, enlightening us all through the second half of the twentieth century. Imagine, recording the complete cantatas of Bach. Like the Stephen Mitchell translation of The Iliad (2011), live and recorded performances of Bach by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt using period instruments gave us a new lens through which to study, appreciate, and understand that music.

Pioneers like E. Power Biggs, Marie-Claire Alain, Bernard Lagacé, and Harald Vogel led the charge to crack the code of sensitive performance of the “Golden Age of the Organ.” As in the world of the harpsichord, a veritable platoon of young organbuilders set to work in the 1960s. Charles Fisk, Fritz Noack, Karl Wilhelm, Hellmuth Wolff, John Brombaugh, John Boody, George Taylor, and many others dedicated their lives to producing hundreds of marvelous instruments inspired by the work of the masters of earlier times. 

They traveled Europe with calipers and tape measures, measuring scales, pipe mouth cut-ups, metal thickness and composition, wind pressures, windways, and toe holes. They analyzed tuning systems, wind systems, and mechanical actions, all the time wondering how the minutia affected the sound of the music as played by the original composers and performers.

Now, fifty-five years later, many of them have passed away or retired, but their disciples are still at it. And while at its height the “Revival of Classic Organ Building” seemed like a zealous rush to many, the importance of that movement is only now starting to be really understood. The huge concerted effort that allowed renewal of understanding of ancient practices, principles, and philosophies made possible the subsequent renewal of interest and understanding of those organs that the original revivalists allegedly disdained. 

Just as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus Wien took on Mozart and Beethoven, bringing the same vitality of interpretation to music of later centuries, organbuilders turned their newly acquired scholarship skills to the work of innovative builders like Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, Henry Willis, and Ernest Skinner. We at the Organ Clearing House can remember the moment when first it seemed appropriate to list an organ by Skinner as a viable, exciting available organ.


Say it as if you understand it.

Organists and organbuilders are necessarily steeped in history. We play the music of the ancients, and we revel in the sounds of the instruments built dozens of generations ago. We have focused on the relationships between the music and the instruments of earlier times, but I think we fall short of connecting that music to the wider world that surrounded it.

A few weeks ago, Wendy and I attended a reading of Socrates’ play Antigone at Joe’s Pub, a venue in the Public Theater, which is around the corner from our home in New York. It’s a casual, cabaret-style place with good drinks and table service—a great place for a live performance. Antigone was presented by a line-up of actors in casual dress, sitting on stools with microphones. One of them had adapted the play and “freshened” the language, and the reading gave us a great view of Socrates’ intentions. It was a tale of love and betrayal, intrigue, jealousy, anger, disappointment, and regret—all the ingredients of the human condition that make the world go around.

Have you ever sat through a play by Shakespeare, wishing you were smart enough to understand it? (Come on, admit it.) When you get lucky and find actors who want to share the story, rather than show off their haughty accents, you realize that Shakespeare was as much a forerunner of Sigmund Freud as of Arthur Miller or Tony Kushner. Goodness, how the Bard understood human relations and feelings.

If you are a regular reader here, you know that I love the myriad novels about the British Navy during the Napoleonic War, particularly the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, and the Hornblower series by C. S. Forrester. When they were first recommended to me, I picked one up and was put off by the old-fashioned, melodramatic language. But then I bought Master and Commander as an audio book read by Patrick Tull (back in the days of cassette tapes), I instantly got the gist of the colloquialisms and fell in love with the stories and the storytelling.


It’s fun to look back on the half-century movement of historically informed performances and boil it all down to a fresh look. Like Homer, Socrates, and Shakespeare, our beloved Bruhns, Buxtehude, and Bach were expressing themselves in the language of their times. Compare the congregant’s experience hearing a new Bach cantata on a sunny Sunday in 1741 with modern moviegoers thronging to the opening of the latest offering from Hollywood. All are excited about seeing and hearing the latest thing out there, and rewarded by exposure to the thoughtfulness of the storytelling. (Of course, I realize that there are a lot of movies out there that are not about storytelling!)

There’s a controversial restoration underway at the cathedral in Chartres, France, in which the interior is being cleaned so it will look as it did when it was new—in the twelfth century! Peeling away nine hundred years of grime, lichen, and soot reveals gleaming white stones. A lot of people are horrified by it, but it’s a fascinating concept. I remember having the same revelation when restoring an organ built by E. & G. G. Hook in 1868. I acquired some original miscellaneous and orphaned Hook Bourdon pipes, and sawed up the wood to make new trackers. Amazing—the freshly sawn 125-year-old wood was snowy white. I realized that when the organ was new, its interior was the same bright white wood, not the dark, aged look that we’re all used to.

Peel away centuries of interpretation and misunderstanding from a Shakespeare play and tell it like it is. And peel away centuries of innovations of musical instruments, and the influence of subsequent generations of composers, and hear the music of Bach as he did.

And here’s the special treat. Once you’ve done that, you know that much more about the heart of the music, and if you prefer to “soup it up” with expression shutters, soloing out melodies, and gradual crescendos, have a blast. After all, you’re the artist. Just be sure you’re telling the true story.