It began with the railroads: The Europeans, by Orlando Figes

November 29, 2019 at 9:25 pm (Art, Book review, books, Music)

What began was the nineteenth century culture of worldly sophistication and high art described in this incredibly wide ranging volume. Along with the new  ease of rail travel, cultural cross currents began to flow with increasing speed and receptivity, to and from numerous nations of Western Europe. The countries specifically referenced are Italy, England, Germany, Russia – to my surprise – and France, always France, the epicenter of it all.

The book’s full title is The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture. Figes chooses to tell his story through the lives of singer and composer Pauline Viardot, her husband Louis, and their friend and close associate Ivan Turgenev. (The great Russian writer was, in fact, in love with Pauline Viardot throughout his life. To an extent, she returned his affections, but would never leave Louis, with whom she had four children.)

Pauline Viardot, 1821-1910

 

Louis Viardot 1800-1883

 

Ivan Turgenev, 1818-1883

*******************
I had gotten this far in composing this post before we left town for a few days. A recent photo in the  Washington Post served as a reminder that I hadn’t yet finished it:

Putin signing visitors’ book in Turgenev’s house

Ages ago, when I was trying to get more classics under my belt, I read Fathers and Sons and First Love. I recall especially being moved by the latter. In The Europeans, Orlando Figes tells us how Turgenev’s early writings in The Sportsman’s Sketches first secured his authorial fame. As with many out-of-copyright classics, various editions of this work are available for download on Amazon. I’ve read several of the stories and very much enjoyed them.

As it happens, copyright law, both within nations and international, is an important subject covered by Figes in his book. And as happens sometimes in books like this, it slows the narrative down to a crawl. It’s a case of an important subject that needs in depth coverage and one that at the same time isn’t – well, for want of a better word, sexy.

Still, all in all, this was a fascinating book, filled with illuminating facts about the flowering of high culture – art, music, and literature – throughout nineteenth century Europe. What fabulous gifts these people bequeathed to us!

 

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, by Judith Chernaik

February 4, 2019 at 10:00 pm (Book review, books, Music)

  As I write this, I am listening to Robert Schumann’s Romance for Oboe and Piano.

For about two weeks, I have been reading Judith Chernaik’s new biography of this great composer. Ron and I have been immersed in this wonderful music. In addition, I’ve been absorbed in the story of Schumann’s life. That life was a turbulent mixture of frustration, disappointment, elation, and deep love. And through all of it, glorious music, one piece following another, first almost exclusively for solo piano, then piano accompaniment for singers, then chamber groups and full orchestra.

Robert Schumann was born in 1810 in Zwickau, in the kingdom of Saxony, in Germany.

Robert Schumann’s birthplace, now the Robert Schumann House Museum. The author’s researches were greatly aided by the papers relating to Schumann collected and kept here.

Schumann’s exceptional musical talent having become evident early on, a teacher was found in Leipzig to take him in hand. This was the German pianist Friederich Wieck. Wieck believed that Schumann had ahead of him a great career as a concert pianist. Unfortunately, while experimenting with a device to strengthen his fingers, he injured himself irrevocably. He could still play, but his opportunity to ascend to the concert stage was gone.

(Although Chernaik includes this story in her book, there are those who believe that the problem with Schumann’s hand may have had another cause. Click here for more on this article from the WQXR blog.)

Despite this setback, Schumann continued his studies with Wieck, concentrating more now on composing. Wieck had a daughter Clara who was an extremely talented musician. She began giving concerts while she was still a child. As she entered adolescence, her gifts became even more pronounced. She and Schumann were inevitably thrown together on frequent occasions. He was nine years her senior.

Clara  was not only prodigiously gifted but remarkably independent. She was her own person, free from the usual restraints suffered by young girls. She was already acclaimed as an artist; she moved in sophisticated circles in Paris and Vienna. As a child, she was passionate and willful, with a wild temper and strong opinions.

Clara and Schumann fell in love. When Clara turned sixteen, they informed her father of their wish to be married. To their shock and dismay, he opposed the idea. In fact, he flat out forbade the union. Clara was a minor; despite her vaunted independence, she could not marry without her father’s consent. For four years he did everything he could to place obstacles in the way of their plans. (Meanwhile, at her father’s behest, Clara was giving concerts all over Europe, all the while earning good money.) Ultimately, Robert and Clara had to go to court and sue for the right to marry. This they did, finally becoming husband and wife on September 12, 1840.

It should be noted that while all this was  going on, both Robert and Clara were making strides creatively. She was constantly concertizing as well as  composing; he was composing as well as writing for and editing the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik (The New Journal for Music) which he had founded in 1834.

The first half of the biography is taken up with this crisis and its felicitous albeit hard won resolution. Incurable romantic  that I am, I was so outraged by Friedrich Wieck’s obstinacy and cruelty that I could barely contain myself. When the couple were finally wed, I cheered out loud!

Robert and Clara Schumann, 1847

As a married couple, Robert and Clara continued their relentless work of giving concerts, composing music, writing and reviewing the works of other composers, and having musical evenings in their home. Add to that the children: they just kept coming;

Six of the Schumann offspring; a seventh, older daughter Julie, was living with Clara’s mother at the time this photograph was taken. An eighth, Emil, died at sixteen months in 1847.

Clara was the more famous of the two during their lifetimes, but Robert had many advocates in the musical community. Among them were his close friend Felix Mendelssohn and the fiery pianist and composer Franz Liszt. But his greatest champion was Clara.

Plagued by ill health all his life, Schumann was at length placed in Endenich Asylum near the city of Bonn. One of his chief consolations at that time was to go into Bonn (accompanied by an attendant) and stare up at the statue of the city’s most famous son, Ludwig van Beethoven. After two excruciating years at Endenich, Robert Schumann died. The year was 1956; he was 46 years old.

Clara received constant support from other musicians during this extremely stressful time. One was the gifted young violinist Joseph Joachim. The other was a youth of whom great things were expected. His name was Johannes Brahms.

Johannes Brahms, age 20

The exact nature of the relationship between Clara and Brahms has been an  endless subject of speculation down through the years. One thing is certain: they both worked tirelessly to keep Schumann’s music before the public and to win for him the recognition he deserved. In 1877, Clara signed a contract with  publisher for a thirty-one part edition of Robert Schumann’s Collected Works. Brahms was a great help to her in this endeavor. The resulting volumes have been reprinted on numerous occasions. And Judith Chernaik divulges this welcome news:

A new scholarly multi-volume Urtext edition of the collected works, collating all the early publications, Schumann’s autograph scores, and manuscript drafts is close to completion.

Chernaik concludes with this statement:

The works contained in these volumes are Schumann’s enduring gift to the world.

Here is a large helping of that gift:

 

 

The lovely Traumerei was one of Vladimir Horowitz’s favorite encore pieces. I love the shots of the audience in this video; they are so deeply moved.

 

Schumann’s mighty Second Symphony. The sadness of the third movement is heartrending, yet the finale blazes forth in triumph! (Ron and I both have a special love for this work.)

 

Paradise and the Peri is a little known work of Schumann’s, technically termed a secular oratorio. I love  these few minutes of it:

 

Finally, the Piano Concerto in A minor.  As with all of his piano music, Schumann composed this with Clara in mind. Judith Chernaik says of this piece:

It remains to this day a joyful expression of love between a supremely gifted composer and an artist of the first rank, delighting listeners at the time and ever since.

This was among a handful of works that, many years ago. first taught me to love classical music:

 

 

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

Despite glimpses of green….

January 21, 2019 at 3:05 pm (Art, Music)

Despite glimpses of green, despite the promise of sun ( though harsh and greatly weakened) soon to come, we are in the deep midwinter:

Music by Gustav Holst, to a poem by Christina G Rosetti.

The bleak midwinter calls forth a need for visions of beauty filled with color. Here are two:

Paradise Garden, Upper Rhenish Master, ca 1410-1420

 

Virgin Among Virgins, in a Rose Garden, Master of the Legend of St. Lucy, , ca 1475-1480

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

Holiday Wishes, 2018

December 24, 2018 at 8:48 pm (Art, Christmas, Family, Music)

My best holiday wishes to everyone.

I am deeply blessed and fortunate, and I wish the same for every one of you!

 

 

Wilton Diptych, left panel. Artist unknown

Wilton Diptych, Right panel. Artist unknown

 

Annunciation. Fra Angelico

 

Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo Da Vinci

 

The Alba Madonna. Raphael

*******************************

FAMILY!!

My Aunt Patsy and Uncle Hal, enjoying life to the fullest, and always generously sharing that joy with friends and family. Forever in our hearts…

 

My parents, Lillian and Samuel ‘Ted’ Tedlow at the opera in Bayreuth, Germany. They exemplified class, elegance, and sophistication. I miss them.

Daughter-in-law Erica and Son Ben – Beautiful people in every way

 

Etta and Welles, growing by leaps and bounds, my love for them growing at the same dizzying speed

 

My husband Ron. His love, kindness, and companionship make my life worth living.

*******************

Le Paradis, by Henri Maik

 

Permalink 3 Comments

Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance, by Wendy Lesser

December 18, 2018 at 2:10 pm (Ballet, Book review, books, Music)

  This brief biography was a pleasure to read. There is so much more to Jerome Robbins than West Side Story – although just that one stupendous achievement in and of itself would have sufficed.

West Side Story was the second Broadway show I ever saw. I had the privilege of attending a performance featuring the original cast. I remember sitting in the audience at the end, tears streaming. I was fourteen years old and had no idea how lucky I’d been to see what I had just seen. (My first Broadway show was Damn Yankees, also with the original cast.)

I was also familiar with Fancy Free, Robbins’s first staged work. It’s a ballet about three sailors on shore leave basically looking for some action. (Robbins danced  the role of one of them.) He had been watching young men like these as they breezed through Manhattan while on shore leave. It was 1944 and there was a war on, so they were looking to pack as much fun into their lives in a short time as they possibly could.

This is the only video of the complete ballet that I could locate on YouTube. The quality is not great, but it’s more than enough to show the sheer wonderfulness of Fancy Free:

This video with Tyler Angle and Tiler Peck, both principal dancers at the New York City Ballet, is shorter but worth watching, for the rehearsal footage and for Tyler Angle’s commentary:

The music for Fancy Free was written by Leonard Bernstein, at Jerome Robbins’s specific request. It was the beginning of a collaboration that culminated, years later, with West Side Story. The task was never easy – these were two enormously gifted men with egos to match. But the results – what a gift to the rest of us!

Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins was a choreographer, dancer, and script doctor. His work, in one or more of those capacities, can  be seen in some of the most popular shows ever seen on Broadway: The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, and West Side Story, to name a few. But being as I’ve become such a balletomane of late, it was the ballets which I found especially fascinating.

And it was his work in ballet choreography that brought him into the orbit of probably the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century: George Balanchine.

Along with Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine founded the the New York City Ballet in 1948. From that year, Balanchine was the artistic director/ballet master – the soul of the company, really – up until his death in 1983.

Jerome Robbins made a number of works for the New York City Ballet. Unavoidably, there was an element of rivalry in his relationship with Balanchine. But it was the public and the news media that reflected a certain attitude toward the place in the pantheon properly occupied by these two artists. Wendy Lesser puts it this way:

Precisely the things that made him [Robbins] unique as a choreographer- the modern, folk, and even street-style gestures that he added to his ballets; the function of plot and character in his works; the presence of humor and gentle self-mockery in his dances; even the fact that his women were not elongated, rarefied, unattainable muses, but strong, feisty dancers equivalent to the men- defined him as a second-rater.

It should be noted that Robbins’s admiration for Balanchine was boundless. He did not like to think of himself as a competitor. The two men managed to stay on cordial terms throughout their long association. Each had brilliant careers and were duly recognized for their achievements. And I personally do not think that at this time, Jerome Robbins is classified as a ‘second-rater’ by anyone knowledgeable in the history of twentieth century dance.

The life of Jerome Robbins had its turbulent aspects, especially as regards Robbins’s sexual ambivalence and his uneasy relationship with Judaism, the faith into which he was born. Wendy Lesser deals with these issues in a clear  and balanced way. She also alludes to Robbins’s strong feelings for Tanaquil Le Clercq, the brilliant and beautiful dancer who, in 1952, became George Balanchine’s fourth wife.

The tragedy of Tanaquil LeClercq is surely one of  the saddest stories in all the performing arts. ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now…’

I did plenty of running to YouTube in the course of my reading of this book. Here are some of the better videos that I found:

 

 

Suite of Dances was originally written by Jerome Robbins for Mikhail Barychnikov.

 

 

Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance is part of a series put out by Yale University Press called Jewish Lives.

I highly recommend the film Jerome Robbins: Something To Dance About. It’s part of the American Masters series made by PBS; the local library has the DVD.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The sweetest music

November 7, 2018 at 10:17 pm (Music)

In my youth, I became a great fan of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and sometimes (Neil) Young. I still enjoy their music.

Recently I came upon this YouTube video of a concert they gave in 2014. They’re singing “Our House,” a song that is much beloved by their fans. Anyway, it’s obvious almost from the start that as he sits at the keyboard, Graham Nash is being distracted by something. At about 1:55, you find out what – or rather, who – that distraction is:

To see this veteran rocker, white haired, still handsome, and still possessing a pleasant singing voice, so obviously enchanted by this little child, his granddaughter – well, to me it was a thing of beauty.

Permalink 1 Comment

Grandchildren, and the endless curve of learning and loving

September 16, 2018 at 4:13 pm (Family, Film and television, Music)

On a recent visit to my son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, the children introduced me to a movie called Song of the Sea. I’m not normally a fan of animated films, but this one, made in Ireland, had a charm and a mystique that was oddly appealing.

One of the characters in Song of the Sea is a Selkie (variant spelling is Silkie). The Selkie legends, a component of Scottish folklore, have come down to us from Orkney and Shetland. It posits the existence of beings who are seals in the sea and, by shedding their skins, become humans on dry land.

I was reminded of the song sung by Joan Baez, The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry. The version she sang was drawn from Francis James Child’s landmark collection of English and Scottish folk songs, a multi-volume work published in the late 1880s.    The song relates the havoc and heartbreak wrought by a male Selkie during his sojourn upon the land. Song of the Sea, however, ends on a happier note, as you wish stories to do that are told to children.

I cherish this version of the song by the Unthanks, with Julie Fowlis singing in Scots Gaelic.

Anyway – back to the grandchildren: Here they are, going back to school, earlier this month:

Etta, age 7, and Welles, age 4

And Welles turns FIVE today. Happy Birthday, Welles!!

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

Frédéric Chopin and Krystian Zimerman

June 15, 2018 at 8:04 pm (Music)

Many of us who studied the piano in our youth played certain compositions by Frédéric Chopin. I remember in particular learning the nocturnes and some of the waltzes. I was never very proficient, but I fell in love with the music. That love has stayed with me throughout my life.

Recently I found this YouTube video of Krystian Zimerman playing  Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Opus 23. This performance must have taken place quite a few years ago as Zimerman is now in his early sixties. The room in which he’s playing is lovely yet bare. I can’t tell if this was a public performance or not.

In fact, the only thing I can tell for sure is that it is beyond beautiful. Everything that makes Chopin’s piano music great – the drama, the melody, the poignancy – is here. It is almost as if Zimerman is channeling Chopin; he is so utterly lost in the music. The composer comes alive in the fiery, passionate playing of this young virtuoso. (And doesn’t he so look the part?)

 

Chopin was a native of Poland, as is Krystian Zimerman .

Frédéric Chopin 1810-1849

 

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

Sleeping in the Ground by Peter Robinson

April 4, 2018 at 7:22 pm (Book review, books, Music, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  One of the aspects of Peter Robinson‘s Alan Banks novels that I most enjoy is Banks’s love of music. It’s an extremely eclectic affection – everything from rock to classical. In Sleeping in the Ground, I was especially pleased to encounter not one but two references to Gustav Mahler, a composer for whom my husband and I have a deep and abiding love. Banks mentions that Mahler wanted to hear Schubert’s Quintet in C as he lay on his deathbed. When you hear the Adagio from this work, you will understand this request:

Sleeping in the Ground begins with a horrendous act of violence, followed by an extremely tortuous investigation. Because of the nature of this particular crime, one is all the more appreciative of Banks’s dogged persistence, not to mention his shrewd instincts, honed by his many years on the job. He is a person of deep conviction and steadfast determination.

He is also a reserved and somewhat lonely man, divorced and the father of two adult children who have pretty much gone their own way and check in with him from time to time. Banks’s ex-wife has remarried; he has not. He’s had a few relationships, but none that have lasted. In this novel his old flame Jenny Fuller, psychologist and criminal profiler, re-enters his life, both professionally and personally. She’s been living in Australia, but now she’s back to stay. What will this mean, for the two of them?

After dinner together in the snug of a local pub, they’re still not sure. While not ruling out a renewal of their romance, Jenny nonetheless favors a go slow approach.

Banks didn’t know where his next thought came from, and he had  the good sense and quick enough wits to stop before he spoke it out aloud, but as he leaned back and reached for his beer glass, it flashed through his mind, as clear as anything: I don’t want to grow old alone.

Straight-up, unpretentious writing about straight-up unpretentious people – it’s one of the qualities I most appreciate in Peter Robinson’s wonderful long running series of procedurals.

Peter Robinson

Permalink 2 Comments

Giorgio Vasari and Michelangelo Buonarroti

February 18, 2018 at 1:45 pm (Art, Italy, Music)

  I feel as though The Collector of Lives were written just for me. Admittedly, it is a rather specialized narrative, concentrating as it does on the work of the great Giorgio Vasari and the Italian painters of the Renaissance whom he celebrates in his magnum opus, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. (‘Excellent’ is sometimes rendered as ‘Eminent.’)

Amazingly, there were those who practiced more than one of these arts – in some cases, with a varying degree of proficiency, all three. Vasari himself was proficient both as a painter and an architect; it was he who designed the Uffizi, now Florence’s preeminent art museum. Add to which, of course, he was an extremely skilled writer. By means of this one book,  he legitimized art history as a field of study. He was helped in this endeavor by  he fact that he knew personally a good number of the artists whose lives and works he describes in such a lively and engaging manner.

(Vasari’s book is sometimes referred to simply as The Lives. You will see it occasionally called in Italian  Vite – pronounced ‘veetay.’)

The cover of The Collector of Lives features a detail from St. Luke Painting the Virgin by Vasari; it dates from about 1565. My copy of Vasari’s book has the same work on its cover:   Here is the actual painting:

I often see comments to the effect that while Vasari achieved greatness through his writing, he was not quite great as a painter. I find this airy dismissal rather unwarranted. True, in his era he was up against some incredibly gifted artists; nevertheless, I find his own work singularly compelling.

Vasari’s own hero in the arts was unquestionably Michelangelo. Many of us are familiar with Michelangelo’s most famous creations, but I think, especially in this age of anguish in which we now seem to dwell, it might do us good to look at them again:

The Sistine Chapel

 

1508-1512

 

1537-1541

 

1508-1512

 

1498-1499

It would be impossible for any craftsman or sculptor no matter how brilliant ever to surpass the grace or design of this work or try to cut and polish the marble with the skill that Michelangelo displayed. For the Pietà was a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture. Among the many beautiful features (including the inspired draperies) this is notably demonstrated by the body of Christ itself. It would be impossible to find a body showing greater mastery of art and possessing more beautiful members, or a nude with more detail in the muscles, veins, and nerves stretched over their framework of bones, or a more deathly corpse. The lovely expression of the head, the harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the fine tracery of pulses and veins are all so wonderful that it staggers belief that the hand of an artist could have executed this inspired and admirable work so perfectly and in so short a time. It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists

 

1501-1504

The legs are skilfully outlined, the slender flanks are beautifully shaped and the limbs are joined faultlessly to the trunk. The grace of this figure and the serenity of its pose have never been surpassed, nor have the feet, the hands, and the head, whose harmonious proportions and loveliness are in keeping with the rest. To be sure, anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by any other sculptor, living or dead.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists

I only found out recently that Michelangelo was also a poet:

“When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel” (1509)

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

Just in case you thought painting that ceiling was in any way an easy undertaking….

Michelangelo also wrote poems of a more lyrical nature, such as this one in praise of the author of The Divine Comedy:

DANTE

What should be said of him cannot be said;
By too great splendor is his name attended;
To blame is easier than those who him offended,
Than reach the faintest glory round him shed.
This man descended to the doomed and dead
For our instruction; then to God ascended;
Heaven opened wide to him its portals splendid,
Who from his country’s, closed against him, fled.
Ungrateful land! To its own prejudice
Nurse of his fortunes; and this showeth well
That the most perfect most of grief shall see.
Among a thousand proofs let one suffice,
That as his exile hath no parallel,
Ne’er walked the earth a greater man than he.
Translated into English by H.W. Longfellow (1807-1882).

More poetry by Michelangelo can be found at the Michelangelo Gallery.

In The Collector of Lives, Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney offer this assessment:

There are many bones one can pick with Vasari, but he makes a persuasive argument for his candidate as the “greatest” artist in history. To this day, Michelangelo Buonarroti seems a reasonable choice as Giorgio’s ultimate hero.

There are many other genius artists of the Italian Renaissance whom Vasari admired and wrote about. I’ll return to these in a later post.

A hundred years after Michelangelo, Gregorio Allegri composed the Miserere Mei, Deus expressly to be sung in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. Here, it is performed by the King’s College Choir in their magnificent Chapel.

British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has made a two part film about Giorgio Vasari:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

Next page »