Magnificent Choices

Fellow blogger BigMikeHouston of Classical Music with Big Mike ( wrote this week about the singificant differences a conductor’s interpretation can make on how the music sounds. He’s absolutely right. And his observation gave me the idea of talking about the Period Instruments Movement, derided in some circles as being too egg-headed. Let’s see if I can make the case that period instruments and contextual interpretation can improve the music. And since we are still on Bach, this short entry gives me a perfect opportinity to look at yet another of my favorite Bach works: The Magnificat. No need to watch all of these vidoes, the first five minutes or so of each will be enough.

Let’s set a baseline, and this performance under the baton of Herbert von Karajan will do nicely. To my eyes, this is likely a late 70s performance (he did record the Magnificat in 1979 with the Berliner Philharmonic, but I can’t tell if this is a video of that recording or not). Regardless, this video presents one of the best, if not the best, conductor of the mid-20th century leading what was (and remains) one of the five best orchestras in the world, all playing on modern instruments and sounding very much like a work composed in the mid-Romantic period.

J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major

This next video presents one of my favorite conductors, Emmanuelle Haïm leading the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. This is better, bringing in a historically-inforrmed chorus, but paired with modern instruments. True to form, Haïm’s interpreation is spot on. Her Magnificat is taken a much better tempo and the singing is truly magnificent.

J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major

Moving on, let’s listen to Nikolaus Harnocurt, one of the high priests of the movement for period insturments, leading the Concentus Musicus ViennaWein and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. Listen the difference that, in particular, the period-appropriate brass makes to the opening. That said, this performance is taken at far too slow at tempo and, to my eyes, the strings are modern–I think I can spy some tuning pegs behind the bridges on the violins and the bows also appear to be modern.

J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major

Finally, we have a more recent recording of the Netherlands Bach Society under Van Veldoven. This, in my view, is the real McCoy. Period insturments down to those great Baroque bows, historically-informed singing, and a proper (fast) Baroque tempo. And recording this in a church certainly helps–Bach would have considered church acoustics when considering the harmony. This is the one to listen to in its entirety–absolutely thrilling.

Going back to Berg’s maxim, which I quoted in the very first entry in this blog–“music is music”. There are no wrong choices. Miles Davis stopped his sextet from rehearsing at some point, declaring that there is no such thing as a mistake, just an opportunity to explore other choices. And that’s fair. But for me, personally, I don’t Bach to sound like Mahler; Mahler is much better at that. And for that same reason, I don’t want Beethoven or Mozart to sound like Mahler either. That’s why I am drawn to historically informed performances. Communicating through music, across time and space, is a sufficiently difficult task without distrorting the artistic choices taken by composers hundreds of years ago. All four performances are beautiful, but I hear Bach most clearly in the performance by the Netherlands Bach Society. And for me, that’s what matters.

Music History, by Guitar

Classical guitarists get comparitively little consideration and wrongfully so. We will have much to say about the classical guitar, particularly when we get to Benjamin Britten much further down the line. Compared with rock gods and jazz freaks, classical guitarists operate in a world where they are largely shunned by classical audiences and ignored by fans of other genres.

Not so here. Like the piano, the guitar is a wonderful instrument to convey the development of harmony across the centuries, tracing how the harmonic line evolved vertically through to the late Baroque period, rich as it was in counterpoint. Sean Shibe’s recordings present a wonderful chronicle of these developments and present, pardon the pun, a counterpoint to the lengthy written description here.

Let’s start with Shibe’s 2017 album “Dreams and Fancies”, on which Shibe presents a history of the English School, contrasting John Dowland (Renaissance) with more modern composers such as William Walton, Benjamin Britten, Malcom Arnold, and Lennox Berkeley.

I’d advise listening to the Dowland works, especially Praeludium, and then picking up a more recent release, “Bach”, which presents Bach’s works for solo lute, before moving on to “Camino”, and Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies, before closing with some Benjamin Britten (off “Dreams and Fancies”) and Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint off “SoftLOUD”.

To paraphrase one critic: Bach may have been singular, but he contained multitudes. We will pick of this theme in the coming weeks.

While all of these albums are available in the entirety on your favorite streaming service, here is a curated playlist in Spotify, which is presented roughly in chronological order.

Bach’s Motets

I have recounted many stories in this blog, some of which have been proven to be apocryphal. This one has the benefit of being absolutely true.

One Sunday morning in 1789, the boys’ choir at St. Thomas in Leipzig, Germany shuffled to their feet to sing a dusty old motet that had been in the Church’s possession for generations. Doubtless, the boys considered the work to be both diffuclt and woefully old fashioned. In the middle of their performance, a young man stood up and demanded to know what the boys were singing, provoking gasps of outrage among the devout Lutherans around him. Faced with such a reaction and, perhaps, the realization that his outburst had been exceedingly rude, the man reseated himself for the duration of the service. At the end of the mass, the man strode briskly up to the cantor and demanded to see the score. Although no unified score existed, the church had a collection of the several parts, which the man proceeded to spread out across the church floor. Getting down on his hands and knees, the man began several hours’ study of the work, after which he asked permission to copy them. Permission granted, the man proceeded to create a unitary score, which remained in his possession for the rest of his life.

The motet, naturally, was by J.S. Bach. The young intemperate man was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

By the late Baroque period, motets had become a general classification for choral works that did not fit naturally into any other category. They were typically sung after the organ prelude at the start of the service. While the old motets of the Rennaisance had been sung a cappella, Baroque motets, particularly in Germany, were accompanied. Intrumental parts, including a figured bass in Bach’s own hand, survive to this day, laying to rest the debate as to whether the orchestral bits were added later. Debate still swirls around the number of instruments Bach intended and the motets have been performed with every conceivable option over the years.

Frankly, I don’t care. The motets are one of the singular glories in Western music. It is here that polyphony reaches its absolute zenith. The voices, true to Bach’s style, are all independent, moving from key to key seemingly without a break for the chorus.

The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, under the direction of René Jacobs, gets it the balance exactly right. Here they are performing the motet that so captivated Mozart. I find this music so stunning, I can only imagine what the effect of hearing it live had been on someone who could delve the very depths of the compositional technique that provoke such powerful human emotions.

Bach may have been best known during his lifetime as a peerless virtuoso at the organ and subsequently for his many keyboard compositions, but for me his real genius is revealed in his many choral works. These motets are a great introduction to what, for me, might just be the greatest music ever composed.

J.S. Bach, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied:

Bach, The First Jazzman?

In the film High Society, Bing Crosby takes to the stage to educate “the great and the good” of Newport about the basics of jazz:

Take some skins,

Jazz begins,

Take a bass

Steady pace,

Take a box,

One that rocks,

Take a blue horn New Orleans-born.

Take a stick

With a lick,

Take a bone,


Take a spot,

Cool and hot,

Now you has jazz jazz jazz, jazz, jazz.

“Now You Has Jazz”–Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong

Well, Bing knew a thing or two about jazz, but, with all due respect, many of the fundamental principles of jazz were centuries in the making. He might well have started, “Well, you take some pipes. . .,” because one of the great improvisers of all-time plied his trade behind a church organ in Leipzig, Germany during the first half of the 18th century. Some contemporaneous accounts report that Bach’s frequent bouts of virtuosity at the organ distracted parishioners from the sermon, much to the consternation of the minister. Quite possibly, however, many parishioners were there for the music first and foremost, with a bit of salvation on the side.

Of course, improvisation during the Baroque period was not new and certainly didn’t begin with Bach. But much like Corelli, Bach was a true virtuoso and, possessed with the greatest compositional mind in history, his flights of musical fancy must have been breathtaking. Here is one account:

It was on May 7, 1747, that Bach visited Frederick the Great at Potsdam. The Prussian king preferred the pianoforte — then called ”forte and piano” — to the less nuanced harpsichord or the organ; so much so that he had 15 of the instruments built for him. During this visit the king led Bach from room to room to try them out. (Bach had encountered pianos before the royal visit; he had complained that their action was too heavy, their treble too weak.) Frederick played for Bach a theme of his own and then asked Bach to improvise a fugue on it. After Bach obliged with a three-voice fugue, the king demanded a more spectacular six-voice fugue. Bach improvised a six-voice fugue on a theme of his own, but on his return to Leipzig wrote out a six-voice fugue on the royal theme. He had it printed with a number of other works all based on the same theme, and sent it to Frederick as ”a musical offering.

Charles Rosen, “Best Piano Compositions: Six Parts Genius”

The parallels with jazz go deeper than just Bach’s ability to improvise. Dave Brubeck notes that “the similarity between the figured bass that Bach used with the choir, and the chord progressions that a jazz musician uses are kind of a similarity in that you improvise in these progressions.” That’s where my ears keep going–back to Bach’s revolutionary bass lines. The man could swing.

Consider Bach’s Prelude in C. First, listen for Bach’s use of diminished harmony. A diminished chord “sounds wrong” and thereby creates tension in the music. So much of composition is about creating this musical tension and providing a release. In Baroque music, the release is almost always immediate. Richard Wagner would set the world on fire in the late 19th century by sustaining that tension over the course of a five hour opera; Claude Debussy would throw out the need to resolve tension altogether, opening up soundscapes that still dominate our musical language. But in Bach, the tension resolves quickly, if not immediately.

Second, listen to how Bach’s use of secondary dominant chords create a lush harmonic landscape in his music, something that jazz musicians would come to rely on centuries later. While dominant chords resolve to the tonic, a secondary dominant, which is an altered chord, resolves to a related chord — a scale degree — to the tonic. This technique opens up harmonic possibilities in composition. Bach opens with a C major chord, thereby establishing the key of C major. That chord leads to a standard ii-V-I progression, bringin us back to another C major chord. But the next measure begins with an inverted D minor 7 chord, followed by an inverted G7 chord, whcih brings us back again to C. Sounds familiar? This is the Circle of Fifths in action. Another example: Bach introduces a D7 chord, which is different from the Dm7 chord in the second measure because it has a F# rather than a F. Why? Because he’s going to move to G major next and then back to C. The secondary dominants give us a taste of G major, while allowing Bach to reassert C major in the end. The unexpected resolves to the familiar. And that final cadence, resolving to the tonic? Deeply satisfying.

Is this jazz? Let your ears decide. A Spotify playlist is embedded at the end of this entry.

J.S. Bach, Prelude In C:

Did a dusty old composer who rarely strayed from his home influence the development of jazz some 200 years later? Yes, he did. First, Bach inspired many jazz pianists, especially the great John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Here they are doing, more or less, straight Bach. Note that swinging bass line!

Modern Jazz Quartet (after Bach), Fugue in A Minor:

Fats Waller studied Bach, as did Bud Powell and Bill Evans. Here are some of their works that have their roots in Bach’s music.

Fats Waller, Bach Up to Me

Bud Powell, Tempus Fugue-It

Bill Evans, Valse

This is where Evans drew his inspiration (and quite a bit of the melody) from:

But it’s not just jazz pianists who revere Bach. Let’s take one of my favorite sax men, Lee Konitz, along with fellow sax legend Warne Marsh:

Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, Two Part Invention, No. 1


Benny Goodman, Bach Goes to Town

How about guitar? Here’s Django Reinhardt jazzing up Bach’s Double Concerto, which will feature later on in this blog.

Django Reinhardt, Improvisation Sur le Premier Mouvement du Concerto en Re Mineur de J S Bach

So, it’s clear that Bach can swing, but can he cha-cha-cha? Funny you should ask.

Tiempo Libre (after Bach), Fuga Cha-Cha-Cha

So, what would a swinging J.S. Bach sound like today? Possibly quite a bit like the great Barbara Dennerlein, whose swinging version of Bach’s iconic Tocca & Fugue in D Minor sounds like it was written yesterday (or at least in the 1950s).

J.S Bach, Toccata & Fugue in D Minor (improv. Barbara Dennerlein)

And that, folks, is “precisely how jazz music is made.”

A Musical Conversation in a Time of War

Sting released an accoustic version of his 1980s solo hit Russians in light of the war in Ukraine. It is, I think, a decided improvement on the original.

This new version, stripped of the lyric about President Reagan, is a bit more one-sided, but the message of universality remains the same. Perhaps this is why Sting’s melody was lifted wholessale from the great Soviet composer Sergei Prokoviev. There will be much more to come about Prokoviev later in this blog, but I do find it telling that Sting’s song is grounded in Russian music.

Specifically, the main theme can be found in Prokoviev’s Lieutenant Kije score. Originally composed for a silent film, the score was reworked as an orchestral suite. The theme opens the second movement–Romance–for which Prokoviev wrote an optional vocal part for baritone. Here are both versions, first with the baritone and then with the cello subbing in, as it does in Sting’s version.

One final note: In considering how composers borrow themes and ideas from each other, it is important to note that this theme did not originate with Prokoviev–he lifted it from a Russian folk song, a common practice that stretches all the way back to the Baroque Period at the very least.

A somber Conversation for a somber time.

Bach: Conversations Across Art

The Cello Suites are constantly inspiring cellists and composers, but have also made their mark across the arts. Here are two notable examples:

J.S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 1: Prelude (from Weir’s Master and Commander)

J.S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 5: Sarabande (from Bergman’s Cries and Whispers)

In fact, Bach’s Cello Suites have featured in a ton of movies, from classics like Autumn Sonata, Antonia’s Line, The Pianist and Through the Glass Darkly, to more recent Hollywood fare such as Hangover Part II, MI-5, and Still Alice.

But the greatest influence of the Cello Suites must be in music. As noted last week, Rostropovich chose the prelude of the first suite to perform as the Berlin Wall fell (, claiming that “nothing in the world is more previous to me than these Suites.”). Perhpas this is why his great friend, the English composer Benjamin Britten, chose to compose his own suites for unaccompanied cello.

Britten’s first suite has a direct compositional line back to Bach. Like Bach’s suites, Britten’s Suite No. 1 draws inspiration both from Baroque dance and Baroque composition (the fugue, which recalls the first fugue of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier). But these are no mere homages. Britten was surely influenced by Rostropovich’s muscular technique and unique timbre as much as he was by Bach. Echoes of Debussy, Ravel, and Elgar can also be found in the score. This is, in the end, a reflected Conversation–it is Britten speaking to Bach through Rostropovich.

Benjamin Britten, Cello Suite No. 1:

Finally, a word about the remarkable cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. His influence on the history of music is as immense as anyone who was not a composer in their own right. As one critic noted:

His unique technique, inimitable sound and abundant enthusiasm made him a magnet for composers the world over. The ‘speaking’ quality he imparted and the depth, power and expressivity, his power of communication, most remarkably in the lower register of the cello, opened up all sorts of possibilities. He was also not backward at begging, cajoling and commissioning works, either. The list of compositions written for, dedicated to, or commissioned by Rostropovich is a subject in itself: Glière, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Messiaen, Bernstein, Dutilleux, Khachaturian, Schnittke, Piazzolla, Lutosławski and Penderecki are just a few of the most famous names. No cellist, and few musicians of any sort come close to expanding the repertoire of an instrument quite so widely during their own lifetime.

A true titan of the music world, we will not see his like again.

J.S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 1:

Bach and Bartok: A Conversation

In the 1940s, Bela Bartok heard the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin play Bach’s solo sonata for violin in C major at a concert in Asheville, North Carolina. Inspired, Bartok composed his own sonata for solo violin, dedicating it to Menuhin. Reflecting what was all to common a trend, Menuhin found the composition too difficult to play and requested some changes. This reportedly affected the harmonics, although since most (if not all) recordings reflect Menuhin’s preference for standard 12 notes of Western music, rather than Bartok’s original score which utilized quarter-tones (that is a 24-tone scale). Nonetheless, Menuhin described the second movement as “perhaps the most aggressive, brutal music I was ever to play.” While absolutely a product of the Modern Period, Bartok’s composition, from its use of counterpoint to its hint of chaccone and the use of fugal composition, wears its homage to Bach on its sleeve.

Of the many recordings to select from, here are two favorites. Hilary Hahn performing the Bach and Gidon Kremer wrestling with the Bartok. Listening to Kremer, easily the most technically proficient violinist of his generation, you can hear exactly why the Bartok is considered to be right at edge of what is possible to play on the violin. Naturally, Bartok composed it at the piano.

J.S. Bach, Sonata for Solo Violin in C Major:

Bela Bartok, Sonata for Solo Violin:

Interlude: Handel’s Enduring Influence

Handel’s lasting influence remains in the operatic world. His operas which were rarely performed a generation or two ago, have found renewed life in the 21st century. Why? Not for the first time here, the music makes its own case. Consider this album from one of the most exciting singers in the opera world today: Anthony Ross Constanzo. On this album, ARC blends the music of Handel and Philip Glass, offering a rare insight into a possible Conversation between Handel and one of the most important contemporary composers. The musical connections between the two composers are indistinct, and yet there appears to be more linking them than just the ethereal sound of Costanzo’s countertenor.

A light and delightful offering today before we begin to grapple with the greatest musical mind of all beginning next week: The first of more than three months devoted to that singular genius, J.S. Bach.

Interlude: Handel’s Secular World

J.S. Bach’s Lutheran faith animated his music. Handel, by comparison, apparently liked a good time and was less concerned about religion. Indeed, Handel’s most famous tune is arguable from his “Water Music”, which was written for King George I’s concert on the Thames.

George Friderich Handel, Water Music Suite No. 1, XII: Alla Hornpipe

Given the eduring fame of this music, I wonder if Handel in any way inspired a more recent, less elegant, concert on the Thames:

Handel’s 42 operatic works also largely eschewed religious themes. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the best known religious oratorio remains Handel’s Messiah, his great Easter oratorio. No less strange is that the Messiah was far from Handel’s most successful oratorio during his lifetime.

In contrast, Handel’s most successful oratorio–and indeed one of the most successful compositions of his entire career–was Judas Maccabaeus, a secular work. That’s right, Handel’s most successful work (that is, the one that made him the most money) is based on the story of Hanukkah. This was not the first Jewish subject Handel had chosen–eight of his previous oratorios had been based on Old Testament stories. But this one was quite different: the rebel Jewish leader, Judas Maccabaeus, who led the revolt against the the Seleucid Empire in 160-167 BC, is a secular historical figure. He might well be the first Jewish hero to appear in Western Music. This is no small thing: Jews would not be portrayed sympathetically in Western Music again until Giussepi Verdi’s NabuccoVa, pensiero, the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, would become closely associated with Italy’s unification in the late 19th century. A Conversation at least in subject matter for sure.

It is unclear why Handel chose a heroic Jewish figure as the subject for this work, especially since Judas Maccabaeus was dedicated to the Duke of Cumberland, following his route of the Jacobites in 1745 and putting flight to the Catholic Pretender to the throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie. History is silent on Handel’s choice to equate the Protestant Duke with the Jewish revolutionary. That silence alone speaks volumes, whether Handel had intended to make a statement on religious tolerance or not.

Today, Judas Maccabaeus is best known for one of its choruses: See the conquering hero comes. This chorus was actually written for a subsequent work, Joshua, but proved to be so popular that Handel added it to Judas Maccabaeus in 1751. Beethoven found inspiration in the melody and wrote a variation of it for cello and piano. Over a century later, the great violin teacher, Shinichi Suzuki, transcribed the chorus and Handel’s theme has since been scratched out by myriad tiny bows, including my own.

George Friderich Handel, Judas Maccabaeus: “Chorus of Israelites, Mourn, ye affected children

Giussepi Verdi, Nabucco, “Va pensiero”

George Friderich Handel, Judas Maccabaeus, “See, the conquering hero comes”

Ludwig van Beethoven, 12 Variations on See the conquering hero comes

Interlude: At the side of the road with Dietrich Buxtehude

Next week, we will start more than five months devoted to the twin geniuses of the late Baroque: Handel and Bach. Together (and with a significant assist from Telemann), these two composers wrested the center of musical development away from Italy and planted music’s flag stoutly in the German states, where it would remain, more or less, through to the end of the Second World War. It would be wrong, however, to consider that the German School took flight only in the late Baroque. This “at the side of the road” interlude (which briefly acknowledges important composers I have overlooked in this series) presents the music of the key figure who links the late Baroque German School back to Heinrich Schütz, widely considered to be the father of the German Baroque School.

In 1705, J.S. Bach was not the titan of music that history remembers today. Rather, Johann was a mere lad of 17 who had yet to make his mark on history. That fall, Bach set out on one of the few significant journeys he would take during his lifetime, nearly 250 miles to the city of Lübeck. Bach’s objective was an audience with the leading Germanic composer of his day: the organist Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach was not alone in making a pilgrimige to seek an audience with Buxtehude–Handel and Telemann each had made similar journeys. Legend has it that Buxtehude offered Handel and Bach the opportunity to succeed him, the price being that they should agree to marry his daughter. What are we to make of this daughter, who was rejected by both great composers, or of Telemann, who apparently wasn’t deemed worthy of the offer?

Such details are lost to history. Also lost are many of Buxtehude’s compositions. Only a cache of his organ and choral works come down to us, many of which were rediscovered in the 20th century. The others survived thanks largely to Bach, who made several manuscript copies of Buxtehude’s music during his time in Lübeck. The influence that Buxtehude had over the next generation of German composers is undeniable. While Schütz had studied with Italians, Buxtehude had been schooled entirely by Germans and Germanic music had begun to take on its own unique (and uniquely complex) character. It is in his footsteps, that the centuries of successive German composers would tred.

Here are some links to Buxtehude’s best works. Buxtehude’s compositions would weave a powerful spell over the young Bach, whose own music became significantly more complex after 1705–that is, more like Buxtehude’s works. In the last entry, I questioned whether Bach’s Goldberg Variations were inspired by Scarlatti’s Esserchisi. The more likely explanation is that both Scarlatti and Bach were inspired by Buxtehude’s earlier La Capricciosa.

Such is the joy of studying music history. You listen for quotes, for stylistic and compositional influences. And just when you think you have found something, maybe a possible source or some unique chord, you find something else later on to make you question everything you once believed.

Dietrich Buxtehude, La Capricciosa

Dietrich Buxtehude, Passacaglia in D Minor

Dietrich Buxtehude, Membra Jesu Nostri

The Scarlatti Conversations

Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas seem curiously out of time. But did they influence subsequent composers? Although some are quick to dismiss Scarlatti as a historical aberration, the facts are quite to the contrary. A collection of the first 30 sonatas were compiled and published in London as Essercizi per gravicembalo. Handel, who Scarlatti had met when the composers were both living in Venice, was a decade plus into his time in London and surely would have been aware of their publication. But their influence on Handel is hard to discern. For example, some claim to hear Scarlatti in Handel’s Concerto Grosso No. 5 (, noting that the opening is especially based on Scarlatti’s Sonata 23 ( I do not. The timeline fits, but if there is an influence here, my ears do not hear it.

But who else might have might have have been influenced by Scarlatti? Here is an entirely hypothetical Conversation:

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K. 492:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 330, I. Allegro:

There is no evidence that Mozart studied Scarlatti’s music, but Scarlatti seems to anticipate Mozart, at the very least. We do, however, know that Frederic Chopin was a big Scarlatti fan, proclaiming that Scarlatti’s music would one day be regularly performed in the concert hall. Returning to Scarlatti’s K.466, here it is paired with Chopin’s first Nocturne. The influence, I think, is hard to deny.

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K.466:

Frederic Chopin, Nocturnes, Op. 9 No. 1:

But the real question, however, is Bach. In addition to being one of the greatest composers in history, Bach was also one of history’s most important musicologists. Bach’s library and his many transcriptions continue to inform much of what we understand about earlier periods of music. Yet Bach did not transcribe Scarlatti. And no Scarlatti scores are to be found in his collection. For such a voracious collector, Scarlatti’s omission seems strange. In the end, the Bach connection comes down to what might be simply coincidence: One year after Scarlatti published his 30 Essercizi, Bach published his own Goldberg Variations—also 30 works for solo keyboard. Coincidence? Maybe. And, maybe, the influence went in the other direction. Here is a Bach composition from 1720 that sounds a lot like Scarlatti.

J.S. Bach, Fantasy in C Minor, BVW 906:

Scarlatti remains a curious figure, a composer whose work was admired by many 19th century composers and which form an indelible part of the standard repertoire in the 20th century, but whose influence during his lifetime seems to be as fleeting is a wisp of smoke.   

Interlude: The Power of Great Art

Playwright, lyricist, theatre critic and all-round Renaissance guy David Cote asked his many followers the other day to identify “a work of art that had an actual, direct, political consequence . . . [a] work of art that led to political change.” Perhaps such a work exists, but the power of great art, in my opinion, lies in the power to change the individual. Exposing your soul to great art is risky–you can feel it in the anticipation, in the experience itself. The pulse quickens, the brain excites, and the world, for better or worse, will never be the same to you–the audience member–ever again. Such are the perils of engaging in The Conversation with a great artist. They change you. Truly great art–something that makes a profound connection with you–is both personal and rare. It was therefore purely by coincidence that days after reading David’s question, I found myself seated in the legendary Studio 54 for Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change.

More than a generation ago, and several blocks to the south, Kushner’s 7-hour, two episode, masterwork, Angels in America, had wrough an indelible mark on my person. It is safe to say that I never experienced the world quite the same way afterwards. But Caroline was something different–a musical. Could American musical theatre accomplish the same transformative effect? Could it rise to truly great art?

In a word: hell yes. I am not the only one to think so. TimeOut’s insightful critic, Adam Feldman, wrote in his review: “[Caroline] has affected the way I interact with people–in a positive way, on a daily basis–ever since.” And that might just be an understatement.

I don’t think that anything can truly prepare you for experiecing Caroline in person. I missed the original production back in 2003 when I was living abroad, but was determined not to miss this one. I barely made it: The production closes tonight. Two days later, I am still dealing with its after effects.

Much of the credit goes to Sharon D. Clarke, who gives a performance for the ages. Caroline is a harrowing role. A single mother raising three kids while working as a maid for a Jewish family in 1963’s Louisiana, beaten down by a broken heart, poverty, and the drudgery of her work. She is no Violetta or Mimi, who at least get to live, live, live, before they die at the end. Caroline never had a chance, but can she change with the times? Her friend and fellow maid Dotty is going back to college. Her eldest daughter has been swept up by the civil rights movement. Or is Caroline simply that proverbial rock, against which all change breaks?

Caroline shares top billing with Change, which is as much an omnipresent force in the play as the titular character. Change at first references the loose change left in an 8-year old boy’s (Noah’s) pockets. That pocket change is the representation of Noah’s rejection of the material world, having recently lost his mother to lung cancer. For his new stepmother, it is also a rejection of her–Noah prefers Caroline as a substitute mother, drawn naturally to her spiritual and physical strength. She will not abandon him as his mother did; she is his rock. The stepmother instructs Caroline to keep the change–a dollar here, a dollar there would be meaningful to someone she pays only $30 a week. Yet Caroline struggles with that instruction even as she struggles to accept the change that is winding its way through 1963 American society. Money, that corosive element of capitalism, begins to erode the social fabric of the Gellman home.

Naturally, the plan backfires at first: Noah sees this as an opportunity for him to initiate change in Caroline’s family. He starts purposefully leaving more change in his pocket, once he realizes that Caroline is taking it home to her kids. But while he imagines himself to be a hero to Caroline’s family, the truth is that they barely acknowledge his existence or that he is the source of the extra money.

The boiling point comes when Noah’s grandfather, a good Marxist from the Upper West Side, comes down to Louisana for Hahnukkah. During the dinner, he presents Noah with gelt: A twenty dollar bill.

What means this money, Noah Boychick?

You won’t learn this in artithmetic!

Money follows certain law,

It’s worth how much its worth becuase

Somewhere, something’s valued less;

It’s how our blessings come, I guess.

Golden, shiny, but never pure.

Think from whence your riches stem.

Think of someone who is poor.

And know you stole this gold from them.

Especially here in the Devil’s South!

You rip your gold from a starving man’s mouth!

Mr. Stopnick

Noah fails the appreciate the message and, predictably, he accidentally leaves the money in his pocket. Realizing this in school, he panics: Caroline will find the money and keep it. Change is one thing, but this is twenty dollars! He runs home, but it is too late. Caroline has found the money and taken in. A fight ensues and both say unforgivable things to the other. Money and class have risen their ugly heads, dividing Noah from his mother of choice.

Caroline faces a crisis of conscience:

Sixteen feet below sea level.

Caught tween the Devil and the muddy brown sea.

That money . . .

That money . . .

That money reach in and spin me about.

My hate rise up, rip my insides out.

My madness rise up in a fury so wild and I let myself go.

Spoke my hate to a child.

Pennies done that. Pennies done that

Pocket change . . .


Which leads to this, one of the great arias in the history of musical theatre.

Caroline may not change. She changes you.

For those interested, here is the Spotify link to the cast recording.

Interlude: A bit of fun

Several weeks ago, I linked to a great album from the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson, which contrasts the music of Rameau with Debussy. That Conversation is well-known, since Debussy composed a work entitled Hommage a Rameau. It is an ironic Conversation, since Debussy, more than any other composer, was responsible for undermining Rameau’s theory of harmony (which will be covered next week here).

On a much, much lighter note, the Turkish pianist Aysedeniz Gokcin has been exploring the Conversation across several albums, as well as her pandemic virtual concerts. One of her many 2020 albums, Hey World, looks at the sprawling influence of Debussy and other classical composers on popular music of our era. It’s a bit of fun, whcih reminds me of a NYC piano bar or The Professor’s own piano jams, for which he is rightly renowned among our band of brothers.

A bit of fun for this grey December day:

A Gertus History of Christmas Music

I love Christmas music; for me, it is the best thing about the holiday season. Unsurprisingly, composers love Christmas music too and have been churning out carols, oratorios, motets, quartets, and nearly every other form of music to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In that spirit, I have compiled a playlist, starting (as this blog did) with the 11th century composer Hildegard von Bingen and closes with contemporary composer Arvo Part, with plenty of the familiar and unfamiliar along the way (with one cheat to be discussed in Saturday’s entry). All tracks are presented in chronological order. Each one a masterpiece, but I cannot help be struck by Arnold Schoenberg’s contribution to this list. Stripped away is the severe image of the composer most credited with destroying “classical” music through his slavish adherence to unpopular atonal compositions: In the soft light of Christmas, Schoenberg finds in his heart, not to mention some modidcum of classical tonality, as he riffs on the classic carol Silent Night. Truly the magical season.

Here is a full track list:

Hildegard von Bingen, O nobilissima viriditas

Josquin des Prez, Ave Maria

Thomas Tallis, Gloria (from his Christmas mass, Missa Puer natus est)

William Byrd, O magnum mysterium

Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Noels sur Les Instruments (excerpt)

Arcangelo Corelli, Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 No. 8 in G “fatto per la notte di natale” (excerpt)

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in E Major, RV 270 “Il Riposo . . . per il natale” I. Allegro.

George Frideric Handel, Messiah, 12. For Unto Us a Child Is Born

Johan Sebastian Bach, Gloria in exelsis Deo, BWV 191, (excerpt)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Three German Dances K. 605, No. 3 in C Major “Die Schlittenfahrt

Franz Schubert, Ave Maria

Felix Mendelssohn, Festgesang, No. 2

Hector Berlioz, L’enfance du Christ, Op. 25: L’adieu des Bergers a la Sainte Famille

Camille Saint-Saens, Oratorio de Noel, Op. 12 (excerpt)

Franz Liszt, Weihnactsbaum, S. 185a: No. 3, Die Hirten an der Krippe

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker, Op. 71, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

Gustav Holst, In The Bleak Mid Winter

Arnold Schoenberg, Weihnactsmusik (excerpt)

Sergei Prokofiev, Lieutenant Kije, Op. 60: Troika

Benjamin Britten, A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Wolcum Yole!

Francis Poulenc, Quatre motets pourle temps de Noel, IV. Hodie Chrisus natus est

Arvo Part, Bogoroditse Devo

Telemann and Handel

Handel and Telemann kept up a robust correspondence and, not surprisingly, Telemann’s friendship and correspondence resulted in numerous Conversations between the two composers.  And perhaps uniquely, this was a true two-way Conversation, with each man influencing the other.  Here is an example of how Telemann influenced Handel.  Handel, a subscriber to Telemann’s Tafelmusik publication, took the basic theme from the opening to the Violin Concerto in F major (1740) and expanded upon it for his famous Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (1749), one of the most famous works of the entire Baroque Period. I stumbled on this Conversation as a kid, playing the Telemann and knowing that I had heard that theme somewhere before. With no Google or streaming music services, my curiosity had to wait several months before figuring it out at a concert.

Georg Philipp Telemann, Tafelmusik, Violin Concerto in F Major:

George Frideric Handel, Arrival of the Queen of Sheba: