I’m in a bit of a hurry, and April’s almost over, so I’m going to give you a very short version of my musical calendar this month.
Good old H.C. – affected and brilliant as ever
I’m going to honour Hans Christian Andersen in this post as well, celebrating his birth-month, and I’m going to do so by proposing what I think would have been a great and proper act for a Hans Christian Andersen 200th Birthday Show two years ago: Soprano Inger Dam-Jensen singing one of Schumann’s renditions of HCA’s poems. Voila: Inger Dam-Jensen, singing Schumann’s “Spillemanden” (“The Fiddler”) with lyrics by HCA, accompanied by Christen Stubbe Teglbjærg on piano.
Beautiful Inger Dam-Jensen
Inger Dam-Jensen has got the beauty of voice to match HCA’s poetry and she’s got the glittering, golden, cornfield-like authencity in her timbre to match HCA’s endearing naivité.
The lyrics are in Danish, but here’s a translation into English. Read ’em and weep:
In the village it is merry
A wedding is celebrated with dancing and music
Toasts are made in wine and mead
But the bride looks like an adorned dead
Yes, dead is she for her beloved one
for he is not there as her bridegroom
In the corner he stands with his sorrow
and plays his fiddle so merrily
He plays till his locks turn gray
He plays till the strings burst
Till the fiddle with sorrow and dread
He crushes against his heart
It is so heavy, so crushingly heavy
to die while one’s heart is still young
I can’t stand to look at it any longer!
I feel it going through my head.
See, the men hold him tightly
– but why do you call me by name?
God keep us all!
I am a poor fiddler myself.
Sniff. Happy Cruelest Month, everyone!
Earlier today I talked about how I associate the month of March with a kind of lack of reliability when it comes to the weather. This is also the theme for my choice in the “musical year” category (I’m still thinking about re-naming that category. It makes me envision year-long renditions of Les Miserables and Cats. Ugh.), which is “Interlude IV – passacaglia” from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, an opera that I always imagine to be taking place in March, because March is such a stormy month, and there’s much talk of storms in this opera.
“Who can turn skies back/and begin again?” – storm as a force of nature plays an important part in Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.
The main theme of Peter Grimes is the helplessness of man against Nature: The population of the borough is painfully aware, constantly, of the raging of the elements and their own insignificance in contrast. “Oh tide that waits for no man, spare our coasts!”, so goes one of the choruses in the opera, and each of the inhabitants of the town has his or her own way of dealing with the helplessness. Bob Boles turns to the fanatic religious (“Repent! Repent!” he shouts ad nauseam to his fellow men during storms), Mrs. Sedley takes to drug abuse, Ned Keene runs a drug-dealing business, and almost all the men seek comfort from time to time in the prostituted arms of Auntie’s euphemistic nieces. And when all these pass-times aren’t enough, they turn to the scapegoat, who just happens to be the fanciful loner Peter Grimes.
Interlude IV musically sums up these themes so movingly, I think: It starts off with a sense of loneliness and isolation depicted through a very quiet version of the conspiratorial chorus “Grimes is at his exercise!” (which marks the climax of the borough’s rising suspicion against Peter Grimes) with a single cello as the predominant instrument, backed up only by a contrabass, which sort of trails off and is overpowered by animated, forte brass players who imitate to perfection the merciless blows of a storm (I regret that I was unable to find a soundfile of this particular part of the interlude), which in turn slide into an almost manic-harking performance by high-strung strings and eventually intwines with the slandered Peter Grimes frustrated, tyrannic out-let at his young apprentice: “Go there!”. I think it’s a most beautiful piece of music, and it illustrates perfectly what I like so much about Benjamin Britten – his attentive depiction of atmospheres. Another example of this, from the same opera, may be seen here:
This is Jon Vickers, probably the most famous portrayer of Peter Grimes, in Peter Grimes “madness”-scene. The borough really is shouting “Grimes!” in the distance at this point in the opera, but as depicted through Britten’s music, in Peter Grimes’s plagued and deranged mind their angry shouts become ghostly moaning, creating a very powerful eerie atmosphere that is backed up by the shrill violins at the beginning of the scene. “Ghosts” is the keyword here, Peter Grimes’s life has become defined by the dead, by the corpses of the little boys that he is accused of murdering, and he dreams in vain of “[turning] the skies back/and begin again.” Absolutely unnerving, but brilliantly so. Peter Grimes remains one of my favourite operas.
We really have had a lot of storms in Denmark this March, and I hope we’re through with it by now. I agree with Benjamin Britten’s depiction of our mortality through the raging of the elements, but that doesn’t mean that I find it to be particularly pleasant. 😉
I really need to stop post-poning my posting of entries for the Musical/Literary Year category until the last day of the month! In all fairness the end of February does tend to creep up on one unexpectedly, since the month is a few days short of usual month-lenght.
Tannhäuser and Venus by Liezen-Mayer Sándor
I had difficulties picking out a piece for this month, because I tend to think of February as a very complex month. There is something solemnly hopeful about February, I always thought: While January tends to loom under the thick darkness of December, it’s in February that we start to really feel that the days are getting longer again, and the snow that usually covers the ground throughout much of February looks so breathtakingly beautiful under the light of the sun which is a little higher in the sky every day. However, February is also the month of Shrove-tide, and there is that great tradition for going a little crazy during that particular holiday. I believe it was originally away of celebrating one last time before the fast that would last until Easter would begin, but we’ve hanged on to it, even after we stopped fasting (By now I think Shrove-tide may have the opposite function: It probably marks the end of many a diet that was idealistically started as a New Year resolution). Shrove-tide is carnevalesque in the original sense of the word, and there’s a strong-lived tradition for wild-partying, feasting, and dressing-up around this time.
So I wanted to find a piece of music that contained these two extremities: A solemnly hopeful promise of better times, and something carnevalesque – and the Tannhäuser ouverture has both these elements! The opera revolves around maincharacter Heinrich Tannhäuser’s being torn between two women and two worlds: The enticing heathen world ruled by his mistress Venus, the goddess of love, offering never-ending pleasure and a chance to, well, go at it like rabbits 24-7, and the courtly, Christian world, in the shape of the Wartburg halls where his virtuous, Madonna-like beloved Elizabeth resides. These two extremities are both struck upon as early as in the ouverture, which consists of variations of two of the operas most important themes: The choir of the salvaged pilgrims returning from Rome from the third act, and Tannhäuser’s swelling, lascivious ode to Venus. These two themes battle against- and take turns to overpower each other throughout the ouverture, it’s a beautiful, grandious piece of music, and, one might say, it’s quite the programme piece for opera ouvertures in general, in as much as it contains a concentrate-version of the opera and sets the audience’s mood for the story they’re about to be told.
Incidentally, I first came upon this piece in February, more specifically on February 26 1995, when I was a 12-year-old ballet-dancing child and first appeared in Tannhäuser (in Francesca Zambello’s staging) along with 29 other little dancers. I played a new-born child (complete with a fleshcoloured leotard and likewise swimcap) of Venus in the first act, dancing to the orchestral version of Tannhäuser’s Venus-ode that follows directly after the ouverture, and then a young salvaged pilgrim returning with her salvaged pilgrim-parents from Rome, so one might say that I got the best of both the worlds that Tannhäuser is torn between. Maybe that’s why the event made me fall in love with opera, I don’t know, but fact remains that I did fall in love with opera on that occasion, and more than anything I remember the glorious sensation of listening to the ouverture behind the drawn house tabs, and thinking that it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. The smallest of us child-dancers were to lie Die Blechtrommel-ishly underneath the heavy, red fabric that was Venus’s enormous skirt, and then to swarm out from under the skirt as the curtain rose, as if we’d just been born (thus presenting, of course, the rabbitness of Venus and Tannhäuser’s relationship and also a preternatural and almost nauseating abundance). So there I was, during the entire ouverture, with butterflies fluttering in my stomach, surrounded by theatre-red, listening to my own agitated breathing and that of the other children underneath the fabric, and above it the sound of Catherine Keen, the American soprano who portrayed a buxom Venus in the staging, practising scales in order to warm up her voice. And then to take in the beauty of the ouverture, the solemn, pure joy of the pilgrim’s choir and the lushness of the Venus-ode, and trying to save up all of that energy to add it to my dance.
Stig Fogh Andersen as he looked in the part of Tannhäuser back in 1995 – I’m proud to say that he became my very first celebrity crush!
Solemn, pure joy and lushness – surely the ouverture is perfect for a musical February entry? I recommend the Franz Konwitschny-recording of the opera for anyone who would like to check it out for themselves.
Happy February! J
My musical choice for the month of January is Liza’s aria “Akh! Isomilas ya gorem” from the third act of Tchaikovsky’s opera pique dame. As I’ve mentioned before, January is my second-to-least favourite month, I find it to be a bleak and desolate month, deathly pale in comparison to its bright and festive predecessor December, and Liza’s aria is perfect for this.
I first saw Pique Dame on February 22 2002 (I have no idea why I remember the date, but there you are) in Kasper Holten’s brilliant staging at the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen, and was immensely moved by it, and what I remember most vividly is the scene with Liza’s aria. It featured a miserable and worried Liza, waiting for her beloved Herman, standing on a bridge (such a great metaphor for the state of transition at which Liza finds herself at this point of the opera!) with water flowing underneath it while the snow fell around her, and I thought it captured so beautifully the atmosphere of Tchaikovsky’s music. The melody is very simple and a sorrowful beautiful and accurate depicts Liza’s state of mind and through an increasing allegro her growing fears that she has been abandoned, but the orchestration with the extensive use of the woodwind gives off a kind of folkloristic sound that places the anguished heroine geographically, the swirling scales of the oboes imitating the flow of the canal that libretto has Liza standing by, and the whirl of snowflakes in the cold St. Petersburg night. A haunting scene, especially of course, when one considers Liza’s fate in the opera.
I do have my reservations about Pique Dame, I tend to think that the fourth act, with its intense focus on an almost raving Herman and his obscure little cards, seems a little anticlimactic, but the opera has enough beautiful music and dramatic tension to make up for this, and the beginning of the third act with Liza standing by the canal is actually one of my favourite operatic moments. It’s such a perfect musical depiction of the cold, bone-chilling realization that one is about to be abandoned, and as such it reminds me of January. Here is an English translation of the lyrics from “Akh! Isomilas ya gorem”, although I cannot take credit for myself – I couldn’t put two words together in Russian to save my life:
“Oh! I am weary with sorrow… Night and day I think only of him and I worry…
Joy, where have you gone! Oh! I am weary and exhausted!Life promised me nothing but happiness,
Then came a cloud of storm.
All that I loved in the world,
My happiness and hopes were destroyed!
Oh, I am weary and worn!
Life promised me nothing but happiness.
I am worn and weary with suffering!
Anguish gnaws and consumes me….”
(lyrics by Modest Tchaikovsky)
PS: Hm. Self-destruction and the bone-chillling realization of abandonment. January really does bring out the worst in me, it would seem. Good thing the month’s almost over!
My music for January is by Vivaldi, from his Nisi Dominus Rv 608, the largo Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum in my version sung by Andreas Scholl.
This piece gives me two images: 1. Hilly landscapes covered in snow where black trees are silhouettes up against a blue sky. A narrow border of snow on each branch and twig that when the icy breaths of wind reaches them send sprinklings of white to the ground. All is silent, solitary and cold. Beautiful.
2. A misty, greyish brown landscape in the marshes outside Venice in winter. Desolate, silent and bleak. All movement is slow and apparently aimless.
Depending on my mood I think of the bleak or the beautiful landscape. Both of them have a certain somber tone.
The text is from the fifth book of Psalms (Old Testament), Psalm 127 (Psalm 126 in the Latin vulgate) and reading that reveals that this is not about coldness and snow but about sleep given by God as opposed to vain work without God.
The whole psalm reads:
27:1 Unless Yahweh builds the house,
they labor in vain who build it.
Unless Yahweh watches over the city,
the watchman guards it in vain.
127:2 It is vain for you to rise up early,
to stay up late,
eating the bread of toil;
for he gives sleep to his loved ones.
127:3 Behold, children are a heritage of Yahweh.
The fruit of the womb is his reward.
127:4 As arrows in the hand of a mighty man,
so are the children of youth.
127:5 Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.
They won’t be disappointed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.
The lines in this largo read in Latin: “cum dederit dilectis suis somnum, ecce hereditas Domini filii mercis fructus ventris” – I have highlighted them in the English translation. There is an alternative translation of the first line: for he provides for his beloved during sleep.
In either case sleep is a blessing and I think Vivaldi expresses this perfectly in this calm little piece.
I find it interesting that the text is about sleep and that I get pictures of winter when I listen to it. Sleep and winter are connected in the sense that they are both images of death. In this case I think of a slow, soft death. The psalm talks of sleep as a reward or the reward coming during sleep. Christianity is very much about the afterlife and I see these lines as a parable. As blessed sleep is given after a day’s hard work, so is Paradise open after the toils of life.
As a curiosity Marie provided my with the perfect quote. In her December literary post she cited Joyce. That quote gives me the same feeling as Cum dederit.
January is cold and silent like this largo. Or would be if this year was normal. But global warming has reached Denmark too and we have blossoming cherry trees and birds singing two or three months in advance. I don’t like it at all. This is not a silent death with promise of spring. This is too noisy and too warm and I miss clear, cold days of blue sky and frost. Winter here is a sort of cleansing and without it I fear the climatic confusion will continue far into the year.
I dream of the sound and feeling of Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum.
My December has not been hectic at all. I have had plenty of time to do my gift shopping, I have been in Rome, I have studied (but not too much), I have worked (but not too much), I have been to the opera a couple of times, yesterday I went to Händel’s Messiah, I have baked a few cookies, and now we have passed the darkest day of the year and I am relaxed and ready for the holidays. They will be quite (/too?) filled with family encounters every day until the 29th. And cat encounters! I don’t know how it happened but suddenly four (4) cats are supposed to spend Christmas at my parents’ place. And I’m feeding the neighbour’s big grey cat too. We’ve become cat-people!! Argh!!
But what I really wanted to share with you is my Christmas music. The piece I listen to more than anything in December is Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. It is a collection of carols for boys’ choir and harp.
It begins with a procession, very simple, the choir in unison without accompaniment. The voices can be heard from afar and as they approach they become stronger. This reminds me of when I was a little girl in first grade. On the morning of the 13th of December when the sun was not yet up the whole school was gathered in the assembly hall. The lights were turned off and when all had gone silent we could faintly hear the voices of the the Lucia procession approaching slowly while singing and then appearing in their white gowns and with their lit candles. That was one of the most magical experiences of my childhood and being reminded by Benjamin Britten is beautiful.
After the opening Procession the music breaks into the more dramatic and complex Wolcum Yole! which is pure rejoicing. Then follows three quiet carols with an exquisite pureness and wintriness. It includes a ode to Mary, then a description of how she lulls the Child to sleep and then we hear her lullaby. That lullaby is the sweetest and most tender I know. You can listen to the Balulalow here.
O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit,
Prepare thy creddil in my spreit,
And I sall rock thee to my hert,
And never mair from thee depart.
But I sall praise thee evermoir
With sanges sweit unto thy gloir;
The knees of my hert sall I bow,
And sing that richt Balulalow!
I am not the victim of a sudden dyslexia, the text is like that – old and strange. It might actually be easier to understand the lyrics just by listening.
The Ceremony of Carols continues alternating between the quiet almost private songs that gives you a feeling of tender love granting warmth in freezing times (whether it be between mother and child or between God and his children), and the more official hymns of joy where multiple voices are set free in noisily rejoicing.
The suite ends with the Recession just like the Procession, just reversed so that the voices slowly disappear in the distance.
A Ceremony of Carols gives me the most condensed Christmas feeling. It is just beautiful.
Here I go: The first post within the category I’ve decided to start (as explained in this post), within which I’ll post each month a description of the piece of music that reminds me the most of the particular month we’re in.
I was somewhat surprised as I sat down to consider which piece of music reminded me the most of the month of December. It was not, as one might have guessed, one of the baroque pieces that I always listen so much to during Christmas Händel’s Messiah, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, or even Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas which, for some reason, I’ve always associated with Christmas.
Rather, what came to my mind was a piano piece by Aram Khachaturian (of Sabre Dance fame) called “My friend is Unwell”. The piece is from a little collection of pieces for children called Pictures of Childhood. I took piano lessons all through my childhood and early youth, and as I was never a talented pianist, pieces intended for children always suited me the best. So my much-tried piano teacher gave me Pictures of Childhood to play when I was in my mid-teens, and I took a great liking to them immediately.
“My friend is unwell” stands out to me and reminds me of December, because it holds such a clearness of sound and such a clenchedness of emotion. The title is unusually specific, and I guess that accordingly the piece ought to remind me of childish grief and loss and sickness, but much more than that it reminds me of the bleak landscapes of midwinter: Of bare trees, snowclad meadows, and an afternoon sun struggling in the sky, managing only to send a few oblique beams across the plains, before descending. If one could peel all our Christmas traditions off of December, all the heavy greens and reds of the spruce and the Santa’s hats, and the warmth of the roast meat and sugar canes on your tongue, “My friend is unwell” is what December would sound like, I think. I love the little piece, I love the way its chords are always slightly disharmonic and the way the melody wavers constantly between minor and major. ….Ehhhh, I wish I could put this more eloquently. As Anna and I discussed recently, most people, even those with some musical schooling, really lack the vocabulary necessary to describe music, and I am no exception. Well, perhaps this new category will give me an opportunity to develop my vocabulary within the musical-theoretical genre!
I wish I could bring a link to Khachaturian’s piece, but I’m afraid it doesn’t exist anywhere online, and I don’t even know of any good recording of the piece, being familiar with it solely through my own amateurish presentation. But you should definitely check out the piece, if you’re not already familiar with it! It’s a most beautiful, melancholy and haunting little melody, and it reminds me of December.