Josef Suk, R.I.P.

Violinist Josef Suk died earlier this month. A year ago I had never heard of him, but in the last few months he has become a daily presence in my life. In fact, I featured him on this blog: he’s the performer of those Five Madrigal Stanzas that I am still crazy about. The original recording of the Stanzas, which also has two violin sonatas by the same composer, is one that I listen to just about every day. Oh it is splendid!

As a matter of fact, though, my daughter still has not gotten around to learning the Martinů. However, we’ve got another Czech composer in the pipeline, Antonín Dvořák. The piece that I mentioned yesterday, where she is being required to make “artistic decisions”? It is the first movement of Dvořák’s Sonatina for violin and piano, Op. 100.

Now, about this sonatina: when my daughter and I listened to it together for the first time, her reaction was somewhat noncomittal. Ok, sure, whatever, I’ll learn it. “You know,” I said to her, “Dvořák wrote this piece for his own son and daughter, who played piano and violin. They were about your age when he wrote it.” Elle was silent for a moment, and then said, “Wow! It’s a whole different piece now!”

The recording we had listened to, by coincidence, was the video below, starring none other than Josef Suk. Who, it turns out, was the great-grandson of Dvořák. That teenage daughter who played the violin, Miss Ottilie Dvořák? She grew up, married a composer also named Josef Suk, and the end result was this:

Music from my mom

So, for Mother’s Day the New York Times is doing this thing where people post 6-word “momoirs” about their mother. Check it out; it’s pretty cool!

I tried to write one for my mom. But the thing is, I couldn’t really do it with words. I can do it with music though. My mom is a pianist, and a piano teacher. Classical piano music was the sound of my childhood. My bedroom was directly above the music room, so there was no escaping it even if I’d wanted to. Which I didn’t. For me, the sound of a piano means comfort and security: mom is home and all’s right with the world.

Here is my mom’s favorite pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, playing one of her favorite pieces.

Sunday morning music

So, I spent the whole morning listening to Bach Motets on repeat play. Just like I did last Sunday, and the Sunday before that, and the Sunday before that… I have been listening to Bach Motets on Sunday mornings for ever.

J.S. Bach wrote tons of choral music. He wrote masses and passions, oratorios and cantatas, and they are all gorgeous. But for some reason I find the motets more accessible. I mean, listening to the B minor Mass feels like a project. It would be sacrilegious to, say, wash the dishes with that on in the background, you know? (I am nominally Jewish, and I participate in no organized religion whatsoever. Even so.) But the motets, the motets, I dunno. They are so incredibly beautiful, and it feels permissible to just put them on repeat play and go about your business. Not just permissible, but right and proper and totally uplifting. In fact I recommend these not just on Sundays but any day of the week.

Bela Bartok

Bela Bartok (1881-1945)

So, I have been getting more and more into contemporary classical music lately. First there was this thing with Maurice Ravel, that actually started several years ago. And then I became obsessed with Prokofiev for a while (topic for another post), and most recently Martinu. And lately I have been becoming better acquainted with Béla Bartók, a composer whom I had always thought kinda dry and academic. Where I got that idea I can’t imagine. Because listening to Bartók is as close as I’ve ever come to experiencing true synaesthesia. His music is that evocative. The first time I heard these Romanian Dances I actually experienced a smell and a color to go with it: smoky dusty old leather, and a deep rich red. They are so incredibly, eerily haunting. Bartok originally wrote this piece for piano, by the way, but it is absolutely stunning on the violin. This isn’t something that you can have on quietly in the background: this sucks you in and holds you captive for the duration.

Enjoy!

Misty

Just a quick post tonight because it’s late & I’m exhausted. I’m feeling all misty because I spent the evening at the high school choir concert. Oh man! Am I the only one who turns into a puddle of tears whenever children, even teenagers, open their mouths to sing? And it’s a double whammy when in addition to the three or four regular choirs there were no less than ten extra-curricular groups that also performed. Yes, I said extra-curricular. Kids who like to sing so much that they form their own after-school clubs and make their own arrangements of pop tunes & old standards which they sing (and sometimes choreograph) in beautiful tight harmonies, not for a grade but just for the love of it. And then there was my own son, whom I overheard saying to his old middle school choir director, who’s about to retire, “thank you for hooking me on choir.” He really meant it too.

*sniffle* It’s just too much!

P.S. One of the songs was a madrigal!!! I listened carefully to see if it was through-composed but the song was in Italian and I couldn’t tell when the verses ended. Oh well.

Five Madrigal Stanzas

I’d like to introduce you to my new favorite composer: Bohuslav Martinu. All week my daughter and I have been listening to his Five Madrigal Stanzas for Violin and Piano and man are they delicious!

We’ve been listening to this piece in preparation for my daughter learning to play it. It’s not in the Suzuki repertoire — there’s hardly anything written later than 1800, let alone in the twentieth century — and I’m so excited that she’ll finally get to play a contemporary piece. Although we have strayed outside the Suzuki canon before, this is also the first piece she’ll have learned that’s not published in a student edition. There are a few bowing marks in the music, but not one single fingering. Yikes!

I can’t help her with the fingerings, but I’m really good at gathering background info. And as I started listening to this piece I wondered what makes it a madrigal? In fact, what is a madrigal? I thought madrigals were, like, hymns. Not pieces for violin & piano. So I looked it up and I learned something interesting. Madrigals were medieval secular songs for small three- or four-part choirs and they were often “through-composed.” Through-composed, I learned, means having multiple stanzas with each stanza having a different melody. One of the examples they gave is the Beatles song “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”

So I’m thinking about these five madrigal stanzas, these five short pieces, and realizing that (I assume) they are meant to be stanzas of a single song, not separate pieces, even though they are all very different from each other. How cool is that? And if that’s not cool enough, know also that Martinu dedicated the work to Albert Einstein.

Here’s the first “stanza.”

Snips & Snails

And puppy dog tails. Yeah, that pretty much sums up my 7yo son. He’s a boisterous noisy little whirlwind of activity who never seems to slow down for a second. He has a big heart and he means well, but he’s still very rough around the edges.

I don’t know why, but I had this crazy idea that he should learn to play the violin. I mean seriously, what was I thinking? Banging on a drum would be much more up his alley. The idea of this rambunctious little guy handling anything as delicate as a violin, let alone learning to play it? Oh ha ha ha!

He’s doing quite well with it, actually. He has a very musical ear, he’s a natural-born performer, and the physical aspects of playing the violin have come pretty easily to him. But where he tends to fall flat (sorry) is in the area of musical expression. See, he has his own ideas about how things should sound. For example, this Bach Minuet that his teacher says is supposed to sound “elegant”? Well this evening he told me he made up a story to go with it.

“Okay, here are the knights at their home base,” he says, and plays the opening section of the piece. “They’re calm and happy.” Plays some more. “Okay, pretty soon a battle is going to start.” Wades into the second half of the piece. “The battle is getting bigger.” Deeper into the second half. “And now the battle is over!” Finishes off the song with a flourish.

This is a minuet! A stately 17th-century dance. And the kiddo is picturing knights in battle???

Normally I love

to click on the “New Post” link.  The site of a blank edit screen just waiting for my blather gives me quite an adrenaline rush. But tonight? Tonight I have a bit of a headache and I’ve been sort of sad today, too, thinking about the fact that it is Jacqueline du Pré’s birthday. She would have been 66.

Papillons

If I had to pick just one piece of classical music to listen to over and over again for the rest of my life it would probably be Papillons by Robert Schumann. I first got to know it when I was a teenager and my sister was learning to play it. Which means that I heard it over and over and over again, each section. Fast, slow, hands separate, hands together, with the metronome, without the metronome, with the music, without the music, a measure at a time, straight through from beginning to end. My sister was a pretty good pianist, and she was a very good practice-er. (Those two things don’t always go together, btw.)

Papillons is a gorgeous piece of music. It consists of a bunch of short movements that are played all as one, so it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the next begins. And they are very closely intertwined, with melodies in one showing up in another, not quite a theme and variations but close. It’s very romantic and deep, and you can listen to it forever and ever and never get sick of it.

There’s one thing that always puzzled me, though. Why “papillons”? Papillons means butterflies in French, and I’m sorry but this music does not even remotely remind me of butterflies. It’s got some very loud and thunderous parts, and even the lighter softer parts are just… not… butterfly-like. Yes I know Schumann was insane and all, but still. Here’s my favorite pianist, Murray Perahia, playing a section from the middle. Tell me, do you hear any butterflies in there?

And then I went to a recital given by a music school professor who played the piece and lectured from the piano *swoon* and I found out the real scoop. Are you ready?

Schumann based this piece on a chapter of a novel! It is supposed to depict a masquerade ball. If I recall correctly, it takes place in a gigantic mansion, and the hero goes from room to room observing people in different costumes — kind of like the way butterflies metamorphose from caterpillars, you know — and getting progressively drunker and drunker. By the end of the piece, which ends not with a bang but with a very charming musical whimper, he is passed out on the floor and the sun is rising.

On my iPod

Being a proper Suzuki family, we listen to a lot of violin music around here. And since I can’t think of anything else to write about at the moment, I thought I would share some of my current obsessions with you. If you don’t like classical music, just skip this post. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But these are what makes my day complete, and you can click on the album covers to get to the amazon.com listings if you want. (I’m not an affiliate and I don’t benefit in any way if you do.)

CD coverFritz Kreisler was quite a cutie. He was, of course, one of the greatest violinists of all time, but did you know he was also a composer? Yes, but get this, he was too shy to publish his delightful compositions under his own name. Instead, he reverse-plagiarized, pretending they were the works of obscure composers like Pugnani. Pugnani??? Anyway, these pieces are absolutely charming, and Joshua Bell plays the heck out of ’em. Highly recommend this one for brightening up a gloomy day.

CD coverI don’t know what it is about Robert Schumann. I hate to think he was my “soul mate,” considering he died insane and all. But there is something in his music that speaks to me on a very very deep level. These violin sonatas just kill me every time. The first one sounds like it begins in the middle. There’s no introduction, no build-up — you’re just instantly swept away. Jennifer Koh is great, by the way. She is a wonderful musician and (from what I can tell) a neat person. Plus she has a very pretty website.

CD coverI have to admit I didn’t used to be a very big fan of string quartets. I need to hear a piano in there somewhere, or maybe a wind instrument. Something to add a little salt to the sweetness, you know? But Mendelssohn changed that for me, and after I discovered his quartets I was able to go back and enjoy the Haydns and Beethovens. And these French quartets, these lush French Impressionist quartets, are absolutely the most gorgeous things ever.

What about you? What have you been listening to lately? What are you listening to right now?