Danse sacrale

Today’s Wordless Wednesday … a 1913 sketch by Valentine Hugo describing Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography of the Danse sacrale (Sacrificial Dance) from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps.



When one thinks about the earliest woman composers in history, the name most commonly thought of is Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). There are other earlier names, including Enheduanna, one of the daughters of Sargon of Akkad, who was writing music and hymns in the twenty-third century BCE and is perhaps the first composer, male or female, that can be identified. But in terms of those whose music still exists, Hildegard is among the earliest. Along with the great beauty of her music, her reputation for learning – she wrote nine books on subjects ranging from natural history, medicine, and cosmology to music, poetry, and theology – make her an important figure in the artistic and intellectual history of the Middle Ages.

kassiani-iconBut she is not the earliest female composer whose music can still be heard today. That distinction is held by Kassiani (810-865). Like Hildegard, Kassiani was an abbess at a convent. Also like Hildegard, she wrote her own poetry as well as music. Around fifty of Kassiani’s hymns have come down to us, and twenty-three are still part of the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Kassiani, sometimes known as Kassia, was born in Constantinople into a wealthy family. She was said to be very beautiful, and supposedly had a chance to marry the young Emperor Theophilos and become the Byzantine Empress. According to chroniclers, when Theophilos suggested to Kassiani that “Through a woman came forth the baser things,” she replied, “And through a woman came forth the better things.” In any event, the marriage didn’t happen, and a few years later, she returns to documented history in 843 as the founder and abbess of a convent just outside Constantinople. Later she settled on the Greek island of Kasos, near Crete, where she died and where her tomb and reliquary can still be seen. The feast day of Saint Kassiani is celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church on September 7.

Probably the best-known of her compositions is the beautiful Hymn (or Troparion) of Kassiani, which is sung every Holy Wednesday. According to legend, the Emperor Theophilos, who was still in love with Kassiani, went to visit her at her convent as she was writing this hymn. He wanted to see her one more time before he died. When she realized who it was that was arriving, she hid in a closet in her cell, not wanting to reawaken old feelings on either her or his part. Theophilos came into her cell and saw the unfinished hymn on her table. As he cried over having rejected her years before, he added a line to her hymn: “those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise and hid herself for fear.” Then he left, and Kassiani finished the hymn. Its music is slow and sad, and is demanding for the singers who perform it. People apparently still go to services on Holy Wednesday specifically “to listen to Kassiani.”

Very few recordings have been made of her music, unfortunately, although it has been taken up by groups like the Kronos Quartet. It would seem that the only CD of Kassiani’s music is by the ensemble VocaMe on the Christophorus label. That entire album is happily available on YouTube.

Sunday Salon 2-12-17

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 7:30 Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.

Reading: Along with continuing in the novel Headlong by Michael Frayn, which I should finish in the next day or two, I read one self-help book this week, Susan J. Elliott’s Getting Past Your Breakup, which I indeed hope will prove to be self-helpful.

Viewing: My coolness toward film watching continued this week, as I only watched a couple of documentaries: InnSaei, a somewhat muddled exploration of intuition and mindfulness, and 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama. It’s never a bad idea to spend some time listening to the Dalai Lama.

Listening: It has once again been a listening week dedicated to the music I needed to write about for my program note projects. This time, it was the contents of the concluding concerts of the Reno Chamber Orchestra’s current season: Beethoven’s concert aria Ah! perfido and Antonín Dvořák’s Stabat Mater.

Blogging: My blogging goals seem to have settled into the idea of doing two extended pieces per week, along with a Wordless Wednesday and a Sunday Salon. I usually feel fairly good if I can manage that much. And this week, I succeeded, producing:

* An article I had meant to write for a long time, Looking At Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks
* My impressions of Frank Stella – A Retrospective, an exhibition currently at San Francisco’s de Young Museum

Pondering: This has been another of those weeks where pondering, thinking, anticipating, remembering, dreaming … they’ve all turned out to be more harmful than helpful. Living in the present moment, which is all we’ve got after all, without judging and evaluating and comparing seems to be a more beneficial way to go.

And finally: Returning to the theme of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, the painting has been enormously influential. One never knows where it will turn up…

Sunday Salon 2-5-17

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 8:00 Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.

Reading: While I didn’t complete any books this week, I did start a new novel, Headlong by Michael Frayn, which details a plot to secure a long-lost and extremely valuable painting by Pieter Bruegel from an unknowing couple. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the comedic tone and the amount of historical and Bruegel scholarship included in Headlong has surprised and delighted me.

Viewing: As I’ve mentioned before here, I’ve been enduring a cold spell with regards to film viewing. For some reason, the time and attention required has seemed more than I could manage. I’ve tried to counteract that by choosing to watch a film that I already knew I loved. I wanted to watch something with poetry and wonder and heart, with vivid characters and setting, something that reminded me why films are made in the first place. Pondering this for a moment, what came pretty quickly to my mind was Jean Renoir’s The River. I watched it last night, and was not disappointed. It may not get me back on track with film, but The River is certainly a beautiful work of art.

Listening: Aside from Mike Oldfield’s new album Return to Ommadawn, which I’ve been enjoying greatly, my music listening has unfortunately followed the same path as my film viewing. Fortunately, I am “forced” to listen to music for the sake of the program notes I write. But a renaissance of interest is needed here as well.

Blogging: Unlike the previous week, when I did basically nothing on the blogging front, the week just past was remarkably productive. My posts included:

* a little free fantasy on the nature of consciousness, to be as pretentious about it as possible, based on a quotation from Virginia Woolf
* a beautiful quotation from Pirandello
* an old woodcut by Moritz von Schwind, The Hunter’s Funeral, that is said to have provided inspiration for the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (about which I recently wrote a program note)
* my impressions of the recent volume of conversations on music between Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, Absolutely on Music

On top of that, I’ve also just about completed a review of Frank Stella: A Retrospective, which I saw recently and is currently on exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. This should appear at the blog in the next day or two.

Pondering: It’s an age-old question, but how could I have been so unmotivated to write two weeks ago, and yet so remarkably productive this past week? Although I did write some in that down week, the process consistently felt like trudging through mud. This past week, everything flowed easily, and what I wrote needed little revision. Which is it going to be in the coming week?

And finally: By the brilliant Tom Gauld, author of You’re All Just Jealous Of My Jetpack

Murakami: Absolutely on Music

murakami-ozawa-absolutely-on-music-coverAbsolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa
Haruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016, 325 pages

Haruki Murakami is, of course, the world-famous Japanese author of books like Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84, as well as short stories and non-fiction books like Underground (which I’ve written about at this blog). As anyone who has read Murakami’s novels will know, he is an enthusiastic music fan with catholic tastes. Classical music has had a central role in several of his novels – for instance, Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta in 1Q84, and Franz Liszt’s piano travelogue Années de pèlerinage in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Murakami admits to having little formal background or training in music. But he is obviously a serious and sophisticated listener with excellent taste and a great ear.

Murakami had known conductor Seiji Ozawa in passing for many years. Ozawa served as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for twenty-nine years, and held the same position with the Toronto Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, and Vienna State Opera, as well as at the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. While he lived in Boston from 1993 to 1995, Murakami went to many Boston Symphony concerts at which Ozawa conducted. He went on to attend many Ozawa performances around the world. Sharing a similar doggedness, conviction, and enthusiasm about their respective areas of expertise, Murakami writes, “I had never encountered anyone before Seiji Ozawa with whom I found it so easy and natural to identify.”

In 2009, when Ozawa developed esophageal cancer and had to take a break from musical activities, he and Murakami decided to formalize their musical conversations and turn them into the present book. “My only purpose in this book was for me, as a music lover, to have a discussion of music with the musician Seiji Ozawa that was as open and honest as possible. I simply wanted to bring out the ways that each of us (though on vastly different levels) is dedicated to music.” Their conversations took place from November 2010 to July 2011 in Tokyo, Honolulu, and Switzerland. They not only talked, but listened to recordings (handily, timing cues are included for the recordings they listened to, so readers can follow along, and Murakami’s official website includes a Spotify playlist of the recordings).

They begin by listening to the famous 1962 live performance by Glenn Gould, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic of the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, which was preceded by a spoken disclaimer by Bernstein commenting on the unusually slow interpretation that was to follow. Ozawa, as Bernstein’s assistant back then, was present at that performance, and actually has many nice things to say about it. Ozawa talks about the way Gould phrases music, and relates it to Japanese music: “In Japan we talk about ma in Asian music – the importance of those pauses or empty spaces – but it’s there in Western music, too. You get a musician like Glenn Gould, and he’s doing exactly the same thing.”

At the end of a session in which they listen to some or all of several performances of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, they move to the recording by pianist Mitsuko Uchida, whose music making both of them love. Murakami’s comments about the recording show this: “truly miraculous music making … The two listeners groan simultaneously … Beautiful piano solo unfolds, like an ink painting in space … A string of notes, perfectly formed and brimming with courage, each note thinking for itself.”

Ozawa reminisces about his two and a half years as one of Leonard Bernstein’s assistant conductors. It was hard, ill-paying work, as Ozawa had to be prepared to conduct all of the music Bernstein was to lead, in case illness or something kept Bernstein from appearing. This forced Ozawa to do a lot of reading of scores, and he found that he liked it, getting into the habit of spending a few hours early every morning at the task.

Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Murakami

Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Murakami

During that time, Ozawa also began his extensive recording career, conducting everything from Bartók and Honegger to Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Once he became Music Director of the Toronto Symphony, he recorded big pieces like Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony. Many, many more recordings followed with the Chicago, London, and, especially, Boston Symphonies. Comparing three Ozawa performances of the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz, Murakami perceptively opines that in the earliest one with the Toronto Symphony, from 1966, “the music leaps and dances on the palms of your hands.” In the recording from seven years later with the Boston Symphony, “it feels as though you’re cupping your hands, embracing the music, carefully letting it ripen.” And in a much later one from 2007 with the Saito Kinen Orchestra, “you’re unfolding your hands a little, letting the air in, free it up.”

Gustav Mahler is a major topic of their talks. It happens that Ozawa’s period as Leonard Bernstein’s assistant coincided with Bernstein’s exploration of the music of Mahler, which, as the book reminds us, wasn’t at all popular or well-known prior to Bruno Walter’s early stereo recordings of a few of the works, and then Bernstein’s from just slightly later. Bernstein became engrossed with Mahler’s music during that time – “feverishly grappling” with it, in Ozawa’s words. At first, Ozawa had become aware of Mahler through the study of scores. “It was a huge shock for me – until then I never even knew music like that existed … I was amazed that there was someone who knew how to use an orchestra so well. It was extreme – his marvelous ability to put every component of the orchestra to use. And from the orchestra’s point of view, the Mahler symphonies are the most challenging pieces ever.”

Murakami ably summarizes part of the uniqueness of Mahler’s music: it is “filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without any logical connection, and sometimes even in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, fin-de-siècle overripeness, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldviews – a huge variety of stuff, no single one of which you can place at the center of things.”

Along with their conversations, Murakami attended the eighth annual Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland, a seminar for younger string players held from June 27 to July 6, 2011 in the town of Rolle, on the banks of Lake Geneva. The players, who go through an audition process to take part in the Academy, form string quartets and play in an orchestra. As they rehearse and present concerts, they also receive instruction and guidance from famous string players, including longtime Juilliard Quartet violinist Robert Mann. Murakami wondered at how rough the young musicians could sound in early rehearsals, and by contrast how polished they’d sound at the actual performances several days later – it was “like a mysterious rising of the air” as their performances came together. Even as Ozawa’s health problems continued, Murakami marveled at his dedication to his academy. “To hand genuine ‘good music’ on to the next generation; to convey that intense feeling; to stir the hearts of young musicians in such a pure and fundamental manner: these surely gave him a joy that was fully as profound as that to be gained from conducting such world-class orchestras as the Boston Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic.”

One gets lovely flashes of Murakami’s affectionate attention to music throughout this book. For instance, he remarks of a section from the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms, “Brahms uses the horns with great skill, as if calling the audience deep into a German forest. The sound carries with it an important part of Brahms’s internal spiritual world.” He and Ozawa discuss intricacies that most ordinary listeners, including Murakami himself, aren’t aware of. For instance, there is a passage in that same Brahms symphony where two horns, then two flutes, play alternating phrases that slightly overlap, so that there is no audible breath to break the phrase. Brahms deliberately wrote it that way, but all we normal listeners hear is a long phrase of music.

The insider anecdotes are many. For instance, Ozawa describes something I had never heard of before, the “shower.” When a conductor who has received some bad reviews comes out to take a second bow after a subsequent performance, “the musicians all make random noises with their instruments – the trumpets, the strings, the trombones, the timpani all together make one big fwaaan or gaaaan sort of noise …this was kind of like the orchestra’s musical protest to the critical reviews.”

These informal, accessible talks between the author and conductor are a delight, especially for music and Murakami fans. Even those new to classical music can learn much from these conversations, as Murakami, a musically enthusiastic layman with a gift for description and evocative metaphors, meets Ozawa, with the deep knowledge gained from a career spanning more than six decades. Buy yourself a copy of the book, fire up YouTube or Spotify, and prepare for some entertaining musical adventures.

Moritz von Schwind: The Hunter’s Funeral

For the last couple of days, I have been writing program notes for an upcoming concert by the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. One of the pieces I’ve been working on is the Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler. So for today’s Wordless Wednesday, I thought I would share what is thought to have been the original inspiration for that symphony’s third movement, the 1850 woodcut The Hunter’s Funeral by Moritz von Schwind.


Sunday Salon 1-29-17

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 3:00 in the morning, afflicted by insomnia, at my main computer at home.

Reading: This week, I completed Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, one of just four novels this great author and longtime University of Denver professor completed. At first the book felt a little plodding to me, short of action and long on description. But as I read, I realized that the fault was mine. Williams’s descriptions of landscape, people, and the interior life of Andrews, the main character, are in fact detailed, but also careful and engrossing, giving the novel a power and gravitas that I gradually succumbed to. Now I’m anxious to read his other two mature novels, Stoner and Augustus. I also just finished the very entertaining Absolutely on Music, conversations between Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa on various musical subjects. I hope to write something up on that book in the next few days.

Viewing: For reasons that I really can’t fathom, I have found myself less than attracted to the idea of watching movies lately. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming number of viewing options I have. Or it may be that my brain, greatly enfeebled in recent days and weeks, is just not up to the task of concentrating on a single thing for an entire two hour period. Whatever the problem is, I hope it goes away soon. Halfhearted viewing of political news and old television shows isn’t really doing it for me.

Listening: My listening habits have been off as well. What music I listened to this past week was related to the program notes I have been writing for upcoming concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. The notes for the former are now done, and once I’ve tackled writing a nice essay on Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, I’ll send off the latter ones this week. Hooray for completed projects.

Blogging: Due to a very emotionally-trying past week, I didn’t manage to blog at all. I do have a couple of things in the works for the coming week, though, if I can follow through on them.

Pondering: Today, I will be attending my first Reno Chamber Orchestra concert since I left that organization not quite a year ago, after fourteen years of service and never missing a performance during that time. It will be a strange feeling, and I hope a not-uncomfortable one. I do look forward to the music, and to reconnecting with the people in and around the Orchestra.

And finally: