400 Days and some Saint Saëns

Some­times you miss when the odome­ter turns to a par­tic­u­lar­ly impres­sive sequence of num­bers. I missed when our car hit 6666 kilo­me­ters a cou­ple of weeks ago. On the oth­er hand, back in July, I did take notice when the cal­en­dar hit 07–07-07 (although I did­n’t head over to the Riv­er Rock Casi­no in Rich­mond to play craps as appar­ent­ly many peo­ple did).

Today, how­ev­er, is sig­nif­i­cant for a cou­ple of rea­sons: first, it’s Beethoven’s birth­day (he’d be 237 years old today, just shy of three 80-year old life­times, one after the oth­er, if one could man­age such a med­ical feat.)

How­ev­er, today’s date means some­thing even more impor­tant, look­ing for­ward, than it does look­ing back­ward or numerologically:

As of today, George W. Bush, or WPIUSH, as I often refer to him, has just 400 days more in office. Now, that’s some­thing to look for­ward to.

What I’m Lis­ten­ing To
Some fel­low blog­gers (Gene, M.J. and Nan­cy) have request­ed that from time to time, it might be nice if I not­ed what I was lis­ten­ing to and wrote a lit­tle bit about it, since my tastes in music are a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from most people.

(By way of expla­na­tion, for those who don’t know, I tend to lis­ten to a lot of Clas­si­cal music, and very lit­tle pop­u­lar songs, main­ly because I nev­er learned how to lis­ten to Pop or Rock music, as I was brought up in a house­hold that nev­er had any of that on. This some­times makes me feel a lit­tle bit like some­one from a dif­fer­ent plan­et, and despite my attempts to get to know pop­u­lar music more, I fear it’s a los­ing bat­tle, because I’m always lis­ten­ing for the wrong things. I can’t under­stand the lyrics, and my taste in musi­cal lan­guage has always been toward music that has a rel­a­tive­ly com­pli­cat­ed and rapid har­mon­ic rhythm [har­mon­ic rate of change]. This is pret­ty much the oppo­site for what peo­ple lis­ten to in pop­u­lar music, from say, 1955 onward. I’m OK with some Jazz, and even have been known to ‘get’ the odd pop bal­lad or folk music — even some Coun­try West­ern, but I’m most com­fort­able with reper­toire that rarely is played out­side of NPR or CBC Radio 2. For­tu­nate­ly, there are sev­er­al cen­turies of music by thou­sands of com­posers to choose from, and the genre is far from dead, as there are indeed, liv­ing com­posers all over the world writ­ing what some peo­ple now refer to as ‘con­cert music’, for lack of a bet­ter term.)

So giv­en today’s birth­day, you would expect that I’d be lis­ten­ing to Lud­wig Van. As it turns out, the piece I had run­ning through my head this morn­ing is one that I’ve some­times heard on 2‑piano recitals and even at par­ties my par­ents would have, since in the evening, they would some­times play (or have guests play­ing) their 2 pianos, either in their liv­ing room, or now in their teach­ing stu­dio. It’s ‘Vari­a­tions on a Theme by Beethoven’ by the com­pos­er who is, for bet­ter or worse, known for a chil­dren’s clas­sic, The Car­ni­val of the Ani­mals, Camille Saint Saëns (which, odd­ly enough, also includes 2 pianos, so I guess there is some­thing of a pat­tern going on there).

This piece make the most of the effect of switch­ing the music from one piano to anoth­er, a tech­nique called ‘antiphonal music’ which goes back as far as the Renais­sance — if not fur­ther. Com­posers like Hein­rich Schütz and Gio­van­ni Gabriel­li wrote church and sec­u­lar music that took great advan­tage of groups of per­form­ers, some­times sig­nif­i­cant dis­tances from each oth­er, with the music alter­nat­ing between the dif­fer­ent groups. Despite the fact that pianos are usu­al­ly placed next to each oth­er on the stage, record­ings can real­ly make them dis­tinct from each oth­er, and a recent record­ing by the Turk­ish Iden­ti­cal Twins Güher and Süher Pekinel, makes it so that one piano is sit­u­at­ed at far left and the oth­er at far right in space (or at least, it sounds that way). Besides all of this spa­tial enter­tain­ment, this piece is every­thing that Vari­a­tions should be about: how to take a sim­ple theme and play with it. Like a pair of chil­dren try­ing on all sorts of dif­fer­ent out­fits, the 2 pianos in this piece go through all sorts of moods and acro­bat­ics, but can’t escape the fact that it’s the same theme, no mat­ter how it’s dressed up. In the end I have to admire both Saint Saëns inge­nu­ity and his sense of dra­ma. The piece includes a pre­req­ui­site almost-Fugue, a Baroque peri­od cre­ation that 19th Cen­tu­ry com­posers like Saint Saëns (and oth­ers) delight­ed in riff­ing on to show that they too were well schooled in com­po­si­tion­al tech­nique, and a great rol­lick­ing big finale that hops away to a com­plete­ly sat­is­fy­ing (if a lit­tle pat) finish.

It’s a shame that Saint Saëns is main­ly known for what’s essen­tial­ly a work for chil­dren, as well as his Organ Sym­pho­ny, which was used for the music for the movie ‘Babe’. Maybe there is some­thing child­like about him, but nev­er­the­less, I like these Vari­a­tions, which prob­a­bly aren’t so famous. Debussy was­n’t a big fan of Saint Saëns, who he felt was too sen­ti­men­tal and old-fash­ioned. Indeed, Saint Saëns is one of those Parisians who were in atten­dance in 1913 for Stravin­sky’s Rite of Spring, and I don’t know if he con­tributed to the riot, but he report­ed­ly stormed out. (He report­ed­ly said that he did­n’t like the high bas­soon solo that starts the bal­let) I can for­give him, as he was 78 years-old by that time and def­i­nite­ly a man of the last cen­tu­ry, not Stravinsky’s.

About that record­ing by the Pekinal twins: It’s great fun, and avail­able from the iTunes music store, but unfor­tu­nate­ly, you have to buy the whole album. In this case, that’s not such a bad thing, because it includes a fierce per­for­mance of Brahms’ two piano ver­sion of his Quin­tet in F‑Minor (a piece I def­i­nite­ly grew up with, as my father per­formed it many times), and 5 of his op. 39 Waltzes, which they play with a lit­tle too much ruba­to for my taste (it isn’t a drunk­en per­for­mance, but maybe a lit­tle tip­sy) and some Hun­gar­i­an Dances. Here’s a link to the Album (pic­ture to art, but­ton to iTunes):

Album Art for Brahms and Saint Saëns Piano Duets by the Pekinel Sisters
Güher Pekinel & Süher Pekinel - Güher & Süher Pekinel: Brahms & Saint-Saëns - Variations on a theme by Beethoven

5 Replies to “400 Days and some Saint Saëns”

  1. Wow..David .now that’s a blog entry…I find this kind of info fas­ci­nat­ing as I don’t know the his­to­ry of music. Now I have to go buy the album so I can hear what you are talk­ing about. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You’re wel­come, MJ. BTW, if you ever want me to explain or elab­o­rate on some­thing I’ll be hap­py to. I’m sure I’ll get bet­ter at this as I get more practice.

    I have to be care­ful not to fall into my old ‘music crit­ic’ style, a job I occa­sion­al­ly had back when I was a grad stu­dent and for a brief peri­od a cou­ple years ago when we had first moved here.

  3. David — won­der­ful! I can’t wait to try lis­ten­ing to the Vari­a­tions. And peo­ple used to storm out of con­certs? How excit­ing! OK, I have a ques­tion for your next music post. When I go to clas­si­cal music con­certs, I notice that the per­form­ers are very (some­times Very!) quick to return for an encore. Should­n’t an encore be reserved for when the con­cert was so amaz­ing that we all insist, insist!, on hear­ing more? Or is it now just a giv­en, that an encore will be per­formed? What if the audi­ence in fact would real­ly rather go home?

  4. Hi Nan­cy! Glad you liked this. I’ve late­ly been lis­ten­ing to the oth­er (big­ger) piece on the album, the Brahms Sonata in F Minor, and their per­for­mance is grow­ing on me each time, espe­cial­ly the last move­ment, which by the end real­ly gets my heart racing.

    So, should an encore be reserved for when it’s unde­ni­able that the audi­ence wants one? Sure! Does the per­former know that from the stage? That’s uncer­tain. Ide­al­ly, a per­former: 1) Has pre­pared an encore (or a few of them) , but is not over­ly dis­ap­point­ed if they don’t get a chance to play them and 2) The audi­ence clear­ly is show­ing enthu­si­asm, with mul­ti­ple cur­tain calls and cries of ‘Encore!’ (Sounds clear enough to me, anyway).

    While one of these is often true, both may not be. If a per­former is not 100% sure that an encore is wel­come, they may be a bit too quick to return to the stage, for fear of los­ing the chance. On the oth­er hand, audi­ences have begun to near­ly always give a per­for­mance that isn’t bad a stand­ing ova­tion. That’s a real shame, as it’s mak­ing stand­ing ova­tions com­mon, which is exact­ly what they are not sup­posed to be. As stand­ing ova­tions get more com­mon (and pre­dictable), the per­former may think they are stand­ing in wait for an encore, when what they’re real­ly doing is get­ting their coats on to leave.

    It would be great if appre­ci­a­tion and rec­i­p­ro­ca­tion (with encores) were more defin­i­tive, but based on per­form­ers can see or here, and the lack of clar­i­ty from the audi­ence, com­mu­ni­ca­tions between these 2 par­ties are not going to get bet­ter in the near future.

    Oh, and yes, audi­ences booed, riot­ed and stormed out in the 19th (and 20th) cen­turies. Most of the ones I’ve been to have been annoy­ing­ly polite. I do remem­ber a con­cert one sum­mer when I was a stu­dent at Tan­gle­wood, where a con­duc­tor led the Boston Sym­pho­ny in an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly slow per­for­mance of Mahler’s First Sym­pho­ny. 1/2 of the audi­ence was enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly applaud­ing what they felt was a pro­found and mov­ing per­for­mance, and the oth­er 1/2 was hiss­ing because they found it pon­der­ous and bor­ing! (It was an out­door con­cert, so no one stormed any­where, and I was dis­ap­point­ed that there were no fisticuffs between the peo­ple who were cheer­ing and the peo­ple who were hiss­ing. Now that would have been a recep­tion to remember).

  5. OK, I could­n’t resist try­ing to start a Move­ment (no pun intend­ed) to restrain our stand­ing ova­tions. You should receive the face­book invi­ta­tion short­ly! lol.

    and wow — maybe we should start anoth­er move­ment — bring­ing back Boo­ing into the clas­si­cal music scene? (I’d nev­er have the heart … but I bet atten­dance would increase if word about those kind of shenani­gans got out!)

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