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):