Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Long-Suffering Accompanist

We return from a brief hiatus to present this crucial musical observation on the the merits of support vs. fame.

By Dr. Annie Patterson

The art of playing “second-fiddle" is at all times a difficult and thankless one. It takes a philosopher to realize the hidden truth that lies beneath Shakespeare’s Coriolanus having preferred “a place below the first.” Fame, at which it is natural most public artists should aim, is connected mainly with solo work of some description. In a sense, this is right and proper. But that those who so effectively serve to beautify and adorn solo work, and without whom the most attractive solo would sound lacking and bald, should so frequently go without recognition or be dismissed with scant courtesy, calls for reform. The efficient concert accompanist belongs to this class.

The Accompanist's Requirements

First, let us briefly consider the duties which fall to, say, a pianoforte accompanist. He must be, in the first place, an accomplished musician. No point in theoretical and executive knowledge should be unknown to him, no mark of expression beyond his comprehension. He should be familiar with all styles of vocal music, whether in oratorio, opera or of a purely lyrical nature. Technically, he should be expert at interpreting all kinds of accompaniments, and this often at first sight. Nor does his art end there. He needs to be able to adapt himself to the idiosyncrasies of particular singers, supporting the nervous and uncertain, and generally accommodating the ofttimes elastic ideas which many vocalists have about time and pace in the rendering of a song. At the basis of such adaptability lies the very necessary possession of a quick and sympathetic intelligence, which anticipates rather than waits upon the wishes of the solo performer.

 If we reverse the picture, and consider what are the acquirements of the individual soloist, the marvel of  the fully accomplished accompanist's all-around facilities grows upon us. The accompanist has to take his chances often in reading a complicated or badly manuscripted score. Vocal slips, hurried tempi, missed bars, are of frequent occurrence on the singer's part, and they generally pass without notice or comment. If the luckless accompanist errs similarly, the criticism of soloist and listeners seldom fails to be his lot.

The Accompanist's Trials 

By these remarks we do not claim an invidious distinction for one type of artist over the other. We would only plead for equal sympathy with and recognition for the respective talents of each. Seeing that modern accompaniments are bristling with difficulties, singers should give an accompanist every facility for previous rehearsal for the sake of all concerned. Frantic requests to transpose at sight, when the performers are actually coming upon the platform, should not be made unless under the most urgent circumstances. Some respect should be shown to the accompanist in the matter of asking him to play from tattered or badly manuscripted scores, and this especially when every facility exists for the purchase of well-printed sheet music. Organizers of concerts might also consider the one who “presides” at the piano more than they do. A good instrument is as essential for an accompanist as for solo playing. Dusty keys, low, unadjustable seating accommodation, bad light, and unwieldy or unstable music desks are some of the many impediments with which accompanists are continually wrestling. The writer has frequently known of a spotless handkerchief having to be whisked surreptitiously across grimy or clammy keyboards, an appeal for side candles during the course of a performance, or the amusing episode of an outdoor wrap or coat serving for an impromptu cushion! All this shows lack of the true organizing spirit, and is, in short, culpable want of thought upon the part of those who are responsible for the well-ordering of musical entertainments.

A Question of Consideration and Courtesy

If we think, at a single concert for example, how often the accompanist comes upon the platform - in a program of, say, eight vocal items not counting concerted numbers, from twelve to fourteen times if we allow for encores - the mere physical exertion, the constant strain, deserves our admiration and respect. Usually all this is done with the most sincere good-nature and obliteration of self. Plaudits are loud and vociferous; but the accompanist stands aside. Applause is not for him or her. Recalls are frequent and urgent, but who thinks of giving an accompanist an encore? In how far the encore is brought about by the skill and self-possession of that very accompanist seldom enters the mind of even the best disposed of singers. Now and then a gracious vocalist will thank, and thank heartily, some one who has afforded a most fitting framework to a charming picture. This little courtesy never fails to please and encourage. It cannot be paid too often.

The Law of Compensation

But apart from all these considerations that call for reform, the accompanist has his compensations. The task, even in its subordinate character, is a pleasing one. Those who are adepts get honestly fond of their work. They, perhaps, more than even the public or the singers themselves enter into the inner beauties of the compositions which they interpret, for the simple reason that they see them from a very full point of view. Think, for instance, what a study of artistic adaptability are the accompaniments of Schubert’s divine songs! To give the requisite spirit of terrific rush and tense anguish to the “Erl-King,” or the needful delicacy to the framework of “The Linden Tree,” needs the soul and ardor of the true musician. A good accompanist can convey, imperceptibly as it were, this love and pride in a work to the singer, and so feel, even if unnoticed, that his or her devoted playing has shared in earning the meed of applause addressed to the soloist. On a grander scale still comes the work of the accompanist of concerted and choral music, the massive achievements of our great church organists, and, in an extended sense, the massed effects of all well-constituted orchestras. “A place below the first" by no means indicates inferiority. It is rather the hallmark of excellence to fill such a position effectively and contentedly. Soloists themselves are recommended to cultivate this side of their art if it were but occasionally to enter into the very special joys thereof. Only the singer who can, when required, play his or her own accompaniment, gets a fair view of all sides of a fascinating picture.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Musical Thought and Activity Over the Seas

By Arthur Elson

Liszt at the Lesson

In Die Musik, Siloti gives a number of reminiscences of Liszt. He could be caustic enough when he wished. On hearing an acquaintance remark, “I don't know anything about music," Liszt at once replied, “Then you must become a critic." To a poor performer who came recommended by royalty, he said, “You had better study, and not beg letters from queens.” When an over-ambitious composer, who had imitated the “Faust” symphony rather closely, brought his score for Liszt’s inspection and autograph, the latter wrote, “To Herr X,
who can write like this, and better." 

In his teaching, Liszt would apparently make very few adverse comments to the pupils; but in reality he expressed much. He could say a simple “Gut!” with more varieties of expression than the average student was aware of; and only a few were satisfied that his accent meant approbation. If the performance was only moderate, he would say, “I know half a dozen who play like that, and as many who do it better.” For rather poor work, he would exclaim, “Even the Princess (Elizabeth) plays that better.” Only once or twice a year would he have occasion to get really angry at wretched playing. Then he would ejaculate furiously, “I am no washerwoman, take your dirty linen to a Conservatory."

Liszt was usually the best of companions, though occasionally he would become nettled over a game of cards. Personalities sometimes made him lose his temper, too. Once a pupil, and one who has since become world-famous, imitated Liszt’s peculiar, hissing laugh behind his back; whereupon the master turned and gave the offender a solid box on the ear.

Instruments of Bygone Days

In the International Society's Quarterly, Curt Sachs writes of an old German poem, entitled “Der Minne Regel," and quotes from it a list of early instruments. Of these the Flegil was a form of flute, and,the Schachtbret an elementary spinet, while the Medicinale, which sounds more like a surgical than a musical instrument, is at present unknown. The other names, according to the writer, need no special explanation; but American readers may think differently when they see these names. They are “Cymbel, Harffe, Monocordium, Portitiff, Psalterium, Lute, Clavicymbalom, Quinterna, Gyge, Videle, Lyra, Rubeba, Phife, Floyte, Schalmey and Horn." How many readers can describe these instruments without further information?

Cymbals and harp are clear enough, and the rote was a small square harp. The monochord (tromba marina) was a single~stringed affair suitable for the unskilled. Clavichords were probably more primitive among the minnesingers than in Bach's day. The portatif (like the regals) was a small portable organ. The psaltery was a species of dulcimer, the Oriental
precursor of the piano; and the clavicembalo had an actual keyboard. Quinterna may be a form of gittern or guitar. Gyge suggests geige, the German name for the violin, and videle gives the same idea; but the instruments of the poet’s time must have been of the flatter and smoother-toned viol type. Rubeba (rebab) was the Arabian precursor of the violin. The schalmey was an early clarinet.

The minnesingers and troubadours had instruments enough, and their music was a much more pleasing affair than the crude efforts of the early contrapuntists. Adam de la Hale's thirteenth-century work, “Robin et Marion,” was really an effective comic opera, in which the over-boastful hero shows much unexpected cowardice when called upon to defend his sweetheart against the advances of a nobleman. The old lyrics, as shown by the songs of Gaucelm Faidit, King Thibaut, and others, were bright enough in style, and far more attractive than the puzzle-canons of later centuries.

The life of a troubadour, too, was not always unpleasing. When spring came, he would issue forth from his home, with a train of pages and jongleurs, to visit some neighboring castle. During banquets, the jongleurs would play various pieces, including whatever works their master had composed. In some meadow bower, or while taking the air on the walls, the troubadour might take a guitar and air his own skill in singing.

Where the minnesingers praised the more ideal side of love, the troubadours often chose an individual to receive their homage; and if she was married, as often happened, the troubadours' attentions sometimes caused trouble. One over-bold minstrel knight carried matters so far that his lady's irate husband killed him, and had his heart served to the lady at her next meal. When she had eaten it, the vengeful husband told her what the tasteful dish had been; whereupon she declared it had been so good that no other food should
ever follow it, and starved herself to death. But such cases, it would seem, were extreme, and the troubadour could usually enjoy life without making trouble for himself.

The jongleurs, however, became the real musicians. When wars had obliterated their original masters, the jongleurs became strolling players, earning a precarious living by music as well as by the juggling tricks that are named from them. The best was he who could play the most instruments; and one of them, according to the Bodleian manuscript at Oxford, could perform on “The lute, the viol, the pipe, the bagpipe, the syrinx, the harp, the gigue, the gittern, the symphony, the psaltery, the organistrum, the regals, the tabour, and the rote.” Most of these are found in “Der Minne Regel;" the tabour was a shepherd's pipe, the symphony (zumpogna) a sort of bagpipe, and the organistrum a primitive hand-organ with strings to be pressed against a turning wheel. On the whole, then, the instruments of those times would not have proven unworthy to be handled by some medieval Richard Strauss.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

An Analysis of The Seventh Seal

An Analysis of The Seventh Seal

by Edward Hopf

"When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in Heaven for about half an hour."
- Revelation 8:1-2

"I do not belittle the importance of faith; on the contrary. Faith is the highest gift to man, and I consider it dishonest for philosophy to substitute something else for faith, and make light of it."
- Soren Kierkegaard

The Seventh Seal deals with man's search for God. The basic conflict is that the knight cannot kill God within him, yet he cannot find that God exists. The knight lives in a world of violence, fear and injustice. He feels that if there isn't an existence after death, then life is
meaningless and a mockery. He says to Death, "I want knowledge, not belief, not faith, not supposition, but knowledge."

Antonius Block is the opposite of Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith. Kierkegaards' Knight of Faith has faith because of his faith; because of the absurdities and irrationality of Christianity. But Bergman's knight needs a rational, realistic basis for his belief in God.

Bergman creates visual poetry with the opening scene: the titles fade in to a shot of a dramatically lighted sky. A sea eagle glides against the sky; a text from the Apocalypse is read. There is an over-head shot of two horses on a beach, but the next shots are of the
knight, the chessboard, and the knight's squire. The knight prays and shortly thereafter, Death appears. The two play chess and Death picks the black pieces and the knight the white.

Another important scene occurs in the church. The scene fades in on the knight at the altar. There is a close-up of the suffering face of Christ on the cross; the knight then speaks to a priest and expresses his doubts about life. He reveals his strategy to the priest who turns
out to be Death. After Death leaves the knight says,

"This is my hand. I can move it, feel the blood pulsing through it. The sun is still
high in the sky and I, Antonius Block am playing chess with Death."

One of the most striking scenes in the film is the procession of the flagellants. Jof and Mia are performing on the stage when suddenly they are interrupted by the singing of Dies Irae. Out of the mist proceed flagellants bearing crosses and whipping each other. They symbolize the
enslavement of man to ritualized beliefs. The atmospheric lighting gives the scene a gothic touch. (Throughout the film, Gunnar Fischer creates a sense of conflict with his stark lighting and photography.) The people fall down on their knees in awe; they mock art which is
represented in the play, but they kneel in fear to the procession of the flagellants which represents their fears. The people are finally confronted with the reality of their situation. The hysterical flagellants finally disappear into the mist. The scene fades out on the ground.

Another scene of importance is the scene where the knight eats strawberries and drinks milk with Jof, Mia, the mute girl, and the squire. The milk and strawberries symbolize the blood and body of Christ. The knight sees that Jof and Mia are happy in their simple existence;
they live with love, simplicity and purity. Before the knight leaves them he says,

"I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and
milk, your faces in the evening light, Mikael sleeping, and Jof with his lyre. I'll try to
remember what we talked about. I'll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as
if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk."

The scene of Skat's death is a parallel to the beginning of the film. Skat pretends to commit suicide. He goes to sleep in a tree, but Death comes and saws the tree down. A squirrel jumps onto the tree stump: where there is death, a new life carries on. The parallel is between this scene and the scene of the corpse and the dog on the beach.

The scene of the burning of the witch symbolizes Christ's crucifiction. She is on a cross, and at her feet stands a soldier and a woman praying. Death is her only certainty.

The knight finally loses his game to Death. He meets his wife, the mute girl, Plog, Lisa and his squire at the castle. The knight's wife reads a text from Revelation and then Death enters. The mute girl speaks for the first time and says, "It is finished." This is an allusion to Christ's last words on the cross. Outside, Jof sees Death leading a dance toward the dark lands; Jof, Mia and Mikael depart on their wagon. This last scene is an impressive montage of

The knight is a person torn between belief in God (Romanticism) and a belief that nothing exists after death (Realism). At one point in the film, the knight tells Death, "We make an idol of our fear, and call it God." Yet he cannot give up his belief in God, because
this is his only hope. He prays up until his death, even though he sees faith as a torment. He sees the ideal existence mirrored in Jof, Mia, and Mikael. The knight represents Bergman himself.

The squire, on the other hand, is very cynical. He says, "The crusade was so stupid that only an idealist could have thought it up." When the witch is burned he says that the real horror in her face is that she sees emptiness instead of eternity. Even though the squire is cynical, he is compassionate too; he saved the mute girl's life.

Jof, Mia, and Mikael represent the Holy Family. They are very innocent, trusting, and loving. Nils Poppe and Bibi Anderson do an excellent job of acting out their roles. Mia and Jof are persecuted because they are actors; at one point in the film Mia says to Jof, "People don't like one with too many ideas and fantasies." Mikael represents either the Christ child or the archangel Michael. Jof says that one day Mikael will be able to do a trick that no juggler
could ever do before. He says that he will be able to juggle a ball and make the ball stand still in mid-air.

Death is shown as an old gentleman with a stone white face and a black cape. He is not the villain; he merely has a job to do. He hides no secrets. He knows nothing.

The composition throughout the movie is very effective. when you first see Mia, Jof, and Skat, their heads form a triangle symbolizing the Trinity. The shots of the isolated village create depth because of the way in which they are placed. The faces of the people in the castle are well placed; the faces in the foreground and background not only give the picture a sense of depth, but they also create a rhythmic pattern.

The interrelation of the different scenes is very important. For example, Bergman goes from a compassionate scene with Jof and Mia to a scene of the cynical church painter, then to a scene with the knight in church. The way the scenes are interwoven creates a conflict, It
seems as if Bergman tries to mock Christianity at times, while at other times he tries to show the beauty of it (with Jof and Mia). The Seventh Seal is an excellent film. The acting is realistic and the choreography is striking, especially in the procession of the flagellants and the dance of death. The scenery is very poetic with the stark beach, the mysterious forests, and the bawdy tavern. The music is theatrical, but effective; the language is a little
stilted, but the thoughts are very philosophical.

The Seventh Seal is an allegory and its theme is universal. The bubonic plague symbolizes our present day hydrogen bomb. We live in a time when our whole planet could be destroyed. So, to our age, it is very important for life after death to exist. Bergman neither denies nor accepts Christianity, he just tries to give a realistic picture of what he sees.

A Brief Postscript on The Seventh Seal

by Professor Donald Bohl

Such a subtle and complex film has never been made! It defies interpretation in less than a book-length work of criticism. One might note that, with his emptiness and conflict, our knight wishes to do "one significant deed" before he dies. This he accomplishes when he distracts Death (tips the chess-board), allowing Jof and Mia to escape.

Much critical ink has been spilled over one question: who is in that final shot? When we listen to the names that Jof gives as he watches, counts the figures, etc.,we discover that the mute girl is not with them! Has she been spared? Is she a key to Bergman's meaning? Jof  is, of course our man of faith. He seems too simple-minded for "well-educated" Christians to accept as a model. His religion and relationship to the world seems as much pagan as Christian. Yet, Bergman is saying much with him.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Welcome to Manor Selby Monthly - Boulevard Denim reviews

Welcome to Manor Selby Monthly. We shall endeavor to provide and nourish your intellectual and visceral proclivities with stimulating and thought-provoking writings and illuminations.

We begin with noted author and critic Boulevard Denim's reviews of the Edwardian-era classic production Beside the Manor Selby and its companion piece Conversations with George Edgar Selby, a CD due in early 2014.

Beside the Manor Selby (2010)

Written, directed and scored by Ellsworth Hall. Produced by Edward Hopf.

Review by Boulevard Denim, critic at large

Woe to he/she who does not take into account the verities within this sublime photoplay. Take care; the opening newsreel sequence does not prepare you for the transcendent visuals, performances, utterances, and lavish music orchestrations. This meta-satire beautifully plays off the post-modern theory of ur-textual historicity.

 Not since James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has the theme of identity and authority been so adroitly addressed by the screenwriter. Picking up where Joyce left off, the character of Hezekiah Piker is the penultimate narcissist/cynic, forever searching but never finding. This metaphysical inquiry that pierces the banal tapestry of the Manor Selby's inhabitants spurs Piker to angst-ridden heights as he visits the tower where he loitered while at the same time his wife dashed herself on the rocks nearby. His unwitting misogyny is the cause of the tragedy as he wields his guilt and anger like a sabre cutting through the sublime lives of the blissfully unaware.

Viewed on different levels the Tower represents the quest for identity of his phallic solemnity. Herewith is the conundrum; wherefore his Oedipal cravings are brandished by his sardonic wit and literary allusions, his incapacity for meaningful discourse with the opposite sex leads him into the Rebecca/Vertigo syndrome. As a true narcissist, he purports a facade that he must maintain at all costs lest his closest companions discover his true, tortured self. And even then we see the cracks forming.

Captain Vaushnic like a true soldier is duty bound, hence he never reveals his true self. This is due to his appeasement of authority and empty tradition instilled into him during his formative years. His scars from the attack on Archduke Ferdinand are covered by his mask; a metaphor for his undeveloped potential and psyche. Wedgewicke the manor administrator poses the pithy profundity as Vaushnic removes his coat, “Remember sir, a man defrocked is a man nonetheless.” For truly, even without his mask and his deformity revealed ("la masque enleve, l'abscés des cicatrices" as sung at the Mass) he is still worthy of manhood.

John Patmos is the pragmatist. Like his namesake he is an island in the sea of chaos and instability. His boundless optimism counters Piker's cynicism and total absence of joie de la vie. Patmos is acting as the arbiter between Piker's myopic relational views and Vaushnic's impulsive dismissal of his friend's self-absorption.

Not since the Battleship Potemkin entered Odessa Harbor have audiences thrilled at the prospect of such philosophical revelations. The cast is most impressive with cult actors Conrad Brooks and George Stover giving in this author's opinion quite possibly the best impassioned performances of their careers. Kudos as well to Joseph M. Dwyer for his tortured portrayal of the horribly scarred Captain Vaushnic. Producer Hopf has done well to support and allow writer/director Hall free reign in manifesting this poignant parable of profound purport.

Conversations with George Edgar Selby (music CD - includes music from the soundtrack to Beside the Manor Selby)

On the Composer's Oeuvre

By Boulevard Denim

Ellsworth Hall occupies a peculiar place, entirely of his own creation, in the field of contemporary music.  He is a seeker after the realities of shadowy and dim illusions, an artist in grays and greens and subtle golds while still dabbling in opulent purples. Mr. Hall is of the "children of revelry," a weaver of dreams. For him, indeed, shadows and dreams are the invincible realities, and from them he derives a compelling music; music which serenely rebukes dissection.

That serenity, that innocence of intention, are indeed remarkable. After the plangent splendors, the torrential rhetoric of his earlier works, Mr. Hall's contemporary oeuvre, owing something of the subdued and elusive beauty of antique tapestries, addresses the spirit with a unique appeal.

His is music in which the emotion conveyed is the emotion of remembered rapture, the beauty, "the surviving beauty of gathered dreams;" seldom the emotion and beauty of that which is actual and present. Mr. Hall is most urgently aroused by such moods of longing and remote enchantment as find jeweled expression in Beside the Manor Selby for which he has written unforgettable music.

At times his habit of artistic  speech tempt him to such outbursts of passionate lament as fill the movements of his Piano Concerto No.1 with so insupportable a poignancy. There is the driving rhythmic asymmetry of the opening movement; the decorative flourishes surrounding the resurfacing primary theme in the second;  the modal and jazzy harmonies of the third; and the adroit use of fortspinnung (along with recapitulations of a leitmotif from the second movement) in the fourth. 

Mr. Hall perceives his world with as rapt a gaze, with as complete an absorption in its emotional panorama, as the most vivid and declamatory of the moderns; but the issue of his understanding is certain veiled and continent intensity, an interior passion, a conviction implied rather than than declared. That is, finally, the peculiarity of his art.