We love Thanksgiving! It’s one of our family’s favorite days of the year. We’ve already got all our groceries and now it’s just three days away!
Our pal Craig is always bringing in odd finds from his thrift store trips, and he recently found this awesome tape of a 1988 radio documentary about Radio First Termer, a pirate station briefly broadcast in Vietnam.
Radio First Termer broadcast just over sixty hours, for three weeks in January 1971. Its host, Dave Rabbit, is now known to have been US Air Force Sargent Clyde David DeLay. You can hear one of the only surviving recordings of the original broadcasts here.
The story of Peter Parker, the amazing Spider-Man, from an early 70s LP. The narrator is actor Morgan Freeman, then a regular performer on TV’s Electric Company (appearing as Easy Reader, Vincent the Vegetable Vampire and DJ Mel Mounds). Many of Marvel’s comic book characters appeared on LPs, including the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk.
Peter Parker was one of Stan Lee’s most famous creations. Like other Marvel heroes, he became a reluctant superhero, and he often faced everyday problems. Lee passed away yesterday at the age of ninety-five, just over a year after he lost his beloved wife.
Lee left behind an extraordinary legacy. Obituaries rightfully describe him as the architect of the modern comic book. In recent years as his characters appeared in blockbuster films, Lee could be counted on to make a cameo. His trademark tinted glasses and white mustache will be missed by comic book fans around the world.
This week we discussed with a friend what his son’s musical taste was likely to become, growing up in a home with two musicians and others often visiting for band practice in the basement. It reminded us of Paul Witgenstein, who was destined to become a pianist, and whose determination to play led to the commission of a whole new subgenre in music for the left hand.
Witgenstein grew up in one of the wealthiest households in the world. His home in Vienna was of often visited by famous musicians, including Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler, and as a boy he played duets with Richard Strauss. What’s more is that his grandmother was the woman who had adopted Joseph Joachim, the famous violinist and friend of Brahms, and arranged for him to study piano with Felix Mendelssohn.
In December of 1913, Paul Witgenstein made his debut in Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinsaal and received good reviews. The following summer, of course, came “the guns of August,” and at twenty-seven he was conscripted to serve in the Austrian army alongside his philosopher brother, Ludwig. In battle on the Eastern front, he was shot and lost consciousness. When he awoke as a prisoner of war, he found his right arm had been amputated.
While a prisoner in Siberia, Witgenstein “practiced” on a wooden crate with his left hand, and began to dream of ways to play his favorite music of Chopin without a right hand. He was returned to Austria by the Russians in a prisoner exchange in 1915, in part because they felt a one-armed man was not useful for forced labor.
After the War, Wittgenstein used his family’s enormous wealth to commission works from an extraordinary list of great composers, creating a collection of concerti similar to the book of variations created by Anton Diabelli which we featured in a post last month. This collection came to include works by Ravel, Britten, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev, to name just a few.
Pianist Nicholas McCarthy has a lot to say about Witgenstein and the music he commissioned, because he himself was born without a right arm. “The most poignant thing must have been to have lost his hand after such a long struggle to become a pianist,” he wrote. “Because he came from such a high society family, being an ‘entertainer’ was looked down upon.”
Wittgenstein had a bit of an attitude himself, and was even critical of several of the works he commissioned. He did not initially approve of Maurice Ravel’s employment of jazz motifs in his Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major, and to the consternation of the composer chose to perform it with his own revisions. This is a shame because the single movement concerto is one of the most interesting of Ravel’s explorations of American music, while also incorporating clever ideas from Saint Saen’s 6 Etudes por la main gauche seule.
More remarkably, Wittgenstein chose not to perform the concerto composed by Sergei Prokofiev altogether.
We are passionate fans of Prokofiev’s works, and can’t imagine simply sitting on something so lively and inventive. Wittgenstein did not, as is sometimes written, refuse to play the Piano Concerto No 4 in B-flat major, he said he would perform it when he understood it, and this just never happened. This sounds to us a lot like the notorious “Minnesota no,” which is when the booker doesn’t get back to you about your band after repeated entreaties because he doesn’t want to tell you that you suck.
Unlike Ravel, Prokofiev remained friendly with Wittgenstein. He considered adapting it as a two-hand concerto, but never found the time. Sadly, it went unperformed until Wittgenstein passed away in the early sixties. This is because he retained exclusive performance rights for the works he commissioned during his lifetime. “You don’t build a house so that someone else can live in it,” he famously explained.
For this reason many of the works Wittgenstein commissioned are not familiar, even to fans of the composers. For instance, Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote a characteristically bombastic concerto for in 1922 which has elements of his exciting film scores as well as a Wagnerian sense of tonality. It is, in many ways, our favorite of the left handed repertoire.
Wittgenstein’s exclusivity caused one of the lefty concertos to nearly go unheard. This was the concerto written by German composer Paul Hindesmith, which Wittgenstein apparently so disliked he did not keep the autograph (or original) copy. After his widows’ passing his papers became available to researches and in 2004 a copy of Hindesmith’s Opus 29 was discovered. Although it contained errors, Hindesmith’s enthusiasts were able to reconstruct his Concerto for the Left Hand from sketches and it received its long-overdue debut in Berlin.
Paul Wittgenstein lived out his late years teaching in the United States, where he’d become a citizen in 1946. In spite of his complicated relationship with some of the composers, his commissioned works and their story inspire pianists whether they have the use of one or two hands.
Another remarkable story began in 1964, when concert pianist Leon Fleisher developed a nerve condition called focal distonial, which cost him the use of his right hand in the middle of a successful career distinguished by his interpretations of Mozart and Brahms. For years he performed the left handed repertoire, until his condition was improved with the experimental use of botox. In 2004, the same year he performed the debut of the nearly-lost Hindesmith concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, Fleisher released his first album since his recovery. He titled it Two Hands.
This new LP by Ryan Holweger hits a sweet spot here at Hymies. The album is filled with raucous country rock gems, but what really sticks to the ribs are the Uncle Tupelo-ish ballads like “After the Oil Rush.” There’s really timeless moments on this album and Holweger’s record release show at Mortimer’s tonight promises to be a great live set filled with exactly those sort of things. Adding to the appeal is opener Martin Devaney, who will be releasing his first album in years this December. Fans of swoony country-rock be warned: the multi-talented Ryan Holweger is going to be on your radar this winter.
Are cats awesome, or just an enormous pain in our butts? In our family, the merits of our own Momar the Cat are the subject of household debate. Dave dotes on him but the little black and white trouble maker only makes rare visits to the record store, usually ending in disaster.
Whether Mo Cat enjoys the music we play or not is hard to tell. It seems he’s much more interested in the songs of the birds — maybe he would prefer we more often listen to Oliver Messiaen.
Anyway, here are a few songs we chose for the ten pound terror…
Henry Mancini’s “Song for Cat” is a mambo masterpiece, magically melding lush swing with soulful latin strut. The song was composed for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but like so many of the maestro’s best moments has a life of its own.
The highlight of the 1957 album New Jazz Lp The Cats is a trio performance led by pianist Tommy Flanagan, but the record swings solidly in its opening track “Minor Mishap.” This song features John Coltrane, Idrees Sulieman and Kenny Burrell as soloists — one of the last Coltrane performances before his epic early Atlantic recordings.
Flanagan’s ponderous “How Long Has This Been Going On?” (with the rhythm section of Doug Watkins and Louis Hayes) is the sort of evocative make-out jazz our friend Mo Cat enjoys interrupting. Flanagan is underrated among pianists of his era, heard here at his best.
Our last selection of songs for swinging cats comes from Quincy Jones’ appropriately slinky album, Quincy Plays for Pussycats. His take on “What’s New Pussycat?” is fun, but the best thing on this record is “Blues for Trumpet and Koto,” written by the reliably inventive Marvin Hamlisch (whose name is mis-spelled on the album’s credits). As with most of the great Quincy Jones Orchestra recordings on Mercury, the performers are not credited, so we don’t know who are the soloists in this big band based duet. We think its a perfect soundtrack for the afternoons when our Mo Cat wrestles with the clumsy mutt we adopted two years ago.