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We’ve just returned from a wonderful camping trip with the kids on the St. Croix River. Our several trips around this summer remind us that Minnesota is a truly blessed and beautiful place.
With Minneapolis schools starting tomorrow, we’re likely to find ourselves back into the regular programing season here on the Hymie’s blog. Tomorrow’s post will likely feature something about school.
When our oldest was born, Minnesota was the only state which did not require a minimum number of school days per year, and even now at 165 we trail most other states in this category. We’re glad to have more time for our kids to have adventures like hiking and canoeing on the St. Croix, although we feel fortunate that our neighborhood school seems to focus on the quality of their education and not just its quantity.
Anyway, we’ve had our vacation. Back to work, and is there ever a lot to do around here. There are so many wonderful things to be found in those magical grooves, not the least of which is the voice of God himself (click this link, sinner, if you wish to find the shocking Truth of Truths). Today’s testament, cleverly disguised by misspelling his name, reminds us that on the seventh day he rested.
Recently, after moving a large collection to the record shop, we discovered one of the boxes contained not albums but a variety of books. Many of them were jazz biographies, and one — Duke Ellington’s 1976 memoir, Music is my Mistress — has proven to be an especially enjoyable read.
One of the most remarkable things is its appendix which lists all of the songs he composed during his career in their copyright order — from “Blind Man’s Bluff” in 1923 to the four-part Togo Brava suite written in 1973 it takes nearly thirty pages to list them all!
Here is a song from early in his career (1929 according to this book) which was re-recorded many times over the years. It is on this RCA/Victor compilation of the 1927-9 band, which features several Ellington Orchestra alumni who worked for Duke for decades — one could hardly imagine the Orchestra without Johnny Hodges or Harry Carney for instance.
Our favorite era of Ellington’s enduring Orchestra is the 1940-2 incarnation known by fans as the “Blanton/Webster Band.” We posted about bassist Jimmy Blanton not long ago (here). One could spend a lifetime collecting only Duke Ellington record, and always have plenty of great jazz to listen to — his music changes so much from decade to decade based on the distinct personalities that make up the Orchestra, and it would take a post longer than this to list all the favorites of jazz listeners.
From his autobiography, Ellington describes the process of fluctuation as members come and go:
The cats who come into the band are probably unique in the aural realm. When someone falls out of the band — temporarily or permanently — it naturally becomes a matter of “Whom shall we get?” or “Whom van we get?” It is not just a matter of replacing the cat who left, because we are concerned with a highly personalized kind of music. It is written to suit the character of an instrumentalist, the man who has the responsibility of playing it, and is almost impossible to match his character identically. Also, if the new man is sufficiently interesting tonally, why insist upon his copying or matching his predecessor’s style.
In other words, if we are completely satisfied with the horse and buggy, who invent an automobile or airplane? In the first place, when a man is needed, I personally scarcely even know which way to look for a replacement. I haven’t the slightest idea whether the grass next door is greener or leaner. So someone suggests so-and-so, and we send for so-and-so, and get him. We play together a day or two, and then I inquire whether or not the new cat likes what we are doing, having already watched his reaction in the band. If he likes it, he is invited to stay.
Everybody agrees he’s a nice guy until one day, sooner than expected, one of his other selves breaks through, or one of his more eccentric sides show. Then I confess, or one of the other cats in the band hollars, loudly, “Duke, you never miss!”
Our new man has come home to the home of homies. He manifests his acceptance of the honor bestowed upon him, and settles down to the prospect of welcoming the next new so-and-so.
Oh, for simpler times! President Eisenhower selected a playlist of some of his favorites on this LP, including a Verdi aria and overtures by Beethoven, Johannes Strauss and Mendelssohn. The album includes two American composers: Gershwin and Dmitri Tiomkin, who came to America in the 20s and lived much of his life in California. President Eisenhower’s notes (more than 140 words!) are the sort of thing we’d like to hear from political leaders today:
I Wish to salute musicians and the important part they play in the life of our people. American music has brought us pleasurable distinction at home and abroad.
Millions of Americans are engaged in the creation performance and active appreciation of music. Indeed it is a rare day when any one of us does not hear some form of music; it is hard to imagine our lives without it.
The enjoyment of music — speaking for myself, at least — has a moral and spiritual value which is unique and powerful. It reaches easily across lingual, racial and national boundaries. The development of American music, like the native development of any art, is therefore the development of a national treasure.
Walking to work along East Lake Street with Irene this week has been such a pleasure. Early summer is a beautiful time in this neighborhood and things are looking so bright and green. It’s actually been sort of difficult to pull ourselves from our own garden when its time to open the record store.
Yesterday we started our day with this album which was the debut of pianist Ralph Burns, who had already established a name for himself as a composer and arranger with the Woody Herman band of the 1940s and 50s. The 10″ record opens with the fittingly cheerful “Places Please,” a tune which features alto saxophonist Leo Konitz. It really got our day off on the right foot, so to speak, and we hope it does the same for you.
We have such an interest in Peter and the Wolf that we produced an hourlong documentary about it for KFAI back in 2013, which we also added to this blog so you can hear it here. For some time one of our interests in record collecting was to find as many different recordings of the work as we could, and by the time we gave up we’d found more than a hundred LPs, 45s, 78s, cassette tapes and CDs of the piece (this is why there are usuually so many different copies in our children’s section here at Hymie’s). And we gave up before we found even a quarter of the known versions, which has been performed in dozens of languages and adapted to a wide variety of styles of music.
Today’s musical selection was written just a year before Prokofiev produced Peter and the Wolf for the Central Children’s Theater in Moscow, but it is rarely recorded. This is in part because it was not written for children to hear, but rather for children to play. Music for Children, published in 1935 as Prokofiev’s Opus 65, features twelve brief vignettes for piano, but he shows respect for the talents of his prospective pupils. The pieces are simple enough for a novice pianist, but also inventive enough to provide their parents with some enjoyable listening.
Music for Children, performed here on a 1977 recording by the Canadian pianist Richard Gresko, reflects the influence of Prokofiev’s time in France through his encounters with the music of composers such as Debussy, Delius and Satie. It also hints at the direction in which his many of his orchestral work would move as he settled back into the Soviet Union the following year. This is especially true in regard to his hugely popular ballet, Cinderella, although not so in regard to many of his works which, for political reasons, were guided by the principle of Soviet realism (notably his film score for Alexander Nevsky and his opera based on War and Peace).
Our favorites from Music for Children include the evocative opening, “Morning,” in which the left hand seems to quietly create a sunrise as the right begins a stretch to start the day, and the cheerful “Grasshopper’s Parade,” which is the seventh down. We hope the grasshoppers do not run into the hungry spider from Albert Roussel’s 1912 ballet suite.
The whole of the twelve pieces are in order below for your enjoyment this morning. If you enjoy them you may find it interesting to hear A Summer’s Day afterwards. That orchestral suite based on the piano pieces was first published, under the same opus, about six years later. You can find the first on Youtube here, and then click through the rest.
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.