Inspirational

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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.

DSC07073Ken Nordine’s “Word Jazz” LPs present his bizarre, often Kafka-esque stories in the style of the beat poets. On his early albums for Dot, he’s backed by the Northern Jazz Quartet, led by Richard Campbell. He later recorded with the Chico Hamilton Quintet, and also served as a vocal coach to Linda Blair during the filming of The Exorcist.

This track from Word Jazz Vol. II puts a positive spin on Nordine’s paranoia.

lincoln portraitAaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was inspired by conductor Andre Kostelanetz, who suggested he compose a portrait of a eminent American. Kostelanetz debuted the work with the Cincinnati Symphony in the summer of 1942, and it has since become a widely popular concert favorite.

The text in Lincoln Portrait is primarily derived from the speeches and writings of our sixteenth President. An impressive list of actors, politicians, astronauts and other celebrities have narrated the piece over the years. President Obama read the text with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2005.

Your friendly neighborhood record store will be open from 11am to 7pm today on this Presidents Day. We thought it would provide some solace to hear the words of a President who appealed to “the better angels of our nature.”

This 1968 recording from Columbia’s “Copland Conducts Copland” series is narrated by Henry Fonda.

Coltrane plays for Reverend King

John Coltrane’s “Reverend King” was recorded in February 1966, just a few weeks after Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his family had moved into their 1550 South Hamlin Avenue apartment in Chicago, to begin working on the Open Housing campaign.

coltrane cosmic music

The recording was released posthumously in late January 1968 on Cosmic Music, one of the first two LPs his label, Impulse Records, pulled from unissued recordings after Coltrane’s death. Eventually there would eight albums in all — plus many live recordings — found in the archives. Fans have mixed reactions to some of these recordings, but “Reverend King” is surely an excellent example of Coltrane’s last group at work. This band featured his wife, Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Jimmy Garrison, Rashid Ali, and on “Reverend King” additional percussionists Ray Appleton and Ben Reilly.

At the time the recording was released on Cosmic Music, Reverend King had recently announced the Poor People’s Campaign, with a focus on pushing Congress to pass a economic bill of rights” for working people, as outlined in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? 

The campaign’s broad agenda was not received well by many of The Reverend King’s dearest supporters, notably Bayard Rustin. Five years earlier Rustin had been the primary logistical organizer of the 1963 march in Washington DC at which Reverend King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

After Reverend King’s assassination on April 4th, thousands of demonstrators established a symbolic shanty town at the National Mall where he had delivered this famous address. The encampment was called “Resurrection City” and remained for nearly six weeks.

“Reverend King” was not the first piece of music in which Coltrane expressed the inspiration he felt for the Civil Rights leader. He modeled one of his most moving songs, “Alabama,” on Reverend King’s eulogy for the four victims of the September 15, 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.

Reverend King’s eulogy for Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carol Denise McNair was delivered three days later, and is a deeply moving and spiritual address, which does not shy from the political situation which led to the terrible terrorist attack. A funeral for the fourth girl, Carole Robertson, was held on a different date.

(we posted an alternate version of Coltrane’s “Alabama” here). There is no account of John Coltrane having met the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. or having been present to hear him speak. His views on politics and the Civil Rights movement we know mostly through the universalist spiritual liner notes he wrote for A Love Supreme and Meditations.

Thank to all reading. We hope you take an interest in these recordings because the goals of racial and economic equality outlined by Reverend King in these speeches and in his last book are still within our reach, if a little further down the road than they were on this day last year.

We also hope you stay warm on this snowy day here in Minneapolis and do not forget those around us who struggle for safety and shelter in this weather.

Oh, and your friendly neighborhood record shop will be open from 1-6pm on this national holiday.

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!

ellington flaming youthHere 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.

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