Here is a post we usually re-run when the temperature drops well below zero. This first appeared here on the Hymies blog in 2006, and has been revisited at least three times since. We thought it would be fun to post it during a very hot summer day instead.
Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.
–Robert Falcon Scott
Today’s record is fitting for the remarkably cold weather in the Twin Cities this week. Irene the shop dog had to stay home today, since it was (according to the bank sign here on East Lake) twenty-one degrees below zero. While at home we discovered that bubbles freeze at this temperature, and that throwing a pot of boiling water into the cold air is super cool.
And we listened to some awesome records. One of them was this recording of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica, a 1952 work that started as the score to a film about Robert Falcon Scott’s disastrous 1911 expedition to the South Pole.
Early performances included recitations from the Book of Psalms, Shelly’s Prometheus Unbound, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Scott’s journal, discovered by a search party a year after his death during a second expedition.
Williams composed for the distant Antartic continent the same way Holst approached the unfathomable planets in the sky — combining mythology, mystery and magic. His work eschews the controversy that historians have since given the expedition, capturing instead the heroic Scott celebrated throughout England at the time.
It’s also a fine soundtrack for an extreme-cold walk, say ten blocks, to a record shop and back. Irene would agree. We hope, however, that you can enjoy this music in the warm comfort of your home.
You really can’t live in Minnesota without accepting the ever-changing seasons — those folks complaining about the weather are wasting your time. If you don’t like it just wait ’til tomorrow. Spring is welcomed and just as soon gone, replaced by those over-hot afternoons and dry, dormant lawns. Summer in its August glory gives way all too quickly to the cool evenings of September. Soon enough you’re huddled inside, sipping Cider and watching the neighbor across the street shovel his walk.
My own feelings for the seasons seem delayed. Never do we long to walk in a snowstorm more than the second week of May, and at no other time of the year would we more enjoy chasing the ice cream man with the kids than right around Thanksgiving. And right about now? We’re thinking about summer storms.
You’re in the garden, doing a mid-summer chore like weeding (you haven’t given up yet) and there’s a sudden quickening of the breeze. You can hear it in the trees. Soon you can feel an energy in the air as the sky gets darker. It even smells different. And then a few drops, a few more, and then its storming so wildly you scarcely have time to gather your tools and close the shed door before you’re soaked. Or maybe you’re in bed and the rustling of the leaves wakes you. You look out in time to see branches bending, a flash of light and a sudden sheet of rain filling everything out your window.
Songs about the rain offer so many different things — it is one of the most varied ‘themed’ playlists you could create out of any record collection. From ELO’s bombastic “Concerto for a Rainy Day” (side three of Out of the Blue, which happily concludes with “Mr. Blue Sky”) to Pinhead Gunpowder’s “Mpls Song” (posted some time ago here), there is an incredible range. John Coltrane’s evocative “After the Rain” (on Impressions) has always been a favorite of ours, as has Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head.” Surely you have favorites, too.
None capture the majestic spectacle of a summer storm — how could something so majestic hold the same power over a single sense? If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know where we turn at times like this…
A couple years ago we featured a post called “Too Much” (here) about artists who released multiple albums on a single day, including Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and, of course, KISS — All of them are entirely surpassed by a single concert on December 22nd, 1808, when Ludwig van Beethoven debuted his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna.
Many things distinguish Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony in F Major, although its premier was a disaster. It is one of only two given a title by its composer (The Pastoral Symphony) and it is a rare example of explicitly programmatic composition in his oeuvre. Another unique quality is that it is presented in five movements, the final three of which are a seamless program (the tracks run into one another, you know, like in The Wall).
The first movement’s richly developed theme is one of the most memorable in all of classical music, setting the scene for the countryside which the composer often visited while working in Vienna. In the second movement, set around a brook, Beethoven uses woodwinds to represent bird calls, much in the way the French composer and amateur ornithologist Oliver Messiaen would (he was recently featured here on the Hymie’s blog). Beethoven even identifies the birds in his score: the flute representing a nightingale, the clarinet a cuckoo and the oboe a quail.
The third, fourth and fifth movements are, as mentioned before, a continuous program. All three are in the symphony’s main key of F major. The third is often the subject depicted on album covers, such as this early 60s (date anyone?) recording by George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. Beethoven titled it “Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute” (Merry gathering of country folk) — It is the symphony’s scherzo, or it’s light-hearted and fun passage, depicting a dance in the countryside. It grows and grows until a sudden interruption.
In one of the most sublime moments in all music, Beethoven interrupts the gathering with a summer storm. First a few drops from the strings, then with a striking intensity (especially from the double basses) comes the rain. It sounds as though the celebrants struggle to gather themselves and their things before they’re soaked, only to be inundated by the crashing thunder (tympani providing the only percussion) and waves of windy rain.
(This track includes the coming of the storm, the storm, and its aftermath — the end of the third movement, the entire fourth, and the entire fifth — from an exceptional early 60s recording by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell)
And in a stunning three and a half minutes it is passed, giving way to the Allegreto finale, the “Shepherds’ song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm,” as described by Beethoven. The passage transforms the Sixth from a mere portrayal of pastoral life to an episode within it.
Other composers have created storms — Haydn ended his Symphony no. 8 in a similar fashion and Vivaldi naturally included one in his Four Seasons — But Beethoven’s cloudburst is the closest thing on record to the real thing.
The other night we finally watched Hidden Figures, which is a really great movie. The scenes which depicted the IBM computer being installed reminded us of this 10″ box set, which includes a book and record on the subject of the relationship between mathematics and music.
The book includes photographs of the computer used at Bell Laboratories to compose the music heard on the record. It’s an IBM 7090, the same $2.9 million machine that was used by NASA at the Langley Research Center to calculate trajectories for the Mercury and Gemini space flights.
Music from Mathematics begins with a history of scientific inquiries into the nature of musical composition, from Pythagoras to Hermann von Helmholtz, who designed a resonator to identify the frequencies in music (an invention which indirectly lead Alexander Graham Bell towards his work on the invention of the telephone). The book also breaks down a composer’s work in strictly mathematical terms, noting for instance that even in Schoenberg’s restrictive twelve-tone technique, a sequence of twelve notes offers 479,001,600 possibilities. A factorial such as this is expressed “12!” because mathematics is exciting!
Another part of the book points to the appeal of the unexpected, using Mozart’s Musikalisches Würfelspiel as an example. A popular 18th century game, dice compositions feature sets of alternate sequences of notes depending on the numbers shown when the “composer” throws a pair of dice. The book perpetuates an uncertainty by attributing the work to Mozart, for though published in 1792 and included in the Köchel catalog, it has never been verified as Mozart’s work. Musikalisches Würfelspiel is capable of producing 1116 similar but distinct waltzes.
The book and record contains a number of experiments beginning at this point with Music by Chance, produced at Bell Telephone Laboratories. The second side of the record opens with a remarkable piece composed on ILLIAC computer at the University of Illinois in 1955.
The process began by assigning numbers to notes of the scale from low C upwards. In the beginning sharps and flats were omitted, but in later experiments a full chromatic scale of two and a half octaves was used. The computer then generated random numbers. The numbers were screened through a series of tests representing the various rules of musical composition such as tonality and the standard of counterpoint formalized in the 16th century. If the next number did not conform to the rules it was rejected and a new random number was generated and tested. The numbers which passed the testing were stored in the computer until a short melody was created, and it was printed out and translated into notation for a human performer.
The Illiac Suite produced by this experiment is regarded as the first musical score composed by a computer. The record inside Music from Mathematics contains only a two minute sampling from its fourth movement, but you can hear a performance of the entire work on Youtube here. Although this is certainly the sort of music which gave John Hartford the “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” you’ll find the Illiac Suite no less accessible than Bela Bartok’s quartets, although hardly as rewarding.
The following year a second Music from Mathematics was released on the Decca label. Not a documentary like this set, it presented eighteen performances by the IBM 7090 recorded at the Bell Laboratories. Fans of this album most famously include author Arthur C. Clarke, who later had HAL 9000 the computer sing “Bicycle Built for Two” (ie “Daisy Bell”) as he fades away in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was the first song sung by a computer, and appeared on that record.
Classical musicians are not A-list celebrities today, but that was not always the case. If you think of the total span of recorded music, from the earliest commercial recordings of the late 1870s to the present, classical music was for the first half one of the most popular genres.
Fritz Kreisler is one of our favorite classical performers from that period — his recorded range from 1915 to 1950, and due to his popularity were pretty widely re-issued on LP and now on CD.
Kreisler was half-Jewish but a convert to Catholicism, and had been baptized at twelve. He served as an officer in the Austrian army early in World War I, but was quickly wounded and honorably discharged (his recollection of this time was published as Four Weeks in the Trenches: The War Story of a Violinist). During both World Wars he settled safely in the United States, making New York his home and becoming an American citizen in 1943.
Between the wars Kreisler was one of the most distinguished and influential musicians in the United States and Europe. His tone was expressive and instantly recognizable, and his interpretations highly personal, as reflected in the original works for which he is probably best remembered today.
His own compositions were often pistaches of the composers he most admired, from Beethoven and Brahms to Italian opera composers like Paganini. Kreisler adapted Paganini’s D major violin concerto, a showpiece for a re-tuned violin in the hands of a virtuoso, for a 1936 recording with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Around this same time he revealed that many of his transcriptions of early works were in fact his own compositions, much to the chagrin of critics who hadn’t seen through the ruse. Many of these original pieces were popular encores, before and after this time, especially “Liebesfreud.”
His later life in New York was marred by two automobile accidents, leading to poor health which limited his performing and recording. By this time his concerts consisted largely of his own material, and his repertoire was restricted. Regardless, he remained enormously popular. He made his last recordings in 1950, and passed away twelve years later at the age of eighty-six. Kreisler was interred in Brooklyn’s Woodlawn Cemetery, where one might also pay homage to many jazz legends, including Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Miles Davis.
In his lifetime, Kreisler owned and played a number of legendary violins, including ones made by Stradivarius and the Guarneris — some of those he owned are now named for him, including one now owned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.