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The first symphony of Robert Schumann carries the subtitle “Frühlings,” which means “Spring.”

Clara Schumann wrote in her diary that the title was taken from a poem by Adolf Böttger, and many listeners believe they can hear the poem’s closing lines — “O, turn, O turn and change your course/In the valley, Spring blooms forth!” — in the opening notes of the symphony (in German, of course). Robert and Clara Schumann had been married the year before, and she had encouraged him to write more orchestra works. In her diary she wrote that “his imagination cannot find sufficient scope on the piano.”

Schumann’s Spring Symphony was debuted on March 31, 1841 in Leipzig. The conductor was Felix Mendelssohn.

Schumann was thirty years old, newly married, and feeling inspired as his oeuvre expanded to new horizons with his first orchestra venture. Some believe the symphony’s subtitle may refer to his feelings of “Liebesfrühling,” or the “Spring of Love” — this in stark contrast to the unhappiness and depression which plagued the later years of his short life.

After completing the first symphony, he wrote to Mendelssohn to ask if he “could you breathe a little of the longing for spring into [the] orchestra as they play?

That was what was most in my mind when I wrote in January 1841. I should like the very first trumpet entrance to sound as if it came from on high, like a summons to awakening. Further on in the introduction, I would like the music to suggest the world’s turning green, perhaps with a butterfly hovering in the air, and then, in the Allegro, to show how everything to do with spring is coming alive.

 

Schumann’s last completed work in 1854 was a series of variations on a theme. It had been suggested to him by a spirit in a vision, perhaps that of the late Mendelssohn, who had died after a series of strokes several years earlier. The spirit vision was one of increasing symptoms Schumann exhibited, which have since been attributed to perhaps syphilis, mercury poisoning, or bipolar disorder. He spent the last two years of his life in a sanitarium after a suicide attempt soon after completing the variations, the “Liebesfrühling” of happier times a distant memory. Clara Schumann was only allowed to see him once, days before his death on July 29, 1856. He was hardly able to speak.

This recording of the symphony was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

 

Elvis Presley responds to his critics in his usual amicable way, saying “Everybody’s got a job to do.” This is an interview he did before performing in Florida in August 1956.

Ernest Iverson, better known as Slim Jim, was a born entertainer. Injured while working in a Texas oil field, he found his calling when he began working in radio. He and his brother Clarence (“The Vagabond Kid”) were regular performers on the air here in the Twin Cities, and later on a television program called “Slim Jim’s Westerners.”

The Slim Jim album on Soma Records, which you’ll often see in record racks here in Minneapolis, were released posthumously, after Iverson passed away in 1958. This single he recorded for the label is a take-off on “The Shifting, Whispering Sands,” a 1955 Rusty Draper hit with a long narrative about a prospector adrift in the desert.

The Iverson brothers’ act appealed to Norwegian-Americans, but Slim Jim also sang a song in support of the Industrial Workers of the World, and they wrote several songs in the country-western tradition. One of The Vagabond Kid singles, “Can I Play My Guitar in Heaven?” was the subject of a parody itself on Cracker’s self titled debut album in 1992 (“Can I Take My Gun Up to Heaven?”).

Clarence Iverson returned to their hometown of Binford, North Dakota, but Ernest remained in Minnesota. He was buried in his wife’s hometown of Buffalo Lake.

winter dreams

We have been listening Tchaikovsky a lot recently, owing in part to the often seasonally-themed motif in his orchestral works. While we’ve written in the past about the plague of The Nutcracker, it is nonetheless something we’re sure to listen to each December, as is his cycle of piano pieces, The Seasons. Perhaps simply by association, we’ve always found there to be a winter-y quality to each of Tchaikovsky’s three ballets — and we’ve felt a little proud of the fact that the first recordings of each in their complete form were made by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra during the Dorati era.

Today we listened to a much lesser-known work, his first symphony, which Tchaikovsky gave the subtitle Winter Dreams.

The symphony is partly programmatic in that its first two movements are given titles which reflect the influence of Mendelssohn’s romanticism (his Italian symphony was a favorite of Tchaikovsky’s at the time), but the last two movements are untitled and decidedly less evocative. When the twenty-six year old Tchaikovsky first presented the symphony to his former teachers, both offered only negative reactions. We can only imagine the anxiety this caused the notoriously emotional composer.

Portions of the symphony were received poorly at performances in St. Petersburg, where Tchaikovsky had hoped to have the completed work debut. Eventually, it was performed in Moscow instead, a compromise forced on the composer because it proved difficult to find anyone willing to conduct it in the former. Tchaikovsky felt pleased with the response, and in a letter to his brother Anatoly, called it “a great success, particularly the adagio.”

From the beginning, that adagio, the movement to which he gave the title “Land of desolation, land of mist,” has been the held in higher esteem than the rest of the symphony. Still, in spite of any success, the Winter Dreams symphony would wait fully a decade and a half for a second performance, and it remains today one of the least commonly played or recorded of Tchaikovsky’s large orchestral works.

The first movement, Allegro tranquillo, is given the title “Dreams of a Winter Journey.” It is sometimes cited by Tchaikovsky’s admirers to dispel claims the young composer lacked confidence and could not navigate the symphonic form. Still, the movement is deceptively simple, developing a single motif slowly over about eleven minutes. Tchaikovsky’s unique style, neither Russian nor European, is already beginning to form in this early work, particularly in the dynamic string passages and their delicate interplay with the woodwinds.

We imagine a winter journey in nineteenth century Russia was quite different than one in present day Minnesota, but our imagination is still inspired by this movement, which might offer the perfect soundtrack to an afternoon sledding trip at Matthews Park this afternoon.

sesame streetHoliday records are filled with various re-tellings of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” the 1823 poem published anonymously which has become one of the most familiar pieces of American literature.

We collected several, this one included, in a post last year. We have also already posted about the Sesame Street Christmas album here, which is one of several records we play every year.

Many families have a favorite holiday album, and we hear a lot of stories about them this time of year as people come in to buy a second copy or a replacement copy. Often someone will say their parents played a certain album every year and its a tradition they wish to carry on with their own children.

Our other favorite albums to play every year include Season’s Greetings from Perry Como (his first Christmas album from 1959) and the Esquivel record we posted last week.

By this time of the year the Christmas albums are pretty picked over, but there’s still a lot of gems left here in the shop. It’s a fun time of year to see people buying all kinds of music not just for themselves, but for their friends and families.

This second track is for everyone who’s feeling like a grouch or grinch this Christmas.

Last week our family watched The Star Wars Holiday Special, a 1978 program which lives up to its reputation as basically the worst thing that ever happened anywhere ever.

It’s truly remarkably that they kept making Star Wars movies after the holiday special disaster, but an even more extraordinary fact is that only two years later they returned to the holiday theme with Christmas in the Stars.

RSO Records also released the Empire Strikes Back soundtrack by John Williams and the London Philharmonic Orchestra as well as a great story album of the film (subtitled “The Adventures of Luke Skywalker” and narrated masterfully by Malachi Throne). The label’s unprecedented success in the seventies was due in large part to brilliant crossover marketing between film and popular music — notably with a string of hits from Grease and Saturday Night Fever. Still, when compared the millions RSO invested and lost in the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film, a Star Wars Christmas album was a wise investment.

The album reportedly sold out its initial pressing of 150,000 copies, although its hard to find anything endearing about it besides the painting on the cover by legendary Star Wars production artist Ralph McQuarrie. It is, we suppose, less terrible than the holiday special, but something about a lecture on the meaning of Christmas from Anthony Daniels just doesn’t sit well. Apparently the single “What Can You Get a Wookie for Christmas (When He Already Has a Comb?)” enjoyed airplay, but we suspect this was largely on the Dr. Demento Show.

Christmas in the Stars does carry two special distinctions for record collectors. First, it was one of the earliest digitally recorded and mixed records after those amazing albums made here in Minneapolis at Sound 80. We think the Flim and the BBs album and the SPCO recordings are much better than Christmas in the Stars.

And second, the song “R2D2 We Wish You A Merry Christmas” (credited on the single to The Star Wars Intergalactic Droid Choir and Chorale) is the recorded debut of Jon Bon Jovi. At seventeen, he was working as a custodian at the Power Station, a legendary New York recording studio run by his cousin, Tony Bongiovi. Whether or not this is canon — and whether or not Bon Jovi could make an appearance in a future Star Wars sequel — is now up to the people at Disney.

 

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