Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Remembering John Thompson's Piano Course (red books)

Just another remembrance (without war) of my boyhood – those red piano lesson books – “John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano”.  They’re still available new on Amazon, complete with certificates of achievement. Even by the Third Grade, it doesn’t look very advanced (you can thumb random pages on Amazon).  I don't think I have any of them lying around any more.

I remember the first half-sized booklet, “Teaching Little Fingers to Play”, which starts with a “Tom Thumb March”, on one note, middle C.  (There is a scene in Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” with only the note “B”.)  Each successive piece introduced one more note. Rather like Taylor Swift ("Mine")!

I remember the “gold stars” on finishing a piece. I remember that “cross hands” was a big deal. So was “melody in the left hand” (a Massenet Elegy).  Somehow the Bach Musette comes to mind.

Later, a saleman sold "us" on the Sherwood Music School course. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Schumann's C Major "Fantasy" et al

In all my years of collecting records and CD’s, I had never owned an “instance” of Robert Schumann’s notorious “Fantasie in C” (Op. 17), but now I have Marc-Andre Hamelin’s studied performance on Hyperion from 2001 (CDA67166).

 The Piano Sonata #2 in G Minor, Op. 22, while the latest, is the most conventional of the three opuses on the CD. It follows strict sonata movement forms (including a repeated exposition). The work brings back memories of piano days, especially the “song without words” for the Andantino. The presto finale does not go into major at the end; most works in G Minor don’t.

The Symphonic Etudes in C# Minor, published in two forms, shows Schumann’s tendency to “combine” forms. It’s a Theme and Variations, where each Variation is like a separate etude. It’s not quite a challenge to Beethoven’s “33 Variations” (the Diabelli, see Aug. 26, 2007 here).  But the last “variation” is a triumph.

The "C Major" Fantasy is one of the best examples of Schumannism, or perhaps a monument to Schumann's combinations of quaint elements into huge canvases.  It illustrates his ability to keep melodies in constant harmonic tension, and to build themes out of little technical motifs.  You can get a feel for its bizarre nature from the first page piano score images at “Pianopedia” here. Notice the long sequences of unresolved dissonances and continuous tension over the piano ground bass in the first and third movement openings.  It is effectively a free form Sonata, with two outer, somewhat episodic slow movements and a central crunching almost Mahlerian march.  So it is indeed a bit like a late Beethoven Sonata, with the last movement casting a spell a bit like the Arioso and variations of Beethoven’s 32nd Sonata (variations in the same key).  Just before the end it rises to a passionate climax, and then resolves quietly into peace.  

There is a story about the relationship of the piece to building a monument to Beethoven.  There had been a first movement called “Ruins”, with a reference to a Beethoven song cycle. Schumann would add the “Triumphal Arch” and “Constellation”.

The overall effect is, a little weird.

My sense of perfect pitch is changing. The music on the computer sounded pitched almost a whole step high, as if it were in D. Maybe my ear is changing with older age.

I have contemplated getting my own teen and early college years music entered on a computer, with an 88-keyboard (Casio or Yamaha) and I’m told that you really need a Mac.  Now  composer Timo Andres explained in a blog posting how to capture sheet music as you compose it on the iPad, as at the end of a daisy chain starting with the keyboard. Steven Jobs had never imagined all this. Here’s his link.     There was a conversation about this matter at his Dec. 11 concert (review on this blog there), which had presented Schumann’s  “Kreisleriana”.

I still play in my mind that last theme of the Schumann Second Symphony (which is said to be related to another Beethoven song cycle). It strikes me that someone should write two-piano variations on it, in the form of enigmatic “etudes”.  I can guess who might.  Did “Shy and Mighty” find some inspiration in Schumann’s “continuous variation” formatted piano works?  

The picture above is from my own 1961 handwritten manuscript for a "Sonata in C" ("Fantasy"??). The opening theme gets turned into a tone row for the development section:
Later, the slow movement starts with a tone row despite a signature of E-flat minor, and then wanders into other episodes.
I'd have my work cut out to play this on a keyboard, get it into a Mac or PC and onto the iPad, ready to print in a way someone can really work with it. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

My mother's Memorial Service held today, with interesting music and a standalone comedy play

Today, Sunday Jan. 16, 2011, the Memorial Service for my Mother was held at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC. Please see the Dec. 21 posting on the “BillBoushka” blog for a coordinated post.

The musical prelude was a fugal and polytonal setting for piano of the old hymn “O God Our Help In Ages Past”, originally by Isaac Watts, adapted by Dr. Lawrence Schreiber. But a lot of old hymns can use some polytonality.

The same hymn followed as conventionally harmonized, for the congregation to sing. Later the Hymn “Lord Speak to Me that I May Speak” by Robert Schumann followed. I am not sure if the theme comes from one of Schumann’s sets of piano “miniatures”. The other hymn was a favorite of the Virginia Federation of Music Clubs when I took piano in the 1950s, “All Creatures of Our God and King” (St. Francis of Assisi).

The scripture was Psalm 90:1-12, and Matthew 25:31-40, which deals with openness to take care of others. There was also a homily based on the famous Love Chapter in I Corinthians. I remember the popular song, "Without Love I Am Nothing at All", playing on my car radio in 1970 as I drove off Fort Eustis when getting out of the Army!

The tributary music was the ninth movement from the two-piano set “Shy and Mighty” by Timo Andres (Nonesuch 522413-2) (The review of the entire set appears on this blog May 20, 2010 and has the Amazon link for CD and MP3 purchase). The piece called “Flirtation Avenue”, which starts out slow and picks up momentum, through a mixture of jazz and polytonal manipulations, with a rowdy proliferation of 88-key arpeggios at the end, up and down. In a sanctuary, played through a sound system, the effect was stunning, even overwhelming. The sheer physical virtuosity of the piano music seemed to capture everyone’s attention. It sounds like a musical “program” of courtship, eventually leading to climax, and, well , maybe a baby. All the sudden it seemed that the Memorial service was becoming a cross-century tribute to a life that had spanned 97 years, with cultural elements ranging from High Church to the Poisson Rouge, hipster culture and Bleeker Street. The young carry on a culture that previous generations no longer recognize.

I then gave my tribute:

“On a Sunday in late January, 1956, when I was in Seventh Grade, My Mother I were baptized by immersion by Dr. Pruden in the baptistery right behind this lectern, simultaneously. The sanctuary had opened Christmas Day, 1955, when blue light came into the sanctuary through windows that would be filled with contributions, including those of my parents. New Years Day 1956 we had sung the same hymn that we opened this service with, which in those days was Hymn #1.

“I have great memories of my childhood and adolescence in Arlington, in the same house in which my mother lived almost until her passing. My Mother’s memories go back to a childhood in Ohio during World War I, to her coming to Washington in the 1930s with the help of Great Aunt Frances in Alexandria, to find work during the Depression. Both of my parents lived in Y’s until they met and married; in those days, middle class people typically didn’t have their own places until they got married. She came of age in a time when people took streetcars, and when men were expected to protect women and children, regardless of their own status. She would marry Father in this Church, but the previous building, in May, 1940.

“There’s a detailed biography in the program, which I hope you will read (See “Bill Boushka” blog, Dec. 21, for links). There is even more detail to tell, which would make a great movie. What I say there about my piano lessons is particularly relevant. For my mother, Life was to be experienced and lived as it was, as part of a family and as a community. It was not her prerogative to try to change things globally in the external world outside the family. She believed that we all must belong, that we must take care of one another, and that everyone is his brother’s and sister’s keeper, regardless of life choices.

“She was wary of the dangers of violence in our culture, particularly the media, even when I was growing up, and wary of the dangers of drawing attention to self when not involved in meeting the needs of other people.

“As many of you may know, my own life would take a different track. I am an only child, and I did not give my parents grandchildren and carry on a family lineage, which they may have at one time thought they could count on. I would be so much like both my mother and father, and then so different from each one, because that is what happens with having children.

“I was different, and the title of the composition excerpted for this service composed by my friend Timo Andres, “Shy and Mighty”, perhaps sums up my outlook. I became an activist, and with the aid of modern technology, joined the battle to overturn “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. With the advent of desktop self-publishing and the Internet, I became very public as to my own story, and yet socially somewhat hidden away, literally as in Josh Groban’s song. The early part of the story occurred when I went away to college, to William and Mary, in the fall of 1961, having won a chemistry scholarship. I would be asked to leave the college right after Thanksgiving, after admitting to the Dean of Men, under pressure, that I thought I was gay. The Dean actually called my parents visiting friends in Charlotte, NC, probably putting them through an agonizing holiday weekend and trip to Williamsburg. My parents stuck by through a very difficult period of my life, as they put me through college at George Washington (as I lived at home), a Masters at the University of Kansas, and served in the military (through the draft) anyway. (This kind of incident, given the circumstances could have tested their marriage.)

“The story that would unfold in the decades to follow is filled with the twists and ironies of any good movie. It would become as much about how I would accomplish things as what I would accomplish. I would not have to compete with others or interact with them emotionally in the way most people are accustomed to. In time my mother became ill, and eventually I would return. The last two or three years, in which she did decline from her own epic life, were very difficult for me to both watch and participate in. I am grateful to the caregivers who made it possible for me to function at all.

“On Friday, December 10, I went by Metro to the Capitol grounds for a rally concerning the final standalone bill (from Senator Lieberman) to repeal DADT. As I arrived, I got a call from a caregiver that she needed immediate attention from Hospice; I tended to my own life and remained for the entire rally, given how critical it was. We know that the repeal would soon pass. That evening, Mother went to Hospice. The last time she was conscious with me around was when some of the music of Schumann was playing in the Hospice system. The last music she would ever hear becomes the Postlude to this service. It is music of defiance, and of triumph, and of closing of one period of one’s life and entering another. The music has a hymn-like theme at the end, which is not used in our denomination, but I believe it is used by others.”

“I close by mentioning the song by Josh Groban,” If I Walk Away” where he sings “Please follow me”, which we’ll hear in the Reception. You have to Believe to follow someone, because usually it takes a conceit to demand to be followed. Mother believed.”


A friend of Mother made her remarks, toward the end, into a series of quotes that I had never heard of, befitting Sarah Silverman or Kate Clinton.

For example, “What’s the matter? You want to talk with your girlfriend?”

To a question about chasing men, “I’d like to, but only the rich ones would make it worthwhile.”

“You tell King Tut that’s what happens when he sits on his butt too much.”

As far as the odd spelling of the family name, “Well, I haven’t found another man to change it for me.”

When someone wanted to come over and look after she’d fallen on ice, “You do and your backside will need the same treatment.”

“I hope a good looking guy doesn’t come around tonight. I’m just too tired to try to chase after him” (Hint: “Flirtation Avenue.”)

“He knows that I prefer older men.”

“If I’m thin-skinned, it’s a good thing my tongue is loose”.

“That bad leg has been giving me an awful time… I wish someone could have made it worthwhile.”

About her husband, “she always did like cake.”

Everyone said that she had her sense of humor, even with dementia. It was hard to tell if it was intended to be funny, or if she was really unveiling her “moral” expectations for everyone.

The postlude was the finale of the Second Symphony of Schumann, as performed by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 419190, 1985). I’ve written about this work before, but, just as in the Dec. 11 concert reviewed here, Andres and Schumann on the same program make a good mix. And I think every church can use some Schumann.

In the reception, we played some of Josh Groban’s CD Illuminations (CD may offer a Webcast product key). I guess Groban composes a lot of the music (such as the instrumental prelude “The Wandering Kind”). The guests seem to enjoy “Hidden Away”, “If I Walk Away”, and “War at Home” (which seems to refer to the former draft). I followed this with the fugal cadenza and finale from Eugen D’Albert’s First Piano Concerto (“The Everwood”, composed before age 20), and started, to conclude, Stanford’s “Irish Rhapsody #4”, which we didn’t have time to finish. So I played it loudly when I got home before I did anything else.  (The "Danny Boy" theme that Josh Groban sings in "You Raise Me Up" actually appears in Irish Rhapdsody #1, but it is #4 that rises to such an overpowering close; would have been good for the Royal Wedding.)

So my take is, even if Prince William and Kate Middleton have the Queen’s composer (Maxwell Davies) for their April wedding, they should start their married life off with the Stanford Rhapsody as their wedding postlude (forget Mendelssohn and Wagner). They’ll have their own live symphony orchestra (if the royal budget can afford it). As with the Schumann, the triumph at the end of the 19-minute Stanford tone poem is transformative, moving us from one life to another. Every royal wedding can use some Stanford! And maybe the royal wedding should also try “Flirtation Avenue”. After all, we’re celebrating marriage.

My own parents were married for 45 years, before my father’s death on New Year’s Day 1986.  Memoiral services, and the receptions that follow, mark a time of transition, a moving into something new for everyone. It's just the life cycle.
Update: Jan. 25, 2020
Christoph Eschenbach plays the Schumann Symphony #2 in C with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center tonight.  I did hear another performance there daytime in 2004. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Top Ten Classical Composers, and rationing the Viennese School

Here’s a good one: “The Big 4 of Vienna: One Faces Elimination”, by Anthony Tommasini (“Critics Notebook”) in The New York Times, The Arts, today, proposes that in the interest of geographical fairness, one of the original giants of Viennese music (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert) has to go. The link is here.

Now, in my own mind, Haydn and Beethoven are more related, with very late Haydn sounding like early Beethoven. Brahms and Schumann were the logical successors. Mozart and Schubert seem related to me, leading logically to Bruckner and Mahler. The first movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony has always sounded closer to Schubert to me than Beethoven, however inspired the Finale was by the Beethoven Ninth. And the Mozartian line eventually led to the expressionistic atonality of Schoneberg and Berg. Mozart, remember, experimented with the boundaries of tonalities a few times in his chamber works (as in the slow movement of the D Major Quintet).

Tommasini makes some controversial remarks about Mozart, how he was theatrical (Verdi-like) at heart, and how motivic development did not come naturally. Is that why, today, he can use some polytonality (as in Timo Andres’s rendition of the 26th Piano Concerto?)

The Viennese Classical Period marked the end of an era where many composers were subsidized on retainers. But the Queen's composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, has that luxury today, to compose music for the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate in April. (See writeup in London Daily Telegraph, here.) Stay tuned. There will be plenty of legal MP3 downloads.

So Haydn might get the boot, and that is a shame.