Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Recalling the classical music played on WGMS in Washington 50 years ago right after JFK's assassination: lots of Mahler, Verdi

I recall well the weekend following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 2013.  I had been at work at the time (at the old National Bureau of Standards at the site of what is now UDC).  I took the two busses home in Arlington, wondering if a nuclear attack could happen.  On Sunday, I was riding in the back seat of the family car with my parents on 17th Street, a few blocks from the First Baptist Church, probably approaching K Street, when I heard Jack Ruby’s gunshot live over the car radio, with the words “He’s been shot.”
The major networks (there were not so many then) played news coverage for four days, until the funeral Monday, without commercial interruption. The classical music station in Washington at the time was WGMS, I think it was 570 on AM. 
I remember the music of the weekend well.  I heard a lot of it on the Zenith family radio downstairs, which no longer works.  I can also remember listening to a lot of Washington Senators baseball defeats on the radio (particularly Sunday double-dippings on the road).  We also had a black portable Zenith radio that I often kept in my room.
Sometime in the middle of Saturday afternoon, the station played the famous F Major Adagietto from the Symphony #5 by Gustav Mahler.  The movement is often played on its own (as is sometimes the “Blumie” movement left out of the First Symphony, which I think works better with the movement included).  The Fifth is the first of the “middle period” Mahler symphonies, and for me it has never been the most satisfying.  It is nominally listed in C# Minor, but only the first movement funeral march, rather like an introduction, is in that key.  It uses the three-note motive from the Beethoven Fifth (also to figure into the close of Havergal Brian’s Third Symphony, also in C# Minor, probably deliberately, music which found its way into the 1944 film “A Canterbury Tale”).  The Mahler Fifth is in three “Parts”, and most of Part I is taken up by a major sonata allegro in A Minor, following the C# minor introduction, a movement not as effective in my mind as the opening of the Sixth, really in A Minor (March 7, 2013 on this blog).  Part II is an overloaded scherzo in D Major (a full 20 minutes), and Part III comprises the famous Adagietto, followed by a D Major finale, most of which is a lively double fugue.  I have a London CD with Solti performing the work with the Chicago Symphony (late 1980s).
WGMS also played the Mahler Symphony #2 in C Minor, the Resurrection, over the weekend, and to many listeners it may be Mahler’s best known work, with its thrilling conclusion.   I’ve heard the Second in concert once, at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1977. Remember the tremendous unresolved dissonance at the end of the development section of the first movement (no doubt inspired by a similar dissonance from Beethoven's Eroica)?  Structurally, I’ve always had an issue with it.  To start a work in a minor key and end in the relative major (C Minor to E-flat Major) a few movements later gives a trite feel to my own ear.  I would have liked an ending in C Major.  (But Maher had begun to experiment with progressive tonality.  The finale of the first symphony starts its final allegro in F Minor before returning to the home D Major.)   The Eighth Symphony (Feb. 18, 2012 here) starts and ends in E-flat and has an ending with comparable chills and fever.
WGMS also played, as I recall, the Verdi Requiem, maybe the most famous of all the major romantic requiems, with the notorious G Minor Dies Irae, and the wonderful major Offertorium. I have the Telarc with the Atlanta Symphony with Robert Shaw.
Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, completed in January 1962, sometimes was performed with homage to President Kennedy.  The work makes a lot of use of the “triton” interval (C to F#) to give a sense of tonal ambiguity.  It is said that Mahler wanted to compose a requiem mass if he had lived long enough.  Britten’s work is probably the closest that repertoire music comes to what Mahler might have composed (had he lived past World War I).  I heard the Britten performed by the Dallas Symphony with chorus in 1980.  The other work that maybe approximates what Mahler could have done is Havergal Brian’s “Gothic Symphony”, the second part of which is rather like a requiem.
  I see that on July 2, 2008 I discussed Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony ($3, more or less in the key of A), which again is rather Mahler-like and contains text that questions the intentions of God.  Bernstein condensed the work slightly for his DG recording with the Israel Philharmonic; I prefer the original uncut 1964 NY Philharmonic recording on Columbia Records and Sony, which was dedicated to JFK.  

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