Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Marriage of Words and Music for Christmas

At Christmastime, we turn to carols to express the season in words and music. Although some may be traced back for centuries, we rarely sing them any more; most of the familiar ones originated in the 19th century (although Adeste fideles dates from the mid-18th century).

When it comes to choosing carols, we are most likely to prefer the ones we heard as children. Yet there are some that stand out for their almost perfect union between words and music. For Christmas 2018, I would like to present you with first the text, then two different settings, and three different performances, of a particularly lovely carol in order to illustrate my point. First, the text -- by the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, as first published in Scribner's Monthly in January 1872:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago. 
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Jesus Christ. 
Enough for Him, whom Cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom Angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore. 
Angels and Archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only His Mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss. 
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.
The meter is as stark as the setting. Even though snow does not normally fall in Bethlehem, Rossetti probably has in mind John Milton's imagery of pure driven snow at the Savior's birth as necessary to cover the ugly sins of mankind (On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, lines 37-44). In the second stanza, she draws on imagery from the Book of Revelation to draw a paradox with the humble circumstances of Jesus' birth. The third and fourth stanzas create similar contrasting images of striking simplicity, while the final stanza expresses the author's own humility when faced with her creator God.

The lyrical form of the poem invited a simple, homophonic setting which composer Gustav Holst gave it in 1906. In doing so, he gave the world a new and wonderful carol. Listen to its beauty -- and to its perfect marriage of music with words -- in this classic performance by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge:

Just three years after Holst's composition, Harold Darke, a young organ student at the Royal College of Music in London, gave the poem another stellar setting, in which again the simple homophony sparkles with cascades of passing tones and unexpected chord progressions that serve to emphasize the purity of the infant Savior amidst his crude, rustic surroundings. Here is a lovely performance of the tune under the direction of John Rutter:

To drive the point home, here is a final performance of the Holst setting (just the first and last stanzas), which I can describe only as sung by an angel (who in this case is the Norwegian soprano, Sissel Kyrkjebø). She is accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle choir and orchestra.

A blessed and joyful Christmas to all my readers!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Brazen Plug on Beethoven's 248th Birthday

Your Curmudgeon is pleased to announce that his new book on Beethoven's Third Symphony is now available (paperback or eBook) on Amazon, and has garnered two (!) five-star reviews to date.

The book is entitled Beethoven Unbound: the Story of the Eroica Symphony, and is based on the honors thesis I submitted for graduation in 1966. Here is a brief description of what it is about:
There is one musical theme that Ludwig van Beethoven used on four different occasions, in four separate works. He first conceived the theme while composing the music in early 1801 for a ballet based on the legend of the Titan Prometheus, who brought clay human figures to life with divine fire stolen from Vulcan’s forge. Jupiter then punished Prometheus severely, by chaining him to a rock so that each day an eagle could swoop down on him and gnaw out his liver, which then would regenerate during the night, to be eaten again the next day. Prometheus endured what he regarded as a most unjust punishment for his gifts to mankind. He defied the gods until Hercules unbound him from his chains.

This book traces how Beethoven, who was agonizing over the onset of deafness, came during his work on the ballet to identify with the Titan’s ordeal. He saw deafness as a most undeserved fate for a composer who spent most of his waking hours sketching and polishing musical works as his own gifts to mankind – but also as a cruelty that would force him to withdraw from Viennese society. By identifying with the determination of Prometheus, Beethoven generated his own inner resolve to surmount his suffering and emerge with skills that enabled him to forge, beginning with his revolutionary Third Symphony (the Eroica), an entirely new path for music in the nineteenth century. As with Prometheus, so Beethoven himself became unbound.

The music Beethoven wrote for the ballet’s finale, in which Prometheus’ originally clumsy humans advanced under the Titan’s tutelage to be fit to dance with the gods, took on a special significance which he may not fully have appreciated at first. But by the summer of 1802, when he realized he could no longer hear the sounds of nature which had for so long inspired him during his periodic escapes from the city, Beethoven returned to his Prometheus-melody as the basis for an unprecedented set of piano variations. As this book shows through his surviving sketches, he noticed that the bass line for the theme could be developed independently, and gradually built up until the treble melody could emerge in all its glory, much as the humans had emerged to glorious heights in dancing to the same tune at the end of the ballet.

Beethoven’s personal crisis came to a head in October 1802, when he admitted in his secret “Heiligenstadt Testament” (not discovered until after his death) to having entertained thoughts of suicide. That bout with despair, however, was overcome by a new burst of energy as Beethoven saw how much more he could still do with his Prometheus-theme. He began to fill page after page of his sketchbooks with new ideas for further variations – much more than he could ever include in the set that he eventually published.

This book draws for its thesis upon a sketchbook that was auctioned among the composer’s papers after his death, found its way to the library of a Russian count in Moscow, and now is in a state museum there. It contains the pages on which Beethoven set down his very first ideas for what in time would become his monumental Eroica symphony. As such, it provides the missing link to tell the full story of that work’s genesis out of the music Beethoven had written for his 1801 ballet. That story not only has not been set out anywhere before, but also establishes that it is the Titan Prometheus, and not any human figure such as Napoleon, whose heroism lies at the heart of the Eroica.

Note that the Kindle edition is $6 cheaper, but contains the same contents as the printed book. Moreover, there are hyperlinks in the Kindle version between the text and the endnotes, which make jumping from one to the other and then back again as easy as can be. Finally, the illustrations in the Kindle, unlike in the paperback, are in full color and at a higher resolution that makes it possible to enlarge them to see greater detail.

If any reader here does purchase the book, I hope he or she will be motivated to leave a review at Amazon, for which I will be most grateful. Meanwhile, Ludwig van is 248 today, and will be 250 on this date in 2020. In celebration, please enjoy this stellar performance of the piano variations (op. 35) on which he was working in Heiligenstadt in the summer and fall of 1802, when he despaired of his future as a composer due to his ever-worsening deafness.

In this set of 15 variations and closing fugue, Beethoven forged well ahead of his contemporaries and laid the ground for his path-breaking  Eroica Symphony. As noted, his sketchbook shows he conceived the Symphony at Heiligenstadt, as the outgrowth of all the effort he poured into elaborating on the theme he first used in his 1801 ballet based on the legend of Prometheus, and around which he constructed these fantastic variations. (Notice how they begin, as described above, with just the bass of the theme itself, stated in octaves. The "Prometheus"-theme does not emerge in full until the fourth variation.)

Napoleon was the furthest person from Beethoven's mind when he was writing this music, which is all about the heroism and triumph of Prometheus, who provided just the inspiration Beethoven needed at a crucial turning-point of his life.