Monthly Archives: September 2007

September 18, 2007

Tchaikovsky: Capriccio Italien, Op. 45 (1880)

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Opus 45: Capriccio italien

composed: 1880 (age 39-40, see above)
published: 1880
first performance: Moscow, December 18 [old 6], 1880 (Nikolai Rubinstein conducting the Russian Music Society [?])
dedicated to Karl Davidov (cellist, and director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory)

I’m pretty sure one of these is the title page of the original edition. I think they might both be – the first one as published in Germany, the second as published in Russia. There might also be covers from France and England. Not sure.

I’m including this because, as with book covers, I feel it’s useful to see the design elements originally associated with a work. I think pretty visually, and seeing an illustration, or even just type design like this, really helps me get aesthetically oriented to the whole stylistic world that the work comes from. As I’ve probably said on this site in the past, I don’t think it’s right to present old art as though it’s evergreen and can be repackaged any which way. Whether something appears “timeless” to us reflects more on our attitudes than on it, or on the time from which it comes. The only reliable way to have access to the past is to go out and meet it; it can’t be expected to come meet us. At least to meet it halfway. Seeing a book cover sometimes makes it instantly clear where I’m going; so too with music, maybe. Though decorative covers aren’t quite as ubiquitous in music. Still, even these relatively straightforward designs send certain signals.

I would have included the original covers for the prior selections but I couldn’t find them online. These were scanned by the Eastman School of Music, and come from here, where you can download the full score, the score of the composer’s own 4-hand piano arrangement (also 1880), and the score of a 2-piano arrangement by Eduard Leontyevich Langer (1835-1908), “a pianist colleague at the Moscow Conservatoire, whose ineptitude in making piano transcriptions was to cause Tchaikovsky so much exasperation” (quote from here).

Anyway, this was random number 359. Capriccio italien is a pretty dumb piece and its inclusion in the Essential Canon of Classical Music is mysterious. It’s not the warhorse of programming that it seems once to have been, so I’m not sure it can even be justified in terms of ubiquity. Who out there really loves this piece these days, or even thinks about it? It’s been recorded many many times, but I think only because it makes a good space-filler on an album of other Tchaikovsky works, and seems easy to play.

But maybe not easy to play well. Yet again I’m struck by how unsatisfying the recordings were. The piece is all about catchy tunes and corny fun, and it seemed fair to wait for a performance that really brought the catchiness and fun to life. But nearly every conductor seemed content to let it die on the vine, taking the score at its pedestrian word and not adding anything. The slow first theme, which in my imagination should be lusty and operatic almost to the point of comedy, falls totally flat in nearly every performance I heard, with the triplets coming out lazy and even instead of petulant and snappy. The whole score is clearly made up of tunes that PT thought were hummable; the least an orchestra could do is play them like they wanted to hum them.

Actually, all I really wanted from a performance of this piece is for it to sound like an old cartoon score, where dinky popular and traditional tunes have been thrown together and orchestrated and are played with gusto and a total lack of artistic ambition. The second theme here seemed like it come from a Carl Stalling depiction of Italy, and for all I know it may have been used that way. But if the Warner Brothers orchestra played it, they would have given it some kick!

The piece is actually just like those Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies, only Italian, and with perhaps a slightly more agile sense of orchestration, but considerably less overall flair. The few connecting and developmental passages are rather weak, as I think Pyotr himself acknowledged, and in the end we don’t really come away with a sense of having gotten anywhere. The tempo and character transitions need a lot of goosing from the conductor; without adding a lot of accelerandos and rallentandos they don’t make enough sense. Unfortunately none of the conductors did that.

Apparently the actual inspiration was not Liszt but Glinka. But I don’t know those pieces so I can’t comment on that.

It’s a tourist piece, based on stuff Tchaikovsky took in while he was staying in Rome. The intro is a bugle call he could hear from the Italian cavalry barracks near his hotel room. I like the idea of taking some noise you hear every day on your vacation and making it the entrance gate to a work of art. With that in mind, the introduction is actually quite effective – the bugle call is played bare in the trumpets, exactly as he heard it, but then is magically joined by the rest of the whole orchestra, converted into something glorious as it passes through the gate of perception and into the interior world of the artist. Or something. For that to come across, though, the opening few bars have to be played like an actual bugle call – without too much expression and not too broadly. No conductors made that choice either.

There are about four themes – 1. the operatic one, 2. the dippy ice cream truck / Popeye one, 3. the suave, jaunty one (my favorite), and then, after the brief return of the operatic one, 4. the tarantella, which has at least one good part. Then a clumsy, would-be-triumphant return of the ice cream truck / Popeye theme leads into a middling coda of the “whipped into a frenzy” type, which actually undercuts its own frenzy in a couple places.

So: this is a deeply unambitious, “lowbrow” piece, and isn’t even a particularly fine specimen of that type. That said, it still gives off a sense of genuine good cheer, these tunes are pretty catchy, and I am able to imagine a really rollicking performance of this piece that delights me, even if I’ve never actually heard it. If someone started humming this I’d join in. But “essential canon” are strong words and this is quite obviously a lightweight. That’s okay by me, though – it still feels like I’ve tossed at least a spadeful of cultural literacy on to the pile.

The official four-hand version, by the way, is mostly very easy and potentially fun to play, but then has some really tricky scales in the middle. I would say fudge them – this was never going to sound good on a piano anyway. Though it looks like those crazy Labeques have recorded this version all the same.

Per Dubal:

London Symphony Orchestra, Rozhdestvensky: IMP Classics IMPPCD 875
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Slatkin: CA 09026-60433-2

I couldn’t readily find either of those. Note that the obscure link above is the only indication I can find anywhere on the web that the IMP Classics release ever existed. (Though a different release of the same recording can now be gotten here fairly easily.)

My favorite of the eleven recordings that I could find, see below, was the Czech Philharmonic / Karel Ančerl. It’s not particularly clean but at least events progress in a way that makes sense to me. Somewhere out there, I believe, there is an even better recording.


Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim. Deutsche Grammophon 445 523-2. 1981.
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Lorin Maazel. RCA 09026-68471-2. 1995.
Philharmonia Orchestra of London / Placido Domingo. EMI 5 55018 2. 1993.
New York Philharmonic / Leonard Bernstein. Sony SMK 61556. 1960.
Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra / Antal Dorati. Mercury 434 360-2. 1955.
Orchestr Ceská Filharmonie / Karel Ančerl. Supraphon SU 3680-2. 1965.
“London New Philharmonia Orchestra” / “Laurence Gordon Siegel”. Intersound CDQ 2027. Released 1988.
Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert Von Karajan. Deutsche Grammophon 463 614-2. 1966.
Berliner Philharmoniker / Seiji Ozawa. Deutsche Grammophon 427 354-2. Released 1989.
Orchestre symphonique du Montréal / Charles Dutoit. Decca 466 419-2. 1986.
Cincinnati Pops Orchestra / Erich Kunzel. Telarc CD-80541. 1988.

September 10, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

by J.K. Rowling

My plot for the seventh book was this:

To undo the magic linking him to Voldemort, Harry Potter must die. He has to pass through the curtain in the Department of Mysteries and descend into the land of the dead, a Greek underworld type place, with a river Styx and the shades of characters long-gone – but no grand Lord Hades reigning over it all, just eerie primal magic of some natural kind – the basic mysterious forces of the universe. However, there are some kind of personified figures of fate – Norns or something – and Harry, in trickster fashion, first has to summon them and make some kind of wager or deal to ensure his being able to return from the land of the dead, something nobody has ever before managed to do. In a heart-rending scene, he meets his parents, and Sirius, and whoever else, and impulsively tries to bargain for their souls as well. Ultimately they can’t join him – for some reason it would work out that they could be saved but only by canceling out Harry’s original purpose in entering the land of the dead, and thus forfeiting the fight against Voldemort – the lesson being: losing things that we love is simply the price of fighting the good fight, no matter how much magic we have.

A darker alternate was that Harry’s only way of walking through the land of the dead and returning would be to create his own Horcrux, killing some bad guy but in the process souring his soul forever. In the end he’d be able to mostly mend himself on magical terms, but would still become a darkened, compromised adult, like everyone who must take the burden of fighting evil. His final rite of passage into adulthood would thus be descending into the grey between good and evil, in order to protect the world; and he would finally be able to commiserate with Dumbledore, who would be revealed to have made similar compromises that somehow explained the Snape situation.

I guess I was looking for a noir ending, or something with a poignant mythological resonance. It seemed like she had been heading in that direction. But the series actually ended back where it began, with the simplest colors and the most Saturday-morning-cartoon-worn tropes. She seemed to know the book needed a feeling of compromise, but she gained it only by killing off a few sympathetic characters, and even that was never quite given the chance to sink in. The tale of Harry Potter ends, like so many disappointing video games, with a boss battle not qualitatively different than any other battle, and somewhat less interesting than much that has gone before. Then the credits roll.

My comments last time about J’s converting the epic into the technical continue to apply, with the added sadness that now the technicalities no longer really make any kind of intuitive sense. They also may not even make technical sense, though the rules have gotten so fuzzy-edged that it’s hard to know how to navigate her labyrinths of technicalities. And I’m not inclined to try. I would rather have thrown out all kinds of babies in the bathwater and been given something bold and compelling in the end. But that would have been dissatisfying to many, I’m sure. She obviously felt obliged to give a shout-out to every misbegotten bath-baby from the entire series, but a string of shout-outs just leaves us feeling like we haven’t really been there, we haven’t really found out what happens to anyone. Was that really the last time I’ll hear from Hermione? I’m not convinced; maybe I never really knew her. I think the frantically good-natured effort to give everyone what they came for is going to sap away some of the life from the preceding books, retroactively. But I don’t plan to be rereading any of these anymore.

I absolutely enjoyed the entire process of reading this series – it was truly a delight. But make no mistake, this needs to be classed as a guilty pleasure, not a proud one. Participating in a mass phenomenon is a thrill; seeing people of all types reading de-covered copies of this giant book about wizards on the subway never got old. But it fades fast, as it did after every installment, and now that it’s over I’m not sure I’ll ever have any reason to stir up the embers again.

I think the notion of J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter phenomenon will linger on in my mind – and if I may prophesy, in the culture at large – for much longer than the content of books themselves. In this last volume I was more aware than ever of this non-writerly, pleasant but ordinary woman, gamely taking on the task of entertaining everyone in the whole world. Like someone’s mom somehow organizing an international 100 million person game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. How did we get here? How did this end up happening? Of course I have to approve.

J.K. Rowling (2005) by Stuart Pearson Wright

September 9, 2007

Family Plot (1976)

directed by Alfred Hitchcock
screenplay by Ernest Lehman
after the novel The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning (1972)

Hitchcock’s final movie. I’d heard that this was “a return to form for Hitchcock” and “slight but entertaining” and “a cute comedy-mystery” and the like. But it actually was pretty shameful stuff. That it was stupid was not really a surprise; what was sad was that it seemed actually sloppy, unprofessional. Hitchcock was very old and not doing too well by the time he made this, so I can’t hold it too much against him that it feels unpolished and vague; but Ernest Lehman was only 60, would go on to live almost 30 more years, and has no excuses. His screenplay (which Wikipedia tells me won an Edgar award for mystery writing!) is dumb not only in its larger structure but also in the details of each dialogue. Nearly every scene consists of two characters swapping summations of the current state of affairs, peppered with embarrassing less-than-double-entendres. When Eva Marie Saint says “I’m a big girl,” and Cary Grant says, “Yes, and in all the right places*” we cringe a little (don’t we?), but roll with it because it’s Cary Grant and he surely knows what he’s saying. When Bruce Dern says – oh god, something about peering into his crystal balls, or something, I’ve blocked it out – we cringe again, deeply, and this time, because it’s just Bruce Dern, we have no other recourse. My point here is that Ernest Lehman was always a bit adolescent when it came to sex, but at least in the 50s everything felt oblique to begin with, so a little snickering and turning red about sex seemed like just what the doctor ordered. Now it’s 1976 and it just seems immature that Ernie is still snickering and turning red. The movie revolves around two totally boring, low-chemistry long-term couples, both of which frequently resort to contorted metaphors and winking to talk about the prospect of potentially having sex. Which they do not, by the way, do at all in this movie, even off-screen, so the talk is just in there because Ernie felt it was mandatory. Which is also a bit sad.

There is a workable premise here, which is: our bumbling heroes are arbitrarily entrusted with the task of finding a long-lost heir to a great fortune, about whom nothing is known. Meanwhile, we the viewers find out that this long-lost heir is now in fact a nefarious criminal. What will happen next? From this premise, any number of things could happen that would be interesting, and I guess one or two of those things did ultimately happen, but they turned out not to be interesting after all.

Both the bad guy, William Devane, and his partner, the totally unsexy doofus-faced Karen Black, have more or less no screen charisma, though I’ll grant Devane that he has intriguingly weird teeth. Bruce Dern seems convinced he is playing a colorful character, and he certainly does do a lot of fidgeting, but of negligible interest to the audience. Barbara Harris fares the best, which isn’t saying much, by piling on the ham in her ham sandwich role. But wait, who are these people, again? A fake psychic and a cab driver and a what? Eh, forget it, I don’t care.

There is a pretty good runaway car sequence, shot more or less identically to the one in North By Northwest, but with somewhat better footage. But no music and no Cary Grant so it’s about even. There’s also one nice shot, a long shot of a cemetery, where two figures walk in parallel down different paths toward their convergence. It was interesting, but a little depressing, to find out that this one shot that struck me as attractive had actually been laboriously planned out by Hitchcock, with the paths specially constructed for the film, so as to suggest the lines in a Mondrian painting. Yes, I guess it sort of did look like that, but knowing how much thought and effort went into that one moderately interesting shot, I feel far less pleased by it. Couldn’t some of that effort have been redistributed into the rest of this silly movie?

Music is by John Williams, not quite so on-the-ball as with Jaws the previous year. The themes are cute, and harpsichord and piano on melody lend a certain 70s period flavor that I enjoyed. But as usual, he has a tendency to lay it on just a little thicker than he realizes – anyway, thicker than this eggshell of a movie can withstand. I had occasion to hear some of this music in advance of seeing the movie, and it primed me for something fun and dated, in the vein of the early Columbo episodes that Beth so enjoys. But Columbo, for all its sleepy hokum, has a certain degree of formulaic rigor. This just rolled around. Poor Hitch.

Trailer 1 and Trailer 2. Links work right now, anyway.

Covers of the first edition, and the pre-movie tie-in edition, of the book – is it possible that anyone, anywhere, has read this? – upon which. For those who are wondering, “Mrs. Rainbird” is the name of the rich old lady who wants her missing heir found. Now you see.

rainbird.jpg rainbird2.jpg

* presumably i.e. principally the breasts.

September 2, 2007

Where I came from

Two nights ago, after some frustrated attempts at musical composition, I decided to see how efficiently I could simply take dictation from my mind. Automatic writing, except there’s nothing all that mysterious about automatic music. What I ended up writing was a long stream of just I’s IV’s and V’s (and one VI) and sounds like something out of an 80s kid’s movie. Which is sort of how these things always turn out for me.

I don’t think it’s arbitrary. Deep at the heart of my sense of music is the musical culture I experienced when I was young. I don’t consciously think about that music very often but it does tend to come to the surface when I’m letting things fall where they may.

On the one hand I feel like I came through my 80s childhood having become attached to a lot less of the pop culture than most of my peers. On the other hand I think maybe this stuff worked itself even deeper into me; I feel like a tune like this is still “what I’m made of” in some way, whereas everyone else seems to have long outgrown it.

I’m oddly getting a lot of satisfaction out of having written this. It feels like it gets at the essentials, which might be laughable but there it is; it’s true for me. Strange to realize that I am internally, forever, marked as a product of the culture of my early childhood, since that culture seems so distant now, even to me.

Also, stuff like this makes clear that while my conscious composing – generally derived from quasi-visual or abstract notions – is often a little pungent, my inner music box itself is not actually very sophisticated. When I shut up and listen to it, it only seems to know about a few simple chords, and in root position.

Again, you have to understand that when I wrote this, I was not trying to do a period pastiche. I was just humming what I wanted to hum.

Instrumentation was admittedly influenced by what it sounded like to me consciously.

Automatic melody