I had no idea that Duke Ellington had ever composed an opera until I saw Long Beach Opera’s 2014 season. Turns out it’s not truly what could be called an opera, but it’s definitely the closest Ellington ever came to writing one. You can read about in the latest issue of LA Weekly, or you can click here.
I thought my story would be an online article, so it had a high word count when I turned it in (you don’t need to worry about column space in cyberspace). A few things wound up cut, so I’m including them here if you don’t know much about Ellington’s music.
At the top of this post: a composition Duke Ellington wrote to showcase Cootie Williams’ unique trumpet playing. One of the biggest challenges facing modern bands playing Ellington’s arrangements is that so much of his band’s sound was inextricably linked to his soloists. When Ellington wrote an alto saxophone part, he wasn’t just writing for any old alto saxophone. He wrote specifically for Johnny Hodges. In an interview, I asked music director Jeffrey Lindberg about this issue, and he replied
“If players are able to get that Ellington soloist’s sound, they will; if not, they’ll do it their own way. It depends on the specific number. Cootie Williams’ trumpet sound has to be authentic, or else it doesn’t sound right.”
In “Concerto for Cootie,” an Ellington composition, Williams uses two different trumpet mutes, as well as playing open trumpet. You can also hear him “growling,” which was a classic sound that Ellington frequently required from his trumpet soloists. Growl technique went all the way back to Ellington’s Cotton Club band and the trumpeter therein who popularized that sound, Bubber Miley.
There are several numbers interpolated into Queenie Pie that weren’t in Ellington’s original score. One of these is “Creole Love Call,” which was mainly composed by Bubber Miley. Not only can you hear Bubber Miley himself, but immediately before his solo (and in the final chorus), Adelaide Hall imitates Miley with her voice. A vocalist imitating a trumpeter imitating a vocalist!
Leave it to Franz Liszt to write a book commemorating Chopin and spend half a chapter (out of eight) rhapsodizing over red hot Polish mamas and their—mazurkas. A partial excerpt:
What mingling emotions are concentrated in the accidental meetings of the Mazourka! It can surround, with its own enchantment, the lightest emotion of the heart, while, through its magic, the most reserved, transitory, and trivial rencounter appeals to the imagination. Could it be otherwise in the presence of the women who give to this dance that inimitable grace and suavity, for which, in less happy countries, they struggle in vain? In very truth are not the Slavic women utterly incomparable? There are to be found among them those whose qualities and virtues are so incontestable, so absolute, that they are acknowledged by all ages, and by all countries. Such apparitions are always and everywhere rare. The women of Poland are generally distinguished by an originality full of fire. Parisians in their grace and culture, Eastern dancing girls in their languid fire, they have perhaps preserved among them, handed down from mother to daughter, the secret of the burning love potions possessed in the seraglios. Their charms possess the strange spell of Asiatic languor. With the flames of spiritual and intellectual Houris in their lustrous eyes, we find the luxurious indolence of the Sultana. Their manners caress without emboldening; the grace of their languid movements is intoxicating; they allure by a flexibility of form, which knows no restraint, save that of perfect modesty, and which etiquette has never succeeded in robbing of its willowy grace. They win upon us by those intonations of voice which touch the heart, and fill the eye with tender tears; by those sudden and graceful impulses which recall the spontaneity and beautiful timidity of the gazelle. Intelligent, cultivated, comprehending every thing with rapidity, skillful in the use of all they have acquired; they are nevertheless as superstitious and fastidious as the lovely yet ignorant creatures adored by the Arabian prophet. Generous, devout, loving danger and loving love, from which they demand much, and to which they grant little; beyond every thing they prize renown and glory. All heroism is dear to them. Perhaps there is no one among them who would think it possible to pay too dearly for a brilliant action; and yet, let us say it with reverence, many of them devote to obscurity their most holy sacrifices, their most sublime virtues. But however exemplary these quiet virtues of the home life may be, neither the miseries of private life, nor the secret sorrows which must prey upon souls too ardent not to be frequently wounded, can diminish the wonderful vivacity of their emotions, which they know how to communicate with the infallible rapidity and certainty of an electric spark. Discreet by nature and position, they manage the great weapon of dissimulation with incredible dexterity, skillfully reading the souls of others with out revealing the secrets of their own. With that strange pride which disdains to exhibit characteristic or individual qualities, it is frequently the most noble virtues which are thus concealed. The internal contempt they feel for those who cannot divine them, gives them that superiority which enables them to reign so absolutely over those whom they have enthralled, flattered, subjugated, charmed; until the moment arrives when—loving with the whole force of their ardent souls, they are willing to brave and share the most bitter suffering, prison, exile, even death itself, with the object of their love! Ever faithful, ever consoling, ever tender, ever unchangeable in the intensity of their generous devotion! Irresistible beings, who in fascinating and charming, yet demand an earnest and devout esteem! In that precious incense of praise burned by M. de Balzac, “in honor of that daughter of a foreign soil,” he has thus sketched the Polish woman in hues composed entirely of antitheses: “Angel through love, demon through fantasy; child through faith, sage through experience; man through the brain, woman through the heart; giant through hope, mother through sorrow; and poet through dreams.”
The homage inspired by the Polish women is always fervent. They all possess the poetic conception of an ideal, which gleams through their intercourse like an image constantly passing before a mirror, the comprehension and seizure of which they impose as a task. Despising the insipid and common pleasure of merely being able to please, they demand that the being whom they love shall be capable of exacting their esteem.
It’s a good thing Liszt was an excellent pianist and composer, because he never would have gotten a job writing for FHM or Maxim.
From Philip K. Dick’s novel, Valis:
‘Pity’s highest power’ is just bullshit. Pity has no power … Everyone knows this, everyone who has gazed down helplessly at a sick or dying human or a sick or dying animal, felt terrible pity, overpowering pity, and realized that this pity, however great it might be, is totally useless.
Parsifal is one of those corkscrew artifacts of culture in which you get the subjective sense that you’ve learned something from it, something valuable or even priceless; but on closer inspection you suddenly begin to scratch your head and say, ‘Wait a minute. This makes no sense’
I can see Richard Wagner standing at the gates of heaven. ‘You have to let me in,’ he says. ‘I wrote Parsifal. It has to do with the Grail, Christ, suffering, pity and healing. Right?’
And they answer, ‘Well, we read it and it makes no sense.’ SLAM. Wagner is right and so are they. It’s another Chinese finger-trap.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the premiere of one of the essential musical compositions of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Below, from Stravinsky’s autobiography (Chroniques de ma vie, 1936), is a description of that notorious evening (the date of which Stravinsky misremembered). Historians warn us that Stravinsky’s remembrance of his appraisal of Nijinsky’s choreography 25 years after the event, and nearly 2 decades after Nijinsky went insane, might be unreliable.
I have now come to the spring season of 1913 in Paris, when the Russian Ballet inaugurated the opening of the Théatre des Champs-Elysees. It began with a revival of L’Oiseau de Feu, and the Sacre du Printemps was given on May 28 at the evening performance. The complexity of my score had demanded a great number of rehearsals, which Monteux had conducted with his usual skill and attention. As for the actual performance, I am not in a position to judge, as I left the auditorium at the first bars of the prelude, which had at once evoked derisive laughter. I was disgusted. These demonstrations, at first isolated, soon became general, provoking counter-demonstrations and very quickly developing into a terrific uproar. During the whole performance I was at Nijinsky’s side in the wings. He was standing on a chair, screaming “sixteen, seventeen, eighteen”—they had their own method of counting to keep time. Naturally the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was furious, and ready to dash on to the stage at any moment and create a scandal. Diaghileff kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise. That is all I can remember about that first performance. Oddly enough, at the dress rehearsal, to which we had, as usual, invited a number of actors, painters, musicians, writers, and the most cultured representatives of society, everything had gone off peacefully, and I was very far from expecting such an outburst.
Now, after the lapse of more than twenty years, it is naturally difficult for me to recall in any detail the choreography of the Sacre without being influenced by the admiration with which it met in the set known as the avant-garde —ready, as always, to welcome as a new discovery anything that differs, be it ever so little, from the déjà vu. But what struck me then, and still strikes me most, about the choreography, was and is Nijinsky’s lack of consciousness of what he was doing in creating it. He showed therein his complete inability to accept and assimilate those revolutionary ideas which Diaghileff had made his creed, and obstinately and industriously strove to inculcate. What the choreography expressed was a very labored and barren effort rather than a plastic realization flowing simply and naturally from what the music demanded. How far it all was from what I had desired!
In composing the Sacre I had imagined the spectacular part of the performance as a series of rhythmic mass movements of the greatest simplicity which would have an instantaneous effect on the audience, with no superfluous details or complications such as would suggest effort. The only solo was to be the sacrificial dance at the end of the piece. The music of that dance, clear and well defined, demanded a corresponding choreography — simple and easy to understand. But there again, although he had grasped the dramatic significance of the dance, Nijinsky was incapable of giving intelligible form to its essence, and complicated it either by clumsiness or lack of understanding. For it is undeniably clumsy to slow down the tempo of the music in order to compose complicated steps which cannot be danced in the tempo prescribed. Many choreographers have that fault, but I have never known any who erred in that respect to the same degree as Nijinsky.
Well, 2013 has gotten off to a great start for me, thanks to Natalie Axton including my work for the LA Weekly in her roundup of the best criticism from 2012 at her blog, Living With Criticism. Ms. Axton writes:
The future of classical music writing may well look like what Christian Hertzog is doing at LA Weekly.
Sure, I’ll take whatever praise can be mustered for my work, but when it comes from a fine, perceptive writer like Natalie Axton, I cherish the kudos even more. Do yourself a favor and read Natalie’s candid, compelling essay about how she walked away from what most people would define as success, and found happiness in so doing.