Good Vibrations

October 30, 2015

Sometime in my mid-twenties, Gustave Reese, whose research assistant I then was, asked me if I would like to go to a private concert that evening at the Morgan Library. His wife had probably begged off at the last moment. The event is well-remembered by me for three reasons. As I left for home at the end of our work day, Professor Reese casually said, “Of course it’s black-tie.” I’m sure that I pretended indifference, but I as surely racked my brain to remember how clean or pressed my tux shirt was and remembered that I had recently lost my nice mother-of-pearl studs and cuff links in one of youth’s follies. I somehow managed, I think, to get it all together in time not to look as poor-graduate-student as I felt—or of course actually was.

The second memory took place in the elevator up to the concert hall. I heard Professor Reese say, “Miss Tully, do you know Mr. Evans?” and found myself face face-to-face with America’s leading patroness of chamber music. I thought of, but of course did not refer to, the many stories that I’d heard about her from Albert Fuller, who was later to be her biographer.

But the third recollection is the reason for this short post. The performers were the Quartetto Italiano, then at the height of their fame but near the end of their career. All I remember of the program is that they played Webern and Haydn. It was in the Haydn quartet that I had an unpleasant experience that I have never forgotten. It had to do with vibrato—not as an effect that should or should not happen in some blanket or doctrinaire way, but as something more complex and which, all during the work, had for me an enormously disorienting effect: namely with all short notes necessarily played without vibrato but all long notes heavily larded with it, a highly unpleasant dialogue emerged between the two kinds of tone production, both of which were arbitrarily decided by mere duration of the notes rather than any considered, rational expressive intention. I have rarely reacted so negatively to a performance, and the matter has interested me ever since.

Of course issues of vibrato emerged regularly in my many years of choral-conducting but never in an unpleasant or controversial way, so far as I can recall. And I have never written about the question except, in a recent book, a brief mention of “. . . the pitch ‘wobble’ that is routinely accepted in opera singers, wherein exact frequency definition is a very low priority. It is sometimes all but left to the harmonies of the orchestra to communicate to us what pitches the singer has in mind.” But, fortunately, someone else has now written on the subject in a way that I would like to have done. The wonderful singer Judith Malafronte here explains it all for you.


Now begins the construction of the central tower (La Torre de Jesús) of the Basilica of the Sagrada Família. It will make that “Expiatory Temple” the tallest building in Barcelona.

Nobody Knows

October 27, 2015

Marian Anderson (photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt )

Marian Anderson (photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt )

In his biographical papers published in the last decade of the twentieth century, Xavier Montsalvatge has a chapter called “Barcelona, en els feliços (per a alguns) anys vint” or “Barcelona, in the happy (for some) 1920s.” In it, he lists many of the world’s leading musicians who appeared in Barcelona as a matter of course before the ravages of the Spanish Civil War and the isolation of the Franco dictatorship. He remembers Ysaye, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Kreisler, Heifetz, and the famous conjunction of Thibaud, Cortot, and Casals, who performed both as soloists and in their equally renowned trio.

He also singles out the “deeply moving beauty of the sublime Marian Anderson” who introduced Catalans to Negro Spirituals, sung in concert. Here is a Victor recording of “Nobody Knows de Troubles I See” from that very period:

Montsalvatge adds that, after so thrilling an introduction, those same spirituals had been debased by a “desmesurada i irregular diffusió” by the 1990s. Their very popularity had caused them to circulate in ways untrue to their original meaning. I can testify that this continues in Sitges where, in the beauty of our iconic parish church, the tune of the sorrowful “Nobody Knows de Troubles I See” is sometimes sung at the end of Communion to the words, “Vos sou, Senyor, la llum del meu cor” (You are, Lord, the light of my heart), of course completely overthrowing the meaning of the lament! I’m sure that we Americans have likewise inappropriately appropriated the artistic treasures of other cultures very often, but it’s very difficult for me to hear that mournful melody of a persecuted race as a thanksgiving after Communion!



October 4, 2015


A discussion in English of last Sunday’s election of a pro-independence Catalan parliament, at this link.

More than Fair

September 17, 2015


A couple of hours ago, my friend Lluis Torras posted on Facebook in celebration of the 21st anniversary of his marriage to Laura Villanueva Calduch. I naturally wanted to congratulate them and normally should have done so in the Catalan language that he had used. But there was only one word, an English word, that seemed right as a comment on what he’d said. And that was “beautiful.” As I typed that, though, I remembered one reason why the word is so evocative in English. The word fair had been the normal adjective for the concept of beauty in English until Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English (1525). It seemed that “fair” simply didn’t suffice for some of the images that he was reading in Hebrew and Greek, so he used (maybe for the first time in literature) the word beautiful.

Tyndale was executed for his pains, but we can be grateful for having such a fair word as beautiful in our language.

This photo has had an honored place on my wall for many years.

This photo has had an honored place on my wall for many years.

A famous musician whom I met only once said to me over lunch, “You have a great gift for admiration.” That proceeded from a discussion that we were having about some important figures that we had both worked with and whom he probably thought as highly of as I did. But I don’t think that I bestow my admiration promiscuously.

There are three men who have been key to whatever education I can lay claim to. One of them died yesterday and, inevitably, he is the one who lives in my daily life even more than the other two, because he was the one who taught me to play music. I know that not every teacher gets through to every pupil (and that is not necessarily the fault of pupil or teacher, but just of a misfit between the one who imparts and the learner). But Paul Jenkins could have been born to teach me. I think I must sometimes have driven him crazy with my earnest questions based on concepts that he had introduced me to. (I’ve always been the type to be partial to systems.) I remember once on a drive, in his signature Mercedes, to a neighboring city for a concert when it became evident even to naîve me that I might be driving the driver a little too hard with my pressing questions about accents in Baroque music. And there were those nights when I’d be working away in a practice room and the door would suddenly be flung open with a demand that I join him and others for a sail. How wonderfully confusing to have the person who is, in some sense, driving you to be practicing late at night, appearing to urge your doing something else entirely! But if he thought that he was going to escape from teaching mode even then, he hadn’t realized the persistence of my questioning mode. I think I must have been a true pest.

But it’s his doing that I never—literally never—play at any length without consciously invoking interpretive or, especially, technical insights that he injected me with. Some of my colleagues may not have needed what he gave me, especially in the technical realm. But he literally taught me how to use my hands. What is more intimate to us instrumentalists than our hands? That’s where he will always reside for me, and with lasting veneration.

I had arrived in his studio as a pretty blank slate. What musical knowledge I had had come from experience with top-flight choral repertory and by basically learning my way around the keyboard via a succession of piano teachers of indifferent quality. He taught me that there was no technical challenge that I couldn’t overcome, because he taught me to turn every technical issue into a musical one. And, as it happens, he was right: a doctrine that I have tested over a long career.

As I have already said on Facebook, I’m not yet ready to face a world that doesn’t have my teacher in it. How little he could have known, even as I sometimes tried to tell him, what he meant to me—and, for that matter, to anybody that I have taught.

More TV

July 25, 2015

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You naturally expect me to recommend this talk show because of its scintillating content, but I do so mainly because I’ve lost 17 pounds (8 kilos) since my last appearance on the program. (Actually, the discussion isn’t bad,either, because the other guys are substantial conversationalists.)


June 16, 2015


This subject is interesting to me because I have to accept on faith the existence of a malady that I’ve never been prone to. In fact, the closest thing to it that I’ve ever felt is my insistent urge in adulthood to get back to the place that is my current home. People often say to me, “Going so early? Why?” to which I answer, “Because I want to go home.” Which sometimes gets another “Why?” And the answer is: “Because I like my home,” wherever it is.


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