A Christmas Liszt

December 23, 2011


Over the years I’ve accumulated a large repertory of Christmas organ works that have been more or less rotated through the annual celebrations that I’ve played for. After a few years of not doing much along that line, I decided this year, when I’m playing a Midnight Mass and two on Christmas Day, to come up with new-to-me — and possibly novel-to-others — music.

When I practiced this morning, I turned on my laptop recorder so that I could see what some of the pieces sounded like when not playing. When I got home and listened, I thought, “I haven’t done anything for the Liszt Bicentennial, so maybe I’ll post this odd little piece.” It may be worthwhile to post even this comparatively crude recording, since it’s Franz Liszt as you may not know him. This is no Hungarian Rhapsody or Les Preludes. It’s Liszt in a purposely naïve vein — composing for a granddaughter, as it happens. He has taken a 14th-century German carol, “In dulci jubilo,” added a classic German cradle-song ostinato, and somewhat contradicted the lullaby affect by his periodic markings of staccato and even marcato that make for comparatively rough rocking. But perhaps the reason why can be found in his title. Shepherds may not be the most gentle of nurses:

Dir Hirten an der Krippe (The Shepherds at the Crib) from Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree), for piano or organ.


In 1912, people had expectations in transportation and concerts that may not in every detail have survived intact.

Regional opera companies have expressed concern — or, in some instances, alarm — at the success of HD presentation in movie theaters of performances from the Metropolitan Opera and other major houses. Some say that this new facility offering local audiences the opportunity to see the world’s top stars at moderate prices, with production values available only to leading houses, will erode support for local troupes.

Corollary issues may now come to the fore with the arrival of movie-house HD performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, featuring their charismatic, youthful, and preternaturally frisky music director, Gustavo Dudmel. No less an appreciator of the orchestral art than the clarinetist David H. Thomas has announced on his blog:

Although I love a live orchestral performance, I prefer to hear the best orchestras in the best halls. Given a choice, I’d probably opt for the HD broadcast of a great orchestra over a local performance in the flesh. Why? More bang for my buck. Easier access, too.

When the principal clarinetist of the Columbus Symphony is talking like that, you can’t be surprised to see him also predict this:

The days of numerous live performances by live orchestras in local concert halls may be coming to an end. As more top level orchestras broadcast live HD in theaters, small orchestras will feel even more crunched for audiences.

He may well be right, as matters now stand, but I’m convinced that this melancholy decline is not inevitable. Quite the contrary. The new technologies may force us to take invigorating measures that we should adopt anyway. The antidote to seeing their thunder stolen by the big boys, it seems clear to me, is for these local orchestras to offer an experience that audiences can’t get from sitting in a movie theater staring at a big screen and hearing carefully engineered sound over (almost inevitably too-loud) speakers. The exact characteristics of these sorts of offerings will vary –indeed, by their very nature must vary — from place to place. I would suggest, however, that they should almost everywhere involve the renunciation of a felt obligation to ape their “betters” in the metropolis, whose starchy conventions — which, for the men may involve a lot of literal starch — tend to have grown out of the expectations of the robber barons who usually endowed such orchestras, long regarded them as their own, and expected others to imitate their own attitudes and manners at the concerts whose expenses their endowments have continued to defray long after they themselves have shuffled off this mortal coil. The number of people willing to buy into this arrangement, you may have noticed, has been falling off in most places, and the average undoctored hair-color is gray.

Some wholesome practices may not need to be invented, but revived. A practice of Franz Liszt may be extreme but suggestive: he used to greet his audience members at the door, inviting them to put questions on slips of paper into his hat so that he could answer them from the stage between numbers — thus establishing a relationship with his hearers much at variance with the distant noli me tangere that conventional conductors and instrumentalists now normally convey to audiences. That the audiences, in practice, are now dressed very differently from the performers (who are mostly still got up as those robber barons were accoutered for concerts a hundred and more years ago) enforces the feeling of distance. Such distance doesn’t often seem to have existed in those earlier, formative days, when the members of what is now known as the New York Philharmonic acted as ushers at their concerts!

Although a New York Times reviewer has expressed distaste for the close-ups of orchestra players at a Los Angeles cinemacast, she interviewed a young man afterwards who said it was his first orchestral concert and that it made him eager to try one at Lincoln Center. It is not impossible that he may be disappointed in some ways when he does. We may easily forget how little much of the public now knows about orchestral instruments and the playing thereof. While questions of taste will need careful consideration, the facility that modern cameras offer for showing the act of music-making-in-progress is not to be despised as an aid to the appreciation of the activity that is going on. Just as HD-treated opera performances have already changed expectations of the appearance and behavior of opera singers, might HD orchestral performances persuade instrumentalists of what Andrew Porter tried to convince them of in years of New Yorker articles: that the look of undifferentiated boredom that many wear is not obligatory? To show enthusiasm and enjoyment (sincere, not affected) for participating in music would do much to clear the funereal air that hangs about all too many performances. Local orchestras might find ways of showing more of what they do within and without the formal concert frame in their own communities (though much of the dire symphonic labor dispute in Detroit is said to stem from a reluctance to accept new orchestral job descriptions tending in such a direction).

Chamber and recital series are fortunate in that they can much more easily experiment, then correct course quickly, responding most easily to audience reaction. Being more portable and less space-consuming, they can also experiment more readily with variety of environment. It’s true that changing direction by the canoe of a duo or quartet is far easier than turning around a Queen Mary-like symphony orchestra. But, if they continue with their inroads, these HD experiences may raise our consciousness — and consciences — before our concerts suffer the fate of a famous vessel bested by an iceberg while an orchestra sank below the waves, still playing as they always had.

A Bumper Crop

January 24, 2010

Anthony Tommasini has an article in today’s New York Times about the coincidence of the Schumann and Chopin birth-bicentenaries falling in 2010. The link between them, as he tells us, was Schumann’s earnest championing of Chopin’s music. Since Schumann was a very influential writer on music, this was significant to the success of a Polish immigrant to Western Europe who rarely played in public. (Tommasini passes over the less affirmative fact that Chopin, in return, treated Schumann and his music with something like contempt.)

While the 2010 double anniversary deserves to be celebrated, and will be, I’m equally interested in the fact that so short a period of time as four years produced such a large helping of the most influential musicians of an era. A simple and selective list is striking:

1809 Mendelssohn
1810 Chopin
1810 Schumann
1811 Liszt
1813 Wagner

(Am I alone in often carelessly thinking of Liszt as being much older than Wagner — perhaps because Liszt’s daughter married a man who turns out to be about the same age as her father?)

And this is to deal only with some who are now considered composers of the very first rank. What about Félicien César David (1810 – 1876), Carl Otto Ehrenfried Nicolai (1810 – 1849), Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810 – 1876), Charles Louis Ambroise Thomas (1811 – 1896), Ferdinand Hiller (1811 – 1885), Sigismond Thalberg (1812 – 1871), Stephen Heller (1813 – 1888), or Charles-Henri Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888)? They all made real marks on a music world very unlike our own, though the esteem in which they’ve been held has been markedly variable over the years.

Speaking of someone whose reputation was very high, then sank for a time, and is now perhaps more exalted than ever: one Giuseppe Fortunino Frencesco Verdi was born down in Italy in the same year as Wagner, showing that it must have been the air of those four years, not the soil, that yielded such an unexampled bounty.

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