8

128: The Isley Brothers, ‘Twist and Shout’

Posted by jeff on Nov 8, 2018 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Twist and Shout (Isley Brothers)

A while back I visited the Princeton Record Exchange, “one of the Leading Independent Record Stores since 1980”. I picked up my usual eclectic batch of weird and exotic obscurita, including one you might have heard of, “The Isley Brothers Story, Vol. 1.” (I figured at $1.99 I couldn’t go wrong).

Sit down here, Virginia, and I’ll tell you a story. It’s about how before the Jerk, the Pony, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, the Monkey and the Funky Chicken, there was the big mamma pelvic rotator of them all, The Twist. And all the kinetic energy emanating from all those gyrations powered more Twist songs than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill. And before there was The Beatles, Virginia, there were The Isley Brothers. But we’re putting the cart before the bandwagon.

The early 1960s were a very happy time in America (except for the threat of nuclear war with the Russkis), so people danced. Mostly young people, but also some fat and balding older suburbanites. And the really hip (culturally-aware) ones danced a jig called The Twist, which is performed by squaring the feet at shoulder width, extending the arms slightly and grinding the feet grind back and forth on the floor. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Here’s what it looks like in American cultural mind (excuse the oxymorons, they know not what they do).

Chubby Twists the Suburbs

The Twist was the invention of rock and roll luminary Dick Clark. He heard the potential of the original‘The Twist’ by R&B baaadman Hank Ballard, but realized it was too gritty and raunchy for white teen audiences, so he got a local Philly label to record wholesome (read: ‘very light-skinned Negro’) Chubby Checker. His ‘original’ version of ‘The Twist’ hit  #1 on the charts twice, in 1960 and 1962, and inspired a virtual musical epidemic, including gems such as Chubby’s ‘Let’s Twist Again’, ‘Peppermint Twist’ (good old Joey Dee), ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’ (the great Sam Cooke bringing home the bread), an entire album “Bo Diddley’s A Twister”,  ‘Oliver Twist’ by Rod McKuen (I jest not), and  the big mamma of them all, The Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist and Shout’.

They say The Twist came from an American plantation slave dance called “wringin’ and twistin,” and the pelvic and shuffling foot movements can be traced all the way back to West Africa. Sure sounds to me like all the Africa’s been bleached out.

Meanwhile, back in 1956, Ronald, Rudolph and O’Kelly Isley (15, 17 and 18 respectfully) boarded a Greyhound in Cincinnati (where they’d grown up in gospel) bound for New York (read: Sodom), where they were eventually signed by RCA. They built a local fan base due to their energetic live performances. James Brown once described the Isleys entering the stage flying through ramps “like Tarzan”.

Shout, Pts. 1-2 (Isley Brothers)

Opening for Jackie Wilson in Washington DC, they performed his ‘Lonely Teardrops’, during which they improvised the line “You know you make me want to shout” which developed into a gospel-charged call-and-response that drove the audience wild. RCA encouraged them to try it in the studio, and kept the bleach locked in the cleaning cabinet. The almost-spontaneous ‘Shout’ (1959, split into two parts for the 45 RPM), became a hit and an icon, covered by everyone from The Chipmunks to the movie “Animal House” to a laundry spray named after the song to a popular American wedding dance to the NFL Buffalo Bills to innumerable raucous Arak-sodden nights in my army reserve unit. The 4:39 of bedlam really is a wonder. It’s a shame Hamlet didn’t know the song – I’m sure it could have lifted his spirits. The organ and the guitar, by the way, are played by two guys brought especially for the session from the Isley’s church back home.

Here they are singing it live on Shindig circa 1965, the energy level hardly diminished by the years and the network lights.

Here are The Beatles singing ‘Shout’ live on TV in 1964 (they never recorded it). The sound and picture are out of synch, but they’re clearly enjoying themselves immensely. In fact, I don’t remember a clip where they look like they’re having so much fun making music. Note that all four lads share the lead vocals in turn.

Respectable (Isley Brothers)

The Isley’s follow-up single, ‘Respectable’ is regrettably little known — no less gospel energetic than its predecessor, and containing the lyric “Rubbedy-dub-dub-dub, she’s never been in love” (because she’s so Respectable).

Don’t get impatient, Virginia. We’re getting to the point now.

In 1961, Atlantic Records wanted a young group named The Top Notes to record ‘Twist and Shout’, written by staff newcomer Bert Berns and Phil Medley. Jerry Wexler decided he’d produce it with the help of another newcomer, Phil Spector, a 22-year old whose portfolio already included involvement in ‘Spanish Harlem’ and ‘On Broadway’. Berns watched from the recording booth while Wexler and Spector butchered his song. Wexler: “It was horrible…Phil changed the middle around, we had the wrong tempo, the wrong feel…Afterward, Bert said, ‘Man, you fucked it up.’”

Twist and Shout (Isley Brothers)

Berns wanted to give them the musical finger, so he took The Isley Brothers into the RCA studio himself. The “raucous, uninhibited, swaggering” result was released on June 16, 1962. It reached # 17 on the US pop top 40 charts, and #2 on the R&B chart.

A mere half-year later, on February 11, 1963, The Beatles went into the studio to record their first LP – 11 songs in 10 hours!  George Martin left ‘Twist and Shout’ for last. Engineer Norman Smith: “Someone suggested they do ‘Twist and Shout’ with John taking the lead vocal. But by this time all their throats were tired and sore; …John’s, in particular, was almost completely gone, so we really had to get it right the first time, The Beatles on the studio floor and us in the control room. John sucked a couple more Zubes, had a bit of a gargle with milk and away we went.” It would become The Beatles’ only million-selling cover. Here’s The Lads on the Ed Sullivan Show, and here’s the famous Royal Variety performance from 1963 before Queen Elizabeth, with John’s famous introduction: “For our last number, I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.”

In 1964, O’Kelly Isley met a homeless young guitarist at a store, and brought him into the Isley family home. The young man, Jimi Hendrix, played on a couple of their flops, but then left to tour with Little Richard. The Isley Brothers signed with Motown and in 1966 regained the charts (#12) with the ebullient ‘This Old Heart of Mine’, written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, out-Topping the Four Tops, one of the finest cuts to come out of Berry Gordy’s factory. Did you ever catch that part of the song was recycled from The Supremes’ ‘Back in My Arms Again’? Ecologically responsible, that Berry Gordy.

You don’t need me to tell you about Rod Stewart’s cover of ‘This Old Heart of Mine’, but you might have missed his duet with Ronald Isley.

In the 1960s and early 1970s the Isley Brothers drafted three young family members into the group and reincarnated themselves in the funk mode. They continued their career into the early 2000s in a number of formats and styles. But you’ll pardon me if I get off the train in 1966.I prefer to wallow in my nostalgia; and I only bought Volume 1 of “The Isley Brothers Story.”

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 28: Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, ‘The Tracks of My Tears’

042: Leiber & Stoller, ‘Yakety Yak’ (The Coasters)

062: Martha and The Vandellas, ‘Heat Wave’

103: Little Stevie Wonder, ‘Fingertips (Pt 2)’

 

 

 

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6

204: Bob Dylan, ‘Idiot Wind’ (NY Sessions)

Posted by jeff on Nov 1, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

Bob Dylan–‘Idiot Wind’ (NY Sessions, Take 2)
Bob Dylan–‘Idiot Wind’ (NY Sessions, Take 1)
Bob Dylan–‘Idiot Wind’ (Minnesota Sessions)

0851_155826_Dylan12cBarryFeinsteinFor all my Dylanite regular readers out there, the ones who believe that Bob was immaculately conceived, walks on water and conjures up loaves of bread with a sleight of his hand – close this quickly and go watch Big Brother. I’m going to talk today about both Bob’s imperfections and his perfections. These are my opinions. I’m not even saying they’re empirically correct. But it’s my blog, so I’m allowed to express them. Go shout at someone else. 

Back in SoTW 164, I talked about one of Dylan’s finest songs (‘Tangled Up in Blue’) from one of his finest albums (“Blood on the Tracks”). I tell about him learning multi-perspective dramatization under painter-mentor Norman Raeben, about the dissolution of his marriage, about the jaw-droppingly casual New York sessions of the songs and about their criminally tasteless re-recording several months later in Minnesota.

I remember my first impressions of the official release of the album. Five of the songs I recognized immediately as among his very finest, masterpieces from the git-go: ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, ‘You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go’, ‘Buckets of Rain’. Three were appealing but flawed: ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ (although over the years I’ve learned to appreciate it deeply), ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ and ‘Shelter from the Storm’. One was a toss-off blues, ‘Meet Me in the Morning’. And one was an aberration–

‘Idiot Wind’. Snarling, abrasive, foul. A ‘let-me-out-of-this-room’ song, Dylan at his worst. It reminded me of the debasement (pun intended) of “Before the Flood”, to which I listened once in 1974 and vowed never to expose myself to again, a resolution I’ve resolutely kept. It had all the venom of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, but with a hack organist instead of Al “God” Kooper, and a vocal devoid of charm, just an artless, tasteless bawling, which I’d regularly skip.

Some years later I became aware of the original New York recordings of “Blood on the Tracks,” uniformly superior to the Minnesota cuts from the released version. Except for ‘Idiot Wind’–

DylanHairRollingThunderwhich was a wholly different song. The garish garage band jettisoned, replaced by a two acoustic guitars, Dylan’s with open tuning in D and Eric Weissberg; a reserved, tasteful bass (Tony Brown, consciously emulating Charlie McCoy from “John Wesley Harding”); a pinch of organ for the occasional garnish, Dylan’s harmonica at the end. The tempo braked to fully elicit the passion and pain within. The strident 7th notes raised one game-changing half-step to anguished, remorseful Major 7ths. God is indeed in the details. And crucially, the vocal, no longer sneering from behind the white-faced, basketball arena mask. Here is that rarest of Bob Dylans – exposed, vulnerable, introspective, self-critical. Honest, straightforward, open. Human.

1972dylanSomething very terrible happened to a close friend last week. We’re both guys, so we didn’t really talk about it, just sort of grunted at each other over a couple of beers talking about 50-year old music. I think he feels profoundly wronged, but also accepts that he’s not blameless. “We’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder that we still know how to breathe,” said I.  “And don’t think that refrain does not pass through my mind on a regular basis,” said he.

Dylan circa 1974-75 revised lyrics more frequently than he had changed underwear a decade earlier. In some cases, the changes were significant (see ‘Tangled Up in Blue’), but (astoundingly) equally brilliant. Here the changes are almost all detrimental, some as radically so as the re-recording. Check out the difference between New York’s You close your eyes and pout your lips and slip your fingers from your glove./You can have the best there is, but it’s gonna cost you all your love./You won’t get it from money. versus Minnesota’s You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above/And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love/And it makes me feel so sorry.

tumblr_lkqaf4bbbh1qbqwc2o1_1280It indeed makes me feel so sorry.  Much ink has been spilled on the confessional aspect of “Blood on the Tracks” as the log of the breakup of Dylan’s marriage. In his now-famous words, “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying that type of pain, you know?”

If we need to feed our morbid voyeurism, Dylan said in an interview that the experience with Raeben wrought havoc at home. “Needless to say, it changed me. I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. That’s when our marriage started breaking up. She never knew what I was talking about, what I was thinking about, and I couldn’t possibly explain it.”  And here, he sings, ‘Even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it’s at. I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that, sweet lady.’

Tellingly, the authors of “A Simple Twist of Fate (Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks” (Da Capo Press, 2004) relate in their analysis (pp. 153-158) to the Minnesota version of the song (“The listener is plunged once again into the maelstrom of paranoia, blame and reproach that characterized earlier songs such as ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Positively 4th Street’”). That’s true, guys.

But the original acoustic version is something much rarer in the Dylan canon – Bob unmasked, naked and vulnerable.

NYC Minnesota
Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press.

Whoever it is, I wish they’d cut it out, but when they will I can only guess.

They say I shot a man named Gray, and took his wife to Italy.

She inherited a million bucks, and when she died it came to me.

I can’t help it if I’m lucky.

People see me all the time, and they just can’t remember how to act.

Their minds are filled with big ideas, images, and distorted facts.

And even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at.

I can’t believe after all these years that you didn’t know me any better than that, sweet lady.

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth

Blowing down the back roads heading south.

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth

You’re an idiot, babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe!

I threw the I Ching yesterday; it said there might be some thunder at the well.

Peace and Quiet’s been avoiding me for so long it feels like living hell.

There’s a lone soldier on the hill, watching falling raindrops pour.

You’d never know it to look at him, but in the final shot he won the war,

After losing every battle.

I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike

I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like

There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a boxcar door

You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars

After losin’ every battle

I woke up on the roadside, daydreaming about the way things sometimes are.

Hoof beats pounding in my head, at break-neck speeds and making me see stars!

You hurt the ones that I love best, and covered up the truth with lies.

One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes; blood on your saddle.

 

 

Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin’ me see stars

 

Idiot wind; blowing through the flowers on your tomb.

Blowing through the curtains in your room.

Idiot wind; blowing every time you move your teeth.

You’re an idiot babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

It was gravity which pulled us in, and destiny which broke us apart.

You tamed the lion in my cage, but it just wasn’t enough to change my heart.

Now everything’s a little upside-down. As a matter of fact the wheels have stopped.

What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good. You’ll find out when you reach the top;

You’re on the bottom.

I noticed at the ceremony that you left all your bags behind.

The driver came in after you left; he gave them all to me, and then he resigned.

The priest wore black on the seventh day, and waltzed around while the building burned.

You didn’t trust me for a minute, babe. I’ve never known the spring to turn so quickly into autumn.

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind

I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes

don’t look into mine

The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned

I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime turned

Slowly into Autumn

Idiot wind; blowing every time you move your jaw

From the Grand Cooley Dam to the Mardi Gras

Idiot wind; blowing every time you move your teeth

You’re an idiot babe. It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull

From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol

 

We pushed each other a little too far, and one day it just jumped into a raging storm

The hound dog bayed behind your trees, while I was packing up my uniform.

I figured I’d lost you anyway; why go on? What’s the use?

In order to get in a word with you I’d have had to come up with some kind of excuse.

And it just struck me kind of funny.

I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read

Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead

Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy

I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory

And all your ragin’ glory

I’ve been double-crossed too much. At times I think I’ve lost my mind.

Lady killers load dice on me behind my back while imitators steal me blind

You close your eyes and pout your lips and slip your fingers from your glove.

You can have the best there is, but it’s gonna cost you all your love.

You won’t get it from money.

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free

I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me

You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above

And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love

And it makes me feel so sorry

Idiot wind; blowing through the buttons of our coats.

Blowing through the letters that we wrote.

Idiot wind; Blowing through the dust up on our shelves.

We’re idiots, babe. It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

 

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3

122: George Harrison (The Beatles), ‘You Know What to Do’ b/w Buddy Holly, ‘You’re the One’

Posted by jeff on Oct 25, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Acoustic George

We had such a good time last week with George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (the acoustic demo), why should we leave well enough alone? This week’s double-sided SoTW is going to visit a pair of songs that have always been indivisibly associated in my mind – both short (under two minutes), slight demos by artists whose oeuvre I’d assumed I knew completely, only to discover these gems decades after I thought the book had been closed. And as if that’s not enough, the later artist was profoundly influenced by the earlier one.

Acoustic Buddy

And if that’s still not enough, the songs sound so much alike it’s spooky, a single acoustic guitar strummed at an insistent rock tempo, with just a little percussive  ornamentation by his buddies in the studio.

We’re talking about the discarded Beatles George-song from 1964, ‘You Know What to Do’, and the even more obscure undubbed version of a Buddy Holly demo from 1958, ‘You’re The One’. Buddy Holly (1936-1959) is one of the greatest talents to arise from the world of rock music. He recorded professionally for 18 months before he died in a plane crash (“the day the music died”). I listen to his very small output regularly, as do Paul McCartney and Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen and everyone who understands anything about fine rock music. He wrote much of his own material, thus inventing the singer-songwriter format and serving as an acknowledged role-model for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The first recording of the Quarrymen was a cover of ‘That’ll Be the Day’, one of Holly’s biggest hits.

Electric Buddy

Much of his music improves from year to year, none more so than The Apartment Tapes, half a dozen recordings he made in his home in January, 1959, which I reverently described in SoTW 002. Could be I invented Song of The Week just to have a platform to sing Buddy Holly’s praises. I thought I knew all his recordings, even the bootlegs of him and The Crickets as high-schoolers playing on Saturday afternoons in the Lubbock, Texas Ford dealer’s parking lot. But here’s one that hid under my radar for many years.

Electric George

Buddy came home to Lubbock for Christmas 1958, a month and a half before he died. Two days after the holiday he went to the local radio station KLLL to visit his DJ buddies Waylon Jennings and Slim Corbin.  Waylon challenged Buddy to write a song on the spot, which he did (in minutes), and proceeded to record it right then and there, Buddy playing acoustic guitar, Waylon and Slim clapping their hands together and on their knees (a la ‘Everyday’). Buddy had just turned 22, but in five weeks he would be dead.

Even the better-known version of the song is obscure, the horror Norman Petty created by overdubbing a band, just as he ruined the better-known versions of the Apartment Tapes. But naked, it’s as beautiful as Botticelli’s Venus.

On June 3, 1964, The Beatles were in the Abbey Road studios preparing some demos for what would be “Beatles for Sale”, including ‘It’s For You’ (Paul-penned for Cilla Black) and John’s ‘No Reply’. George brought ‘You Know What to Do’, his first composition

She’s the one. She knows what to do.

since ‘Don’t Bother Me’ from the year before. The song was dismissed as being too lightweight, and was subsequently misfiled, to be rediscovered only in 1993. George said that he had forgotten about it. But he was also so discouraged by the experience that he didn’t write another song for a year (‘I Need You’). It’s George on acoustic guitar, John on tambourine, and Paul on bass. George had just turned 22, and would have an illustrious career spanning the next 37 years.

Rolling Stone magazine: Buddy Holly turned a generation of future heroes – George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck – onto the guitar, with an elemental style: an antsy mix of country and blues that merged rhythm and lead… Playing his Stratocaster and fronting a double-guitar-bass-and-drum quartet, Holly essentially invented the rock band. “Listen to the songs on the first three Beatles albums,” says John Mellencamp. “Take their voices off and it’s Buddy Holly.”

The Beatles recorded Holly’s ‘Words of Love’ for that “Beatles for Sale” album. But they didn’t give it their unique Beatles’ stamp as they did to all the covers they did before or after (check out for example The Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’ in contrast to the version they were adapting from

Waylon Jennings (l), Buddy Holly (r)

the Isley Brothers.  But for ‘Words of Love’ they reverently recreated the original, virtually note-for-note – John and Paul emulating Buddy’s double-tracked vocal (one of the first such recordings by a major artist!), and George copying the lead guitar part on the same Fender Stratocaster guitar.

Here’s Buddy Holly’s version of ‘Words of Love’.

And here’s The Beatles’ copy.

More similar than different? And how about these two unknown gems? Are the similarities not greater than the differences?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

002: Buddy Holly, ‘Learning the Game’

070: Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

121: George Harrison, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (Acoustic Demo)

 

 

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6

129: Franz Schubert, ‘Death and the Maiden’

Posted by jeff on Oct 18, 2018 in Classical, Song Of the week

Caution: This week’s SoTW may contain content unsuitable for minors and some adults.

I. Allegro (Part 1)Allegro (Part 2)
II. Andante con moto (Part 1)Andante con moto (Part 2)
III. Scherzo
IV. Presto 

Before Franz Schubert died in 1828 at the age of 31, Pfennigless and a commercial flop, he had composed 600 Lieder (romantic art songs), nine symphonies, and a whole pile of chamber and solo piano music. His greatest hits include the Marche Militaire for a 4-handed pianist; the “Unfinished” Symphony; the “Trout” string quintet; “Ave Maria” (which started out as a translation of Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘Lady of the Lake’ beginning with an ‘Ave Maria’ greeting–an 1820 ‘Yo Bro’ – but the text of the entire Latin prayer somehow stuck to the melody); and one of my personal favorites, the String Quintet in C Major.  But for our Song of The Week (okay, it’s not a song – sue me) we’ve chosen his hands-down #1 smash hit on the Classical Horror Music chart –  “Death and the Maiden” (“Der Tod und das Mädchen”).

Schubert first dealt with the subject at the age of 20 in his 1817 lied “Der Tod und das Mädchen”, the text taken from a poem by a minor German poet, Matthias Claudius:

Das Mädchen:Vorüber! Ach, vorüber!Geh, wilder Knochenmann!Ich bin noch jung! Geh, lieber,

Und rühre mich nicht an.

Und rühre mich nicht an.

The Maiden:Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!Go, fierce man of bones!I am still young! Go, rather,

And do not touch me.

And do not touch me.

Der Tod:Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen.Sei gutes Muts! ich bin nicht wild,

Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!

Death:Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!I am a friend, and come not to punish.Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,

Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

 

Hans Baldung Grien, 1485

Seven years later, acutely aware of his impending death and tortured by his failure to achieve recognition as a composer, he used the theme of the lied as the basis for the second movement (Andante con moto) of the String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, also named “Death and the Maiden”.

The motif first appeared in Medieval art as the “Dance of Death” (Danse Macabre), an allegory on the universality of death: no matter one’s station in life, the Dance of Death unites all. The Danse Macabre consists of personified Death leading representatives from all walks of life (typically a pope, an emperor, a king, a child, and a laborer) to dance along to the grave. These paintings were intended to remind people of the fragility of their lives and how vain were the glories of earthly life.

In Renaissance art the motif added an erotic twist and metamorphosed into Death and the Maiden. (The clash between Eros and Thanatos goes all the way back to the Greeks: The young goddess Persephone was gathering flowers in company of carefree nymphs when she saw a pretty narcissus and plucked it. At that moment, the ground opened, Hades came out of the underworld and abducted her. When the Greeks said ‘Don’t pick the flowers!’, Persephie dear, they meant it.)

Dance of Death, Michael Wolgemut (b. 1434)

The Renaissance artists may have been attracted to the virgin as the epitome of vitality, contrasting most sharply with skeletal death. Or, according to scholars more learned than I, they may have used her as an excuse to portray a naked woman. Kind of like slasher movies today, I guess.

In 1517, Hans Baldung Grien painted this painting in which Death seizes a girl by the hair and forces her to go down in to the tomb dug at her feet. Death indicates with its right hand the grave. The girl, completely naked, does not try to resist. Her mouth is plaintive, her eyes are red and tears run down on her cheeks; but she understands this is the end. Here’s a fascinating article on the subject.

Hans Beham 1548

A couple of years before Schubert wrote his quartet, he wrote to a friend: “Think of a man whose health can never be restored, and who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better. Think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture, and whose enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing; and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy.”

Oh, those Moderns–Edvard Munch 1894

Well, he was no virgin – he was dying of advanced syphilis. But he certainly knew something about Death. His “Der Tod und das Mädchen” is a harrowing expression of the spectre of his imminent end; in the words of critic Andrew Clements, “its bleak vision and almost unremitting foreboding”.

It’s some of the most dramatic music I know, hyper-energetic throughout, an astounding amount of music for sixteen strings played by sixteen fingers (well, seventeen if you count the cellist’s thumb). There’s a notable lack of solo voices throughout–more often two pairs playing in tandem.

Schubert’s one accomplishment during his lifetime was to inspire devotion from a close circle of supporters. In life, as the maiden so painfully learns, you go to the grave alone. But harmony, as this quartet shows so memorably, is made with the help of your friends.

 If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

124: Bill Evans, ‘Nardis’ (another dying artist shouting at his approaching death)
077: J.S. Bach, ‘The Art of The Fugue’
012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’

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