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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8

033: Radka Toneff, ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’ (Jimmy Webb)

Posted by jeff on Oct 11, 2018 in Nordic, Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Everybody goes for a love story. Okay, here’s one. I’m in love. Love at first sight.
Well, maybe not love. But real, true, deep infatuation that will last at least until I open my eyes.

The biggest problem right now is that I have a lot of trouble remembering her name. Radka Toneff. You have to admit, that’s objectively a hard name to remember, even if you’re in love with her. Just as lovers revel in reconstructing how they first met, I’m trying to remember how I stumbled on her. I guess I was looking at all the YouTube hits for ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘ or – hey, Jeff, the music?
Right.

Radka Toneff (1952-1982) was a Norwegian singer “of legendary stature”. Well, in knowledgeable jazz circles in Oslo, perhaps. For me she was new. But I’ve been listening to a lot of Scandinavian music over the last couple of years, and I’m working hard at cultivating that taste and broadening my knowledge.

I admit a certain bias towards Nordic singing. At its best, it’s flawless, perfect, precise, technically refined on a level we just don’t encounter in our more familiar neighborhoods. With female singers, that can be intoxicating.

It all depends on the material. When my new love Radka (I need to practice using her name) hits on the right material–which she does sometimes, not too regularly–it can really be breathtaking.

For convenience’s sake, we’ll call Radka Toneff a jazz singer, though that’s not really accurate. She recorded a wide range of material – from rarified jazz to hackneyed pop, a pinch of Bulgarian folk (her father was a Bulgarian folk singer), with a little bit of soul thrown in, paying her Nordic dues to the mothers of her music.

If you did the math above, you got that she died at the age of 30. It’s usually called a suicide, but the fullest version I found (in English) says: “Her sudden death was described by newspapers as a suicide, but friends said that although she brought it on herself, it was an accident.”

A while back I wrote about Eva Cassidy, in Song of The Week 29. The similarities between Eva and Radka are rather uncanny. Eva died from cancer at 36, a restrained and tasteful singer of an unclassifiably wide range of material. If you remember Eva’s “Over the Rainbow“, especially as compared to the other versions we compared it to, it’s a model of good taste and restraint, of the tension created by strongly felt passion being expressed without histrionics—a fan dance of the heart.

Eva had no career whatsoever. Radka recorded 3 albums–”Angel Heart”, “Fairy Tales”, and the posthumously released “Live in Hamburg”. There are also 2 compilations of other cuts, and a lot of live videos in all kinds of settings–small combo, big band, orchestra, many with material not found on the CDs.

Radka’s material includes classic jazz. One of my favorites is her treatment of ‘My Funny Valentine‘. I have a lot of respect for that song, and I’ve heard it butchered and demeaned more often than I care to remember. Her version is heart-rending. (Ever wonder why singers always make the song mournful? The lyric is quite loving. Hmm.) There’s also ‘Nature Boy‘, sung pretty much perfectly, but a song I’ve never warmed up to [written before The Real Group’s magical treatment]; a Nina Simone; one by Kurt Weil and Maxwell Anderson!; two personal beatnik favorites of mine by Frances Landesman and Thomas Wolf, ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men‘ and ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘.

But there’s also a lot of ‘pop’ (ouch): Michael Franks, Kenny Loggins, an unfortunate Bob Dylan, 2 surprising Paul Simon selections (a lovely live ‘Something So Right‘ and the rightfully minor ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Day’), Elton John, Jerry Jeff Walker, our Song of The Week, Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’.

Her upbeat songs, and the ones that try to be black, are uniformly unsuccessful. Oh, but when she hits the bulls-eye, it’s right to the heart of your heart.

Jimmy Webb is a story to himself. Excepting Burt Bacharach, the only ‘non-performing’ (we wish) songwriter of our time to get his name above the title. He’s the auteur of hits such as ‘Up, Up and Away’ (5th Dimension), Glenn Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Galveston’ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, and the Richard Harris epic ‘MacArthur Park’. That’s some very, very fine music there.

But there are a couple of problems with Mr Webb. First of all, he kept trying to become a singer, which only damaged his reputation. But more significantly, he was so talent-inebriated that he couldn’t walk a straight line, constantly teetering from the poignant to the maudlin, from the sublime to the grotesque. ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’? C’mon. If that’s not bad enough, he (or someone) chose that as the name for one of the compilations of his greatest hits. Jimmy Webb, haunting at his best, embarrassing at his worst.

I don’t want to detract from those Glenn Campbell songs. Glenn Campbell is also a story in and of himself. (Why do people say I ramble?) He was a studio guitarist on Blonde on Blonde!!! He has the God-given voice of a cowboy angel, and the good sense and taste and intelligence of a Texas Longhorn steer.

Glenn Campbell had the initial hit of ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’. Judy Collins also got a hit out of it (you’re lucky I couldn’t find that on YouTube—it’s a pretty horrifying experience), as did Joe Cocker (well, Joe, you know). It got a lovely, respectful treatment by  Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny on “Beyond The Missouri Sky”. Versions such as Jimmy Webb’s own and that of Joan Baez, believe me, you don’t want to hear.

It’s not hard to get why so many people want to do this song. The title, by the way, is that of a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, “about a lunar colony‘s revolt against rule from Earth. The novel expresses and discusses libertarian ideals in a speculative context.” (Thanks, Mr Wikipedia). What that has to do with this lovely song is beyond me. Listen to the mean modulation at “I fell out of her eyes,” right at the shift in the lyric from the outer to the inner.

The one other version I do recommend you take a listen to is that of Linda Ronstadt. We Americans think of Linda as having a pure, gimmick-free voice. Well, listen to her version. Then listen to that of Radka Toneff. I’m sure you’ll hear how precise, fine, dignified, and moving a singer she is. And maybe you’ll see why I used to be in love with Linda, but now it’s Radka who holds my heart.

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
It’s so hard to love her well

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I — I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

029: Eva Cassidy, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’

045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

080: Tim Ries w. Norah Jones, ‘Wild Horses’

 

 

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18

125: Bee Gees, ‘Holiday’

Posted by jeff on Oct 4, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

I know, I say The Bee Gees and your eyes roll and you start to snicker, conjuring up sounds of bung-jaga-jaga- jaga and sights of a studly Italian undulating cockily down the street in flared white pants so tight you can see his gjamidanker.

I’m talking about the other Bee Gees. The ones who once upon a time were compared favorably with, ahem, The Beatles. Yes, Virginia, really.

You see, les frères Gibbs used to be sound like three white Australian brothers. Before they started sounding like three black American sis-tahs.

So unroll those eyeballs, cowboys and Indians, and listen to the tale of The Bee Gees, Incarnation #1.

Barry (b 1946) and twins Robin (b 1949) and Maurice (inexplicably also b 1949) were b’ed on the Isle of Man. In 1958 the parents moved to Australia (I think because they wanted a daughter), where the boys drank a lot of milk, underwent puberty, and sang together so well they had their own Brisbanean TV show. (Here’s an example, but I’m warning you, I couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights after watching it, so use your own judgment.) But they had their eyes on the big-time, which in 1966 was good old England. So back they went.

The England to which they returned was producing a new brand of ‘pop’ music: ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’, ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’/’Ruby Tuesday’, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’. America was in its original flush of psychedelia – ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Light My Fire’, ‘Somebody to Love’.

Brothers Gibb, 1968

The Bee Gees will ever be indelibly engraved in your minds and ears as those silly guys in the embarrassing clothes making the whole world bounce to dance rhythms, with their high harmonies and funk beat. But for those of us who remember the 1960s better than the late 1970s (don’t ask), The Bee Gees were something wholly other. You don’t believe me? Here’s a quote from Lillian Roxon’s prototypical “Rock Encyclopedia” (1971):

…Their first single, ‘New York Mining Disaster’ …was like having a wonderful new Beatles single out on the market. For those who were bewailing the loss of the comparatively uncomplicated pre-Sergeant Pepper Beatles, the Bee Gees were a godsend and their first album a delight. …They sounded more like the Beatles than the Beatles ever did and … they wrote songs considerably better than the Beatles had done that early in their career.

Huh? Are we talking about the same guys?

Brothers Gibb, 1977

Well, yes. See, when the Bee Gees hit the radio in mid-1967, they were decidedly Old School. ‘Words’ and ’To Love Somebody’ sounded more like ‘Norwegian Wood’ ‘We Can Work It Out’ than did ‘All You Need is Love’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. Sure, we loved our head music. But there were also those daytime hours when your mind was lucid and you wanted to hear something pretty.

They had this string of hits in 1967-68 that took a back seat to none, not even that group they followed in the encyclopedia alphabetically (I don’t mean Jeff Beck). ‘New York Mining Disaster, 1941’, ‘To Love Somebody’, ‘Holiday’, ‘Words’, ‘I Started a Joke’, ‘Massachusetts’, ‘I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You’, ‘I Can’t See Nobody’, ‘World’. Each one a gem, carefully crafted, exquisitely orchestrated, flawlessly performed, with a strong, memorable melody, and lyrics ranging from the poetic to the enigmatic to the self-consciously cryptic.

It’s true, their lyrics were a lot more convincing after you’d smoked a few:

The Bee Gees Band (the Gibbs are the ones with the Colgate smiles)

Ooh you’re a holiday , such a holiday
Ooh you’re a holiday , such a holiday

It’s something I think’s worthwhile
If the puppet makes you smile
If not then you’re throwing stones
Throwing stones, throwing stones

Ooh it’s a funny game
Don’t believe that it’s all the same
Can’t think what I’ve just said
Put the soft pillow on my head

Millions of eyes can see
Yet why am I so blind
When the someone else is me
It’s unkind, it’s unkind 

But the Bee Gees provided beautiful songs, beautiful performances, beautiful productions, all within a ‘Yes, I am experienced’ context. And you can never get enough of beautiful songs, can you?

As impressive as their recordings were, they couldn’t duplicate the lush, extravagant productions live. By 1969 they’d split up, regrouped a year later, floundered for five years till The Plague of 1977, when young people on both sides of the ocean began to display inexplicable weekly episodes of convulsive twitching, what subsequently became known as The Saturday Night Fever. The rest, as they say, is hysteria.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

025: The Zombies, ‘Care of Cell 44′

043: The Left Banke, ‘Pretty Ballerina’

107: The Association, ‘Everything That Touches You’

 

 

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8

119: Tom Harrell, ‘Train Shuffle’

Posted by jeff on Sep 27, 2018 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Loath as I am to resort to gimmickry in matters as serious as jazz biography, (in contrast to the NY Times profile of jazz pianist Fred Hersch’s recovery from the muscular amnesia he suffered as a result of a two-month HIV-related coma), it’s hard to ignore the back-story of trumpeter Tom Harrell’s mental illness.

Harrell (b. 1946) has suffered from paranoid schizophrenia since the 1960s. He hears voices, maintains (in his words) ‘a tenuous contact with reality’, is heavily medicated, and speaks like a zombie who’s just seen a ghost. Until he puts his horn to his lips, when he’s instantly and magically possessed by an utterly coherent aesthetic expressiveness.  If you want to see how that works on stage, check out this clip.

The bio on Harrell’s official site tastefully avoids mentioning his ‘deficiency’. But neither does he shy away from it in interviews. Well, it’s harder to hide than a hunchback. If you have a morbid fascination with the mental illness, watch him struggle to piece thoughts together, to elicit the words from out of the jumble of his mind in this interview:

Q: Has schizophrenia enabled you to paint a more serene picture musically? Your music is so different from that of all the other jazz trumpeters out there. It’s like your deficiency has been your strength.

A: That’s how I view it. The fact that I can’t always relate to people socially – I’ve spent a lot of time alone ever since the 60s, and that has enabled me to focus more on music, and also the feelings I’ve experienced have given me insights. The feelings that come out when I play, different social themes, it is a blessing… But schizophrenia can be a drag because of the tenuous reality contact thing. But as long as I take the medication I feel alright, because I’m able to do my work.

Riveting as Harrell’s background may be, it is of course the foreground that deserves the spotlight, his wonderful 40-year musical career. He’s worked in a very wide range of formats. As guest/session man/band member, he’s played with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Dizzie Gillespie, Bill Evans, George Russell, Mel Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, Sam Jones, Jim Hall, Charlie Haden, Phil Woods, Joe Lovano and Charles McPherson, and especially Phil Woods and Horace Silver. Wow!

He’s recorded close to 30 albums as a leader in a wide variety of formats, as big-band leader, orchestra leader, and especially combos from quartets to nonets. In recent years he’s developed a remarkably stable, tight quintet – with tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Danny Grissett, drummer Johnathan Blake, and bassist Ugonna Okegwo.

Critics and musicians admire him unanimously. I once asked Billy Hart, a legendary jazz session drummer in jazz for the past 50 years, what it was like to play with him. He became very quiet, and responded in a hushed, reverent voice that playing with Harrell had been one of the most moving experiences for him in his entire career.

Harrell is a most generous leader. As a player, he never hogs the limelight, frequently soloing less than the piano or saxophone. His real forte is as a composer, the polar opposite of a leader playing the guys a riff and saying “Let’s blow.” The music is always controlled, structured, sophisticated, composed (in both senses). His composer’s voice is unmistakably contemporary, a savvy, open-eyed, challenging and restless explorer, but never straying far from his very melodic premise. Here’s a pretty characteristic cut from the 2010 CD “Roman Nights”, ‘Let the Children Play’.  Here’s the very next cut, Harrell at his most serene and romantic, the title cut, ‘Roman Nights’.

But for our Song of The Week, we’re going for a tune that’s captured our hearts and ears for years now, ‘Train Shuffle’. Harrell is never mordant, but this piece is unusually ebullient. Here’s the version from the 1999 big-band album, “Time’s Mirror”.  And here it is from the 1993 sextet album “Upswing” (I guess a loony can be as witty as the next guy), featuring Phil Wood, Joe Lovano and Danilo Perez. It’s a favorite of mine. I revisit it regularly, and it never fails to get me grinning and my foot tapping. Fine, fun, intelligent post-bop jazz at its best. No gimmicks.

For further listening:

Upswing’,  title cut from the 1993 album

Sail Away’,  title cut from the 1989 album

Rapture’, from “Moon Alley” (1985, with Kenny Garrett and Kenny Barron)

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

104: Charles Mingus, ‘Myself When I Am Real’/’Adagio Ma Non Troppo’

094: Brad Mehldau, ‘Martha, My Dear’ (“Live in Marciac”)

032: Duke Ellington, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn)

 

 

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