Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Monday, August 30, 2004

More Dvorak

Got a whole stack of new music today, and hope to blog about them this week. But before I do that, I want to talk a little more about Antonin Dvorak, and two CD's I have in my collection.

The first is a collection of Works for Cello and Orchestra. The CD includes his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, Op. 104; Klid ("Silent Woods") Piece for Cello and Orchestra; and Rondo for Cello and Orchestra in G minor, Op. 94.

According to the CD insert (what used to be called "liner notes", remember them?) Brahms' is purported to have said, "If only I'd known you could write a cello concerto that way! I should've written one long ago!" (As mentioned in my previous post, Brahms was a big supporter of Dvorak). Dvorak had a close, creative friendship with Czech cellist Hanus Wihan, to whom the concerto is dedicated. Apparently Wihan had written a cadenza based on the themes from the first two (of three movements), however Dvorak refused to include it. There is some debate as to whether this difference of opinion is what caused Wihan to refuse the opportunity to play at the debut of the piece.

The concerto was written in 1894-95, after he wrote the New World symphony mentioned earlier.

To prepare for this entry, I listened again to the concerto this afternoon. The first two movements did not really (pardon the pun) move me very much, though Dvorak himself said that, of the second theme of the first movement, "I am moved every time I play it." The third movement, the finale, sounds like a march and a dance, and is very enjoyable.

Of the two other pieces on the CD; these were arranged by the composer in order for Wihan to showcase his talents during a tour in 1892 with Dvorak and violinist Ferdinand Lachner. The Rondo was written in four days over Christmas of 1891. Klid was transcribed from a piano duet (Op. 68).

While the liner notes describe the Rondo as "veiled in bitter sorrow", I didn't get that from the piece. While there are brooding parts, there are brighter passages which for me stood out more to make the piece likeable. Klid ("Silent Woods") is a very melodic piece, a sort of orchestral Unchained Melody that is very nice, though short.

The second CD I want to mention contains a pair of serenades, String Serenade, Op. 22 and Wind Serenade, Op. 44.

In 1875 Dvorak's compositions were discovered by Johannes Brahms and Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick. These two gentlemen recommended him for a government grant, which was given. Dvorak's dream on becoming a musician and composer had paid off. The String Serenade is dated to 1875, and was publicly performed in 1876. Apparently these were happy times for Dvorak; he had married in 1873, and his opera The King and Collier had been successful in 1874. The String Serenade is a very nice work, the second movement (of five) containing dances which are engaging.

The Wind Serenade was completed in early 1878, and was performed at a concert later that year, a concert which featured Dvorak's work and in which he himself conducted. The liner notes describe the first movement as a "rather comically pompous march of a village band to the green to give a concert." The final movement again suggests the village band marching off at the end.

All in all, I enjoyed the serenades most of the two CD's. The version I have is unavailable, but you can find other versions, notably the one linked above.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Ain't No Sweet Man (Worth the Salt of My Tears)

There are at least two recordings of “Ain’t No Sweet Man (Worth the Salt of My Tears)” by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra that I am aware of. The one I first fell in love with is on disc 1 of the Ken Burns Jazz Box Set. It was recorded on Feb. 28, 1928, and featured Bix Beiderbecke on coronet. Bix was one of the first great white jazz musicians. He was inspired by Louis Armstrong, but rather than imitating him he developed his own style of playing that would influence the next generation of jazz players. Unfortunately, Bix would die at an early age due to alcoholism.
The Paul Whiteman Orchestra was one of the most popular “jazz” groups in the 1920s and ‘30s and included some of the greatest early jazz pioneers including Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Jack Teagarden, Jimmie Dorsey and many others. Several can be heard on this recording along with Bix. Frankie Trumbauer plays the C-Melody Saxophone; Jimmie Dorsey (Tommy Dorsey’s brother) plays the alto sax; and Paul Whiteman himself plays the violin.
This is a full orchestra number with two trumpets (in addition to Bix’s coronet), three trombones, five clarinets, three alto sax, a tenor sax, C-Melody sax, baritone sax, six violins, a piano, a banjo, a bass, a tuba, drums and a vocal group.
It was the vocal number in the middle of the song (they come in about 1:20 into the piece) that most struck me when I first heard it. I knew that voice! When I looked at the lineup it became obvious - The Ryhthm Boys - featuring Bing Crosby - but still I was surprised. I had always associated Bing Crosby with popular music of the ‘40s (and Christmas music) so I was taken aback to hear him stand out in this early jazz tune.
Thus began my ongoing infatuation with The Crooner of which I will write more about later.
You can tell that they had fun with this number. They didn’t bother to change the lyrics, which were written from the woman’s point of view, and Crosby has a way of trilling certain words and putting emphasis in just the right spots. He solos for most of the song with the other Ryhthm Boys (Harry Barris and Al Rinker) joining in for the scatting at the end of each verse - plus Barris’ trademark ‘tah!’ imitating the sound of a cymbal strike.

Here are the lyrics:

Shakin' like a leaf on a tree,
That's coming loose from the stem;
Shakin' like a leaf on a tree,
Because I'm coming loose from my man!

I'm like a weeping willow,
Weeping on my pillow,
For years and years,
There ain't no sweet man that's worth the salt of my
Ba-ba-da-doo, wah da da da do, wah da da ba do, wha da-oh!

Down and down he dragged me,
Like a fiend he nagged me,
For years and years,
There ain't no sweet man that's worth the salt of my
Ba da da da da da do!

Although I may be blue,
Still, I'm true,
I must tell him good-bye!
Rather than have that man,
Gonna lay me down and just die!

Broken-hearted sisters,
Aggravating misters, lend me your ears!
There ain't no sweet man that's worth the salt of my
Ba-ba-da-doo, wah da da da do, wah da da ba do, wha da-oh!
Ba-da wah da-oh! Shh!

The other version of this song can be found on Bix n Bing which is a wonderful compilation of early jazz tunes in which Bix and Bing are both featured. They were best of friends at the time.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Antonin Dvorak and The New World Symphony

An understanding of classical music in general, and the symphony in particular, came to me when studying Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E minor, also referred to as the New World Symphony.

One of the jobs I had to pay my way through undergraduate college was working as a ticket agent in a Trailways bus station. In between buses and customers there could be long lapses of time with nothing to do. One afternoon I sat with a book on music appreciation (I can't find the book, though I know I have it somewhere) and a tape player with a recording of the New World symphony. The book had an entire chapter dedicated to this piece of music, chosen because the themes in the work are somewhat obvious and they repeat several times. In the chapter were bits of written music that showed the themes, and I could read enough music to know what they should be. I played the first few minutes of the first movement over and over until I finally heard the theme.

It was as if some sort of aural curtain had fallen from my ears. I did hear the theme, and heard it repeat again and again, and heard the variations on it. It took some time, but eventually I heard another theme, and finally I begin to grasp that classical music is not some semi-random series of notes but that there is form and structure to it, and, furthermore, beauty.

Dvorak was born September 8, 1841 in Bohemia, the son of an innkeeper. He studied at the Organ School of Prague from 1857 to 1859, and played viola for the Czech National Theater Orchestra from 1861 to 1871. He was a contemporary and friend of Johannes Brahms, who was one of his biggest advocates. He also worked with Bedrich Smetana; together these two would put Czech nationalism into classical music works.

There's a great write-up of how Dvorak came to the United States. He was lured to America by a patroness of music with a promise of a huge salary. One of his students was a black musician by the name of Henry Thacker Burleigh. Burleigh introduced the Negro spiritual to Dvorak (purportedly Swing Low, Sweet Chariot). It was in Black and Native American music that Dvorak believed America could find and develop its musical heritage. This was the inspiration for his ninth symphony.

The symphony's first movement (adagio allegro molto) starts with a quiet introduction that builds in volume and hints at the first theme. After a tympanic cadence, the first theme is introduced and repeated by different parts of the orchestra. Soon other themes in both major and minor chords are introduced, and Dvorak intersperses the themes and moves in and out of them throughout the movement. One of the things that is so great about this piece of music is that the themes are obvious and repeat enough times that they are easy to hear.

The second movement (largo) is a beautiful piece of music. The first theme you hear was later turned into the folk song/jazz tune Going Home.

If you were lulled by the second movement, the third movement (scherzo: molto vivace) will wake you up with an introduction from tympany and a simple theme from the woodwinds. This gives way to a theme that evokes visions of a quiet countryside. The first theme is never far away, however, and even the first theme from the first movement will make a brief cameo.

The introduction to the fourth movement (allegro cob fuoco) reminds one of the theme from the movie Jaws. Themes from earlier in the work, including Going Home will make an appearance again here, and new themes will be developed.

What is there to say about this piece of music? It is wonderful to just sit back and listen, and does not require some sort of expert's ear to appreciate. It is an evocative work. If you are looking to get started in classical music, this work is a good place to start.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Cake Walkin’ Babies

One of my favorite pieces of jazz music today (I have a lot of favorites) is the recording of Cake Walkin’ Babies (From Home) by the Clarence Williams’ Blue Five which featured a young Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. The recording can be found on the first of the 5-disc compilation Ken Burn’s Jazz as well as on the Louis Armstrong CD that is part of that series.

The song was recorded in January 1925 in New York and despite the primitive recording techniques you can still feel the energy that resulted as these two great jazz giants attempted to best one another on this recording. As with many great jazz numbers, there is a backstory that goes with this one. It was said that Sidney Bechet, who played the soprano saxophone, was the only musician of that era who ever came close to equaling the great Louis Armstrong. At the time of this recording, Louis was a youngster who was just beginning to establish his reputation while Bechet was the established veteran who wasn’t quite ready to share the spotlight with this upstart.

There was supposedly an earlier recording of this tune by the same group at a different studio. During that recording Bechet had aggressively dominated the number and literally elbowed the young Louis out of the picture. But that recording had some problems so they decided to record it a second time at another studio and this time Louis was ready.

Here is how Geoffrey Ward, author of “Jazz: A History of America’s Music,” the companion book to Ken Burns’ movie, describes the recording:

“The record remains mostly an ensemble piece, but each man plays a furious solo and each takes a swooping break so dramatic it still takes the listener’s breath away. The contest seems more or less a draw up to that point. Then, Armstrong suddenly launches into a series of ripping, tearing, rhythmically complicated runs that no other musician of the day, not even Sidney Bechet, could match.”

He’s not kidding. You can tell when Louis suddenly turns it on and never lets go. Toward the end of the number you can hear Bechet desperately trying to break back in with Louis fighting him off. It is awe inspiring.

The lineup for the recording is:

Louis Armstrong, coronet
Sidney Bechet, soprano saxophone
Charlie Irvis, trombone
Clarence Williams, piano
Buddy Christian, banjo
Eva Taylor, vocals

While overshadowed by the dynamic duo, there is a vocal segment to the number that is sung by Eva Taylor, wife of band leader Clarence Williams, which I think is pretty good. As with a lot of musical numbers of the 1920s, the vocal part is treated like an accompaniment to the piece and serves almost like a break in the middle so the musicians can catch their breath.

I found the following lyrics for the song on the web:

“Here they come, look at 'em, syncopatin',
goin' some, ain't they demonstratin'?
Talk of the town, teasin' brown pickin' 'em up and layin' 'em down
Dancin' fools ain't they syncopatin'2?
They're a class of their own
Now the only way to win is to cheat 'em,
you may tie 'em but you'll never beat 'em
Strut your stuff, they're the cake walkin' babies form home”

But this is what I hear when I listen to the song:

Here they come, those struttin’ syncopaters,
goin’ some, look at those demonstrators
Talk of town, green and brown, pickin’ em up and layin’ em down
Why your friends and fools, that’s what they like to call them, they’re in a class all alone,
The only way for them to lose is to cheat ‘em
You may tie them, but you’ll never beat them
Spread your stuff, boy, you won’t do nothin’ different, cake walkin’ babies from home

The same website notes that a cakewalk was a black American entertainment having a cake as prize for the most accomplished steps and figures in walking. Also, a stage dance developed from walking steps and figures typically involving a high prance with backward tilt. It is also used to indicate a one-sided contest or an easy task.
The term syncopatin' is defined as a rhythmical alteration which consists in welding into one tone the second half of one beat with the first half of the beat which follows.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Diana Krall

I'm not all that sophisticated in my methods for choosing new music, particularly when it come to jazz. One way is that I hear something on the radio or on someone's sound system and think, "Hey! That's pretty good!" Another way (I'm almost embarrassed to say this) is that I see an attractive woman on the CD cover. That's how I came to be a fan of Diana Krall.

Recently I added Krall's The Girl in the Other Room CD to my collection, and popped it into the player. What emerged was some of the most amazing straight jazz I've heard in some time.

Krall has a way of making great music with a small combo that is the heart of great jazz. You won't hear a lot of orchestration, but what accompaniment you do get accentuates not only Krall's gifted voice talents, but also the words and melody itself. Along with vocals, she also plays keyboards. On Other Room Krall performs mostly her own music, much of it cowritten with husband Elvis Costello.

I was even more enthralled with her 1999 release When I Look in Your Eyes. The CD starts out with Irving Berlin's Let's Face the Music and Dance, which does include some orchestration but, Oh Wow! What a great tune and a great performance. She also does a great job with the Michael Franks tune Popsicle Toes (lyrics adjusted for a woman singer) that has this way of playing on in your head long after the song is done. And then there's Cole Porter's I've Got You Under My Skin.

I suppose if you were skeptical and wanted a taste of Krall's talents, I would recommend the Live in Paris CD, a 2002 release. It's clear that she gives memorable performances, and she is on my list to hopefully one day see live.

Krall was also featured in the Woody Allen film Anything Else, a pretty good movie in its own right (with Allen playing a gun nut, go figure). Say what you will about Allen the filmmaker or Allen the man, he always showcases some pretty good music (I believe he is a clarinetist himself).

So, maybe my acquisition methods for building a jazz collection don't spring from a pure sensibility for the music, but I have to say that, so far, it has worked out pretty well.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

An introduction

I want to thank Robert for inviting me to join him on this blog. As he already noted, I am not a musician or a music expert in any form or fashion. However, I am a journalist which means that I write about things that I know little about for a living.

Seriously though, I am a music enthusiast and I love to discover new music (even if it is old music I had not heard before).
I credit Robert with first introducing me to jazz. Back when I was in college in the late '80s, he bought me the Bob James and David Sanborn collaboration "Double Vision" which is still one of my favorites. For the next several years I collected a lot of contemporary jazz. But it was not until the Ken Burns Jazz special came out on PBS a few years ago that I began to delve into classic jazz.

I imagine that Robert will focus initially on classical music while I will focus on jazz, but there is nothing that says we can't cross over. I like classical music too. My first classical album, and still my favorite, was Beethoven's Sixth Symphony - The Pastoral - which was part of the Funk and Wagnalls classic music series that my Mom bought for me when I was in junior high school.

To better understand how my musical tastes have developed over time, I traced my own musical odyssey a while back and posted the first part at my other blog. You can read it here.

It will be interesting to see where things go from here.


Welcome to our new weblog. Mike Thomas and Robert Shearer (that's me) will be writing about our explorations and experiences with what I call "Great Music", what most folks refer to as classical and jazz music.

Our short list of qualifications is as follows: we have none. Neither of us are musicians, nor do either of us currently play an instrument (although I have played woodwinds and guitar in the past, and I can tell you the name of the keys on a piano). However, like many people we are great music enthusiasts, and have an interest not only in the music, but also in the people who compose and play great music.

I think we can bring a unique outlook to great music. While we were high school buddies (and debate partners - you have been warned), we have taken different paths. Mike lives in Texas with his beautiful wife, a very charming son, and a cat which is my sworn mortal enemy, and works as a journalist. I live in Vermont with my beautiful wife and a very gregarious dog, and am an electrical engineer and computer scientist.

Texas is a very big place. Vermont is a very small place. It's amazing how much the two states have in common like that. But I digress.

It is our goal to make at least one entry a week.

We each have other weblogs that we write, but this is our first collaborative effort. If you have any curiosity about classical music and/or jazz, I hope you will find this an interesting place to visit.