Thursday, August 27, 2009

Six Pillows

Sechs Kissen (Six Pillows), 1493 by Albrecht Dürer

Dürer made so many wonderful pictures, but there is something so charming and fresh about this one.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Chopin D♭Nocturne Axis Mundi

Op. 27, number 2

rec. 1922
Józef Kazimierz Hofmann (20 January 1876 – 16 February 1957) was a Polish-American virtuoso pianist and composer. Many connoisseurs consider him one of the greatest pianists of all time.

Sergei Rachmaninoff considered Hofmann his superior as a pianist and dedicated his Piano Concerto No. 3 to him.

Hofmann's invention of pneumatic shock absorbers for cars and planes earned him a fortune in the early 20th century. His other inventions included medical devices, a furnace that burned crude oil, a device to record dynamics in reproducing piano rolls that he perfected just as the roll companies went bust, another piano invention, and a house that revolved with the sun.

NB:[All text in this particular post has been cut and pasted from the wikipedia article about the pianist being discussed, unless otherwise noted!]

Hofmann, rec. 1935:

Artur Rubenstein (1887 – 1982) was a Polish-born American pianist. He received international acclaim for his performances of the music of a variety of composers, and is widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. Although best known as a recitalist and concerto soloist, Rubinstein was also considered an outstanding chamber musician. Rubinstein recorded much of the core piano repertoire, particularly that of the Romantic composers. With the exception of the Etudes, he recorded most of the works of Chopin. He was one of the earliest champions of the Spanish and South American composers and of French composers who, in the early 20th century, were still considered "modern" such as Debussy and Ravel. Rubinstein, in conversation with Alexander Scriabin, named Brahms as his favorite composer, a response that enraged Scriabin.

rec. 1964, Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory

Vladimir von Pachmann (1848 – 1933) was a pianist of Russian-German ethnicity, especially noted for performing the works of Chopin, and also for his eccentric on-stage style. Pachmann was born in Odessa, Ukraine.
Pachmann was one of the earliest to make recordings of his work, beginning in 1906 with recordings for the Welte-Mignon reproducing piano and in 1907 for the gramophone. He was also famous for gestures, muttering, and addressing the audience during his performance; the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica judiciously characterized it as the "playfulness of his platform manner", while critic James Huneker called him the "Chopinzee", and George Bernard Shaw reported that he "gave his well-known pantomimic performance, with accompaniments by Chopin."

rec. 1916 and 1925

Louis Diémer (1843 - 1919) was a well-known piano performer and pedagogue in the 19th century, and taught many prominent pianists. Franck composed his Variations Symphoniques for him and he worked closely with many of the major French composers of the time, performing premieres of works by Saint-Saëns, Franck, Fauré and Lalo amongst others.

His own playing is technically highly refined, in the ultra-clear French manner. The playing verges on the over-neat, almost even sometimes austere.

His few recordings are mostly of his own salon works. This recording of Chopin's Nocturne in D flat was made in c.1903-04. [Cut and pasted from the YouTube comment accompanying the video]

Moriz Rosenthal (December 17, 1862 - September 3, 1946) was an American-Jewish pianist of Austro-Hungarian origin. He was a pupil of Liszt and a friend and colleague of some of the greatest musicians of his age, including Brahms, Johann Strauss, Anton Rubinstein, von Bulow, Saint Saens, Massenet and Albeniz. Rosenthal recorded less than three hours' worth of music. What he did record, however, is considered some of the most legendary piano-playing on disc. Rosenthal's wit was legenday. When he heard Horowitz blaze through the octave passages of Tchaikowsky's First Piano Concerto at his Vienna debut, he remarked: "He is an Octavian, but not Caesar."

Rec. 1936

Claudio Arrau León (1903 – 1991) was a Chilean pianist known for his interpretations of a vast repertoire spanning from the baroque to 20th-century composers, especially Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Liszt. He is widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. Claudio Arrau was of Basque descent. Many claimed that his rich, weighty tone lent his interpretations a distinctive voice, some saying it sounded thick and muddy and others praising its rounded tone, saying it sounded as though Arrau were almost playing the organ or "plowing" his "paws" into the "flexible" keyboard. According to American critic Harold Schonberg, Arrau always put "a decidedly romantic piano tone in his interpretations".

rec. ?

Dinu Lipatti (19 March 1917 – 2 December 1950) was a Romanian classical pianist and composer whose career was cut short by his death from Hodgkin's disease at age 33.

rec. ?

Vladimir Ashkenazy (born 1937) is a Russian conductor and virtuoso pianist. Vladimir Ashkenazy is renowned for his performances of Romantic and Russian composers. Ashkenazy is also known for his slightly unusual habits in solo piano performance: spurning coat and tie in favor of a white turtleneck and black suit; running (not walking) onstage to the piano; and running offstage after finishing and taking his bow.

rec. ?

Raoul Koczalski (1884 – 1948) was a Polish pianist and composer, who fulfilled his promise (first shown as a child prodigy) to become one of the great pianists of his time. "Raoul Koczalski is one of those last performers who use the romantic freedom in their perfomance" [The last sentence is from the YouTube comment]

rec. ?

Moura Lympany (Mary Gertrude Johnstone)(1916 - 2005) was an English concert pianist.

rec. 1961

Martha Argerich (born 1941) is an Argentine concert pianist. Her aversion to the press and publicity has resulted in her remaining out of the limelight for most of her career. Nevertheless she is widely recognized as one of the greatest modern-day pianists. In a 2001 article about Martha Argerich for The New Yorker, critic Alex Ross wrote: "Argerich brings to bear qualities that are seldom contained in one person: she is a pianist of brain-teasing technical agility; she is a charismatic woman with an enigmatic reputation; she is an unaffected interpreter whose native language is music. This last may be the quality that sets her apart. A lot of pianists play huge double octaves; a lot of pianists photograph well. But few have the unerring naturalness of phrasing that allows them to embody the music rather than interpret it."

rec. 1972

Maurizio Pollini (born 1942), Italy. Pollini is especially noted for his performances of Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Schoenberg, Webern and for championing modern composers such as Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Giacomo Manzoni, Roberto Carnevale, Salvatore Sciarrino, Giovanni Sollima, Bruno Maderna. Important modern works were composed for Pollini, notably Nono’s …sofferte onde serene…, Giacomo Manzoni’s Masse: omaggio a Edgard Varèse and Salvatore Sciarrino's Fifth Sonata. While known for possessing an exceptional technique, Pollini is sometimes accused of emotional conservatism. He has conducted both opera and orchestral music, sometimes leading the orchestra from the keyboard in concertos.

rec. ?

Daniel Barenboim (born 1942) is an Argentinian-born pianist and conductor. Barenboim first came to prominence as a pianist but is now perhaps better known as a conductor. Daniel Barenboim is considered one of the most prominent musicians of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as both pianist and conductor. He is noted for his mastery of conveying musical structure, and for a deep sensitivity to harmonic nuances.

rec. ?

Vitalij Margulis (born 1928)in the Ukrainian City of Charkov. He received his first piano lessons from his father, whose teacher, Alexander Horowitz, studied with the composer Alexander Scriabin. In 1994, he accepted the post of Professor of Piano at the University of California in Los Angeles.[Cut and pasted from the YouTube comment]

rec. ?

Evgeny Kissin (born 1971) is a Russian classical pianist and former child prodigy. He is especially known for his interpretations of the works of Chopin, for whom he has felt an affinity since early childhood.
rec. ?

(these YouTube videos do not allow embedding)
Lang Lang
Leon Fleischer, early 1980s, celebrating the return of function to his right hand.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Selection of Renaissance Hells

Limbourg Brothers, 1416

Jan van Eyck, 1430

Fra Angelico, 1431

Hans Memling, 1471

Matthias Grunewald, 1516

Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525, detail 1

Cranach, detail 2

Cranach, detail 3

Saturday, August 15, 2009

~~~ Love and Death in the Year 1347 ~~~ The World of Guillaume de Machaut ~~~~~

In 1347, the Black Plague hit Europe. Guillaume de Machaut, the most famous poet and composer of his time, was 47 years old. Boccaccio would write in the Decameron how he and some friends escaped the plague by retreating to a house in the country. Machaut had been working for the recently deceased King John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia, and he remained there during the plague times, preparing manuscripts of his work, in demand by the royalty and nobility of all Europe.

Machaut was the foremost proponent of a new and startling form of music, known as Ars Nova, the New Art. It was the first real phase of that revolutionary musical technique that originated in Europe and eventually spread throughout the world: Harmony.

Previously in Europe, and in all other musics of the world before they were influenced by European music, there was either only the melody played in unison with, perhaps, percussion, or there might be a single note played underneath throughout the whole song, like the drone note of the bagpipes. Classical Indian music still follows this second form. But in the 1200s century composers started to experiment with singing more than one note at a time, although at first perhaps only as simple parallel voices or other naive forms of harmony. In the 1300s, for the first time, composers began to create elaborate, organized compositions with two or more voices singing different lines carefully designed to complement each other: Counterpoint.

Looked at another way, vertically, this results in a series of shifting chords. The effects on human emotions of the way that these chords are chosen and put together in a musical composition has been refined over the centuries to the system that we use today, in every song you hear, everywhere. And Guillaume de Machaut was the first major proponent of the earliest form of this technique.

Machaut was also equally famous as a poet, and the genre he worked in was Courtly Love. In addition, musically he started off at the end of the period of Troubadors and Trouveres, who sang in the older tradition accompanyed only perhaps by a drone note and percussion, and who had sung tales of courtly love for centuries in the banquet halls of the kings of Europe.

Courly Love, of course, is that tradition of forbidden love of a courtier for a lady who really should be out of his reach, such as the wife of his lord. The fact that this would utterly subvert the social order of the time and place the life of the lover in mortal peril gave it an illicit thrill that made it the most popular theme of popular art for centuries. The love of Lancelot and Guinevere and the destruction that this wrought for the court of King Arthur is these days the most famous story remembered from this tradition.

Machaut was a tuneful composer who entertains the popular ear. He also composed one of the first set-piece masses, as the Ars Nova technique began to be used in church music. Pope John XXII wrote annoyed letters asking what the hell was up with all the extra notes.

Machaut was the most famous artist of his time. His face is recognizable in a number of portraits (that isn't him above), and Chaucer, a generation or two later, treasured his expensive copy of Machaut's works.

When he was past middle age, it seems, he was still so famous that he lived a life much like a modern superstar. A beautiful young woman wanted so much to have the ultimate accolade, a love song addressed to her written by the most famous poet and songwriter of Europe, that she became his mistress. Machaut was plenty pleased until one day he got wind of the unflattering accounts of his lovemaking that the young lady was amusing her friends with.

Dame, je sui cilz qui weil endurer
vostre voloir, tant com porray durer
My Lady, I am the one who wants to endure your will.
and for as long as I may live

mais ne cuit pas que longuement l'endure
sans mort avoir quant vous m'estes si dure
but I do not believe that I will endure it for long
without dying, since you are so harsh to me

que vous voles qu'ensus de vous me traie.
sans plus veioir la tres grant biaute vraie
that you want me to withdraw far away from you.
without seeing any longer the very great beauty

de vo gent corps qui tant a de valour
que vous estes des bonnes la millour
of your lovely body, which has so much worth.
for you are of all good ladies the best

Las! einsi ay de ma mort exemplaire.
Mais la doleur qu'il me convendra traire
Alas! Thus I have the model of my death.
But the pain which I must endure

douce seroit, se un tel espoir avoie
qu'avant ma mort par vo gre vous revoie.
will be sweet, if I have such an expectation
that before I die I see you again, by your leave

Dame, et se ja mes cuers riens entreprent
dont mes corps ait honneur n'avancement
My Lady, if ever my heart should undertake anything
of which I may have the honour and profit

de vous venra, com lonteins que vous soie.
car ja sans vous que j'aim tres loyaument
ne sans Amours emprendre nel saroie
you will be the inspiration, however far away you be.
for never without you, who I love very loyally.
nor without Love, could this be undertaken

Friday, August 14, 2009

mad owls staring wildly
the mice give themselves up in despair
snakes bemoan their lack of feet
birds search for the lost sun

i heard the books unspeaking themselves
daylight apologising to the night
winds that would only blow beneath the ground
because they were traumatised by clouds

hand me back my feet
listen for where to find your eyes
roll around on the ground looking for your shoes
and stand up like a man again


if we were electrons
heisenberg would tell us where we might be found
and we would eat gravity for lunch

but as it is
we emit influence without knowing it
and though we think we are fixed while the universe whirls around us
in truth, all our gravities work on all each
and torque us without mercy

so forgive us our physics
as we forgive those who cut in on our valences
as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be
world without end, amen


(the painting is 'wind swept', by "cmz"

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Ancient Language of the Celts

Celts dominated western Europe in the hellenistic and early roman era. Starting from near the type sites of Hallstat, now in Austria, and La Tene, now in Switzerland, between 800-600 b.c., the Celts spread their culture and language all the way to what are now Spain, northern Italy, eastern Europe, and the British Isles. Celts centered in Italy's Po valley sacked Rome in 387 b.c. At the time Julius Caeser conquered Gaul in the mid first century b.c., the area that was to become modern France was considered to be the gravitational center of a powerful, Europe-wide Celtic culture.

Even then, the celtic interlace style that is still current and familiar to us after two and a half millenia was being practiced, as you can see in the detail from the helmet of Agris, France, a detail from which can be seen in our illustration above and left, dated to the 4th century b.c. Later, roman ladies often bought their fibulae, which were like rather large, decorated, safety pins that they used to pin their cloaks together, from celtic sources and decorated with celtic interlace designs.

Now, naturally many people these days assume that ireland, scotland, wales, and brittany would be the centers of celtic culture, despite what is know to students of the history of celtic culture, and since the only surviving celtic languages are from these areas (we heard quite a bit of welsh on the radio when driving though powys a few years ago). As we said above, the british isles appear to have been conquered by the celts in the middle of the first millenium b.c., and very little is known about the more indigenous cultures of the islands. Except, we should say, for Ireland, where folklore preserves the names of the cultures that preceeded the celts, including the Fir Bolgs, and the Tuatha Dé Danann. (The weapons of the successive waves of Firbolgs, Tuatha de Danann ("People of the Goddess"), and, finally, Celts, are described in the folk histories.)

Logically, then, modern celtic languages bear roughly the same relationship to the Gaulish celtic language of ancient times that modern romance languages do to Latin. So, what was Gaulish like? Fortunately, a number of inscriptions, many (as below) written using basically the greek alphabet and inscribed when the romans had not yet broken out of italy, are available and give us a decent idea of Gaulish.

What we find out is that Gaulish, the ancestor of modern celtic languages, was very close to Latin! It is thought that Latin succeeded Gaulish very easily after it became part of Rome because of this close similarity. A well known example of this similarity is the name of the great warrior who attempted to organise the Gaulish chiefs against Julius Caeser, Vercingetorix, where the "rix" is the Gaulish version of Latin "rex", king. Also, the word "fir" in the name "Fir Bolgs", means "man", and is the Celtic version of Latin "vir".

Possibly, the reason for this close similarity (Gaulish is much closer to Latin than Greek is) might be in a common origin in the Urnfield cultures of the late bronze age central europe. Many scholars postulate that both the Hallstat Celts (the earliest archaeological culture recognizable as definitely celtic) as well as the early romans and their relatives the oscans and umbrians, derive from the migration of the Urnfield peoples from central europe southwards and westwards during the tumultuous period at the end of the bronze age and the beginning of the iron age, 1200 - 900 b.c., sometimes known as the "greek dark ages".

Here is a little table of some common words:

Gaulish--- English--- Latin
-cue------ and------ -que
es--------- out of-------- ex
are-------- before---- ante
ver-------- over------ super
allos------ second---- alius
tarvos---- bull------- taurus
tri--------- three----- tres, tria
more------ sea------- mare
rix--------- king------- rex
lanum---- plain------ planum

I was puzzled when trying to etymologize the medieval name of that ancient celtic settlement, modern Milan, 'Mediolanum'. "Medio-", in the middle of something, but what? "Lanum" - wool? The mystery was solved when I read that in Gaulish, the 'P' was commonly absent at the beginning of words that in Latin would have "pl-". Therefore, Mediolanum would be in Latin Medioplanum, "in the middle of the plain"

Gaulish was also a highly inflected language, as were Latin and Greek.

Most surviving Gaulish is in brief inscriptions, on stone altars, tombstones, jewellry, and coins. Here are a couple of early inscriptions, from the pre-roman period when the greek alphabet was employed:



"Segomaros, son of Uillo, toutious (tribe leader) of Namausos, dedicated this sanctuary to Belesama"



(apparently dedicated to Gobannus, the Celtic god of smithcraft)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lucas Cranach the Elder 1472 - 1553

Cranach had a thing about naked women with daggers and swords