Thursday, December 31, 2009

Auld Lang Syne

A beautiful scene from the 1940 film "Waterloo Bridge," a World War II movie about World War I, which stars the impossibly gorgeous pair of Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh as, respectively, a Scottish officer (with an American accident) and an aspiring ballerina (who descends to prostitution).

A happy and blessed new year to all.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Me Too

[The] great Romantic symphonists [are] great companions, especially on those nights when talk is impossible, when the only understanding companion is the radio. Some of the greatest pleasures I’ve had in life are late nights in bed, tired and restless, and turning on a low-fidelity clock radio. Classical music stations not infrequently abandon the Baroque and Classical top 40 late at night for the longer, deeper, darker works of Romanticism. I first heard [Ralph Vaughan Williams's] 9th and Prokoviev’s 7th in just those moments, and was utterly fascinated. It seemed I was hearing a profound riddle of a bed-time story, a lullaby of contemplation, and in my own moments of fear and doubt knew that there were others listening in tandem to the broadcast, and that the radio was offering companionship to us, and that we were not alone.

-- George Grella, writing at The Big City

Update:  A great radio tradition is going on right now:  the annual Bach Festival on WKCR, Columbia University's radio station. From December 21 to December 31, WKCR plays something like Bach's entire recorded output, and there are some neat oddball segments like jazz commentator Phil Schaap's show featuring Bach in jazz. Lots of room for great radio moments.  Listen here.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Once In Royal David's City

Merry Christmas to all. May Christ, our hope, light all our paths, and may He, through the beauty of music and of the created world, allow us a glimpse of His own beauty.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"God gave me the gift of playing cards"



It confirms me in my hope that God can use even those aspects of our personae that tread the fine line between harmless fun and soul-searing vice for His glory and the good of all.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Moving On Up


It's funny how my husband and I are homeowners now -- we moved into what my son calls "our new house-home" yesterday -- and yet my life hasn't changed, excepting the obvious; it hasn't, in other words, magically become more wonderful, beautiful, or thrilling.  And I'm a little pissed off by that.

I'm also chagrined to find that the loveseat I was so hoping to leave by the curb has somehow made its way into our new house-home.  There's nothing, technically, wrong with this piece of furniture, aside from the fact that it's rather unlovely.  It's actually quite comfortable.  But it came to us third-hand by way of a bartender friend of my husband's who, along with about forty percent of our old neighborhood in the Bronx, decided to repatriate to Ireland a few years ago, before the economy there collapsed.  Something about knowing that this loveseat spent most of its life on McLean Avenue in Yonkers just bothers me, though I can't quite put my finger on it.  I just want it gone, but then there would be nowhere to sit in the family room.

I've been offering my Saint Andrew's novena for my intentions and those of my family, and also for the special intentions of some readers, including Sally T, Emily J, Josh Snyder, and Mrs. Darwin.  Dear all, I fell asleep while praying for you last night.  I hope it still works.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bedtime Story for my Son

Where did the voice come from? I hunted through the rooms
For that small boy, that high, that head-voice,
The clatter as his heels caught on the door,
A shadow just caught moving through the door
Something like a school-satchel.  My wife
Didn't seem afraid, even when it called for food.
She smiled and turned her book and said:
"I couldn't go and love the empty air."

We went to bed. Our dreams seemed full
Of boys in one or another guise, the paper-boy
Skidding along in grubby jeans, a music-lesson
She went out in the early afternoon to fetch a child from.
I pulled up from a pillow damp with heat
And saw her kissing hers, her legs were folded
Far away from mine.  A pillow! It seemed
She couldn't love the empty air.

Perhaps, we thought, a child had come to grief
In some room in the old house we kept,
And listened if the noises came from some special room,
And then we'd take the boards up and discover
A pile of dusty bones like charcoal twigs and give
The tiny-sounding ghost a proper resting-place
So that it need not wander in the empty air.

No blood-stained attic harboured the floating sounds,
We found they came in rooms that we'd warmed with our life.
We traced the voice and found where it mostly came
From just underneath both our skins, and not only
In the night-time either, but at the height of noon
And when we sat at meals alone.  Plainly, this is how we found
That love pines loudly to go out to where
It need not spend itself on fancy and the empty air.

-- Peter Redgrove

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Birthday, Brother



Today is believed to be Beethoven's 239th birthday.  There is no record of his birth, but we know he was baptized on December 17th, and it was customary at the time for infants to be baptized the day after they were born.  The son of an abusive, alcoholic father, Beethoven was himself surly, cruel, lonely, despairing, frequently ill, sometimes suicidal, and, in the latter third of his life, more and more profoundly disabled.  His inability to successfully carry out a courtship and achieve a reciprocal love that would culminate in marriage was a terrible difficulty to him.  He is the kind of man that history would scorn, except for the fact that he wrote music that is more than music; it is, to paraphrase the Schiller text that he set in his Ninth Symphony, a spark from heaven that illuminates the soul of man.  I can hardly hear his music without weeping; it makes me want to die and live, which I suppose is what teen groupies have historically felt for their heartthrobs.  As composer and critic George Grella so memorably wrote on his blog, The Big City:

Beethoven is not my friend . . .  and I don’t always like him.  He can infuriate me with his scorn, his pettiness, his arrogant and cruel moods – he’s not a person who, if I did not know, I would pursue a friendship with.  That doesn’t matter, though, because I do know him, and he knows me.  He’s my brother, and so I will always love him.

Happy birthday to one of the greatest of mortal men.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

So Much for Art for Art's Sake


Although I'm not at all sure that I'll ever read all the books I have, some of them are just too good to get rid of.  From Donn Pohren's 1962 The Art of Flamenco, another one of those enchanting lists that I so love:

 The Cante is the least likely flamenco form to be mastered by a non-Spaniard. . . . [But] there are exceptions . . . . perhaps the most interesting example of a non-Spanish singer that I know of is the Pakistanian [sic] Aziz Balouch, a singer of both Pakistanian folk songs and flamenco . . . . Mr. Balouch claims that flamenco is a direct descendant of Indo-Pakistanian religiou and folk songs.  Based on this premise (very likely correct, at least in part) . . . Mr. Balouch sets about to purify the flamenco "way of life" by applying Yoga and operatic training techniques to the flamenco singer.  He suggests the following:

(1) Abstention from all alcoholic beverages, especially during and before singing.  He suggests that the signer drink weak tea or tepid water.
(2) Special dietary practices.  For best results it would be wise to go all out and become a vegetarian.
(3) Limiting sexual activities to a bare minium, with complete abstention on singing days.  He has offered no solution for those who sing every night.
(4) 15 minutes of lung development a day by vigorously inhaling and exhaling fresh air.
(5) Cleaning of the nasal passages daily by sucking water up one nostril and releasing it through the other, and vice versa.  Repeat as desired.

It must be recognized that these practices may give the singer a clear, bell-like tone, and perhaps an operatic resonance.  What Mr. Balouch apparently does not realize is that these are the very vocal qualities that the flamenco singer avoids.  He also seems unaware that flamenco is not just singing, but a unique philosophy, a way of life.  These people are born flamencos, with everything the word implies: quantities of booze, women whenever and wherever possible, long lasting blasts.  Their art is vital, but flamenco is their life.  If they are blessed with artistic talent, well and good.  But they do not see things as other cultures do, and will not behave like other cultures; they won't give up life's pleasures (and the flamenco way of life is definitely a pleasurable one) and their inherent philosophy merely to delicate [sic] themselves to an art form.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

And So Much for the Chouchou's Master


In the midst of packing, I've stumbled upon another one of my favorite books about singers and singing, the delightful 1923 memoir Singer's Pilgrimage by Blanche Marchesi, daughter of two of the most prominent voice teachers of the nineteenth century (if you want to hear something truly remarkable, here is a recording Mme. Marchesi made in her seventies of a "Sicilian Cart Driver's Song" -- listen for the splendid spoken asides, as the cart driver urges on his team.  Some of the best singing I've ever heard).

In her childhood and young adulthood, Mme. Marchesi rubbed shoulders with many of the great musicians of her day.  Here is her description of the conversion of Franz Liszt: 

. . . at that time artists like Liszt were very rare, and the admiration and hero-worship were almost stronger than to-day, while the romances they encountered would fill a dozen volumes.  Goethe's Werther was still the fashionable book, read by sentimental ladies, and poetry reigned supreme . . . . Virtuosos like Paganini, Liszt and [Anton] Rubinstein were demigods, and women, poor butterflies, or rather moths, would gaily burn themselves to death in their radiant light.  

At that time in Weimar Liszt was one of those suns who shone brightly on all the litle flowers that gathered around him, hoping to be loved, or even noticed.  Liszt could not see all these little flowers, his life being intimately linked at that time and filled with a great love affair, which it is not indiscreet to mention, as it is known all over the world.  his lady-love was the famous, beautiful Princess Wittgenstein, who lived in the same house with him in Weimar, having even taken her daughter with her . . . . it was like a fairy tale to see that wonderful Princess lie, clad in beautiful velvet frocks and veils, on a low couch, listening to the playing of her worshipped hero.  She was very proud of her lovely hands, and still more so of her feet.  At home she would wear silk or velvet slippers to go from one room into the other, and when lying down on her couch would drop them and put her two wonderful ivory-coloured feet on a red velvet cushion, in view of all persons present.  At dinner, when dessert was nearing, her little daughter was allowed to come down and greet the guests, and after making a few bows and kising Liszt's hand was allowed to retire with some sweets and fruit.

These quiet evenings at Weimar were followed by tragic days.  Liszt had great patience with the extravagant tastes of his Princess . . . . Mistaking this kindness and patience, she thought that she had made his heart a prisoner for ever.  Her dream was to unite her fate to Liszt's life of glory, and, desirous to break her marriage bonds and to marry Liszt, she dispatched him to Rome to try to bend the Pope to her will.  What was her surprise, her grief and her distress, when Liszt returned from Rome, to find that he had not only failed to bring the dispensation, but that he had entered Sacred Orders, and when he entered her room dressed as an abbé she fell in a dead faint at his feet.  Thus he cut off for ever the hopes of all the little flowers who would bewitch him on his further earthly artistic pilgrimage.

Friday, December 11, 2009

So Much for the "Chouchou de Paris"

From Richard Cross's wonderful article about the conversion of pianist and composer Hermann Cohen.  I love that one of the monkeys on his back as a novice was . . .  coffee (I'm down with the malicious wit part, too).

When Hermann presented himself at the Carmelite convent in Agen he brought a great deal of emotional baggage with him. Here was a young man who only a short while ago had been a dandy and dilettante. He had bad habits to overcome: a malicious wit, a tendency to backbite and gossip. He was addicted to gambling, he smoked, he took snuff, he loved coffee. What he faced was bare feet in the winter, rising in the middle of the night for prayer, total abstinence from meat, fasting throughout the year, sleeping on a board without a mattress, long periods of silence in a small cell, and no keyboard during his novitiate. So much for the "chouchou de Paris."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Naked

In the 1990s, my first husband, M., had the type of day job that was much coveted among struggling New York artists.  He worked in the word processing center of a global investment bank, using the most arcane and esoteric features of Microsoft Office to create marketing materials that helped bankers pitch high-level investments to potential clients.  The work was highly skilled and well paid, and, best of all, the word processors didn't have to deal with the bankers themselves, for whom, it must be admitted, they had little respect.  That was the job of the word processing center supervisor, who was the liaison between the center workers -- all of them highly-educated, underemployed artists, or doctoral candidates who would probably never finish their dissertations -- and the bankers, who were generally first- and second-year analysts just out of college, living four or five to an apartment (but always in doorman buildings in tony neighborhoods) and working a hundred hours a week in expectation of Christmas bonuses that often far exceeded their annual salaries.

M. was very good at his job (he was good at everything he did), and he and his supervisor, a young black grandmother named Margaret, held one another in affection and esteem.  But his temper was such that, in those pre-iPod days, after he threw his Discman at his typing stand in response to a banker's unreasonable request and told Margaret to tell the banker to do the effing job himself, she said to him, "M., I love you, but I can't have you on my shift no more" (my friend Soprannie, who worked with M., was an eyewitness to this event).  After that, M. worked the evening shift.

Margaret was a born-again Christian who used to reminisce, not entirely without nostalgia, about her pre-conversion days of nightclubbing, promiscuity, and recreational drug use.  "Thank God for Jesus," she used to say.  " 'Cause if it wasn't for Jesus, I'd be bad."  We used to laugh at this, as if it were Margaret's standard shtick, but today at Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I realized how starkly honest she had been.  The priest noted that the Bible begins with the story of a woman -- Eve -- and ends with the story of another woman, the New Eve, the woman in Apocalypse who is clothed with the sun and has the moon and stars at her feet.  I thought about the fact that the Bible opens in paradise, where the man and woman are naked before one another and are not ashamed, and how, by page three, it's all over:  the angel drives our first parents weeping from the valley of joy and delight with a flaming sword, and now we eat our bread mixed with ashes.

The old joke is that, if you look hard enough, you can find your own phone number in the Bible.  Well, I know mine is in there.  Like our first parents, I have been tempted with the Ur-temptation, the one that has us believing we can have power equal to God's, which is certainly the root of all the nightclubbing, promiscuity, recreational drug use, and so forth.  But the education in evil I received before my conversion was nothing compared to what I've learned about it since.  I suppose it takes an egregious sinner to sneak up in among the righteous and see how very, very many of them take the stance of the Pharisee in the temple, and yet do not see themselves reflected in that parable.  (This is true in a special way in the pro-life movement, which is full of post-abortive women who hesitate to speak openly the joyful news that they have been forgiven, for fear of the poorly-concealed horror in which they are held by some of their less-egregiously-sinful comrades.)  I myself have incurred scorn in the comboxes on this blog from virtuous Catholics, who appear to believe that I don't deserve to call myself a penitent, penitence being reserved, perhaps, for those who sin but lightly.  Well, wake up, people: man is fallen, and we're all naked under our clothes, and not in a pretty, Renoir sort of way, either.  In this season of penitence, it's best to admit that, if it weren't for Jesus, you'd be bad. Maybe you'd be bad like Margaret, maybe you'd be bad like me, or maybe you'd just find your own particular level of badness.  But there are few transgressions of which that the human heart is not capable, no matter how virtuous the mind that believes it controls that heart; and to the good people who say to themselves and each other, "I would never do that" (an assertion I've often heard made, for instance, about abortion, from those on both the pro- and anti- sides), I say, "How do you know?"  We should pray in all humility that we'll never be tempted to see that (or any other sin) as a good option.  As Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.  That means yours.

Which is why this feast day is so great.  Our last chance, our true medicine, our only hope, was born to a young girl not, perhaps, unlike the one pictured above, in John Collier's startling painting of the Annunciation, who was just like us, except for the fact that God honored her by removing from her the indelible bruise and brokenness resulting from our first parents' devastating fall.  O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us egregious sinners, who are the happiest of all people because we have recourse to you and your powerful intercession.

Now is a good time to revisit this stark, powerful performance of the old carol "Remember, O Thou Man."

Friday, December 4, 2009

King John's Christmas


And this poem still makes me cry:

King John was not a good man –
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him,
When walking in the town,
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air –
And bad King John stood dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.


King John was not a good man,
And no good friends had he.
He stayed in every afternoon…
But no one came to tea.
And, round about December,
The cards upon his shelf
Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer,
And fortune in the coming year,
Were never from his near and dear,
But only from himself.


King John was not a good man,
Yet had his hopes and fears.
They’d given him no present now
For years and years and years.
But every year at Christmas,
While minstrels stood about,
Collecting tribute from the young
For all the songs they might have sung,
He stole away upstairs and hung
A hopeful stocking out.


King John was not a good man,
He lived his live aloof;
Alone he thought a message out
While climbing up the roof.
He wrote it down and propped it
Against the chimney stack:
“TO ALL AND SUNDRY - NEAR AND FAR -
F. Christmas in particular.”
And signed it not “Johannes R.”
But very humbly, “Jack.”


“I want some crackers,
And I want some candy;
I think a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I don’t mind oranges,
I do like nuts!
And I SHOULD like a pocket-knife
That really cuts.
And, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red, india-rubber ball!”


King John was not a good man –
He wrote this message out,
And gat him to this room again,
Descending by the spout.
And all that night he lay there,
A prey to hopes and fears.
“I think that’s him a-coming now!”
(Anxiety bedewed his brow.)
“He’ll bring one present, anyhow –
The first I had for years.”


“Forget about the crackers,
And forget the candy;
I’m sure a box of chocolates
Would never come in handy;
I don’t like oranges,
I don’t want nuts,
And I HAVE got a pocket-knife
That almost cuts.
But, oh! Father christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red, india-rubber ball!”


King John was not a good man,  
Next morning when the sun
Rose up to tell a waiting world
That Christmas had begun,
And people seized their stockings,
And opened them with glee,
And crackers, toys and games appeared,
And lips with sticky sweets were smeared,
King John said grimly: “As I feared,
Nothing again for me!”


“I did want crackers,
And I did want candy;
I know a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I do love oranges,
I did want nuts!
I haven’t got a pocket-knife —
Not one that cuts.
And, oh! if Father Christmas, had loved me at all,
He would have brought a big, red,
india-rubber ball!”


King John stood by the window,
And frowned to see below
The happy bands of boys and girls
All playing in the snow.
A while he stood there watching,
And envying them all …
When through the window big and red
There hurtled by his royal head,
And bounced and fell upon the bed,
An india-rubber ball!

And oh Father Christmas,
My blessings on you fall
For bringing him a big, red,
India-rubber ball! 


(From Now We Are Six)


Pooh and Eden


Listening to Robert Tear's wonderful album of the Fraser-Simson-A.A. Milne songs -- and it is growing on me, though my ancient loyalties lie, of course, with the Jack Gilford recording -- is turning out to be a poignant, even painful, experience for me.   The songs are so curious -- art music written on children's poetry -- and their beauty is so anachronistic, that they seem almost an aural metaphor for the strangeness and fleetingness of childhood itself.  I wish I could preserve the wonder of childhood for my own son, and of course I wish it could have been preserved for me, and I wonder sometimes how I became so determined to fall so far from the innocence of childhood, which, paradoxically, I managed to retain for a longer time than most American girls.  When the world begins to appear the mirror opposite of how it formerly looked  and felt (the shock and processing of this experience are very much what Mozart's last opera, Die Zauberflöte, is about), some children feel as if they've been driven out of the safe world of childhood, which now seems utterly false, and begin to act out their anger and grief at this loss which reflects the primordial loss of Eden.  This, at least, is what happened to me.

Yet I am strongly drawn to the ethos of childhood.  Most of what I read in my limited spare time is children's literature, and I am always trying to devise ways to bring the things I loved in my own childhood into my son's life (though I will need to accept the possibility that he may not love them himself).  But, I wonder, is it right, is it good to create a world of wonder around childhood, when the real world is such a hateful, mean, dangerous place?

I fervently wish that all children might be immersed in the world of delight that's portrayed in H. Fraser-Simson's wonderful Milne songs.  In my new city,  however, where I see little boys with neck tattoos that match their dads', where I read in the paper every day about horrific acts of child abuse and neglect, and where I hear parents screaming and cursing at their children as they walk them home from school, I'm even more acutely aware that this world is a distant dream for most children.  How fortunate are the few who, through happy circumstance and the efforts of their parents, are able to live in a world of innocence for a few short years.

The existential sorrow that the Fraser-Simson/Milne songs evokes for me is, I think, most of all elegiac -- not only for the world of childhood, which is always slipping away, always being lost -- but also for life itself, which starts out as a trickle of small goodbyes and later turns into a torrent of big ones.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Three Cheers for Pooh



Some of my readers know of my fanatical devotion to what has got to be the best children's record ever made, a now-obscure 1952 recording of song settings of A.A. Milne's Pooh and Christopher Robin poems.  The record predates the Disney-Pooh industrial complex; the musical settings -- really art songs -- were composed in the 1920s, shortly after the first publication of the Pooh books, by English composer H. Fraser-Simson.  The excellence of the Fraser-Simson Pooh songs is enhanced even more, on this recording, by the rather odd fact that they are scored for woodwind quartet, and by the equally odd fact that they are sung and narrated by the wonderful blacklisted American actor Jack Gilford (the fact that he couldn't work in the 1950s is likely the reason he made this record to begin with).  Gilford is an idiosyncratic, but adorable, Pooh -- whoever imagined Winnie with a Brooklyn accent?  And the songs really are marvelous.

I found today that some Very Wonderful Person has made a zip file of a later recording of the Fraser-Simson Pooh songs of which I was unaware, this one by Welsh tenor Robert Tear and pianist Philip Ledger.  Though it lacks the eccentric charm of the Jack Gilford-woodwind quartet version -- Tear's reading of the songs is very straight -- it is a lovely recording of some wonderful, little-known music.  And this Same Wonderful Person has also uploaded the unavailable 1975 Maurice Sendak-Carole King television special, "Really Rosie" (from which my dear friend who posts on this blog occasionally derives her moniker), which you can watch in Quicktime.  Bless you, Wonderful Person, whoever you are -- you have improved my life immeasurably.

Advice to Young Singers, Part 1: Ham, Eggs, and Atlantic City


I was married in 2005, have moved three times since then, and am about to move again.  The first move was from my aerie in Washington Heights, a place where I spent what seem like the crucial years of my adulthood, to my new home as a bride in the Bronx, a few miles to the east.  My new husband had picked out a very nice apartment in an Italian neighborhood, because he thought I'd be happy around my own kind.  Alas, this was not to be, as our landlord, who lived downstairs from us, moonlighted as a deejay, and would spend the wee hours working on his mixes, causing me to drag my pregnant self out of bed on countless occasions to pound on his door.  So we soon moved to another Bronx neighborhood, known affectionately as "County Woodlawn," where my husband could be happy around his own kind, and where he'd lived for many years previously.   I loved this neighborhood, on the far northern fringes of the city, myself.  It felt like the land that time forgot.  We moved to a small city in Appalachia last year, and we are about to move into our first house, so hopefully we will stay put for a while.

The hardest part of every move for me has been the inevitable book purge.  I find it very hard to part with any book, though I know I will have to shuffle some off in the interest of moving sanity.  While making the initial pass through my library the other day, I found a book that I used to love, Great Singers on the Art of Singing, a collection of essays by the prominent opera stars of the day, published in 1921.  I turned immediately to my favorite essay, by Ernestine Schumann-Heink (above), the great German contralto who was extremely popular in the United States in the period around World War I.

The primary reason I love Mme. Schumann-Heink's essay is the same reason I love reading cookbooks and police procedurals:  it appeals to my deep hunger for order and ritual.   In one section, for instance, Mme. Schumann-Heink details the necessities of a singer's daily routine:

First of all comes diet.  Americans as a rule eat far too much [this in 1921].  Why do some of the good churchgoing people raise such an incessant row about over-drinking when they constantly injure themselves quite as much by over-eating?  What difference does it make whether you ruin your stomach, liver, or kidneys by too much alcohol or too much roast beef?  One vice is as bad as another.  The singer must live upon a light diet. . . . Here is an average ménu for my days when I am on tour:

BREAKFAST
Two or more glasses of Cold Water
(not ice water)
Ham and Eggs
Coffee 
Toast.

MID-DAY DINNER
Soup
Some Meat Order
A Vegetable
Plenty of Salad
Fruit.

SUPPER
A Sandwich
Fruit.

Such a ménu I find ample for the heaviest kind of professional work.  If I eat more, my work may deteriorate, and I know it.

Fresh air, sunshine, sufficient rest and daily baths in tepid water night and morning are a part of my regular routine . . . . There is nothing like such a routine as this to avoid colds . . . . To me, one day at Atlantic City is better for a cold than all the medicine I can take. . . . I always make a bee line for Atlantic City the moment I feel a serious cold on the way.

Sensible singers know now that they must avoid alcohol, even in limited quantities, if they desire to be in the prime of condition . . . . Champagne particularly is poison to the singer just before singing  [the idea of drinking champagne just before singing is akin, in my mind, to the adage about coloratura sopranos having sex during a performance]. . . I am sorry for the singer who feels that some spur like champagne or a cup of strong coffee is desirable before going upon the stage [I myself always eat dark chocolate just before singing.  I'm not sure why; I've been doing it for years.  I suppose it's the dread "spur" that Mme. Schumann-Heink deplores].

Writing like this sends me into ecstasies.  It's not just the idea of Mme. Schumann-Heink's "light" breakfasts; it's also the notion that following these steps, like reciting a spell, will have some sort of magically beneficent effect on one.

I will be posting more excerpts from this excellent book before I pack it up in the next few days.  In the meantime, enjoy Mme. Schumann-Heink's very beautiful singing of "Stille Nacht," which she sang every year on U.S. radio between 1926 and 1935, here. 

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving

Enbrethiliel of Sancta Sanctis is one of the most thoughtful, elegant, and stylish (in the writerly sense) bloggers on the Catholic interwebs.  She took my breath away today with the closing of a typically provocative and well-considered post:

"Perhaps, one day, I'll look back at everything I've screwed up and see the grace that helped me to do any of it at all."

I think I will adopt this felicitous thought as the motto both of Thanksgiving and of this blog. 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What Passion Cannot Music Raise, and Quell?


What passion cannot music raise, and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell,
His listening brethren stood 'round.
And wondering on their faces fell,
To worship that celestial sound!
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

-- John Dryden, "Ode for Saint Cecilia's Day" (musical setting by G.F. Handel)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Music and Memory, Part 6: Treason



E.M. Forster wrote that if forced to choose between betraying his friend or his country, "I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."  While his proposition trifles with the notion of treason, I wonder what the comparable label is for betraying friendship.  If betraying friends were as feared and anathemized as betraying country, perhaps we would do it less casually than we do.  I know that I have sacrificed friends on the altar of my ambition, as well as simply because our beliefs diverged on matters that seemed to me absolutely fundamental (though few things really are).  Often in my life I've come to a fork in a friendship where continuing on has seemed like more energy than I've felt like giving, and so I've let those friendships fade away.  I'm ashamed to think of how lightly I've taken my friendships.  After all, Christ Himself called His disciples His friends, which certainly suggests that friendship is a holy relationship, or should be.

When I was a young singer, I had a beloved friend -- Soprannie, whom I've written about here before -- who was also, sometimes, a bitter rival.  Soprannie was a remarkable person on many levels:  not only a fine soprano, but also beautiful, highly intelligent, a marathon runner, a gifted jazz pianist, and possessed of a dry, wicked sense of humor.  She was courageous and feisty:  she lived all alone in Brooklyn, and once fended off a would-be mugger with a cast-iron frying pan.  Most of all, she had a great talent for friendship.  Her heart was more open than that of anyone I've ever known, before or since, and she suffered compassionately alongside her friends, whom she called her "volitional family."  Indeed, Soprannie's friendship was prized by her colleagues and semblables, for whom she always had a listening ear.  Her friends were so used, however, to her position as the listener, the shorer-up, and the scraper-down-from-the-ceiling, that few of them ever considered that she needed to be listened to and supported as well.  The self-absorption of her friends vis-à-vis Soprannie was probably the reason that, as she confided to me afterward, only two of the many guests at her wedding actually gave her and her groom a gift (I was one of them).  No one, apparently, thought that Soprannie needed anything.

Like every beautiful, brilliant, and talented woman I've ever known, Soprannie was subject to searing romantic disappointment (the more I know women who were raised in faithful Catholic families, on the other hand, the more they appear to me to have been inoculated against this hazard of modern femininity; but Soprannie, like me, was raised in a progressive-activist Catholic family, and she herself used to quip that God offered minimal protection and maximum support).  In those days, both Soprannie and I were scraping by on pocket change -- on one occasion, she had to panhandle her subway fare home from work -- and at one point I tried to set her up with a very nice young lawyer whom I worked for.  He was artistically inclined himself, one of the many lawyers and bankers I encountered during those years who had given up an uncertain future in the arts for the far more reliable and lucrative worlds of finance and corporate law, and he was very taken with Soprannie.  She, however, put the kibosh on their relationship one date night when, having a drink at her apartment, he propositioned her with the suggestion: "You have needs . . . and I have needs."

Soprannie and I used to go to the opera together, and, since we couldn't afford to go out to dinner first, we would each bring snacks -- a bag of baby carrots, a package of pita bread, a little tub of humus -- and meet in a public atrium on Broadway in the West 60s to share them before heading over to the Met.  I remember once we were at a star-studded performance of Mozart's wonderful, underrated opera Idomeneo -- Plácido Domingo, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Dawn Upshaw were all in the cast -- when Soprannie, in tears, asked if we could leave after the first act.  She was going through a painful heartbreak.  We left, and went to a bar instead.

In the mid-nineties, we were both at a point in our careers where we needed more credits and roles on our résumés.  So we did the sort of thing that enterprising young singers in New York often do:  we self-produced a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, with Soprannie singing the Countess and I (still singing soprano roles at the time) Susanna.  It was not hard at all to find other young singers in need of gigs to take the other roles, and we ended up with quite an excellent cast.  We used the piano-vocal transcription of the score, and our opera was "played" by one of the best coaches and rehearsal pianists working in New York at the time.  Annie's church donated the space, and we packed the house with our friends and colleagues.  Our staging was minimal, but effective:  my costume prop was a sheer little black French maid's apron, and hers a string of pearls, and in the last act, when the Countess and Susanna exchange clothes in order to trick the Count, she put on my apron and I put on her pearls.

During the rehearsal period, I got angry at Soprannie when she explained to a non-singing friend the difference in our voices.  "Pentimento's singing," she said. "is exciting, like baklava.  But I am like a slice of rich dark-chocolate cake."  I wanted to be dark chocolate, too; who wouldn't?  But Soprannie was a singer of great intelligence and musicality, and singing with her, when she wasn't undermining herself with the kinds of semi-conscious, neurotic self-sabotage practiced by many singers, could be thrilling.

The truth was that, as much as we loved each other, Soprannie and I were fiercely competitive.  We concealed information from each other about auditions and coaches.  Once we were able to tag along together on a road trip to Washington, D.C. for an audition, in a car driven by an up-and-coming young woman conductor.  I told the conductor how Soprannie had recently been in a bike accident when a guy in a parked Mercedes had opened his door into the bike lane on Madison Avenue; she'd gone on to sing a performance a few days later with a taped-up cracked rib.  My point was to favorably reflect upon how tough and committed Soprannie was.  Soprannie, however, was furious with me:  the up-and-coming conductor had a car (a rarity in New York), and was, therefore, a driver.  Didn't I realize that New York drivers hated bicyclists?  She was sure my anecdote would have a negative effect on her career, and that I'd told if for that purpose.

Over time, Soprannie's life changed, and mine did too -- hers, it must be said, for the better, mine not so much.  In spite of her unstinting self-giving, she had long been lonely, and she finally met a suitable man.  Some of her friends were not shy about expressing their distaste for this fellow -- he was an M.B.A. working in marketing, and they were . . . artists (I'm wondering now if this may have been one of the reasons for the general withholding of gifts at their wedding).  Some in Soprannie's circle saw her choice as a true betrayal -- as a sort of friendship treason, if you will.  Soprannie wouldn't have to work her ass off anymore, like everyone else in her cohort:  it just wasn't fair.  The consensus was that she was selling out.  You can bet there was not a little resentment abroad concerning her happy reversal in fortune.

I, on the other hand, had gotten married young to M., a conceptual artist, and, while we had a great deal in common, were good comrades, and he was unselfishly supportive of my life as a musician, I, though I could never admit it, was eaten away by mistrust and anger towards him for taking me to abort our child before we were married, engaged, or even a real couple.  I understand now that I had a deep instinct to make him suffer in retribution.  That anger, combined with my selfishness and ambition, and the toxic delusion that neither he nor anyone else could ever really love me, spurred me on to destroy our marriage at the same time that Soprannie was forming the bond that would lead to hers.

For a few years after that, I meandered through my world in a kind of exile from my own life, musically, relationally, and professionally.  Soprannie was kind and reasonably tolerant of my changing cast of boyfriends and spiritual practices, and supportive of my career transition in the direction of scholarship and teaching.  Sometimes I wish that she had been firmer with me -- had told me, especially during the horrible times, that I was going down the wrong path, that I needed to stop.  But an unspoken rule of female friendship among our cohort was that we didn't judge.  Heartbreak and hard times were considered the price we paid for being highly-educated, artistic women making our own way in the metropolis.  In fact, even abortion itself was accepted, though not without chagrin, as part of the mixed bag of modern womanhood, and was thought of as a sad hardship that had become part of our landscape, but never as something that should be restricted in any way.

After Soprannie had her first child, and I underwent my conversion (which happened about the same time), our paths diverged even more.  She had different friends, and I did too.  But I always loved her like crazy.  I haven't seen her now in almost five years.  She moved to the West Coast with her family a few years back, and is now the mother of three boys.  I sometimes picture with envy what I imagine as her perfect life, and contrast myself, still struggling in so many ways, with what I picture.

But the other day I got a message from her on my cell phone.  She was saying, through tears:  "Pentimento, my heart was just filled with you.  Do you remember when we did that Figaro,  and we were so young and so in love with the music, and with being able to sing it so beautifully, and how we just wanted to sing on and on?"

Yes, I remember it well.  In fact, though Soprannie and I had our ups and downs both as musical colleagues and as friends, singing with her in our little home-grown Figaro was truly one of the greatest artistic experiences of my life.  I miss her.

Above:  An excerpt from the Act III Countess-Susanna duettino, "Sull'aria."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mother Cabrini, Pray for Us




Today is the feast day of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, affectionately called "Mother Cabrini" by her devotees, patroness of immigrants and traditionally revered by Italian-Americans.  Her shrine in New York City (in a neighborhood jokingly referred to as "Upstate Manhattan") was my long-time parish (the beautiful stained-glass window at the back of the church, which has a view that overlooks the Hudson River and the Palisades of New Jersey, is pictured above).  I spent many hours praying there both before and after my conversion, once hopping a gypsy cab on an impulse to take me there in a snowstorm even after having moved some distance away to the Bronx.

The corridor that connects Cabrini High School for girls to the shrine is lined with glass cases filled with gifts left in honor of the saint, in thanks for her miraculous cures.  Her popularity has been effortlessly transferred to the neighborhood's large Latino population as its Italian population has dwindled to virtually nothing, and most, if not all, of these ex-votos, which include china plates and ceramic statuary, are inscribed in Spanish with the names and dates of the cured.  Just a few weeks before my conversion, I struck up a conversation with a professional, highly-educated woman at the local Korean fruit-and-vegetable stand, who told me that her daughter had been healed of life-threatening illnesses through the prayers of the local faithful and the intercession of the saint.  "This," she said, gesturing to include the whole neighborhood, "is holy ground."

One day several years before that encounter, I went on a Saturday to pray at the shrine.  Mother Cabrini's body is interred in a glass coffin, over which the altar is built.  As I knelt in a pew, the Latina charwoman, who spoke no English, put down her mop, came over to me, took my hand, and led me up to the altar, normally roped off from the public.  She had me kneel down before it and placed my hand on the glass; it was vibrating.

Next door to the church and high school is the former Saint Elizabeth's Hospital, where Maria Callas, who grew up in the neighborhood, recovered from a badly broken leg after being hit by a car (it's now co-ops).

This is also the sixth anniversary of my first date with my husband, which took place at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal.

Music and Memory, Part 5: Life and Death




One of my most important teachers and mentors was the celebrated African-American mezzo-soprano Barbara Conrad.  Barbara was a musician of awesome intelligence and power, as well as a compassionate, maternal figure who welcomed me to her kitchen table for tea and conversation after many a lesson.  I began studying with her when my life was in turmoil after the end of my first marriage, and Barbara's studio was a kind of safe haven for me during those tumultuous times.

One day I burst into tears during my lesson, and told Barbara I just didn't think I could continue singing.  Though I had been singing since childhood and was several years into an interesting small professional career, I had begun to feel as if I had built my life, including my life as a musician, on the shifting sands.  That life was fueled by vanity, pride, anger, and the will to power, and I believed that, if I continued, I would be -- already was -- heading down a morally detrimental path.  (I'm not sure, now, how much of this was real and how much was self-dramatizing; I had always tended toward the latter.  A wealthy patroness had taken an interest in me around the same time, and given me funds to study with a certain well-known repertoire coach, who asked me, in our first lesson, what my goals were for our work.  "To know the truth," I said with fervor.  I'm sure he must have rolled his eyes inwardly.)  I felt like I had a fateful decision to make about the direction my life was going to take, and that I ought to sunder myself completely from the pursuit that, if not responsible for my complete descent into selfishness, folly, and amorality, had at least coincided with it.

Barbara told me a story.  In the 1960s, while singing at New York City Opera, she had become great friends with the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (above), who was an opera-lover and a friend and supporter to many young singers.  When she won the coveted title role in Carmen, she fell victim to backstage gossip, slander, and intrigue on the part of her jealous colleagues.  The Archbishop came to her rehearsals, and one night, as they had dinner afterward, she cried and told him that she wanted to quit singing.  He said to her, "Oh, Barbara, you must never stop singing.  You never know when it could make the difference between life and death for one man in the audience."

She did not stop.  (And she was received into the Catholic Church by the Archbishop, though he joked  that she wouldn't make a very good Catholic).  One of the high points of her illustrious career, she told me, was singing for Pope John Paul II at a huge open-air Mass at Belmont Race Track when he came to New York in 1995.  I didn't stop either, but I retooled my career so that my performing was of a more scaled-back, intimate nature, away from the opera stage.  This decision probably had little to do with my moral rise or fall in the end, but I see now that it was necessary, as it continues to be necessary in other ways, to seek to make myself smaller and more hidden, and working as an opera soloist tends to work against such aims.

Incidentally, Barbara Conrad is a great woman as well as a great artist.  This profile of her appeared in the New York Daily News in 2006, in the "Big Town, Big Heart" series formerly edited by Dawn Eden; it's worth a read.  And she gave me the great gift of singing at my wedding in 2005.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Music and Memory, Part 4: The Fat Lady



As a young girl, one of the most exciting things about Christmas was the books my parents gave me each year.  While sometimes these gifts expressed my parents' own concerns -- I remember a few years when I received things like The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks and Native Son by Richard Wright -- there were also books that revealed a depth of sensitivity to my growing spirit that was not always apparent in our everyday interactions:  The Cloud of Unknowing one year, for example, and a book of Meister Eckhart's sermons.  But the best year of all was the one in which they gave me both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Franny and Zooey.  I was eleven or twelve that year, and I read both books many times over the next decade or so.  Franny in particular was precious to me, so much so that, when my high-school boyfriend lost the copy which I, with an upswelling of feeling, had pressed on him (the same one my parents had given me), he was so worried about my reaction that he bought a new one, dog-eared several dozen pages, rolled it in the dirt, and slammed it in the door a few times before giving it to me (he confessed all of this when we broke up).

Franny and Zooey is a novel in two parts, each of them an eponymous short story originally published in the New Yorker (my father first read "Franny" in the New Yorker as a high-school student, and told me, that Christmas I was twelve, how thrilling he'd found it).  Franny Glass, a gifted young actress and college student from a stupendously gifted New York family, is suffering (not unlike Holden Caulfield) from an existential crisis occasioned by the sickening inauthenticity of the culture in which she lives.  In order to combat or at least ameliorate it, she has begun the practice of hesychastic prayer, which she's learned about from the anonymous classic The Way of a Pilgrim.  She ends up in a state of nervous exhaustion on the sofa of her family's Upper East Side apartment, where her brother Zooey attempts to rally her and send her back out into the world to accomplish her duties in it.  She cannot withdraw from it, he tells her, because she has a responsibility to the mysterious Fat Lady, whom he describes as a grotesque, quasi-Southern-Gothic figure sitting on her porch and swatting flies as she listens to the radio.  Then he lets her in on a secret:  the Fat Lady is "Christ Himself."

When my son was a newborn, I bought an old book of J.D. Salinger criticism from the discard bin at the local library, and read it as I nursed him.  I was surprised to discover the tremendous disdain in which the prominent literary critics of the 1950s and 1960s held Salinger and his entire fictional Glass family.  The critics were on the defensive -- sneering, for instance, at Zooey's reverence for the disgusting Fat Lady as a self-conscious badge of his and his family's intellectual superiority.  Salinger's Glass family is rather too good to be true, but hardly, it struck me, worthy of the spleen heaped upon it by actual flesh-and-blood critics. 

Revisiting Salinger, however, brought to my mind a long-forgotten encounter I'd had as a young singer.  I was about twenty years old, and was on a subway platform in Brooklyn, waiting for the train to take me to my voice lesson on the Upper West Side.  I was clutching my music in my hands -- one of the volumes of the Peters complete songs of Schubert.  As I sat on one of the hard wooden benches, a tall, muscular, middle-aged woman approached me and pointed at my music.  She tried to talk to me, but I couldn't understand; she was Polish and spoke no English.  Then, to my astonishment, she started to cry, pointing at my volume of Schubert and saying, over and over, "beautiful."  I was stricken.  Who was she?  She appeared, like so many Polish immigrant women in New York, to be a charwoman -- had she in fact been a singer?  I smiled at her, and tried to say something that might sound consoling, but she just shook her head, weeping, and when the train came, she ran to another car so that our awkward encounter would be severed.

I was troubled by this strange meeting, and for a long time after that, whenever I wanted to give up singing, I would think of the Polish woman on the train.  I started to see her as my own Glassian "fat lady," and decided that, if for nothing else, I should keep singing for her, and hope that it would bear fruit in her life in some mysterious way.  I wonder where she is now; I pray that she is at peace.

Above:  the cover of the French translation of Franny and Zooey.  I love the Hopper-esque cover painting.  Can anyone make out whether the gent in the picture above Franny's head (for it is Franny) is Kafka?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Blogger's Ball


I had a dream last night that some of my favorite lady bloggers -- including Betty Duffy, Mrs. Darwin,  Emily J, Sally Thomas, and Elena Maria Vidal -- and I were getting ready to attend a ball.  We were pulling on fabulous clothes worthy of Elena's site Tea at Trianon, and Elena herself was escorted by a dashing genteman à la Mr. Darcy (though he hailed from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, and his name was Jim).  The ball was being held at a very tony place on the east side of midtown Manhattan.  Though I woke up before the dancing started, I was left with a pervasive sense of looking at the city where I had lived for most of my life through the eyes of one who has traveled away from it and will never live there again.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Mouth of the Righteous

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks what is just.
The law of his God is in his heart;
and his feet do not falter. (Psalm 37:30-31)

A beautiful sacred motet, "Os justi," by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). (I sang this piece as a teenager with the best choir I've ever sung with in my life, the New York All-State Choir.)

Musical Saints of Helfta


November is a month that commemorates many musical saints, both celebrated and unknown. This is a repost from a couple of years ago about the musical aesthetic of the Benedictine Abby at Helfta.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
November 22, aside from being a singularly tragic day in American history, is the feast day of the Roman martyr Saint Cecilia, patroness of musicians, whose name I took at my confirmation. I love that her feast falls at the denouement of autumn, when the beauty of the season is mostly past and everything is gray and barren; it cheers the heart. But November also marks the feasts of some other remarkable “musical” saints, a trio of women from the thirteenth-century Saxon monastery of Helfta, a Benedictine abbey that was a sort of hothouse of visionary nuns: Mechthild of Hackeborn (November 16), Gertrude the Great (who shares her feast day), and Mechthild of Magdeburg, whose feast day is November 19.

All of these nuns were party to visions of Christ in which musical sounds and imagery played an important role. Gertrude the Great, for instance, wrote of a visitation by the Lord in which he told her: “Listen to me, beloved, and I will sing you a song of love that is quite different from those sung by profane courtiers,” and then proceeded, in a voice that Gertrude calls indescribably sweet, to sing the following words to the hymn tune Rex Christe factor:

Amore meus continuus,
Tibi languor assiduous,
Amor tuus suavissimus,
Mihi sapor gratissimus.

(My continuous love,
Your persistent languor;
Your very sweet love,
a most pleasing savor to me.)

Mechthild of Hackeborn, the abbey’s choirmistress, was renowned for her own beautiful voice; her sisters in religion referred to her as “God’s nightingale.” She received a revelation in which Christ extended a harp from his sacred heart, explaining that the harp was himself, and the strings were “all chosen souls which are all one in God through love”; then Christ, the “high chanter of all chanters,” struck the harp and led “all the angels with delectable sound” as they sang the hymn Regem regum Dominum.

Mechthild of Magdeburg’s mystical writings are well known, and have been studied and appropriated by both feminist and Jungian scholars. The record of her revelations, the book The Flowing Light of the Godhead, is also filled with remarkable musical imagery, including a vision in which Christ tells her: “Oh, dear dove,/Your voice is string music to my ears./ Your words are spices for my mouth./ Your longings are the lavishness of my gift.”

I find the musical mysticism of Gertrude and the two Mechthilds of Helfta quite thrilling and encouraging. Their aesthetic – a sort of ecstatic rigor that, like all mystical writing, from Rumi to St. John of the Cross to William Blake, uses the language of poetry and eros – is so very far removed from our present understanding of holiness that it strikes me that many present-day orthodox Catholics would find it dubious and unsettling at best. But it seems to me an antidote to the both the meandering confusion of liberal Catholicism and the joyless legalism of modern-day traditionalism, and I'm happy that the Church in her wisdom has seen fit to honor these three nuns.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Friendship, Maine, and Marriage


Since my conversion/reversion, I've stood in a rather awkward position vis-à-vis my gay friends (having been a female opera singer in New York, they are rather many). One dear friend and colleague of mine expressed his distress that I was marrying a man who believed that my friend's behavior was aberrant. "God made me this way," he explained. Several years ago, before I understood that such things were really sins, I attended an old friend's gay wedding in Toronto. I had no problem with it at the time, and didn't see why anyone else should. The two had been together for years, loved each other, owned a house together. Love is love, I told myself, and I was happy that someone appeared to have found it.

In the light of conversion, I see things differently now. I still feel uncomfortable with the Church's injunction of celibacy for homosexuals, but no more so than I do about the same injunction for single heterosexuals: not because I think it's an undue burden, but simply because I know how hard and painful it can be. I am also very sympathetic to the feelings of hurt and exclusion that every gay person I know has felt at some point. Their suffering is not helped by the fact that some among my own faithful Catholic cohort effectively shun them.

However, my Facebook news feed is all abuzz today with cries of woe and outrage over Maine's adoption yesterday of a ballot proposal that would overturn the new state law permitting gay marriage. One friend wrote simply, "Muck Faine [sic]," while another, a deeply religious man who sincerely loves Christ, quoted Psalm 69: "Those who hate me without reason/outnumber the hairs of my head;/many are my enemies without cause,/those who seek to destroy me./I am forced to restore/what I did not steal."

I wish I had a good argument to refute them. To say that marriage is between a man and a woman, which I think now is a no-brainer, appears to gay-marriage advocates to be an argument based on a lack of charity and an outmoded morality. To be honest, I don't quite understand why gays even want to marry, other than for symbolic reasons of equality. Most states guarantee hospital visitation and property transfer rights to gay partners, and some recognize civil unions. Some of my gay Christian friends point to David's intense friendship with Jonathan in Samuel 1:18-20 as an example of a homosexual union blessed by God. I am no scriptural authority, but, as a musicologist, I'm all too familiar with recently-popular posthumous ascriptions of homosexuality for which there's no real evidence to certain great composers and musicians. (As for the Schubert claim, all I can say is that the construct of male friendship was very, very different in early-nineteenth-century Vienna from what it is today. And as a colleague of mine once noted as we browsed in the classical music section of the late, lamented Tower Records at Lincoln Center, recording companies need some filler for those "Gay Classics" anthology CDs, since it would be too boring if they were all Tchaikovsky.)

As it stands, I will have to refrain from making comments on my friends' posts, because I fear I have no consolation to offer. But I wish I knew exactly how to be a good friend to them, which I feel at a loss to do right now.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

File under: "Joy, Ode to"


Oh, joy! My iTunes was set to shuffle (that's on my Mac, not on my nonexistent iPod), and as I sat at my desk doing tedious things, I heard in a felicitous moment the tentative opening piano chords of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy. Listen here. It's sort of a run-up to the Symphony No. 9, with a simple, anthemic tune articulated first by the piano, then by the orchestra, then taken up by a solo vocal quartet, and finally by the entire chorus. The text is not unlike Schiller's, extolling the joys of brotherhood and the arts. It is a marvelous piece, and fills one with sheer delight at being human. I love Beethoven's use of the piano, which gives a sense of intimacy to a full-scale orchestral/choral work.

I remember checking a recording of the Choral Fantasy out of the local library when my son was a tiny baby, and how, in the the loneliness of being home alone with a newborn in the darkest winter, the strains of Beethoven made me feel connected to the stream of humanity in a way that nearly brought me to my knees.

How Many Nights

How many nights
have I lain in terror,
O Creator Spirit, maker of night and day,

only to walk out
the next morning over the frozen world,
hearing under the creaking snow
faint, peaceful breaths...
snake,
bear, earthworm, ant...

and above me
a wild crow crying 'yaw, yaw, yaw'
from a branch nothing cried from ever in my life.

("How Many Nights" by Galway Kinnell, from Three Books, © Houghton Mifflin, 2002.)

From The Writer's Almanac.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

There and Back, Part 9: Born into Trouble


Occasionally when reminiscing here about my semi-glamorous past, I mention the time when I used to be a soprano. This was rather a long time, starting in college and continuing for most of the period that I sang opera. I was a small-ish sort of person, especially in contrast to the operatic norm of big bodies, and I could sing rapid passagework with ease, so teachers, coaches, and adjudicators listened with their eyes, so to speak, and most agreed that I was a coloratura soprano, in spite of the facts that I had a voice that was dark in color and that I could not really sing the notes above high C (on a good day I could reach a high D, but I lived in fear of ever having to sing one in performance).

The truth is, though, that although I worked as hard as I could (and entirely fruitlessly) on developing facility in my upper register, and also jumped (with more success) with both feet into the ball-breaking ethos of prima donna-hood, I never sat well as a coloratura. Coloraturas are not altogether untruthfully stereotyped as perky, flighty, beauty-pageant types (and there are more than a few opera singers who started their careers in pageants). There are all sorts of jokes about singers, and among singers these are subdivided into jokes about voice types, or fächer, as they are called in the business. One old saw concerns the various proscriptions against sexual activity prior to performance: basses, it goes, should forego sex for a month before performing, baritones for a week before, tenors for three days before, and mezzos one day before. Sopranos, the joke continues, shouldn't have sex the day of a performance . . . and coloraturas shouldn't have sex during the performance.

I started to come to grief in the coloratura fach around the time that I had signed with management and begun getting better and more important auditions. For the level at which I was supposed to be singing, I needed six audition arias in contrasting languages and styles, and I discovered that there were not six arias in the same fach that I could sing. None of the French lyric-coloratura repertoire -- Lakmé, Olympia -- worked for me, and the heavier French repertoire was just unwieldy in my voice. Likewise for German. In fact, there was basically only one subset of soprano repertoire that I could sing well -- Italian bel canto music from the early nineteenth century up to the period ending in the 1840s, the major composers of which were Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. This repertoire suited my vocal color, my technical abilities, and my emotional range extremely well, as I was often told at auditions, but an American opera singer could not specialize in one style of music only (especially a style that's rarely performed) and expect to have a career, and once, when I sang Bellini in a master class for Licia Albanese, she expressed displeasure with my dark tone in repertoire that had long been associated with a lighter vocal timbre.

In the meantime, I had begun performing steadily in the U.S. and abroad in recitals of Italian chamber music that I had uncovered through my own research. About the same time I was starting to have a little bit of success, my first marriage was starting to go very wrong. This was partly due to my overweening ambition, and partly due to the fact that, in my heart of hearts, I was consumed with a toxic anger bordering on hatred for M., who, prior to our marriage, had taken me to get an abortion. I was going to throw our marriage under the bus in the service of my muse, and felt justified in doing so, because I believed that it was the sheerest folly to trust anyone, and that to admit this was not cynical, but merely responsible. Since I could rely on no one else, I was going to do what I felt I was called to do.

As the marriage began unraveling, my voice began changing, or perhaps settling into its true position. I started studying with a new teacher who, to my initial resistance, suggested that I might not be a soprano after all. I asked my manager to come to one of our lessons to hear what I was doing, and my teacher had me sing a bit of "Nacqui all'affanno" (I was born into trouble) from Rossini's Cenerentola, a lyric mezzo-soprano role. As I sang, I sensed everyone in the room relax, and I understood that my teacher was right. I was not a soprano, but I had found my place at last.

But as things went from bad to worse in my personal life, I found that I was like a flight attendant who comes to work one day to find that she can't get on the plane. I had believed that singing was all I had in the world, and that, if I gave all my energies to cultivating my abilities as a singer, it would be not only my shield from danger, but even, somehow, my salvation. As my life crumbled around me, the career that I had worked long and hard for, paradoxically, was on the verge of taking off. My mother, who'd initially been reluctant to encourage me, told me quite honestly one day, "This is your time," and she was right; it was the pivotal moment in my singing career. If I put everything I had into it now, I had a chance at success, and possibly success on a high level. If not, well, then, as a prominent conductor told me at the time, "all you'll be known for is what guys you've hooked up with."

As it happened, I found that I couldn't go through with it. After M. moved out, I asked Hans, my manager, to stop sending me on auditions, in spite of the fact that he was getting me very good ones as a mezzo with conductors who were very interested. Just a few days before September 11, 2001, Hans and I had lunch and decided it would be better for both of us if he dropped me from his roster. I continued to work on and perform with my research-performance project, and eventually I went back to school and got my doctorate in voice in a research- and scholarship-heavy program. I had, to all intents and purposes, dropped out. I had willingly become obscure, and, according to some, thrown it all away. I would never be known for anything now, except perhaps by a handful of connoisseurs.

I am neither happy nor unhappy about the choice I made, though I am relieved, and sometimes I'm a little wistful. The tremendous freedom I knew when I sang at a high level is something I'm not sure I can manage to put into words; it's like nothing else I've ever experienced, and any singers reading this will know what I'm talking about. I don't know for certain if I made the right decision in walking away from my career, but I know that singing would never have saved me from the world or from myself, and that, in some way, my singing was inextricably tangled up with my moral failure, or at least it seemed to be. But my voice teacher told me once that her florist, who used to come and arrange fresh flowers in her studio sometimes during my lessons, asked her about me once when I hadn't been back for a while: "Where is that girl? I need her voice. Her voice is so . . . consoling."

If that is still so, it is my only good reason for singing now.

Above: Spanish mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia (1895-1936).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Marriage and Trust

The best kind of writing, from Betty Duffy: naked, vulnerable, and unflinchingly honest.

She's Back!

I'm delighted to announce that Sally Thomas is writing again on her personal blog, which she has evocatively renamed Castle in the Sea. I had kept her listed on my blogroll, just hoping. If you haven't read her yet, please do. She is one of my absolute favorites.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

There and Back, Part 8: Ruach Elohim


While in my master's degree program, I had the great good fortune to take a seminar in Twentieth-Century Analysis (um, that's post-tonal music, not post-Freudian psychology) with the late Ronald Roseman. Roseman, at one time the acting principal oboe with the New York Philharmonic -- if you want to hear some amazing playing, browse over to the link on his name -- was not only a brilliant musician and a dynamic teacher, but also a tremendously kind and humane man who was loved and admired by his students. He used to give me a lift to my subway line after our class, which finished in the early evening. I had noticed that he wore a tiny lapel pin in the shape of a dove, and one evening as we drove, I asked him, "Professor, are you a Catholic?" A funny thing for a lapsed cradle Catholic to be asking a Jew from Brooklyn, but everything is possible, and, indeed, as he told me, he was.

Professor Roseman explained that in the sixties he'd been searching. He'd gone to the usual sources -- mystical Judaism, Buddhism, eastern gurus -- but none of it seemed like the truth to him. Then one day he went with a friend to the first Mass of a newly-ordained Catholic priest. The priest blessed Roseman and his friend after Mass, and, he told me, he could feel the Holy Spirit descending into and through him, and it was as if he were on fire. He began studying the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, and his catechist was a young Jesuit with whom Professor Roseman would repair to a tavern after class to argue and drink. One night he asked the priest, "How can you expect me to believe all of this -- the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth?" The priest replied, "Don't worry; you will."

"And," Professor Roseman concluded. "I do."

As fortunate as I was to study musical analysis with such a great musician and scholar, I know now that I was even more fortunate to encounter Professor Roseman as a way-shower on my long road back to the truth.

The fact that Ronald Roseman was a brilliant oboist seems fitting to me. The old joke is that the oboe is an ill wind that no one blows good, which, as you can hear, is disproved by Roseman's virtuosity, as well as by his magnificent phrasing and tender lyricism on the instrument. Saint Paul calls the evil one "the prince of the power of the air," and yet, we know that in the beginning, the breath or wind of God -- in Hebrew, the Ruach Elohim -- moved upon the face of the waters. Ronald Roseman's musicianship was a baptism of sorts, a harnessing of the air in the service of beauty, which, Plato tells us, is truth.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Lake and Maple

I thought I had posted the poem "Lake and Maple" by Jane Hirshfield before, but I couldn't find it here, and it is certainly the right season for it. I re-read it today at an ADD-inducing children's museum (carrying a book of poetry and sneaking in one poem a day changes my whole outlook, and gives me the wonderful secret feeling of touching beauty even in places and at moments where it is hard to detect otherwise). The line "I want the fish," in the middle of the poem, is just heart-stopping to me. Lalla Ded, to whom the poet refers at the end, was a fourteenth-century Kashmiri poet and mystic. We can never have the lake, of course; all we can have on this side of heaven is the song. But how beautiful, as in this poem, that song can be.

I want to give myself
utterly
as this maple
that burned and burned
for three days without stinting
and then in two more
dropped off every leaf;
as this lake that,
no matter what comes
to its green-blue depths,
both takes and returns it.
In the still heart that refuses nothing,
the world is twice-born --
two earths wheeling,
two heavens,
two egrets reaching
down into subtraction;
even the fish
for an instant doubled,
before it is gone.
I want the fish.
I want the losing it all
when it rains and I want
the returning transparanence.
I want the place
by the edge-flowers where
the shallow sand is deceptive,
where whatever
steps in must plunge,
and I want that plunging.
I want the ones
who come in secret to drink
only in early darknes,
and I want the ones
who are swallowed.
I want the way
the water sees without eyes,
hears without ears,
shivers without will or fear
at the gentlest touch.
I want the way it
accepts the cold moonlight
and lets it pass,
the way it lets
all of of it pass
without judgment or comment.
There is a lake.
Lalla Ded sang, no larger
than one seed of mustard,
that all things return to.
O heart, if you
will not, cannot, give me the lake,
then give me the song.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Music and Memory, Part 3: Emotion and Meaning


I intend no insult to my colleagues, and hope none is taken, when I repeat here the generally-accepted meme that classical singers lack the musicianship skills of instrumentalists. It's mostly true, but not because singers are stupid. The main reason for this skill deficit is that singers start serious study later than instrumentalists. In all but a few very rare prodigies, the vocal mechanism does not mature until a singer is in her teens (sometimes later for men), and it's unwise to attempt to develop a singing technique -- i.e., a reliable physiological method for producing the refined sound required by the classical vocal repertoire -- in a still-developing body. So, while pianists and violinists can start as young as four or five, most singers lag behind by at least ten years. And, while little pianists and violinists are learning to read and analyze music as they learn to play, some singers never acquire those abilities at the highest level. It is well-known, for example, that Pavarotti could not read music easily. But for every Pavarotti -- a truly great instinctive musician -- there is also a Maria Callas or a Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, not only great singers but also virtuoso musicians of the highest possible order, whose musical ability was arguably the true root of their greatness.

When I enrolled in my master's degree program in voice in the 1990s, I found myself among musicians whose skills far outstripped my own. Though I strove to distinguish myself among my singer colleagues, my theory and analysis abilities were relatively dismal, and I was required to take undergraduate theory. At the same time, however, I tested into the highest-level sight-reading and ear-training class on the graduate level, and I recall how the professor, when I came into his classroom at the first meeting, was sure that a mistake had been made (he demanded, "What are you doing in this class?"); singers were almost never admitted to it, especially not singers who'd been demoted to undergraduate theory. But, if my musicianship was weak, my musicality was strong; half of the reason, I think, that I got into the advanced class was that I instinctively knew how a piece of music written in the so-called common practice period was meant to go, and therefore, even under pressure, could sight-sing accurately.

I come from a family of accomplished musicians on both sides, and my two older brothers demonstrated unusual musical ability while still children, and went on to receive advanced degress and have professional careers in music. I, on the other hand, was a comparatively late bloomer. I had always sung, but didn't start doing it seriously until I was fifteen. My sudden emergence on the family musical scene upset the family dynamic to the extent that I was discouraged, rather than encouraged, from continuing, but I stuck to it, because I was receiving encouragement from outside the family (I had begun winning awards and honors as a high-school-aged singer), and besides, I loved doing it, and believed I had found my groove. It wasn't until I was about twenty that my mother, having come to hear me in a rehearsal, tearfully gave her blessing to my pursuit.

In college, my piano professor (mistakenly) believed that I should prepare to audition for the yearly concerto competition -- on piano -- the winner of which played a movement from a concerto written for his instrument with the college orchestra. I declined; I knew my limitations. I was, and am, merely an adequate pianist. But my professor wrote that year in an evaluation of my work with her, "Pentimento spends too much emotion away from the keyboard." I've thought about that caveat ever since. Is emotion what is required of classical musicians? Yes . . . and no. Yes, we must be able to access deep reserves of feeling. But we cannot allow emotion to dominate performance. The singers who do this are often noted for performances that move audiences profoundly, relying on hastily-put-together techniques that too often cause the practitioner to burn out fast. It's not emotion that drives a singing technique. Technique must be mastered so that emotions can be accessed in a safe way for the vocal mechanism, and so that they can be expressed in a way that moves the audience but not the singer. This is one of the most difficult aspects of performance to master. The great soprano Renée Fleming has written of singing the title role in Carlisle Floyd's Susannah at the Met while going through an excruciating divorce. Although she was able to access her despair for the role (Floyd's opera transposes the story of Susanna and the Elders to rural Tennessee in the first half of the twentieth century) to the extent that tears streamed down her face in the midst of her performance, the audience didn't get it; a friend who was there told Fleming, "You really have to work on your acting" (in fact, I was also in the audience for Fleming's short run of Susannahs in 1999, and I felt the same thing). The way to give the audience the emotional experience -- indeed, the catharsis -- that they are craving, and that the singer may be craving too, is to give it away, to forego the pleasure of an emotional transport and use one's technique, as well as gesture and movement, to demonstrate it for the audience instead.

All of this is a circuitous road to my real point, which is the intersection of music and memory, in particular the chance encounter with music that evokes felicitous memory. During my early days in one of the undergraduate theory classes in which I was embarrassed to be the only graduate student, the professor illustrated a point by going to the piano and playing the opening bars of the Variation VII Grazioso from Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn -- which may be heard here by scrolling down to the right-hand side of the screen -- with such delicacy and understatement that I could feel my insides clench in recognition, though I'd never heard the piece before. And, while my theory-analytical music vocabulary was then, and remains, inadequate to explain why this piece works like that, I can tell you that Brahms is the master of expressing the sense of bittersweet resignation, and of joy muted by grief and experience, particularly through his use of harmonic progression and the subtleties of his writing for the lower voices.

I turned on the radio yesterday, and heard the Variation VII Grazioso, and my gut clenched in exactly the same way as it had in undergraduate theory, and I wondered about my fellow students from way back then -- did Esther, the Orthodox Jewish violinist who wore a shearling coat and platform shoes, end up marrying a scripture scholar and finding an orchestral job that would allow her to get a sub every Friday night, as she'd hoped? -- and our wonderful, humane professor. And what made our professor most humane, I think, along with all the other professors, is that they were showing us how important classical music was -- how it could be a true lifeline that helped us connect to our humanity at the deepest level, and how we could learn how to help our audiences do the same.

Above: the incomparable Bianca Castafiore, the "Milanese Nightingale" of the Tintin series (whose name, incidentally, means white chaste flower).