Ave Maria

I think of Anton Bruckner in the same school with Gustav Mahler, but actually he was 36 years older than Mahler. Bruckner was a late bloomer. Wikipedia says, ”Broad fame and acceptance did not come until he was over 60 (after the premiere of his Seventh Symphony in 1884)”. He spent time in solitude. He was celibate. His Christian faith was deeply meaningful for him. And IMO he stretched the romantic harmonic vocabulary less than Mahler or even Brahms. But he wrote some beautiful, passionate music.

Anton Bruckner was born this day in 1824.

Obscure Beethoven?

Nothing Beethoven composed is obscure. But this one was unknown to me. I started thinking of opus numbers in his later years, and many of them I knew as string quartets or sonatas, but it occurred to me that 118 had no association for me. So I looked it up.

Sanft, wie du lebtest, hast du vollendet, zu heilig für den Schmerz! Kein Auge wein’ ob des himmlischen Geistes Heimkehr.

As gentle as you have lived, have you died, too holy for sorrow! Let no eye shed a tear for the spirit’s heavenly homecoming.

Last missive from JSB

There’s a legend that tells of Bach on his deathbed, dying from a failed operation that was supposed to restore his sight. He dictates note by note to his son-in-law, “Vor deinem Thron tret ich hiermit”, “Today, I approach thy throne”.

One of Bach’s signature compositional forms is the chorale. He composed 350 chorales, each 4 or 6 lines harmonized in 4 parts. They are interspersed in his oratorios and cantatas as stand-alone prayers or as morality texts that condense the message of his story.

His last work is not a chorale, but a take-off on a chorale, called a chorale prelude. He takes the four lines of the chorale, and constructs a miniature contrapuntal piece on each of them separately.

Listen here to my own piano performance of Bach’s last work.

Johann Sebastian Bach died on this day in the year 1750. His style of composition is so intricate that musicians ever since have stood in awe and wonder, where could it have come from. The mathematical constraints on fugal composition are so severe, that only a few others have produced occasional works in this form. For Bach, fugues seem to flow through him, and they are not only mathematically perfect but emotionally satisfying with a huge variety of messages and moods.

For your average musical genius to compose a piece like Vor Deinem Thron would require many hours and days of poring over the score, rearranging notes and voices to make it work out right. It came through Bach as a completed whole that appeared in his head, in sharp enough focus that he could dictate the score, note by note.

Here is a vocal arrangement of the same music:

Why has light been given to the world-weary?

(German text from a hymn by Martin Luther)

Warum ist Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen,

Und das Leben den betrübten Herzen? Warum?

Die des Todes warten und kommt nicht

Und grüben ihn wohl aus dem verborgenen;

Die sich fast freuen und sind fröhlich,

daß sie das Grab bekommen. Warum?

Und dem Manne des Weg verborgen ist,

Und Gott vor ihm denselben bedecket? Warum?

Lasset uns unser Herz samt den Händen aufheben zu Gott im Himmel.

Siehe, wir preisen selig, die erduldet haben.

Die Geduld Hiob habt ihr gehöret,

Und das Ende des Herrn habt ihr gesehen;

Denn der Herr ist barmherzig und ein Erbarmer!

Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin,

in Gottes willen,

getrost ist mir mein Herz und Sinn,

sanft und stille.

Wie Gott mir verheißen hat,

der Tod ist mir Schlaf worden.

Why has light been given to the weary of soul,

And life to the troubled hearts? Why?
They who wait for death, and it doesn’t come;

They who dig for it even out of secret places;

Those who almost rejoice and are happy

That they achieve the grave. Why?

And to the man whose way is hidden,

And from whom God himself has been concealed?


Let us lift up our hearts, together with our hands, to God in heaven.

Behold, we value them as blessed who have endured.

You have heard of the patience of Job,

And the Lord’s conclusion you have seen:
For the Lord is merciful and has compassion!

With peace and joy I depart

in God’s will,

My heart and mind are comforted,

calm, and quiet.
As God had promised me:

death has become my sleep.

Per Enevold und Mitglieder des NDR-Sinfonieorchesters
(North German Radio Orchestra)

Brahms and the Clarinet

Johannes Brahms, always self-conscious about his legacy, closed the book in 1890 and put the entire body of his works in order for posterity. But in 1892, he met Richard Mühlfeld and the soulful voice of his clarinet breathed new life into his creative aspiration. He came out of retirement to write two clarinet sonatas, a quintet for clarinet and strings, and a trio with piano and cello.


Encourage Fear

In the late 1970s I lived in Boston, and was privileged to count among my friends two members of the band called Bright Morning Star. They did political music proud, with barn-stomping rhythms, clever lyrics, superb musicianship and a message that was perfectly in tune with their time.

This song is a perennial but of special relevance this spring. Sung by Court Dorsey with piano by George Fulginiti-Shakar. Music is by Molly Sott, and words by Stephen Wangh.

“They pollinate the grass roots.  They bang away at the walls of indifference.  They celebrate humanity.

The six members of Bright Morning Star do a better job educating people to what’s right and what’s wrong on this crazy planet than a hundred politicians, teachers, and preachers… And they do it all with lightness, laughter, and love.”

Listen or download

Raga Piloo

This recording from 1967 is the best track on a superb album. One melodically inventive motif after another, perfectly coordinated between these two geniuses!

Accoring to Ravi’s daughter, Anoushka Shankar, it was composed by Shankar and taught, presumably to Menuhin. Here she performs a version with Patricia Kopatchinskaja 50 years later.

We get to see that one of the two is working hard, playing brilliantly what is on the page in front of her, while the other plays virtuosically without effort, and seems to enjoy her performance as from a sweet dream.