Friday, October 31, 2014

Otto Nicolai and Felix Mendelssohn – Motets and Psalms

   During romantic era religious music was not as much widespread as in earlier periods. Many composers work for church order and number of religious compositions was still very high. What has changed, was rising of the whole movement of music played in public concerts and in private ground. Religious compositions were still great part of musical culture, even if they had to share its position with growing popularity of secular music. Composers who were engaged on posts of organists or church choir directors were often obliged to write some new works. Sometimes such position was synonymous with honorary achievement, especially in 19th century when new economic relations were intertwining with old aristocratic structures. History of Felix Mendelssohn and Otto Nicolai employment in Berlin Cathedral allows seeing in a new light some episodes of music history in romantic era.
   Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was appointed in 1842 by King of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm IV to be Prussia general music director and Cathedral Choir conductor. He was not satisfied with this work and kind of music he was obliged to compose. In his opinion composing music as “integral part of worship (…) rather than merely a concert with more or less devotional aura” was difficult and didn’t give him artistic freedom. After Mendelssohn’s death his post was proposed to Otto Nicolai. This was idea of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV who was under deep impression of two Nicolai compositions Pater Noster and Festive Church Overture “Ein feste Burg is unser Got” played in Königsberg during 300 years celebration of Albertus University. In 1847 after his contract with orchestra in Vienna has end, composer was called to Berlin and appointed to the post of conductor of Royal Cathedral Choir and musical director of Royal Opera House.

Otto Nicolai and Felix Mendelssohn – Motets and Psalms (1983)

   Many romantic composers Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Otto Nicolai but also Fanny Mendelssohn, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Eduard Grell and Heinrich Dorn were pupils of Carl Friedrich Zelter, composer, conductor and teacher, master of Berlin musicians in early romantic period and friend with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His formal discipline has influenced the romantic style in various ways. Mendelssohn, Nicolai and Grell were composers associated with Protestant church. Meyerbeer and Dorn were opera composers. Heinrich Dorn (1804-1892), born in Königsberg, composed opera Die Nibelungen before Wagner thought about this theme. He was also teacher of Robert Schumann and staunch critic of Wagner’s music. Otto Nicolai (1810-1849) who was also born in Königsberg was known as opera and symphonic music composer, partly thanks to his most popular work – German opera Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, but his professional biography was connected to posts as church organist in chapel of Prussian Embassy in Rome and choir director in Berlin Cathedral.
   Religious music in romantic era was vivid part of artistic life. Church compositions and music played during services was mandatory part of culture. Choice of romantic religious works for choir recorded in March 1983 by Studiochor Essen under direction of Konrad Haenish was published by Aulos label. The colloction was limited to two masters leading the choir of Berlin Cathedral in 1840’s – Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Otto Nicolai who was placed on directors post in last year of his life. Designated as Psalmen und Motetten der Romatik program of this album has been divided into two sides. First side comprises four works by Mendelssohn: Der dreiundvierzigste Psalm op. 78 Nr. 2 “Richte mich, Gott!”, Mittenwit im Leben sind op. 23 Nr. 3, Herr, nun lasses du deinen Diener ub Frieden fahren op. 69 Nr. 1 and Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt op. 69 Nr. 2. Second side comprises three compositions by Nicolai: Der 97. Psalm “Derr Herr ist König” for mixed choir, Der 31. Psalm “Herr, auf Dich traue ich” for 8-voices mixed choir and Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe for two 4-voices mixed choirs. This recording is perfect example of romantic unaccompanied choir music and an evidence of great choral culture in first half of nineteenth century. Three and a half of the star for performance, recording and edition.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Alma Mahler-Werfel – Complete Songs

   Importance of song in societal life was an effect of many factors. Probably most important was its semantic value which was derivative of song lyrics. Most appreciated songs and song cycles were composed to cycles of poems of best romantic poets. Most of them were great poets like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander Pushkin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Heinrich Heine, Théophile Gautier, Wilhelm Müller, Adelbert von Chamisso, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph von Eichendorff, Friedrich Rückert. We can recall many other famous names of great poets. Even if some of them are forgotten or underrated like Alois Isidor Jeitteles, author of texts to Beethovens cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) or Mathilde Wesendonck who’s poems has been used by Richard Wagner in famous cycle called Wesendonck Lieder, their contribution in building romantic imagery was huge. 
   Some composers used biblical texts – like Johannes Brahms in his famous cycle of Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs) where he uses verses from Ecclesiastes, Sirah and 1st Epistle to the Corinthians. Others were writing lyrics on their own – sometimes with astonishingly good results like Gustav Mahler in his well known cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Many song cycles were composed to the collection of one poet’s works, others to choice of texts by various poets. There are many different strategies but main ideas are almost the same – all composers wish to create perfect connection of sound and meaning. One of romantic song composers was Alma Mahler-Werfel.

Alma Mahler-Werfel – Sämtliche Lieder (1986)

   When Gustav Mahler discovered musical works of his wife, he was shocked and ashamed. It was undoubtedly reason of deep frustration to remember eight years earlier he rejected her compositions without any checking. He compiled choice of five songs and published it as Fünf Lieder in 1910 in Universal Edition. Authors of these songs were Richard Dehmel, Otto Erich Hartleben, Gustav Falke, Rainer Maria Rilke and Heinrich Heine. After publication she composed more songs and in last months of his life Mahler edited next cycle Vier Lieder of two new and two older songs, this time only contemporary poets Otto Julius Bierbaum, Richard Dehmel and Gustav Falke. This cycle was published four years after Gustav Mahler’s death in 1915. On the cover was graphic by Oskar Kokoschka.
   Alma Schindler was famous of her beauty and selfconfident. After Gustav Klimt, Alexander von Zemlinsky and Gustav Mahler with whom she was married, Kokoschka was Alma’s next love. Although she was his muse this temperamental relationship has no chance. After parting with Kokoshka she composed next few songs, and one was composed to poem Der Erkennende by Franz Werfel. She was totally captivated by this poem, but at this moment she was already a month after her wedding with Walter Gropius. Two years later she begin affair with Werfel and in 1920, after divorce with Gropius, she started living with Franz Werfel, whom she married nine years later in 1929. Fünf Gesänge were published in 1924.
   Album with songs by Alma Mahler-Werfel in performance by soprano Izabel Lippitz and pianist Barbara Heller was great exposure of forgotten composer. Recorded for Classic Production Osnabruck in 1986 was complete presentation of composer’s works only for the moment. In 2000 next two songs for voice and piano were published. First was composed to Rilke’s poem, author of the second remains unknown. There are many new recordings of Alma Mahler’s songs, but in fact Lippitz-Heller rendition still sounds perfect. Songs mainly in form of through-composed lied are subtle and balanced, rhythmically are subordinated to inner rhythm of the lyrics. Modest cover is focusing our attention on the inside. Three and a half stars for perfect performance and for possibility to hear such talented composer. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Godley & Creme – Snack Attack

   The one and only artistic project known as Godley & Creme has its own history in which various and contradictive elements connected as processes were oscillating like waves. After periods of great creativity they were producing some more schematic, popular songs and later again were back to experiments mixing sounds and structures of progressive music and popular culture. The two former musicians of 10cc – soft rock super group of 1970’s – the duo of Kevin Godley and Lol Creme was from its beginning determined by some esthetic ideas and market segment. If most of rock songs have its formal extensions in jam-like improvisations, in smoother songs of art rock main narrative means were lyrics and arrangements. And main ambition of Godley & Creme duo was to look for new means of expression while many of their listeners were old 10cc fans.
   Unfortunately their most ambitious project Consequences become instant failure. Critics were negatively oriented towards musicians whom they blamed for breaking down the 10cc. Public was rather disappointed with a three record concept album with only few songs. In such situation shortly after debut they withdraw from radical ideas of their first album. In second album L Godley & Creme have showed some balanced songs in original polystylistyc arrangements. Third Godley & Creme album Freeze Frame from 1979 was even bigger success being a reference to old 10cc style. In next LP published in 1981 Ismism, Godley & Creme had run some of their L ideas again. Nine songs, with extensively discursive texts as much poetic as ironic and original sound solutions, makes Godley & Creme fourth album potential blockbuster.

Godley & Creme – Snack Attack (1982)

   And in fact this album was their greatest success, even bigger than Freeze Frame. In European charts of 1981 two singles from Ismism were relatively high, peaking in UK chart on 3rd position in September 1981 (Under your Thumb) and 7th position in November 1981 (Wedding Bells). Whole Ismism album was peaking 29th in UK album chart. Ballades and narrative songs with strong rhythmic and instrumental background were in some cases clearly in New Wave style. These songs were perfectly matching tendencies in popular music of 1981, where harsh post-punk sounds (Snack Attack, Joe’s Camel) and dance rhythms (Ready for Ralph) were often reduced to synthpop (The Problem). Sarcasm can be sparkling idea of narrative, almost short story lyrics (Lonnie) but in fact satire never bites too much and sometimes changes into touching factor (Wedding Bells). Some songs are reviving clichés of early sixties (Sale of the Century), in some this playing with tradition shows quite new sound of saxophone riffs which in next decades would be back in various contexts. Played by Bimbo Acock saxophones are on featured position in Ready for Ralph and Lonnie. Most interesting narrative piece is closing album The Party, continuing ideas tested on L album and in style of radio play, this is again a reason for appreciating Godley & Cream ideas.

Godley & Creme – Ready for Ralph (1981)

   The Ismism album was recorded at Godley & Creme’s Lymehouse Studios in Leatherhead, during two months April and May of 1980 and published more than a year later in October 1981. In UK it was released with nice concept cover where names and title were made out of holes punched through the white cardboard cover and visible through these holes contrasting colors of inner sleeve. In later editions cover was black and dots were printed rouge and white. And such clear idea was overwhelmed by one of the ugliest covers in the whole history of 12 inch vinyl records in American edition of this album. Even the title Snack Attack was horrific in its insolent simplicity. Thirty two years later it is still hard to understand who and why decided to publish this interesting record in US in such a horrible shape. Maybe it was a kind of revenge for economic liberalism, maybe a kind of distorting mirror of American dream, but whatever it was, even in early 1980’s this was just ugly, being definitely very bad front for product containing such intriguing music. Three and a half star for Ismism and whole star less for Snack Attack horrible cover.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shel Silverstein – Freakin’ At the Freakers Ball

   American continent is home for many great poets. Not only English language poets, although the language of Walt Whitman, after 20th century US supremacy is now probably most powerful of all American literary traditions. Poetic jokes and playing with the words is an old English tradition and since 19th century this is the part of poetic art associated with children books. Maybe it is because playing with form can be extremely helpful in learning, or it can be also the effect of children’s ability to use language in creative, unusual way. One of original, powerful personalities in American joking poetry was Shel Silverstein. He was poet and singer, cartoonist and screenwriter, songwriter and author of children’s books. His books were sold in 20 million copies with translations on 30 languages.
   His poetry is often based on sounded context of his own style, basing on conversational language, catching paradoxical ideas and trends of contemporary culture. In many poems and songs he used a lot of slang and controversial elements with economical form which was engaging the reader with his specific sense of humor. While he was author of some verses and comic books suitable for children, he was also published many precarious poems and songs, some may call obscene but still clear in intention and master in choice of measures. He made 16 albums of songs and was quite popular in musical market. And his most famous achievement was 1972 album Freakin’ At the Freakers Ball.

Shel Silverstein – Freakin’ At the Freakers Ball (1972)

   Shel Silverstein’s poetic and lyric style was full of ironic energy. His texts were often based on situation joke of putting the reader in an emergency position. Creating uncomfortable plight by combining elements that do not match, he forced reader to look for solution, when was almost certain he have to fail. When at last author gives his own and unexpected solution he makes reader to laugh of relief. Sometimes even lauder than he was intended to. Like in poem What Did? he is provoking to reaction with unexpected point of view when playing with rhymes, words and sound: What did the paper say to the pen? / I feel quite all ‘write,’ my friend. But when reader accepts this situation, poet raises it to the next level of grotesque: What did the teapot say to the chalk? / Nothing, you silly . . . teapots can’t talk! This is some more than just the clever method of a joke.
   And what was sometimes biting criticism, in another occasion became lyrics of original songs. The ninth Silverstein’s album Freaking at the Freaker’s Ball was legendary collection of satirical songs definitely “not for children”. Songs like Stacy Brown Got Two or Polly in a Porny in 1972 were perfect examples of crazy era of liberal America, some others like I Got Stoned and I Missed It or Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out had clearly moral context. And it was an element of social criticism in years before it was frozen by economic crisis and smashed by pandemia of AIDS. This half poetic, half derisive content was rendered as rhythm and blues, funky, popular songs with background of good party sound produced by Ron Haffkine and played by Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show. This record was not the part of creative music of any sense. It is well done project with good texts and music showing the style of the era. Two stars for music are not enough. We need to add two more for satirical content, so it deserves four stars considering satirical qualities.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Robert Schumann – Dichterliebe and Liederkreis

   Song cycle was undoubtedly the crowning artistic form in early romantic music, in the times of growing importance of bourgeoisie and in consequence the great social change of culture and music. Most popular romantic cycles of songs were composed by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz and later by Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler but there were many more composers all over the Europe and Americas. Even in late romanticism, when symphonic poem became trendy the idea of cyclic musical form based on song was alive. New cycles of songs were still created in the twentieth century but rather for public performances since there was no longer social background for societal performing practice. 
   This high artistic position of song cycle was also preserved by social practice. While in many homes of 19th century singing was common activity, wealthier part of societal life was animated by professional and semiprofessional private concerts. Romantic song was form derived both from earlier aria da capo and from the idea of a narrative ballad so significant in folk music and in romantic ideas. Based on romantic song form, song cycles were heard only during very special evenings, as requiring professional shape of singer and accompanist. Such singing performances were central event in many societal occasions.

Robert Schumann – Diechterliebe and Liederkreis op. 24 (1965)

   After his marriage with Clara Wieck, Robert Schumann has devoted almost exclusively to one type of musical works and for one year he was consecutively composing song cycles. One of very first in this Liederjahr series was Liederkreis op. 24, cycle of nine songs to poems by Heinrich Heine. During the same ‘year of songs’ Schumann composed his most famous cycles Liederkreis op. 39 (to poems by Joseph von Eichendorff), Frauenliebe und –leben op. 42 (to poems by Adelbert von Chamisso) and Dichterliebe op. 48 cycle of sixteen songs to texts taken from Lyrisches Intermezzo by Heinrich Heine. Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love) became one of most popular cycles in history of the genre. One of best recordings awarded with Orphee D’or was 1957 recording by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Jörg Demus for Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft and published with 6 Songs by Johannes Brahms (18370). This recording was reedited in 1965 with Schumann’s Liederkreis op. 24 (LPM 39 109). This way two song cycles by Heine and Schumann were bound in one album.

Robert Schumann – Die alten, bösen Lieder (1957)

   Last song of the Dichterliebe cycle (No 16) was also the last poems of Heinrich Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo (No 65). In this song called Die alten, bösen Lieder (The Old Bad Songs) poet says it’s time to bury old bad songs with angry and bitter dreams in great and heavy coffin which could contain all his love and suffering. This form of poetic imagery shows how much romantic poets were reliant of folk inspirations. Comparing to other romantic composers, Schumann gives piano more autonomous role in creating emotional narration and in construction of the composition. One of effects was two minute piano coda in last song of the cycle, where he gives an instrumental commentary to the song.
   As love was main thematic background of whole romantic culture, song merging poetry and music was perfect construction for emotional content. While many songs and musical compositions were devoted to different feelings and stories, in cycles of songs love is dominant theme. It can be brotherly love or parents’ love to children. But what makes this subject so significant from social point of view, love is an element of personal freedom or expression of rebellion against unjust societal rules. This was one of elements in cultural movement strengthened the position of new social force which has changed the history of whole human civilization.