BACH AS AN OPERA COMPOSER

 

 

Felix Mendelsohn studied with Carl Zelter, a composer who founded the Berlin Philharmonic and befriended the great Goethe.  Goethe shared Zelter’s enthusiasm for Johann Sebastian Bach.  The poet likened Bach’s contrapuntal melodies to the thoughts of the Creator on the verge of materializing our universe.

Zelter had studied with a student of Bach, and considered it his duty to keep the flame of the Master’s music alive during the period when his work was vastly underappreciated.  For during that long time from the Master’s death in 1750, lasting nearly seventy-eight years, he was widely considered merely a provincial choirmaster who had been an organ virtuoso.

The young Mendelsohn asked Zelter if he could see the score of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion.  Zelter countered that his student was not ready to see the Master’s work.  Finally, after a year of further study, Zelter told him, “You are ready now.”

With this, the old composer showed Mendelsohn the great score.  His student eagerly read through the manuscript, and arranged to do a concert of it.  Through Mendelsohn’s 1828 concert of the St. Matthew’s Passion, Bach emerged as one of the greatest composers, a position that subsequent time has only strengthened.

In my last years of high school, I studied piano with an old woman who had long been a professor at Syracuse University’s school of music.  This woman, Alice McNaught, had never married, but rather devoted her life to music.

She was rich with stories.  She had seen both Paderewski and the great Rachmaninoff in concert.  Paderewski made mistakes, but this was, she said, only to show that he was human.  Paderewski, who had served as Poland’s premier a short time after World War I, was far and above her favorite pianist.

As Zelter had studied with a student of Bach, Miss McNaught had studied with a student of Johannes Brahms.  Over her upright she kept a sketch of a heavyset bearded Brahms playing the piano

But Bach was her favorite composer.  This seemed strange to me at the time.  I knew Bach principally through the cold logical exercises of the inventions.  I much preferred the power and passion of Beethoven.

It has only been with the passage of years, even decades, that I have come to agree with my late teacher.  Perhaps Mozart was as versatile, but Bach is the most profound of composers.  He is the most rigorous in his exploration of counterpoint.  It seems that the inventions and the Well Tempered Clavier were not enough for his intellectual curiosity.  At the time of his death, he was working on the massive Art of the Fugue.

It is a testament to Mozart and Beethoven’s intellects that they both possessed a strong appreciation for Bach during the period of neglect.  Mozart studied in London with one of Bach’s sons.  Beethoven found solace after a period of drunkenness and depression by studying the works of Bach and Handel.  From these studies he emerged with his final masterpieces: the Ninth Symphony, Missa Solemnis, Hammerklavier Sonatan and his extremely experimental string quartets.

Mozart and Beethoven both nodded to Bach by building the fugue into their sonatas.  The intricate forms of counterpoint appear like an ancient cellar beneath a modern edifice.

Bach’s contributions to instrumental music were immense.  As a virtuoso on the organ and harpsichord, he created a vigorous keyboard style that has taught and inspired all subsequent pianists.  The only organist of his time to approach him in skill was George Frederick Handel.

Bach directly contributed to the piano’s development.  He served as consultant to Silbermann, a German piano maker, from the 1720’s through the 1740’s.  In 1746, Bach dazzled Frederick the Great by improvising impressively on the many pianos located throughout the Emperor’s palace.

Bach’s contributions to instrumental music have extended far beyond keyboards.  A violinist friend of mine has marveled at the partitas composed for violin.  Like the other great composers of the eighteenth century, Bach was a violinist as well as keyboardist.  According to one of his sons, he played the violin with considerable clarity and power.

Bach’s musical greatness extended to vocal music.   As strange as may seem from someone so obsessed with counterpoint, Bach paid particularly close attention to the texts he set.  His object was to fully realize the implications of these texts through the added dimension of music.  In this he is matched only by Monteverdi.

Only those who have studied Bach closely have realized how versatile the Master actually was.  His interests extended far beyond music.  He was as erudite in Lutheran theology as Wagner was in philosophy, which is to say something considerable.

Like many great composers, Bach also had a considerable interest in literature.  He wrote poetry occasionally, and we have from him a poem about pipe smoking.

It has been said that the only musical field not touched by Bach was opera.  But our inquiry need not stop there.  It is true he never composed for an opera house, but may have played in the Hamburg Opera orchestra as a young musician in 1705.  Regardless of how he learned, Bach shows considerable knowledge of this Italian form of theatre.

His passions and cantatas are dramatic works.  As Bach showed considerable sensitivity to text, he also showed sensitivity to character and dramatic situation.  His dramatic works possess a suppleness and flexibility that far outdistances the dramatic abilities of Handel, who actually wrote operas.

In recent years, a number of Bach’s passions and cantatas have been staged by the percipient director Peter Sellars.  His St. Matthew’s Passion has been presented as a religious pageant and ritual, and has worked well as such.  As a religious play, it has strong ties to the medieval mystery plays.  And the Coffee Cantata, a tale of a burgher who is frustrated by his daughter’s coffee drinking, is a comic opera with ties to the plays of Moliere and Goldoni.

An added richness is these works is provided by Bach’s mastery of instrumental music.  Unlike so many other dramatic composers, Bach creates string and woodwind parts as fully realized as the vocal.  In this he anticipates both Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the operas of Wagner.

Some critics have argued that Bach is not an opera composer in that his passions contain narrative passages from the evangelists and choral reflections based on Lutheran chorales.  Yet Greek tragedies and Brecht plays also have epic and lyric layers that do nothing to detract from the dramatic scenes or their overall theatrical impact.  The combination of such elements make these compositions all the more compelling and profound.

My hope is that other directors will follow Sellars’ lead in staging Bach’s cantatas and passions.  The old choirmaster has emerged as one of our greatest opera composers.

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TO A.K.L.

You are the alchemist of my life,

changing all trips, all meals, all plans,

transforming what would be quite lonely hours

to ones of glad companionship.

Even one so quiet

can stir the sun rays.

 

 

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THE HUDSON VALLEY

When the hotels of Manhattan become too expensive a few years back, my wife and I started staying in New Jersey.  The Garden State had its virtues, but the trek between North Bergen and Manhattan was a challenge.

We then switched our overnight location to Tarrytown, located in Westchester County along the North Metro line.  I was familiar with Westchester because my grandparents had lived there in the last three decades of their lives.

My grandfather had been given a position managing the Hudson Valley section of a company.  So my grandparents relocated from the family center in Brooklyn up to Westchester.  To relatives remaining on Long Island, this seemed a huge move.  So when my mother started attending Syracuse University three years later, the change was little noted.  She’d already moved to the Far North.

We who live in the Empire State have an interesting sense of geography.  To many people in the central region, anything south of Albany is New York City.  But to those in the City or on the Island, anything north of the Bronx is Upstate.

In reality, New York is composed of several regions: western New York, central New York, the Adirondacks, the Capitol Region, the Hudson Valley, New York City and Long Island.  The Hudson Valley, following the Hudson River from Albany down to New York City, is one of the most attractive.  On the west side of this river are the Catskill Mountains, made famous by Washington Irving in his story “Rip Van Winkle”.

New York City is approximately two hundred seventy eight miles from my home in Syracuse.  Until a few years ago, the fastest route to Manhattan, after the stretch of Route 81 to Binghamton, was through Pennsylvania and then New Jersey.  That’s no longer necessary.

Route 17 has been expanded and made an expressway.  In Rockland County, 17 runs directly into Route 87, the lower Thruway, which quickly goes across the Tappan Zee Bridge into Westchester.

Back in the Catskills, Route 17 runs past a number of streams with Dutch names, signs of the early settlers.  These streams are famous for their fly fishing, and the area even features a fly fishing museum.

Route 17 has some of the problems of a road that was, for a long time, little travelled.  It has relatively few hotels or restaurants.  For a long span, from Hancock, just south of Binghamton, through Middleton, in Orange County, there are no real stopping places.  I suspect this situation will change over the next decade.

It’s often hard to see the past in New York City, as it’s so brimming with the present.  But the past is everywhere: in buildings going back as far as the 1700’s, and in the old Algonquin trail known as Broadway.

Yet in the relative quiet of the Hudson Valley, you are perhaps better able to see the past.  Near Tarrytown is Sunnyside, home of Washington Irving.  In the graveyard of nearby Sleepy Hollow, made famous by Irving’s tale of the Headless Horseman, are the graves of Dutch settlers from the 1700’s.  Many are so old and worn that it’s all but impossible to read their inscriptions.

A number of the house tours in the Westchester area are run by the Rockefeller foundation, which means that guests are raced through the areas, with little time to look around.  When we went to the house of John Jay, first U.S. Chief Justice, a couple of years back, we were given much time, although the main house was, at the time, closed for renovation.

Lower Westchester County has been absorbed into the New York metropolitan area.  White Plains, which now hosts a number of corporate headquarters, is no longer the small town it was when my mother lived there.

But when you get to upper Westchester, in the vicinity of Jay’s home, everything becomes rural.  These are the advantages of staying in Westchester.  It’s quiet, and you can have time to relax after a day in the City.

But all the while you are breathing the quieter atmosphere of Upstate, you are also aware of its closeness to the most exciting city in the world.

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VANGUARD

I’ve been listening to an oral history of the U.S. Supreme Court.  One section deals with Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, two of the most distinguished justices in the Court’s history.  Holmes was known as “The Great Dissenter”.

It seems that during the early decades of the twentieth century, Holmes and Brandeis were voices crying in the wilderness.  Often they dissented together from the Court’s majority opinions.

Yet their perceptive views eventually became the law of the land, particularly in such matters as free speech.  The later Court considerably altered its positions.

In 1882, Henrik Ibsen wrote a play called An Enemy of the People.  The play’s protagonist, Dr. Stockmann, argues that truths are accepted only by the few.  Once they are accepted by most people in a society, they are no longer true.

This position is not quite accurate.  I would hold that truths remain as such.  Yet their relevance fades.  Those who advance emerging truths meet with considerable resistance while the majority recognizes only long-established ones.

Near the end of his life, Beethoven composed his Grosse Fugue for string quartet.  This piece, with its finely-wrought dissonances, seems more the work of a Stravinsky or Bartok than a composer of classical period.  Yet Beethoven wisely said, “This work is not for now.  It is for the future.”

Beethoven’s words indicate that there would be a future in which his work would be grasped.  The many people who cling to threadbare platitudes are able to be educated, and it is the duty of the vanguard to educate them.

As a civilization, we need to regain our forward momentum.

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HOTEL RITUALS

Over the centuries, hotels have gone by many names.  In ancient times, when people parked their horses at nearby stables, they were known as inns.  Inns probably weren’t the most attractive places, although travelers, no doubt, glad to have places to eat.

Then, in the 1800’s, came the large city hotels.  The personnel at such hotels tried to make guests as comfortable as possible.  Often the hotels featured fancy restaurants.  And to attract visitors, hotels also provided such accommodations as room service and bellboys.

But many people traveled far from the cities.  In the early 1900’s, farmers began to profit from designating certain acres as parking spaces.  These spaces became known as Auto Camps.  Travelers at the Auto Camps would either sleep in their cars or in tents attached to their cars.

By the 1920’s, a number of auto camps featured individual cabins, running water and showers.  People who still liked to rough it turned later to the trailers that became available in the 1930’s.

By the late 1930’s, cabins in the auto camps were lined in rows, and called motor courts.  After World War II, when the trend went to motorists parking outside a single long building featuring individual rooms, the motor court became the modern motel.

It was the motel that I grew up with.  The first one I stayed in was the Ardsley Acres Motel, located in Ardsley on the Hudson.  It was the first of many trips I took with my family to visit my maternal grandparents in Westchester County.  The motel was small, but so were most motels of that era.

Most motels were used by travelers who lacked either the space or inclination to stay with their relatives.  I also grew used to motels through business and, not often enough, vacations.

Early in the 90’s, I took the NY bar exam.  I stayed at a motel in Amherst, outside of Buffalo.  Taking the bar is not a particularly pleasant experience, and my motel stay wasn’t a happy time.  The one advantage I had during my few days there was that an Elvis film festival was being held on a local TV station.  So when I wasn’t at the university taking my exam, I was in my motel room watching Elvis movies.

Motels bragged of two features: they provided a space where motorists could park their cars right outside their rooms, and they were cheap.  Being cheap, they had few frills.  The motels at that time lacked porters, expensive restaurants or interesting lobbies.  What they did feature were color TVs and swimming pools.  When I wasn’t visiting with family, I spent a lot of time in swimming pools.

Those of us who grew up with motels became used to no-frills ways of travelling.  Once, in the 90’s, when I took a trip to New York with a friend, my friend had a fit when a porter took his bag, and started taking it up to his room.

Around that time, I began making regular trips to the city.  I stayed usually in the Edison, Pennsylvania or Herald Square.  It was around that time that I developed the habit of sitting on the bed, and turning on the TV as soon as I got into the room.

Over the past two decades, motels have grown considerably in size.  They are also multi-storied and centralized around their lobbies.  The lobby areas now feature such attractions as bar lounges, restaurants, gyms, indoor pools and internet cafes.  In essence, they have morphed back into hotels, albeit modern hotels with quite different features than the ones provided in my grandparents’ day.

In that time, I’ve stopped staying in Manhattan hotels.  Prices had become too prohibitive.  So my wife and I stay outside the city, and take the train in, an arrangement that makes for longer days.

I even stayed recently at the Ardsley Acres Motel, as I had business in Manhattan.  Ardsey Acres was little changed from the motel of my childhood.  At nine o’clock at night, I arrived at the motel office to check in, and the young woman behind the desk listened as I recounted how I had stayed there at the age of four.

When I go to a hotel or motel, I still turn on the flatscreen TV as soon as I enter my room.  It’s interesting to watch not only the worldwide networks but also the local stations.  I also still, when I have, time, take advantage of the pools.

Then there is the continental breakfast, a feature used by hotels to entice potential guests.  The continental breakfast is most often a bonus, as it saves money and offers a variety of breakfast foods.

It can, of course, be busy.  Often the hotels will host scholastic sports teams that are travelling on competition.  And I, in an attempt to make waffles, can find myself in line behind twenty soccer players.

But most hotel experiences are good ones.  Whether we’re away for pleasure or business, the hotel allows us the opportunity to finally relax.

 

 

 

 

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SPIDER-MAN UPSTATE

In Spider-Man: Homecoming, the newest addition to the wall climber’s adventures, some changes of minimal significance have been mad.  His boss Iron-Man moves his headquarters from the center of Manhattan to “upstate,” so that his new building looks like so many other corporate headquarters in Westchester.

No longer content with matronly aunts for Peter Parker, the filmmakers have switched to a sexy aunt played by Marisa Tomei.  Now the non-related male characters pay more attention to Peter’s aunt than they do to superheroes.

Much, of course, remains the same.  The new Spidey, played by Tom Holland, is as boyish as Toby Maguire or Andrew Garfield.  In this initial presentation, Peter is only a sophomore in high school, and obviously has much to learn.  His super powers are new, and he is still a geek doing well in school but shy around girls.

So many Hollywood films have too many writers following too many plot lines, and end up messes.  Marvel fares better in Spider-Man and most of its other features.

Interestingly enough, the web swinger is given two potential mentors.  One is Iron Man, played with usual brilliance by Robert Downey, Jr., who guides Spidey along the trials toward the mature and wise exercise of his super powers.

But the Spider lad’s other potential mentor is no less interesting.  He is, in fact, Spidey’s arch-nemesis Vulture, who is engaged in the business of illegally using and selling weapons made from alien materials.  As played by Michael Keaton, Vulture has a mixture of menace and almost paternal interest toward the young super hero that makes their relationship both complex and layered.

If these mentor-protégé relationships do not fully develop as expected in the film, so do many potential relationships fail to develop in real life.  Which leaves me on to the final subject: Spidey’s love life.  This does not turn out well, at least in the new film.  The girl Peter Parker likes presents special problems through her family.

But all is not perhaps lost.  There is one brainy, geeky, grungy girl, played by Disney star Zendaya, who seems to be modelled after Ally Sheedy’s character in Breakfast Club.  This marginal Brainiac, who seems to be genuinely interested in Peter despite all her insults, goes by the name of Michelle.  But in one scene, she says, “My friends call me M.J.”

This has caused considerable excitement and speculation among Marvel fans.  Is this quirky individual none other than Mary Jane, Spider-Man’s main love interest?  Perhaps the sequel will tell us.

With regard to the movie’s ending, Marvel fanatics have come to expect a short scene after the final credits have been given.  On this I say nothing.

 

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ON IMMIGRATION

I’d like to say to say just a few words on the hot button topic of immigration.  It seems that more than enough has already been said on this issue, but immigration is essential to the American experience.  And the current realities of immigration are different than how it’s presented on either side.

Prior to 9/11, immigration was handled by the U.S. Department of the Interior in conjunction with the Department of Justice.  Since 9/11 it’s been handled by Homeland Security, and as with so much else from Homeland Security, what we have is a broken bureaucracy.  Homeland Security can’t give us a coherent or effective security policy.  Nor can it process the many people applying for immigration status.

The people we call Illegal Immigrants are actually Undocumented Immigrants.  Many of them fill out the necessary applications when they come to this country.  But then the government takes away their initial status, and they wait in a limbo for the government to make further decisions.

Probably the most controversial people entering the U.S. now are Latinos and Moslems.  Latinos shouldn’t be so controversial.  They’ve been entering these territories since the times predating the U.S. government.  Many of our southern states were originally Spanish or Mexican provinces.  We need only to look at the Mexican vaqueros, our first cowboys, to realize how long Latinos have been a key presence in our country.

Moslems are probably more controversial.  We hear that many of them are terrorists, and that a Moslem can’t be president or serve on the Supreme Court because a person bound by Sharia law can’t follow the constitution.

All of this sounds eerily similar to things said of the three groups I was born into: the Irish, the Italians and Roman Catholics.  We hear that the Irish are rowdy drunks.  Many people still believe that most Italian-Americans are in the Mob.  And it’s been frequently said that a Catholic president would have direct phone loan in the White House in use for receiving directions from the Pope.

While I’ve heard these comments all my life, I paid far less attention to them as a child.  I grew up in the suburbs.  Many of my friends were Protestants of northern European extraction.  My two paternal grandparents were from Italy.  Three of my maternal great grandparents were born in Ireland.  But I considered myself fully American.

I didn’t know till later that my father, as a child divided people into two groups: the Italiani and the Americani, with himself among the Italiani.  This was because my father chose to speak English all the time, and the fully participate in American society.  His sister remained all her life in Oneida’s Italian-American community, but my father went outside Oneida to serve in the military, attend college and law school, and later become a prosecutor.

So the process repeats itself.  The nation is enriched by the diversity of its immigrants.  But the children and grandchildren of those immigrants will become full homogenized as Americans, and the nation will need new immigrants.

The U.S. must secure its borders.  Not with a wall by Mexico, yet secured nonetheless.

But let’s have a sense of humility.  A number a years ago, I took a trip to New York City with a friend.  Late on a Sunday night, we went to the Empire State Building.  After waiting in the lobby, we took an elevator to the lookout deck a hundred-plus floors up.

Looking out, I could see the rivers surrounding the island of Manhattan.  People from distant countries were there, and as I saw of New Jersey and Brooklyn, I could hear German, French, Italian and Chinese.

I was reminded of the ancient Tower of Babel, where many languages were also heard.  In the great cities of the past, cultures from distant places had also converged.  What we experience is not new.  We are having our time in sun as Babylon, Alexandria and Rome had theirs.

With protecting our security, we must always remember our place in history.  We must lealways keep in mind that our time here is short, and that whether or not we were born here, we are always, in some aspect, immigrants passing through a strange land.

Thank you.

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