MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Serving up the music of memes

Concluding the Sibelius Festival in Seattle


With the strings leaning in to one of the most powerfully orchestrated C major chords of the 20th century, the Seattle Symphony’s ambitious Luminous Landscapes Sibelius Festival has reached its conclusion. (There’s also a curious Nachtisch to this week’s final program: after the orchestra players cleared the stage on Thursday, we were treated to a mini-recital of nine Sibelius lieder, with soprano/pianists Maria Männistö and Christina Siemens alternating roles.)

For fellow music lovers (and Sibelius completists) who’d been present for all three programs this past month, there was an added sense of satisfying closure that was maybe, just maybe, a bit reminiscent of being with a Ring audience at Seattle Opera as the final chord of Götterdämmerung fades out.

My review of the third and final program in the SSO’s complete cycle of the Sibelius symphonies will be published this week in Musical America.

On Sunday you can listen to the entire marathon via the KING FM Seattle Symphony Channel, KING FM 98.1’s new collaborative project with the SSO. On March 29 the marathon starts at 12:01 a.m. with a looping 24-hour stream of the seven symphonies, the Violin Concerto (with soloist Pekka Kuusisto), and Finlandia — all with Thomas Dausgaard conducting, recorded live from the past month’s performances.

My previous coverage of the Sibelius Festival:

review of Sibelius Program I for Bachtrack

review of Sibelius Program II for Musical America

–review of Sibelius Festival Program III for Musical America (soon to be published)

And a glance at San Francisco Symphony’s recent “Creation” program, which included the composer’s fascinating, brief tone poem Luonnotar.

We’re still early in this 150th anniversary year honoring Sibelius. The birthday itself falls in December — which somehow seems just right for a composer so associated with Northern landscapes. Many orchestras have therefore planned Sibelius-related programs for the coming season as well. But the Seattle Symphony is the only U.S. orchestra to have performed an entire Sibelius symphony cycle back-to-back to mark the anniversary. It’s been a genuinely laudable artistic milestone for the ensemble.

Filed under: programming, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius

Bon Anniversaire à Pierre Boulez

There’s a lot more reflection on Pierre Boulez to come this year — including an entire day that Switzerland’s Lucerne Festival is devoting to his work on 23 August — but today marks the official 90th birthday of the French master.

Here’s a roundup of some recent commentary on Boulez and his inarguable impact on musical life in our time:

Ultimately I think Boulez is a great optimist, despite the shadows that coloured his early years. In the end what he believes is simple: today’s music has to be different from the music of the past.

That’s a natural thing. Western music continues to evolve and transform and change. And those that don’t agree, well … they’re wrong!

George Benjamin in The Guardian

America can’t be discovered out of nothing. In Boulez’s music you immediately hear everything that he has come into contact with – and that is an enormous amount. Even Bach.

Daniel Barenboim

The tie between heart and brain characterizes Boulez’s music. “I claim the right for music to have many levels of perception,” he told DW in 2003. “Works […] that take time to solve are the works that remain in your memory for a long time.”

Deutsche Welle

For those who carp about Boulez’s conducting activities allegedly having taken his attention away from composition – they generally seem not to like his music very much, so it is not immediately clear why they should care – the Notations should stand as a rebuke. Boulez himself has owned that he would have been unable to compose the pieces without the experience of conducting Wagner and Mahler. With every listening, that claim becomes more and more unarguable. The virtuosity in orchestral writing is staggering, in its way as much so as that of Ravel, or indeed Mahler.

Mark Berry (aka Boulezian) reviewing the BBC’s “Total Immersion Day”

Boulez’s style is explosive. He detonates a germ of an idea and, like a seed, it grows a sonic forest. The common fallacy is that pieces as highly and intricately structured as these require technical understanding. But you don’t need to be a botanist to be stirred by a field of wild flowers.

Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times

My development really went backwards through time. I got to know Berg, I got to know Webern, I got to know Schönberg … and then I got to know Mahler. It was totally reversed – because there was no tradition whatsoever.

Pierre Boulez at UE’s Musik Salon

See Amanda Angel’s list of Boulez’s Top Five Transformations at WQXR.

france musique has a podcast and other material on Boulez currently available.

Also make sure to check out the content-rich Boulez-90 site at Universal Edition.

Filed under: anniversary, new music, Pierre Boulez

Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Festival: Part II

Pekka Kuusisto; photo (c) Kaapo Kamu

Pekka Kuusisto; photo (c) Kaapo Kamu

My review of the second program of the Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Festival has now been posted on Musical America. MA is a subscriber site, so I’m limited to posting the link here:

The Seattle Symphony has been on a winning streak of synchronicity when it comes to favorably timed good news. Last year [Musical America Composer of the Year] John Luther Adams’s…

continue reading (The full review appears behind Musical America‘s subscriber paywall.)

Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius

Where the Weeping Willows Wave

Wonderful program over the weekend from Pacific MusicWorks: “An American Tune,” which was aimed at recapturing the sound of vernacular American music — through songs and instrumental pieces — from the nineteenth century.

The program was beautifully curated and beautifully, at times movingly, executed. For this occasion Stephen Stubbs exchanged his lute for a couple guitars. The recent Grammy Award-winner and artistic director of PMW conceived the program for a chamber-size group of colleagues. Stubbs was joined by Tom Berghan on banjo (Berghan was a lute duet partner from Stubbs’ early days in Seattle), mandolinist John Reischman of the Jaybirds, violinists Tekla Cunningham and Brandon Vance, and soprano Catherine (Cassie) Webster.

As a model, Stubbs decided to apply the ideas and practical skills of the “historically informed performance practice” movement, to which he’s devoted his career, to the wealth of musical traditions that were hybridized and became popular in America of the nineteenth century: the American of the expanding frontier, of the Civil War, of the parlor and the fairground.

Stubbs remarks that the skills of the early music movement evolved “to cope with filling in the blanks where notational records were incomplete and the aural traditions broken or hopelessly confused” — ergo, he realized, these skills “were the very ones that had a chance of penetrating the original spirit and sound of the vast panorama of ‘lost’ American music.”

And vast it is. For this program, instead of looking to European institutional models like the orchestra or other fixed ensembles — which many “classical” American music programs attempt to do — the idea was to focus on the following areas: the popular song model established by Stephen Foster, a gathering of songs associated with the Lincoln years, music of the frontier from the era of westward expansion, and American folk song in the specific form of the murder ballad subgenre. These sets were interspersed with instrumental numbers exemplifying the American folk fiddling tradition characteristic of Appalachia.

Stubbs et al. performed to a capacity audience in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya (while the second program of the Sibelius Festival, acoustically secure and sealed off, was at the same time booming under Thomas Dausgaard’s baton in the big hall below). In place of the sentimental tinge of nostalgia that a familiar tune like “My Old Kentucky Home” usually evokes, it was intriguing to hear this in the context of lesser-known vocals and instrumentals. Webster’s soulful phrasing and timbre made it easy to fill out a throughline connecting singing styles of the era and popular idioms today. The quintet of plucked and bowed strings added a wealth of colors and expressive nuances.

Notoriously, Foster also wrote for black-face minstrel shows, represented here by the songs “Nelly Bly” and “Angelina Baker.” “This … unsettling phenomenon,” notes Stubbs “…was too pervasive to ignore. To take only the positive side into account, it was a vehicle for the influence of African music, dance, and instruments (particularly the banjo) to put down widespread and permanent roots in our musical culture.”

Richard Millburn’s “Listen to the Mockingbird,” we learned, was held in high regard by Lincoln. It’s a wistful song of a beloved who has died young: the mockingbird sings over her grave, is “still singing where the weeping willows wave.” The synergy between the ensemble and Webster reached fever pitch in the lengthy cowboy song “The Buffalo Skinners.” They also gave a haunting account of the murder ballad “Two Sisters/The Wind and the Rain” (a tune which left its mark on Bob Dylan’s “Percy’s Song”).

In preparing the four-part setting for violins and guitar of the Mormon hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” “with the banjo taking an ornamental approach to the melody,” Stubbs writes that they experienced an “aha moment”:

The connection to the early seventeenth century sound of the English “broken consort” was immediate and unmistakable. In the earlier context, plucked and bowed strings provide the harmonic framework while the solo lute decorates the melody — this is the earliest form of specifically orchestrated music in the European tradition, and here it is again in a hymn from Utah!

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, early music, review, Stephen Stubbs

Verdi’s Ernani at the Met

The Met’s production of Ernani is back on the boards. Here’s my essay for the Met’s program:

With Ernani, the fifth of his 28 operas, Verdi was able to exercise a degree
of control over the creative process that had been unprecedented
thus far in his career. Not only did he enjoy one of the key successes of
his early years as a result, but the experience also helped clarify his sense of the
untapped potential for a powerful new style of music drama hidden behind the
conventions of Italian opera.

continue reading (p. 39 of pdf)

Filed under: essay, Metropolitan Opera, Verdi

Master Johann Sebastian

No words, just the music:

Filed under: Bach

Homage to Richter

On his centenary:

And check out Steve Wigler’s lovely appreciation of “the greatest pianist I ever heard.”

Filed under: anniversary, pianists

Three Sisters


Filed under: photography

Latin: Quo Vadis, Quo Vasisti?


The history of Latin as a world language, in Jürgen Leonhardt’s excellent account, involves a surprisingly diverse range of topics — many of which have an ongoing relevance that extends far beyond the use of Latin for educational purposes: the effects of globalization (ancient and contemporary) on the development of a language, the “diglossia” of literary and spoken languages, the interplay of emerging European nationalism with the status of Latin (not as linear as you might expect), the unexpected twists and turns of canon formation — and dissolution (likewise not a simple linear development). And, ultimately, the issue of cultural extinction and the inaccessibility of a vast fund of accumulated knowledge.

Indeed, the book is replete with information that seems even counterintuitive. The entire corpus of extant ancient Latin literature from the Roman period, for example, comprises “less than 0.01% of all extant Latin texts.” This is because Latin continued to be used for all manner of documents by, for example, cities and other seats of government. (In Hungary Latin was the language used for administration until the mid-nineteenth century.) Leonhardt estimates that, contrary to the widespread notion that scholars have only a limited field of Latin letters to keep combing over, “90% of all Latin texts are either completely unknown or known only by their title,” while “99% of all texts are unavailable in modern editions and 99.9% of these texts have never been translated.”

Leonhardt’s Latin: Story of a World Language includes an especially useful investigation of Latin’s fate in the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the first twinklings of the Renaissance. This topic, too, yields fascinating insights into the cultural history of the Middle Ages and contains important correctives to the Renaissance-centric narrative that tends to get repeated.


I was delighted to find a spotlight given to J.S. Bach. Leonhardt uses the example of his being hired for the position of cantor in Leipzig as an emblematic story of the quickly changing status of Latin in German-speaking lands during this period. He details the role competence in Latin played in the city council’s interview process when they had to decide which candidate to hire in 1723. “In 1700, Germany was the most Latin of all central European countries; by 1850, active use of Latin had been pushed aside,” writes Leonhardt.

Johann Heinrich Ernesti (1652-1729), the rector of the Thomasschule in Leipzig, “was completely a man of the scholarly Latin culture of the seventeenth century” — an exemplar of the kind of Latinity that was rapidly being swept aside. A distant relative, the philologist Johann August Ernesti (1707-1781), would later become rector. The second Ernesti was an educational reformist; though a staunch champion of the Latin classics, he was “of the opinion that Latin no longer had a role to play in everyday life and that it was better to write good German than bad Latin.” In 1736 Bach would have a notorious clash with Ernesti, who is usually portrayed as disparaging music.

Back to 1723: the duties of the position Bach was applying for included teaching Latin for four hours per week, just as his cantor predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, had done. Although he had not attended university, Bach actually had excellent Latin credentials (he even had to pass an oral exam in Latin on the tenets of Lutheranism). Still, they weren’t enough to satisfy what the Leipzig city councillors were looking for: “According to the extant documents,” Leonhardt remarks, “the deliberations about whether to appoint [Bach] cantor revolved around precisely this question.”

The offer went to Georg Philipp Telemann, who rejected it, as did Christoph Graupner; both composers were well-skilled in Latin. Eventually the council unanimously approved the vote for Bach, allowing him to hire another individual to take over the Latin classes so he could spend more time with his music. (Bach had to pay him out of his own salary: about 8%.)

“By hiring Bach in 1723,” concludes Leonhardt, “the Leipzig city council essentially set a precedent… In many areas, Latin was no longer indispensable; thus music and Latin were no longer as ‘linked’ as Telemann had believed in 1718. Even taking into account the personal nature of the dispute between Bach and [Johann August] Ernesti, it also signaled that an era had come to an end.”

Leonhardt offers intriguing observations about the shifting fortunes of Latin amid developments in nineteenth-century Germany. One has to do with the conflicting philhellenism that so marked the German neohumanists. (Think Friedrich Hölderlin or Eliza Marian Butler’s controversial 1935 book The Tyranny of Greece Over Germany.) “The proponents of neohumanism…tended to view Greek as the ‘original’ and the Latin culture of the Romans as a mere copy,” writes Leonhardt. “As a result, they accorded Greek art, language, and literature pride of place.”

4 T UMAX     PL-II            V1.5 [4]

The enthusiasm for the scientific study of languages, he argues, led to the new concept of Latin’s very “nonutility” in the modern world as a positive value: “Humboldt believed that, because Latin and Greek were fully developed and their evolution complete, they were especially well-suited to contribute to the elevation of the human spirit by affording us insight into the nature of language.”

Incidentally, Leonhardt makes a point that undermines the commonplace objection today to bringing Latin back into the schools (that this would merely mark the return of “privilege” and “tradition”): “This turn toward historical languages around 1800 should not be mistaken for traditionalism… It represented a modern, questioning type of history, well before historicism became the driving force in historical thought during the first third of the nineteenth century.”

The familiar argument of another kind of utility — more abstract benefits in language skills and in logical thinking — emerged in this context as well. The impetus of historicism and the enhanced status of natural science led to a new focus on syntax and codification of abstract grammatical models.”Our image of Latin as a logical language that sharpens thinking reflects precisely the analytical perspectives that went into writing these grammars.”

Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt

Another impact on music history: “This was also when systematic harmonics was developed in music, first in the form of ‘terraced harmony,’ later the ‘functional harmony’ of Hugo Riemann (which introduced the terms tonic, dominant, and subdominant). Significantly, Riemann’s most important publication was titled Musikalische Syntax (1877). Mozart and Schumann managed quite well without it.”

In his concluding chapter, Leonhardt suggests that Latin today has arrived at “a watershed moment” that “may be comparable to that reached around 1800.” And Latin is only one piece of a much vaster cultural outlook that is in serious decline owing to three factors, in Leonhardt’s analysis: the demise of historicism (“as things stand now, we are not far removed from the premodern era up to 1800, when no attention was paid to any of the historical languages”); the devaluing of the “literary and artistic canon of the educated middle classes” in general education; and the demotion in status of philology and historical linguistics.

Drawing an analogy to early music and the flourishing of the historically informed performance practice movement, Leonhardt ends with some speculations about a potentially positive future development in our relation to Latin: “The extreme theoretical approach to Latin and mathematics, which reached a high point in the nineteenth century, is slowly giving way to a rediscovery of Latin as a real language.”

Here’s a Latin poem written to commemorate the 4th of July, which Leonhardt cites as an example of the valued status of reading and writing Latin (including verse) in the early years of the American Republic. This is by one Samuel Wilson, from c. 1800 (modeled on Horace’s Carmen saeculare):

En superbis regibus et fugata
cara Libertas oriente ab ora
advenit exul, simul inferensque
Palladis artis.

Sacra nunc Phoebo melicisque Musis
templa fundantur: nucibus relictis
imbibunt haustus dociles alumni ex
fonte perenni.

Floreas longum, America o beata,
libera et felix vigeas in aevum
filii juncti et maeant Columbi

(c) 2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Bach, books, languages, music history

Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Festival: Part I

Thomas Dausgaard; (c) Morten Abrahamsen

Thomas Dausgaard; (c) Morten Abrahamsen

My latest review is now posted on Bachtrack:

Only a few orchestras around the world have programmed a complete cycle of Sibelius symphonies this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The Berlin Philharmonic just completed its traversal under Sir Simon Rattle last month (in Berlin and London), and the Seattle Symphony – the only orchestra in the U.S. to undertake all seven symphonies in back-to-back programming for the jubilee year – embarked on its Sibelian marathon Thursday evening.

continue reading

Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony, Sibelius

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 133 other followers