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Archive for February, 2013

Van Cliburn and Barack Obama, 2010
Van Cliburn and President Obama in 2010
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

News reports today (27 February 2013) say that pianist Van Cliburn has died at his Fort Worth home. He had been suffering from bone cancer.

In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, his performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1 and the Rachmaninoff Third prompting an eight-minute standing ovation. The judges, fearful of reprisal, had to ask Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev for clearance to award First Prize to an American. Khrushchev reportedly responded, "Is he the best? Then give him the prize." On Cliburn’s return, New York greeted him with a ticker tape parade – an honor never since accorded any other classical musician.

Cliburn recorded the Tchaikovsky concerto for RCA that same year. The disc won the 1958 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance and became the first classical recording to sell more than one million copies. As far as I can tell, the recording has never been out of print.

In 1978, after the deaths of his father and his manager, Cliburn largely stopped performing in public and on recordings. His few appearances from that year included a White House performance in 1987 – in fact, Van Cliburn played for every US president from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. Cliburn returned to the concert stage in 1994 with a 16-stop tour. In August of last year, his publicist announced that he had been diagnosed with advanced bone cancer and was undergoing treatment.

Cliburn’s legacy will survive not only in his many recordings, but in the Van Cliburn Foundation and the competition which bears his name, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Further reading:

Van Cliburn at Wikipedia

Van Cliburn Discography at AllMusic

Van Cliburn Foundation

The Texan Who Conquered RussiaTime cover, 19 May 1958

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Wolfgang Sawallisch
Wolfgang Sawallisch

Conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch died on Friday (22 February) at his home in Grassau, Germany. He was 89.

Wolfgang Sawallisch was highly regarded for his interpretation of the Germanic classics, particularly Bruckner and Richard Strauss.

He’s perhaps best known to American music lovers for his decade as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1993. Eugene Ormandy had first invited Sawallisch to guest-conduct in 1966, and over the years he’d made several recordings with Philadephia. When Riccardo Muti was ready to relinquish the Philadelphia podium, it happened that Sawallisch was equally ready to move on from Munich, and the deal was sealed.

Curiously, though, one of Sawallisch’s most famous Philadelphia concerts didn’t actually involve conducting the orchestra.

It was in February of 1994. A blizzard had effectively shut down Philadelphia, and most of the orchestra members couldn’t get to the Academy of Music. Sawallisch didn’t miss a beat. At his prompting, the Academy threw open the doors to the public – no admission charge. About 600 stalwart concert goers, including the few orchestra members who’d made it to the hall, heard Sawallisch play the scheduled Wagner program on the piano, including the first act of Die Walküre. This was no mean feat! Piano reductions of Wagner’s music are fiendishly difficult. However, Sawallisch had been working with opera singers since his teenage years. This music was in his bones and his fingers.

Although he continued to guest-conduct the orchestra after making the transition to conductor laureate in 2003, in 2006 Sawallisch announced that he was retiring from active conducting. He said was afflicted with orthostatic hypotension, a malady characterized by sudden and unpredictable declines in blood pressure which can cause fainting and dizziness.

Further reading:

Wolfgang Sawallisch obituary at New York Times (registration may be required)

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Seiji Ozawa
Seiji Ozawa

Early in 2010, conductor Seiji Ozawa was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He said he’d take six months off for treatment and then return to conducting.

As it turned out, that objective was a bit optimistic.

Ozawa’s cancer treatment was a success, but when he tried to return to the podium that summer, severe back pain laid him low. Ozawa had to give up his post as music director of the Vienna State Opera (Franz Welser-Möst succeeded him), and cancelled a December 2010 European Tour.

Ozawa underwent surgery for herniated discs in January of 2011; that knocked him out of Carnegie Hall appearances in the spring of 2011. In August of that year, he was able to conduct a performance of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, but fatigue kept him from the tour of China that was to follow. Then in February of 2012, pneumonia struck.

The following month, Ozawa admitted that "I had too much faith in my own physical strength … Even if I didn’t feel anything during performances, once they ended I was always terribly exhausted." His physicians recommended more rest. However, he promised that from spring of this year (2013), he’d resume work "little by little."

As of today (19 February) the prognosis is good: Ozawa has just announced that he’ll conduct at this summer’s Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto, Japan. (Ozawa is the festival’s founder and director.) In August, he’ll lead a performance of Ravel’s Les Enfants et les Sortilèges.

Ozawa, who’s 77 this year, is probably best known to American music lovers for his 29 years with the Boston Symphony. Although the later years of that record-breaking tenure were marked by complaints from critics that he’d allowed the orchestra to decline, Ozawa was a well-liked figure in Boston. His fans were often delighted to spot him out and about in his off hours, something Boston music lovers didn’t get much of with his BSO MD successor, James Levine. Ozawa was a Red Sox fan, for example. Levine, not so much.

Here’s hoping that Maestro Ozawa’s physical trials are finally behind him, and that he’ll soon be back to a full conducting schedule.

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Bach at the Keyboard

Bach was only 19 in 1704, working at his first church gig (or second, depending on how you count what amounted to lackey toil at Weimar) when a rare opportunity arose.

I’m neither clergyman nor Lutheran, but my understanding of the Lutheran Church Year – the calendar by which Bach effectively lived his work life – is that it begins with Advent, the 4 weeks before Christmas. The calendar’s other major anchor point is Easter, if I can call a floating date an anchor. Easter is the first Sunday after the full moon after the Spring equinox, and that date determines all the dates from Epiphany on.

To account for this movable feast, the Lutheran calendar has a variable number of Sundays after Trinity. Usually it’s between 23 and 26. Only rarely – when Easter falls between the 22nd and 26th of March – does the Lutheran calendar have a 27th Sunday after Trinity. Bach’s rare opportunity to compose a work for Trinity 27 came in 1704. And for that special day, Bach composed – nothing special.

But that shouldn’t be a surprise. It wasn’t in his contract! Bach’s job was playing organ at Arnstadt’s New Church. Yes, he was one of a long line of Bachs who had done that job (and a well paid one it was, despite the church’s feeble budget). But nothing formally or legally compelled him to compose a special large-scale work for the 27th Sunday after Trinity in 1704.

Special large-scale works weren’t part of his job; yet not even a year hence, Bach would feel the sting of rebuke when the church’s elders berated him for not composing enough of them. (Of course, that might have been just piling-on, while they were about chastising him for getting into an altercation with one of the church’s musicians. Remember, Bach was then what we would consider college age.)

Did Bach carry a vivid memory of this verbal caning for over a quarter-century? Is it possible that he simply regretted not having written anything for Trinity 27 in 1704? Could one or both of these be the reason, or reasons, that the cantata he composed at Leipzig in 1731 is such a masterpiece?

Some historians and commentators think Bach put the extra time and effort into Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme simply because Trinity 27 was such a rare event. Maybe. But Bach was an eminently practical musician. Many of his Leipzig cantatas show clear evidence of his compositional short-cuts. Wachet Auf, though, is as finely wrought as anything he could have expected to use year after year, despite the fact that he had only one other chance to use it in his 16 years in Leipzig.

Bach did borrow his chorale melody and part of his text – an entirely normal practice. He got them from Philipp Nicolai’s hymn of the same name. In 1599, when he composed it, Nicolai had just survived a plague epidemic. If that left him feeling especially inspired, that would certainly be understandable!

Nicolai’s work accounts for 3 movements of this symmetrically-structured cantata, including the most famous, the central one. Who wrote the text for the other movements? We don’t know. Picander is one possibility; Bach mined his words for other works. Some scholars even suggest that Bach himself may have been the poet.

Nicolai’s text is the Biblical parable of the bridesmaids awaiting the bridegroom. There’s a visual trick behind this text that Bach, numerologist that he was, surely would have appreciated. Look at the shape of the lines when you center them (first verse only shown):

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem!
Mitternacht heisst diese Stunde
Sie rufen und mit hellem Munde:
Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen?
Wohl auf, der Bräutgam kömmt;
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt!
Macht euch bereit
Zu der Hochzeit,
Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn!

It’s unmistakably the chalice, the symbol of the Eucharist – and in fact in early editions Nicolai’s hymn was printed this very way.

But Nicolai and Bach are not so pious that they miss the chance to connect at a worldly, even earthy, level with their readers and listeners.

For one thing, Nicolai evokes the medieval song form called Aube (morning song) in France and Wächterlied (watchman’s song) in Germany. These are thoroughly secular love poems! The watchman’s role in these songs is to alert the (illicit) lovers to the impending dawn, when they must part to avoid discovery and preserve their reputations – or their lives. In Wachet auf, the watchman’s job is to alert the negligent bridesmaids (the Church) to the approach of the bridegroom (Christ).

But that’s not all. Picander’s (or Bach’s) verses include an ardent love duet (movement 6), and introduce vivid images from the Bible’s fevered, almost erotic Song of Songs.

Here we find "My beloved is like a roe or a young hart" (2:9); Bach says, "The bridegroom comes, like a buck and a young stag." "His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me." (2:6); Bach’s bridegroom tells his bride, "At my left hand you shall rest, and my right hand shall embrace you." The Song of Songs poet writes, "My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies." (2:16) Bach says, "My beloved is mine, and I am his … you shall revel [graze] in Heaven’s roses." We even find watchmen in the Song of Songs: "The watchmen that go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?" (3:3)

Even though Bach programmed this cantata no more than twice in his lifetime, today it’s one of his best known and most frequently performed. In fact its central chorale is one of his most oft-played works of any type, with arrangements available for nearly every imaginable instrument, from clarinet to ukulele. You may know that chorale better by its English name: Sleepers, Awake.


Bach: Cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, S140

Donna Brown, soprano; James Taylor, tenor; Michael Volle, bass
Gächinger Kantorei
Bach Collegium, Stuttgart
Helmut Rilling, conductor
Recorded on 28 November 1998


Movement 1 (chorus)
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme Wake up, the voice is calling us
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne, Of the watchmen in the high, high tower;
Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem! Wake up, you city of Jerusalem!
Mitternacht heißt diese Stunde; The hour is midnight;
Sie rufen uns mit hellem Munde: They call to us with ringing voices:
Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen? Where are you wise virgins?
Wohl auf, der Bräutigam kömmt; Come on, the bridegroom comes;
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt! Rise up and take your lamps!
Alleluja! Alleluia!
Macht euch bereit Make yourselves ready
Zu der Hochzeit, For the wedding,
Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn! You must go to meet him!
Movement 2 (recitative)

Er kommt, er kommt, He comes, he comes,
Der Bräutgam kommt! The bridegroom comes!
Ihr Töchter Zions, kommt heraus, Come forth, you daughters of Zion,
Sein Ausgang eilet aus der Höhe He rushes forth from the heavens
In euer Mutter Haus. To your mother’s house.
Der Bräutgam kommt, der einem Rehe The bridegroom comes, like a buck
Und jungen Hirsche gleich and a young stag,
Auf denen Hügeln springt Leaping on the hills
Und euch das Mahl der Hochzeit bringt. And takes you to the wedding feast.
Wacht auf, ermuntert euch! Wake up, bestir yourselves!
Den Bräutgam zu empfangen! To receive the bridegroom!
Dort, sehet, kommt er hergegangen. There, look, he comes to meet you.
Movement 3 (aria: duet)

Wenn kömmst du, mein Heil? When are you coming, my salvation?
(Ich komme, dein Teil.) (I am coming, your share.)
Ich warte mit brennendem Öle. I am waiting with burning oil.
Eröffne den Saal
(Ich öffne)
Open the hall
(I open)
(Zum himmlischen Mahl.) (For the heavenly feast.)
Komm, Jesu! Come, Jesus!
(Komm, liebliche Seele!) (Come, lovely soul!)
Movement 4 (tenor solo or chorus)

Zion hört die Wächter singen, Zion hears the watchmen singing,
Das Herz tut ihr vor Freuden springen, Her heart springs for joy,
Sie wachet und steht eilend auf. She wakes and hurries to rise.
Ihr Freund kommt vom Himmel prächtig, Her beloved comes from heaven with glory,
Von Gnaden stark, von Wahrheit mächtig, Strong with grace, mighty with truth,
Ihr Licht wird hell, ihr Stern geht auf. Her light grows bright, her star rises.
Nun komm, du werte Kron, Now come, you precious crown,
Herr Jesu, Gottes Sohn! Lord Jesus, God’s Son!
Hosianna! Hosannah!
Wir folgen all We all follow
Zum Freudensaal To the hall of joy
Und halten mit das Abendmahl. And take part in the communion.
Movement 5 (recitative)

So geh herein zu mir, So, come in to me,
Du mir erwählte Braut! You, my chosen bride!
Ich habe mich mit dir I have entrusted myself
Von Ewigkeit vertraut. To you eternally.
Dich will ich auf mein Herz, I want to set you on my heart
Auf meinen Arm gleich wie ein Siegel setzen and on my arm, just like a seal,
Und dein betrübtes Aug ergötzen. And bring pleasure to your troubled eye.
Vergiß, o Seele, nun Forget now, oh spirit,
Die Angst, den Schmerz, The fear, the pain,
Den du erdulden müssen; Which you have had to endure;
Auf meiner Linken sollst du ruhn, At my left hand you shall rest,
Und meine Rechte soll dich küssen. And my right shall embrace [kiss] you.
Movement 6 (aria: duet)

Mein Freund ist mein, My beloved is mine,
Und ich bin sein. And I am his.
Die Liebe soll nichts scheiden. Nothing shall separate our love.
Ich will mit dir
(Du sollst) (mir)
I wish to, with you
(You shall) (me)
in Himmels Rosen weiden, Revel [graze] in Heaven’s roses,
Da Freude die Fülle, da Wonne wird sein. There we shall find satiety and bliss. 1
Movement 7 (chorus)

Gloria sei dir gesungen Gloria be sung to you
Mit Menschen- und englischen Zungen, With human and angel voices,
Mit Harfen und mit Zimbeln schon. With harps and cymbals to boot.
Von zwölf Perlen sind die Pforten, The gates are made of twelve pearls;
An deiner Stadt sind wir Konsorten In your city we are consorts
Der Engel hoch um deinen Thron. Of heavenly angels round your throne.
Kein Aug hat je gespürt, No eye has ever seen,
Kein Ohr hat je gehört No ear has ever heard
Solche Freude. Such joy.
Des sind wir froh, Thus we are glad,
Io, io! Io, Io!
Ewig in dulci jubilo. Eternally in sweet rejoicing.2

1Here the poet is indulging in poetic wordplay, with multiple shades of meaning. Weide (n): pasture; weiden (v): graze, pasture, turn out to pasture; revel in something. Füllen (n): foal, colt, or filly; füllen (v): stuff, fill to satiety. A Füllhorn is a horn of plenty.

2 Io is pronounced “ee-yo.” It’s an expression of religious rejoicing from classical Latin. You can also find it in the second verse of the Christmas song Ding Dong Merrily on High: "E’en so here below, below / let steeple bells be swungen, / And i-o, i-o, i-o, / by priest and people sungen."

Translation: David Roden – Creative Commons 3.0 BY/NC/SA

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