Thursday, December 18, 2014

Vom Himmel Hoch!

Posting Stravinsky's arrangement of Vom Himmel hoch last time, I realized, stunningly, that I have yet to post my very favorite Christmas CD track, from one of my favorite all-time CD recordings.  I will correct this omission after a couple of paragraphs of explanation.

Vom Himmel hoch ("From Heaven Above to Earth I Come") is a chorale by Martin Luther that outlines the entire Christmas story, and its theological ramifications, in verse.  It's one of my very favorite Christmas hymns, but it's not very popular these days, mostly because it has 15 verses (as I said, it outlines the entire Christmas story!).  21st-century attention spans just aren't up to singing that many verses (although many fans of contemporary Christian praise songs are okay singing the same words over and over again about 20 times... but that's a story for another blog post).  So, this dear and valuable hymn goes unsung in most churches.

Michael Praetorius's arrangement of this classic chorale embodies the spirit of the cliché "go big or go home," especially as performed by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort:

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Stravinsky for Christmas?

Last time, we heard some Christmas music arranged by Arnold Schoenberg, a seemingly unlikely artistic concept.  How about some Christmas music arranged by that other monumental figure of 20th century orchestral music, Igor Stravinsky?

Ok, how about some Christmas music by Johann Sebastian Bach, arranged by Stravinsky?

More accurately: how about some Christmas music by Bach, arranged and given some added contrapuntal lines by Igor Stravinsky?

Here are the Chorale and Five Choral Variations on "Vom Himmel Hoch."

Vom Himmel Hoch is, incidentally, my favorite underrated Christmas carol.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Schoenberg for Christmas?

Yes, that's right -- Schoenberg for Christmas.  Here is yet another example of music that contradicts the popular view that Arnold Schoenberg only wrote "ugly" atonal music!  This setting of Praetorius's famed choral Es ist ein Ros shows the composer's compositional mastery within the tonal realm.  That's not to say that isn't at least a little quirky -- harmonium, anyone?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Horn Solo

Yeah, this is pretty much how hornists would like to imagine ourselves...  And "Flute Skywalker" is holding his instrument backwards -- apparently, the mysteries of the Force are in place.

Kudos to whoever photoshopped this beauty.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Black Horn

Sometimes finding material for a blog is easy; sometimes it's a bit of a struggle for me.  And then sometimes, I stumble upon a great story -- one completely unknown to me -- in my Facebook feed.  Such was the case this morning, as my a.m. internetting turned up an NPR interview with Robert Lee Watt, an African-American hornist who spent several decades with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  He's written a book about his experiences, which I'm going to have to track down and buy.  The interview is quite interesting; I recommend you listen to the sound clip in addition to reading the abridged transcript:

One of the tenets of European "Classical" music is that orchestral music is a universal language that transcends cultural boundaries, but the field remains very heavily white.  Things are changing, slowly but surely, thanks to groundbreakers like Robert Lee Watt.  His story is definitely worth telling.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Bing Crosby and Patronizing Movie Clips about African-American Music

I'll begin this post by saying that I have absolutely nothing against Bing Crosby -- the gentleman could flat-out sing, and his embrace of jazz could probably be considered quite progressive for a musician of his generation.  I don't know much about Der Bingle's personal life in terms of race relations, and I've not heard anything that would suggest he was racist in any way.  And yet, there's this:

This clip, from the movie High Society, is not racist, per se -- indeed, it's nice to see a white and black singer swinging together.  But it's all a bit patronizing, isn't it?  There's Louis Armstrong -- Louis Armstrong!! -- the man who often gets credit for flat-out inventing jazz.  There's Louis's band, full of fantastic jazzmen.  And here's Bing Crosby -- a white guy in a tux -- explaining how jazz is made.  I guess the Armstrong band needs an interpreter?

The scene does take place at a fancy, high society, function.  And Bing is introduced  by a silver-haired gentleman in tails.  Maybe that sort of crowd would need a "translator."  Perhaps I'm making too big a deal out of a relatively innocuous movie moment.  And yet, the fact remains: here is Louis Armstrong, playing jazz.  And here is a white guy, explaining how jazz is made.  Because Louis is, apparently, unable to do so himself.

Perhaps I would be more forgiving if it weren't for an even more troubling film clip featuring Bing Crosby and African-American music.  Of course, I'm referring to the Minstrel number from White Christmas:

Well, who doesn't remember the old minstrel shows with joyful nostalgia?  "Oh, those comical folks/with their riddles and jokes!"  From a mid-twentieth-century perspective, the minstrel show tradition might still hold a  bit of relevance; today's audience lacks that generational connection.  So maybe enough time has passed for the whole thing to seem weird.  And, let's face it, the Minstrel number is essentially unnecessary within the movie -- it doesn't further the plot or help us to understand the characters better; it's just an excuse for a big old song-and-dance extravaganza.
And what an extravaganza it is!  Dancers in gaudy tuxes, flashy big band arrangements, bad jokes, and all of the traditional minstrel trappings -- banjos, tambourines, the ubiquitous gloved hands in full-out "jazz hands" arrangement.  There's just one thing missing.  H'm, what could it be?
Oh, yes.  I remember.  This:
This is the minstrel show Bing, Danny, and Rosemary are remembering so fondly.  These are the "comical folks" being held up as paragons of American entertainment.  The good folks in White Christmas have chosen not to blacken their faces, making their minstrel number somewhat progressive.  At least there's an acknowledgement that the whole makeup thing is inappropriate.  But is it possible to say "boy, I loved those old minstrel shows" without admitting that said shows involved actors in blackface?  Maybe at the time of White Christmas, minstrel shows without blackface were in popular currency.  But the blackface tradition would still have been strongly in place in the nostalgic past that Bing and company are remembering so fondly.

Again, perhaps I'm being too hard on Der Bingle.  Maybe it's easier to negotiate the cultural significances of black and white American music on this side of the Civil Rights movement.  Maybe it's too much to expect for a popular musician in the 1950s to show genuine interest in African-American music without a bit of patronizing.  I'm not sure -- but these two iconic film clips still bother me a little bit.  I'm glad we've moved a bit farther along in our musical race relations.  At least, I hope we've done so.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Ein feste Burg

Happy Reformation Day!

It's always appropriate to celebrate Martin Luther's posting of the 95 Thesis on the church door at Wittenberg on the Eve of All Saint's (aka Halloween) with a performance of the Reformer's great hymn, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God).  If you're inclined to do so, please go for a rendition that uses the original Renaissance rhythms as utilized by Luther.  While the squared-off, "traditional" version is more singable in church, the original just has so much more kick: