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Friday, December 18, 2015

A ROMANTIC CHRISTMAS


I find it curious that Ernst Theodore Hoffman (above) is considered a romantic. I think of him as a manic depressive, and justified at that, considering that Napoleon spent most of Ernest’s life turning Europe into a slaughterhouse. As a young man Ernst did fall in love, but the lady was married. And when she turned up pregnant Ernest’s family shipped him off to Poland, where he labored as a petty bureaucrat. But he spent his free time composing classical music and writing vaguely creepy stories. One of his more successful tales was a sort of 19th century “Jaws”, except instead of a 25 foot Great White Shark, Ernest’s villain was a mouse bent on revenge. In Hoffman's story seven year old Maria receives a mechanical doll as a Christmas present, which her older brother Fritz promptly breaks. She sits up late trying to repair the toy, until an army of mice attack her doll. She saves the toy by throwing her shoe at the rodents. Now, maybe I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I think this idea has ballet written all over it. Interestingly, that idea never occurred to Ernst.
Nor did it occur to Alexander Dumas (above), the vulgar and prolific son of a French nobleman and a Haitian slave woman. See, Alex liked the Parisian good life a lot more than he liked writing. He had at least 40 mistresses, but he made enough to afford his profligate lifestyle by out doing Andy Warhol at marketing his art. Alex kept a warehouse full of writers who ground out stories under his direction, such as “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers”, and its sequels. And one of his minor best sellers was a direct steal of Ernst's hallucination, which Dumas changed just enough to avoid a lawsuit – like changing Maria's name to Clara.
Then, seventy years after Ernst died of syphilis (the ultimate romance disease), and 12 years after Alex died of a stroke in 1870, the ballet idea finally did occur to Marius Petpa (above), celebrated head of the Bolshoi Ballet Company in Russia. In 1882 the Imperial Theaters hired Marius and Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky to create the “Sleeping Beauty” ballet. This was such a critical and financial success that it established the Bolshoi as the world's premier ballet company, and Marius as a world class genius. And then like a modern Hollywood producer looking for a project to fit the marquee talent, in 1890, the theatre brought the pair together again. But this time, having over inflated these two monumental egos, the management merely suggested a sort of theatrical sandwich – a double header, both a serious opera and a light ballet staged on the same night..
The one act opera was clearly intended to be the meat in this theatrical happy meal, and being the foremost Russian composer of the day, Pyotr (above) got first choice of subject matter. He decided on a Danish story of a blind princess named Iolanta.. But then, early in February of 1891, in Saint Petersburg, Marius handed Pyotr a detailed synopsis and bar-by-musical bar outline for a two act classical ballet based the story Dumas had filched. Pyotr was appalled. He though it childish and unworthy of serious application. But, if it meant he got paid to write another opera, he would somehow make the silly ballet work. After struggling for a month he tried to remain optimistic. He wrote to one of this brothers, “I am working with all my strength and reconciling myself to the subject of the ballet.” But he also admitted “I am experiencing a kind of crisis.” This was good, since Pyotr had a lot of experience with those.
See, Pyotr had a secret that held the potential to turn every problem in his life into a crises. He was approaching fifty, and had reached an uneasy equilibrium with his homosexuality. He had tried to go straight but his marriage to Antonina Ivanova (above) had blown up after little more than a month. This raised again the threat of exposure by envious and bigoted court and church officials, who at any moment could end his career. Each contract, including this one, could be his last. What little stability existed in his life was supplied by his younger sister Aleksandra and her seven children with Lev Davydov. Pyotr wrote many of his 11 operas, six symphonies and three ballets on their Ukrainian estate near Kamenka. And now, in March, while on his way to a concert tour of America, and still trying to come up with something presentable for Marius's ballet, he learned of Aleksanda's death.
He had just seen Aleksandra (above) over the Christmas holidays, so he must have known how ill she was. Still, Pyotr was hysterical. And then, pausing in Rouen, France, he managed his agony by putting it to work. His genius was always his ability to combine the Russian musical themes with Western ones, and to subjugate his true identity into the restraints of his art. And in the “grand pas de deux” for the lead dance character of Clara, he weaved in threads from the Russian Orthodox funeral service  The musical themes of the entire ballet became darker and more nuanced. As one critic has put it, “In Clara, he found a parallel for his sister.” A ballet about wealthy Victorian children, became, with the talent of Pyotr's genius, a work for people of all ages and for all time.
When Pyotr returned from his wildly successful 25 day American tour (he inaugurated Carnegie Hall in Manhattan) he delivered his musical score to Marius in St. Petersburg, to be animated. But as the opportunity approached, the world renown genius, Marius, suffered his own crises of self confidence. The primary symptom of this understandable panic was an attack of Pemphigus vulgaris, a debilitating skin disease, usually afflicting Ashkebazi Jews – of which Marius was one. Scratching his itching skin produced open sours, which made it impossible for Marius to concentrate on the ballet. So his assistant, Lev Ivanov, took over.
Lev (above) had been with the Bolshoi since he was eight, and had a natural talent as a musician, as well as being an excellent dancer. But where Marius was a classical ballet master, Lev was, like poor Ernest, a romantic. He followed Marius's general guidelines. He had to, the music had already been composed based on them. But Lev also arranged his dancers like an impressionist painter, throwing patterns of sugar plumb fairies and swirling lines of snowflakes on point, about the stage. It was the shape and flow of the dance that interested Lev, and somehow the combination of all these hearts and souls, the romantic Ernst and the hedonist Alexander, the classicist Marius and the dark Pyotr, and now that other romantic Lev, they all gave birth, on 15 January, 1890, to the premier of “The Nutcracker” ballet at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The audiences seem to have been enthusiastic, giving five curtain calls to the Sugar Plum Fairy. The next morning Pyotr wrote to his brother, “The opera in particular was to everyone’s liking ... The productions of both...were superb” But it was a very long evening, with the Nutcracker not ending until well after midnight. 
The weary critics took it out on the dancers, calling the lead ballerina (above) corpulent and pudgy. The battle scene between the mice and the nutcracker confused them: “Disorderly pushing about from corner to corner and running backwards and forwards – quite amateurish.” The Grand Pas de Deux, so inspiring to the composer, was labeled ponderous and “completely insipid”. A week later Pyotr wrote to another brother, “Once again I am not embittered by such criticism. Nevertheless, I have been in a loathsome spirit, as I usually am...in such circumstances.” After 11 performances the double bill was closed.
Less than a year later, in October 1893 Pyotr would die during a cholera outbreak, his secret still secure. Although many have suggested he committed suicide, he did not. Lev Ivanov followed nine years later. Finances forced him to work until his death “in harness”, in December of 1901. About the same time the Bolshoi brought in the upstart Alexander Gorsky to replace the aging Marius (above) as director. While watching his intended replacement rehearsing on his stage, Marius was heard to shout, “Will someone tell that young man that I am not yet dead?!.” Within a year it did not matter; Marius was quietly retired. He did die in 1910, at the age of 92.
A year after its premier the opera Iolanta would be preformed by itself in Hamburg, Germany. But although still performed occasionally, it is now largely forgotten. The Nutcracker, on the other hand, had to wait almost 20 years before it would be performed again, staged this time by the Bolshoi's new director Alexander Gorsky, in Moscow. He saved it. Alexander savaged Marius choices, paring away minor roles, replacing the children cast as Clara and the prince, with adults, thus adding a romantic story line for them. Standing alone, the ballet was now far better received, and short enough for modern attention spans. And after the Second World War, it became the classical Christmas season production for every ballet company in the world, responsible for up to 40% of their income.
It just goes to show you – those silly romantics may be naive simpletons, but their ideas grow stronger with time because they are positive and simple, and keep being reinvented. When in doubt, we are always inspired by the romantics within us.
- 30 -

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS

I have two favorite Christmas chorals; the haunting Carol of the Bells, composed in 1904 by Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych, and the seemingly nonsensical Twelve Days of Christmas, which is old enough that we have no idea who composed it. In fact, the Twelve Days of Christmas might even predate Christianity in France, where it originated. And that makes this English carol more interesting - to me, anyway – because it speaks to the evolution of the holiday. Remember, it wasn't until 137 years after the death of Jesus, give or take a couple of years, that the Bishop of Rome ordered a “Christesmaesse” - Christ's Mass, to celebrate Jesus' birth. You see, the twelve disciples did not celebrate Christmas, partly because they were Jewish, but mostly because until fairly recently anything from 60 to 80% of infants died within hours of their birth. Nobody celebrated their birth day, not even Pope Julius I, who around 345 A.D. picked December 25th for Christmas. For all humans, even for the Messiah, life did not officially begin until their epiphany, (meaning, according to thesaurus.com -the announcement, the display, the exhibition or the showing of the child), which was not held until you were pretty sure the child was going to live. And Jesus' epiphany is traditionally celebrated on January 6th – 12 days after Christmas.
This English Christmas Carol began as a medieval midwinter festival “memories and forfeits game”, a sort of musical chairs in a world without very many chairs. We know the game began in France because
the Red-legged (or French) partridge, widespread in medieval Europe, commonly perches in trees, unlike the the English (or grey) partridges which, while common today, were not introduced to England until the 18th century, and prefer ledges or cliffs. And in all three medieval French versions of the song that we know of, and all surviving English versions, “a partridge in a pear tree” is the first and final present always received by the lead singer.
In the game the leader sings a verse, and each participant repeats what they have just heard, and everybody then takes a drink of wine or mead. Then the leader sings another verse, adding an item, the players repeat, and then everybody drinks again. The rounds we have inherited begin “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gives to me, a partridge in a pear tree.  On on second day of Christmas, my true love gives to me, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.”
The game continues (with variations) to three French Hens, four colly birds, five gold rings, six geese a-laying, seven swans a-swimming, eight maids a-milking, nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers pipping, and twelve drummers drumming. A player who forgets an item is eliminated and forced to offer a kiss to the leader, or eat a less than appealing food item. The game would continue until all 12 verses were done, or all the players but one had been eliminated because they were too drunk to remember their own names, let alone how many maids were milking. Sound familiar?
And yes, the line is “four colly birds”, as in a colliery, meaning a coal pit or a mine. The birds referred to were as black as coal – the common European black bird. When this song was translated into English, crows and ravens were only referred to as fowl. But the 4 ½ ounce Turdus merula (the black thrush), was small enough to be called a bird . In the winter black birds were easy to attract with seed and easy to catch with a net, and they were a common part of the diet. Peasants sang about “four and twenty black birds baked in a pie”. It is a reminder that there are huge chunks of our culture based on now forgotten starvation repeatedly suffered in each life time. And “break fasts,” like the midwinter festival, were fond memories, which Christianity had to adopt and adapt.
In fact, birds play a major role in this song, as if the leader was scanning the banquet table for the next noun to use in the next verse. The partridge is followed by turtle doves, french hens, the Colly birds, geese and swans. The five gold rings seem out of place unless they refer to the ring-necked pheasant, the male of which (above) has a golden brown plumage and a white ring around his neck. There would have been on ay well stocked pheasants midwinter festival table, along with the other bird protein
There would also have been cheese (made from milk), and about the room, men and women dancing - but not in pairs, that would not become common until the 10th century. And of course there would be musicians accompanying the song-game with the world's oldest instruments, a flute (or a pipe) and a drum. Music was as vital a part of pagan religious and social celebrations, as they are of Christian services. And that brings up the recent myth that this game was used to preserve Catholicism in a hostile Protestant England. That might be true, except there is not even of hint of it until 1979. However, the success of this myth across the Internet since, does offer an insight into the methodology Christianity used to snatch Christmas from the happy pagans getting drunk at their winter solstice break fast. I am not suggesting a conspiracy, but rather a well meaning application of religiously influenced logic .That is also probably how Mithra over came Apollo, and how Jupiter conquered Zeus. It would be wise for all born again Christian evangelicals to remember that religions practices never really die, they just become adopted and adapted.
The same can be said about a certain odd mathematical aspect of the carol. If you add up all the gifts – 1 partridge, 2 turtle doves and 1 partridge, 3 french hens, 2 turtle doves and 1 partridge, etc., etc. – they add up to 364 gifts in total. It seems there ought to be some connection between the gifts and the length of the year. The only problem is a year is 365 ¼ days long, not 364, and that length has been well known since, well, since forever. And while it seems the number of gifts, like some sort of Christmas carol kabbalah, ought to mean something, it really doesn't. And that seems to me to be the difference between religion and science. In religion the possibility of meaning is the meaning, while in science the possibility is theory and subject to testing. Religion gave us the pyramids and Michelangelo's "David". Science gave us a modern infant mortality rate in industrial nations of less then 1%.
Which brings us to the Christmas Price Index, created in 1984 by the chief economist for PNC Financial Services Group, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as “a humorous commodity price index to measure the changing cost of goods over time” using the gifts in The Twelve Days of Christmas. Each year in late November, PNC analysts consult with the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and the National Aviary in Philadelphia to price most of the birds in the song. However, for some reason, rather than a European black bird, PNC uses the price of a canary at Petco. Gordon Jewelers, a division of Zale Corporation out of Irving, Texas, prices five gold rings for the Index, even tho, as I said earlier, the gift probably refereed to was five ring-necked pheasants. The maids-a-milking are assumed to be earning federal minimum wage, and the Philadelphia Dance Company and their Ballet Company provide the cost of leaping and dancing ladies and lords. The Pennsylvania Musicians Union provides the cost of the drummers and pipers, and the fruit tree has always been priced by Waterloo Gardens, an upscale Philadelphia plant nursery catering to the local 1%.
In 2015 the partridge and the pear tree together cost $214.99, the turtle doves $290 for the pair, the French Hens $181.50, the 4 Colling birds (actually Petco canaries) $599.96, the five gold rings $750 - unchanged for the last three years-  the 6 geese a-laying $360, the 7 swans $13,125, and the 8 maids the same as the previous three years at a mere $58 (which says something depressing about the minimum wage). The nine ladies cost $7,552.84, unchanged from last year, but the ten lords went up 3% and now cost  $5,508.70. The musicians were  $2,635.20 for the wind instruments and $2,754.80 for the percussionists, both unchanged. The 2015 total was up just 0.6% from last year, to $34,130.99. Surprisingly, the cost of buying the 12 days shopping on-line was 16% higher, at $43,626.99,  than buying the same gifts at a mortar and brick store. And although PNC does not endorse their index as a valid gauge of the economy, it does seem to confirm that capitalism turned the internet into a rip off..
PNC admits they use the index to “engage clients”, which means they are trying to entertain bankers, a profession not known for their humor or humility. But, PNC also admits this annual nonsense economic measure has become “one of PNC’s most popular and anticipated economic reports.” I suspect that is in large part because it is “filler” used by media types to add a Christmas hint to their newscasts. However, this year, the results may have a slightly more telling comment on a changing America. In June of 2012, after 70 years in business, the “nationally renowned Waterloo Gardens” went bankrupt. It seems even the 1% were tightening their belts, which means their gardeners are beginning to starve.
Have a Merry, merry, Capitalist Christmas.
  - 30 -

Sunday, December 13, 2015

HERE WE COME A CAROLING

I strongly suspect that the 6th century Christian theologian Benedict of Nursia was completely tone deaf. Its the only way I can explain why his Rules of Saint Benedict left Christianity trying to tap its toes to the monophonic Gregorian Chant – lavishly described as a melody with no harmony. This was music invented to pacify the spirit, almost to put it to sleep, to pledge devotion with no emotion - and in Latin, which limited its popularity. It would take another 800 years, until Francis of Assisi, for Christianity to break free from its acoustic prison.
Phillippe de Vitry is the man responsible. He was a 14th century poet and musician, and evidently in his spare time the Bishop of Meaux. He could afford to spread himself thin because there just wasn't that much music to know in 1350. Syncopation and Baroque pop had yet to be invented. But Phillippe was also credited with the Ars Nova, or the “new technique” for writing music, although I suspect Phillippe was more of a Phil Spector than a Brian Wilson in this regard. Anyway, the primary new idea in “Ars” was to combine folk tunes with bible stories, a perfect fit considering how many whores with hearts of gold and cheating alcoholic husbands filled the sacred texts. And like The Beach Boys, the Ars advocated above all else, harmony. Western music begins with the Ars Nova, including our subject here, Christmas Carols, and one choral in particular.
The Motown of the early Christmas song was medieval France, and the 14th century Chubby Checker was Chretien de Troyes, using the refrain and verse style as advocated by the Ars Nova. Chretien's hard driving lyrics for his “Legands of King Arthrur” made people want to get up on their feet and move, in a sort of communal “twist”, the circle dance or the Bransles, also called a carol. And just like disco, the name of the dance would label the entire genre of music. In the absence of recordings, Chretien's music was preformed by traveling minstrels, who would sing the verse, while the simple refrains (also called “the burden”), was usually something like “Fa la la, la la,”. This could even be sung by the village idiot, thus avoiding the Mick Jagger mumbled lyrics problem. Of course when the top 1% held a party, they were not required to sing along. That would have been undignified, particularly if they couldn't sing well. So, they hired somebody else to sing for them, thus inventing girl groups and boy bands – the choir.
We should still be singing the mega-hits written during this golden age of Christmas music, when songs like “That Was My Woo”, by the artist formally known as Robert Faiyrfax, ruled the top 40 charts, but we aren't, at least not in English. In fact we have little record (except Fairfax's two beat rhythms) of the exciting English plainsong tunes from the Golden Age of Christmas because at the beginning of the 17th century came the biggest buzz-kill in Christmas history, an English religious fanatic named Oliver Cromwell and his band, the Puritans. They outlawed Christmas and dancing entirely, and burned every page of music they could lay their anti-aria hands on. It was as if Mr. Scrooge had turned pyromaniac after being left in charge of the office Christmas party. Not much was left.
After the Reformation stuffed the Puritans back into their music-less box, English Christmas started again, from scratch. The first reborn popular hit was “The Wassail Song”, which was not much of Christmas carol, since it starts, “Here we come a-wassailing, Among the leaves so green”. Leaves have not been green in England during December since the island was a lot closer to the equator, about 240 million years ago. So the Carol Kings and Paul McCartneys of the 18th and 19th centuries began looking for tunes and lyrics in those places the Puritans had not reached - France.
“Angels from the Realms of Glory” was translated from its original French in 1816, and sung to the tune which would later be used for “Angles We Have Heard on High”. And then there is the cheerful, “Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle!”, or “Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella!” All these France to English carols were huge hits and even more profitable because there were no royalties to pay. In music circles this whole sale theft from dead writers is referred to as “adaptation”. And it took a politician, Davies Gilbert to recognize the legal advantages of that. In 1822 he published a collection of previously French carols, and the flood gates were opened. Over the next decade “The First Noel” and “Hark the Herald Angles Sing” were rescued from France to be published in English for free. And then in 1840 the young Queen Victoria married Prince Albert from Germany, revealing to English “adapters” a new source. In fact, German sources became so popular that the original Protestant Martin Luther was credited with writing “Away In A Manger”, but that was just a marketing gimmick. And by the end of the 19th century, German “adaptations” had been sucked dry, and tune hungry carol composers were forced to look farther east.  And, it turned out, to the west, as well.
Katherine Kennicott Davis was born on the cusp of this shift in searching, in 1892 in St. Louis, Missouri. She was raised a Methodist, and composed her first piece of music at 15. She studied at Wesley College in Massachusetts, and in Paris with the extraordinary Nadia Boulanger. She then made Massachusetts her home, teaching music at the girl's Concord Academy. And in 1939 she “adapted” the traditional Welsh hymn called “Ash Grove”, originally written in 1802. She wrote new lyrics and relabeled it. “Let All Things Now Living”, AKA ” The Thanksgiving Song”. It proved to be a minor hit, encouraging her to continue looking. In a collection of traditional Czech carols, she found the rhythmic “Rocking Carol”. ( All Things Living), and her skills and talents discovered in this intricate melody the core of her next hit, a lead soprano with an alto harmony tenor and base - with keyboard for rehearsal only – which Katherine titled “The Carol of the Drum.”
I need to mention here, that Katherine appears to have been, as she was raised, a perfect Victorian lady. She humbly listed her name on the published sheet music as “C.R. W. Robinson”, since even in 1941 women were not expected to have public achievements. She had published “Let All Things” under the name “John Cowley”. In fact most of the 600 songs she wrote were originally published under various false names, to disguise her sex. I get the feeling Katherine was always more comfortable in hiding, and she would later claim the melody for “Carol of the Drum” came to her while she was trying to take a nap. Or, maybe it really did.
And it was now that the economics of the music industry took Katherine's song out of her hands. In 1955 “The Carol of the Drum” was recorded by the Von Trapp Family Singers, of “Sound of Music” fame. The Austrian immigrants retired shortly there after, and the song went no where until 20th Century Fox Records contracted with Harry Simeone to record a Christmas album of choir music. Simeone liked Katherine's tune, but he felt he could improve it. And so he did. He did enough of a re-write that he felt the song should be renamed, and when the Harry Simeone Choral group released their album “Sing We Now of Christmas” just before Christmas 1958, the new title of Katherine's adapted carol was “The Little Drummer Boy”.
It literally rocketed to the top of the charts, the “single”, a sort of vinyl MP3 download (for those of you born after 1990)  went number one with a bullet. As Katherine herself put it, her little song was “done to death on radio and TV". In 1963 Fox re-released the album but re-titled it “The Little Drummer Boy; A Christmas Festival”. Again it went to number one. The song was covered by everybody from Bing Crosby and the Beverly Sisters to Marlene Dietrich and the Royal Scots Guards. By 1962 it was one of the top 40 Christmas songs, and it has remained there ever since. Quite an accomplishment for a shy lady like Katherine. (Little Drummer Boy)
Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
So to honor Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.
Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That's fit to give the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?
Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.
- 30 - 

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