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A lot of what you’d call the most

So this is the first blog post in [checks date] eight-and-a-half weeks, huh. I’m still more timely than Perspectives of New Music! I kid, I kid.

But, no, I haven’t been doing much music writing while under lockdown. Still, the death of Little Richard last week was enough to make me carve out some time from my home-schooling duties, put together a reflection, and pitch it around a bit. There were no takers, not surprisingly. (The market for a post-Boomer white classical music critic’s thoughts on Little Richard is not exactly robust.) But I’ve spent a lot of time with Little Richard over the years, with his music and his biography.

Little Richard was a key focus of the early research for my forever-in-progress, forever-unfinished history of music in the 1950s, in large part for what his music revealed about concepts of space and territory. That was Little Richard’s power: collapsing the space separating you, the listener, from rock-and-roll’s exhilarating and scandalous energy. One of the startling things about 1955 thesis statement, “Tutti Frutti,” is how close-up it feels. The original recording, made in the tiny, back-of-the-store J&M Recording Studio in New Orleans, was exceptionally and noticeably dry, with hardly any ambience at all. All that was there was the performance, incandescent and direct.

That dry, right-next-to-you sound was not necessarily the norm, even in rock-and-roll. Others tried to make sure you kept your distance. “Tutti Frutti” was, infamously, covered by Pat Boone, an early entry in the catalog of whitewashed R&B covers that, for a brief time, clogged and distorted the airwaves and the charts. In the cover version, Boone’s voice was draped in a halo of reverb. It created a concert-hall-like aura, an expansion of the space into which the sound seems to be projected, a decorous gap between the audience and the stage—not to mention the song’s racial and sexual charge. When you listen to Boone’s version, you’re forced to enter into that simulated space. When you listen to the original, Little Richard comes into the space in which the recording is being played—your car, your living room, your bedroom. He and the song are right there, close enough to touch.

The dividing line between rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll might well be Little Richard’s undefinable but unmistakeable immediacy: the animation, the abandon, the scream. His influence was, paradoxically, both instantaneous and deferred. The year after “Tutti Frutti,” Little Richard was a featured player in director Frank Tashlin’s 1956 romp The Girl Can’t Help It. It’s still one of the best rock-and-roll movies ever made, and one of the most incisive: both the film and its most flamboyant performer amplify rock’s sensual, silly, and cynical qualities in ways most practitioners and fans would not come to terms with for years. Little Richard is in on it from the start. Take the opening scene: Jayne Mansfield, shoehorned into a low-cut, deep-blue dress, sashaying down a New York sidewalk, oblivious to her effect on men and matter—melting ice, erupting milk bottles. It’s a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, an over-the-top release of post-World War II psychosexual repression. The soundtrack is the title song, performed by—who else?—Little Richard.

One of my foundational texts for deciphering rock-and-roll was Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, written in 1968 and revised in 1972. In stealing Little Richard’s indelible interjection for his title, Cohn neatly epitomized the oft-mythologized sense of rock-and-roll’s detonative impact. Generations of rock-and-roll adherents, from the British Invasion to the punk rock and its offspring, venerated Little Richard’s stripped-down efficiency, while wave after wave of rock-and-roll heretics—glam rock, disco, hair metal—embraced his heightened flamboyance. But Cohn’s book has an elegiac streak, a realization, perhaps, that Little Richard’s transcendent combination of virtuosity, defiance, confrontation, glamour, camp, and utter individual freedom was an unrepeatable phenomenon.

Some artists embody their era. Little Richard excavated and revealed his. Every tendency that white, respectable American society would have rather neutralized, Little Richard brought to the fore and epitomized. As much of the country was reinstating and reasserting reactionary gender roles, Little Richard flaunted a queer identity. While religious leaders refashioned churches into suburban temples of middle-class propriety and prosperity, Little Richard hollered with Pentecostal zeal, in tongue-twisting lyrics that verged on glossolalia. As the country’s history of racial conflict once again came to an inflection point, Little Richard stood black, loud, and proud, joyously dangerous and dangerously joyous, preaching integration through rhythm, a precise and pervasive piano backbeat embracing and containing multitudes.

Even when the power seemed to frighten Little Richard himself, and he would turn back to the church, you could still feel the pull of both forces. His 1962 album, titled (with characteristically cocksure piety) “The King of the Gospel Singers,” showed him at his most restrained and accomplished, but the old exuberance still emerged, most recognizably in the spiritual “Ride On, King Jesus,” soaring again and again into the stratosphere on the line “no man can hinder me.”

And, sure enough, Little Richard would always come roaring back, contradictory, unapologetic, uninhibited. He put it best on his 1970 single “Freedom Blues,” expressing, in the face of social and political upheaval and inequality, his creed and salvation: “I got my duty,” he sang, “rock-and-roll.” You couldn’t keep Little Richard from his calling, any more than you could keep lightning from flashing.

***

As noted on Twitter, our daughter has decided that our lockdown soundtrack should be Broadway musicals. For the first five weeks, the musical was She Loves Me, with its lovely, operetta-ish, Budapest-by-way-of-Times-Square score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Listening to the various soundtracks of the show—the 1963 original, this 1978 BBC version, the 1993 Broadway revival, the 1994 London cast, and the 2016 revival that is our daughter’s favorite—you can appreciate both the evolution and the importance of tempo for some shows. The 1963 production She Loves Me was not successful; the 2016 show, in which the songs are, across the board, performed considerably faster than in 1963, was a hit.

More recently, the musical-of-choice has become Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, which our daughter prefers to watch in 1955 film version directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, with Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit and Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson. This confirms that she is my offspring, having apparently inherited my undying affection for fascinatingly flawed works of art. Because, holy cow, is Guys and Dolls a weird movie. (Even the trailer is weird.) The artifice is in-your-face: six years after Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen shot parts of On the Town on location in New York City, Mankiewicz encases everybody in soundstage sets that are very obviously soundstage sets. The acting styles are all over the map, from the highly-stylized work done by the holdovers from the stage show to Sinatra’s less-is-theoretically-more studio shrugging to Brando and Jean Simmons’s subtly but intensely physical performances. The contrast between Sinatra and Brando is particularly sharp. Sinatra does some of his best-ever singing while never really doing anything but playing himself. (Loesser couldn’t stand him as Nathan Detroit.) Brando can’t sing, but, otherwise, this is some of the most elegant acting he ever did—every gesture, every posture considered, not from the standpoint of an actor, but from the standpoint of a character who prizes and depends upon a particular attitude.

Brando had a talent for sly parody, playing off a concept or a character in ways that could be deeply funny. The most famous instance of this was The Freshman, in which the original Vito Corleone offered an extended, surreal lampoon of Brando-as-Godfather that put all other impressions in the shade. I’ve started to think of Guys and Dolls in the same way. Brando had previously worked with Mankiewicz on Julius Caesar, and, the more I watch it (and, the way my daughter’s obsessions work, I’ve been watching it a lot), the more I’m convinced that Brando’s Sky Masterson is a long and impish riff on his own performance as Mark Antony. Long story short: there are worse ways to spend two-and-a-half hours avoiding the mundane parade of horror and idiocy outside your door than to watch a young Marlon Brando dance his way through a role that, among other things, triangulates the craft, celebrity, and foolishness of acting itself.

Pulling combs through a backwash frame

When the plague hit Milan in 1576, the aristocrats and the governor fled. The bishop, Charles Borromeo, stayed. He made his will, picked out a place in the cathedral for his tomb, and went out to minister to the sick. As both Milan’s most important remaining civic leader and its spiritual guide, Borromeo’s efforts were sometimes at odds. As a public health official, he did much that was prudent, instituting strict protocols for the lay clergy who distributed communion to the afflicted, holding audiences from behind a screen, and, according to his 17th-century hagiographer Giovanni Pietro Giussano, “had, when he left the house, a wand carried in front of him, to keep those in the contagion’s snare away from himself and his assistants.”

But, in 1576, everyone knew that plagues were punishments from God for collective sin, and the atonement was public: large processions of people from all across the city, joining in a parade of penitence. The model was the procession organized and led by St. Gregory the Great in response to the plague that infected Rome in 590; eighty people collapsed along the way, but, at the end, the archangel Michael appeared on top of Hadrian’s Mausoleum and was seen to put his flaming sword back in its scabbard—God’s wrath had been appeased. Borromeo dutifully followed suit, though he did his best to limit the impact, having believers march only with members of their own parish. Eventually, though, Borromeo bowed to the necessity of social distancing. He set up altars in the street so the people could hear mass without leaving their houses. And, having distributed pamphlets of songs and devotions for the processions, he now advocated home use of those as well. Seven times a day, the cathedral bell rang, and the residents of Milan would come to their doors and windows and sing the litanies: “this great city, numbering three hundred thousand souls,” Giussano recorded, “praising God at the same time from all sides… infinite voices resounding and echoing, calling all heaven to help in that court of misery.”

Sound familiar?

Giussano did not, however, record what happened to the church choir section leaders.

***

Lists of resources for suddenly-bereft freelance musicians and performers in the wake of COVID-19 are starting to show up. This one, by Hannah Fenlon, Ann Marie Lonsdale, and Abigail Vega, is the most comprehensive (and ecumenical) one I’ve seen, but even that’s incomplete. The American Composers’ Forum has a list more targeted to new-music people, for example. A quick look around GoFundMe finds dozens of recently-started (so, caveat emptor, obviously), localized funds—here’s one for DC and Maryland arts freelancers. After throwing some money in a few directions, I’m tempted to save and screenshot the online evidence of this scattershot, ad hoc collection as damning evidence of musical life under late capitalism.

My first recession as a freelancer was 1990 and its dawdling recovery, which gave me an erroneous sense of the relationship between a musical career and the market: work was precarious but just viable during the recession, and precarious but just viable after it, and I thought that musical employment was, in a weird way, shielded from the cyclicality of capitalism by virtue of its own marginality. I was young and dumb! (Believe me, old and dumb is so much more fun.) But even as that early fantasy gradually dissolved, I still figured that capitalism would plod on, girded by its own instinct toward self-preservation. What the pandemic has made clear is how readily the system will feed on itself for even the most fleeting profit. Suicide is an arbitrage opportunity, apparently.

(Anyone who wants to appropriate “Suicide is an Arbitrage Opportunity” as the title of your next anarcho-punk song/album, be my guest.)

***

Creating the opera “Blue,” about police violence against young black men, was hard yet hopeful work (Washington Post, March 11, 2020)

A preview for a production that was, along with so many others, canceled. It’s currently scheduled to be part of Mostly Mozart at the end of July; go see it if you can. It won’t be rescheduled in DC until 2021-22 at the earliest, I’m guessing, but I hope it’s staged here sooner than later.

These sorts of interview-heavy features can sometimes be a slog to pull together, but this one was a dream: I don’t think I’ve ever left so much marvelous dialogue on the cutting room floor. (I even got to eavesdrop on a rehearsal!) A lot of dedicated people are taking a financial hit because of the cancellation. Forwarding some coffee money to AGMA would be a nice idea.

***

This newsletter is also a little bit of a preview: the next Score column for the Boston Globe will consider Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Pestis Mediolanensis, a motet-slash-oratorio about Charles Borromeo and the 1576 Milan plague.

I’m not going to stumble through that much 17th-century Italian source material and not get as much mileage out of it as I can. Stay well, everybody. See you (virtually) at the colloquium.

Procrastination stole my time

For a soundtrack to this post, I was going to link to my favorite British glam-rock-spawned song with the title “Fever of Love,” only to discover that there’s also another British glam-rock-spawned song with the title “Fever of Love.” The research, it never stops.

***

In the outbox:

Score: Lukas Foss and Everett Titcomb, building houses (Boston Globe, February 27, 2020)

NSO and Noseda show off souvenirs of an abandoned Asia tour (Washington Post, February 28, 2020)

WNO’s new ‘Don Giovanni’ is a monster that feels timely without trying (Washington Post, March 1, 2020)

‘Samson and Delilah’ has old-school opera style and strengths (Washington Post, March 2, 2020)

Daniil Trifonov takes on a rite of Bach and earns our reverence (Washington Post, March 5, 2020)

***

I was supposed to be in New York City this Friday, giving a pre-concert talk ahead of the opening concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Beethoven cycle at Carnegie Hall. But, instead, thanks to COVID-19, I will be at home. (We’re fine! But my wife’s workplace has instituted travel restrictions such that, if I make the trip, she would have to self-quarantine for 14 days, which is neither fair to her nor, frankly, practical for any of us.) I had been looking forward to this for months. It’s been a depressingly long time since I’ve been able to have a parley with a New York audience.

Apologies, NYC! Be smart, take care of each other, and, hopefully, I can come back at some point, and you can hear how Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies are like Roxy Music’s first two albums.

(Given that the severity of the outbreak in the US is in large part due to the fact that the federal response is currently being dictated by the whims of a spoiled tub of Miracle Whip, please vote Democratic this November? Even if the Democrats nominate a broken 8-track cartridge of Donny and Marie songs? Which, to be fair, they might.

I should note that one of the earliest and enduring treasures of my record collection is an original 1976 copy of Donny & Marie: Featuring Songs from Their Television Show, which is an amazing piece of vinyl in every way. Take, as but a single example, the final track, their usual sign-off, “May Tomorrow Be a Perfect Day.” While this studio version, sadly, lacks the prominent wah-wah disco guitar that sometimes turned up on the broadcast, it does feature, in the Vegas-style big band playout, an uncredited sax player dropping in a sassy little four-bar solo. And then, on the next go-round of the chorus, at the exact same spot, we hear the exact. Same. Solo.

Take that, Steve Reich! When I was a DePaul undergrad, my roommate and I had a transcription of this solo taped to our refrigerator.)

***

This caught my eye. It popped up on the blog of Elizabeth de Brito’s online radio show The Daffodil Perspective, in an interview with a couple of people who don’t listen to classical music, about what they felt to be barriers to new listeners:

What do you think about the language used to describe classical music? 

Anton: It feels like being back in school exams (in school asking about tempos, key signatures. It’s not simply the language itself but the fact that description is an intrinsic part of the music. It’s like there’s a prerequisite of knowledge. It’s not like it’s not possible to learn about the basics but having to do so is like putting a restriction on it.

Nina: It’s so different, seems like it’s splitting itself from other genres, using a different vocabulary, often to describe the same things, like songs are arias, lyrics are libretto. Needing to look something up all the time just puts a barrier to understanding the music.

I very much am of two minds about this passage! I don’t want people to feel like they’re being policed out of a fandom by language. But language is part of what genre is. As a practitioner, critic, and fan, I’ve made my way through dozens of musical genres and sub-genres, and every one has its own way of talking about music: a distinct terminology, a distinct vocabulary signaling what’s considered good and what’s considered bad, a distinct corpus of common-ground artists and repertoire. I mean, compare this paragraph from Matthew Ismael Ruiz’s Pitchfork review of the new Bad Bunny album:

The highlights are plentiful; early singles “Vete” and “Ignorantes” occupy the suave sadboi lane he’s best known for, but “Yo Perreo Sola” and “Bichiyal” rock raw, stripped-down reggaetón beats evocative of the genre’s “Gasolina” era. And he doesn’t completely abandon the sounds of the trap, either: The Anuel AA collab “Está Cabrón Ser Yo” could just have easily found itself on the Migos’ Culture III.

Do I know what all that means? No. Do I want to know? Yes. Maybe it’s because I spend a good portion of every day dealing with words, but I don’t feel like this review is throwing up a barrier; I feel like it’s giving me the tools to start finding my own way around the music and the scene, if I’m curious enough to want to do that. Everybody has their own favorite examples of impenetrable and/or purple writing about classical music. (Heck, I have my own favorite examples of my impenetrable and/or purple writing about classical music.) But that’s not a vocabulary problem, that’s a bad writing problem. Concert presentation and format still fail newcomers too much of the time, and how and where jargon and terminology are used is a part of that. But being welcoming is not the same thing as preemptively providing answers to every last mystery. Nobody holds on to frictionless art.

***

Ethan Iverson’s interview with Bertha Hope is a vein of gems.

What Frank [Lowe]’s music reminded me a little bit was Ornette Coleman. Thanks to Billy Higgins, I spent hours and hours listening to the early rehearsals of Ornette’s music with Don Cherry and Charlie Haden. I was right there when Ornette was changing his style…. They rehearsed at Billy’s house. I was there a lot.

God, I love watching rehearsals. One of the very best things about being at Tanglewood was taking a long lunch hour and eavesdropping on ensembles of all shapes and sizes rehearsing. I wish more performers and groups would do open rehearsals—and I wish more open rehearsals were actual rehearsals, rather than just polished run-throughs. I learned a ton from watching other people practice. I also found it totally captivating.

The cult of being note-perfect all the time is probably why more musicians don’t let spectators in on at least some of their rehearsals. A public presence means pressure to do a good job. But what about a virtual audience? I would watch a live-streamed rehearsal. There’s an opportunity there! Honestly, the way things are going, we might not be going out much for a while.

Technical styles that’ll be full of technology

Because Soho the Dog’s critic-at-large, Helena B., had last week off, I did, too (at least on the newsletter front). Here’s what you may have missed:

Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony live—and work—for the present (Washington Post, February 14, 2020)

At the Kennedy Center, pianists Lewis and Osborne work in miniature (Washington Post, February 19, 2020)

Noseda returns to the NSO podium and, just in time, finds the narrative (Washington Post, February 21, 2020)

The National Philharmonic presents and proposes music of black composers (Washington Post, February 24, 2020)

N.B.: the Baltimore review marks my first published correction in the Post. It was a good run while it lasted.

The Lewis/Osborne recital had me thinking about technology—specifically, the weird development of piano technology. The piano evolved pretty continuously from its early-18th-century origins: wood frames became iron frames, straight-stringing gave way to (mostly) cross-stringing, the key-hammer action went through a bunch of adjustments and improvements, pedals moved from knees to feet, &c., &c. And then, sometime toward the end of the 1800s, everybody decided that the piano had reached more or less its final form. Which is not to say that the piano is a perfect instrument; a large part of piano training, in fact, is mastering techniques for overcoming its quirks. Which maybe was been part of the point. This, the entire late-Romantic piano-playing culture seemed to say, this is the appropriate level of difficulty that every future pianist should be required to overcome. Since then, it’s training and performance that has been the locus of development. Piano writing and piano playing in the 21st century is far beyond what it was 150 years ago! But I wonder how much more innovation can be squeezed out of the piano on the technique end.

One of the things I’ve been fascinated by in 21st-century pop music is the wholesale and unapologetic embrace of technological development. If a sound or a passage is unsuitable, or difficult, or impossible for a standard instrument, the sound or the passage is realized through technological augmentation or substitute, with nobody—performers, producers, listeners—blinking an eye. Here’s a theory: when people talk about musical traditions or styles having or not having “relevance,” maybe a lot of the time what they really mean is that the favored technology of a musical tradition or style is obsolete. “Relevance” isn’t cultural, but an expression of a style’s penchant for embracing (or, if you like, fetishizing) a technological cutting edge. That applies to distribution, too—when I hear someone citing a supposed golden age of classical-music currency and cultural status in the mid-20th-century, I wonder how much of that is simply acknowledging the heyday of the LP as a shiny new format.

(A few years ago now, I started to unpack some ideas related to this for NewMusicBox. Then life got in the way! I should pick up that thread again someday.)

***

I spent part of today at the Library of Congress, doing some due diligence in the archives of my old teacher, Lukas Foss, for an imminent column. There wasn’t much related to the column, but I did find a couple of birthday cards. There was this one, a 40th-birthday greeting to Foss from Witold Lutosławski:

(The footnote for the non-existent Ondes Martenot part: “The author does not love this instrument”.)

And then there was a draft for a card from Foss himself to (I’m guessing) Michael Tilson Thomas:

Empires rise and fall, but we’ll always have composers goofing off.

I was born a motivation

On the job:

National Symphony Orchestra considers the one and the many (Washington Post, February 7, 2020)

(Plus one I forgot to link to last week:

At the Kennedy Center, Eschenbach casts the NSO in standard but staunch roles (Washington Post, January 25, 2020))

Critic-at-large Helena B. was my date for this last NSO concert. The combination of the Grieg Lyric Suite and the Dvořák Cello Concerto drained her six-year-old’s reserve of patience. But then she was entranced by the Nielsen 4th. The lesson for anyone out there programming a kid’s concert: kettledrums, my friend. Kettledrums.

* * *

RIP Mirella Freni. Here’s a screenshot from a 1988 production of La Bohème at the San Francisco Opera, with Freni as Mimi and—who else?—Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo.

If you look carefully, you can see Pavarotti wielding a spoon and tucking into a dish of something behind that wine bottle. According to stagehands, that was a scoop of ice cream that Pavarotti had suggested be served to Freni as part of the Bohemians’ Cafe Momus repast—which Pavarotti then, every night, hijacked for himself. I, for one, am happy that the look on her face at that moment was preserved for posterity.

* * *

The cultural anemometer has been predicting another reckoning with the European classical canon at the center of conservatory musical education, best summed up by Doug Shadle’s call to “Cancel the 19th Century.” One could also cite Andrea Moore’s proposed moratorium on Beethoven performances for his 250th-anniversary year. Given how much iconoclasm has been a part of the warp and weft of music history, I’m always at least open to suggestion about this sort of thing. (Of course, now I’m working on both an article and a lecture on Beethoven. Life comes at you fast.)

Back when I was a theory teacher, I always made it a point to tell students that they weren’t learning 18th- and 19th-century common-practice European musical techniques because that music was somehow better than anything else, but rather because that practice was a) easy to systematize, thus b) easy to teach, thus c) a pretty efficient way to jumpstart your brain into making connections between hearing music, reading music, and playing music.

Still, I would hardly insist that the classical music is the only common practice that can get you from point a) to point c). But there is one possible advantage of traditional classical conservatory-style training that I think about quite a bit. I was reminded of it by this passage, from Shock and Awe, Simon Reynolds’ history of glam rock:

Every once shockingly ‘real’ form of expression eventually becomes a set of mannerisms, emptied out by repetition and the passage of time. This process would play out in music time and time again: rock’n’roll, punk, hip hop—each became a code replicable by inauthentic outsiders, a tradition that outlived its original function or context.

One of the things I have always loved about classical music—even when, career-wise, it wasn’t loving me back—is how it all seems to skip straight past that “real” phase and straight into the mannerist one. The bulk of the canon, after all, pre-dates the whole idea of authenticity. Styles change, but the styles are all and to a large extent purposefully manufactured. There is the score and its realization—which is to say, there is the code, and the replication of the code.

On the one hand, it’s dangerous—empty repetition and all. But, on the other hand, it’s liberating. In theory, we all can make equally strong claims on the tradition, simply because we’re all strangers to it. The original function or context becomes something to be lovingly recreated, creatively mutated, or cheerfully ignored. And if that freedom is in tension with a rigid canon of repertoire and training, well, whose fault is that? One thing at the core of the problems with conservatory training, its brittleness and abuse, might be the inappropriate application and exploitation of authenticity as an existential and moral quality, a quality that’s foreign to so much of the music as it was made and originally performed. The relevant patterns of power are intertwined with assertions of that authenticity; sweeping it away would be a fair amount of work. But a first step toward reforming music education would be to admit that, at this point in history, we’re all inauthentic outsiders to the classical tradition. A second step would be to recognize that as the virtue that it is.

And I could have the faintest idea

Miscellaneous recent coverage:

At the NSO, a program under vibrant control (Washington Post, January 17, 2020)

Kopatchinskaja, Campbell subvert classical conventions (Washington Post, January 22, 2020)

At the Kennedy Center, Eschenbach casts the NSO in standard but staunch roles (Washington Post, January 25, 2020)

Poulenc Trio confronts their namesake’s image (Washington Classical Review, January 26, 2020)

Score: Han Young-Suk helped the world discover Korean dance (Boston Globe, January 30, 2020)

Honeck guest-conducts the NSO, offering the power of sound (Washington Post, January 31, 2020)

That last review originally had a kicker alluding to Current Events. On the one hand, was it a little bit superfluous? Absolutely. On the other hand, this was taking place in Washington, D.C.; I guarantee that everybody in the auditorium was well aware of the what has been happening on the other side of town, and was either hearing the music through that scrim or relying on the music to distract.

On a related note, let me present to you perhaps the greatest painting of the Renaissance.

This is the portrait of Pope Paul III and his grandsons by Titian, painted sometime between 1545 and 1546. It’s a fairly well-known painting, but I find it especially interesting because its perceived greatness is directly proportional to how much one knows about its subjects and its context. First off, you need to know about the Farnese family. Start with Paul III, born Alessandro Farnese in 1468. Paul III could have been one of the most influential popes. He was cultured; he increased the intellect and ability of the cardinalate; and managed to inaugurate the Council of Trent in an effort to bring the church back together after Martin Luther’s Reformation. But he was also insecure: the Farneses had been well-off, but Paul III was the first of the line to attain real power, power that he was desperate to keep in the family.

Alessandro Farnese, on the left, was the beneficiary and victim of that desperation. He was the eldest son of Pier Luigi Farnese, the Duke of Parma—Paul III’s illegitimate son, legitimized by Pope Julius II—and would have been in line to succeed his father except that, at the age of 14, he was instead made a cardinal. The blatant nepotism did not go unnoticed in the halls of power; moreover, it dismayed Alessandro, who not only forfeited his claim to the dukedom, but also his marital prospects. Instead, the rights of primogeniture passed to Alessandro’s younger brother Ottavio—the figure on the right.

What you also need to know is that a) Titian, instead of relying on sketches, worked out his compositions on the canvas, as he painted, and b) this particular painting is unfinished. Which means that, unusually among Titian’s portraits, this one preserves something close to his first impression. X-ray analysis of Titian’s surviving works has shown that, very often, his final, polished versions of his portraits of powerful figures were finessed from a more blunt initial conception into more flattering form. This one, though, was never given that final finesse, and Titian’s keen perception of psychology takes center-stage. The awkwardness is palpable. Ottavio, presumably in the process of prostrating himself to kiss the pope’s feet, looks as if he is about to fall over. The elderly Paul III, hunched over, with an iron grip on the throne, has an expression that is equal parts impatience and paranoid suspicion. (Notice how his eyes don’t quite meet Ottavio’s.) Alessandro, too, has a hand on the throne—obvious symbolism for his assumed succession to the papacy, which never actually came to pass—and peers out from the canvas, as if looking for an escape from the family dynamic. None of the figures seem to be in the same picture. Originally, Titian had Alessandro further to the left, but (presumably at Alessandro’s behest) repainted him to be closer to the pontiff. That results in my favorite detail: Titian then repainted the red table in the foreground, but didn’t ever finish painting Paul’s right hand. His grandson’s ambition seems to be taking an actual corporeal toll, Paul literally consumed by his corruption. Instead of an image of family authority, the painting instead becomes an unusually incisive snapshot of isolation and disintegration, the inevitable corrosion of a blind pursuit of power and influence.

One last moral: you might not have known much about the Farnese family, one of the most powerful in 16th-century European politics. But you probably already knew who Titian was.

* * *

Peter Serkin died last Saturday. I reviewed him a few times; I still think about this recital. (In retrospect, the hook on which I hung that review is a little artificial. Still, Serkin playing pianissimo remains one of the most magical sounds I’ve ever experienced as a concertgoer.) But I think I can best sum up his excellence thus: I heard him as the soloist in three of Seiji Ozawa’s periodic Boston Symphony performances of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, and Serkin actually convinced me that it was a good piece. Every note seemed like a newly-discovered surprise, a clue in a twisty, wildly entertaining whodunnit.

In a 2012 interview with Richard Scheinen, Serkin talked about what he learned from jazz:

[T]he quality of making something up on the spot, based on a real sense of discipline at the same time, which is something I really admire in classical music performances, too. With all the work that goes into it, and all the considerations of a composer’s intentions — that there should still be that sense of spontaneity, that it’s happening right now, on the spot.

When I think about the music I loved to hear Serkin perform, I realize it all had that quality, that necessity of seeming to be made up as it went along. When the repertoire wasn’t amenable to that ideal, the result could be eccentric. But when it was, he had me holding my breath.

(I also turned pages for him once. Not my finest hour! He was imperturbable.)

* * *

I was in a Target the other night, and I noticed that season 17 of Family Guy was now out on DVD. Seventeen seasons! I don’t really have an opinion on Family Guy itself, but that unexpected (to me) amount of mileage sparked a glimpse of a theory of 21st-century culture: at the moment, any idea, any style, stance, artifact only has cultural currency in as much as it lends itself to being run into the ground. Even defining patterns of current politics and society can be considered as deceased horses, persistently flogged. We are saturated with recursive familiarity, loops that continue, unbroken, even as they erode everything around them. And I am reminded of one of my favorite old, cheap keyboards: the Casio SK-1, the first consumer-grade sampling keyboard. It was so cheap that your homemade sample (yes, you could only record one at a time) would only be retained in memory so long as you didn’t turn the thing off. I used to think that was a drawback. Now? I’m not so sure.

My brother ye ben by nativité

Lullay My Father mm1-3_0001

Guerrieri: Lullay My Father (2019) (PDF, 52Kb)



Happy Holidays! This year’s card is a theologically and harmonically twisty Christmas carol, with a text freely adapted from a carol in the 15th-century Stanhope Abbey manuscripts.

In the spirit, here’s a 15th-century recipe (source) for fig turnovers:

Risshewes. ¶ Take figges, and grinde hem aƚƚ rawe in a morter, and cast a lituƚƚ fraied oyle there-to; And þen̄ take hem vppe yn̄ a vesseƚƚ, and caste there-to pynes, reysyns of coran̄ce, myced dates, sugur, Saffron̄, pouder ginger, and salt: And þen̄ make Cakes of floure, Sugur, salt, and rolle þe stuff in thi honde, and couche it in þe Cakes, and folde hem togidur as risshewes, And fry hem in oyle, and serue hem fortℏ.

[Rissoles. Take figs, and grind them in a mortar, and add a little frying oil to that; and then put them in a bowl, and add to it pine nuts, dried currants, minced dates, sugar, saffron, powdered ginger, and salt: and then make cake dough of flour, sugar, and salt; roll portions of the fig mixture in your hand, then wrap them in the cake dough, folding the dough together as rissoles; and fry them in oil, and serve.]