Wagner, Mendelssohn, Korngold & beyond with Sam

Sam appears to be feeling a lot better.

Last week began with her staggering weakly, doing a scary impersonation of a carcass (lying on her side so forlorn in appearance that a couple of times I was asked to check whether she was still breathing!), and rarely even barking at the window.

That last tendency –barking at everyone including me & Erika—earned her the nickname “Cujo” from a neighbour who would hear her curious welcome. That’s in both senses of the word “curious”, given that she was both an object of interest and also expressing her own curiosity.

In the last week she’s become stronger every day, walking faster, then moving to a canter and lately, sometimes galloping full-tilt, especially when she scents another dog. And yes that leads to lots of ‘bark bark bark’.

On the day after I published the review of Alex Ross’s big Wagner book, I had the composer still on the brain, and so inevitably played something of his for Sam today. I sat down with my Tristan und Isolde score to play the last pages, as I often do (at least once a week). In the spirit of the serenade I spoke of in a previous blog, I undertook the piece a bit more deliberately, ignoring the usual tempi & most dynamics. Everything was slower, more careful, and almost entirely piano or pianissimo. The exception is the section where the accompaniment seems to burst forth in waves of sound, going from fortissimo to pianissimo; for this section I preserved the contrast although on a much smaller scale, ie mf to ppp rather than ff to pp.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover how moved Erika was by the performance. It’s a familiar piece after all (given that I inflict it on her so often) but played in a different way.

She liked it.

I then pulled out the Songs without Words, perhaps still mindful of Ross’s book and wanting to offer something tranquil from the other side of the conversation, namely that colleague & rival whom Wagner attacked for being Jewish, even though—like Meyerbeer—he was also an influence and a composer from whom he got some of his ideas. Yes I’m speaking of Felix Mendelssohn, a man with whom I identify very strongly. I mean there I am in church, playing the organ or singing, yet someone comes up to me to wish me a Happy Chanukkah. OR Hanukkah? Don’t ask me to spell it, I’m not Jewish even though I have enough of a sschnozzz on my face that by Hitler’s way of thinking (whereby “Juden” signifies a race not a religion)… I’d be sent to the showers. I identify with Mendelssohn, who gave us the stirring Reformation Symphony employing the melody from A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (a hymn I have trouble singing, because my voice tends to break over some of the words…. i never make it through the last verse, which always brings me to tears). Yet his contemporaries treated him with disdain, and that’s without thinking of a passionate anti-semite such as Wagner. Oh well…

I was again selective in what I played, as Sam had come over to the piano during the Wagner & was still lying quietly under the instrument.

First, #4 of the first book, Op 19.

Does it add an additional layer, that Barenboim is the pianist? you be the judge.

As you can see it has the additional advantage of brevity, all on a single page. I didn’t do any of the FFs as anything much beyond a mezzo-piano. One can still shape a piece softly, especially when the audience is so close as to practically be INSIDE instrument.

Then I played the previous one, perhaps because I was peering at its last page. Op 19 #3 finishes on the page opposite #4 in my copy, another treasure brought home from a used book store for all of $15.

Beautiful: and it sits perfectly on the piano

There are some pieces that are almost irresistible, the pleasure verging on something sexual. This one, Op 19 #3 is such a piece, the pianist enacting a kind of hunt with horns & horses, exhilarating, ESPECIALLY if you manage to play it right.

Not so much if you and your horses stumble.

Again, I was mindful of the doggie who isn’t supposed to be bark bark barking as part of the chase, no matter how loudly her master might want to holler “Tally HO!!”

While I do usually play it quickly & loudly, today was different, like a sleeping person recalling a hunt. Indeed we sometimes see Sam’s paws twitch in her sleep as though she were chasing squirrels in her dreams. This was like a hunt seen from afar through gauze or in an old black & white movie.

I’m mindful of black & white movies when I play from this book because I’m certain that Erich Korngold played these pieces in his preparation for collaboration with Max Reinhardt on Midsummernight’s Dream, first as a live performance and then in the Warner Brothers Film of 1935.

“Certain(?)” you may well ask.

I played two of the three piano pieces that Korngold repurposed & then orchestrated in his film-score.

The Venetianisches Gondellied (Venetian gondola song) that is #6 and last in book 1 (op 19), becomes a lullaby sung by Titania to Bottom.


She intones “sleep thou” solemnly (as in the melody in the piano), while he harmonizes with the occasional solemn “hee – haw” in reply. All by itself it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard, simultaneously gorgeous and funny at the same time.
Faeries prepare Titania spiders spin a gossamer veil accompanied by that ideal sort of music, a spinning song (the last thing I played today for Sam).

Korngold orchestrates it of course.

And later there’s another tune –that I didn’t play today—that Korngold uses to get the faeries to lead Titania & Bottom to bed, Op 67 #6, and right there in the same book with the spinning song Korngold used earlier in the same scene of the play. I’m intrigued that it’s a Wiegenlied (cradle song), which is stunningly apt: because it’s a cradle song and yes, because it’s pretty energetic. But hey, if you’re the queen of the faeries going to bed with a donkey perhaps it’s not likely to be a problem.

They weren’t going to bed merely to sleep, right?

The way Barenboim plays this, it isn’t bad as a cradle song, nowhere near as wild or libidinous as Korngold makes it.

That would be how I’d have to play it for Sam…. Next time I suppose.

This entry was posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s