Monday, July 25, 2005

Rambling Ruminations

This is the most interesting analysis project I've ever taken on. Just the preperatory work is staggering in it's magnitude. Since I haven't listened to the Ninth for about three years - intentionally - and I only ever listened to the Liszt transcription of it a couple of times before last week, I'm listening to it with fresh ears. As fresh as can be expected, anyway, since I'm sure that even with the extended layoff, I've still listened to the Ninth more than any other single piece of music.

My history with this symphony goes back, literally, to the very first memory that I have. Back in the very early sixties, the Huntley/Brinckley Report news program used the Scherzo of the Ninth as it's opening theme music. My father was a news junkie, and so it was on in our home every night. I never stayed around to listen to the news, but I vividly recall standing spellbound in the den listening to the opening music. I mean, like it happened five minutes ago. I was just barely walking at the time. The opening timpanic assaults followed by the fugatto simply captivated me. I wish I knew for sure which recording that the network used for the Huntley/Brinckley Report (I can't even remember if it was NBC, ABC, or CBS), because I would sure like to know and aquire it. I'm betting it was Toscanini's version, but I'm just not sure.

Years later, in 1983, I took a job as a roadie for a rock band that was doing a European tour just as I graduated from Berklee. Since I was going to be gone for at least nine months, I bought a Sony Pro Walkman (Very high tech for that time), and the cassette collection of Solti's Ninth that was available then on DG. That was actually quite an outlay of cash for me at the time. I can still remember going to a little hi-fi joint near Harvard to get the Walkman and a great record store nearby to buy the cassettes. I had a lot of other music with me for that year in Europe, but I listened to the Ninth an awful lot. When we were based out of Paris, I quickly learned that the Louvre had no admission on Wednesdays, so every Wednesday that we werent on some leg of the tour or other, I was there or at Jeau de Palme (sp?), which had all my favorite Impressionist stuff and was just down the mall. Walking through the Louvre with Beethoven as a soundtrack wasn't the highlight of my Parisian experience with the Ninth, however: One day I walked from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower listening to the Ninth, and when I got to the tower, the elevators were shut down for maintenance. One of the last things I did before I left Boston was to run in the Boston Marathon, so I was twenty-something and in excellent shape: I walked up the stairs all the way to the top deck listening to Beethoven. That was an amazing day. When I got to the top, there were only young people there, for obvious reasons, and adventurous ones at that. There must have been ten different nationalities represented, and fortunately for me, English was the common language, so we had a blast. I'm wasn't into the whole European "mixing hash with tobacco in a cigarette" thing though. I much preferred a pipe at the time.

Back in the states during my R&R guitarist days, I was one of the first kids on the block with a Discman, and the first CD's I bought were? Solti's 1985 recording of the Ninth, and Von Karajan's DG recording of Mozart's No. 41 and Haydn's No. 104 (That's a fabulous CD and the recordings actually date from 1978). I wish Solti's earlier recording was available on CD, because I preferred it to the latter one, but "oh well". I worked at Manny's Music on 48th Street in those days, and lived 'cross the river in Hoboken. I took the PATH train to 34th Street every morning and walked the rest of the way. Walking midtown Manhattan listening to the Ninth was sublime. This symphony is so universal that it really does fit in anywhere.

Of course, being an Apple guy, I had one of the first 5GB iPods ever made (Still have it and use it to this day, in fact). One of the first things I turned into MP3's and downloaded to it was that Solti CD of the Ninth I had bought all those years before. Also a motorcyclist (As opposed to a "biker": I have a pair of Beemers, no Harleys for moi), I got the iPod set up with a pair of Etymotic ER-4P insert-earphones that work like earplugs in eliminating external sound, while at the same time providing amazing fidelity, so that I can put them in under my helmet, and be in my iPod coccoon while I ride (Don't give me that "it's illegal!" nonesense: I'm a ruthlessly purist libertarian. Those laws are BS and have no place in a society of free men who are responsible for their own actions). I usually take at least one motorcycling vacation every year that is 4K miles or more, so I've listened to the Ninth in more than half of the States, I'm guessing.

Now that I live in one of the most remote areas in the lower 48, I do a lot of driving. The nearest towns to me are 25 miles east, 30 miles west, and 26 miles north. The nearest Wal-Mart is 68 miles away. I had to go there Friday because I was out of fingernails. Yes, fingernails: I use fake ones on my p, , a, and c fingers to play guitar, and I needed a new batch. My place to Fort Stockton was just enough time to listen to the Allegro, Scherzo, and the Adagio. On the way home I listened to the Finale, and then Pat Metheny's "One Quiet Night" to decompress.

I really can't stand the Finale. In fact, I pretty much hate it. Over 95% of the time I listen to the Ninth, I skip the finale. Since the Adagio leaves off at a very pleasant place, I never miss it in the least. The problem for me is primarily classical vocal technique: The tastelessly over-the-top vibratos literally hurt my ears. I'd rather listen to Megadeath or Metallica any day than to any classically trained singer. Are those idiots even capable of singling without vibrato?! In any event, I simply am forced to go to the Liszt transcription to even be able to tolerate the Finale. Asside from one of the most kick-ass fugattos ever written, in my opinion the Finale of the Ninth is one of the poorest of all of Beethoven's creations. When you get past the bombast, there is really very little "there" there. Or at least that's my current impression. We'll see what I discover when I analyze it.

I may hate the Finale of the Ninth, but I love living out here.


Blogger solitudex said...

Arh? A classical composer prefering rock singers to classical singers? That's new...

I've always admired the wonderful tone and myriads of passionate emotions that the classically trained human voice can produce. Oh well, but each to his own. =)

9:16 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Well, there was obviously some hyperbole in that statement, but I'm serious about preferring a good jazz singer over any classical singer.

As I learn more and more of the details of music history, one of the recurring themes is that every style or trend progresses until it becomes over-ripe, hyper-stylized, and needlessly formulaic. This is where contemporary traditional vocal practice is now. Not only vocal practice though, but string playing as well, especially among the virtuosi. I'm certain there is some cross-pollenization going on, because the same over-the-top operatic vibrato that gives me the heaves with vocalists also grates on my nerves with violin players. Joachim, who has a fairly good VERY early recording that survives, had a style that used vibrato sparingly, and therefore more effectively to my taste.

It is a shame that with all of the expressive and emotive revolutions that have occured in popular vocal idioms, traditional singers are utterly incapable of tapping into any of it due to the corner they've painted themselves into vis-a-vis their ludicrously over-developed technique. Though there are many things that irritate me about Barbara Streisand, her singing, especially from a couple of decades back, absolutely captivates me. Meanwhile, the supposedly superior classically trained female vocalists turn my stomach. I could say the same about an Ella Fitzgerald or a Mel Torme: In my view they are qualitatively superior to any classically trained singers.

8:44 AM  
Blogger John Lanius said...

I am totally with you on disliking most classical singers.

The one major redeeming feature of the fourth movement of Ludwig van's 9th is the [instrumental] fugue -- one of my favorites of all time.

11:22 PM  

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