Happy Birthday Gustav Mahler, Counter Culture Hero (July 7, 1860 – May 18, 1911)

By S. Stasov
Middle-aged man, seated, facing towards the left but head turned towards the right. He has a high forehead, rimless glasses and is wearing a dark, crumpled suit
Photo: Wikipedia

The Jewish Bohemian Gustav Mahler is one of today’s most cherished composers. During the 1960s Mahler’s popularity peaked when he was discovered by the young, impassioned, radical mavens of that period, who embraced his music for its emotional intensity and complexity. Lydia Seifter, Madison pianist and teacher, came of age in that thrilling era of discovery. Lydia is a treasure trove of knowledge about Mahler’s music and biography. I asked her for her thoughts on Mahler. Here is her reply:

“Mahler had an active, vibrant, completely engaged intellect. He was capable of conversing with top intellectuals in many fields, including science, literature, and philosophy, who were astounded by the depth of his knowledge. His music depicts the full spectrum of human experience. It takes a courageous listener to enter into that territory. Mahler is not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for the faint of intellect. The emotions Mahler expresses are authentic, not airbrushed. His music is an all-encompassing fusion of the intellectual, the philosophical, the emotional, and the spiritual. Mahler was a veritable dynamo of professional activities. He was a celebrity conductor as well as a composer. He became a hero to the counter-culture in the 1960s.”

Mahler had plenty of emotionally wrenching conditions to inspire him. Half his brothers and sisters died, his wife cheated on him, and shortly after one of his children died, he developed a lethal heart infection. When Mahler was appointed music director of the Vienna Opera, there were accusations of “the Jewification of music.” However, Tchaikovsky, who met Mahler in 1882, described him as “astounding,” a “genius who is burning to conduct.” This incendiary spirit can be heard in many of Mahler’s compositions.

This is the first recording of Das Lied von der Erde, conducted by Bruno Walter, close friend of Mahler

Madison pianist Lydia Seifter accompanies Karen Wilberg in Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde

Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts: Who is Gustav Mahler? 1960

Happy Birthday Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky! (May 7, 1840 – Nov. 6, 1893)

By S. Stasov

Photo: Google Images

Tchaikovsky’s sexual practices and his rumored self-execution have been popular subjects of biographical analysis. His same sex relationships were a widely acknowledged secret in Russian musical circles during an era that was calmly tolerant of the pervasive homosexuality of the ruling classes. Within days of his death, stories began spreading that the depressive genius had not really died from cholera, which was the official cause. It was whispered that he was ordered to commit suicide by a so-called court of honor or else be exposed to the tsar for his sexuality.

These speculations have been fueled by Anthony Holden’s recent lurid book, Tchaikovsky: a biography. Alexander Poznansky, a Slavic librarian at Yale, dismisses this enduring gossip with his fact based argument in Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man. He argues that Tchaikovsky did indeed succumb to cholera at the age of 53 during an epidemic that swept St. Petersburg in the fall of 1893.

The controversy surrounding Tchaikovsky’s death can be divided into two camps: the suicide theorists and the cholera adherents. To make things more complicated, there are differing witness reports about how the composer may have contracted cholera, which was rarely seen in upper class individuals like Tchaikovsky. Cholera tended to afflict only the poor to such a degree that Tchaikovsky’s patrician physicians had themselves never even seen a case of cholera.

The cholera story has its incongruities. Tchaikovsky’s brother and first biographer, Modest, claims that Tchaikovsky contracted cholera by impatiently gulping down a glass of unboiled water in their kitchen, a dangerous action during the epidemic. Their nephew tells a similar story of seeing Tchaikovsky carelessly drink impure water, although his version has this take place in a restaurant. Both claim to be eyewitnesses to this uncharacteristic behavior from the otherwise fastidiously hygienic Tchaikovsky, although they don’t agree about the day or location of this reckless act.

Holden’s evidence regarding Tchaikovsky’s alleged suicide is flimsy at best, based on rumors and gossip, he-said-she-said nonsense that is so loopy one wonders how it could have survived all these years since Tchaikovsky’s death. There is no hard evidence that Tchaikovsky committed suicide, nor is there any evidence of the court of honor. Holden’s source for this “incontrovertible hard evidence” is an elderly Russian émigré who claims that she was told about the court of honor by someone else who was told about it; that someone heard it from yet another person who was listening at the door where this court was supposedly held in 1893!

To further advance the myth of Tchaikovsky’s suicide was the fact that days before he died, he had just conducted the premier of his 6th Symphony, The Pathétique, which is such sad and depressingly gorgeous music that listeners were convinced it was his own requiem. Yet, at this time, late fall 1893, Tchaikovsky was full of plans and ideas, looking forward to the continued glory and creative opportunities that his immense fame had brought him. Fanning this controversy, which in some ways is comparable to the debate over JFK’s assassination in its heavily disputed positions over the death of a beloved figure, is the fact that the Tchaikovsky archives in Russia are not yet opened to Western scholars. To complicate matters even more, there are few Western musicologists who have mastered Russian enough to be Tchaikovsky specialists.

Tchaikovsky is not only Russia’s most illustrious composer, he was their first academically trained great composer. During his youth, it was out of the question for someone of Tchaikovsky’s genteel birth to aspire to a career in music. There were no music schools in Russia until the St. Petersburg Conservatory opened in 1862. Tchaikovsky was among its first graduates. Unlike his contemporaries Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky received a formal education in music. Trained in Western theory and forms, his work was imbued with fiery Russian passion. He was internationally lionized during his lifetime, and is today the world’s most popular composer, along with his idol, Mozart.

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Charles Dutiot and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande 1975

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto; Isaac Stern, Eugene Ormandy

Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart; Eula Beal

Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony Pathétique; Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic

Happy Birthday Paul Robeson! (April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976)

By S. Stasov

Paul Robeson was the son of a slave who escaped bondage to become a Presbyterian minister. Abundantly talented in multiple areas, the handsome Robeson was intellectually and academically brilliant, musically gifted, and a superb athlete. At age 17 he attended Rutgers University on scholarship, earning varsity letters in four sports. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa, he graduated as class valedictorian. Robeson attended Columbia Law School, but faced racial strife as a lawyer.

He turned to theater, where his acting and vocal gifts found welcoming appreciation. His groundbreaking Othello, his beautifully sung recitals, and remarkable linguistic gifts (he could speak between 15 and 20 languages) brought him to the international stage in the 1930s. He became an outspoken opponent of fascism and bigotry at home and abroad. Robeson was drawn to communism, and confronted no racism in his trips to the USSR. Senator Joseph McCarthy labeled Robeson a danger to American democracy, launching a successful campaign of persecution and silencing that culminated in the revocation of Robeson’s passport.

A superbly gifted artist, culture warrior, and civil rights advocate, Robeson was done in by his own controversial radical politics, ultimately withdrawing into seclusion during the last years of his life.

Songs My Mother Taught Me (Dvorak)

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 1943 sung by Paul Robeson in Yiddish in Moscow 1949

Soviet USSR Anthem in English sung by Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson on Othello: first black American to play role

Robeson: No More Auction Block

Robeson: Ode to Joy

Jacqueline Du Pré – Golden Girl of the Cello

By S. Stasov

Courtesy of Google Images

Jacqueline Du Pré made her debut as the beautiful Golden Girl of the cello when she was 16 years of age. Her playing had a richness and expressive depth made all the more potent by her charismatic stage presence.

In the 1960s, she and her husband, Daniel Barenboim, were among the most glamorous and talented musicians of the day. Considered the definitive cellist of that era, her playing went into noticeable decline in the 1970s. It was discovered that she had developed multiple sclerosis, and her performing career subsequently came to an end when she was only 28. Her life was tragically cut short at the age of 42 by that cruel disease.

Here she is at age 17 in 1962, performing Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words Op. 109, accompanied by her mother, pianist Iris De Pré.

Christopher Nupin’s legendary film of Du Pré, Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zuckerman, Itzhak Perlmanand Zubin Mehta performing Schubert’s Trout Quintet in A major D.667, written when he was 22 years old:

Happy Birthday Johann Sebastian Bach!

S. Stasov

Johann Sebastian Bach
Photo: Google Images

Johann Sebastian Bach seems to have unleashed and seeded the torrent of genius that became the Austro-Germanic school of music. It is as if there had been some kind of Hegelian consensus among a group of gifted souls who agreed to incarnate in roughly the same region – with overlapping lives – creating the tradition of what most people think of as classical music. Bach (1685-1750), the first great name in this tradition, was followed by Mozart, born 5 years after his death (1756-1791). While Mozart and Bach never met, Mozart was close with Bach’s son, J.C. Bach, whom he met in London during his childhood tours. The teen aged Beethoven (1770-1827) traveled to Vienna to study with Mozart, but both were burdened by the sudden occurrence of parental deaths, and Beethoven’s trip was cut short (Beethoven later described Mozart’s celebrated virtuosic keyboard playing as “choppy”). Franz Schubert lived in Vienna (1792-1828) in the shadow of the living legend, Beethoven, acting as his pall bearer in the funeral that preceded Schubert’s own by just 20 months. Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) music dramas are an outgrowth of Beethoven’s revolutionary symphonic style. Brahms (1833-1897) was the end of the road of Germanic musical genius, at least of the so-called First Viennese School. The Second Viennese School centered around Arnold Schöneberg’s atonal style, and is a different matter.

During his lifetime Bach was a renowned keyboard artist more famous for his acclaimed playing, especially of the organ, than for his composition. He lived long enough to see his own contrapuntal style dismissed as old fashioned, academic, and boring, to be replaced by the melody-oriented style that his son J.C. Bach advanced.

Born into a musical family on March 21, 1685, and orphaned by the age of 10, Bach was sent to live with an older brother who taught him music. He fathered 20 children with two wives, and left an enormous body of magnificently crafted, highly expressive work.

Bach’s legacy is immense. He composed prolifically, some of it produced for his eyes and intellect alone. He established what is today called ‘functional tonality’, the basic harmonic structural relationship of notes to which western ears are accustomed. His encyclopedic Well Tempered Clavier, Books 1 and 2, demonstrated the individual characters of each of the 24 major and minor keys with an exquisitely wrought prelude and fugue for each key. The Well Tempered Clavier is one of the most influential works in the Western musical canon.

Glenn Gould performs the Well Tempered Clavier

Happy Birthday Rimsky-Korsakov!

S. Stasov

Head of a man with dark greying hair, glasses and a long beard
Photo: Wikipedia

Rimsky-Korsakov is one of my favorite composers. Born on March 18, 1844, he was one of the original radical Russian composers who launched Russia’s own musical tradition. In the19th century it was believed that each nation had its own soul, and the arts were an expression of the spirit of each people. Rimsky’s music is strongly influenced by the Russian folk and church traditions. His music is highly melodious and colorful, some of it is unbelievably beautiful and exotically sensual.

His most famous work is Scheherazade, but other works of his have also seeped into the popular culture and are immediately recognizable. He wrote many wonderful operas that unfortunately remain unknown in the US, due to the Cold War and long standing tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

Brilliant recording of Scheherazade with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

Sergei Lemeshev sings one of Rimsky’s most famous melodies, The Song of the Indian Guest from the opera Sadko.

Song of India was a hit for Tommy Dorsey in 1938

Flight of the Bumblebee from the opera Legend of Tsar Saltan, arranged for piano by Rachmaninov. Evgeny Kissen performs.

March 7, 1994 Supreme Court Decision Says Parody is Fair Use! Celebrate with Dylan and Al Yankovic

By S. Stasov

Let’s celebrate a wise Supreme Court decision made on March 7, 1994. The Court ruled, in a rare unanimous decision, that parodies that poke fun at an original work can be considered “fair use”, and do not require the copyright holder’s permission. Well done, Supreme Court!

Bob Dylan’s early promo clip Subterranean Homesick Blues was one of the very first music videos. Filmed in an alley by D. A. Pennebaker as part of a documentary on Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, the cue cards were written out by Dylan, Donavan, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Neuwirth. Allen Ginsberg can be seen lurking in the background.


Al Yankovic made a parody film of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues with palindromes for lyrics.