an ode to coffee

"Les buveurs de café," by Flemish painter Paul-Joseph Delcloche (1716-1755)

Les buveurs de café,” by Flemish painter Paul-Joseph Delcloche (1716-1755)

Ah, coffee! The drink adored by artists around the world for centuries: musicians, painters, philosophers, writers….Without the late-night spurts of energy fueled by this fragrant, smoky black drink, who knows how much more barren our libraries and museums would be?! (Pardon my hyperbole…maybe I’ve had a little too much myself this morning.)

Coffee came from the Middle East to Europe through the trading ports of Venice, and even Pope Clement VIII could not resist its allure, saying, “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage!” Thus, in 1600, he declared coffee Christian, ignoring protests to ban the “Muslim drink,” and opened the door for coffee to saturate the West. (Thanks, Pope Clement. You the real MVP.) Coffee houses throughout Europe quickly became popular places for social gatherings, and the Zimmermannsche Kaffeehaus–or “Café Zimmermann”–in Leipzig is one of the most famous, for hosting public concerts in which many of J.S. Bach’s secular cantatas were performed…including:

The Coffee Cantata.

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musical excerpt: mendelssohn string quartet no. 2 in a minor

This quartet was written in 1827 by an 18-year-old Mendelssohn. How incredible it is that such an early work has the ability to take its audience captive from the first chords: wood and strings breathing and moving together, chorale form, through reverent, earnest harmonies that make you want to lean forward, hold your breath.

After this brief hymnal introduction, we are introduced to the motif that runs throughout the work: a dotted-rhythm question that speaks and then waits, perched breathless on the dominant, before repeating itself in hushed tones. The question is “Ist es wahr?”–“Is it true?”–and is taken from “Frage,” a song Mendelssohn had written a few months earlier.

Above: the opening motif from "Ist es wahr?" Below: the motif as quoted in the string quartet Op. 13.

Top: the opening motif from “Frage,” Op. 9 no. 1
Bottom: the motif as quoted in the string quartet Op. 13.

Ist es wahr? Ist es wahr?
Daß du stets dort in dem Laubgang,
An der Weinwand meiner harrst?
Und den Mondschein und die Sternlein
Auch nach mir befragst? Ist es wahr? Sprich!
Was ich fühle, das begreift nur,
Die es mit fühlt,
Und die treu mir ewig,
Treu mir ewig, ewig bleibt.
Is it true? Is it true
that over there in the leafy walkway, you always
wait for me by the vine-draped wall?
And that with the moonlight and the little stars
you consult about me also? Is it true? Speak!
What I feel, only she grasps —
she who feels with me
and stays ever faithful to me,
eternally faithful.

This motif opens and closes the quartet, bringing us back in cyclic form to the same profound, unanswered question.

(Motif is heard at 0:47 of the first movement)

merry christmas

In honor of the season, today we share the song “Geistliches Wiegenlied,” or “Sacred Lullaby” (Op. 91, no. 2), written by Johannes Brahms for alto, viola, and piano. The viola obbligato is the melody from a famous Christmas carol, “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein”–and Brahms even wrote the lyrics underneath the viola line.

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Here the song is performed by Jessye Norman (voice), Wolfram Christ (viola) and Daniel Barenboim (piano).

Die ihr schwebet
Um diese Palmen
In Nacht und Wind,
Ihr heilgen Engel,
Stillet die Wipfel!
Es schlummert mein Kind.

Ihr Palmen von Bethlehem
Im Windesbrausen,
Wie mögt ihr heute
So zornig sausen!
O rauscht nicht also!
Schweiget, neiget
Euch leis und lind;
Stillet die Wipfel!
Es schlummert mein Kind.

Der Himmelsknabe
Duldet Beschwerde,
Ach, wie so müd er ward
Vom Leid der Erde.
Ach nun im Schlaf ihm
Leise gesänftigt
Die Qual zerrinnt,
Stillet die Wipfel!
Es schlummert mein Kind.

Grimmige Kälte
Sauset hernieder,
Womit nur deck ich
Des Kindleins Glieder!
O all ihr Engel,
Die ihr geflügelt
Wandelt im Wind,
Stillet die Wipfel!
Es schlummert mein kind.

You who hover
Around these palms
In night and wind,
You holy angels,
Silence the treetops,
My child is sleeping.

You palms of Bethlehem
In the roaring wind,
How can you today
Bluster so angrily!
O roar not so!
Be still, bow
Softly and gently;
Silence the treetops!
My child is sleeping.

The child of heaven
Endures the discomfort,
Oh, how tired he has become
Of earthly sorrow.
Oh, now in sleep,
Gently softened,
His pain fades,
Silence the treetops!
My child is sleeping.

Fierce cold
Comes rushing
How shall I cover
The little child’s limbs?
O all you angels,
You winged ones
Wandering in the wind.
Silence the treetops!
My child is sleeping.

Many thanks to you faithful readers and contributors! Hope you have a blessed, safe, refreshing holiday season!

stranded on a desert island (#3)

A blog series in which a musician shares which three pieces they would choose to listen to, if they were hypothetically stranded on an island and could only listen to those three pieces for the rest of their life. Want to contribute? Contact me here!

This week one of my closest friends, Lauren Tokunaga, shares her choices:

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stranded on a desert island (#2)

A blog series in which a musician shares which three pieces they would choose to listen to, if they were hypothetically stranded on an island and could only listen to those three pieces for the rest of their life. Want to contribute? Contact me here!

This week, I share my own choices (and realize how cruel it actually is of me to limit people to only three pieces when I ask them this question)!

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music worth a thousand words

At mid-day on the 15th a letter came from the doctor with enclosures. I handed it to Frau Schumann in fear and trembling!  Were her leters being returned or was it a reply? She opened the letter, and could hardly stammer, "from my husband"; she could not read it for some time. And then, what unspeakable joy; she looked like the Finale to Fidelio, the F major movement in 3/4 time. I can describe it in no other way. One could not weep over it, but it fills one with a deep and joyful awe.

Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Joseph Joachim on September 17, 1854, after Robert Schumann’s institutionalization.

And the F major movement in question:

O Gott! O welch’ ein Augenblick!
O unaussprechlich süßes Glück!
Gerecht, O Gott, ist dein Gericht!
Du prüfest, du verläßt uns nicht.
O God! O what a moment!
O inexpressibly sweet happiness!
Righteous, O God, is Thy judgement!
Thou dost try, but not forsake us.

Sources:

danse macabre

Whether or not you celebrate Halloween, here’s a fun little piece that captures the spirit of October 31 festivities:

Saint-Saens’ Danse macabre is a tone poem that brings to life an ancient legend in which Death comes out at midnight on Halloween and summons the dead with his fiddle, invoking a riotous ball of the most macabre proportions as these skeletons dance on their own graves till dawn, when they must be banished to the underworld again for another year. The harp strikes twelve midnight. The fiddle screeches in with a devilish tritone. Bones rattle like xylophones as the skeletons’ crazed waltz commences.

stranded on a desert island (#1)

A new blog series in which a musician shares which three pieces they would choose to listen to, if they were hypothetically stranded on an island and could only listen to those three pieces for the rest of their life. Want to contribute? Contact me here!

This week’s contributor is Eric Tran, a fellow graduate student and a pianist friend who has an inspiring enthusiasm for music and also has the distinction of being both a composer and a talented performer. Without further ado:


Three pieces on a desert island.

This challenge is the worst. Just three pieces? On a desert island? Not even a *dessert* island? Both ways I’m sure to die quickly, but here I would be unable have my creme brûlée… nor would I be able to float to safety on a giant donut (would eat accidentally) or a raft of a million marshmallows tied together with twizzlers (would not eat).

OK, enough of the food fantasies. I will also assume that I would break the conditions of the challenge by selecting pieces that by nature would radically change – else I would select an improvisation. 😛

Here we go – three pieces accompanied by brief notes with my thoughts and experiences:

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musical excerpt: kinderszenen

As to the “Kinderscenen,” I owe to them one of the greatest pleasures of my life. You know, or you don’t know, that I have a little girl of three years old, whom everybody agrees in considering angelic (did you ever hear such a commonplace?). Her name is Blandine-Rachel, and her surname Moucheron. [Pet name; literally, “little fly.”] It goes without saying that she has a complexion of roses and milk, and that her fair golden hair reaches to her feet just like a savage. She is, however, the most silent child, the most sweetly grave, the most philosophically gay in the world. I have every reason to hope also that she will not be a musician, from which may Heaven preserve her!

Well, my dear Monsieur Schumann, two or three times a week (on fine and good days!) I play your “Kinderscenen” to her in the evening; this enchants her, and me still more, as you may imagine, so that often I go over the first repeat twenty times without going any further. Really I think you would be satisfied with this success if you could be a witness of it!

— Franz Liszt, in a letter to Robert Schumann, June 1839 (source)

musical excerpt: fuga from Bach’s sonata no. 2 in a minor

Bach can be one of the most difficult musical giants to grapple with. His works go beyond those of many other composers’ in their demands on mental acuity and musical finesse, and it’s no secret that many students struggle to find an appreciation for Bach, particularly when Baroque aesthetics and conventions seem so far removed from the modern world. For some, a love for Bach has to develop slowly over a longer time, with accumulated exposure to the expressiveness of his musical lines and the grand purity of his harmonies–and the growing realization of how deeply his music is steeped in the vibrant colors of his society, of dance or church or court.

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