Posts Tagged ‘Antonín Dvorák’

Who Tipped The Balance?

Thursday, October 15th, 2020

So what was it this week that got me – as I noted yesterday – in mind of the Righteous Brothers’ 1974 hit “Rock and Roll Heaven”?

Well, there was a conversation at one of my music groups at Facebook. One of the members – inspired, no doubt, by the recent passing of guitar genius Eddie Van Halen – asked when it would have been that the musical talent in Heaven’s band outweighed the talent here in the living world. The writer opined that the balance may have tipped when Prince died (2016), or when David Bowie passed (also in 2016), but seemed certain that if those transitions had not given the afterlife all-stars enough heft, the subtraction of Van Halen from this realm and his addition to the next had done the trick.

I was pondering the question, knowing my answer would be different, when I broke out in laughter. In the comments, someone had written, “Well, Bach died in 1750.”

That was no doubt a better response than anything I would have said, which might have included Robert Johnson (1938), Glenn Miller (1944), Louis Armstrong (1971), Duke Ellington (1974), John Lennon (1980), and on and on, including Richard Manuel (1986), Rick Danko (1999), George Harrison (2001), Clarence Clemons (2011), and Levon Helm (2012).

So I kept my personal Pantheon off the page and wandered along.

I also saw at Facebook this week a recurrent post – or one of several similar recurrent posts – that show portraits of departed musicians and asks which one the reader would bring back for one more show. I think there are several versions of that one, but the musicians whose faces I seem to see most frequently are Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, Elvis Presley, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Kurt Cobain.

I mentioned it to the Texas Gal after dinner the other day and told her that when I bother to leave an answer to those posts, I usually say “Beethoven.”

She shook her head. “Vivaldi,” she said, as I knew she would. I also know the program would include “The Four Seasons.” I told her that Vivaldi would be quite a show, too. And I said that although I’ve never bothered to make a ranking of my favorite classical composers, I imagine that if I did, the Italian Baroque master would likely end up in the top twenty or so.

And I added, thinking more deeply, that my choice of Beethoven for my concert would not indicate that he is my favorite classical composer. I have read, though, that he was likely the classical world’s second-best performer on the piano. The Texas Gal asked who was best. I told her I’d read over the years that Franz Liszt generally topped the list, adding that my choice simply reflected that I preferred Beethoven’s music to Liszt’s.

So who is my favorite classical composer? There are four that I would have to sort through: Mozart, mostly for his symphonies, especially No. 40 in G minor; Antonín Dvořák, mostly for Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World,” and his Slavonic dances; Bedřich Smetana, for his Ma Vlast (My Homeland), the set of six symphonic poems that includes “Vltava (The Moldau)”; and Franz Schubert, mostly for his Hungarian dances and his Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished).

Yes, there’s a Bohemian and Magyar tinge there. Works by composers from those areas touch something deep in me, as do works by Slavic composers from portions of Europe further east. (Think Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, and more.)

I’m not going to sort out those favorite composers today (and I may never do so). It’s enough to have a jumble of favorites for those moments when I want some classical tunes (and those moments do arise). For now, I’ll just leave some Dvořák here. This is Slavonic Dance No. 8 (Furiant, Presto), composed in 1878. I first heard it when I played it in a summer orchestra in 1967 or so.

Another Mentor Gone

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

The post below is one I wrote in 2011 about Dick Skewes. Mr. Skewes was the orchestra conductor at St. Cloud Tech High School when I was in junior high and during my first two years of high school. I played cornet for him during several summer programs and as a sophomore and junior, and he was easily one of the best and most influential teachers I ever had, helping me learn not just about music but about, among other things, preparation for performance and life both.

Dick Skewes passed on over the weekend at the age of 78, and many comments and posts on his Facebook page made it clear that he was, as I expected, similarly influential on the lives – in music and out – of many, many other students over the years.

When I noted last autumn the passing of my college mentor, E. Scott Bryce, I wrote, “It’s not an exaggeration to say that everything I’ve ever written since the autumn of 1975 has on it the fingerprints of E. Scott Bryce.”

Well, I can also say that every piece of music I’ve written or performed since the summer of 1967 has on it the fingerprints of Dick Skewes.

My love of classical orchestral music comes from a number of sources: My parents took me and my sister to numerous performances of the orchestra – and concert band and concert choir – at St. Cloud State when we were young. My mother and sister and I rarely missed a concert offered during my elementary and junior high years by the organization called Civic Music, which brought classical music to the St. Cloud Tech High gym/auditorium in many styles: piano soloists or duets, woodwind or brass ensembles, chamber orchestras, full orchestras and – for a few years – annual visits by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

But the most formative influence on my classical listening had to be Dick Skewes, who was the director of the St. Cloud Tech High orchestra from sometime during my junior high years until the end of my junior year in high school. I began playing cornet during the summer between fifth and sixth grade. It was three years later, as eighth grade ended, that Mr. Skewes entered my life.

My sister – three years older than I – played violin in Tech’s orchestra and she would do so in the summer orchestra program. I don’t know if the summer program was new that year or if I’d simply not noticed it before, but for about eight weeks during the summer, the St Cloud Tech orchestra would rehearse once a week – Monday evenings – and perform in a concert on the front lawn of the high school on Tuesday evenings.

And, as the summer of 1967 began, Mr. Skewes saw that the orchestra was short of trumpet/cornet players, and through my sister, extended me an invitation, which I accepted. For that summer and the next, and then for my sophomore and junior years in high school, I played trumpet parts on my cornet in Dick Skewes’ orchestra. (I do not recall an orchestra program during the summer between my sophomore and junior years, but if there was one, I played in it.)

And the music we played! Oddly, the titles of most of the works we played during the summers of 1967 and 1968 have faded, but the bulk of our programs was pulled from the work of Eastern European and Russian composers. These were pieces filled with heroic and tragic melodies, music that to this day for me personifies the Slavic soul. Among the pieces I recall from those first two summers in orchestra are an adaptation of Mussorgsky’s work for piano, “The Great Gate of Kiev” and one of the Slavonic dances by Antonín Dvořák.

In 1968, I moved the eight or so blocks from South Junior High to Tech High School and joined the Tech orchestra as a permanent member. And Mr. Skewes continued to challenge us with the music he selected for us, much of it again by Eastern European and Russian composers. Here’s a performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic of the overture to Mikhail Glinka’s opera Russlan and Ludmilla, a piece we in Tech’s orchestra struggled with during the first half of my sophomore year.

As I had been during my two summer stints, I was thrilled. This was so far removed from the classical music I’d expected to play. Don’t get me wrong: I love a wide variety of classical music. But it seemed to me the use of the horn section – where I lived – was far different in the works by the Slavic composers than it was among the works of many of the other great composers. As an example, one of the other pieces we played during my sophomore year was the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, a piece that has been over the years one of my favorite bits of classical listening. But when one listens closely, the horns are not at all busy. And one of the most frustrating things for me as a cornet player in the orchestra was patiently counting in my head forty measures of rest and then playing eight notes before sitting back to count another forty measures. I didn’t have to do that very often with the Slavic composers.

I know I frustrated Dick Skewes. I was not a hard worker. I had a good ear, and my lip was in good enough shape for performances. But I did not practice hard at the music we played. Most of it came easily, so when I was playing at home, I spent most of my time making my way through popular music songbooks. (Not rock and pop; the tunes in the songbooks I paged through were classic pop, things that Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and, yes, Al Hirt had or would have recorded.)

So I slid by on the gifts I had, not expanding them. Until Mr. Skewes selected for our orchestra’s competition season and winter concert season during my sophomore year the First and Fouth Movements of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From The New World.” Written by the Czech composer during a visit to the United States in the 1890s, the work pulls Native American and African American motifs into the classical form.

As our orchestra struggled through the pieces during the early portion of my sophomore years, I was stunned at what I was hearing. There was so much for the horns to do! But I had a major challenge: The trumpet part was written for a trumpet keyed in A. In other words, the note called a C on such a horn would be the same as an A on a string instrument or a piano. Most trumpets and cornets – mine included – were keyed in B-flat, which meant that the notes I was supposed to be playing were a half-note different than the notes that I was instinctively reading and instinctively hearing in my head.

Mr. Skewes’ solution was perfect for me. After school one day, he sat me down with my trumpet part and his score and he put on the orchestra room stereo an LP of the Dvořák symphony. I used my ear to find the appropriate pitches, leaving the notation to provide only the rhythm. I’ve been grateful ever since for his willingness to find another way to help me to learn. And learn I did. Even now, more than forty years later, I know the trumpet parts to the two movements we performed that years of Dvořák’s stunning work. I couldn’t play them, as my lip is horribly out of shape, but I know the parts. Here’s the Dublin Philharmonic with Dvořák’s Fourth Movement:

Mr. Skewes left St. Cloud Tech for graduate school after my junior year, a year when I was second chair in the orchestra instead of first chair, as I had been a year earlier. That frustrated me, and I think it frustrated him, too, because I hadn’t worked as hard as I could on my audition piece. But even the second trumpet parts to the things Dick Skewes had us play were far more interesting than the music I played in the orchestra during my senior year. Our new conductor had us performing lots of Haydn and Handel, lots of pieces that had me counting forty measures and then playing eight notes. It wasn’t nearly as much fun.

My classical library, on LP and CD and in mp3 form, covers a wide variety (especially since my LP library was augmented by the records from the Musical Heritage Society that Dad collected). But when I look at the things I listen to most often, most of them trace their musical lineage to at least one of two places (and sometimes both): The Slavic lands of Eastern Europe and the director’s stand where Dick Skewes stood for those years when I was his horn player.

Thank you, Mr. Skewes.

A Mentor Gone

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

If you were to ask me who my most important teachers were, E. Scott Bryce would have been on the short list, perhaps at the top. During one of the most important seasons of my life – the autumn of 1975 – he guided me through maybe the most important class I’ve ever taken. I wrote about it a few years ago:

Among my classes that fall quarter was one in the history of the documentary film. We spent hours watching documentary films – from Robert Flaherty’s 1922 masterpiece, Nanook of the North – considered by most historians as the first true documentary – through 1971’s The Selling of the Pentagon, a television effort by CBS News. Some of the films were art; I think of Rain, a 1920s film by Joris Ivens (and the fact that these titles and names come back to me unbidden makes me realize again how important that class was to me) that detailed an everyday rainstorm in his hometown of Amsterdam, Holland. Some of them were something darker: The Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl chronicled the 1934 Congress of the German Nazi Party at Nuremberg and was – viewed with knowledge of the tragedy and horror that ensued – a chilling, powerful and dark piece of work.

Not only did we watch films, but we wrote about them. Each student was required during the quarter to submit a certain number – eight, maybe? – of brief critiques of the films we were seeing and one longer critique. The short papers were required to be two to three typed pages, double-spaced, and the longer paper, about ten pages. Not yet being skilled at composing my work at the typewriter, I wrote – actually printed – my critiques on notebook paper. And as I pondered and assessed the films we were seeing, I realized that, although writing was work, it was work I enjoyed, because it gave me the opportunity to move words around into forms and orders that were mine alone.

I remember the first time I realized that: I was writing a critique of Rain, the brief film shot in 1920s Amsterdam, and I was assessing the pacing of the film. I wrote that the film moved through the streets “with a calm urgency, like the rain.” I paused and looked at my words on paper, especially that “calm urgency.” Something about the way those words looked, sounded and read together gripped me tightly. . . . I’m sure other writers before – many others – had found that combination of those two words and gone ahead from there. But for the moment, that set of two words was mine.

That was the moment that I began to think of myself as a writer.

And that moment would not have happened without the guidance of Mr. Bryce. His penciled comments on my papers throughout that quarter helped me sharpen my skills. He pointed out logical fallacies, unclear pronouns, singular/plural disagreements, and wandering and fuzzy thought. He also complimented me for things I did right, some of which I had no idea I was doing. (He wrote once something like, “I love your use of thesis and antithesis where it’s least expected.” I never told him it was a happy accident.)

Along with the course on documentary film and courses in filmmaking, Mr. Bryce taught broadcast newswriting, announcing and radio production. I took them all, and although I never worked professionally in broadcasting, I gained from all of those classes an appreciation for attention to detail. And I gained from the newswriting and announcing courses an appreciation for the sounds of words, a sense that served me well when I added a print journalism minor and headed toward the world of newspaper reporting and editing.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that everything I’ve ever written since the autumn of 1975 has on it the fingerprints of E. Scott Bryce.

I last saw Mr. Bryce about ten years ago, when the Texas Gal and I met him and his wife for dinner in downtown St. Cloud. We thought about getting together again with the two of them, especially after Mr. Bryce and his wife moved into an assisted living center not far from us. But that never got any further than thought, and now it won’t happen: E. Scott Bryce passed on yesterday. He was 87.

Mr. Bryce was one of the moving forces in getting KVSC, the St. Cloud State radio station, on the air in 1967. The station’s primary programming for its first five years was classical music, which he loved, and it was a painful day for him when, in the spring of 1972, we on the radio staff voted to play rock instead. In my later college years, as I got to know Mr. Bryce, I always wondered if I should apologize for my small part in that decision. And in the late 1980s, when he and I were teaching colleagues for a time, I thought frequently about thanking him for his guidance and encouragement – in other words, for being a teacher.

I never did either, and, of course, I can’t now. All I can do is offer a farewell. And I’ll do so with the Largo movement of Symphony No. 9 “From The New World,” written in 1893 by Antonín Dvorák, a movement often called “Goin’ Home.”