Sunday, March 25, 2012

Beethoven on acid: the roots of music

It surprises me how often things are joined together, even chained, or branch ever outwards yet back into each other. Or is it like one of those plants that puts down new roots along its runners, like a spider plant or a banyan, thus recreating a baby plant complete in all its parts?

Whatever. It's Sunday, I made a few discoveries that I found intriguing, and I want to capture them before they melt away like a Creamsicle on a hot sidewalk in August.  As I wrote in my last post, my little lovebird Jasper got sick and nearly died, until he suddenly popped back into vibrant health. This brought to mind the old Elizabethan round, Ah Poor Bird, which I had not thought about in. . . oops, half a century. Jesus, I'm getting old.

Then I remembered something my brother Walt said about Mahler: that a melody in one of his symphonies was actually Frere Jacques in a minor key. Bing-bing-bing: I realized that Ah Poor Bird (or something like it) may have been the original source.

Try it. Hum or sing Frere Jacques (and I don't know for sure if Americans even know it, but to Canadian children it's more familiar than O Canada). Then try Ah Poor Bird, as in the last post with the three singers. Compare and contrast.

Then we have the Mahler, conducted by Leonard Bernstein who is worthy of a post on his own. But he makes me sad, and he makes me sad because he had everything a person could ever want, including worldwide fame, and yet he was. . . sad.

He died of cancer at 70, I think, but it's a miracle he lived that long, smoking obsessively, drinking with ever-escalating ruthlessness and popping pills like candy. In his later years he seemed like a blurred version of himself. It affected his conducting. I heard a very late version of Beethoven's 9th that he conducted when the Berlin Wall fell: it lumbered, it galumphed, it didn't move along swiftly the way Beethoven desperately needs to to prevent it from sounding like Brahms on a bad day.

Beethoven has a heavy and profound and even dense and solid aspect, to be sure, but (being a paradoxical genius) there was also a mercurial quality,  quicksilver and fire, and he was unpredictable. He did things that shouldn't have worked, and wouldn't have worked for anyone else. He was definitely the father of Mahler, as twisty and bizarre as Mahler can be. Mahler is the bad son, like Beethoven on acid.

Speaking of dying too young, Mahler keeled over dead from heart disease at 50. A sad loss for the music world, though much of his stuff was too impenetrable for me to enjoy. Simply unlistenable. I don't expect Readers Digest compilations of Strauss waltzes, but I must be able to find a point of entry somewhere. When music repeatedly pushes me away, I can no longer stay in its presence.

OK then! Bernstein, Mahler, and oh, who was that other guy.  . . I mentioned Alban Berg, and he's a good example of being pushed away. His opera Lulu, which has nothing to do with To Sir with Love, is a lulu all right. It's a mess, a theoretical exercise that does not work in actuality. Not for me, anyway.

But it's interesting how much he resembled Stephen Fry. Almost no one resembles Stephen Fry. His face is like something you'd find on Easter Island, craggy and monumental. Kind of like. . . Beethoven?


  1. Bernstein looks like he's on acid.

  2. He was on a lot of things. When he died, he suddenly yelled, "WHAT IS THIS?" "This" was a lightning heart attack that killed him in a second. What a way to go.