Musical mystery, or compositional coincidence? Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the music for his one-act opera Bastien and Bastienne in 1768, at the age of 12. The short Overture to Bastien and Bastienne bears a remarkable resemblance to the opening theme of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, composed between 1802 and 1804. Although the keys are different (Mozart’s overture is in G major and Beethoven’s symphony is in E♭ major), could it be that Beethoven had Mozart’s theme in mind while he composed his 3rd symphony? It is unlikely that Bastien and Bastienne was known to Beethoven, as that music received its first public performance in 1890. Perhaps, just a coincidence. Great minds think alike, it appears.
One of the enjoyable aspects of recording asteroids passing in front of stars (we call them asteroid occultations) is the interesting names of some of the asteroids. This month, Bob Dunford, Steve Messner, and I had two double-chord events across the asteroid 1306 Scythia, discovered in this month of 1930 by Soviet astronomer Grigory Neujmin (1886-1946).
The name 1306 Scythia immediately brought to mind a favorite piece of music, the Scythian Suite—surely one of the most unusual and otherworldly compositions by Sergei Prokofiev, or anyone else for that matter.
A quick look at the entry for 1306 Scythia in the 5th edition of Dictionary of Minor Planet Names by Lutz D. Schmadel (1942-2016) quickly confirmed my suspicion that the subject matter of both asteroid and musical composition is the same.
Named for the country of the ancient Scythians comprising parts of Europe and Asia now in the U.S.S.R. in regions north of the Black sea and east of the Aral sea.
In the wee hours of Friday, July 12, Bob Dunford in Illinois and I in Wisconsin observed only the second asteroid occultation of 1306 Scythia (and the first since 2014). The predicted path is shown below.
Bob, who was observing at Naperville, observed a 4.3-second dip in brightness as the asteroid covered the star between 8:23:46.203 and 8:23:50.531 UT, and I, observing at Dodgeville, observed a 1.3-second event between 8:24:01.783 and 8:24:03.054. Our light curves are shown below.
Here’s a map showing our observing locations relative to the predicted path.
Here’s the profile showing the chords across the asteroid.
Just four days later, both Bob Dunford and I had a high probability event of the same asteroid passing in front of a different star, and this time we were joined by Steve Messner. Bob and Steve both got positives! Unfortunately, I was clouded out.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote the Scythian Suite in 1915 when he was 24 years of age. Even at that young age, Prokofiev already showed great talent and originality.
Here are some excerpts of the Scythian Suite performed by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Stanisław Skrowaczewski. This is a 1983 recording (Vox Box CD3X 3016). The movement descriptions are based on those given in Wikipedia.
1st movement: Invocation to Veles and Ala – barbaric and colorful music describing the Scythians’ invocation of the sun.
2nd movement: The Alien God and the Dance of the Evil Spirits – as the Scythians make a sacrifice to Ala, daughter of Veles, the Alien God performs a violent dance surrounded by seven monsters.
3rd movement: Night – the Alien God harms Ala; the Moon Maidens descend to console her.
4th movement: The Glorious Departure of Lolli and the Cortège of the Sun – Lolli, the hero, comes to save Ala; the Sun God assists him in defeating the Alien God. They are victorious, and the suite ends with a musical picture of the sunrise.
Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. There is nothing else like it in the orchestral repertoire!
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is, of course, best known for The Planets, but I continue to discover other compositions by Holst which are truly remarkable and unjustifiably neglected.
I listened to an out-of-print compact disc this evening that features some Holst rarities: Hymn to Dionysus, Choral Hymns of the Rig Veda, and Two Eastern Pictures. Fortunately, there are still used copies available of this 1985 UK release, so I was able to purchase the disc: Unicorn Digital DKP(CD) 9046. These performances are by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, conducted by Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015), and the legendary harpist Osian Ellis (1928-). What a gem of a recording this is! Seek it out!
The standout work on this disc is a (nearly) complete recording of the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, written in four groups between 1908 and 1912. The Rig Veda is the oldest scripture of the Hindu religion. Not satisfied with existing English translations, Holst learned Sanskrit so that he could provide his own translation.
Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, op. 26
First Group, for chorus and orchestra (H. 96) I. Battle Hymn II. To the Unknown God III. The Funeral Hymn [not included in this recording] Second Group, for women's chorus and orchestra (H. 98) I. To Varuna (God of the Waters) II. To Agni (God of Fire) III. Funeral Chant Third Group, for women's chorus and harp (H. 99) I. Hymn to the Dawn II. Hymn to the Waters III. Hymn to Vena (Sun rising through the mist) IV. Hymn of the Travellers Fourth Group, for men's chorus and orchestra (H. 100) I. Hymn to Agni [not included in this recording] II. Hymn to Soma (the juice of a herb) III. Hymn to Manas (the spirit of a dying man) IV. Hymn to Indra [not included in this recording]
I also very much enjoyed the final work on this recording, Two Eastern Pictures, written in 1911.
Two Eastern Pictures, for women’s voices and harp (H. 112)
I. Spring II. Summer
I certainly hope that this fine recording will be reissued soon, and that live performances of these works are in the offing.
American composer George Gershwin left us much too soon at the young age of 38. He died of a brain tumor in 1937, and eight years after his death a somewhat fictionalized movie about his life was released in 1945, Rhapsody in Blue.
One remarkable aspect of this movie is a number of people who knew Gershwin were in the movie as themselves: Oscar Levant, Paul Whiteman (who premiered Rhapsody in Blue), Hazel Scott, Anne Brown, Al Jolson, George White, and Elsa Maxwell. It is a love letter to this remarkable composer and musician.
Robert Alda (father of Alan Alda) turns in a great performance as George Gershwin, as does Joan Leslie as his fictionalized love interest Julie Adams.
Strong performances were also turned in by Morris Carnovsky as George Gershwin’s father, Albert Bassermann as his fictionalized teacher Professor Franck (perhaps patterned in part after both Charles Hambitzer and Rubin Goldmark), and Herbert Rudley as Ira Gershwin.
And then there’s the wonderful music of George Gershwin throughout the film, including much of An American in Paris, a personal favorite of mine. I’ll bet you’ll hear familiar songs that you didn’t even know were written by Gershwin!
I loved this movie. Unfortunately, it is not available through either Netflix or Amazon streaming, but you can purchase a high-quality DVD for $12.99 from Warner Brothers.
If you don’t know much about George Gershwin, this movie is a good starting point. After you watch it, I guarantee you’ll want to learn more about the real George Gershwin and his music. Enjoy!
Leaving Behind the Tears
All songs written, performed, and recorded by David Oesper
Recorded January – August 1976
Remixed August 20, 1976
Special thanks to Bob Gebhardt for loaning me his open reel tape deck in 1976.
Special thanks also to Jake Ewalt for his skillful analog to digital transfer in July 2002.
|VOLUME 1||VOLUME 2|
|1. Hope||1. Here With You|
|2. Leaving Behind the Tears||2. Memories|
|3. Misled Again||3. So Long|
|4. Reaching Out For Love||4. Did I Tell You|
|5. Rock Star||5. The Day You Left Me|
|6. Time Out||6. Far Away Somewhere|
|7. You Should Have Seen||7. Moments With You|
|8. I’m Thinking About You||8. Hometown Boogie|
|9. Destiny||9. He’s Gone|
|10. Picking Up the Pieces||10. Hold On|
|11. Life||11. If That Is All|
|12. For All Time||12. In the End|
|13. Idol||13. I’ll Come Back|
|14. Rock of the Country||14. You’re the One|
|15. Pathless Roads||15. No Other Person|
|16. You Get In Your Own Way|
Many years ago I wrote a short poem while listening to the final and most otherworldly section of The Planets by Gustav Holst: Neptune, the Mystic.
Here it is:
Neptune, the Mystic from The Planets by Gustav Holst Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley Ambrosian Chorus, John McCarthy Alto ALC 1013
The endless poetry of space
Sends shivers across my spine,
And there upon the threshold sounds
The now distant drone of time.
Music fills the spacecraft
Starlight fills the night,
And there upon the threshold think
I wonder, was I right?
The Planets was written by Holst between 1914 and 1916, and the premiere performance was at The Queen’s Hall, London, on September 29, 1918. Adrian Boult conducted the orchestra in a private performance for about 250 invited guests. The Queen’s Hall was destroyed by an incendiary bomb during the London Blitz in 1941, seven years after Holst’s death in 1934.
Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, and was considered to be the ninth planet until its controversial demotion by the IAU in 2006. A number of composers have added a Pluto movement to The Planets (“Pluto, the Renewer” by Colin Matthews, for example), and even an improvised performance (“Pluto, the Unpredictable”) by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. I remember enjoying “Pluto, the Unknown” by American composer Peter Hamlin performed by the Des Moines Symphony in 1992, but unfortunately no recording of this work exists.
Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) is best known for his iconic Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16, written in 1868 when the composer was just 24 years old, and his Peer Gynt suites, No. 1, op. 46 (1875, 1888), and No. 2, op. 55 (1875, 1891). Like Tchaikovsky, Grieg had a gift for melody.
Grieg once wrote, “Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on the heights. I only wanted to build dwellings for men in which they might feel happy and at home.” With this in mind, you will find no better introduction to some of the other gorgeous music that Grieg wrote than Norwegian conductor Bjarte Engeset conducting Sweden’s Malmö Symphony Orchestra on Naxos 8.572403.
Seldom have I found a disc of music so beautifully paced and played. These five pieces for string orchestra (augmented by oboe and horn on “Evening in the Mountains”) followed by one piece for full orchestra provide the listener with over 71 minutes of pure enjoyment that will convince you (if you weren’t already convinced) that Grieg deserves a place alongside the most significant composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For me, personally, every one of these pieces is a favorite. There is nothing to skip over here!
Two Elegiac Melodies, op. 34 (1880)
+ The Wounded Heart
+ The Last Spring
Two Melodies for String Orchestra, op. 53 (1890)
+ The First Meeting
From Holberg’s Time: Suite in Olden Style, op. 40 (1884)
Two Lyric Pieces, op. 68 (1897-1899)
+ Evening in the Mountains
+ At the Cradle
Two Nordic Melodies for String Orchestra, op. 63 (1895)
+ In Folk Style
+ Cow-Call & Peasant Dance
Lyric Suite, op. 54 (1905)
+ Shepherd Boy
+ March of the Dwarves
Don’t let words like “gorgeous” and “pure enjoyment” give you the impression that this music is lightweight fare. There is a sadness in this beautiful music that evinces that it is anything but superficial. Grieg and his wife Nina lost their only child, Alexandra, to meningitis when she was little more than a year old, Nina later miscarried a second child, and Grieg himself suffered all his adult life from the effects of pleurisy he had contracted when he was 17 years old.
I first became familiar with British composer, musician, and music presenter extraordinaire Howard Goodall on August 7, 2017, when his documentary Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution aired on Wisconsin Public Television. As a lifelong Beatlephile who knows a thing or two about the Beatles and their music, I was immensely impressed with the quality and content of this documentary. I especially liked his detailed analysis (vis-à-vis Alan W. Pollack) of what makes the music of the Beatles so extraordinary, and his obvious enthusiasm for the subject. After watching this wonderful hour-long (yes, no commercials!) programme, I vowed to do two things:
- Purchase an official DVD copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution
- Find out more about Howard Goodall and his work
#1 Sad to say, periodic searches have only turned up bootleg copies from questionable sources. When will the DVD finally be released?
#2 Somehow I missed it when it was originally broadcast on PBS, but I was delighted to find Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs available through Netflix, so I recently ordered it.
First broadcast in the UK in the autumn of 2000, Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs is a series of 50-minute documentaries on five transformative developments in the history of Western music. They are
- Equal Temperament
- The Piano(forte)
- Recorded Sound
I just finished watching this series, and would highly recommend it for anyone interested in music history.
I enthusiastically look forward to other music documentaries by Howard Goodall. After watching Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution, I believe that he may well be the best person in the world to develop an entire documentary series on the music of The Beatles. Here’s hoping!
If I had to pick a favorite symphony—and that would be difficult to do as I love so many—then it would have to be Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms. Though he completed it in 1876 at the age of 43, he had been working on it for something like 21 years. He was a consummate perfectionist, and it shows.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra performed this extraordinary work this past weekend as the second half of a really fine program featuring Alban Gerhardt playing the Walton Cello Concerto, and Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide. We are so very fortunate to have an orchestra of this caliber in southern Wisconsin, and music director John DeMain is a treasure. I am a season subscriber, of course, and attend all the concerts except for the Christmas program in December.
I cannot get through a performance of the Brahms First Symphony without being moved to tears, and Sunday’s excellent performance by the MSO was no exception. The final section of the second movement (Andante sostenuto) features an incredibly beautiful violin solo, gorgeously played by concertmaster Naha Greenholtz. The fourth and final movement (Adagio — Più andante — Allegro non troppo, ma con brio — Più allegro) is pure ecstasy. Just when you think the symphony is drawing to a conclusion, it launches into another, even more remarkable, section. And that happens more than once. The modulating transition to the coda in measures 367-390 (about 15:42 to 16:24 into the movement, two minutes before the end) for me is one of the most exciting sections of the entire work.
I once asked my friend and accomplished horn player John Wunderlin—who is similarly deeply moved by orchestral music—how he keeps from choking up during the most moving passages he plays. “Fear of messing up” he said, half jokingly and half serious. Part of the discipline that any professional musician must have is maintaining composure during even the most moving and beautiful sections. I don’t think I could do it. But I did once see a teary-eyed violinist in the orchestra at the conclusion of a work. Want to know what that work was? It was the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.
The Fourth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was completed in May 1936, but had to be withdrawn before it was performed due to the withering criticism and scrutiny Shostakovich was at the time receiving from Joseph Stalin and his increasingly repressive government. This symphony did not receive its first public performance until 1961. To get a sense of the enormous difficulties Shostakovich had to endure under the Soviet regime—and the extraordinary music of one of the 20th century’s most gifted composers, and indeed the last great symphonist—I highly recommend Robert Greenberg’s eight-part video course, Great Masters: Shostakovich – His Life and Music.
The Fourth Symphony is certainly not one of Shostakovich’s more accessible works, but I want to draw your attention to the remarkable, ethereal conclusion of this symphony that few have ever heard.
My entire Shostakovich collection was lost in the Memorial Day weekend 2015 Houston flood, and I’m gradually trying to replace it. I am currently listening to all fifteen Shostakovich symphonies in an excellent box set, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). Rostropovich was a close friend of Shostakovich.
Here is the final 4m45s of the third and final movement (Largo — Allegro) of the Symphony No. 4 in C minor, op. 43, by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich. Turn up the volume—after the first couple of seconds, it is all very quiet. Enjoy!