We’re in full on summer mode here. My kids have been out of school for almost two weeks and in that time we’ve gone swimming several times, spent a day at Six Flags, hosted visiting relatives, gotten too much sun, caught fireflies, climbed boulders, picnicked alongside a babbling creek, played with friends, and stayed up too late. It’s been a busy, fun couple of weeks, but it hasn’t left a lot of time for blogging.
I’m going to be honest here. In between loading the cooler, packing and unpacking the car, and keeping up with the mounds of laundry produced by so much summer fun, I have given very few moments of thought to this week’s blog topic. Frankly, I haven’t come up with much because I’ve been preoccupied. And why do today what can be put off until tomorrow, right?
I figure if Mozart could manage to write the overture to Don Giovanni the night before its scheduled premiere in Prague, surely I can rattle off a post at the last minute.
According to somewhat well documented legend, Mozart went out for a drink the evening of October 28, 1787, where he encountered someone who reminded him that his opera collaboration with Italian poet Lorenzo da Ponte still lacked an overture. Mozart, who surely knew this already, allegedly pointed to his head and responded, “It’s all in here.”
Apparently it was, because the composer returned to his boarding house where he enlisted the help of his wife to regale him with stories and keep him awake while he worked. By 7 o’clock the next morning, the copyist set to work and the evening of October 29, 1787, the orchestra sight read the overture in front of the audience. The talented musicians knocked it out of the park and the audience went wild, because Mozart. He tweaked the piece a little for later performances, but there’s no question Mozart demonstrated that procrastination and greatness can coexist.
Of course I’m pretty sure this post won’t go down in history as a great example of the best that history/humor blogs have to offer. If I had allowed myself more time, I could have written something much better, more humorous, more thoughtful, or more profound. It might even be already composed more or less entirely in my head, but I’m no Mozart. And I’d rather get back to the pool.
Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a grand tradition that has thankfully faded since its heyday prior to World War I. For one day only, I conducted a school band. There are a few things you might need to know about me before you realize the absurdity of that statement. First, I haven’t played in a band, school or otherwise, for more than twenty years. Second, to the best of my recollection, I have never conducted one. Until last week.
After World War I, the American school band movement, with roots in the mid-19th century, found its footing as a large number of military trained musicians returned to civilian life and brought with them a set of skills they could put to good use in public schools. Before that, school band was kind of an afterthought. If it existed at all, it was generally led by whatever teacher maybe had a little musical knowledge and wanted the extra cash.
But with an influx of actual talent and a hefty push from the instrument manufacturing industry, 1923 saw the first Schools Band Contest of America in Chicago. Small and poorly organized at first, the contest continued to improve and grow, encouraging the spread of school band programs and spawning the mostly state level contests of today.
More than 90% of American schools now have some form of band education, and it’s a great thing that they do because students who participate in music have improved logic and reasoning skills, increased coordination, higher levels of engagement in their education, better stress management ability, greater self-confidence, and better standardized test scores on average than their nonmusical peers.
I’m grateful that the schools my kiddos attend have strong band programs with talented teachers. Of course that does mean that sometimes those teachers travel with parts of the program for performances and competitions, and have to leave the rest of their students in the hands of whatever substitute teacher may have a little musical knowledge and wants the extra cash.
This brings me to my conducting gig last week. I’ve been trying to do some occasional substitute teaching in our district lately, which has turned out to be a great way to get to know the teachers and administrators in the schools my kids attend. It does also occasionally stretch me a little outside of my comfort zone.
Last week, two of our directors accompanied the high school band to a competition, and I stepped in to help back at home. I started my day in study hall with about twenty high schoolers that didn’t go on the trip. No problem there. I also got to enjoy listening to the rehearsal of some impressive middle schoolers who stayed on task while one of their own teacher-designated peers guest conducted.
But then there was the grade school, where I found myself in charge of a class of sixth graders just getting their musical bearings. Fortunately, the lesson plan was specific and thorough. I had access to the students’ musical exercises through an app so I could have them play along. That helped smooth over my shortcomings somewhat. Then we got to an exercise that could be played as a round and the students, who had been remarkably cooperative, really wanted to do it.
The app couldn’t help me with that. With trepidation, I assigned parts, counted off the time, and waved my hand in a 4/4 cross pattern like I almost knew what I was doing. I kind of even sort of gave cues when it was time for each new section to start. Then I provided them with a nice big cutoff at the end, which they played right through because they’re sixth graders and they weren’t watching me anyway. But much like my early American school band movement predecessors, I somehow muddled through.
Fortunately this week, the real band directors are back.
In 1529, painter Gaudenzio Ferrari produced his Madonna of the Orange Trees, which includes the oldest known depiction of a violin. One of several stringed instruments to emerge from Northern Italy in the 16th century, this violone, played by an infant at the feet of the Madonna, was the first of many to appear in Ferrari’s works.
The instrument itself was representative of a family of stringed instruments termed the viola da braccio, all similar in appearance, but available in a variety of sizes, including the viola, the violin (or the cutie little viola), and the violoncello, which according to the most strenuously evaluated internet sources literally translates as the “little big viola.”
So it probably makes sense that the name of that last one would eventually be shortened to the cello. It must have been a very confused instrument.
Actually, I think it still might be, because earlier this week my husband and I enjoyed a night out at the Fabulous Fox Theater here in St. Louis attending a cello concert, and I’m still kind of reeling from one of the most wonderfully confusing performances I’ve ever witnessed.
The show featured 2Cellos, a pair of young classically trained cellists who have decided it might be fun to be rock stars instead of always just being the soft spoken nerdy guys that play in the symphony.
Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic met as teenagers while training at a master class in Croatia. Both are phenomenal musicians with all kinds of impressive credits to their names, and at one time could have been considered rival musicians. But then they made a YouTube video together in which they played a cello arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and the world went crazy for it. It was amazing. And fascinating. Also maybe a little bit confusing.
Of course you might know more about these things than I do, but as a person who is not a classically (or otherwise) trained cellist, I had no idea the instrument could be so versatile.
The concert began with a series of really beautiful arrangements of movie scores followed by the polite applause one might expect from a well mannered classical concert-going crowd out for a fine evening in a fancy venue. Then it shifted directions and became instead a rowdy rock n roll show featuring songs originally performed (but not as well) by the likes of ACDC. This part of the show saw one of the musicians sliding on his back across the stage while he riffed ON HIS CELLO! I think I even saw a pair of panties fly toward the stage.
It was surreal, but also incredibly impressive. Actually I’m finding it hard to figure out just the right words to describe it. In a way it might make sense to say that the concert was both little and big. So maybe those silly Italians knew what they were doing after all.
If you’re not familiar with 2Cellos, it’s worth checking them out on YouTube. Just be warned, you may need to set aside some time because it’s hard to stop. Here’s a good one to get you started:
I haven’t been trying to notice, because I realize it probably says something unflattering about me that I do, but it seems to me like there are suddenly a lot of old people with tattoos.
I’m not against tattoos or anything. I don’t have any, nor do I have a desire to get one, but if you are a fan and have one or two or ten of your own, I promise I’m not judging you. It’s just that it’s recently occurred to me that quite a few people who are old enough to be my grandmother now have them. And it strikes me as odd because that used to be a pretty rare thing.
Of course, the people I’m referring to are not, in fact, old enough to be my grandmother. They are the age my grandmother was when I remember her most vividly, back when most of these tattooed folks were probably under forty.
But time moves on, doesn’t it? A few weeks ago, my husband and I got an opportunity to attend Pointfest, a concert festival put on by a local “alternative” radio station (105.7 the Point). The festival has been a staple in St. Louis since 1993 (when fewer old people had tattoos).
This was a special event for several reasons. First, even though our nephew had tickets for us, we weren’t sure we were going to get to go because we couldn’t find childcare (ouch) and because the show was on a school/work night (double ouch). Second, this wasn’t even really Pointfest. The radio station had dubbed this event Way Back Pointfest.
Fortunately, I have an awesome sister-in-law who stepped up at the last minute so we could display poor judgment and stay out late on a school night. The lineup looked pretty much like it did when I was in college, with bands from the way back that were alternative then (meaning I was pretty sure that the fact I listened to them meant I was just a little bit cooler than you), and have now become the older alternative to the alternative. And because I still listen to them, that means I’m probably older than you.
Given that the world wide average life expectancy is around 71 years (for women, sorry fellas, yours is a couple years shorter), there’s a decent chance that I am. Because this week I will turn 40.
In some ways this isn’t a big deal. It’s not like I’m going to wake up on the 40th anniversary of my birth and suddenly find that my hair has gone gray, my back hurts, and I have to hold books at arm’s length to be able to make out all those tiny letters.
To some extent, all of that has already happened. Or at least it’s been happening, little by little. I don’t mind so much. I know a few more gray hairs make me look wiser than I probably am. Strong backs and sharp eyes grow weaker over time, but I feel like I’ve made good use of my strength and I will continue to do so as long as I’m able. Barring the unexpected, that’s still quite a while yet.
But there are little parts of turning 40 that do kind of bug me, like when the average age of tattoo-bearing people increases noticeably, or my favorite bands are relegated to the way back, or I make a reference to something that happened twenty years ago and my college freshmen students look at me like I’ve just made a reference to an event that happed a bazillion years ago as if it happened yesterday. Of course I get it. Even though it feels like yesterday to me, for them it happened when they were babes, if they were even born at all.
To them (though they probably wouldn’t say it to my face because they’re nice people) their teacher might as well be a bazillion years old, too. And they’re not really wrong. The number 40 has all kinds of symbolic meaning across cultures and through several major world religions, the most common one being simply figurative. Forty is often used to represent a vaguely large number.
Like a bazillion.
So, you might soon notice a slight change on this blog. For five and a half years, my Gravatar bio has identified me as a “thirty-something wife, mother, and writer…” Since my husband tells me there’s no such number as thirty-ten, I suppose I will have to change it.
But not for a few more days.
By the time I return to this space next Thursday to write about a topic that feels a little less personally insulting, I may have a few more gray hairs and my back will probably hurt and I might even be sitting a little farther from the computer screen so I can see all those tiny letters. I will be a bazillion-year-old wife, mother, and writer. But I still won’t have a tattoo.
To help me celebrate this momentous occasion, please enjoy this way, way back song from a ridiculously famous singer I’d never heard of because that was a bazillion years ago:
On the evening of May 29, 1913, many upstanding ladies and gentlemen of Paris, those with an appreciation for high culture and fine art, headed to the recently opened Théatre des Champs-Elysées for a night on the town. What they’d come to witness was Rite of Spring, a highly anticipated performance by Les Ballet Russes, choreographed by the often controversial Vaslav Nijinsky with music composed by the unconventional Igor Stravinsky.
It’s unlikely any of those in attendance could have anticipated engaging in a shouting match with fellow ballet goers, being beaten with their neighbors’ canes, or having the peculiar rhythm of the music tapped out on top of their heads by the normally well mannered folks sitting behind them. But those are just the types of things that happened during what became perhaps the most notorious performance in ballet history.
From almost the moment the first note sounded, the audience appeared uncomfortable and soon discussions broke out about the discordant music and the aggressive movements of the dancers in wild costumes, portraying disturbing pagan scenes. It seems some in the audience appreciated such a fresh performance while others found it to be an assault on the tasteful traditions of ballet and music composition.
Soon the disagreements turned to shouting and cane whacking, allegedly requiring police interference by Intermission and settling into a full on riot before the end of the performance.
At a ballet.
As I’m sure you know if you’ve visited this blog before,I’m superkind of occasionally thorough in my research, so I did listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as I composed this post, and I have to say, I’m not sure I really get it. Bear with me here, because I am not qualified at all to be a music critic, but I do know what I like and don’t like. The Rite of Spring, while discordant and strange in places, strikes me as really beautiful at other times. And probably not riot-worthy.
But much more qualified music critics, some of whom consider this Stravinsky’s greatest work as well as one of the most influential compositions of the 20th century, often point out that it was a huge departure from the musical expectations of its time.
So maybe I do get it, at least a little bit. Music does after all have the potential to elicit strong emotional response. That’s the reason I tend to skip around on my iPod a lot looking for the song I’m in the right mood for, even if I don’t know what that is until I hear it. And it’s also the reason that in the family iTunes account, we have set up a bunch of different lists for cleaning, family dance-offs (not an infrequent occurrence at our house), and settling down before bed.
Each of us has our own individual list, too, and sometimes we do get into arguments about which one we should listen to while prepping dinner. There’s a lot of overlap in our musical tastes, so it isn’t always a big problem, but each of us (except for me, obviously) has our little quirks. My oldest son favors classical movie scores and great guitar riffs (tolerable), but also has an unfortunate taste for electronica. My youngest is often happy with Metallica, but still enjoys a “good” bagpipe tune. And my husband, a man I admire for so many reasons, has a regrettable and inexcusable love for the Beastie Boys.
But despite any disagreements, we still turn on the tunes. And I imagine the highfalutin folks at that first performance of Rite of Spring eventually returned for more of the ballet. And actually, there’s a little mystery surrounding this high society riot anyway.
For such an unusual event, there’re not a lot of good reliable details. What we do know rests on the eyewitness accounts of some of the performers and a few of those in attendance; and given that eyewitnesses are generally not all that reliable, it’s possible that some exaggeration may have occurred over the years.
And while both Stravinsky and Nijinsky were upset by the event, Sergei Diaghilev, wealthy entrepreneur and founder of Les Ballet Russes, reportedly said of the scandal that it was “just what [he] wanted.” Because controversy sells, and a ballet rumored to have started a riot, will likely sell out. There were no reports of further violence erupting at any of the remaining performances.
So it’s possible Rite of Spring didn’t really make people embrace their crazy as much as we’ve been led to believe. Still, I gotta say, when my husband occasionally decides to fight for his right to party and cranks up the Beasties, I think I could probably find myself willing to whack someone over the head with a cane.
And speaking of things totally worth getting overly worked up about, tomorrow I will be sharing some exciting news with the folks who are signed up on my e-mail list. If that isn’t you, and you’d like it to be, you can sign up here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1
This has been a big week in the life of my fourth grade son. Something he’s been looking forward to for a long time finally happened. Because in our school district, about half way through the school year, our fourth graders embark on a brand new adventure in musical education. They receive recorders.
I’ve been blessed with children who love music. My oldest began piano lessons in Kindergarten and the last few years has shifted to playing the guitar in hopes of one day becoming his own one-man band. Meanwhile my youngest has a brilliant sense of pitch and rhythm, and when he’s in the mood, the voice of an angel. But a little more on the shy side than his brother, Son #2 hasn’t really taken a shine to musical performance. Other than a few months of piano lessons and a blessedly short-lived obsession with the bagpipe, he has more or less avoided playing an instrument.
So I was a little surprised he was super excited to receive his recorder. And even more surprised (and admittedly a little less delighted) that he was also super excited to practice playing it. In the living room. Pretty much all the time.
I suppose it’s not the most unpleasant instrument in the world. It does have a long and glorious history, dating to at least as early as fourteenth century. Characterized as a flute with a whistle mouthpiece and seven holes in the front with one thumb hole in the back, the recorder emerged as a major musical force throughout the Renaissance.
Valued for its narrow range and rich, bird-like timbre, it made an ideal instrument for ensembles, according to a lot of Renaissance composers who have never been in my living room when Son #1 decides to relive the glories of his fourth grade year and join in.
Even England’s King Henry VIII was a big fan, having in his possession at the time of his death a total of 78 recorders. Many of these were likely played by rotating musicians charged with providing a soundtrack for the monarch as he Supremely Headed the Church of England, warred with France, and divorced or beheaded his various wives. Rumor has it, Henry played a mean recorder, too, and just as Handel, Vivaldi, Bach, and others would later do, the king also composed for the funny little instrument.
Of course I have to assume that being so constantly surrounded by a chorus of recorders may have (along with the constant aches and pains of a long series of accidents and illnesses) contributed to Henry’s famous crankiness.
I know I haven’t particularly enjoyed the soundtrack at my house this past week. But at least on Saturday, when we had an almost 70 degree spring-like day (today it’s snowing, because it’s the Midwestern US), my brilliant husband suggested that my son take his practicing outside. I’m sure my neighbors enjoyed the rich, bird-like timbre.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas here in the Angleton home. As is tradition for our family, we decorated the tree the day after Thanksgiving (alas, I missed out on all the Black Friday deals) and the Christmas geese are shining brightly in the front yard.
It’s also beginning to sound an awful lot like Christmas, as it has become our new tradition to crank up the volume on the Christmas iTunes list to sing and dance our way through dinner prep and homework in the evenings. My six-year-old has taken to shuffling through the songs to find what he most wants to hear, which means that we skip over Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and instead listen to Lou Monte’s “Dominick the Donkey” A LOT. It also means that homework is taking a little longer these days.
But I can’t complain too much because even though there are some great songs we’re missing out on, the kid has some pretty good taste. One that he has been particularly enjoying is The Royal Guardsmen’s 1967 “Snoopy’s Christmas.”
Both of my boys like this one, which makes a practical historian mama proud, because the song indirectly honors what has to be one of my favorite moments in all of human history. It’s a follow-up to “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” a 1966 release that tells the tale of Charles Schultz’s lovable cartoon beagle who in October of 1965 began fantasizing about engaging the WW I German flying ace often known as the Red Baron in a dogfight.
The Red Baron’s real name was Manfred von Richthofen. He emerged from the defunct cavalry division of the German Imperial Army to train as a pilot, apparently with a fair amount of natural talent. With nearly eighty confirmed kills and most likely over a hundred in all, he was the most successful fighter pilot of the war, becoming something of a legend to both sides of the struggle.
Of course because he is such a legendary figure, there is some controversy surrounding his eventual death. Richthofen was wounded and went down (remarkably gracefully, according to reports) over France on April 21, 1918. He died from the shot to his chest, moments after landing. The trouble is that it has proven difficult to know who shot him.
The kill was long credited to Canadian pilot Captain Arthur Brown, but there is a good deal of evidence that the fatal shot came from the ground. Several historians have assigned credit to various anti-aircraft gunners who were in the area at the time. Still others believe that it was in fact Snoopy perched atop his flying doghouse that drove the Baron to the ground where he survived the wound and went on to start a highly successful frozen pizza business.
The problem with that last theory is that if we assume a certain degree of historical accuracy in the well-researched work of The Royal Guardsmen, then Snoopy and the Red Baron met one more time, on Christmas Eve.
This encounter ended very differently than the first. The Red Baron had Snoopy in his sights and instead of moving in for the kill, forced him to the ground for a friendly Christmas toast, after which the two parted ways peacefully.
I regret to inform you that there is no record of this encounter in the history books, nor of a similar one involving Richthofen, but there is a truly wonderful occasion documented in the history of WW I on which primarily British and German troops fighting in the trenches of the Western Front called a spontaneous truce and celebrated together on Christmas of 1914.
Accounts describe German soldiers beginning to sing carols on Christmas Eve and placing small, lighted trees along the edge of the trenches. Soon makeshift signs expressing Christmas greetings and suggesting a temporary peace started appearing on both sides and by morning, soldiers emerged to cross no-man’s land and shake hands. All day (and according to some accounts, for several after) soldiers took time to bury fallen comrades, exchange small gifts, and even play football (soccer) together.
This “Christmas Truce” was not government sanctioned and in fact followed a flat rejection on both sides of a December 7th suggestion from Pope Benedict XV that a temporary ceasefire be declared in honor of the holiday. Of course eventually the fighting started again and the war raged on for four more bloody years.
Never again in World War I nor in any conflict since has a similar truce been effectively carried out, but for one brief shining moment in history, the commonality of basic humanity triumphed over the absurdity of war. And Snoopy and the Red Baron shared a Christmas toast. I think that’s something worth singing about, even if it means I can’t always dream of a white Christmas as much as I’d like.