Ronald Lo Presti: Elegy for a Young American

For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding."
President John F. Kennedy 
In a speech at Rice University

Up until this point, I've not had any difficulty thinking about what to write.  I usually pick a piece, think of a few interesting tidbits that I can recall, look up some more information about it and done.  Off to the races.  This week, however, I've had some difficulty.  The piece is Ronald Lo Presti's (1933-1985) Elegy for a Young American.  It was published in 1964, the year following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

I have not been able to find much in the way of program notes for this work, so I don't have too much to go on beyond personal experience this week.  The piece itself follows a pattern describing the emotions experienced through the grief process.  It begins with a clarinet choir into a quick build-up to a large climax, indicating the moment of disaster.  There is a sense of confusion, hurt, anger in the introduction.  Following the climax, a trombone chorale leads us into a section of mourning and a growing understanding of the events that have unfolded.    

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in onboard Air Force 1.

The mood changes through the middle sections of the piece.  I had been told several times that the piece tries to emulate the five stages of grief and loss, but upon further research I uncovered that the concept of five distinct stages of mourning a loss wasn't published until 1969, five years after the publication of the Lo Presti.  

It was Elsabeth Kübler-Ross who pioneered this concept in her book, On Death and Dying.  The whole idea is that a human when presented with a situation of extreme loss, such as their own death or that of a loved or dear person in their life, will cycle through five distinct emotional states.  The states are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance and they don't necessarily occur in order.  The interesting (and somewhat sad) thing to me is that acceptance is not a guaranteed outcome of the grieving process.  

Sometimes, there is no catharsis.  

Scientifically speaking, her theory has not been substantially supported and at face value it does smell a bit of psuedo-science.  Despite this instability, the persistence of the idea that grief occurs in stages has become fact in the public opinion in the years following.  Looking back now I find it particularly interesting that Lo Presti wrote this piece, without the Kübler-Ross model in mind.  He wrote it as a response to Kennedy's assassination, as a means of coping.  I would argue that for Lo Presti, writing Elegy for a Young American was his own personal realization of the acceptance stage.  

The piece itself saw great popularity after its publication and like many band pieces in the burgeoning years of wind band literature in the mid-20th century, it was played less frequently as newer pieces came out.  I couldn't determine if it was ever out of print (I don't think that it was), but it has been on the Florida Bandmaster's Association Concert Band list for some time which is generally enough to encourage publishers to keep it alive.  

The piece did regain some of its previous purpose following the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.  As a band director, we tend to try and find ways to adapt our concert repertoire to our students' lives.  My own first exposure to this piece was from my high school band director following the the attacks.  Many school bands dusted it off and presented it for performance and still today I can't recall a Music Performance Assessment that doesn't showcase at least one band playing the piece.  

I think it speaks to a very deep, personal area in all of us.  I think it attaches directly to our innate fear and anger about death and pulls it out to display for all to see and examine, laid completely bare.  I think it gives the excitement of looking over the edge and gazing long into the abyss, I think it awakes in all of us the awareness of how frail and finite our lives tragically are.  

I think my difficulties in finding the right words to describe this piece stem from my own challenges in rationalizing loss and grief.  It's hard to put to words what can be so much better expressed through music.  So, I feel as though I must apologize.  LF is meant to be funny, to entertain as a means to encourage the readership to want to experience a new type of music, one that they may not be familiar with.  My goal has always been to share the beautiful music others have shared with me with people who may not have the benefit of an extensive musical background.  The theme is accessibility and humor is generally a good vehicle to that end.  

In this case, I'm just sorry.  

There is nothing funny to say today.  

Homework: Don't write.  Just sit.  Listen.  Think about something you've lost.  Put it in the center of your mind.  Press play.

See you next Friday.  




Edward Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1

As we approach the end of May, a familiar ritual begins to occur throughout the United States.  Young men and women, clad in polyester robes will don cardboard hats that will only be worn once.  These youngsters will be shuffled into gymnasiums, auditoriums, amphitheaters, and football stadiums in front of thousands of their friends and families.  There is a familiar custom, one in which everyone participates, though I suspect few actually understand it.  As these newly christened adults are seated, almost invariably they will all be treated to an overly lengthy (and repetitive) performance of the trio section of a 100-year-old British march, originally written for orchestra by a man named Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934).

It is a curious affair, one that I reckon that most people sitting in the bleachers don't spend too much of their time thinking about it. Your atypical graduation attendee has a sole purpose in mind.  They want to see their young charge walk across the stage and shake hands with a small group of dignitaries.  They can't be bothered to consider the important musical history being recognized at that moment.  However, being a veteran of many more of these ceremonies than I care to recall, I have noticed there are two types of people that usually attend.

People with air horns, and people without air horns.

If you have not attended a commencement ceremony recently, I should warn you that decorum has seemingly evaporated as an expected protocol.  You may have noticed articles in the media concerning school districts banning specific outbursts from audience members or articles opining the lack of respect some people display at such events.  Some students have even been denied their diplomas for the egregious behavior of their own friends and family.  I'll leave the decision of appropriateness to you to decide.  What we'll focus on here is the quaint little bit of British-ness that remains a centerpiece in the American version of this ceremony.

It was summertime in Connecticut in the year 1905.  Edward Elgar had seen a groundswell of popularity in the United States following several successful performances of his works.  He had already become a household name in England, having slowly accumulated popularity and sealing his name in the annals of history with his "Engima Variations".  Elgar and his wife, Alice, had worked incredibly hard over the past two decades to bring his craft to the forefront of the music scene.  They had moved to London, moved back to Worchestershire after experiencing tepid success, Alice's family denounced her for marrying a musician, and they listened to music constantly.  Sometimes taking in 3 or 4 performances per week (remember, this is pre-iPod so you actually had to go somewhere to hear music).  As a result, Elgar's palette tends to adopt a large swath of European styles of the late Romantic.  Despite this broad acculturation, Elgar was considered by his own people as quintessentially British.

Could anyone possibly be more British than this?

So, where does the graduation march come into play?  Well, what most of us recognize as Pomp and Circumstance is only half the story.  The melody does indeed come from Elgar's 1st Pomp and Circumstance Military March in D major.  The title itself comes from Shakespeare's Othello"

"Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th'ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!"

The interesting bit comes when we examine the march closer, the portion that is almost unanimously adopted as the graduation processional is only the trio section of the march, a smallish bit in the middle.  After its publication, several of Elgar's friends commented that the melody of the trio would be able to stand as its own work. A short time later, he arranged it as a standalone work and it was set to words by the author and poet, A. C. Benson.  It came to be known as "The Land of Hope and Glory", and in some circles it's considered as sacred as "God Save the Queen."

How it came to its place in American academia is another story.  Elgar had an American friend, Samuel Sanford, who was the professor of Applied Music at Yale university.  He convinced Elgar to come visit him and eventually arranged for him to be the recipient of an honorary doctorate of music from Yale the summer of 1905.  The ceremony honored several big names in America at the time, but Elgar was definitely considered the main attraction.  The publication, Yale Alumni Weekly, later reported that, "...his name was received with unusual demonstration."  

I'm sure that it was overwhelming...

So as the ceremony came to an end, the last piece of music the orchestra performed was Elgar's March No. 1.  In the coming years, other ivy-league schools began to adopt the practice of performing the march and as time wore on, it was cropped to just the trio and expanded across the country as the expected custom at commencement ceremonies, taking America by storm.

Much like Britain's final attempt to regain control of the colonists.

Our listening example comes today from the master himself.  The film comes from the inaugural recording session at the Abbey Road Studios in London (yes, the very same studio in which the Beatles recorded and the street upon which they are crossing above) where Edward Elgar himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in playing the trio from Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1.  As he takes the podium, you may notice the string players tapping their bows on the edge of their music stands.  This is a traditional sign of respect and admiration.  As he prepares to begin, Elgar addresses the musicians as such:

"Good morning gentlemen. Glad to see you all. Very light program this morning. Please play this tune as though you've never heard it before."

Homework: Free write this week!  Write about whatever comes to mind.

See you next Friday.


Photo of Yale student is from the New Haven Register, New Haven, CT.
Photo of Prince Harry is from TIME magazine.
Photo the Beatles from their album, Abbey Road is believed to belong to the label, Apple (Parlophone)/EMI, or the graphic artist(s), Iain Macmillan.


Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in c minor, Finale

I think it's high time we introduce Brahms.  He is after all the guiding spirit of this blog (as you can see to your right).  I first was introduced to Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) in elementary school.  I had a teacher who decided that each of her students needed to learn something about a composer of the classical genre.  We were thrust into the tiny media center and given the task of identifying and researching a composer of our choosing.  I was probably 8 or 9 and let's just say that my study skills left much to be desired.  I was among a group of youngsters who had been identified as "gifted" which is a relatively indiscreet way of calling someone a smart ass and having them moved into a separate class with other smart asses who are then informed that they are special and unique children.  Incidentally, this is how elitists are born. 

Anyways, back to Brahms.  I thumbed randomly through the bookshelves and pulled out a biography written about Herr Brahms.  I don't specifically recall, but it most likely was the first book I selected.  It had an illustrated image of the composer on the front, a younger rendition of him (pre-beard) and in large, kid-friendly letters it explained that it contained many important details describing his life and times and that he was generally pretty awesome.  I read the book, wrote a report, shared it with the class and moved on with life.  Not once, did I ever listen to his music.

Or see his magnificent beard!
Now, this is no fault to my teacher (and sadly I can't recall which teacher it was, but I did have some wonderful ones in those humble days).  But, looking back I can't help but see the huge inadequacy of my own work.  How could I possibly have understood Brahms at any level without hearing a lick of music?

So fast forward to 2001.  It's summer in Tallahassee, FL.  I had earned a scholarship to attend the Florida State University Summer Music Camp, which consisted of a two-week long block of rehearsals, electives and other fun activities for burgeoning young musicians.  I (again- the lazy, poor study that I am) chose relaxation time as an elective.  I was a bit surprised to find myself whisked away and placed into a large rehearsal hall during said relaxation time with a few people I knew from my band as well as a room full of instruments made of wood and strings.

I didn't fully understand why I had been selected.  I was placed in the top band, but apparently they needed some more wind players for the literature that they had selected for the orchestra.  So we settled in and began reading.  We were given three pieces: Danse Macabre, by Camille Saint-Saëns, Overture to Nabucco from the opera of the same name by Giuseppe Verdi, and Symphony No. 1 in c minor, Mvt. 4 by Johannes Brahms.

Quite the lofty programming for us kids!  We began to work.  One of the directors of the string portion of the camp was Dr. Michael Allen who was a FSU faculty member.  Dr. Allen tragically lost a battle with lung cancer in 2010 and the world lost a valiant defender of the arts.  That summer, he told us a story about a trip he had taken to a museum overseas, possibly the Louvre, but I can't remember for the life of me.  There was a painting that he specifically wished to observe in this particular museum and he made straight for it upon entering.  He recalled that the painting was a particularly valuable work and as such it was surrounded by waist-high velvet ropes and had armed security stationed nearby.  

An obvious masterwork.
As he approached the painting, he described how excited he was to be in the presence of this favorite piece.  He leaned in as close as the ropes (and the now slightly nervous guard) would allow, close enough to see the individual brush strokes on the canvas.  It was remarkable, but in the same moment he told of a feeling of some disappointment.  He had reached the zenith of experience.  He could not absorb any further meaning from the work, even if he had reached out and touched it.  He was limited solely to observation.  He then looked to the Brahms, the Verdi and the Saint-Saëns.  He waved his hand over them and began speaking directly to each of us.  

What he said was that essentially the visual arts are a limited art in scope.  There is no more to be taken away than the observation.  Which despite the fact that observation in itself can produce remarkable emotions and thoughts, it goes no further.  However, with music...you are the art.  The whole process of music is in the creating, the extracting, the interpreting of the art.  Coaxing it from the ink and pulp into a vibrant concert hall.  We not only experience the art, but in reproducing it we become the art.  There is no other medium that offers such an amazing ride.  

So we set into the Brahms, and he explained different passages and talked about the form and how Brahms destroyed several versions of his first symphony from an overactive sense of perfectionism.  How he paid homage to the works of Beethoven.  He paid special attention to the low brass chorale in the middle of the movement and how that theme is torn asunder and reassembled in a triumphant battle cry toward the closing.  How Brahms must have painfully waited until the right moment to reintroduce it and bring everything to a climax.  

Dr. Allen ignited within us all an awareness of the special gifts we possessed.  That the power to generate and regenerate art was contained within.  Dr. Allen also ignited in me a passion for the work of Johannes Brahms.  For some reason, it spoke to me on a level I have difficulty describing.  I learned who Brahms was in 1994, I started listening to Brahms that summer of 2001, and 12 years later I am still wholly consumed by the man's contributions to the world.  

A small warning: Our listening example today breaks a rule.  Teenagers have limited attention spans and as such one of the things I have learned while doing LF's is that you have to get to the point fairly quickly with the younger set or you'll lose them.  As a general rule, I try to keep the length of the excerpts around 5 minutes on average.  The fourth movement is around 17 minutes in length.   

Now, I do understand the few (very few) of you who do actually read this blog regularly don't have time like that to just kick around.  The recording is from a complete performance of the work (which requires around 40-50 minutes), but the embedded video starts at the beginning of the 4th movement.

If you're really in a hurry you can bump it forward to 39:20 or so and hear a fair bit of all the thematic material (including at 42:17 when the triumphant melody introduced by the low brass chorale earlier returns).  I apologize for the random anime girl staring you down on the video, but it's the Vienna Philharmonic performing and the best recording I found on YouTube of this work.  

If you do have the time, I highly recommend listening to the entire piece.  

It's worth it.

Homework: Write down a specific place that this piece reminds you of. Somewhere you've lived, visited, passed through, etc.

See you next Friday.


Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is owned by Warner Bros.
The modified Bob Ross image is property of Bob Ross Incorporated. 


Antonio Carlos Jobim: Samba de Uma Nota Só (Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass)

I don't watch American Idol, unless I happen to be in the room when my wife has it on.  To avoid being needlessly antagonistic, I will keep my personal opinion of the show succinct: 

I feel they do a good job at recognizing and developing disposable art.  Performers are praised for things like stage presence and obviously on their ability to sing on pitch, but I feel too much emphasis is placed on appearance and presentation and not nearly enough on substance.

Apparently, I'm not alone.

Mr. Harry Connick, Jr. was apparently a "mentor" judge, and had the opportunity to offer advice on some jazz standards that were pulled from the Great American Songbook, something of which I have heard he is well-read.  As of writing, I have not seen the particular episode in question.  I've found various online dissertations on the matter, many of which are conflicting.  Some people criticize that Mr. Connick, Jr. was arrogant and rude to the other judges in pushing his opinion.  Others claim that he was right in presenting educationally sound musical ideas in a medium that has been long void of such thought.  I have my bias, I'll leave that to Facebook flame wars and (other) arm-chair pundits to decide.  

Here's the first article I read.

The big takeaway from this (and it's true regardless of whether you feel Connick was out of line), is that the people on the American Idol stage usually possess little or no true musical education.

The point he continually made was that the vocalists on stage were singing songs that they didn't understand.  Songs are designed to communicate a message.  Some tell a story about burning down Georgia.  Others talk about falling in love, or worse, love lost.  Some are sympathetic, others tend to be bellicose.  Mr. Connick's qualm was when the disposable art interacted with the indispensable art of which he is bred.  The runs and the trills and other vocal gymnastics fit with modern music.  It's germane with pop.  It's just like watching a firework show, bigger is better.  But it doesn't have staying power.  If you've seen one firework show, you've seen them all.  You can take it or leave it.

Or remove your face with it.
Now, these "idols" do work hard, they do try hard and they put forth a great deal of effort into what they apparently love to do.  However, the system is flawed.  I've met too many people who claim that they can't sing or they can't play an instrument.  No one can...initially.  Harry Connick, Jr. had to have been (at one point in his life) an annoying child who when introduced to a piano would invariably begin pounding on random keys to make noise.

The first difference is he didn't stop.  The second is someone handed him music.  

Someone probably molded his banging into cogent order.  It took time.  He's 45, so there's potentially decades of effort right there.  Therefore he is unique, because for some reason many people have decided that they can't sing or play unless someone of musical authority grants them the privilege.  I'm here today to tell you that it's not true!

Will a few people become multinational pop stars?  Yes.  Will the vast majority of mankind fail to become a household name beyond their circle of friends?  Yes.  Should you sing or play anyway?  Yes.

Will you ever be this cool?  No.

I think for Mr. Connick, Jr., the biggest problem came when the vocal gymnastics didn't align with the somber message of the tune.  When you're sad, when your world is crashing in on you, most people don't feel like doing gymnastics.  A huge part of post-Classical music is connecting with those inner human emotions.  When you sacrifice the art in sake of a fireworks show, you prove your ignorance.  And deep down I feel it was that pervasive ignorance that Mr. Connick was hoping to right.  Just like any good teacher.

So it is in that same vein I bring you something of that era gone by and hope to share some musical education with you as well.  The chosen piece today is the "One Note Samba" by Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994).  Jobim was a Brazilian composer who with saxophonist Stan Getz (1927-1991) became a driving force in introducing the Bossa Nova style to the world with their hit "The Girl from Ipanema".  If you've been on hold with the bank before, chances are you've heard it.

No Ma'am, we're musicians.

Now, Jobim is not the only centerpiece of today's lesson, we are looking at a specific rendition of the "One Note Samba".  We now turn to Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) and Joe Pass (1929-1994).  There exists 6 albums featuring collaboration between these two titans of the 20th century.  Interestingly enough, the recordings were released from 1973 through 1986, close to the autumn years of both musicians.  Pass had become famous for reinventing improvisation on the guitar by incorporating his apparent wealth of music theory knowledge and using creative harmonic patterns by fingering picking instead of using the more prevalent guitar pick.  To me it sounds like he can emulate an entire rhythm section with his Gibson ES-175.  Ella Fitzgerald had such a command of the voice, with a range exceeding 3 octaves and the ability to improvise freely with a vocal quality that was almost horn-like.  She earned the moniker, the "First Lady of Soul" and defended the title readily through 60 years of professional performance.  

There is some music that no matter how many times we've heard it, you can always want more.  For me, listening to Pass and Fitzgerald play the One Note Samba can never be enough.  There are lyrics to this piece (originally in Portuguese):

This is just a little samba
Built upon a single note
Other notes are bound to follow
But the root is still that note
Now this new one is the consequence
Of the one we've just been through
As I'm bound to be the unavoidable 
consequence of you

There's so many people who can 
talk and talk and talk
And just say nothing
Or nearly nothing
I have used up all the scale I know
And at the end I've come to nothing
Or nearly nothing

So I came back to my first note
As I must come back to you
I will pour into that one note
All the love I feel for you
Anyone who wants the whole show
Re mi fa sol la si do
He will find himself with no show  
Better play the note you know

For some reason, the majority of recordings I've found of this duo performing has Ella abandoning the words in lieu of singing the melody in scat.  For those who may not know, scat vocals are nonsense syllables that emulate improvisation by instrument with the voice.  Different syllables are used to mimic horns and create a wide array of articulation and tone.  Ella was one of the best.  

In the end, I don't really know why I love hearing these two perform this song.  I guess I find it amazing for someone to say so much without really saying anything at all.

Homework: Write about a time you communicated with someone without talking.

See you next Friday.





Seikilos Epitaph

Our first series will come to a close with what is perhaps not the oldest piece of music ever, but a nevertheless astounding artifact from Ancient times.  It is the oldest surviving complete musical composition, which in itself is incredibly significant considering it dates from anywhere from 200 BC to 100 AD (potentially 2,000 years old!).  All music we have that was written from before the Seikilos Epitaph is only incomplete fragments.  

The music itself is inscribed in a cylinder of marble meant to be a grave marker.  The epitaph begins by announcing:

"I am a tombstone, an icon. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance."

It's hard to say who this Seikilos guy was.  The only historical reference we have on him comes from this tombstone.  Most people from this era who were capable of writing music like this were either professional musicians or priests.  The inscription also references another person named Euterpe which is presumably whom the stone is dedicated to and leads one to believe that she was Seikilos' wife.  It's a bit morose though, since these stones typically adorned the gravesite of one who passed at a young age.  

The song has the following text (the 1st and 3rd lines are the rhythms and notes, the 2nd and 4th are the lyrics):

Translated as:

While you live, shine,
have no grief at all;
life exists only for a short while,
and time demands its toll.

Written above each word is a Greek symbol indicating a specific pitch in their tonal system (think of it like an ancient Solfège system: do re mi fa so etc.) along with another symbol that would indicate duration (either a one, two, or three) which is commonly translated into the modern notation system today using eighth, quarter, and dotted quarter notes.  It looks like this:

So it's not long, it can be performed in under 30 seconds if need be, and we know nothing about any other compositions Mr. Seikilos might have written.  Much of what existed in this era was lost to wars or pillaging or just time in general (much like Seikilos warns us of in his song).  The Seikilos Epitaph was almost lost to humanity on several occasions and the stone has had an interesting journey to say the least.

Seikilos himself lived in a city known as Tralles (which is in present-day Turkey).  It was discovered in 1883 by a Scottish archaeologist and biblical expert named Sir William Mitchell Ramsay near a railroad construction site near the Turkish city of Aydin.

It's right next to those other countries we bombed.
*Insert joke about American geography knowledge*

From here I've found two divergent tales about the stone.  One story says that a senior official in charge of the construction project took the stone as his own personal property and gave it to his wife who had the bottom of the stone ground down so it would sit level and support a flowerpot in her garden.  Another story claims that the Greco-Turkish war destroyed the museum in Smyrna that housed the artifact and it was later discovered in some Turkish woman's garden, supporting a flower pot.  I'm not sure which story is true, but it seems plausible that some Turk's idiot wife with a green thumb thought this priceless piece of antiquity would be better served as a flower pedestal and destroyed the base of the piece, obliterating the final lines.  

Oh Dennis!  There's some lovely filth down here!
Reminds me a bit of these two.

From there it was rediscovered, lost, smuggled out of Turkey, lost again, and then found in Copenhagen at the National Museum of Denmark.  There is a movement from within Turkey to have it returned on the basis that it was illegally removed from the country of origin, but I can't find any other information about that effort. 

It is striking to me that Seikilos has seemingly been quite successful in his efforts to thwart death and be remembered, even if all we know about him is what can be culled from a 2,000 year old piece of marble.  The text of the song is stunning too in how it exhibits such a strong emphasis on taking joy from the brevity of life.  The final line is especially meaningful to me and reminds me of an adage from Earl Nightingale:

"Don't let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway..."

As time does indeed demand its toll.

The clip this week comes from the San Antonio Vocal Ensemble with an approximation of what it might have sounded like with appropriate accompaniment from a lyra or cithara and some liberal interpretation on percussion. 

Homework: As you listen to this recording, think about someone you've lost. Someone who may have meant a lot to you, but is no longer here.  Write what comes to mind.  

See you next Friday.



IMSLP's PDF of the translated score
The map of Turkey and surrounding countries is property of Google.
The image of the "Turkish" couple is from the movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.