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Classical Notes

Classical Notes: December 28, 2006 Archive

No victory for di-di-dit-dah

Posted at 9:07 AM on December 28, 2006 by John Zech
Filed under: The blog

The opening notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony have been described as "Fate knocking at the door." It just so happens that the pattern of 3 short notes followed by one long corresponds to the Morse code for the letter "V." During WWII Winston Churchill was famous for giving the two-fingered salute of "V is for Victory," and in June of 1941, the BBC began using the opening of Beethoven's 5th as a theme for radio shows beamed across Europe to boost morale during the Second World War.

So it was with some chagrin that I read yesterday in the New York Times that amateur radio operators will no longer be required to learn Morse Code as part of their test. My uncle George was a very active "ham" radio operator all of his life. He and my dad built their own "crystal sets" when they were kids in the 1920s. George went on to get his EE degree and built a radio that filled most of one bedroom of his house. When I was a kid I remember watching with awe and wonder as he fired up the tubes of his transmitter and made connections with other "hams" overseas.

George had the most advanced license an amateur could get, he was a master of Morse, and I'm sure he would agree with many of the die hards that dropping Morse code is just the first step off the slippery slope. What next? A dime novel hidden in the corncrib? Jokes from "Cap'n Billy's Whizzbang? You got Trouble, my friend!

Do you remember the great PBS Mystery series "Inspector Morse." Well, Barrington Pheloung, who wrote the haunting theme for the show, not only spelled out M-O-R-S-E in the rhythm of the theme, but in later shows started putting the name of the murderer into the title theme in Morse code rhythm - and then later again, as a red herring, the names of people who were NOT the murderer, just to fool anyone who might have cracked the code. Those Brits!

Of course, composers have hidden messages in their music for centuries, often using names or words as themes (eg. B-A-C-H). In his "Messagesquisse," Pierre Boulez put the name of his dedicatee, Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, in Morse code in the cello part--and then he repeated it in various anagrams. You can read a lot more about this interesting subject in a learned article by Dmitri N. Smirnov called "Music and Morse code."

But perhaps this is a good time to come full circle, because it was a hundred years ago, almost to the day, when the Canadian experimenter, Reginald A. Fessenden, achieved what is widely regarded as the first example of voice (and music) transmission over radio. That's the starting point of a fascinating new documentary called "Hearing America: A Century of Music on the Radio," from American Radio Works.

Is the Vienna Phil really a He-man Women-haters club?

Posted at 12:32 PM on December 28, 2006 by Alison Young

Is the Vienna Philharmonic a good-ole boy’s club or, in the spirit of Spanky and Alfafa, a He-man Women-haters club? A recent piece Tokenism and Firings takes a ten-year survey of the Vienna Philharmonic (which also serves as the orchestra for the Vienna State Opera) and their record on recruiting, hiring, and firing women.

And the record is not good. The male-dominated band nominally ended its long tradition of excluding women a decade ago when they quickly hired a female harpist only a day before the orchestra was to travel to New York for performances at Carnegie Hall. There was just a tad bit of pressure on them to change their ways from the International Alliance for Women in Music, The National Organization of Women, as well as the commensurate bad press.

I guess from this side of the pond with our highly enlightened stance on gender equality, it’s pretty easy to throw stones. But then I took off my rose-colored glasses and inspected our record. This coming new year, 2007, will be the first time a woman will take the helm of one of America’s major orchestras. (I use size and budget to make that determination of “major.” Anne Manson is in her fourth year as Music Director of the Kansas City Symphony and JoAnn Falletta is making fabulous recordings as the leader of the Buffalo Philharmonic.)

Notable in Marin Alsop’s rise to Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony is that she made it after several musician’s revolted over her appointment. The argument was not about Alsop’s qualifications, but that the search process was not exhausted. Was the almost premature ending of the process by the board a way to cut to the chase and finally push a woman forward?

Without being able to answer that for sure, I then took a look at our own society’s preparedness to be led by someone in a skirt. I had a laugh listening to All Things Considered the other day when the topic was Are U.S. Voters Ready to Elect a Woman President? Much of the conversation centered around what the leader would wear and how she would make herself look tough as the Commander-in-Chief. Someone commented, “Women are either Vogue models or an un-made bed.” Now that doesn’t leave much room for a gal to become the Leader of the Free World!

But back to music, Marin Alsop told Fred Child in a recent interview that she really doesn’t have much perspective on an orchestra’s relationship to a woman over a man. So she continues to work on what she does have perspective on: her conducting technique. She tries to de-genderize it, making her gestures not about being a man or a woman, but about music making.

That may be why thirty years ago, the groundbreaking woman in my field, Doriot Anthony Dwyer - who traces her lineage back to the suffragist Susan B. Anthony – was able to convince the all-male Boston Symphony Orchestra audition committee to grant her the honor of being the first woman to hold a principal chair in a major symphony orchestra. She was just the best at playing the flute, it turns out, and whether that meant her music had a feminine touch or not seemed beside the point.

Maybe those guys over in Vienna might take some more chances with women; maybe even hold a couple of blind auditions and see if what they’re hearing is good music making regardless of whose making the music. It might take them (and us it seems) some getting used to seeing a woman up there in action, but we’re a little over 50% of the population and we probably have something valuable to add to the mix!

There's only good music and bad music

Posted at 2:46 PM on December 28, 2006 by Don Lee

Every now and again someone will argue that the term "classical music" needs to be replaced. Strictly speaking, it applies only to the late 18th century, the time of Haydn and Mozart, the "classical" era. Categorically speaking, it applies to everything from Gregorian chant to Lou Harrison's Concerto for Piano with Gamelan.

But practically speaking, we all know what we're talking about when we use the words "classical music."

Or do we?

Billboard magazine has shown once again that the general public's understanding of the term is different from one that a regular visitor to Orchestra Hall would use. On Billboard's just-published list of top classical albums of the year are Sting, Josh Groban and Sarah Brightman. It's hard to argue with the way Sting is categorized; his newest album features music by John Dowland, after all. As to Groban and Brightman, I suppose it's the soaring vocal lines over string (or string-like) accompaniment that qualify their recordings as classical.

I bring all of this up not because the distinction matters, but because I think it's interesting to talk about. If you say that Dowland's "Flow My Tears" is classical, can you say--on a purely musical basis--that Lloyd Webber's "Pie Jesu" is not?