The only decent song to come out of Presidents Day

Any genius capable of producing “White Christmas”, “Easter Parade”, and “Let’s Start the New Year Right” can be forgiven just about anything, and Irving Berlin needs a little forgiveness for a few of the other songs from Holiday Inn. You can find plenty online about “Abraham” and the whole Lincoln’s Birthday scene from that movie, but even if you, the conscientious 2016 consumer of art, can lay the blackface aside for a while, you can’t help feeling the lyrics and music were phoned in. If this proves anything, it’s that songs that are straight-up “biographical” are hard to write—they only work if you can regularly tie the events of the subject’s life into some lyrical conceit or abstract principle. (This also holds true for songs about Jesus, in my opinion.)

The Washington’s Birthday scene that follows features the song “I Can’t Tell a Lie”, which is probably somewhere way down in the middle of the Berlin catalogue, but still a catchy number and a good showcase for Fred Astaire’s underrated singing voice:


Republic or Death! and other stirring lyrics

British author Alex Marshall has literally written the book on national anthems: a copy of Republic or Death! is on its way to my house even now. I first heard of his work last month on the podcast The Gist, where he explained the origin of the tune to “The Star-Spangled Banner”. I’d always read that it was a drinking song, but in his telling it was specifically a showoffy drinking song, hard to sing by design—the point was for you to toss back a few and then be ready to show your buddies how wide your vocal range was, a sort of preindustrial karaoke.

I jumped to the SSB article on Marshall’s website to find that illustrates the original tune and words with a recording by David Hildebrand, a faculty member at the Peabody Conservatory, my alma mater.

But no sooner than I could say “Hey, I know that guy,” I scrolled down to the next sound clip—the official US-government-approved Spanish version of the “Banner”—and heard someone I really know: my sister, the amazing soprano Cara Rogers Gonzalez, who has no problems with an octave and a fifth. Cara’s website will be going live in a few days, and when it does, Alex Marshall will be able to match her headshot to her singing instead of having to put in J.Lo’s for some reason.

Marshall is thoughtful about the challenge of capturing the character and aspirations of an entire nation in a single song. Yesterday, he wrote on his blog about the transformation of the Marseillaise in the public mind since the Paris attacks last week. “It is like everyone, in France as much as outside it, is once again seeing it for how it was originally written… a symbol of France today, united and defiant, combating tyranny both within its own borders and without.”


Someone else's blog

There have been many days over the past year when, having nothing of my own to say, I just want to point over to Phil Ford and Jonathan Bellman at Dial M for Musicology and echo more or less everything they say. So here goes! Start with Phil’s post from September, I Really Should Be Practicing, and proceed from there.
“I have always been alive to the fundamental mystery of music, the way that it alone among the arts can reach into us and remap us according to its own design.” Go, go now. I really should be practicing.



It’s the eightieth birthday of the Welsh composer William Mathias, who died in 1992. His most famous composition, the anthem “Let the people praise thee, o God”, was commissioned for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di in 1981. Eight or nine years later, I must have heard it somewhere and had my adolescent mind blown, because when I found out the adult choir at church was going to be singing it in fall 1990, I made up my mind to join, and all the rest followed from there.

We don’t always stay in love with our musical first crushes, but I’m not ashamed of this one holds up well. The “funky” harmonic progressions that I found so difficult at fourteen sound routine now, maybe even a little cliché-Anglican. And yes, the sophisticated rap on Mathias, I guess, is that he kept going back to the same small bag of tricks-but all the same I’m a sucker for the result.

I rarely run into William Mathias’s work outside of church, but he wrote a lot of it. (An opera, The Servants, had a libretto by no less than Iris Murdoch.) Here’s his flute sonatina.

Diolch yn fawr!


Holy Week

“‘Now there was a day,’” murmured Bull, who seemed really to have fallen asleep, “‘when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.’”

“You are right,” said Gregory, and gazed all round. “I am a destroyer. I would destroy the world if I could.”

A sense of a pathos far under the earth stirred up in Syme, and he spoke brokenly and without sequence. “Oh, most unhappy man,” he cried, “try to be happy! You have red hair like your sister.”

“My red hair, like red flames, shall burn up the world,” said Gregory. “I thought I hated everything more than common men can hate anything; but I find that I do not hate everything so much as I hate you!”

“I never hated you,” said Syme very sadly.

Then out of this unintelligible creature the last thunders broke.

“You!” he cried. “You never hated because you never lived. I know what you are all of you, from first to last—you are the people in power! You are the police—the great fat, smiling men in blue and buttons! You are the Law, and you have never been broken. But is there a free soul alive that does not long to break you, only because you have never been broken? We in revolt talk all kind of nonsense doubtless about this crime or that crime of the Government. It is all folly! The only crime of the Government is that it governs. The unpardonable sin of the supreme power is that it is supreme. I do not curse you for being cruel. I do not curse you (though I might) for being kind. I curse you for being safe! You sit in your chairs of stone, and have never come down from them. You are the seven angels of heaven, and you have had no troubles. Oh, I could forgive you everything, you that rule all mankind, if I could feel for once that you had suffered for one hour a real agony such as I—”

Syme sprang to his feet, shaking from head to foot.

“I see everything,” he cried, "everything that there is. Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe? For the same reason that I had to be alone in the dreadful Council of the Days. So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter. So that the real lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, ‘You lie!’ No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, ‘We also have suffered.’

“It is not true that we have never been broken. We have been broken upon the wheel. It is not true that we have never descended from these thrones. We have descended into hell. We were complaining of unforgettable miseries even at the very moment when this man entered insolently to accuse us of happiness. I repel the slander; we have not been happy. I can answer for every one of the great guards of Law whom he has accused. At least—”

He had turned his eyes so as to see suddenly the great face of Sunday, which wore a strange smile.

“Have you,” he cried in a dreadful voice, “have you ever suffered?”

(G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday)


Part-timer love

Few professional musicians, of course, make a living performing. A lot of my colleagues teach private lessons or instruct at the primary, secondary, or university level (and sometimes all of them); others are music critics or music librarians or music administrators. Then there’s my crowd, the people with a whole other non-musical career. I hold body and soul together, and work my left brain out between engagements, working as a software developer and data analyst here in Washington. It is a challenging balance to maintain, but it is rarely boring. The Washington Post printed a nice glimpse into the life with its feature this week on my friend and colleague Jason Rylander, a Baroque-specialist tenor whose other career is in the law (and not only the law, but one of those cool jobs you thought only existed in the movies). Reading his dossier, I feel positively slothful.

Also in the Post this week, a review of Cantate’s Curlew River. I’m immensely proud of my part in this production.


An acquired taste

Because I don’t teach voice lessons for a living, I can fantasize about being the kind of teacher who stands out from the crowd by posting dour German affirmations on social media: “Learn to stop struggling with yourself and start struggling with the world! Cast away Neurosis, the more fully to embrace Tragedy!”


"Riding my bicycle to rehearsal"

I’m working up a bigger post about the place of the part-time/semi-pro performer in the world. In the meantime, another quote from a recently deceased celebrity, this from Andrew O’Hehir’s assessment of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Salon:

Hoffman was always reticent with the press, found it difficult to describe how he did his work, and obviously didn’t love doing interviews. Ingeniously enough, someone got him talking about the reasons for that. He had never imagined becoming a movie actor, he explained, and didn’t feel comfortable with the entire publicity machinery around the film business. “I always thought I’d be a New York theater actor, riding my bicycle to rehearsal,” he said. “That was all I ever wanted.” Maybe someone would recognize him once in a while at the grocery store, and tell him, “Oh! I loved you in that Chekhov play!”


Curlew River in the Post's Spring Preview

Anne Midgette’s spring preview of the DC classical music scene includes a nice blurb for Cantate Chamber Singers’ March 23 presentation of Curlew River, where I’m one of the featured soloists.


Won't be worried long

“I would say every artist is, in effect, trying to figure how the human race can be saved from itself. So in those days when we sang for the union workers, and today when I go around and sing on a picket line, I’m not really being all that different. Artists who say ’We’re only interested in art for art’s sake’ are fooling themselves, I think.” – Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

A couple of his records were among the first my parents used to play for me. Just a couple seconds of that voice and I’m spellbound.

(I need to learn more, I realize, about Pete’s stepmother Ruth Crawford Seeger, who traveled back and forth between the worlds of folk music and serialist high modernism. I finally listened to the famous string quartet. Haunting and funny by turns. You should check it out.)