When Dutch Ditchdiggers Die


Via Rolf Degers.

As a teacher on the Sopranos said about the mobster's feckless, dull-witted son AJ: "Well, like my dad used to say, 'The world needs ditch diggers too.'"

And when Dutch ditchdiggers dolefully depart, the number-one song they choose to accompany their incineration is this:

Of course, they choose the anglicized version of it: 'Time to Say Goodbye', sung as a duet with Sarah Brightman. But that's another ball of wax entirely. English translation of the lyrics here.

This song is also used several times during The Sopranos, both diegetically and non-diegetically, as a sort of psychological cue that one of the grubby, classless Italian mobsters is having a Moment of Profound Emotion. David Chase, one of the world's great misanthropes, used the melling swellody, er I mean swelling melody to spit contempt at the characters he so memorably etched: "Look at these cheap, empty people. This is their idea of a 'bee-yoo-tee-ful' song. Yet they can't even speak the language it's written in anymore, because they're deracinated, lazy, and corrupt. It's just an empty token of their once-proud heritage."

But Chase is wrong! Well, not about the mobsters, but about the song. If you ask me, 'Con te Partiro' is fucking awesome. It's a creamy, silken masterpiece of heart-on-your-sleeve, pop-those-cuffs, if-this-don't-turn-you-on-you-ain't-got-no-switches pop melody-making. I mean come on, once you hear that melody, you'll never forget it. And the sudden key shifts keep the drama intense until the last bar fades.

No wonder this music accompanies the synchronized fountains outside Steve Wynn's Bellagio casino resort in Las Vegas ("The Fountains of Bellagio"!). Once, while watching those fountains in Vegas with a group of friends, 'Con te Partiro' came on. Most of us sneered the sneer of the international urban haute bourgeoisie at this ejaculation of cheese. Yet one of our company, a fluent speaker and lover of Italian culture, visibly choked up. "You assholes don't know quality when you hear it. This is a beautiful old Italian ballad, just amped up with a big orchestra."

I told him that as far as I knew, it had been written in the 1990s for Andrea Bocelli. He said, "Maybe, maybe not," (this was before smartphones), "but even if it was, it's in the grand tradition of Italian song-making. The yearning, the passion, the genuineness of the Neapolitan ballad, it's all there. Laugh all you want, but this is great music. What would you rather have people listening to? Vanilla Ice?"

Needless to say, I've come around to his way of thinking. But judge for yourself: 

Germany's Most Popular Operas

Via slipped disc:

From 2014/15 Deutsche Bühnenverein statistics, just released:

1 La Traviata (Verdi)                31 productions, 286 performances

2 Die Zauberflöte (Mozart)     30 productions, 285 performances

3 Carmen (Bizet)                       26 productions, 247 performances

4 Hansel und Gretel (Humperdinck)                   207 performances

Magic Flute and H&G are targeted at children and Christmas audiences. So, no surprises here.

Among more recent works, Peter Grimes (Britten) had 35 performances and The Rake’s Progress (Stravinsky) 30.


Ensemble Pygmalion Plays the St. Matthew Passion

La Passion selon St Matthieu de Bach par Raphaël Pichon

One of my first Bach recordings, and one which I still have, is the B Minor Mass performed by Joshua Rifkin and the Bach Ensemble. Rifkin insisted that Bach's choral works were intended to be sung with one singer to a part. The result was light, feathery, transparent. Every other performance I'd hear sounded clogged and soupy by comparison. But haters still reject Rifkin's purism. They insist that although Bach only had limited space and personnel at his disposal, he would probably have welcomed greater forces to perform his choral masterworks, and composed them with this aspiration in mind. And I have to admit, Rifkin's recording often sounds a bit underpowered.

And now Ensemble Pygmalion has come along, a new original-instruments baroque ensemble from France. I had the good fortune to see them live last Thursday in the Cologne Philharmonic, performing the St. Matthew Passion. And a stellar performance it was. The strings sounded crisp and robust for historical instruments, with secure intonation. The chorus was modest -- about 20 singers in all, many of whom peeled off from the group to come to the fore and sing arias. The balance was ideal: Just enough singers to provide a real bite to the choral interjections, but not so many as to obscure contrapuntal lines. The instrumental soloists were all solid, especially the viola da gamba player, who sawed out an electrifying accompaniment. The tempi were crisp but not hasty, pretty much perfectly judged. And the Evangelist was nothing short of stunning, declaiming with absolute conviction.

You can judge for yourself: Directly after performing in Cologne, they did the St. Matthew in Versailles, and French TV has made it available to all on the web.

Trigger warning: I'm about to criticize Bach. Don't clutch your pearls. In the immortal words of Primus, they can't all be zingers. And the St. Matthew, if you ask me, ain't no zinger, at least not all the way through. The second half especially features some long and, if you ask me, pretty tedious arias. Many of the most ingenious ideas -- budding choral fugues, appealing melodies in the obbligato to the Evangelist's recitative -- are cut short by the demands of the text or of forward plot motion before they can really develop. And then comes another seemingly 14-minute setting of 5 lines of charming but mediocre poetry by Picador.

Come on, admit it: You've checked your watch one hour into Part II of the St. Matthew. But not when Pygmalion sings it. The musicianship invested even the tedious stretches with enough verve and energy to keep me awake. And made the many good bits sublime. Their recording of the short masses by Bach is stellar, go buy it now. And if they perform anywhere near you, don't miss them.


Georg Friedrich Haas and His 'Perverted Negress'

The New York Time profiles Haas, an Austrian composer (and an interesting one), and his wife, Mollena Williams-Haas, a/k/a The Perverted Negress:


And now to the article, which I'm just going to leave here:

The Austrian-born Mr. Haas, 62, a music professor at Columbia University since 2013, has recently been increasingly open about the unusual nature of his marriage, which he says has dramatically improved his productivity and reshaped his artistic outlook. He will be the subject of a two-concert American Immersion series on Wednesday and Friday presented by the Austrian Cultural Forum, which includes the American premiere of his “I can’t breathe,” a dirgelike solo trumpet memorial to Eric Garner.

In a joint appearance with his wife, who now goes by Mollena Williams-Haas, late last year at the Playground sexuality conference in Toronto, then in an interview this month in the online music magazine VAN, he has “come out,” as he put it, as the dominant figure in a dominant-submissive power dynamic. Mr. Haas has chosen to speak up, both because Ms. Williams-Haas’s sexual interests are widely known (her blog, The Perverted Negress, is not shy about kink and bondage) and because he hopes to embolden younger people, particularly composers, not to smother untraditional urges, as he did.

The fundamental feature of their relationship is not obviously sexual, Mr. Haas and Ms. Williams-Haas, 46, said in an interview at their airy apartment near Columbia, with expansive views of the Hudson River. “It’s not caning,” he said. “It’s the fact that I need someone who is with me when I work.”

Their marriage can seem, in this regard, distinctly old-fashioned, and not in a Marquis de Sade way. While the terms they negotiated at the start of their relationship do not prevent her from pursuing her own professional and personal life, Ms. Williams-Haas devotes much of her time to supporting the work of a man — “Herr Meister,” she has nicknamed him — for whom a “good day” is one in which he composes for 14 or 15 hours.

Schumann had Syphilis

I forget where, but I once read an convincing account from a medical person that explained that new sources revealed that Schumann's symptoms were consistent with the development of syphilis. Also what killed Nietzsche. It was an extremely common problem, but was hushed up after the deaths of these cultural heroes, leading to decades of fruitless speculation about alternative explanations for their sudden decline into insanity in the prime of life.