Lawrence Toppman

No Top 40 for Wolfgang!

By Lawrence Toppman

Pop songwriters have pillaged classical music for 80 years. Big bands first turned memorable tunes into dance numbers: Everybody with a radio in 1941 hummed Freddy Martin’s “Tonight We Love,” perhaps not realizing the tune came from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

Sometimes songwriters swiped melodies verbatim. Sometimes they took classical composers in a different direction: Claude Thornhill wrote lush wind and brass arrangements of Debussy and Tchaikovsky, while Duke Ellington swung the “Nutcracker” and “Peer Gynt” suites with his versatile orchestra.

The West End and Broadway got in the game with scores adapted from Schubert (“Lilac Time”), Grieg (“Song of Norway”), Rachmaninov (“Anya”) and especially Borodin: “Kismet,” based entirely on themes from his work, ran for 583 performances, won a Tony Award for best musical in 1954 and produced the ubiquitous “Stranger in Paradise.” (That song came from the Polovtsian Dances in the opera “Prince Igor.”)

Adaptations of opera arias entered the top 40 in the 1950s, from Della Reese’s “Don’t You Know” (Musetta’s Waltz in “La Boheme”) to Jackie Wilson’s “Night” (“Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from “Samson et Dalila”).

Even when popular music split into harder and softer elements, the trend continued. Progressive rock bands Deep Purple, Procol Harum and especially Emerson, Lake and Palmer delved into the classics – remember ELP’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”? – while the swoony vocals of Eric Carmen and Barry Manilow got instrumental accompaniment from Rachmaninov and Chopin. The Toys crooned “A Lover’s Concerto” to a minuet from J.S. Bach’s “Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.”

But where was WAM in all this?  I can’t find a single hit song based mainly on his work. Even Falco’s No. 1 outing “Rock Me Amadeus,” inspired by the 1984 movie, contains no music by Mozart!

When Classic FM compiled this list of top pop-song samples from the classics between 1992 and 2017, Mozart makes one brief appearance: Ludacris sampled the Dies Irae from his Requiem in the 2001 “Coming to America.” (Beethoven and Bach appear three times each.) Why should that be? Mozart’s vocal and instrumental melodies can be beautiful, dramatic, witty or romantic. They’re easily singable in all registers and, to my mind, as catchy as any other composers’ themes. Maybe they’re just a shade too subtle or complex to become the earworms that pop composers pray for when trying to write a hit.

The myth of the pauper’s grave

By Lawrence Toppman

You’ll occasionally hear that Mozart was ignored at the end of his life, dumped into a mass grave without a headstone because Viennese society had already begun to forget him. He died 228 years ago today (December 5), so this may be a good week to debunk hoary legends about his passing and funeral.

Accounts about the nature of his fatal illness don’t agree. Most sources point to rheumatic fever; he’d had bouts of it as a boy, and it probably came back in adulthood. His late-life symptoms of swelling and joint pain suggest a recurrence, and rheumatic fever often leads to heart disease.

He spoke at least twice of the belief that he’d been poisoned by an unidentified enemy but also repudiated that idea, as scholars do today. Theorists have suggested he had a severe deficiency of vitamin D, succumbed to a subdural hematoma or trichinosis, or filled his body with patent medicines that contained antimony.

Reports in the 19th century claimed nobody accompanied the body to the interment, partly because of terrible rain and snow. But weather journals for 1791, found long after the “dark and stormy night” narrative circulated, say the weather was calm. And it was less customary anyway for mourners at the funeral to ride out to the gravesite in the 18th century.

Emperor Joseph II had forbidden the use of headstones and encouraged burials that were simple, hygienic and inexpensive: Bodies were supposed to decay quickly, and the city of Vienna sometimes opened communal graves to replace occupants with fresh corpses. Leopold II ruled during the last years of Mozart’s life but had not changed those practices much.

Biographers also dispute whether Mozart lay in a “common” grave or a “communal” one. The former adjective simply means humble or non-aristocratic. The latter means he shared space with other bodies, at least until they were removed. He definitely landed in St. Marx Cemetery, where a statue of a weeping angel now sits at the spot thought likeliest to be his resting place. Except, perhaps, for his skull (minus the lower jaw). That, according to the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation in his birth city, may be in their hands, though DNA testing has been inconclusive. Of course, what really matters is not the skull itself but the amazing music that came out of it.

Stepping into dead men’s shoes

By Lawrence Toppman

I once told a college music professor my favorite requiem was K. 626. “You mean your favorite half-requiem,” he replied. “Nobody who worked on it afterward got close to Mozart.”

WAM left a fully orchestrated first movement, all the vocal parts, figured bass for everything but the Lacrimosa and suggestions for orchestration elsewhere. No church would want half a requiem for liturgical and aesthetic reasons. So Franz Süssmayr, a friend of Mozart’s who knew his widow needed money, finished the commission.

Other composers probably inserted passages, but he completed the Lacrimosa and said he wrote the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Over the years, others took cracks at it, the way orchestrators keep redoing Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” despite Ravel’s mastery. Yet Süssmayr’s remains the one we hear in concerts and recordings.

Dedicated, obscure composers often reconstruct works that would otherwise disappear. The most famous, Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (usually heard in Deryck Cooke’s version), uses Mahler’s sketches to add 40 minutes of music to the one movement he finished. Brian Newbould has “conjecturally completed” (I love that phrase) multiple Schubert symphonies, including the “Unfinished” – an idea counter to the wishes of the composer, who could’ve done that if he’d wanted to. Unlike Mahler and Mozart, Schubert didn’t die while writing it.

Tibor Serly needed two years to rebuild the viola concerto by friend and fellow Hungarian Bela Bartok. Anthony Payne took even longer to chew over 130 pages of manuscript for a piece published as “Edward Elgar: the sketches for Symphony No 3 elaborated by Anthony Payne.”

This procedure works better when someone builds a work from scraps than when he rounds off a masterpiece. Friedrich Cerha’s third act for Alban Berg’s opera “Lulu” provides closure but doesn’t have quite the emotional punch of the first two. Franco Alfano’s finale for “Turandot” wisely reprises themes from the rest of Puccini’s opera but doesn’t convince us it’s what the composer intended. Some works never catch on. The opening movements of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony and Sixth Piano Concerto haven’t attracted interest, perhaps because they follow his greatest achievements in each genre. Soviet composer Semyon Bogatyrev built Tchaikovsky’s fragments for a Seventh Symphony into a full-length piece, which had a vogue 60 years ago and vanished. If you’re not a genius yourself, picking up the pen of one usually doesn’t pay off.

Music: HIP or Un-HIP?

By Lawrence Toppman

The historically informed performance movement started to gain momentum about 45 years ago, as I fell in love with classical music. It began with medieval and Renaissance music, went on to the Baroque and finally encompassed the Classical and Romantic eras. At last we’d hear what composers heard, or what research tells us they heard, rather than huge orchestras or modern instruments they never knew.

But is that a good thing?

In the case of “Messiah,” absolutely. Leaner textures, smaller ensembles and countertenors in place of altos seem apt to me, an improvement over ponderous tempos and massive ensembles of yore. In the case of Schumann’s symphonies, perhaps. I own beloved recordings by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra and scaled-down versions by Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band, and both have their points: Sometimes lightness and speed serve that music better, sometimes might and majesty do.

But I can’t accept the idea that we must listen to Mozart on a fortepiano. On the positive side, we’re presumably hearing with Mozart’s ears, and earlier concertos acquire special spring and vivacity that way. Yet the more powerful and emotional ones – especially the D Minor and C Minor, numbers 20 and 24 – sound undernourished. When a pianist attacks them on a fortepiano, I think of a middleweight boxer trying to go toe-to-toe with a heavyweight.

The symphonies work in both iterations, on original instruments or modern ones. So do the string and woodwind concertos; the sound of a valveless horn gives extra raw excitement to the four concertos WAM finished for that instrument. But I don’t need to hear opera singers use 18th-century vocal techniques, which – among other things – would require tenors to sing their highest notes in head voice, aka falsetto. (They did that until Rossini premiered “William Tell.”)

I think the real question is what composers wanted to hear, not what they did hear. Bach may have written cantatas for small groups because those were the forces available, not because that was his choice. Mozart might have imagined a richer, darker sound than any piano or other instrument of his time could give him. We don’t know, as he left no documents complaining about such limitations. Historically informed performance seems like a good idea to me. But historically rigid performance is a jail sentence no composer should have to serve.

Daddy Dearest – or was he?

By Lawrence Toppman

Among musical anniversaries not celebrated in 2019, one stands out: Leopold Mozart was born 300 years ago on November 14. Of all the fathers in the history of classical music, he did the most to help and hinder a genius.

Peter Hall’s “Amadeus” (which debuted 40 years ago last week at London’s Royal National Theatre) found an antihero in Antonio Salieri: A composer of limited gifts who delights in Mozart’s music while jealously obsessing over him. That description might also be applied to Leopold.

On the plus side, he introduced the boy and his sister to European royalty on concert tours when they were keyboard prodigies; he continued to usher teenaged Wolfgang around after Nannerl dropped out. He became the first teacher for both while serving as deputy kapellmeister to the court at Salzburg, though he never achieved the position of kapellmeister (master of music).

He worked hard to find his son a permanent position in Salzburg, though without success and eventually against WAM’s wishes. The old man even took over the raising of little Leopold, his grandson, possibly to relieve the stress in Nannerl’s dysfunctional household and possibly in hopes of finding another wunderkind.

But on the other side…. He never granted Mozart the independence a young person needs to mature, bullying him in letters for as long as they corresponded. (Leopold died four years before his son, who was so estranged he didn’t know his father’s condition.) He warned Wolfgang against anything that would take him out of dad’s orbit and control, especially potential romantic entanglements and time spent in foreign cities.

At the same time, he complained about his own poverty – evidence about Leopold’s finances varies – to get Wolfgang to support him, and he seldom seems to have expressed interest in his son’s masterpieces after Wolfgang left home permanently in 1781. He even blamed the 22-year-old composer for neglect that led to his mother’s death, when she succumbed to an undiagnosed illness on a tour to Paris.

Leopold could write entertaining music. I like his Toy Symphony and especially his Peasant Wedding, which includes bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy and requires orchestra members to whoop and whistle. But his symphonies, concertos and serenades – all genres in which his son excelled – have been forgotten. Perhaps he anticipated that, and foreknowledge led to a toxic cocktail of love, envy and self-pity.

Pictured: By Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni (*1721, †1782) – online source; Held by the Mozart museum at Mozart’s birthplace, Public Domain.

Review: ‘Pipe Dreams’ Strikes A Competitive Chord

By Lawrence Toppman

If you’re an organ fan, you’ll swoon when the five competitors in “Pipe Dreams” attack the keyboards at an international competition in Montreal. Even if you’re not, you’ll feel extra energy when talking heads give way to flying fingers and nimble feet.

Though the King of Instruments produces a droning appeal in the hands of any plebeian player, here it roars and chirps and grunts and hollers with joy. Of course, most of the documentary depicts these musicians practicing and philosophizing and doing mundane things, presented in a mundane and not always compelling way. But when they play, it rises to another sphere.

Writer-director-producer Stacey Tenenbaum often skirts important questions a viewer might have: What do judges look for at international competitions? What kinds of lives do these rising stars have away from the instrument? (Maybe none.) What made the players fall in love with organs, anyhow – we do get a bit of that – and what makes this contest different from a piano or violin showdown? What kinds of futures do they envision for themselves?

The organists all seem good-natured, proud yet modest. We root equally for 19-year-old Sebastian Heindl, a Leipziger from the city of Sebastian Bach; Yuan Shen, a Chinese woman whose father is her mentor and tai chi partner; Thomas Gaynor, a New Zealander who’s burning out on major competitions; Alcee Chriss III, a Texan who flirts with the idea of throwing in some jazz; and Nick Cappozoli, a Pittsburgher whose teacher approves of his technique but urges him to be more daring.

Yet great documentaries give us someone to root against: an egomaniacal competitor, a ruthless tyrant, a company that’s defrauding people or polluting the skies. We have to want someone to win and someone to lose. There’s mild interest here in who will come out on top. But as we don’t want anyone in particular to triumph, and we don’t know why one player is considered better than another, we mostly sit back and enjoy marvelous sounds. (Alas, Tenenbaum doesn’t identify pieces as we listen.)

The film sent me to my music collection, where I put on Bach’s fugues and preludes, a “symphony” by Charles Widor (as he called solo pieces), even Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony. (That’s his third, which the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will perform in March at Belk Theater. I’m not sure how, as the gorgeous pipes at the rear of the stage aren’t connected to anything.) Ultimately, the best thing about “Pipe Dreams” was that it had me pondering the glories of the organ all over again.

Pipe Dreams’ is playing in select screenings across the country. Learn more about a screening of the film in Charlotte on November 20. And use the code PIPEdreams10 for 10% off your ticket.

A keyboard in every home? Once upon a time….

By Lawrence Toppman

At the age of 7, when I visited my Aunt Nan and Uncle Milt in northern New Jersey, I knew they had more money than my parents: They owned a baby grand piano.

I never saw them or my two cousins play a note; it sat, impassive and unloved, in their living room. Why was it there? Because when my aunt grew up in the 1920s, every reasonably affluent family had a piano.That had been true for more than 150 years, and it’s one reason Mozart wrote so many keyboard works. He created the concertos mostly as showpieces for himself and the harder sonatas for gifted amateurs. But he aimed easier sonatas and works for four hands at one keyboard toward modestly talented pianists, who played at family gatherings or among friends.

These compositions kept Mozart, Beethoven (who preferred songs) and Schubert in business when commissions became scarce. Brahms and Dvorak achieved widespread fame not with great symphonies, which critics and upper-class listeners embraced, but with the publication of dances – Hungarian for Brahms, Slavonic for Dvorak – which could be played at home.

As we zombify ourselves with social media, the notion of socializing around a piano bench appears laughably archaic. Even the idea of singing and dancing in a pub or beer garden seems like something we’d see in a movie about life in Europe before World War II.

Yet young men and women of various classes took piano lessons in cities and small towns right up until The Depression. If you had enough money for an upright, a teacher came to you; if not, you went to her. (They were generally female.) Boys and girls courted across keyboards, singing and playing romantic ballads. Mothers instilled seeds of culture in reluctant youngsters through Dvorak’s Humoresque No. 7 and Beethoven’s Minuet in G. (See “The Music Man.”)

Radio and the international economic slump of the 1930s dealt the first serious blow to home piano playing. Television delivered the fatal punch in the 1950s, abetted by transistor radios and long-playing records: If you could carry music everywhere, you never needed to make any yourself.
The dust on my aunt’s piano deepened, and its top became a repository for photos or drinks at parties. The disconnection of family members, so loudly lamented today, had begun in earnest.

More milk! Bigger children! But not sexier sharks.

By Lawrence Toppman

I appreciate BBC Music Magazine’s propensity for offbeat articles about classical music. A piece earlier this year made me guffaw when it summed up 15 experiments in which Mozart’s music did or didn’t change animals and plants.

According to Spanish dairy farmer Hans Pieter Sieber, WAM’s Concerto for Flute and Harp not only calmed cows but inspired them to produce up to six extra quarts of milk. (Daily? It doesn’t specify.) Dogs at an RSPCA rescue center in Somerset, England, calmed down noticeably when exposed to the strains of Mozart and Bach.

Mozart also gets credit for increasing brainpower and robustness. University of Wisconsin researcher Frances Rauscher discovered rats could negotiate a maze twice as quickly after repeatedly hearing Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos.

Doctors in Tel Aviv learned premature human babies profit from doses of WAM: They grow faster, perhaps because they use less energy when lying back to this lovely music than thrashing around in silence. Dr. Dror Mandel thinks weight gain may be due to “The repetitive melodies in Mozart’s music…affecting organizational centers of the brain’s cortex.”

Even plants respond positively. Carlo Cignozzi, a Tuscany winemaker, has sent “The Magic Flute” through his Brunello orchards on loudspeakers since 2005. The grapes, he claims, ripened in 14 days instead of 20, increasing the alcohol content; he christened the product “Brunello Magico.”

Why do we want to believe classical music makes us smarter or bigger or spiritually enriched? Could it be because we’re always looking for magic bullets to give us – or our kids, cows, dogs and rats – a leg up on others? Do want to prove to the world that this art form, in which interest has slowly dwindled over the last 100 years, has non-artistic value? This smacks of the argument that utility is all-important: We can’t let rainforest plants die off because their petals may have disease-fighting properties, not just because the world would be poorer without their beauty.

Sadly, sharks don’t seem to benefit from Mozart. The Blackpool Sea Life Center (also in England) tried to get a 20-year-old male brown shark interested in a 15-year-old female by playing the Romanza movement of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” but no babies came out of this endeavor. Maybe they’d have been more enthused about John Williams’ theme from “Jaws.”