Delle Citazioni dei Compositori alla Pellicola “Mean Girls”, op. 10 nos. 1-16

This is an extra-credit post, so anything goes. Therefore, I have hereby decided to produce something from one of my favorite hobbies – collecting snarky insults spoken by composers of composers. What follows are my favorites I have found.

Several notes:

  • I don’t necessarily agree with the insults enclosed. I just enjoy reading about composers throwing shade, and wanted to share that enjoyment with you. Please don’t complain in the comments.
  • The name of the insulter is a source for his (or Clara Schumann’s) quote. The other links can be musical examples, fun biographical facts, or (in one case) 45 minutes of cow footage. There will be a quiz later, so watch each video in its entirety.
  • The name of this post is my bad Italian for “Some Composers’ Quotes In the Manner of the Film “Mean Girls,” 10th Blog Post, Quotes 1-16.” If the Italian is bad, remember that the history of music is written in Italian by non-Italian speakers.
  • Yes, the only woman in the entire post is Clara Schumann. What can I say? Western musical history is full of Germans, and Germans sure love their Würste.

“He knows no more counterpoint than my cook!”

Baroque composer George Friedrich Handel, on creator of the modern operatic form Christoph Willibald Gluck

“A great tub of pork and beer.”
Romantic composer Hector Berlioz on George Friedrich Handel, famously caricatured here

“What an ungifted swine! It angers me that this conceited mediocrity is regarded as a genius… Brahms is just some chaotic and utterly empty wasteland.”

Russian Romantic composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky on the intellectual Johannes Brahms

“Rossini would have been a great composer if his teacher had spanked him enough on the backside.”

Master of the late Classical era Ludwig van Beethoven on opera buffa composer Gioachino Rossini

“One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing… and I certainly don’t intend hearing it a second time.”

Great operatic composer Gioachino Rossini, on notorious narcissist with a composition habit Richard Wagner

“A man devoid of all talent.”

-Member of the famed Russian Five César Cui on deeply disturbed anti-Semite and all-around impossible human being Richard Wagner

“He does not know how to write four consecutive bars which are beautiful or even correct.”

Clara Schumann, on, Richard Wagner, who was such a jerk

“He gives me the impression of being a spoilt child… particularly in his compositions which I cannot qualify in any other term than ‘awful.’”
Clara Schumann, on subject of the most embarrassing historical film of all time Franz Liszt

“Listening to the fifth symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like staring at a cow for 45 minutes.”

Americana composer Aaron Copland on (believe it or not) the fifth symphony of Ralph Vaugh Williams

“A very tolerable imitation of a composer.”
English composer Ralph Vaugh Williams on late Romantic composer Mahler (whose buddies, as Tom Lehrer teaches, all knew him as Gustav)

“If he had been making shell cases during the war, it might have been better for music.”

Romantic composer and bitter misanthrope Camille Saent-Saëns on French Impressionist Maurice Ravel

“He’d be better off shoveling snow than scribbling on manuscript paper.”

Early modernist composer and 2001: A Space Odyssey score writer Richard Strauss on twelve-tone pioneer Arnold Schoenberg

“The expressions he uses are as banal as a cheap song.”

Twelve-tone pioneer Arnold Schoenberg on early modernist composer and 2001: A Space Odyssey score writer Richard Strauss

“I play through all his music every so often to see if I am right about him. I usually find I underestimated last time how bad he was.”

English composer Benjamin Britten on listening to Johannes Brahms again.

“I liked the opera very much. Everything but the music.”

English composer Benjamin Britten on Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress

“Why is it that whenever I hear a piece of music I don’t like, it’s always by Villa-Lobos?”

Polytonal composer Igor Stravinsky on Brazilian art composer Heitor Villa-Lobos

There wasn’t actually a quiz. Hope you enjoyed 45 minutes of cow footage. Thank you!

Get the Show On – Get Paid

Somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me – I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.” Thus began one of the most popular songs that alternative pop-punk-ska band Smash Mouth released. Smash Mouth, also known as “Guy Fieri in band form,” could easily be called the first toll of the bell announcing the death of 90s ska. But before they began to wither away into Twitter battles and pathetically misspelled pseudo-tributes to George Michael, Smash Mouth performed the soundtrack music for a certain film known as Shrek.

The Internet, it turned out, liked this film. It liked it so much, in fact, that its love for said film has its own Wikipedia page. And when the Internet loves something (see: DeviantArt, fanfiction.net) it loves it to an unsettling degree. Like Lennie from Of Mice and Men, the Internet has a bad habit of loving things so much it crushes them to death. For “All Star,” this came in the fashion of remixes after remixes.

It began with finding other characters from other series to create covers. From Disney animation to Steven Universe cartoons, many of these were from other kid-friendly sources. But the Internet doesn’t know “kid-friendly.” So as the election came up, we found ourselves listening to our current Dear Leader’s performance, and (through the Internet’s limitless talent to make things weird) a mash-up where every use of the word “the” is replaced with “China” and the recording speeds up 10%.

That’s a good junping off point to the next field of Youtube remixes. These changed the recording itself. Some replaced all the lyrics with one word, like “somebody,” or multiplied the number of “sheds.” Some reordered the notes by alphabetical order or by pitch, or removed any pitch alterations entirely. Some reversed the lyrics while keeping the rest of the song in order, while some removed all the lyrics entirely. These remixes didn’t stop coming, and things got really dank.

So the music nerds came in. Suddenly we had a Bach chorale following strict Common Practice contrapuntal rules. We had staggered remixes tripping you up with 7 beats per measure. We had remixes passing through ten different distinct musical genres. And we had this piece of musical genius here.

But now that the Baroque chorale has fallen upon the throne of Smash Mouth, where can we go? Fool! The Internet asks not “where”, yea – it does! After experimenting with adding the lyrics to “All Star” to other accompaniment tracks like Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” the Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” or Rick Astley’s notorious “Never Gonna Give You Up”, the assorted YouTube hordes found their true calling – autotuning the beautiful vocal stylings of Steve Hartwell to new melodies. We gained Smashified versions of Evanescense’s “Bring Me To Life,” David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” A-ha’s “Take On Me,” and Darude’s “Sandstorm.” I could go on… so I will. Thomas the Tank Engine’s theme song. Seinfeld’s theme song. A song from the Icelandic children’s show BNE Lazy Town. LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN’S DAMN FIFTH SYMPHONY! (At least we know why he went deaf now.) Perhaps the Internet asks not “where,” but perhaps it should consider asking “why not.”

So our larger question is – what made this shitty ska-pop song from 1999 the unofficial anthem of YouTube? I have two theories. First, it comes from the late 90s, the era much of the Internet grew up in. All the more so, it was featured in a popular children’s movie of the early 2000s (which is love and is life). If the 500 articles showing “you’re a ‘90s kid” show anything, it’s the enduring appeal of said decade. Second, the chorus’ refrain – “You’re an all star! All that glitters is gold!” is appealing to a generation that grew up surrounded by “high self esteem” advocates, and now is faced with a bunch of old jerks blaming us for everything, just like their parents did to them. The water’s getting warm, so you might as well swim.

A Long Time Coming

Who was Sam Cooke? Sam Cooke was myriads upon myriads. Sam Cooke was the King of Soul. Sam Cooke was the inventor of soul music. Sam Cooke was the Black Elvis. Sam Cooke was a founding inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The world would say to Sam Cooke, “Honey, you can’t be beat!” Who was Sam Cooke? He was everything.

Sam Cooke was a devout man, a top-notch gospel singer. The fifth of eight children of a Baptist minister and his wife, he was a lead singer in a gospel group by the age of 14, and was the lead singer of the Soul Stirrersone of the biggest gospel groups in America – by 1950. Yet popular music at the time was often considered a sin – abhorrent to the Lord, to be avoided by any devout Christians, especially by gospel singers.

Sam Cooke was a rule-breaker. Sam didn’t want to be bound to solely perform gospel music for all his life. In 1956 he released the pop song ‘Lovable’ under the pseudonym “Dale Cook” to “test the waters.” But his voice was so recognizable that a pseudonym wasn’t enough to satisfy the Soul Stirrers. He found himself without a label.

Sam Cooke was a tenacious man. He found a new label, the independent “black music” label Keen Records, and released a new song under his own name – ‘You Send Me’ – a number one hit on both the ‘black music’ R&B chart and the ‘mainstream’ pop chart, generally reserved for white musicians! Sam Cooke went on to chart with more hits like ‘You Were Made for Me’, ‘Only Sixteen,’ ‘Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha,’ and ‘Wonderful World’ (NOT the Louis Armstrong record, you racists. And comparing their vocal stylings is like comparing this with this). But there were limitations in working for a small label like Keen, and the mega-label RCA Records was knocking on his door. All of a sudden…

Sam Cooke was a star. He had resources he couldn’t have dreamed of at a smaller label. And like many great artists who gain access, he expanded his musical styles, from straight dance tunes like ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’, to bluesy laments like ‘Sad Mood’ or ‘Bring It on Home to Me’, to bouncy proto-Motown odes to girlfriends like ‘Sugar Dumpling’, to socially-conscious pop anthems like ‘Chain Gang’. But Cooke wanted to do more.

Sam Cooke was woke. As the civil rights movement was picking up steam in the early 60s, he amassed an unprecedented amount of control over his work and his finances, more than any black performer had ever had before. And as he “was particularly entranced by” Peter, Paul and Mary’s performance of Bob Dylan’s glorious protest song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ he decided to work on his masterpiece, a work called an “anthem of the civil rights era,” a fully orchestrated piece of genius on the level of Gershwin himself – ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. He was never to see it released.

Sam Cooke was murdered in a hotel in Los Angeles at age 33. The story behind it is confusing and full of holes. Some claim Cooke was abusing a woman named Elisa Boyer in his room, others claim Boyer was robbing him. Eyewitness accounts disagree about just about everything in the story, other than one thing – he ran out of his room in no pants and Bertha Franklin shot him in the heart. The case was closed far sooner than it should have been, and probably what actually happened in that hotel room will be a mystery forever.

But one thing we know is that Sam Cooke was a devout, rule-breaking, tenacious, talented, woke, musician, the likes of whom we will never see again. And considering the news, we should remember that no matter howlong the time has been coming, a change is gonna come, yes it will!

Achievements in Anti-Joyce: 5 Classic Songs that Mean Less than You Think

People love to search for hidden meanings in song lyrics. They always have, and they always will. From 2500-year-old erotic poetry being reinterpreted as sacred scriptural allegory (seriously, click on those and scroll down to 4:5 – you won’t be disappointed) to people looking for everything from elaborate death hoaxes to in modern classic rock. This is an entirely harmless activity (with some odd or insane exceptions) that provides great amusement to both listeners and authors. And musicians often write music that begs for overanalysis while actually being about the inanest subjects, whether for their own entertainment or just by accident. I call these works “achievements in anti-Joyce,” because just as every time you read Ulysses you reveal a new layer of depth, every time you listen to these five songs you uncover a new kind of nonsense. And here are five of them, followed by how people analyze them and what their composers said. IMPORTANT NOTE: These are all songs I love. Just because they mean less than you think doesn’t mean they’re not great. This is not intended to insult these songs, but rather to show that we can appreciate works of musical genius with incredibly silly lyrics.

 

1: Bob Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man 

With lyrics like “Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship” and “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of your mind”, many have claimed this song is about LSD and the druggie counterculture of the 60s. The mysterious “Tambourine Man” whose song is requested has been identified with characters from counterculture icon His Hipness Lord Buckley to the Pied Piper of Hamlin to Jesus himself. And Dylan is, of course, the unchallenged master of allegory and poetry in song lyrics (just ask the Nobel Prize committee!)

So what does the Bard of the 20th Century say this song is about? A man, with a tambourine, playing a song for him. In 1985, Dylan confided in an interview that the song was based on seeing his friend Bruce Langhorne in the studio. In his own words: “…he had this gigantic tambourine… It was as big as a wagon wheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind.”

 

2: Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

 From Satanic conspiracy theories involving backmasking to complaints about a pretentious Tolkien-inspired “P*O*E*T*I*C lyrics… as lush as a Kleenex forest,” one thing everyone can agree about Stairway to Heaven is that its lyrics must be at least attempting to deliver a deeper message. But, in the words of self-declared “intensive researcher of lyrics” (read: spewer of pretentious pseudospirituality and other nonsense) Bob Wallace, “If you ask a million people to give their interpretation of Led Zeppelins’ Stairway to Heaven, without collaboration, you will get a million different interpretations.” Maybe that’s because the song is at such a deep level we cannot understand its true nature, like the universal form of Krishna, or like Tshup Aklathep, the Infernal Star Toad with a Million Young.

Or maybe we should listen to Robert Plant, the author of the lyrics. He has said that “nobody can blame you” for hating the lyrics because of how “pompous” they are. He has said “I struggle with some of the lyrics from particular periods of time. Maybe I was still trying to work out what I was talking about.” Or maybe he didn’t know in the first place. He wrote it sitting by the fire with Jimmy Page and hashed it out in just one night.

 

3: David Bowie, Life on Mars

This song has been described as sounding “like a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dali painting,” with “a slew of surreal images” as lyrics, flowing topics together from an obscure reference to a 1960 novelty song about a comic strip to a mockery of John Lennon’s (alleged) “working class hero” status. This song is perplexing enough that an entire TV series was based on it, using it to create a fish-out-of-water feeling as if being on another planet. There must be some deep meaning behind all these evocative images, right?

Turns out it was written as a parody of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” after he got the rights to the original French song it was based on instead of Bowie. The chord progression is close to the same, and Bowie admitted writing it in one afternoon. It’s consequently been described as a “song about plagiarism,” and it seems that was the intention from the beginning!

 

4: Peter, Paul and Mary, Puff the Magic Dragon

It’s such a well-known “fact” that this song is about weed that it’s become a running joke that potheads won’t shut up about it. In the sarcastic words of acclaimed urban legend debunking site Snopes,

“Puff” was an obvious name for a song about smoking pot; little Jackie Paper’s surname referred to rolling papers; “autumn mist” was either clouds of marijuana smoke or a drug-induced state; the land of “Hanah Lee” was really the Hawaiian village of Hanalei, known for its particularly potent marijuana plants; and so on.

This is a sore spot for Peter Yarrow, the song’s author. He’s been forced to defend against this accusation for years, and it clearly has annoyed him to no end. He’s called it “sloppy research” with “no basis for it,” has lamented that it “it defames the sweetness of a child’s song,” and has proclaimed, “What kind of a meanspirited SOB would write a children’s song with a covert drug message?” The guy is 78. Let him be, people!

 

5: The Beatles, I Am the Walrus  

What do people think this psychedelic Lennon song means? A better question might be what they don’t think it means! Some have analyzed it as referring to Lewis Carrol’s “the Walrus and the Carpenter,” with John as an allegory for the walrus, while the oysters he leads to be taken advantage of are the Beatles’ fans. Others have looked through the pounding  opening and heard old emergency sirens. The “Paul is Dead” conspiracy theorists eventually reached the point where they thought “that almost every line of “I Am the Walrus” relates to Paul’s death and replacement by a lookalike.” From the beginning (“’I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together’ clearly  refers to a massive unified conspiracy!”) to  the end (“The clip from King Lear’sO, untimely death!’ is about Paul!”), every lyric they slice and dice to fit their theory.

But what really happened? Well, this song is at the end of this list for a reason. John probably meant the entire song as a prank to play on those who overanalyzed his lyrics! John’s old friend Pete Shotton told it like this:

“I dipped into a sack [of fan mail] that had just arrived and pulled out a letter which happened to be from our old school, from a pupil at Quarry Bank. He said his English teacher was getting them to read and analyse [sic] Beatles lyrics, find out the hidden meanings, what they were really all about. This started John off remembering lines we used to recite when we were at school. ’How did that dead dog’s eye song go, Pete?’ I thought for a while and remembered bits of it – about yellow matter custard, green slop pie, all mixed together with a dead dog’s eye. ’That’s it,’ said John, and he started scribbling: ’Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye.’ And it went into I Am The Walrus. He threw in semolina, thinking of how we were forced to eat it as kids and hated it, and pilchards. When he finished, he turned to me and said: ’Let the f***ers work that one out, Pete!’”

 

No matter the original meaning of these songs’ lyrics, they’re all still classics, and we love them for a reason. Patterson Hood of the Southern punk band Drive-By Truckers said of Stairway to Heaven, “I’ve always been a lyric guy, and there aren’t lyrics that would hold up on their own without the music in their catalogue. But Stairway is a perfect lyric for that music.” We can use the same logic for all the songs on this list. Dylan’s ethereal imagery fits the airy acoustic guitar and harmonica of Mr. Tambourine Man wonderfully, just as Bowie’s surreal pop-culture references meld together with the ‘70s TV hugeness of Life on Mars, and the imagery of the dragon in a faraway land works with Peter, Paul, and Mary’s campfire storytelling style. And even the intentional complete nonsense of I am the Walrus is perfect for the psychedelic cacophony of the music – were the lyrics to make sense the music wouldn’t fit at all! Lyrics don’t have to be deep to be perfect for their song, and overanalysis can, if we’re not careful, ruin what we love. We can peel back the nonsense only to find more nonsense, but music first and foremost touches the heart, not the mind. Let the songs speak for themselves!

The Takács String Quartet’s Beethoven Cycle

Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartets are well known as some of his most forward-thinking works. From his early quartets (Opus 18, no. 1-6)  demonstrating his mastery of the form to his colossal and complex late quartets (Ops 1278, 130-133, 135), he pushed the boundaries of the form, making it into what it is today. Conveniently for performance cycles, Beethoven wrote 17 (when separately counting the Große Fuge Op. 133, technically originally meant to be a finale attached to no. 13), and they evenly range throughout his musical periods, meaning a series can have a taste of multiple periods in each concert.

The Takács String Quartet of Hungary is an acclaimed quartet, forty-two years in age, which is performing the complete Beethoven string quartet cycle, all 17 string quartets, at Princeton University’s 123rd season of concerts (six sessions, throughout the 2016-2017 school year). I recently attended their fourth program, on January 19. They performed:

Before the concert, there was a lecture by Princeton music professor Scott Burnham about a specific element in the string quartets. Several in the series had similar lectures, and this one focused on Beethoven’s slow movements. This was most likely because this program’s three quartets have some of Beethoven’s greatest slow movements. Although I enjoyed the lecture and its discussion of said slow movements, it felt a bit like a spoiler. One of the best parts of a classical performance of an unfamiliar piece to me is how it unfolds and shifts, revealing itself as you listen, especially in Beethoven’s heavily motivic works. So listening to a lecture (including recordings of key transitions) before seeing the performance can sometimes spoil the wonderful surprise you get when, for instance, the third variation of the second movement of String Quartet #12 shits from A-flat to the distant key of E through use of a single half-step. I would have probably enjoyed the lecture more had it been at a separate event, or after the concert instead of before. Nevertheless, it was still fascinating and I don’t regret attending.

The performances were excellent, but the Takács quartet has been around so long it would be more surprising had they not been. Their style is often heavily emotional, and you can see that they are deep into the music and having the time of their lives. It was as much fun to watch the performers as it was to hear the music, and when you love Beethoven as much as I do, that’s a hell of a lot of fun.

The seating was interestingly arranged – as part of what they called “Beethoven Up Close,” the balcony was closed, and seats were placed on the stage, so that the audience (through a system of open seating) surrounded the performers. This was a nice idea, but it had the minor drawback that any coughs, shuffles, or dropped items on the stage were heavily amplified from the acoustics in the auditorium.

All in all, it has been a fantastic series, and the oddities in seating are more than made up for by the sheer joy of the performers and their fantastic performances. Although this particular post focuses on their most recent program, I’ve been to three of them, and will be attending the final two as well. I highly recommend the series to anybody who wants to experience the heights that a string quartet can reach. The March 15th (with “Beethoven Up Close” seating) and 16th (with a pre-concert lecture) still have available tickets!

*Yes, it’s labeled no. 3. It was published third in Op. 18, but he had completed it before any of the other five in the opus. Opus numbers can be complicated for people who don’t know a lot about classical music, so as an analogy, remember that the Beatles recorded Abbey Road last, but released Let It Be after Abbey Road.