Thursday, August 9, 2012

Franz Liszt - Prometheus

Prometheus is an ancient Greek myth that had its first telling as early as the 8th century BC.  In short, the myth of Prometheus tells of him being a Titan that had not only created man from clay, but stole fire from Zeus and gave it to man. As punishment, Prometheus is chained to a rock where every day an eagle comes and eats his liver. His liver grows back every day, and the eagle returns every day to consume it once again.

Liszt's original work was written for the celebration of the 100th birthday of the poet/philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. It consisted of an overture and  eight choruses with orchestral accompaniment and used Herder's Prometheus Unbound, a work in 13 scenes.  This work was written in 1850, a time when Liszt was yet able to orchestrate his works himself. With instructions on instrumentation from Liszt, it was left to Joachim Raff to complete the work, but the score was incomprehensible to many due to Liszt's use of dissonance, plus the choruses were not well integrated in the work. Liszt later orchestrated the work himself in 1855 and turned the overture into a tone poem and the choruses into a work for the concert stage.

Prometheus begins with harsh, dissonant chords from the orchestra that represent the harsh sentence given to Prometheus for his crimes. Sadness is contained within the ensuing music, a lament for the fallen Titan.
This almost key less introduction leads to the passionate first theme which represents Prometheus' struggle and suffering.  The second theme arrives via the cellos and represents hope,  in spite of Prometheus' suffering.  Then a fugue begins that is strictly worked out and possibly represents a struggle against adversity. At the end of the fugue, the lament begins again and the two opening themes are heard again.  After the recapitulation of the two opening themes there is a coda consisting of the fugue tune and the theme of hope that combine into an ending of triumph.

It is well to remember that Liszt's music was heralded as the 'new music' of its time and thus garnered its share of negativity, such as the review of Prometheus from a music periodical of 1860:

Liszt's artistic intentions seem to be disembodied and only infrequently do they condense melodic, rhythmic, and self-contained creations. Their main strength predominantly lies in orchestral color,  while the melodic line is barely indicated, indeed, must often be guessed at.  The manifold, rhapsodic nature of the form, the rhythmic freedom the composer has brought forth in many parts of this work,  and the hasty modulatory change make understanding all the more difficult. 

Many of Liszt's tone poems still meet with rather limited popularity. Some of them are quite experimental in nature considering the time they were written in, and Liszt can on occasion be rightfully accused with over-writing a composition.  But he also stretched the limits of sonata form as with tone poems like Prometheus and wrote other compositions that may have seemed rhapsodic to detractors years ago, but are actually well-thought out and well structured compositions.  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cab Calloway - Minnie The Moocher

Cab Calloway was an American original,  a versatile musician, singer and entertainer that saw his greatest popularity in the 1930's and 1940's.  He was born in Rochester, New York in 1907  and lived to be 86 years old. He continued to perform  up to the time of his death.  He was one of the main attractions at The Cotton Club, the premiere jazz club of the 1930's, and went on to perform in movies as well as having his voice used in cartoons done by Max Fleisher, an animator that had developed a way to capture the dance moves of Calloway and animate them on the screen.

Minnie The Moocher is a jazz song first recorded by Calloway in 1931. It was adapted from other jazz songs of the time, and sold over a million copies. The song is a call and response type common in jazz at the time. After each verse, Calloway would skat sing a 'call', and the audience (or band members) would respond by repeating it. Skat singing is s style of vocalization where the voice becomes more like a solo musical instrument as emphasis is put on the sound and tone of the voice rather than the words being sung. The 'words' of skat singing are usually nonsense words, and Calloway would make the call more complicated as the song progressed until the audience couldn't repeat it.

Minnie The Moocher's lyrics are the jive talk of the times, with references to cocaine and opium use as well as Minnie's profession of prostitution:

 Folks, now here's the story 'bout Minnie the Moocher,
 She was a red-hot hootchie-cootcher,
 She was the roughest, toughest frail,
 But Minnie had a heart as big as a whale.

  (call and response)

 Now, she messed around with a bloke named Smoky,
 She loved him though he was cokie,
 He took her down to Chinatown,
 He showed her how to kick the gong around.

  (call and response)

 Now, she had a dream about the king of Sweden,
 He gave her things that she was needin',
 He gave her a home built of gold and steel,
A diamond car with a platinum wheel

  (call and response)

 Now, he gave her his townhouse and his racing horses,
 Each meal she ate was a dozen courses;
 She had a million dollars worth of nickels and dimes,
 And she sat around and counted them all a billion times.
 Poor Min, poor Min, poor Min. 

A great example of the moves as well as the voice of Calloway in this video from the 1950's:

An example of Calloway's ability to skat sing:

And finally, a version of Minnie The Moocher done in the 1980's. He's still the got the voice and the moves, even at 81 years of age.: