September 20, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Music is only understood when one goes away singing it and only loved when one falls asleep with it in one’s head, and finds it still there on waking up the next morning.

—Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

You know how it is at dusk when the day has ended but it hasn’t? The ambiance of that time of day was all through everything we played.

—Richard Davis (1930-2023) on recording Astral Weeks

I’m driving Mr. Schoenberg around Princeton on his 149th birthday, it’s a fine September day, everything’s clear and bright, and we’re listening to Pierre lunaire, the atonal 21-song “melodrama” Mr. S. composed in 1912 and conducted in Berlin that October.

“Poor brave Albertine,” Mr. S. says, referring to the soprano Albertine Zehme, the vocalist/narrator at the Berlin premiere. “The real melodrama was in the audience. She had to contend with whistling, booing, laughter, and unaussprechlich insults, but the loudest voice in that crowd was the one shouting ‘Shoot him! Shoot him!’ Meaning me.”

To those who say there’s no way I could be conversing with an Austrian-American composer who died on Friday the 13th, July 1951, I’ll quote my passenger, who in 1909 announced his “complete liberation from form and symbols, cohesion and logic” because it’s “impossible to feel only one emotion. Man has many feelings, thousands at a time, each going its own way — this multicoloured, polymorphic, illogical nature of our feelings, and their associations, a rush of blood, reactions in our senses, in our nerves” is all “in my music… an expression of feeling, full of unconscious connections.” more

September 13, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

You can see it isn’t easy to get on with me. But don’t lose heart because of that.

—Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Harvey Sachs begins and ends Schoenberg: Why He Matters (Liveright 2023) with those words from an August 30, 1923 letter the composer sent to “a new acquaintance.” The statement’s simplicity is reflected in the way Sachs demonstrates why an artist as notoriously difficult as Schoenberg is worth “getting on with.”

The “difficulty” is addressed in Schoenberg’s Wikipedia page under the heading “Twelve-tone and tonal works,” which begins by noting that he once compared his discovery of a new compositional method to Albert Einstein’s discoveries in physics. The language from Ethan Haimo’s 1990 book Schoenberg’s Serial Odyssey: The Evolution of his Twelve-Tone Method, 1914–1928 is nothing if not daunting, difficult, and discouraging (try getting on with “hexachordal inversional combinatoriality” or “isomorphic partitioning”), especially compared to the composer’s own simply, vividly worded “painting without architecture … an ever-changing, unbroken succession of colors, rhythms and moods.”  more

September 6, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song….

—Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

It’s broad daylight, I’m driving in rush hour traffic, and my eyes are tearing up because of a song called “Sleeping” from the Band’s third album, Stage Fright (1970). In his liner notes, Rob Bowman calls it “a gorgeous ballad” that Richard Manuel co-wrote with Robbie Robertson. But “gorgeous” doesn’t do it justice, nor does PopShifter’s Paul Casey when he calls it a “desperately sad song,” Manuel’s goodbye to the Band “and Robbie’s goodbye to his friend,” who died in Florida 16 years later by his own hand. Casey finds it “hard to separate Richard’s bad end from the songs he worked on,” and this one “was the end of the line, and addresses the oncoming void openly.”

That dark reading misses the emotional and poetical magnitude of the song. My excuse for turning to Walt Whitman at this point is that while reading Leaves of Grass and listening to Stage Fright late the other night, I sensed that Walt must have had “Sleeping” in mind when writing section 26 from Song of Myself, with its reference to the violoncello as “the young man’s heart’s complaint” and to the way the “key’d cornet … shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast” while the orchestra “wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possessed them.”


August 30, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

To muse for long unwearied hours with my attention riveted to some frivolous device upon the margin, or in the typography of a book…

—Edgar Allan Poe, from “Berenice”

I love Poe. He’s always there, the shadowy Kilroy of American literature. Last week my attention was “riveted” by the chapter subheaded “Berenice the Barefoot Queen: Revolution” in Jerusalem: The Biography (Knopf 2011). Holding Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 650-page historical epic open in both hands like a gigantic hymnal, I read the first two sentences of the chapter on the Death of Jerusalem AD 66-70, in which barefoot Berenice walked “the same route Jesus would have taken from Herod Antipas back to Pilate thirty years earlier. The beautiful Berenice — daughter and sister of kings and twice a queen — was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to thank God for her recovery from an illness, fasting for thirty days and shaving her head.” In the next chapter, she’s become the “Jewish Cleopatra,” of whom it was said that Titus “had a general murdered for flirting with her.”

According to an online National Library of Israel article titled “The Queen Who Loved the Destroyer of the Second Temple,” Berenice’s pilgrimage had a nobler goal, which was to plead with Florus, the procurator of Judea, for “the lives of the city’s residents.” The article about “a Jewish woman, a queen” whose “dramatic life story might resemble something out of Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon” is accompanied by Queen Berenice, a painting by Charles Landelle (1821-1908). more

August 23, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

After we recorded “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” and “Across the Great Divide,” I felt we were making some kind of magic.

—Robbie Robertson (1943-2023), from Testimony

In a 1995 interview, the Band’s lead guitarist and songwriter Jaime “Robbie” Robertson, who died August 9, said that he wanted to write music “that felt like it could’ve been written 50 years ago, tomorrow, yesterday — that had this lost-in-time quality.”

Halfway through his memoir Testimony (Crown Archetype 2016), Robertson refers to his interest in writing lyrics about the Civil War “from a southern family’s point of view” — “there was a chord progression and melody rumbling through my head, but I didn’t know what the song was about.” When he played the sequence for the Band’s only American member, drummer and singer Levon Helm, the Arkansas native “liked the way it stopped and started, free of tempo.”     

After a visit to the local library to do “a little research on the Confederacy” (“They didn’t teach that stuff in Canadian schools”), Robertson “conjured up a story about Virgil Caine and his kin against this historical backdrop, and the song came to life,” the only catch being could he get away with it? Could you call this rock ‘n’ roll? more

August 16, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

You can no longer trust what you are watching.

—Andy Martino, from Cheated

Bring Franz Kafka into a discussion of sign stealing in baseball and the game’s over, all bets are off. Put the Student of Prague on the metaphorical mound with his killer stuff, and it’s pointless to talk about the morality of  an elaborate cheating system like the one infamously employed by the Houston Astros in their 2017 championship season.

The author of the novel-length slow curve called The Castle is here because I neglected his 140th birthday on July 3 to write about the late Cormac McCarthy. After a brief appearance on the same stage with J. Robert Oppenheimer later that month (“Quantum Kafka”), he was here in spirit last week with his devoted fan David Lynch. I’m speaking now as a fan myself, living through the summer of my discontent with the St. Louis Cardinals. This is a team that’s won the National League’s Central Division 11 times since the year 2000, along with three pennants and two World Championships. In 2021 the won-lost record was 91-71, last year it was 93-69. As I write, the numbers are 53-66 and the Cards are in last place, 12 games out. Something is definitely wrong with this picture. And it’s got nothing to do with cheating, stolen signals, or the Georgia indictments. It’s because a front office playing fantasy baseball bet $87 million on a be-careful-what-you-wish-for All-Star catcher without taking into account problems that drastically disoriented and demoralized the pitching staff. more

August 9, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Put me on a highway

Show me a sign

Take it to the limit

One more time

—from the Eagles,
“Take It to the Limit” (1975)

Because the audience knows how far over the top the song and singer are going to go, the excitement is already building as Randy Meisner sings the first words (“All alone at the end of the evening and the bright lights have faded to blue”). A bass guitar around his neck, he’s standing front and center with the Eagles at the Capital Centre, Landover, Maryland, March 21-22, 1977.

The song’s title is itself a constant challenge for a lifelong dreamer who “can’t seem to settle down,” whose dreams keep “burning out and turning out the same,” until he gets to the “take it to the limit one more time” cadenzas, holding each note a life’s breath longer until it’s as if he’s gone so high and so far that he’s lost in an absolute and might not make it back but for the intoxicated crowd willing him to surpass the unsurpassable. As many times as Meisner gave the crowd the high they wanted, the night came when he had to tell his bandmates that he could no longer do it, and that was the beginning of the end of his time with the Eagles. As he says in the documentary History of the Eagles, “The line ‘take it to the limit’ was to keep trying before you reach a point in your life where you feel you’ve done everything and seen everything.” He was in his early thirties when he sang it and 77 two weeks ago when he died.  more

August 2, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

I have come to regard this matter of Fame as the most transparent of all vanities

—Herman Melville (1819-1891)

In the same circa-June-1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville made some of his best-known pronouncements about the illusory nature of celebrity. On the verge of completing Moby-Dick (“In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my ‘Whale’ while it is driving through the press”), he declared, “What’s the use of elaborating what, in its very essence, is so short-lived as a modern book? Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”

Melville came to mind as I was reading Celebrity Nation: How America Evolved Into a Culture of Fans and Followers (Beacon Press $26.95) by Princeton resident and former People magazine editor Landon Jones. A St. Louis native and fellow Cardinals fan, Jones drew my attention to Chapter 6, “How Celebrities Hijacked Heroes,” which ends with a page on the great Cardinal slugger Stan Musial (1920-2013). As Jones puts it, “Musial was our Galahad, our Achilles, our Hector — a modest, decent soft-spoken man who did more than anyone to raise St. Louis to its reputation as a good sports town where the fans even clap for the opposing team’s players.”  more

July 26, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Searching for a phrase to describe the tumultuous score by Ludwig Göransson that propels and illuminates Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, I landed on “It’s like writing history with lightning.” But who said it? Emerson? Thoreau? Melville? No, it was Woodrow Wilson responding to a 1915 White House screening of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

Both responses have a certain eerie resonance if you’ve just seen a monumental film about the “father of the atom bomb” in which a scene following the successful first test shows the crowd at Los Alamos wildly cheering the explosion of a device that will obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, as Oppenheimer feared, that could ultimately destroy the world.

A Princeton Story

While Wilson is the last person I wanted to bring in to a discussion of Oppenheimer, which opened with a special showing at Princeton’s Garden Theatre last Thursday evening, the association makes sense for a picture that could be called a tale of two cities — one the Los Alamos founded, in effect, by J. Robert Oppenheimer, his creation, and the other the home of Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, a target of the politicization of science at Oppenheimer’s expense, an earlier manifestation of the same social media hysteria defaming scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci and still going strong during the run up to the 2024 election.


July 19, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

We waited until the blast had passed, walked out of the shelter and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent.

—J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), after the first test, July 16, 1945

The cover photo of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf 2005) shows a man who knew how to create himself — the hat, the cigarette, the challenging look — much as a seasoned movie actor creates a persona.

The man on the cover of Ray Monk’s Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (Doubleday 2012) seems alone in a world of thought. No more the hat, the cigarette, the aggressive stare, the attitude, the sense of a cutting-edge force of genius. This prophet is beyond sadness and you don’t want to know what sort of future he would prophesy.

Fuse the stories behind the photographs and you have material for a fascinating film. My June 1, 2005 review of American Prometheus covers some of the possibilities — from the theoretical physicist who masterminded the Manhattan Project to the horseman who once said his two great loves were physics and New Mexico; from the reader who defined himself through literature to the language scholar who learned Sanskrit so he could read the Bhagavad-Gita in the original; from the student who left a poisoned apple for his tutor to the chain-smoking maker of lethal martinis who told President Harry Truman after the bombing of Hiroshima, “I feel I have blood on my hands.”  more

July 12, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

often the richest freight will be discharged upon a Jersey shore

—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Today is Thoreau’s 206th birthday. I wrote about his 200th in 2017. If you google “Walden Gutenberg,” you can dive into his most famous work and find something that makes you stop and smile or maybe go “Hah!” or “Hmm….” On the front page of Sunday’s New York Times, there’s a reference to “the escapist fantasies of the couture shows” in “a Paris tossed by tumult.” Diving into Walden, I landed on this line: “The head monkey in Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.” That was in 1854, three years after Moby-Dick was published. You’ll find choice lines all through the “Clothing” section of “Economy,” such as “At present men make shift to wear what they can get. Like shipwrecked sailors, they put on what they can find on the beach, and at a little distance, whether of space or time, laugh at each other’s masquerade.”  more

July 5, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Oh my god, said the sergeant.

—from Blood Meridian, Chapter 4

I imagine Ishmael peering from the crow’s nest of Herman Melville’s Pequod, having just sighted the White Whale. Except this is dry land, the Texas-Mexico border, 1849, two years before the publication of Moby-Dick, and the crew is a rogue band of scalp-hunting soldiers. Peering through his “old brass cavalry telescope,” Captain White spies the thunderous approach of “a hell of a herd of something.”

Steady on, reader, the massive force bearing down upon you is Cormac McCarthy, armed with the first onslaught of sustained virtuoso prose in the novel, a single all but breathless sentence running a page and a half long that opens with “A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of previous owners” and closes with “all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.”  more

June 28, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

You will pardon some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than in most men’s…

—Henry David Thoreau, from Walden

Thoreau scholar William Howarth quotes those words in his June 5, 2017 American Scholar essay “Reading Thoreau at 200.” When I learned of his death two weeks ago, I felt as if I’d lost a friend, although we’d met only once in person, at a party in Princeton some 30 years ago. While I can’t remember what we actually discussed, we most likely talked about family names, politics, Princeton, writers and writing, and of course Thoreau. One thing I surely mentioned was my long ago visit to Thoreau’s grave in Concord, where the only word on his gravestone is HENRY, no secrets, no obscurities, just the name, as if he’d died on familiar terms with the planet. more

June 21, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s a Father’s Day scene. Harrison Street park, Sunday afternoon. The father is a bearded oldster, the son is wearing a New York Rangers sweatshirt. As the camera zooms in we see the two peering through a fence at the houses on Patton Avenue, looking for the duplex where the son spent his first three years of life back in the day when they would stroller up Harrison to play in the sandbox and the slide, both long gone.

“There it is!” they say at the same time, looking through foliage at the only house in sight that has a third floor, a garret where the father wrote novels and rocked the son to sleep to music ranging from Bollywood soundtracks (Sangam and Gumnam) to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, whose 1970 LP Sunflower offered the best bedtime lullabies.

Now they’re on the swings, side by side — the son swinging high, the father slowly, musingly, his thoughts swinging between novelist Cormac McCarthy, who died last week, and singer/songwriter Ray Davies, whose birthday is June 21, the day Town Topics will hit the driveways on Harrison and Patton and all over town. Ray has long been a family favorite, while McCarthy is the author of The Road, one of the most harrowing and brilliant father-son adventures ever written.

After the swings, they sit at a picnic table talking about sports, the son lamenting the end of the NHL season while the father wonders if his Cardinals can hold an early 2-0 lead over the Mets. Later that night the son tells the father the crazy dream he had about going to a Rangers-Islanders game at Madison Square Garden where there was a fight on the ice that ended with players from both teams singing “Beach Baby” by the First Class (“Beach baby beach baby give me your hand….”) and the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” with everyone in the building joining in. The dream ended with an affordable housing demonstration that resulted in the son’s finally moving into his own apartment.  more

June 14, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

When I paint smoke, I want you to be able to drive a nail into it.

—Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), from Life With Picasso

When Pablo Picasso died 50 Aprils ago, Paul McCartney and Wings recorded “Picasso’s Last Words,” a tribute to the “grand old painter,” the chorus based on what were purportedly his last words: “Drink to me, drink to my health / You know I can’t drink any more.” However, TIME (April 23, 1973) claims he went on to say, “And now I must go back to work,” which he did, painting until 3 a.m. After suffering a heart attack in his sleep, he died at 11:40 a.m.

Orange Skies

The week of orange skies from Canadian forest fires coincided with the June 6 death of artist Françoise Gilot (1921-2023), whose 1964 memoir Life With Picasso (New York Review Classics 2019) “is crucial” to an understanding of him, according to his biographer John Richardson. A June 6, 2019 NJPR piece by Lily Meyer calls it “an invaluable work of art history and a revealing precursor to the literature of #MeToo.”  more

June 7, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Midway through actor Brian Cox’s memoir Putting the Rabbit in the Hat (Grand Central $29), someone asks if he ever thought of playing Donald Trump. After a quick emphatic “No” (“It’s such a bad script”), he explains why he prefers playing Logan Roy, the profane patriarch in HBO’s hit series Succession, which just completed its fourth and final season. “Roy is more interesting because he’s a darker character … He does villainous things but he’s not really a villain. And another thing that interests me about him is that we have this in common: we’re both disappointed in how the human experiment has turned out.”

Cox returns to the same theme in the book’s final chapter, admitting that sometimes “it can be distressingly easy to put on my Logan Roy skin” because besides being about wealth and entitlement, Succession is “about displacement,” about how Logan is “classically displaced, taken from his childhood home when he was very young.” At this point, Cox makes it clear that he’s talking about himself: “I know somebody else who feels displaced, who left Scotland at a young age. Somebody who feels a certain disgust with the rest of the human race, who feels that humanity is a failed experiment.”

Why This Image?

The feeling of displacement Cox mentions may offer a clue to the photograph he picked for the cover of his memoir. Celebrity book jackets generally accentuate the positive. This unguarded image makes you curious about the author’s choice and how it might relate to the show that made him famous. Given Cox’s personal triumph in Succession, his woebegone expression is striking when contrasted to the interior photo of him as Logan Roy, where he looks every bit the confident, all-powerful ruler of a media empire who would have nothing but contempt for an actor who seems to be barely containing a world of sorrow. And although Cox’s narrative is marked by slights, losses, tragedies, failures, absurdities, embarrassing accidents, missed opportunities, and disappointments, it’s also enlivened by humorous turns of phrase and  numerous amusing incidents. more

May 31, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Walt Whitman is America.

—Ezra Pound

I am as bad as the worst, but thank God I am as good as the best.

  —Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Walt Whitman was as good as the best when nursing and “being there” for wounded and dying soldiers from both sides of the Civil War. On May 31, 1865, his 46th birthday (today is his 204th), he sat beside a 21-year-old rebel soldier, “who lies a good deal of the time in a partial sleep, but with low muttering and groans — a sleep in which there is no rest. Powerful as he is, and so young, he will not be able to stand many more days of the strain and sapping heat of yesterday and to-day. His throat is in a bad way, tongue and lips parch’d. When I ask him how he feels, he is able just to articulate, ‘I feel pretty bad yet, old man,’ and looks at me with his great bright eyes.”

Whitman expands on what he means by “the worst” in Democratic Vistas (1871), where he finds “the problem of the future of America is in certain respects as dark as it is vast. Pride, competition, segregation, vicious wilfulness, and license beyond example, brood already upon us….Flaunt it as we choose, athwart and over the roads of our progress, loom huge uncertainty, and dreadful, threatening gloom. It is useless to deny it. Democracy grows rankly up the thickest, noxious, deadliest plants and fruits of all — brings worse and worse invaders …. We sail a dangerous sea of seething currents, cross and under-currents, vortices — all so dark, untried — and whither shall we turn?” more

May 24, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

I was born in the spring of 1941. The Second World War was already raging in Europe, and America would soon be in it.

—Bob Dylan, from Chronicles

Bob Dylan will turn 82 today (Wednesday, May 24, 2023). This week I’ve been listening to tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who was born 100 years ago February 27, and singer songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, who died at 84 on May 1. Incidental music is provided by John Donne (1571/2-1631).

A Tortured Torch Song

Released a year after his death in 1990, Dexter Gordon’s Blue Note album Ballads features standards like “Willow Weep for Me” and “Darn That Dream.” The track that I’ve been fixated on, however, is the relatively little known “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” a tortured torch song with lyrics by Sammy Cahn and music by Jule Styne. Composed for Glad To See You, a musical that folded before reaching Broadway, the tune dates from 1944, when America was three years into the war.

Although I’ve been listening to “Tears” on my copy of Gordon’s 1962 Blue Note album Go, the cover of Ballads is shown here because of Herman Leonard’s justly famous photograph, taken in 1948 when Dexter was 25. Much to my surprise, I found that this seemingly obscure song has been recorded by at least 25 artists, including Frank Sinatra, who sings the line “When I want rain, I get sunny weather” with almost operatic bravura. A big man with a big sound, Gordon produces a work of searing, cry-in-the-night intensity, blowing through the passages that singers have to deal with (“Dry little tear drops, my little tear drops hanging on a stream of dreams”). Still, it’s obvious that Gordon knows and feels the words. The power of his playing makes something strange and wonderful out of this piece of musical comedy make-believe. According to the Dexter Gordon chapter of Gary Giddins and Scott DeVaux’s invaluable book Jazz (W.W. Norton 2009), “Before performing a ballad, he would often quote the tune’s lyrics, as if inviting his listeners to take part in the deeper world of the song.”  more

May 17, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

If I had any plan in composing this theme, I was thinking only of sound. I wanted to ‘sing’ the melody on the piano, as a singer would sing it.

—Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) on Piano Concerto No. 3

Because Rachmaninoff was born on April 1, ran a 2016 April Fool’s jeu d’esprit on the composer’s “secret career” as a “performer of amazing feats of strength” in various English music halls. The most amusingly convincing of three doctored photographs of “Rock Mannenough” shows him riding a bicycle carrying three leggy, scantily clad females, one with her thighs locked around his neck, the other two hanging on either side waving to the crowd. The composer’s deadpan face has been photoshopped onto the bike rider’s body.

The painting on the cover of Max Harrison’s book Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings (Continuum 2006) reminds me of poker-faced Hoagy Carmichael, composer of “Stardust” and “Georgia On my Mind.” Although he’s in shirt and tie, Rachmaninoff looks a long way from the concert hall. He could be playing in a bar or a nightclub or at home. Put a trench coat and a fedora on him, give him a gun, and he’s a Russian Bogart with the existential charisma of Albert Camus.

Smiling with Rach 3

My guess is that one of the rare times Rachmaninoff smiled a full all-out smile was upon finishing the Piano Concerto No. 3, or Rach 3, a fiendishly difficult piece. According to, Rachmaninoff had been told by violinist Fritz Kreisler that “some young Russian” plays No. 3 “like nothing I ever heard, and you have to meet him.” Soon Vladimir Horowitz and Rachmaninoff got together at Steinway Hall, where the composer played the orchestra part on one piano while Horowitz played the solo part on the other. Rachmaninoff was amazed: “He swallowed it whole. He had the courage, the intensity, and daring that make for greatness.”


May 10, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Musically, it was like the notes had always been part of my nature, the composer’s expressions mirroring the ebb and flow of my own emotions.

—Hélène Grimaud on Brahms

Sunday, May 7, 2023, began online as Google marked Johannes Brahms’s 190th birthday with a series of “doodles” depicting young handsome Brahms and old bearded Brahms at the keyboard. The smooth male voice delivering the minute and a half commentary sounded almost human until the robot referred to Brahms’s Piano Concerto “No” One in D Minor and Symphony “No” One in C Minor. All it took was the pothole of a period after “No” to make the number a negative, and if Harry Nilsson’s right that “one is the loneliest number you’ll ever do,” we’ve got the makings of an A.I. haiku.

Unlovely Angel

Brahms and His World (Princeton University Press 2009) includes a sketch of the “beautiful youth” who dazzled Robert and Clara Schumann with his pianistic and compositional genius one autumn morning in 1853. As drawn by J.B. Laurens, the angelic profile is hard to match with a friend’s word-picture of the young composer’s “unlovely appearance” at the keyboard: his “short, square figure, the almost straw blond hair, the jutting lower lip that lent the beardless youth a slightly sarcastic expression.” His “entire aspect,” however, was “permeated by strength: the broad lionlike chest, the Herculean shoulders, the mighty head at times tossed back energetically while playing.” more

May 3, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

The human face is a terrible place,
Choose your own examples….

—Keith Reid, from “Your Own Choice”

I picked up Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore at the Princeton Public Library after dropping off his novel Norwegian Wood. Around 30 pages into Kafka, the 15-year-old runaway who chooses to call himself Kafka Tamura talks about how he’s lived in libraries ever since he was a kid: “Think about it — a little kid who doesn’t want to go home doesn’t have many places he can go. Coffee shops and movie theaters are off-limits. That leaves only libraries, and they’re perfect — no entrance fee, nobody getting all hot and bothered if a kid comes in. You just sit down and read whatever you want.” Eventually  he moves on from children’s books to the general stacks. And when he needs a break from reading, he goes to the library collection of CDs which is how he got to know about “Duke Ellington, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin.”

Sounds like a typically welcoming library, not unlike Princeton’s “community living room,” just as Tamura sounds like an interesting kid who might well grow up to be Haruki Murakami — except maybe for the name he’s chosen to go by when he’s on the road. The obvious assumption is that he’s named himself after the novelist Franz Kafka, which immediately puts a somewhat surreal spin on his typical-kidness. Only when the novel is moving toward one of its variety of endings does he tell Miss Saeki, the beautiful 50-something head librarian at the Komora Memorial Library in Takamatsu, that he gave himself the name because “kafka” means “crow” in Czech, and his alter ego is a boy named Crow. In fact, the title of the first chapter is “A Boy Named Crow.”

At this point, I should admit that my wife loved — I mean really loved — Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Until, that is, an ending she thinks he couldn’t find his way out of, trapped in the wonderland of his creation. In Patti Smith’s memoir M Train, she’s so enthralled by the book that she doesn’t wish to “exit its atmosphere.” Among features she mentions is the search for a lost cat, and as readers like my wife and I who both love M Train know, Smith ends up searching for her copy of Murakami’s book.  more

April 26, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

I sat me down to write a simple story which maybe in the end became a song

—Keith Reid (1946-2023), from “Pilgrim’s Progress”

The first “simple story” Keith Reid gave to the world took some strange and wonderful turns. According to Beyond the Pale, Procol Harum’s rich, many-leveled website, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and has inspired as many as a thousand known cover versions while becoming, says the BBC, “the most played song in the last 75 years in public places in the UK.”

And it all began when Keith Reid mailed the lyrics to singer/pianist Gary Brooker in an envelope addressed simply “Gary, 15 Fairfield Road, Eastwood, Essex” and postmarked South Lambeth. You can see the very envelope on the website, along with a photo of the Burmese Brown cat for whom the group was named.

Introduced by Scorsese

The song that has fascinated generations since it was released in the UK as a single on May 12, 1967 is not by any means Reid’s most impressive accomplishment. In his foreword to Henry Scott-Irvine’s group biography Procol Harum: The Ghosts Of A Whiter Shade of Pale (Omnibus Press 2012), Martin Scorsese points out that the band “drew from so many deep wells – classical music, 19th Century literature, Rhythm and Blues, seaman’s logs, concertist poetry,” each tune becoming “a cross-cultural whirligig, a road trip through the pop subconscious.”  more

April 19, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m lost amidst a sea of wheat
where people speak but seldom meet

—Keith Reid (1946-2023)

Haruki Murakami’s Novelist as a Vocation (Knopf 2022) comes with a blurb from Patti Smith, who compares readers waiting for the novelist’s latest work to past generations lining up at record stores for new albums by the Beatles or Bob Dylan. As it happens, the Beatles are at the heart of Murakami’s chapter “On Originality” where he recalls a boyhood moment sitting in front of his “little transistor radio” listening to them for the first time (“Please Please Me”), thinking, “This is fantastic! I’ve never heard anything like this!”  It was as if “air of a kind I have never breathed before is pouring in, I feel a sense of profound well-being, a natural high. Liberated from the constraints of reality, it’s as if my feet have left the ground. This to me is how ‘originality’ should feel: pure and simple.” more

April 12, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Life is a wild polyphony

—Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) 

During the media’s recent “wild polyphony” on a theme of indictment, I tried a “Brahms/indictment” search online just for fun and came up with Maurice Brahms, founding owner of a discotheque called Infinity, which had a 100-foot-long dance floor surrounded by mirrors, colored neon rings, 54 spinning laser beams, and 70 neon sculptures. Once known as “the uncrowned king of New York night life,” Brahms was the subject of a 1980 federal grand jury investigation into possible tax fraud. So while a terminally fraudulent ex-president was being indicted and arraigned in a New York courtroom, I learned that Brahms had retained Donald Trump’s favorite fixer Roy Cohn, who also represented the owners of Studio 54, a target of the same investigation. Warned by Cohn through an intermediary that his family would be harmed if he fought the sentence, Brahms pled guilty and served two and a half years at Allenwood Federal Penitentiary.

I could have rolled the Google dice and come up with any number of professions for an American Brahms, in and out of the music business, but given the ongoing interest in Trump’s and the country’s current plight, it was worth the search to know that the great composer’s namesake was a player in New York’s 1970s club scene. It’s also worth adding that in his late teens Maurice’s son Eric promoted events at Manhattan nightclubs featuring, among a polyphony of other performers, Run DMC, LL Cool J, 2 Live Crew, Jazzy Jeff, Fresh Prince, and Fat Joe. more

April 5, 2023

By Stuart Mitchner

Rachmaninoff is for teenagers. Brahms is for adults!” I overheard this brook-no-dissent proclamation at Princeton’s Cafe Vienna a year before the pandemic shut it down. The speaker was at a nearby table and judging by snatches of conversation coming from his vicinity, he had clout, he knew his stuff, and what he said seemed to make sense at the time.

So began, or begins, this piece on Johannes Brahms, who died on April 3, 1897, 136 years ago Monday, and who was born on May 7, 1833, which makes 2023 his 190th year. I say “began” for “begins” because the first thing I saw yesterday morning when I sat down to breakfast was this headline on the first page of the New York Times’ arts section: “At 150, Rachmaninoff Still Hasn’t Lost His Step.” The opening paragraphs of Joshua Barone’s article mention the composer’s immense popularity, although his reputation has been that of “a sentimentalist and nostalgic who was guilty, worst of all, of being an outlier in classical music’s embrace of modernism.”

So there it is: Rachmaninoff for teenagers, like Classical Music for Dummies. It’s true, one of the few classical records among my mid-teen Basies and Sinatras was Van Cliburn’s best-selling recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. A few years later when I was in college and by then in my late teens, a member in good standing of the Columbia Record Club, the only works by Brahms or any other composer I knew were symphonies and concertos. Solo piano pieces, string quartets and such were waiting for the middle-aged father who discovered Franz Schubert in a children’s book shared with his 2-year-old son. more