DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!


Jan 21 2011

Samuel Barber at 100

by Ken M

If you just read that title and thought, “Who?!,” I’m happy to tell you. Samuel Barber was an American composer, born on March 9, 1910.  I happened to hear about his special 2010 milestone on the radio, tuning in on the very day itself that he would have been 100. He died in 1981, and unfortunately he didn’t live long enough to see a resurgence of interest in music written in his neo-Romantic style.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Platoon and watched the credits, you’ve heard Barber’s most famous piece. Adagio for Strings was premiered by none other than Arturo Toscanini, and it was played at many prominent funerals, including those of FDR, Albert Einstein, and Princess Grace of Monaco.

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Jun 4 2010

Welcome to ShareReads!

by ShareReads

This is a new weekly book discussion post on DCPLive, in which we’ll talk about the thing library staff and patrons love most—books! It is also one part of our Adult Summer Reading program for 2010, which started this week. You get credit in the program if you participate in ShareReads. For more information, click here.

ShareReads will appear on the DCPLive blog on Fridays. Each week, a different person will share a little about what they’re currently reading, and why they like or don’t like it.  This person might also ask you a question or two about what you are reading, and then…

We now come to the most important part of ShareReads, which is you! The heart of ShareReads will be responses from blog readers, and the window of opportunity here is wide. Feel free to respond and discuss the book or author being mentioned, ask or answer a question, or even take the conversation in a different direction: mention what you are currently reading, and how you feel about it.  The point of ShareReads is to have an ongoing discussion about books and reading. Sound easy? Well, here we go:

This week, I’ve been dipping into a collection of essays by a music critic named Harold C. Schonberg. Anyone remember him? He died a few years ago in 2003, and was best known for his work at the New York Times as chief music critic from 1960 to 1980. He continued to publish books and reviews after his retirement, including Facing the Music, which I’m now reading. This book collects reviews and articles from the 1960’s until 1980 (the book appeared in 1981).

The T.V. character J.R. Ewing used to be known as “the man you love to hate.” If a music critic filled that role for me in my teens and twenties, it was Mr. Schonberg. He earned my extreme disdain for his hypercritical stance against my musical idol, Leonard Bernstein. I also felt he was unprofessional for sometimes attributing his opinions anonymously to others to bolster his case. At times I found his writing pretentious, and he could be misleading. He sometimes made the most irresponsible claims about composers or musicians, some of whom were long dead, and couldn’t respond.

So why would I be revisiting him now? Good question! Well, it’s been a while since I’ve read his work. I’m older now, less fanatical in my devotion to LB, and less easily wound up by Schonberg’s sometimes provocative or highhanded prose. Revisiting the writing, there’s less of that than I remembered.  I’m also interested in some of his opinions about composers who are less appreciated, and many of these I now enjoy myself. I’m curious about his thoughts on older artists who have now faded from the public consciousness. I care less about the faults I used to find in his work (now I just laugh), and while I still may not always agree with him, there’s more room in my world now for opinions which contradict my own :-). Schonberg’s topics covered the gamut of the classical music world, and I wish I could provide you with an online sample. If you like saucy music writing, I recommend his work to you. Facing the Music is a pretty good place to start, as is The Lives of the Great Composers.

Has there ever been an author whose work pushed your buttons, for better or worse? Who and why? Come on, ‘fess up!

P.S. Your posts don’t have to be anywhere close to the length of this one. I’m just so excited about summer reading, and I got a bit carried away!


May 7 2008

A Musical Titan

by Ken M

There are many great composers, both well-known and obscure, living and deceased. I’m thinking now of one who wrote two of those snippets that kids who don’t know how to play the piano teach each other – the first four notes of probably the most famous symphony ever written, and a piano piece best known by its opening nine notes. This seems appropriate, because he was also the hero of the musical Peanuts character Schroder.

The famous tune at the end of his greatest and last symphony influenced the main tune Brahms placed in the last movement of his own first symphony, and Brahms put off writing symphonies until he was in his forties because of the impact of this musical giant. When the similarity was pointed out to Brahms, he famously said, “Well, any ass can see that!” (To our moderator and offended readers: he intended the older meaning of the word.) Who prompted Brahm’s defensive remark? I bet you’ve guessed long before now. As the man said of himself, “There is only one Beethoven!”

I’ll never forget the first time a piano teacher assigned me a “real” piano sonata of his, a short early one in G minor which ended up being published later in his life. Just seeing his name in the upper right hand corner of the page made me feel like I was leaving kiddie pieces behind and entering the piano world of grown-ups. Of all the composers I had encountered to that point, his name filled me with the greatest reverence.

Beethoven has been a constant figure in my life, and unfortunately, I’ve sometimes taken him for granted. Since his music is much more familiar to me now, I’ve followed many interests, getting to know other musical masters, and becoming interested in the music of others who’ve been virtually forgotten. I can’t stay away from Beethoven for too long, however.

When I think about it, I still marvel at the sheer effort that writing music required of him, both physically and emotionally. He was famously temperamental, obsessed with music to the exclusion of other things and people in the world. He worked with sketchbooks, in which he re-wrote some themes over and over, hammering away at them ’till he got them right. Even his manuscripts are not always clean and pretty, like those of other famous composers; they contain sections which are crossed out and torn, and they can be very messy. Here’s one example from his sixth symphony. Here are parts of the 9th symphony manuscript, in which some sections are messier than others.

It’s also amazing to me that whole groups of pieces he composed in a particular genre, say piano sonatas or symphonies or string quartets, are not only strings of masterpieces – not a dud to be found anywhere among them – but they have had perhaps the greatest influence over those symphonies or sonatas or quartets which came after them. I think lots of musicians and music lovers would agree with that. Beethoven’s influence is also tied to something else about him that really keeps us hooked: his personality itself seems to have survived more fully somehow, inside his notes and words, and it still compels us. When you get to know the drama of his life, it’s easier to understand his tirades and have sympathy for his sufferings, both of which can also be heard in his music.

If you’d like to spend time with Beethoven, we’ve got some great books, recordings, and films to offer. I recently watched Copying Beethoven (whose release slipped by me in the theater). This film focuses on the last years of Beethoven’s life, and while it fictionalizes many details, I enjoyed Ed Harris’s rather vigorous portrayal of the composer and his struggle to complete and perform his 9th Symphony. (More than 20 years after I first encountered the whole piece, this remains my favorite symphony.) Compare this with Gary Oldman’s portrayal in Immortal Beloved, which takes its title and plot focus from some of Beethoven’s letters. Both films are more succesful as entertainment than as biography (as their creators intended, I think); if you want to get a sense of the “real” Beethoven, try one of the biographies by Lewis Lockwood or Maynard Solomon.

I’d like to close with these few words from the great man himself, “I wish you music to help with the burdens of life, and to help you release your happiness to others.”