Hannah – The Beast of Gevaudan

The sun made the circular gates gleam, he thought, like polished silver.  The platform wasn’t rotating; it wouldn’t budge until the first cows were loaded at five minutes to six, but he stopped to admire, as he did every morning, it’s sterile, gleaming precision. He found his milking parlor beautiful; sometimes he was moved to tears at the sight of a full twenty-three cow load rotating ‘round its ghost-quiet motor.  “Wilhelm Gevaudan is a 20th century man, and he runs a 20th century dairy farm.” Wilhelm had never actually heard that said about him or his work, but, entering his office, he imagined it was the kind of thing people thought.

He enjoyed running his farm, and contributing, in his way, to developments in farming equipment and agricultural science.  His rotating dairy parlor might be labelled an oddity by shorter-sighted farmers, but it made him a member of the scientific community.  That was meaningful, that was substantive.  He knew that his colleagues at the Dairy Science Conference found it (and him) a little unorthodox, but he believed that they were secretly pleased to have in him a rock of unwavering principle.

He was not an amateur, or like many of his neighbors who were farmers because their fathers had farmed, because they had been born to it.  Wilhelm’s nail beds tingled, as they tended to when he grew excited, and for a panicked moment he glanced at his desk calendar, made special note of the date.  Reassured, he sipped his morning chamomile and sifted through yesterday’s mail.

Was it wrong to feel pride for building as he had built? For starting as he had started, the proverbial stranger in a strange land?   He didn’t listen any longer to the rumors he would once have overheard: that there was something wrong with him designing his dairy farm the way he had designed it.  That locals speculated poor production volume.  He had long given up his last remnants of uncertainty, which at one time, like flies on a carcass, could be scattered by the slightest wind, and would buzz inside him, cause him to clench his fists, knuckles white and bulbous, against his head.  Something had calmed the swarm; he liked to think it was the smooth, circulating breeze, generated from the turning wheels of his milking parlor.  The flies never flared up now. No, he never thought of it at all.

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Mary Gordon – Eleanor’s Music

How she loved her mother! Still perfectly beautiful at eighty-six. The only concession she’d made to her age was a pair of hearing aids. “My ears,” she called them. Everything her mother touched she touched carefully, and left a little smoother, a little finer for her touch. Everything about her mother reminded her of walking through a glade, from the chestnut rinse that tinted what would be bright white hair, to the shadings of her clothes. Each garment some variety of leaf tone: the light green of spring with an underhint of yellow, the dark of full summer, occasionally a detail of bright autumn — an orange scarf, a red enamel brooch. Wool in winter cotton in summer; never an artificial fiber next to her skin. What she didn’t understand, she often said, was a kind of laziness, which in the name of convenience in the end made more work and deprived one of the small but real joys. The smell of a warm iron against damp cloth, the comfort of something that was once alive against your body. She was a great believer in not removing yourself from the kind of labor she considered natural. She wouldn’t own a Cuisinart or have a credit card. She liked, she said, chopping vegetables, and when she paid for something, she wanted to feel, on the tips of her fingers, on the palms of her hands, the cost.

Some people might have considered these things crotchets or affectations, but Eleanor considered them an entirely admirable assertion of her mother’s individuality. As she considered her father’s refusal to step outside their Park Avenue apartment without a jacket and tie, regardless of the heat of the day or the informality of the occasion.

She knew that many people thought it odd, to say nothing of unhealthy, for her to be living with her parents at the age of fifty-one. “Health,” said her father, “is the new orthodoxy. The new criterion by which we are judged of the fold or outside it. In the old days, they just tested people by trying to drown them, and if they survived they were allowed back in the community. But that’s too good for the health nags.”

And of course there was Billy. People thought it was peculiar that she should choose to be such close friends with her ex-husband, as they thought it was peculiar that she lived with her parents. But she was proud of that as well; she considered the shape of her life not peculiar, but original; she lived as she liked; real courage, she believed, was doing what you believed in, however it appeared.

He had come to her, weeping, confessing that his problems in bed with her had nothing to do with her, or with him, for that matter: it was just the way he was; he had fallen in love with Paul, and realized for the first time the way he had always been, the way he had always been made, what he had been afraid of, had repressed, but could no longer. Because love had come his way.

“Love,” she had said, as if she’d just picked up, between two fingers, an iridescent, slightly putrefying thing. “And what do you call what we have for each other, devotion, loyalty, shared interests, shared valued, joy in each other’s company, what do you call that if not love?”

She didn’t say, “Don’t you know that I would die for you,” because although she meant it, she didn’t want to mean it, and certainly, she would never say it. It sounded too operatic. Opera was the center of both their lives, she as a singer, he as an accompanist, but she had no interest in living at the intense, excessive temperatures opera suggested.

Casey – Woldemar Schumann: Lebenszyklus einer Ringelblume

Schumann’s intense musical sensibility was often felt by his companions as an intense irritability. In Vienna, he depended financially upon a group of bohemian admirers whose rowdy lifestyle further destabilized him, prompting violent outbursts as well as long periods of near-catatonic depression. Alienating–or alienated by–his friends, in January of 1834 Schumann abandoned the capital for the small town of Mariazell, where he took on the modest job of organist in the Basilica of the Birth of the Virgin Mary.   

Accustomed to the lively musical and theatrical world of 1830s Vienna, Schumann had trouble adapting to the life of a small-town church musician. He began drinking heavily, and in letters he often complained about the Kappelmeister, whom the composer described as “unpleasant, like a lizard, or a prison guard.” Upon arriving drunk to a mass one morning, so the legend goes, Schumann got into a fight with the cantor, and in the resulting tussle fell from the organ loft down into the pews below. Remarkably, his only injury was a broken arm, but this still left him unable to perform. The Baroness Wertmuller, a sympathetic parishioner vaguely aware of Schumann’s musical talents, offered him the use of a summerhouse on her estate while he convalesced. It was there that Schumann composed, without the use of any instrument, the Lebenszyklus einer Ringelblume (the Life Cycle of a Marigold).

The sonata begins with a berceuse in lilting compound time, growing steadily from an andante to an adagio before bursting open, unexpectedly and yet inevitably, into the celebrated rhapsody of the second and central movement. The liberal use of glissando and varying intonations achieve a lively, vitalistic effect whose alterations of key prevent any one emotional tone from taking primacy. (In his notes, Schumman specified that the sonata ought to be played in late summer, at 5 in the afternoon.) The dramatic contrasts of the piano find balance only in the tripling accompaniment of the flute, the true obligatto of the piece. The codetta brings together elements of the nocturne–a cantabile melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment–with the flute assuming an almost percussionary role, meant to evoke, wrote Schumann, the movement of fireflies or the chirping of crickets at twilight.

The Ringelblume is a sonata a dúo. To achieve its complex and tenuous harmonies, pianist and flutist will generally have performed together for many years. Schumann, who would live the remainder of his brief life alone in Mariazell, never performed the piece himself; indeed, it is doubtful that he ever heard it played at all.

Richard Rodda – Ludwig van Beethoven: Der Hammerklavier

Beethoven’s younger brother, Caspar Carl, a bank clerk of modest success in Vienna, died of tuberculosis on November 15, 1815. Though Caspar seems to have lived with her contentedly, his wife, Johanna, was a woman of sullied reputation whom the composer characterized as “wicked and vicious…The Queen of the Night.” Beethoven felt that she was unfit to rear the couple’s nine-year-old child, Karl, and he persuaded his brother to name him as the boy’s guardian. Two days before he died, Caspar Carl included this provision in his will. During the following hours, however, he had misgivings about taking Karl from his mother, and added a codicil that, in effect, named his wife and brother as co-guardians, thereby contradicting the earlier provision.

Thus ensued nearly five years of bitter legal battles between Beethoven and Johanna over the custody of Karl, who was mired in misery all the while by the unsettled state of his young life. The case was first decided in Beethoven’s favor in February 1816. Johanna instituted subsequent proceedings (usually after Karl had fled to her from the smothering attentions of his uncle), and the courts again formally took up the matter in 1818. Litigation dragged on for the next two years. The eventual settlement in 1820 was painful for Beethoven, even though he won the suite.

The proceedings also revealed that he was without noble ancestors, a lifelong belief that he held tenaciously until it was publicly exploded in court. With declining health, shattered hearing, and family turmoil sapping so much of Beethoven’s energy during that time, it is little wonder that half decade was the least productive period of his creative life…the only major works he completed were the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte and the piano sonata in B-flat, the Hammerklavier.

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The Hammerklavier Sonata is epic in scale yet inexhaustibly subtle in detail. Its four movements– a sonata-form Allegro with a cantabile second theme, a scherzo with a contrasting central trio in quick duple meter, an Adagio in sonata form of almost unparalleled sublimity, and a vast fugue that employs virtually every contrapuntal technique–encompass and bring into balance an enormous range of emotional states that find no counterpart in mere words. Opposites are here joined. The sonata contains the broadest slow movement that Beethoven ever wrote, as well as one of his most minutely realized fugues; the work is firmly rooted in traditional formal procedures, yet seeks constantly to break their fetters; those who perform the Hammerklavier must bring to it both the physical endurance of an athlete and the most exalted interpretative skills of the artist.

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