Friday night delight: Liszt,. Concert Etude #3 in Db major, “Un Sospiro” (a sigh)

[no COVID19 post today — probably tomorrow]

Here are two performances of a little gem among Liszt’s earlier, flashier work. Before Liszt retired from the concert stage, his archival was the now-mostly forgotten Sigismund Thalberg, whose “party trick” was to keep a melody going on top of a two-handed accompaniment. Liszt was dismissive of what he might have called a “gimmick” of he spoke English, but he then exploited it to great effect in some of his own compositions, notably the famous “Liebestraum” in Ab major, and the following piece. Enjoy!



And while I’m at it, let me share a piece in the same key that appears in Operation Flash, Episode 3, where the two protagonists meet, and Diana Slater lacks the words to tell Felix Winter what is on her mind. 

Stay-at-home reading promotion: all my ebooks free on Kindle, Wednesday March 25 through Sunday March 29

On account of the various lockdowns around the world, I’m following the lead of several friends who are running free or deep-discount ebook promotions. You can read these books directly on your Kindle, your smartphone (with the free Kindle app for iOS or Android), or you laptop or desktop computer (with the free Kindle app for MacOS or Windows).

WW II alternate history

On March 21, 1943, a general staff officer came within a hairbreadth of killing nearly the entire Nazi top in a suicide bombing.
In timeline DE1943RG, he succeeded.
And then the conspirators discovered killing the tyrant was the easy part of the job.

Episode 3, “Spring Awakening”, is presently in copy-edit.

Campus romance, with lots of music

“On Different Strings: A Musical Romance” was my writing debut. Between a penniless young music tutor and a British-born engineering professor, an unlikely romance cemented by music develops. Until Kafkaesque academic politics and jealous exes make appearances…


“Winter Into Spring” is a sweet romance novella set in suburban Chicagoland.

Contributions to anthologies

This one I cannot set free, but my story in it fits entirely in the free preview segment, and is hence permafree.

Saturday musical delight: US Army Band performing “Time Stand Still” by Rush

The US Army band, “Pershing’s Own”, posted this tribute to Neil Peart (1947-2020) — an unusual vocals plus chamber instruments arrangement of the Rush song, “Time Stands Still”. I stilll prefer the original, but it works remarkably well, and shows off the song writing talents of Peart (lyrics), Lee and Lifeson (music) to people with an aversion to a rock sound.


RIP Neil Peart (1952-2020), drummer and lyricist extraordinaire

Suddenly you were gone

From all the lives you made your mark upon

(Rush, “Afterimage”)

Neil Peart, longtime drummer and lyricist of the progressive hard rock trio Rush, succumbed to a brain tumor in Santa Monica this week, CBC reports. He passed away on January 7, but his family only released the news his demise today. He is survived by his second wife, photographer Carrie Nuttall Peart, and their young daughter Olivia (b. 2009).

He was a musician’s musician, a master of odd meters and complex textures.

No stranger to tragedy, he lost his first wife and his daughter to illness and accident within the space of a year. He coped with his grief by a transcontinental motorcycle journey that inspired his first prose book, Ghost Rider. Several travelogue books followed, as well as instructional DVDs.

But more than a prose writer, more even than a virtuoso drummer, he was a lyricist of rarely matched, never surpassed expressive power. Rock music and adjacent genres have many perceptive lyricists and many good storytellers. None ever hit me in the gut the way Peart could, and I know they moved many others equally deeply.

May his memory be for a blessing.

Sabbath delight: Angela Hewitt interviewed on Bach, the Well-Tempered Clavier, and… baby hippos?!

Possibly Canada’s greatest living treasure in the realm of classical music is pianist Angela Hewitt. She has a huge and musically diverse repertoire (her recent recordings of Scarlatti sonatas are quite scrumptious), but is best known for her complete recordings of J. S. Bach’s keyboard works.

Here she is in Hong Kong in late 2018, giving a quite delightful interview to a local music professor for about an hour:

She talks about her background (her father was a British-born organist and choir director at a cathedral in Ottawa, her mother a pianist), about playing Bach on the piano, why she uses Fazioli pianos exclusively now, about her favorite preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier (I’m not surprised C#m book 1, Bbm book 1, and F#m book 2 are among them). A few amusing as well as enlightening nuggets:

  • Because both Canadian and Bach, a comparison to Glenn Gould is inevitable. But she recalls seeing him on TV as a child, and asking her parents, “who is this kook?” Later on, she decided that, without detracting from Gould’s (staggering) musical talents, her vision of Bach wasn’t his, and that in particular Gould’s tempo choices were too eccentric and counter-intuitive for her taste. (It’s also hard not to notice that she’s as outgoing as Gould was introverted. She even once answered a fan note from yours truly :))
  • Her taking ballet lessons as a child helped shape her approach to rhythm in Bach, particularly the degree to which the rhythms of French courtly dances (quite explicit in the French suites, the orchestral suites, and the French Overture) come through in Bach’s preludes. The dance steps required notes inégales, rhythms that are more or less subtly syncopated even when written as equal notes. (Cf. “swing” and “boogie-woogie” in American popular music.)]
  • Similarly, being in a choir (her father’s?) since childhood gave her an appreciation of phrasing and articulation that you would not normally acquire from playing Bach on a piano (or other keyboard instrument) in isolation.
  • Her realizing during preparing for her then-current Bach concert tour (after a long spell of focusing on other repertoire), “there’s no bulls–t [sic] at all in Bach’s music”. By [bovine scatology], she means redundant notes or passages, “fluff”, “filler”. (As I understand it, a piece by Liszt, for example, will contain quite a bit of ornaments, flash-bang, musical “foley effects” that can be ad-libbed or simplified while still basically retaining the same piece. In contrast, everything in Bach is “just so”.[*])
  • How she was taught Bach (starting at age 3) by her parents in the same sequence she recommends for learners now: first the Anna Magdalena Notebook and the Little Preludes, then the Two-Part Inventions, then the Three-Part, then the French Suites, and only then the Well-Tempered Clavier.
  • How an important factor in deciding tempi for the preludes is “harmonic tempo” (her interviewer’s term), i.e., the frequency at which chords change. For example, the (in)famous First Prelude in C she takes comparatively fast as it only changes chords one to the bar (and she’d otherwise “be asleep by the time it’s over”), while the Fm prelude with many changes to the bar she plays more slowly and more expressively than many pianists.
  • My LOL moment: One of her favorite fugues is the long, ponderous, organ-like A minor from WTC book I, which she calls “my little hippopotamus fugue” [sic]. This is actually a reference to a Victorian musicologist named Ebenezer Prout, who, as a mnemonic device for the required articulation, put all sorts of droll lyrics to the fugue themes. A full list can be found here. For the A minor from Book One, it was : “On a bank of mud in the river Nile, upon a summer morning, a little hippopotamus was eating bread and jam.

Glenn Gould (whose correspondence is replete with musical jokes) clearly missed that joke, and instead played the fugue at a brisk tempo that is “rushing” for Angela’s taste, but brings out the relentless motorics of the piece. Here (via commenter “riverstun”) Gould discusses how he spliced together the final recording from two takes (out of eight) at the same high tempo, one of which he labeled the articulation as “pompous” and the other as “skittish”.

Sadly I could not find Angela’s performance of the same fugue on YouTube: suffice to say that in my iTunes music library, her recording runs for 5:33, compared to just 3:27 for Gould! (The great Tatiana Nikolayeva’s version, part of a single track with the prelude, I timed at 4:30.)

It is a marvel of the modern age that not only can we pull these contrasting performances up at the touch of a button, but we can even hear the performers explaining their artistic decisions. This is a luxury Bach himself (I nearly wrote Bach Himself, but that would be idolatry) could not have dreamed of in his lifetime, but would have been quite delighted with.


[*] exceptions that prove the rule are pieces like the 2nd movement of the 3rd Brandenburg, where Bach leaves a space for an improvised keyboard cadenza, or sections of the Chromatic Fantasy where performers are given sequences of chords to arpeggiate to their own taste.

Out with the old, in with the new + Episode 3 update

It is out with the old, and in with the new. Not just the year but arguably the decade! [*] And what better to end and start with than Bach!

“Gone is the old year” (Das alte Jahr vergangen ist), BWV 690 (followed by several other settings of that chorale).

And here is a New Year performance of the cantata, “Singeth unto the L-rd a new song” (Singet den H-rrn ein neues Lied), BWV 190

My best wishes to you all for the secular year 2020!

Now apropos Operation Flash, Episode 3 (which will likely end Book One). Originally it was scheduled for November, but work and life threw some curveballs. So only a few weeks ago, I was able to buckle down and write. Do not worry, it is coming: I got back alpha review comments on about half of it. Episode 3 may be longer than the other two, or I may split it on two.
After release in ebook, the plan is to then also release a paper omnibus edition of episodes 1-3 (or 1-4), which should weigh in around 350-400 pages.

[*] Depending on your POV about whether years ending in zero start or end decades.

The tragic story of pianist Karlrobert Kreiten: how speaking one’s mind in private could be fatal in the Third Reich

The legendary Chilean-born pianist Claudio Arrau (a grand-pupil of Liszt, via Martin Krause) spent much of his youth and early adult career in Berlin, both as a performer and as a teacher at the Stern Conservatory.

One of Arrau’s pupils there was a young fellow from Düsseldorf, a child prodigy like Arrau himself had once been: his name was Karlrobert Kreiten, son of composer-pianist Theo Kreiten and then well-known soprano Emmy Kreiten. Karlrobert went on to a very successful concert career. Some shellack recordings have been preserved: below is a YouTube (apologies for the inevitably poor sound quality).

[His teached Claudio Arrau had meanwhile gotten married to a German soprano named Ruth Schneider (who had briefly been his piano student) —but the couple had their belly full of the Third Reich and left. They eventually settled in New York following a stopover in Arrau’s native Chile and a concert tour.]

Come March 17, 1943 — just four days ahead of the sadly abortive Arsenal Bomb Plot. Ahead of an important concert at the Beethoven Hall, and in the process of moving house, Kreiten was practicing in the music room of an old friend of his mother’s.

For some reason, he felt safe to let his guard down, and started speaking his mind about the war situation: he said among other things that “Hitler is sick, and Germany’s fate rests in the hands of such a madman… In two to three months there will be revolution, and Hitler, Göring, Goebbels, and [Interior Minister] Frick will all lose their heads. The war is essentially lost, and this will lead to the downfall of Germany and German culture”. When his hostess expressed dismay, he allegedly said something like “come on, are you living on the moon?”

Kreiten was unaware that his interlocutor was a diehard Nazi — who promptly discussed his outburst with two even more fanatical “lady” friends of hers, one of them a former employee of the Propaganda Ministry. Together they decided to denounce Kreiten to the Reich Music Chamber. Nothing much happened at first, and the Beethoven Hall concert was a great success, even though (peculiarly) only one paper reported on it.

Then when the women saw Kreiten was actually going to perform in Italy — for which he needed an exit visa — they lost patience and denounced him again, this time to the Gestapo.

When his exit visa was denied, Kreiten suspected nothing since such visas were hard to come by for Germans anyway, and he planned a local concert tour instead. Less than an hour ahead of a sold-out performance in Heidelberg, the Gestapo arrested him there. After two weeks of “interrogation” he was brought to Gestapo HQ in Berlin.

Kreiten’s father Theo asked to see the Gestapo officer in charge of the file, but was told “the soup will not be eaten as hot as it’s served” (a German and Dutch idiom roughly meaning “this isn’t as bad as it looks, don’t worry”). Still, the Kreitens turned to prominent figures for help: none other than Wilhelm Furtwängler, the legendary conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, lobbied with Goebbels on Kreiten’s behalf.

To no avail. To their shock, they were tipped off that on September 3, 1943, Kreiten had been brought before the People’s Court of “hanging judge” Roland Freisler. Following a brief kangaroo trial, Kreiten had been sentenced to death for Wehrkraftzersetzung (subversion of defensive strength). His attorney had not even been informed of the trial.

Kreiten was the brought to Plötzensee prison’s death row. His parents hurried to submit clemency petitions: such petitions usually took 6-12 months to make their way through the bureaucracy, and execution would meanwhile be stayed.

Then Kreiten had a terrible stroke of bad luck. During an Allied bombing raid on September 4, 1943, Plötzensee prison was hit, and in the melée four prisoners on death row were able to escape. To avoid a repeat thereof, the orders came from on high to get rid of the backlog. This led to what is known in German as the Plötzensee Blood Nights [Plötzenseer Blutnachten]. On the first night alone, Sept. 7-8, no fewer than 186 prisoners were hanged in batches of eight, by candlelight. (The guillotine that was normally used had been damaged in the air raid. Later it was discovered that six of the hanged had not even gotten death sentences and had been executed by mistake.)

One of the 186 was our pianist. The parents only found out, when trying to check up on the progress of their clemency appeal, that their son had already been executed. Adding insult to injury, they were billed the sum of RM 639,20 for the execution, payable within one week.

It should be emphasized that the pseudo-judicial murder of Kreiten was not racially motivated — the Kreitens were of impeccably “Aryan” ancestry. Nor was the pianist a member of any anti-Nazi group: he had, indeed, submitted an application for NSDAP membership. Unless you were certain you were in like-minded company who could keep their mouths shut, speaking your mind about the regime meant you were one informer away from the gallows.

ADDENDUM: here is Kreiten’s teacher playing what I imagine would have been a fitting eulogy for his slain pupil. Contrary to the received wisdom I absorbed as a young classical music lover, Liszt himself stated that Funérailles was not meant as a musical ‘funeral oration’ for Chopin (despite the very obvious homage to the Heroic Polonaise in the fourth section) — but for fellow Hungarian friends of Liszt who lost their lives in the uprising against Habsburg rule. If understood so, the first section takes on a much more sinister “march to the scaffold” quality.

Liszt’s evocative tone poem for piano stretched technique as well as the harmonic language of his time to their limits.

UPDATE: welcome, Instapundit readers!

Ernst von Dohnányi (composer) and “six degrees of separation” from the Operation Flash protagonist

It was the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy who, in a short story called “Chains”, first laid out the “six degrees of separation” concept. I’ve had numerous occasions to think of this while doing background research for the Operation Flash book series.

This month, the Hyperion classical music label issued a new recording of music by Dohnányi Ernö (1877-1960), better known perhaps by the German version of his name, Ernst von Dohnányi. [Hungarian naming conventions put the family name first.] Brahms and/or Schumann aficionados won’t want to miss this lovely recording.

Ernst von Dohnanyi (EvD) was born in Pozsony/Pressburg/Bratislava to a mathematics professor and amateur cellist, whose family had been ennobled in 1697. He got his first music lessons from his father, then from age 8 studied organ with the a local church organist. At age 17, he enrolled in the Budapest conservatory, where he studied piano with pupil of Franz Liszt and composition with Hans von Koessler, a first cousin of neo-Baroque composer Max Reger and a devotee of Brahms. EvD’s first published composition was praised and plugged by Brahms; as a pianist, he rose to fame following an American tour.

This early Dohnanyi composition earned the praise of Brahms

Unlike many concert pianists at the time, EvD avidly performed chamber music aside from the usual solo works and concerti: he establised a musical association with the legendary violinist Joseph Joachim, likewise a Brahmsian. (The German-speaking musical world was at the time torn by factional dispute between followers of Wagner and traditionalist followers of Brahms.)

EvD’s fame as a composer and performer was such that, following a long stint as a professor of composition at the Berlin conservatory (where Joachim had invited him), he was appointed the director of the Budapest conservatory. Despite being considered “too German” by the more nationalist Hungarian musicians, he would often showcase works by Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly.

EvD’s first wife was a concert pianist named Elsa Kunwald (who herself appears to have been of at least partial Jewish origin[*]), with whom he had a son and a daughter. Their daughter, Grete, married the German physical chemist Karl Bonhoeffer (discoverer of ortho- and para-hydrogen), brother of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The son, Hans von Dohnanyi, (himself married to Dietrich’s sister Christel) did remain a skilled amateur musician all his life, but sought a career in law and government. Eventually, he became a senior civilian specialist in the Abwehr, the German espionage agency, where he was deeply involved in the anti-Hitler conspiracy cell led by the Abwehr’s second-in-command, general Hans Oster (with at least the tacit approval of the Abwehr’s enigmatic chief, admiral Wilhelm Canaris). When Hans’s brother-in-law Dietrich Bonhoeffer was forbidden to preach or publish by the National Socialist authorities, Hans hired him as an Abwehr agent, on the grounds that his extensive contacts with senior Protestant clergy abroad made him a valuable operative.

In our timeline, Hans was arrested shortly after the failure of the Arsenal Bombing Plot (March 21, 1943) for his role in helping a number of Jewish families escape to Switzerland as “agents”. [Yad Vashem would eventually honor him as “Righteous Among The Nations” for those actions.] Bonhoeffer, Oster, and Canaris were eventually all hanged at Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, after secret diaries by Canaris had been discovered that revealed the depth of their involvement in anti-Hitler conspiracies. They were joined in death by Karl Sack, the military judge-advocate who had been in charge of the investiagtion against them, but (as a member of the underground himself) had used delaying tactics in an attempt to run out the clock on the Third Reich before the men’s trial. Hans met his end on the same day, but at Sachsenhausen.

His son, Christoph von Dohnanyi, would in time become the musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra; another son, Klaus, served as Oberbürgermeister (freely: Lord Mayor) of Hamburg 1981-1988.

The Operation Flash series is, of course, set in a timeline where the Arsenal Plot succeeded. (Of course, then the plotters discover that killing Hitler and his chief henchmen was the easy part.) Hans, the handler and mentor of (fictional) protagonist Felix Winter, becomes a senior official in the Emergency Government led by Chancellor Carl Goerdeler. [Goerdeler, a popular former Lord Mayor of Leipzig who had resigned in protest against Nazi chicaneries, was the head of government-designate in case either the real-life Operation Flash plots or the 1944 Operation Valkyrie had succeeded.]

In our timeline, after the war EvD had to defend himself against accusations of NS sympathies, as he had continued to perform in Germany throughout. However, in view of the number of Hungarian-Jewish musicians who credited him with saving their lives, that dog would not hunt; EvD soon after left for the US to take up a professorship of music at Florida State University. His later compositions include a number of works inspired by American folk themes, such as American Rhapsody.

Ernst von Dohnányi, “American Rhapsody” Op. 47 (ca. 1953)

On a final “six degrees” note: EvD’s second wife was herself the ex-wife of composer and violinist Bronislav Huberman, who in 1936 would become the founding director of the Israel Philharmonic.

[*] The conductor Antal Dorati was Elsa Kunwald’s nephew (son of her sister Margit Kunwald)

Beethoven’s “missing” piano sonatas: the three Kurfürstensonaten, WoO 47

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas have been declared “The New Testament” of solo keyboard music, with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier the “Old Testament”.
What even some longterm Beethoven aficionados are unaware of (as was I, to my great shame) is that the canonical count of 32 (beginning with Op. 2 Nr. 1 in F minor, and ending with Op. 111 in C minor) excludes several juvenile works that Beethoven didn’t feel merited an Opus number.

Much has — rightly — been made of Mozart being a child prodigy at composition. Beethoven is often cited casually as a “late bloomer” in comparison, as he was in his mid-twenties when Three Piano Trios, Op. 1 and the Op. 2 piano sonatas were published. Yet at age twelve and thirteen, he wrote three piano sonatas dedicated to his first patron, the Kurfürst [i.e., Prince-Elector] of Cologne, Prince-Bishop Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels. These are known among musicologists as the Kurfürstensonaten, and numbered WoO 47: WoO stands for Werk ohne Opuszahl [work without an opus number] in German, but can conveniently be read as “without Opus” by English speakers.

They are clearly juvenile works, but already harbingers of the greatness that is to come. Particularly WoO 47 Nr. 2 in F minor floored me when I first heard it: one can hear foreshadowing of some elements of the later Pathetique Op. 13 in the related key of C minor (which has one “flat” fewer). I am obviously not the first, and won’t be the last, to note that Beethoven often gravitated to C minor and F minor (or their relative majors Eb and Ab, respectively) for his most “Sturm und Drang” works.

WoO 47 No 2 in F minor, performed by Mikhail Pletnev

I won’t deny that Op. 2 No. 1 in the same key — written when Beethoven was twice as old, and dedicated to his composition teacher Joseph Haydn — is a much more mature work, but this doesn’t stop me from enjoying this early work.

A lighter side of young Beethoven comes out in WoO 47 No. 3 in D major.


Sabbath delight: Tatiana Nikolayeva plays J. S. Bach’s entire Well-Tempered Clavier

I had no idea who this fabulous Russian pianist was until I heard her performance of J. S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue on the Hyperion label — and was blown away by its combination of sensitivity and contrapuntal clarity. I treasure that recording above all others in my collection—if I could only take away one to a deserted island, that would be the one.
Sadly, shortly after that recording, she was felled by a stroke during a concert in San Francisco, and passed away days later, never having regained consciousness.
She had a very broad repertoire, most of it recorded in the former (thank G-d) USSR and (until recently, at least) only available on CDs with doubtful source audio provenance. (Vinyl rips? Analog studio tapes?)
But her first and last love was Bach. After she won the Bach Competition in Leipzig (then in the DDR) in 1950 with her Well-Tempered Clavier performance, the composer Shostakovich was so impressed by her voice-leading ability that he wrote his own 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 especially for her.

Until recently, all I had heard of her earlier output were lo-fi Youtube rips off vinyl recordings — with lots of hiss and distortion I had great trouble listening past. Now somebody uploaded a high-resolution digitization of the CDs. Below is the video for your enjoyment; I managed to locate a legal download for the source and promptly bought it. [Book I; Book II] You will wish to do the same if you like the recording. (I thought nothing could surpass Glenn Gould’s or Angela Hewitt’s for me, but this is something specia. )
“Perhaps not all musicians believe in G-d, but they all believe in Bach.” (Mauricio Kagel)

J. S. Bach (Tatiana Nikolayeva, piano): WTC Books I & II (complete)

As a bonus, here follows the complete performance by another great Russian pianist, Sviatoslav Richter. Enjoy!

J. S. Bach (Sviatoslav Richter, piano): WTC Books I & II (complete)

Purim/Bach Day/Spring Day post: J. S. Bach, “Peasant Cantata” BWV 212

Happy Purim to all who observe the holiday!

But owing to a calendarial coincidence, 14 Adar II this year coincides with March 21 — both the vernal equinox and the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. (Some sources have March 23: that is actually the day he was baptised. I saw the original baptismal register at his birth house in Eisenach.)

Picture of J. S. Bach’s baptismal registration (from the website of the EKD=German Evangelical Lutheran Church). Translation: 4. To Mr. Johann Ambrosius Bach, householder, a son. Godfathers: Sebastian Nagel, householder, and Johann Georg Kochen, forestry official of the principality. Given name: Johann Sebastian

In keeping with the playful spirit of Purim, let’s have one of Bach’s more jocular compositions. The burlesque cantata “Mer hah’n en neue Oberkeet!” BWV 212 —Saxon dialect for “We have a new authority!”—is commonly referred to as the Bauerncantata or Peasant Cantata. It was commissioned and written for the 36th birthday of the Kammerherr (Chamberlain) von Dieskau. The full libretto and its English translation can be read here.

As it happens, the late, great lyrical baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a descendant of the selfsame Chamberlain von Dieskau on his mother’s side. Here is his performance of Bach’s Peasant Cantata BWV 212. Enjoy!

Plagiarizing a song that itself “plagiarizes” a classical composition

Last Eurovision song festival [an event I normally pay no attention to] was won by Israel, with a tune called “Toy” by a very Rubenesque DJ and singer named Neta Barzilay.

Some people at the time noted the striking similarity between a phrase in the composition (such as it is) and the main riff of The White Stripes’s 2003 chart-topper “Seven Nation Army”. [Apparently, the title is how TWS frontman Jack White misheard “Salvation Army” as a child.] I didn’t think much of it — as I thought that riff pretty clichéd to begin with — But Universal Music Group subsequently sued Neta Barzilay on “behalf” of Jack White.

Now Mrs. Arbel forwarded me an article from Haaretz English Edition [archive link] according to which a settlement has been reached. The financial terms are undisclosed, but Jack White will receive a co-writing credit.

However, the Haaretz article [*] also points out that a very similar phrase appears in Bruckner’s 5th symphony. Listen to the YouTube below at 21:30 (the video embed should start playing 1 second before that if clicked):

Yup, substantially the same phrase, in Bb minor instead of E. Does this make it “plagiarism of plagiarism”? In the eyes of a random observer, perhaps yes. In the eyes of the law, no — because Bruckner’s composition passed into the public domain long ago, and hence Jack White [**] quoting it does not amount to a rights violation. (I would not want to feed all the rock and pop composers who have recycled bits of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Borodin,… as main melodies or riffs without as much as a hat tip. I am not talking about brief “salute” or “tribute” quotes in passing.)

So this adds a very interesting wrinkle to the case. I would have assumed that a song element that is itself lifted from a public domain source would not be copyrightable as such — the whole (which would be a derivative or [presumably in this case] a transformative work) would be, or any original material in the song. Perhaps that is the argument the defendants should have made—I am not a lawyer, but it would seem that this case would be winnable in court. (It is quite possible, however, that the defendants feared being bankrupted by a protracted legal battle against a plaintiff with very deep pockets and a “seven-nation army of copyright lawyers” on retainer.)

I cannot help being reminded of an anecdote from my HS years. A punk rocker was caught shoplifting from a record store. When the beat cop caught and arrested him, his defense was: “That record is mine! I stole it fair and square!” [Dutch original: “Die plaat is van mij! Ik heb ze eerlijk gestolen!”]

Some will rightly point out that composers like J. S. Bach had a much breezier attitude about quoting material than today’s music industry. However, here is the catch: when Bach recycled a popular song as a fugue theme, the material recycled was maybe 1% of the composition, and the contrapuntal edifice he built upon it the other 99%. Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” makes broader use of borrowed material (a Russian Orthodox hymn as the theme for the Russian defenders, and the Marseillaise as the theme for Napoleon’s invasion troops) — but again, there was a ton more music to it.

Bands like Dream Theater quote/steal bits of thematic material like magpies, but again use them as jumpoff points for more elaborate compositions and virtuoso improvisations.

But when your whole composition (such as it is) consists of a simplistic song built up from repeating one or two riffs and/snatches of melody —and then you are then discovered to have “borrowed” them — then I think the true problem is the simplistic, formulaic, and inspiration-less character of the “products” of today’s music industry, not plagiarism.

[*] credit where credit is due — regardless of my disgust with Haaretz’s editorial stance and general oikophobia, this was a good catch.
[**] According to Jack White’s wiki bio, he was a classical music aficionado before turning to rock. It is thus quite probable that he was familiar with the Bruckner original. (1970s German progressive rock band Novalis recorded this tribute to Bruckner’s 5th.) And again, I wouldn’t want to feed all the classically-raised musician turned rockers who mined classical compositions for riffs and hooks. I often quip that J. S. Bach was the greatest jazz cat in history, Mozart the greatest pop composer, and Beethoven the greatest hard rocker 🙂

Has every song been written? “Eenheidsworst” (standardized sausage) in music


Veteran producer Rick Beato and a guest discuss the question, “has every song been written?”, in the video below. Short answer: no, but the harmonic palette, in particular, of popular music has  in recent decades been blanded down to such a degree that it becomes ever harder to do something unique within it.

Economic constraints — particularly the ever-shrinking revenue pool of the music industry — also make A&R people of record companies and songwriters-for-hire ever more risk-averse . The end result is what is known by a priceless Dutch word as “eenheidsworst” — standardized sausage.


Can you legally use a historical classical music recording in a video or book trailer?

I have previously blogged about “fair use”  in copyright law, and mentioned there in passing that both law and jurisprudence are much more permissive about short textual excerpts from long written works than about, especially, audio or images. If you want to use a Beatles song (or a Rush song) for a book trailer, you’d better pay the licensing fee (which can range from reasonable to astronomical) or be prepared to fight a lawsuit. (Noncommercial music theory/appreciation videos, which include an element of scholarship or criticism about the music itself, tick off a couple more boxes and are comparatively safe. Even so, veteran record producer Rick Beato has suffered DMCA takedowns for some of his marvelous “What makes this song great?” episodes on YouTube.)

But what about a classical piece of music — and specifically, a composer who has been dead for over 70 years? The music itself — i.e., “just the notes, ma’am” — is without a doubt in the public domain. But what about a historical performance? Say, you’ve decided a theme from a Beethoven or Bruckner symphony is just what you need for a book trailer.  It is quite easy to find an online source for a performance by, say, the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler from the 1940s — for example, this gem here. Better still: in Europe, recordings that old have passed in the public domain.

Under German law, the copyright term for recordings which were made prior to January 1, 1963 has expired, meaning they have entered the public domain. Recordings taken after that date were given extended protection in 2013 and thus cannot be digitized. Aware of this rule, I only undertook to upload recordings which were taken before the 1963 date in order to fully comply with the law. Despite that precaution, the process that followed presented a number of unexpected challenges[…]

The 1963 cutoff date would imply that, for instance, Herbert von Karajan’s 1962 Deutsche Grammophon recordings of Beethoven’s nine symphonies are now in the public domain, at least in Germany (and the rest of the EU, presumably).

However, as discussed here at great length, the situation in the US is rather different. Audio recordings were treated very differently from other media, and public domain for them effectively did not exist in the US (except, of course, if the artists themselves placed the work there and the composition was not otherwise copyrighted). Only very recently was a form of public domain established (following a 3-year transition period to end in 2021) for recordings prior to 1922.

1923-1946 recordings will have an effective copyright term of 100 years (95+5), and 1947-1956 recordings a 110 year term (95+15). Recordings made between 1957-1972 will go into the public domain in 2067, as previously.

For so-called “orphaned works” (i.e, works for which no copyright owner can be located or identified, e.g., the record label is long out of business and nobody else picked up the rights at auction), the new law

Includes provisions to allow non-profit streaming of recordings which are verified to be out-of- print. This is a start …

But we are still out of luck for our hypothetical example. So what are your options?

If you have a specific reason to use that historical recording, you may need to go through the process of buying the license rights.

But if any decent performance of that specific piece of orchestral (or choral) classical music will do, then your options are basically:

(a) Try to locate a modern recording released under a Creative Commons license. (That would usually be an amateur orchestra.)

(b) Try to locate a “library music” recording for purchase from a site like PremiumBeat or Pond5. Such sites work much like stock photo sites: you pay a onetime fee, and the recording is a “work for hire” from a copyright point of view: once you’ve paid the fee, you own the recording and may do with it as you please. (Usually, this is a non-exclusive license: exclusive licenses will set you back more money.)

(c) Produce your own synthesized version using digital music production software. This requires at least some musical skill though, and the result may sound, well, “synthetic”, but this may actually be quite OK for a book trailer.

(d) If you have some experience conducting, assemble a pickup orchestra from a local conservatory and produce your own amateur recording. (This is hard work but not as hard as it sounds, since typically you could limit rehearsals and recordings to a short excerpt of the whole work.)

(e) As a last resort, find and buy a piece of library music that is similar in mood.

Solo instrumental or chamber pieces are much less of a challenge, since you are more likely to find it under (a,b), while option (d) — hiring one or a few students from your local conservatory to play a couple of takes for you to record — is much more practical than for something that requires a whole symphony orchestra. And of course, if it’s a solo piano, violin,… piece and you can passably play the piece yourself, recording yourself and (if need be) cleaning up the recording a bit in GarageBand or Logic Pro may be the simplest and cheapest option of them all.

What, exactly, is a “correct” classical performance? And how do music editors correct typos? Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue for organ, BWV 542

No, I won’t go into the manifold questions of interpretation here, and on the whole debate pro/con “historically informed” performance. What do you do when there is even no agreement on what the correct notes are?

The other day I heard somebody play Liszt’s piano arrangement of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G minor for organ, BWV 542. The Fantasy happens to be one of my two favorite pieces ever in the entire organ literature (the other being the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582), so I’m very familiar with its twists and turns.

So I was struck by two “mistakes” that stuck out like sore thumbs:

(1) in one of the solo recitativo bits of the Fantasy, the pianist hit a loud F natural where I’d always played a D (and as the last preceding chord was Bm/D, the F made no harmonic sense to me), and

(2) he played the final chord of the fantasy as G major rather than G minor. (Such a “Picardy third” — ending a minor-key piece on a major triad — was still the norm in Bach’s time, as minor thirds were still considered mildly dissonant. Bach himself, however, would end minor-key preludes in the Well-Tempered Clavier on minor triads to indicate the fugue was still to follow.)

Google Scholar is your friend then, and it turns out not only is there an entire academic journal called Bach, but that a long essay in it had been dedicated to the source provenance and variant readings of exactly this piece.

William H. Bates, “J. S. Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542: A Source Study for Organists”, Bach 39(2), 1-88 (2008).

Turns out that no original manuscript has been preserved, but the piece has been transmitted through multiple first- and second-generation manuscript copies by pupils of Bach, their pupils, and by an anonymous copyist at a royal library. [*] What’s more: for the fugue, they appear to derive from at least three different source versions: an original, Bach’s later emendation, and a version transposed to F minor. Dozens of minor discrepancies exist.

For the fantasy, of which appears to have been substantially only one source version, there are “only” three outright variant readings in the notes. Aside from the final chord noted in (2), they are a comparatively trivial change at bar 42 and the one noted in (1):


Thus the mystery is solved. The score I have, a Dover paperback, is a reprint of the BG (Bachgesellschaftedition, or Bach Society Edition, b. above) — which is followed in many classical organ recordings. The Liszt piano arrangement I heard was based on a different source (a. above) — it seems that the source material (c,d) had a oddball “E” (presumed transcription error) which had been editorially corrected in two different ways:

a. consistent with a later occurrence of the phrase in bar 44 (a fourth higher), which is the choice made by the Bärenreiter and Breitkopf & Härtel editions;

b. consistent with the preceding chord (Bm/D), which is the choice made by the Bach Society Edition after 1900 (originally they printed the E).

Also, I learned from this article that the Fantasy and the Fugue appear to have been entirely separate compositions, which (because of their compatible keys) were paired by custom, sometime after Bach’s death. This offers a clue as to the “Picardy third” mystery: as minor thirds were still considered mildly dissonant in Bach’s time, final movements of minor-key works still customarily ended on major triads, though Bach would often end a minor-key prelude on a minor third if there was another movement to follow.

“The lonely lives of classical music scholars”, you say? Maybe that too, but also, for this scientist and amateur musician:

(a) a sobering observation on what exactly constitutes “authenticity” in classical music performance;

(b) an interesting parallel with great literary works from the English Canon hat were only printed after the author had passed away.


[*] Unlike for works like Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, there is ample internal and external evidence that J. S. Bach was the author of BWV 542.

Disturbed, “Savior of nothing”

After a three-year hiatus except for a mind-blowing cover of “The Sound of Silence”, the new Disturbed album is out. It’s got the trademark sound: David Draiman’s powerful yet melodic vocals, crunching guitars blended with bits of electronics, … The iron-strong opener “Are you ready” sets the tone.

But lyrically, the message of one track stands out. It hardly needs explaining what this is about.


Now you’ve become
Everything you claim to fight
Through your need to feel you’re right
You’re the savior of nothing now

When you were a young one, they tormented you
They could always find a way to make you feel ashamed
Now that you are older, everything they put you through
Left you with an anger that just cannot be contained

So you spend every day of your life
Always searching for something to set you on fire

Now you’ve become
Everything you claim to fight
Through your need to feel you’re right
You’re the savior of nothing now

Everywhere around you, you find reasons to
Turn into a warrior to protect what you believe
But you think their beliefs, make them less than you
And that is a delusion that your sickness has conceived

Now you spend every day of your life
Always hoping that something will spark the desire

Now you’ve become
Everything you claim to fight
Through your need to feel you’re right
You’re the saviour of nothing now

(Repeat chorus)


Embedding Spotify playlists on WordPress

Hmm, thanks to this article (via Instapundit), I went digging in the support database and found this helpful explanation. Basically, you just need to enclose the link to the track or playlist in HTML view with leftsquarebracketspotify yourlinkrightsquarebracket. Examples below, taken from the WP support article:

UPDATE: and here is one of my own:

What makes this song great? Rick Beato on “Roundabout” by Yes

Music producer and multi-instrumentalist Rick Beato has a great series on YouTube where he picks apart — from a music theory as well as a studio techniques viewpoint — iconic rock and pop tracks. He uses either the original master tapes or artificial separates so he can illustrate individual vocal and instrumental parts and how they fit together. For illustration, he will demonstrate individual guitar and keyboard parts himself.

The series is very well worth watching, even if you don’t care for each and every song.

This time it’s the turn of one of my all-time favorites, Yes’s “Roundabout”.  Enjoy!