Beethoven

Sunday was a full day of musical magic and at times mayhem. Firstly the old part of Vienna city is literally over-run with handsome young men all dressed as Mozart look alikes! As in Prague, they are spruking tickets to an evening of classical music and opera – the programme inevitably has works by Mozart, Strauss and Haydn. Not much Beethoven.

What do they look like? Think the movie “Amadeus”! Wig, bright costume with waistcoat and tails! What set them apart from the genuine article is that to a man they were wearing Ray Ban sunglasses, Nike runners, had an iPhone in one hand, a glossy brochure in the other and a cigarette in the corner of the mouth.

I accidentally walked past a sign which stated there was a Beethoven museum close by. It was an apartment on the fourth floor and it was extremely difficult to fathom how to gain entry. Indeed one had to push the bell at the front door of the block whereupon the door was unlocked and one then entered what was obviously mostly private dwellings. One’s frustration was magnified by an aging, irritable middle aged man with bad hair coloring (jet black) on a comb over, watching a movie on a portable DVD player. He was completely out of character for my Immortal Beloved and I suspect he would have been not out of place at a gothic convention. I am not alluding to architecture. The least I expected was twin set and pearls – or if it was a woman ….

Beethoven did not get along very well with his landlords as he was continuously playing music. He was constantly finding landlords who were supportive. From 1804 to 1825 he stayed in Baden 15 times taking lodgings in at least 8 different houses as a consequence.

In my efforts at learning the Recorder, my routine is a daily practice in the hotel room and having to cope with the banging on the walls from the room next door, I can only emphasize with poor Beethoven. Some people have no appreciation of genius.

I now practice in the bathroom with the door closed.

The museum was a little underwhelming, the more so when in a state of supplication, I asked the Visigoth, breathlessly if Beethoven actually lived here? Without looking away from his DVD, he said “NO”! At first I thought he was trying to irritated and upset me! He was I can assure you most successful if this was his purpose. It turns out that Beethoven actually lived in apartment 4 directly opposite! Near enough is not good enough for me. I contemplated ringing the doorbell of Herr Helmut Wizzenburgermiedrer, the occupant of apartment 4.

I now realize that all manuscripts, furniture and paraphernalia in these small museums are reproductions, the originals usually in the National museum or archives. Similarly the piano was labeled “Beethoven piano” in large type but beneath it in minute lettering “a piano from the same era as Beethoven would have owned”.

I left mildly disappointed passing the front desk. Under my breath I muttered “fuck off” hoping that his English was poor and that he assumed I said “Fur Elise”.

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If I could not actually be in his apartment at least I was floating on air knowing that I was genuinely walking in Beethoven’s footsteps.

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The piano “of a type that Beethoven would have played”. Sigh.
It has FIVE foot peddles. People have pontificated on what medical condition Beerhoven had to cause his grumpy behaviour and early onset deafness! Whatever syndrome it was, includes 3 extra legs!

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Beethoven lived on this street.
I return home content!

Dvorak – The museum

Dvorak – of “New World” symphony fame , was an inveterate follower of trains. He was the original Czech train spotter. It was his preferred method of transport, other than when he journeyed to London or New York (naturally), when he was, to his frustration, forced to take a boat!

Now thinking this through, how else was one to travel at the beginning of the 20th century?

He spent hours at the main railway stations of the big cities he visited, chatting to the engine drivers!

He is said to have bemoaned:

” I would give all my symphonies to have invented a steam train”!

The museum is rather forlorn and for its’ entrance fee, disappointing. There is not much to see, the gardens are overgrown and unkempt. There is his desk, his piano, a violin, a few original manuscripts, but surprisingly, given his first love, not one single sepia shot of him standing next to a steaming engine or a sooty driver.

Today is my fourth day in Prague and I feel the itch to move on. I have a definite feel for Prague. I have, however, no fundamental sense of which side of the Moldau River I am on at any given time, but for me the sense of history and specifically, it’s place in the history of many classical and romantic composers is palpable.

What I find endearing is the unique way that the city and its’ tourist industry have incorporated classical music and its’ composers into the experience. The multitude of daily concerts in very church or historical venue, is but one example. All seem remarkably well attended.

Then there are delightful quirky touches, which I suspect the average tourist would not appreciate or recognise – public announcements at the main train station are initiated with the opening few bars of “Ma Vlast” – My Homeland, by Smetana. Whilst on a river cruise music by Dvorak is background to the commentary! It’s all a little insulting to poor Dvorak, his music should be at the train station!

As I prepare to get back into the saddle, some pics of Prague and the river.

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Prague had a severe earthquake just after the record floods in June!

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The view from the tower in Petrin Park, looking over river towards the Palace.

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The interior of St Ignatius Church – I would classify it as “high camp” rather than “high church”! It’s a Jesuit thing.

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Prague Day 2

I wrote about the joy of arriving in a town and discovering a programmed classical soirée in the local church or hall.

I thought all my Christmas’ had come yesterday, when as I was carried along in the previously described tourist tsunami, on passing an amazing Baroque facade church, an ernest young man handed me a stylish professional flyer, describing a concert of “Grand Masters in Old Prague”

The program went something like this:

Bach Toccata and fugue
Handel Messiah
Mozart Exultate Jubilate
Schubert Ave Maria
Vivaldi Four Seasons
Dvorak “various”
Puccini “excerpts”

To be held in the unique mirror chapel 17th century – Klementinum at 8 pm sharp with soloists of the State Opera as well as “top Czech Orchestras”!

As the young shop assistants in Bakers Delight say with enthusiasm as you place your order… ” awesome”!

Awesome indeed. I mentally noted the chapel location, intending to attend, and walked on, or rather was pushed along.

Truely I did a double take when around the corner was another Baroque church and, as Bach is my witness, another young man was just as earnestly, publicizing another concert in equally sumptuous surroundings again with various solo members of the Czech professional orchestras.

By days end I had been accosted by at least another half a dozen concert touts. All these soirees seemed very genuine and professional held in medieval auditoriums, all I assume with perfect acoustics. All had slight variations in programming but in short, every one comprised selections from the “The best Baroque Classics of all times”. All instantly recognizable.

I confess to a niggling sense of unease. I calculated that if all these advertised Baroque classical concerts were consummated on this one evening, should perchance there be a competing professional symphony concert in the National Theatre, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra ensemble would be decimated to a level of the village band!

Finally what do you make of this english description on a poster in the main church of St Nicholas in the old town square;

“.. the complexity of configuration of its interior, together with its interesting lighting scheme and picturesque plasticity, combine to make it one of the most suggestive church interiors in Prague.”

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Inside the cathedral of St Vitus – patron saint of dancers.

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The St George Monastery part of the township surrounding the Prague Palace

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The back of St Vitus cathedral – the bishop who ordered its construction specified it had to be grand and surpass that at Notre Dame. One can see the similarity!

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The Charles Bridge at dusk

Madame Butterfly in Prague

A night at the opera – the Prague State Opera – perfect seat : 4th row from the front smack in the middle. Puccini has not been in my top of the pops of composers, but after tonight, he has moved up the charts, a lot. I find Puccini to be a “tune tease”. Tonight I appreciated the complexity and tunefulness of this opera and the fact that Pinkerton is Puccini’s “Don Giovanni”. A sailor has a girl in every port, although I do believe some sailors enjoy tying up with a buoy.

As always I ask myself would I do the ironing to the music? Perhaps more so than a week ago.

The Opera theatre is the ultimate in Baroque design! The theatre itself originally opened in 1888 as the New German Theatre and from 1949 to 1989 it was known as the Smetana Theatre. More recently it is known as the Prague State Opera.

As I had wandered the streets of Prague from 10 am till curtain up at 7 pm, I brought a crisp new shirt for $15. Surprisingly the theatre was only 2/3 full.

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The auditorium

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I am led to believe its genuine bohemian crystal.

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The Opera Theatre

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The adjacent National Museum , this older section is presently closed for renovations.

Spontaneous concerts !

I recall that arriving in a village and finding, serendipitously there is a concert that night, has provided some extraordinary memorable evenings, and tonight was no exception. Often it happens as I stumble into a cathedral or am drawn to the sound of music and enter the church to find a rehearsal.

It happened on the Camino where at the church in Fromista a young classical guitarist was performing. He worked his way through many of the easily recognized classical guitar pieces to an embarrassingly small but appreciative audience. He was excellent.

In Tiradentes, Brazil, Osley and I were invited by our hotel owner to an organ recital. Held in the cathedral the organ was one of the oldest still in playing condition, manufactured by a famous organ builder – whose name escapes me!

This concert at Litomerice was held in the All Saints church and the programme would quite easily have made the ABC top 10 Baroque compositions. Why do I say this so confidently? It started with the Bach Toccato and Fugue, a Corelli Concerto Grosso, throw in a couple of arias from the Messiah – “Comfort me..” which leads onto of course, “Every Valley shall be exalted and then that sublime aria from Rinaldo – “Lascia ch io piranha” It finished with the duet by Vivaldi “Laudamus”. But wait there was more! 4 encores!

Unheard of …The soprano pelted out Ave Maria, floral bouquets distributed, then both singers did a repeat of the Vivaldi, then the orchestra did an encore, then both singers did Ave Maria as a duet!

Talk about “sending them away happy”!

Incidentally the rather sexy young bass player was a bit of a “bobber”- a tendency to bob the head in various directions in time with the music. A trait my Recorder teacher ferociously and vociferously opposes. I have the physical and mental scars to prove it. What was fascinating about the “Bass Bobber ” was his whole body did it! I initially wondered whether he may some neurological movement disorder but in the end found him quite charming!

Finally, to date it has been perfect autumnal weather.

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The saga of a famous singer and her sweets

You could have knocked me over with a feather!

Most of my friends know of my love of classical music and opera. I had booked by internet, a tour of the Dresden State Opera during my stay- the opera summer season having just finished, otherwise I would have attended. But imagine my surprise when serendipity led to my choice of Dresden accommodation – The Villa Therese-Malten. This can only be described as a palatial villa built a century ago for one of Germany’s most famous mezzo soprano, Madame Therese Malten. It has a musty, dark and dank atmosphere with original flooring and ceilings, sweeping staircases, acres of wooden panelling, heavy wooden doors etc – you get the picture!

Beautiful lithographs of Madame Malten in costume adorn the walls. Her forte was Wagner and specifically Brunnehilde. On many levels, Germany’s Madame Malten has remarkable similarities to Australia’s own Dame Nellie Melba. Both lived at about the same time, were of remarkably similar robust build, range of voice and fame in the interpretation of Wagner! Both had palatial residences with acres of grounds , Melba in Melbourne and Madame Malten in Dresden. But what the vast majority of people don’t realise is BOTH had famous food named after them.

Australians are great innovators and indeed more than 100 years ago, stunned the world with the tinned pineapple ring. Queensland was “canning sunshine”. Given that Australians, by nature, will can anything or everybody, it was a logical step from pineapples to peaches. Nellie Melba developed a penchant for the peach and travelled the world stage with cartons of these syrupy plump yellow-fleshed cling peaches which she devoured at breakfast with a goodly dollop of fresh cream before her cereal and toast.

Legend has it that a nervous waiter at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, spilt Kellogs cornflakes on the peaches. Despite her Prima Donna reputation, she consumed this culinary catastrophe and fell in love with the taste, the colour and texture and thus was clumsily created that iconic desert – Peach Melba.

As to the Dresden story it has some charming similarities. Madem Malten was addicted to sweets. According to her leading man and tenor, she “always had something in her mouth”. Her particular penchant was honeycomb. Louis Vuitton had designed a unique leather clutch purse in the shape of a honey bee for Mdme Malten to carry her secret stash of little balls of honeycomb. On an operatic day off she visited the world famous chocolate factory at Linz Austria. On opening her purse several honeycomb balls fell out and into a vat of melted chocolate. The embarrassed factory manager scooped them out and before he could drop them in the rubbish bin, Mdme Malten had opened her famous pharynx and consumed them quicker than one could say “high C” and as they say “the rest is history”. The Linz chocolate company went on to market little chocolate covered balls of honeycomb, which they called “Theresamalts” in recognition of how, again, an accident led to the creation of a unique sweet.

Of course in Australia, we wrestled with the name and after some back to front fiddling, came up with “Malt Theresa” initially , then finally to settle of course on the iconic beloved “Maltesers”. …. So there you have it!

Next time you go to the opera and you are silently sucking a Malteser, give thanks to Dresden’s Madame Therese Malten.

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Desert Island OPERA

My Desert Island Opera List

Let me state at the beginning, that I will try to avoid using the word “sublime” more than I should. It is impossible to describe in words one’s reaction and emotions to music – invariably classical . There is an intense, incredible shiver of ecstasy that envelopes the body and soul with these operatic miracles. They are not in any specific order and often I find I am in a ‘mood’ to listen to one aria and the next day to another. The one immutable fact is that these soaring songs must be played at volume levels that mimic the exact effect of the orchestra and singers, actually performing in my living room. I am an atheist but listening to these operatic pieces surely brings me as close to god as I ever will be.

I have a reasonable sound system for my CD collection. Actually I am of that generation that started out with vinyl and then in the 1980s, proceeded to simply duplicate my LP records in a CD collection.

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My preference is for these Italian operatic composers: Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti. Most of us know or recognise the familiar tunes from these great operas. My favourites slowly grew on me once the familiar were ‘too familiar’. In all of them, it is the skilful, gifted way that the composer blends and weaves the human voice with the other instruments of the orchestra. In my chosen list, it is invariably a solo instrument that dances and adds counterpoint to the voice, there is no other word to describe this than ‘sublime’!

Guiseppe Verdi

Rigoletto

Cortogiano, vi razza dannar” – Act 2 

This aria is the ultimate example of pathos. Rigoletto pleads with the members of the Duke’s court to return his daughter. She is, as Rigoletto sings, but a few metres away in the Duke’s bed, as is the Duke! This aria reaches its climax as he begs the courtiers to understand and there is a sublime ( first time I use the word)  interplay between the baritone voice, cello and clarinet, soaring majestically together –  “Miei signori…persona, pietate…” ( My lords, I beg you, have pity)

Ah, ch’io taccia! a me a lui perdonate…Act 2

A hymn sung by father and daughter as Gilda lies dying and finding peace by realising that in death she will join her  mother in heaven.

La Traviata

The arias of Germont, the father of Alfredo in Act 2 are my favourites.

Pura siccome un angelo

it may not be politically correct in the 21st century, but it is a rather conniving request that Violetta give up her defacto relationship with Germont’s son, Alfredo for the honesty and integrity of the family. Yes the woman is to blame for leading the man astray.

Di Provenza il mar, il suol

Having discovered that Violetta has returned to Paris and rejected Alfredo, his father, Germont, consoles his son and says basically she is only a woman forget her,  your roots are more important ( no not THOSE roots!)

Pargi, o cara, noi lasceremo

Realising what a bastard he has been, Alfredo rushes back to Violetta and begs forgiveness, and says he will make everything legal and then he will take Violetta to Paris for a real honeymoon. Sadly Violetta has pulmonary tuberculosis and belts out one last aria as she coughs and splutters to death and at the same time, presumably transmitting the TB bacillus to Alfredo and Germont.

Bellini

La Sonnambula

I admit that if tortured  (listening to an Andrew Lloyd Weber CD ) to make a decision about my all time favourite opera, then La Sonnambula is it! I am in illustrious company as I recall that I read somewhere that it is Richard Bonynge’s favourite too!

Whilst “Prendi: l’anel ti dono” is the top of the pops for this opera, my favourite arias are

Cielo. al mio sposo io giuro

Amina is sleepwalking as she sings of her love for Elvino and is dreaming of being at the altar and swearing her marriage vows. Till death us do part. Happily this is ONE opera where the ending is happy and Amina does not die in tragic circumstances.

Oh! se una volta sola rivederlo io potessi. Act 2

This is yet another operatic ‘mad scene’ but with a variation as Amina is sleepwalking, again! Elvino is to marry another girlfriend and Amina is beside herself.

I have not covered Donizetti yet….!

Some of my rare gems are to follow in the next blog