Archive for the ‘Classical Music’ Category

Confession of a Grouchy Classical Music Lover


Photo Credit: Patrik Goethe

©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶I have written about my classical music preferences and biases previously, but I want to return to the topic now with hammer and tong. So, beware, faint of heart.
¶Firstly, the instruments. On the negative side of the ledger I enter the violin—at least the violin when played as a solo instrument; when the violins are part of a mass involving other instruments, as in some of Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale ballets or in Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”, they are pleasing enough to my ear. When the piece has been composed specifically for a single violin or a duet, then the often scratchy sound irritates my ear, much as when a chalk is dragged across a blackboard. I used to appreciate Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” very much; now they only irritate me, possibly because they summon up in my mind all those phony smiling faces of the Baroque era but more certainly because they sound so much alike.  Unfortunately for me, compositions featuring violin solos seem to dominate the playlists of most classical music stations. But that perception could be due simply to my sensitivity to annoyances.
¶Heading the list of favorite instruments come the classical guitar and the English horn: I can’t break the tie. Both of those instruments have prominent parts in Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez”. Most of the other string and wind instruments I can appreciate, too, particularly the cello and the flute; sorry, but I can’t recall any particular compositions, besides Sergei Prokofiev ‘s “Peter and the Wolf”, where those instruments are focal. (But that’s just an index of my musicological ignorance; not a fair picture of our international repertory.)
¶Other instruments which can be pleasing when employed moderately are the coronet and the drums.
¶What it all boils down to, I guess, is that I generally prefer the quieter compositions, such as works the Impressionists Paul Ravel and Claude DeBussy gave us. Richard Wagner’s mystical preludes to “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal” also appeal to me. None of the louder compositions — especially Ludwig von Beethoven’s heavy, repetitive symphonies —appeal to me; yeah, I go against the general consensus there. (When I want something louder and faster I’ll tune in to a country-and-western station.)
¶Nearly all the adagios, especially the second movement of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjues” and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” easily fit into my comfort zone. The majority of classical music fans list those two pieces among their favorites, so I am “with the crowd” there at least. In fact, I can’t think of any composition finer than “Aranjues”.
¶It will probably strike the regular readers of my blog posts that I favor adagios because I am a melancholic, so it is natural that slower and moodier pieces would appeal to me. However, one does not reach seventy-seven years without learning that nothing is black and white. My tastes have changed over the years. For instance, I used to really enjoy George Frideric Handel’s entertainments for King George of England: you know, “Fireworks” and “Water”; now my awakened class-consciousness is repelled by them. Same story with Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”.
¶Of recent, I have found myself appreciating Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart more than I did back when I was in my twenties and thirties. Poor Mozart got off to a bad start with me because of a radio program to which I used to listen, the theme music for which was “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. For some reason I can’t recall, it irritated me. During the same period, I saw the film “Elvira Madigan”, a depressing, romantic story that featured the andante from Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21”; the concerto’s part in that film was so prominent that it gained the popular sub-title “Theme from Elvira Madigan”. Now, however, I have begun to favor Mozart because so much of his music is melodic and cheerful, especially when compared to Beethoven’s; a person can hum more of it.
¶I suppose I should apologize to any readers who don’t gain much from reading the above. True enough, there is not anything enlightening or entertaining in the content. But this “confession” is really just a “note-to-self”. I seldom attract any comments on my posts and only a few “likes” here and there, so I imagine I am writing mostly to myself anyway. By this point — four years into my blog-posting — I have begun to accept that reality. After all, I seldom read other bloggers’ posts either. And I think writing to one’s self is preferable to talking to one’s self (something I also do too much).
¶So, goodbye, Cyberworld. Have a pleasant 2017.



Naughty Children…Rated R.

© 2016 By Bob Litton.  All Rights Reserved.

It’s a good thing Christmas is already done and gone; I would hate to complicate the stockings for any toddlers who might accidentally see this post and become corrupted at a very early age. But, oh heck, it’s bound to happen someday, what difference does it make if that day is today?

Recently, for some unknown reason, I began reflecting on my childhood experiences, particularly on the little ditties my playmates and I used to sing between our giggles. Whoever wrote the lyrics, I have no idea; the tunes, though, went with familiar songs from operas…although we were not acquainted with any operas at that age (5- to 8-years-old).

Here’s the first one; the tune’s source I don’t know, but it was well-known — perhaps “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Richard Strauss’ opera Salome (?), or the “Bacchanale” from Camille Saint-Saens’ opera Samson and Dalila (?):

“All the girls in France
wear tissue paper pants.
All the girls in Spain
go naked in the rain.”

Now, who came up with those verses? The author surely must have been an adult; it is highly unlikely that any child wrote them. I want to make it entirely clear here that the depictions of national habits are fabricated…false. And I do not believe the author of those scandalous lines was intentionally being derogatory; he (or she) was more probably just depending on the countries’ names as sources for rhyme words, just as many of our naughtier limericks include “Nantucket”.

What interests me now, though, is the question: To what extent did our singing those ditties reflect our level of developing knowledge about what is naughty? Actually, in my case it is an unanswerable conundrum. My memory is not that retrievable or specific; I do well just to recall having sung them when I was so young.

And here’s the second, sung to the “Toréador Song” chorus in Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen:

“Toréador, don’t spit on the floor.
Use a cuspidor; that’s what it’s for.”

Those lines, of course, are not “naughty” in the usual sense of the term, merely slightly gross. I can credit them for at least causing me to learn what a “cuspidor” is, for I had never seen one and did not see one until many years later, in a movie.

Finally, here is one which I suppose we can say is derogatory, although not against any nation or even any particular persons. The words are to be sung to the “Bridal Chorus” music from Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin:

“Here comes the bride,
Big, fat and wide;
Here comes the groom,
Skinny as a broom.”

Now, on what occasion would any child sing that?! Only during those times when two or more of them are together and acting silly — which happens frequently; or at least did during my early childhood. I believe you will agree with me that the verse is snide, and to that limited but still hurtful extent “naughty”. Many children, I believe, sometimes feel impelled to be cruel in what they say: What child hasn’t yelled at a parent he/she loves but who is denying them something, “I hate you!”?

Very young children are not as “innocent” as parents and politicians often proclaim them to be.


The Ultimate Texas Brags

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A Halloween decoration set up this month in the yard of a modest-size home just a few blocks from the author’s residence. (Photo: Courtesy of my ol’ fast-drivin’ buddy, Pancho Castillo, Las Cruces, NM.)

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS: I really wanted to wait until October 30th (the day before Halloween) before publishing a post about one of our favorite festival days. However, since I have to travel 65 miles next Monday to have another molar extracted, and 205 miles on Tuesday for a cataract operation on my left eye — the right eye was operated on last Tuesday — I realized that I will be either too busy or too tired to write this post the coming week. Of course I know that I could compose it now and hold off on publishing it until October 30th; but, as I have mentioned before, I haven’t the will-power to hold any production in my hot little hands more than a few hours. That’s just part of my horrific destiny!

*  *  *  *  *  *

Too Big

The booklet of out-sized jokes Texas Brags was first published in 1944 and reportedly saw as many as 20 later editions.’s site indicates the book is now out of print. Written by John Randolph and illustrated by Mark Storm, Texas Brags at the time was seen purely as a joke book full of exaggerated depictions of what it was like to be a Texan and to live in Texas; it was not taken seriously by many people, not even Texans.

Now, though, the title of the booklet, as well as its tone, has been adopted by our governor for the design of the state’s official web page. It is another example of the governor’s office’s on-going drive to lure industries from California and elsewhere. It turns my stomach.

Nonetheless, I am a Texan, and the bigness applies even to me. At the first of my time in the air force boot camp, I had to march and go to classes and chow wearing the initially issued pith helmet for an extra two weeks while the supply clerks located a fatigue cap that would fit my 7-5/8 skull.

Ever since then, finding shoes — without special-ordering them — has been an increasingly onerous task: it seems that with each additional millimeter in foot length the choices in patterns decline.

A month ago, a VA doctor ordered an elbow support pad for me. When it arrived, I could not pull it above my wrist; it was a Size Small. There were four other sizes available, according to the box my pad came in. I measured my elbow and discovered to my surprise that I would barely be able to insert my arm into the Extra Large, for my elbow’s circumference measured 33-1/2 cm, while the Extra Large was designed to fit elbows from 32 to 34 cm. But I got a replacement, and it will do.

The size problem more insistently struck home a year ago, though, when my dentist, pointing to an x-ray, said I had the largest sinuses he had ever seen.

And then, last week, when I was being prepped for the cataract surgery on my right eye, the ophthalmologist noted that the depth of that eye measured 27 mm, while the smallest depth is 21 mm, and the average is 23 mm. I asked the doctor if there is any advantage to having a large eye depth.

“There is a slight risk of a tear or a detached retina,” he replied.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “I’m not quite six feet tall, and I am not nearly as heavy as a lot of men I see, yet I hardly fit into anything. And now you tell me that even my eyeball is bigger than normal.”

“It is all a matter of proportion,” he said.

So, nothing to brag about, I concluded.

*  *  *  *  *  *

And back we go to Halloween

Every year about this time, the media get saturated with documentaries about vampires and werewolves as well as the more academic aspects of our celebration of the dead — for instance, the contrast between Anglo-America’s treatment of Halloween and that of Hispanic-America’s. (It is a more serious event down south — “El Dia de Los Muertos” — where the natives allow themselves a more intimate relationship with the dead.) There are also the simply entertaining televised features such as Charlie Brown’s adoring the “Great Pumpkin”; and Hallmark Channel’s “The Good Witch” both frightening and enlightening a small New England town.

Last year, I published on this blog a “mood editorial” about Halloween which I had written for The Shorthorn, UT-Arlington’s student newspaper. Some of you might enjoy perusing it today at:

I haven’t much to add to that piece. I still prefer Halloween and Thanksgiving to all the other festivals in our nation. Halloween is not a holiday, i.e., the public offices and schools do not close on October 31st. And yet more money is spent during October than is spent on Christmas, New Year’s Day, or any other celebration here. That is what I have read in newspapers over the past few years, and I still find it hard to believe. To think about it for a minute, though, we buy a hell of a lot of candy during this month, and chocolate is pretty damn expensive. Then there are the costumes — rigs often designed to win contests at parties. The parties themselves are probably not cheap either; but I don’t go to any, so that is just a supposition.

When I was a child, I enjoyed the “Trick-or-Treat” part of Halloween. Since then, however, I lament the fact that “Trick-or-Treating” has become rather too dangerous; mean-hearted people have taken to slipping razor blades and poison in the sweets they parcel out to children who knock on their doors. Many communities have adopted the custom of arranging parties in public schools and community centers in lieu of letting their children roam the neighborhoods.

Even though some of my neighbors’ children still go out with the treat bags after sundown, they usually don’t visit my apartment complex, for the residents here are either elderly or not all-together in their wits…or both. In past years, I have bought a “bargain-size” bag of candy to dispense, but none of the little brats knocked on my door; so I, dreading the resultant weight gain, had to eat all the little candy bars. I don’t do that anymore: I just turn out all the lights after the sun goes down and venture off to my favorite bar.

For a Halloween “treat” I will provide you below with the URL to Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”, a segment of Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia:




On Being Seduced By Classical Music

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS: This week, KBAQ-FM, a station located on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ, is relating memories of first experiences with classical music sent in by their listeners during previous weeks. The station’s DJ’s (folks with the most pleasant voices) are sharing a reader’s anecdote each hour on the hour as well as the reader’s request for the DJ to play their favorite classical piece.

I emailed KBAQ the history of my seduction into classical music, but I did not request that they play any particular work. Since KBAQ expressly asked that viewers write about an individual or event that first made them aware of—and appreciative of—classical music, I doubt that they mentioned my email, which mentions several periods in my life in which I gradually came to prefer the genre. But I really do not know, since I do not listen to KBAQ all day long. Nonetheless, I thought my little biographical essay (edited slightly for the different venue) might make a suitable blog post…at least for those of my regular visitors who also enjoy classical music.

And that is what I hope you will do now: Enjoy!!!

∗  ∗  ∗  ∗  ∗  ∗

I am a child of the 1940s, and my only experience of classical music during those early years was a rather ignorant appreciation of the themes to radio dramas: “The Lone Ranger” (Rossini’s William Tell Overture), “The Shadow” (Saint-Saens’ Omphale’s Spinning Wheel), “The Green Hornet” (Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee), and “The FBI in Peace and War” (Prokofiev’s A Love for Three Oranges). I enjoyed all of those themes, although I hadn’t the faintest idea what their titles were or even that they were of a genre called “classical”.

During my high school years, I would often listen to a Dallas, Texas, station whose call letters were KIXL, which played classical records. KIXL is now a religious-program station, I hear; and the only source for classical music radio in Dallas is WRR-FM, a City-owned station on the State Fair grounds. More regularly, I admit, I listened to KLIF, a Top 40’s music station then but now talk radio.

In 1958-59, while I was in the air force and studying Chinese at Yale, one of my room-mates was a budding neo-NAZI, although I did not recognize him as such at the time. He was all hung up in Thomas Mann, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Richard Wagner. Despite our collisions of thought, we had a strange mental or spiritual connection—something like what Bertrand Russell claimed he felt during his first strolling conversation with Joseph Conrad:

At our very first meeting, we talked with continually increasing intimacy. We seemed to sink through layer after layer of what was superficial, till gradually both reached the central fire. It was an experience unlike any other… I have known. We looked into each other’s eyes, half appalled and half intoxicated to find ourselves together in such a region. The emotion was as intense as passionate love, and at the same time all-embracing. I came away bewildered, and hardly able to find my way among ordinary affairs.

Well, maybe not that intense, but something similar. Years later, a Congregationalist minister with whom I had had a conference, described the same type of reaction to our conversation the following Sunday during his sermon, although, thankfully, he did not mention my name. Oddly enough, although I had appreciated the talk, I had not detected the same feeling in myself.

My air force comrade and I had dubbed our mutual sympathy “bwo chang” (“wave length” in Mandarin Chinese). After our training, the friend was assigned to a base at one end of Okinawa and I to another, so we did not see each other often; we did, however, attend a viewing of a biopic about Franz Liszt in a theater at his unit’s base. Then, after we were both out of the service, I went up to his home town of Seattle, Washington, for a change of scene and to discover what the “bwo chang” really was, since neither of us was really gay. However, I couldn’t find permanent employment after two months and the “bwo chang” seemed to have dissipated, so I returned to Dallas.

Yet I still retained fond memories of that intellectual/spiritual connection—warped though it might have been—and read much of Mann, waded through some of Nietzsche, and listened to one of the first stereo recordings of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, conducted by Georg Solti. I loved it!!! I could not force myself to sit through the windy singing of the rest of the Ring music-dramas. However, I did enjoy for years thereafter Wagner’s more popular overtures and preludes—Tannhäuser, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal.

Now my classical music interests have expanded, leaving much of Wagner behind. I love almost all the works of the Russian composers, especially Sergei Rachmaninoff. But I still enjoy Frenchmen Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel; and the Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez has first chair, right now, in my favorite musical list.

I have written several blog posts about music—three about the little Dutch girl who won Holland’s Got Talent trophy in 2013, and one just recently that was an email dialogue between me and a local friend’s uncle who is a retired music professor residing in Louisiana. One other post concerns what some art-minded psychologist has christened “synesthesia”. Below, I have provided the URLs to those posts for any of you who have not already viewed them. Enjoy!!!


NOTE TO NON-BLOGGING READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to hear any helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page (see button above the title of this post). Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.

A Musical Dialogue

By Bob Litton and J.L.V.

Dear readers,

I have a real change of format to present to you today—a unique one as far as this blog is concerned: it is a dialogue between two men who have never met and never had a verbal conversation. Oh, what wonders the Internet has wrought!!!

But first, as usual, a little backstory.

Every other Friday morning, my artist friend Chris comes over to my apartment for a couple of hours of coffee and wide-ranging conversation. Our usual topics are my writing and Chris’ art (primarily comics), but we also wander on to literature, music, TV shows, Chris’ home improvement projects, and a sprinkling of politics.

In mid-March, Chris and I had an intriguing discussion of various questions involving classical music. Neither of us really felt confident to answer my questions. However, Chris suggested we ask his uncle in Louisiana, a professor emeritus of music whose own specialty is the bassoon. That afternoon, I emailed to my friend a list of the questions I had raised, and Chris forwarded them to his uncle J.L.V.

The professor did not respond until April 6 for reasons he supplies in the first of his half of this dialogue.

I was so pleased by J.L.V.’s informative and even, in some places, amusing comments that I asked Chris to request from his uncle permission for me to use them in a blog post, which J.L.V graciously granted.

Below is the result.


First, my email to Chris:

Hi again, Chris —

Here are the issues/questions regarding music we discussed this morning:

(1)   Why is it that violins—particularly scratchy violin solos—dominate music performances?  What makes a scratchy violin sound appealing to some people? A mass of violins working as “backup” I can appreciate, but hardly any solo or duet of violins is tolerable anymore. Tchaikovsky’s violin pieces are particularly grating.

(2)   Why are the majority of classical works—e.g., Beethoven symphonies—heavy-sounding? Is loudness a true value? Or is it just to make sure the percussion section has something to contribute? Or are the composers naturally as angry as Beethoven is always depicted in busts and drawings?

(3)   The oboe (or English horn) in the second movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez performs some of the loveliest phrases of that adagio. The whole concerto is a masterpiece, though, and I do not wish to imply differently by emphasizing the oboe. My question is, is that an oboe there or an English horn? I haven’t been able to distinguish much from the pictures I found in a Google search. All I can tell is that one is slightly larger than the other and produces a sound one octave lower(?).

(4)   The Russian composers are my favorites, especially Rachmaninoff. (I even like some of Tchaikovsky’s works: parts of his Swan Lake ballet are enjoyable.) I read that Rachmaninoff had an alcoholic, wastrel father who left the home after losing five estates to gambling and profligacy, thereby cheering up everybody. Was Rachmaninoff angry at his father his whole life, and did he express that anger in his music? His compositions are incredibly dynamic, but I can’t discern whether that energy is due to anger or to a hyper libido. Much passion there!!! Or was Rachmaninoff perhaps simply composing difficult, fast and loud works to show off his superior pianist’s skill?

* * * * * *

Well, Chris, I hope your uncle doesn’t find these questions too sophomoric to bother with.



Now, the professor’s response:

Hi Bob,

I got a response from my uncle!
Hi, Chris
Sorry I have taken so long to answer this. I could pretend that I have been too busy, but the fact is, I didn’t know what to say, and I still don’t. I will try to make some comments, however.
1. On scratchy violins: In the movie “The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr.T” , the evil piano teacher has imprisoned all the orchestra musicians with their “scratchy violins, screechy piccolos, nauseating trumpets”. Violins have been the primary instruments in the orchestra ever since Lully, the court musician for Louis XIV, organized the first professional orchestra: “The Twenty-Four Violins of the King”.
Like most orchestral instruments, violins are capable of many different sounds, and some of them are accented at the beginning of the tone. (scratchy). Pipe organs often have some ranks of pipes voiced with a short huff or pop, called chiff, at the beginning of the tone. I think most people like most of the sounds violins make (even the scratchy ones).
2. Is loudness a true value? I think historically it has been. Instrumental music in the renaissance was played on fairly soft instruments: lutes, viols, recorders, etc. Even the “loud instruments” – shawms and sackbutts – were not as loud as modern trombones etc. The violin dominated 18th century music because it was louder than the viols: Dryden’s “Ode on St Cecelia’s Day” has the line “sharp violins proclaim their jealous pangs and indignation”, and symphony orchestras were exciting because they were the loudest thing around. In the 19th century, the military band (think Sousa) became very popular, in part because its massed brasses and woodwinds were louder than the orchestra’s violins. Now, of course we have rock bands with their amplified guitars and drum sets. Percussion instruments in the orchestra were generally limited to kettledrums until the 19th century.
3. I am not familiar with Rodrigo’s Concierto, but regarding the oboe and English horn, the oboe is just under two feet long and has a small, flared bell at the lower end. The English horn is closer to three feet long and has a bulb-shaped lower end. It also has a short pipe at the top which holds the reed at a small angle, so it is not blown straight into. It sounds a fifth (half an octave) lower than the oboe.
4. Regarding the anger of composers, I don’t think they are so much angry as striving for excitement. They write music which is loud, fast, and intricate in order to convey excitement and “Wow” their audiences, as entertainers have strived to do for millennia. They use whatever tools are at their disposal, whether it be a violin, grand piano, or electric guitar. We now have tools which can play music so fast and intricately that it is indecipherable, and loud enough to deafen us. For many years I taught a music course in which I required my students to attend concerts, most of which were of classical music, and to write reports on them. These non-music majors were so steeped in the popular genres (rock, etc.) that they thought ALL classical music was “soothing”, even the “Dies Irae” from the Verdi Requiem!
I don’t think I answered your questions, but I hope my answers are interesting and/or useful.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

 In my email requesting permission to use J.L.V.’s comments I had included the YouTube URL to guitarist John Williams and the BBC Orchestra’s performance of Concierto de Aranjues. I also specified which musician was playing, in the second movement, the instrument I was curious about. And in J.L.V.’s permission email he said it is the English horn.



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