What shall we do with a Drunken Sailor?

May 24, 2017 at 10:13 am

Who says nothing good ever came out of the Soviet Union?

Once you’re through beheading the ex-ruling class and you’ve stripped the bourgeoisie of their property, what’s the next natural step for your revolution? Propaganda. Music, ballets, movies, and of course, amazing artwork:


The early Soviet artistic propaganda is either so bad it’s good, or so good it’s bad. Take this film about the great Russian medieval hero, Alexander Nevsky, who led the Russians in victory over the invading Westerners. At best, the cinematography ranks up there with Plan 9 from Outer Space; but I can’t help totally loving it, thanks to Sergei Prokofiev‘s awesome musical score. In fact, I find myself actually getting excited during this horribly stupid battle scene.

And then there’s The Red Poppy, a ballet with music by Reinhold Glière: the plot is a Soviet ship captain who tries to free Chinese laborers from their oppressive masters, thus earning the love of a fair maiden. If that doesn’t sound absolutely riveting, take heart, because the ballet includes a drunken sailors’ dance (of course).

So the question I leave you with today is, if Trump actually supported the arts, and created propaganda, what would it look like?

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Stravinsky goes to the Circus

January 13, 2017 at 3:48 pm

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons:

Igor Stravinsky is one of the most famous and influential composers of the 20th century. And yet, while nearly every concertgoer will have heard his Rite of Spring, Firebird, or Petrushka, relatively few know his later works. These three big works were written by the time he was 30, and remain his most performed pieces. But the man lived another 60 years, and kept composing the whole time. He managed to write a few more masterpieces, but none of them ever compared to his early triumphs.

So, what do you do when you give up? Er, rather, what do you do once you’ve passed your moment of glory, your 15 minutes of fame?

Easy. You run off and join the circus. Or better yet, compose some music for a circus.

Yes, folks, 30 years after the great Igor Stravinsky composed some of the finest ballets ever written, he wrote another ballet – this time, to be performed by elephants. Fifty elephants, to be exact (and no, this isn’t a sick joke about overweight dancers – I’m talking about the big gray pachyderms here.) I guess after the movie Fantasia featured a troupe of (cartoon) hippopotamus ballerinas, Ringling Brothers thought they’d take the whole idea one step further and do it in real life. And Stravinsky, who was essentially forced to include his music in Fantasia, was ripe for the task, I suppose.

an attentive ear will hear Schubert’s Marche Militaire quoted in this piece …

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When will King Arthur return to rule?

November 10, 2016 at 10:30 am

The Arthurian Legends tell us that Arthur will one day return to reunite and rule over Britain. Arthur’s reign represents perfect politics, and his Christ-like return would mark the beginning of a new golden age. Even so, King Arthur, quickly come. We need you on this side of the pond as well.

How fitting that Henry Purcell, the greatest English baroque composer during his life (and easily the greatest English composer since the renaissance) had written an opera based on the King Arthur legends. And, interestingly, it was politically poignant when it was composed, as England was struggling with who would be the heir to the throne – their choices were the King’s brother (that’s good) who was Roman Catholic (that’s bad) OR an illegitimate son (that’s bad) who was Protestant (that’s good). Sadly, Arthur didn’t return then to fix the political strife, but fingers crossed that he shows up in the US sometime soon!

This is an older recording (from 1956), and it shows its age in its over-romantic interpretation of the music. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it’s different from the way it sounded in Purcell’s day. For one, the instruments used have evloved significantly over the 200 years; secondly, musical styles and practices have evolved as well. For a “performance practice” version of some of the same music, click here.

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