Saturday, August 15, 2020

The mystery of Sibelius' Eighth Symphony

Sibelius in 1907 

In the summer of 1936, pianist Harriet Cohen visited the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in Helsinki and asked him about his Eighth Symphony. Nearly a decade before, he had claimed it was nearly completed, and he had promised a premiere to several orchestras over the years. Rumor in London had it, she said, that the symphony did not exist.

Sibelius emptied his pack of cigarettes, drew a musical staff on the wrapper and jotted down 'a long, spreading chord,' Cohen reports in her memoirs. 'This,' he said,' is the first chord of my Eighth Symphony.' Very well, but what became of the rest?

British poet John Greening's long poem, 'The Silence,' ponders that question with wit and imagination. I reviewed his new collection and along with his new anthology of poems about composers, for The Manhattan Review:

Monday, August 27, 2018

Why do the French love Alain-Fournier?

When the French magazine Lire asked readers to name their favourite book, Henri Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes came in seventh--right between The Red and the Black and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Yet few English-speakers have ever heard of the novel (though F. Scott Fitzgerald probably adapted its title for The Great Gatsby).

What do the French like so much about Alain-Fournier's sole work of fiction--and why have most English-speakers ignored it? I try to find out in the new issue of Manhattan Review:

Photos from Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe's 2006 film (Mosca Films)

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A hit in Europe, "Lou" arrives in the US

Katharine Lorenz as Lou Andreas-Salomé and Julius Feldmeier as Rilke

Novelist, critic and pioneering psychoanalyst, Lou Andreas-Salomé was one of the most influential people of her day. But her legacy has often been overshadowed by her relationships with the famous men she worked with: Nietzsche, Rilke and Freud.

Cordula Kablitz sets the record straight in Lou Andreas-Salomé, now available in the US from Vimeo and Amazon and in Europe from Amazon and iTunes. The Swiss newspaper Luzerner Zeitung says the film "brings an unbelievable biography thrillingly alive."

Liv Lisa Fries, from Babylon Berlin, plays the teenaged Louisa von Salomé

Monday, February 19, 2018

Tehua: A voice from old Mexico

Tehua was a beloved Mexican singer, best known for performing folk songs so venerable that no one knows who wrote them. In a career lasting more than half a century, she made many recordings, including two with Óscar Chávez, and covering a wide range of traditional and contemporary song. Many can be heard today on iTunes, Pandora, Spotify and YouTube.

The singer was born Maria del Rosario Graciela Rayas Trejo in the city of Queretaro, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, in 1943. When she was a toddler, her family moved to San Miguel de Allende, and for the rest of her life, no matter where she lived or traveled to perform, she considered the town her home.

From her earliest years, Tehua was immersed in the traditional music of Mexico. The sweet, sad tunes of boleros, danzóns, corridos and rancheros echoed from open doorways and through the narrow back streets of Queretaro.

"In Queretero, my father had a friend who owned a pulqueria [a kind of working class bar]," she told the newspaper La Jornada in 2002."I used to sit at the bar and on one side of it was a big jukebox filled with 78 records. That's where I heard La barca de Guaymas for the first timeSo I learned it way back then."

Not too many years later, she was singing herself, at first in bars and cafes, under the stage name "Tehua," which means "you" in nahuatl, one of the indigenous languages of Central Mexico. In the beginning, she mostly sang rancheros--tender songs whose roots go back to the time before the Mexican Revolution. Her first model was Lucha Villa, one of the greatest of all ranchera singers.

By 1970 a new music was sweeping Latin America: nueva cancion (new song). It often used indigenous instruments and musical traditions, with lyrics focused on social injustice and on hopes for a better future. These songs too became part of her repertory, and she often performed them with Óscar Chávez and Amparo Ochoa. Tehua also sang new songs from the English-speaking world, like Paul Simon's "The Sound of Silence."

Tehua died in Mexico City on August 21, 2014, but her music lives on through her recordings. This is how Mexico's Secretary of Culture remembered her:

   Tehua was a musical interpreter of legitimacy, courage and authenticity: she sang old, plaintive tonadillas (theater songs); local folk songs; songs from before and after the Revolution; nostalgic elegies to an ideal homeland and love laments from provincial cities. Songs like "La nortena," "Cuatro milpas," "Mi casita de paja" and "El loco syrup" found a new voice in Tehua, who rescued them from oblivion and the passage of time.

Mexican poet Jaime Sarbines (1929-1999) put it more simply. He described her singing as "the heartbreaking voice of the birds." Tehua's former San Miguel home is still in use today (see the last link below).

Saturday, November 4, 2017

What would it take to be free?

We often use the word freedom, but what would it really mean to be free? At the age of 21, Lou Salome described the life she planned to live:

        What I shall quite certainly do is make my own life
        according to myself, whatever may come of it. In this
        I have no principle to represent, but something more
        wonderful--something that is inside oneself and is
        hot with sheer life, and rejoices and wants to get out.

But, as time went by, she learned that some things that stand in the way of freedom are--like "sheer life"--within ourselves. Her lifetime as a seeker, leading to encounters with Nietzsche, Rilke and Freud, is the subject of a new film by Cordula Kablitz-Post. After successful runs in theaters in Europe and Brazil, the film has now been released in North America by Cinema Libre Studios and can be seen on iTunes, Vimeo and Amazon Prime.

Alexander Scheer (Friedrich Nietzsche) and Katharina Lorenz (Lou Andreas-Salome); photograph by Sebastian Geyer