Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

For the past five years or so I've posted reviews of classical music CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, in various places on the web: Amazon.com, iTunes and other sites. I'll collect those earlier reviews, and add four or five new ones every month.

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Greatness in parodies and covers

In October and November of 1967 Bob Dylan recorded his album John Wesley Harding. The critical response to the album when it was released on December 27 was universally positive, and the album was a big success, hitting #2 on the album charts in the US, and #1 in the UK.



Jimi Hendrix was in London in early 1968, recording at Olympic Studios, and on January 21st he heard a tape of Dylan's song All Along the Watchtower. Hendrix immediately began recording his first versions of the song, putting multiple takes on tape, and later in New York, overdubbing and remixing until he released the celebrated single on September 21, 1968.



Dylan talks about the song in an interview published in the Fort-Lauderdale, Sun Sentinel in July 29, 1995:
Q: How did you feel when you first heard Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower"?
 A: It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn't think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.
The Hendrix version of All Along the Watchtower has been called one of the greatest covers in popular music; it certainly has my vote.

Let's skip back a couple of centuries, to Naples in 1736. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi has just written a new setting, in the modern style, of the Stabat Mater, for an annual Good Friday service. Though Pergolesi died within a couple of months (indeed, only two weeks before Good Friday, and at the absurdly early age of 26), the work was an immediate hit. Its fame reached Germany, and in the mid-1740s J.S. Bach wrote a transcription (which has also been called a parody, in the earlier musical sense of the word), setting it to the words of Psalm 51.

Here is Pergolesi's Vidit Suum Dulcem Natum:



These are heartbreaking words:
Vidit suum dulcem natum
Morientem desolatum,
Dum emisit spiritum.
She saw her sweet Son
dying, forsaken,
as He gave up the spirit.
(Translation)

Pergolesi's ending is particularly touching. As Christ nears his end, the strings give a last angry forte cry at "forsaken", and then play sotto voce to the end of the movement.  This anticipates the soprano's final anguished line "as He gave up the spirit", sung in whole notes and, again, sotto voce. This is music drama of the highest order.



When Bach adapted this movement, the words from his Psalm had much less pathos, and more mystery:
Sieh, du willst die Wahrheit haben,
die geheimen Weisheitsgaben
hast du selbst mir offenbart.
See, you want the truth, and you yourself revealed to me
the secrets of wisdom.
((Translation: Vera Lucia Calabria)



Bach does some cool things with his source material in this movement. Most importantly he recognizes the greatness of the original; the beautiful melodies and suspensions of the durezze e ligature style remain. Bach latches onto a cool figure that Pergolesi has the strings play starting in the third bar. "There's some mystery for my next bit," Bach might have thought. But Pergolesi doesn't come back to that very spacey riff.


So Bach gives the bit to the viola, which throughout Pergolesi's work has been stuck doubling the continuo, and lets it run with it. The movement becomes a soprano solo with viola obligatto.
This new version is no less affecting, and I'm hoping I'm not wildly off base when I make the analogy between Bach's viola and Jimi Hendrix's guitar solos. There is pathos in both the Pergolesi/Bach and Dylan/Hendrix stories. Pergolesi and Hendrix both died much too young. But musical greatness calls out to musical greatness, and the adaptive re-use of another artist's material can reach the same heights as original work.


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