The Avid Listener

November 1, 2017

Where There’s a Waltz There’s a Way: Exploring the Secrets of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations

Robin Wallace (School of Music, Baylor University)

Ludwig van Beethoven receives a waltz by Anton Diabelli in early 1819, about a year after getting his new Broadwood piano and well into the final decline of his hearing. The piece initially seems unpromising to him, but it feels amazing on this new instrument, whose keys have unprecedented tactile depth and whose frame is uncommonly reactive to vibration across its width. In the first eight measures the melody plunges three and a half octaves into the bass, and the pattern of sequences that follows culminates in a stretch covering three quarters of the keyboard. He realizes that this is material that will allow his sense of touch to lead him in novel directions.

 

The theme from Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” Op. 120, played by Thomas Beghin on a reproduction of Beethoven’s Broadwood piano.

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July 31, 2017

Before It Goes Away: Performance and Reclamation of Songs from Blackface Minstrelsy

Sheryl Kaskowitz (Providence, Rhode Island)

Blackface minstrelsy was a popular and pervasive form of entertainment in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s, and its legacy continues to haunt American popular culture. Whether or not songs have roots in minstrelsy can be difficult to determine; their lyrics have often been changed and their original performance contexts have become lost to history. Remnants of this slippery history can be found in well-known children’s songs such as “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and many others.

 

In a segment from Sesame Street, folk musician John McEuen plays banjo and sings “Oh! Susanna” on a farm.

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February 27, 2017

Blurring Categories: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

Sally K Sommers Smith Wells (Division of Natural Science and Mathematics, Boston University)

 

Patti Smith performs Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” at the 2016 Nobel Prize ceremony. Smith accepted Bob Dylan’s award on his behalf.

 

The Swedish Academy’s decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan was one of the biggest news stories of 2016. Major news sources including the New York Times and The Guardian reacted to the announcement, and Dylan’s initial refusal to acknowledge the award brought another wave of comment and criticism. Some critics focused on the meaning of literature in the wake of this award. Others were far more concerned about whether one could separate an artist’s lyrics from the music that presents them. The award—and the debate over whether Dylan’s lyrics could be considered poetry—prompted heated discussions about the nature of art and celebrity and served as the centerpiece for an amusing short story in The New Yorker.  Although Dylan did not attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm in early December, he ultimately acknowledged the award with a “warm, humble” acceptance statement that alluded to the ongoing philosophical conversation that the Swedish Academy’s decision had inspired, without providing any answers on the subject.

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January 31, 2017

Beethoven’s Deafness and the Myth of the Isolated Artist

Linda Shaver-Gleason (Lompoc, CA)

 

In a scene from the 1995 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, music teacher Glenn Holland tells his high school students about Beethoven’s deafness while playing the second movement of the composer’s seventh symphony (the same movement used fifteen years later during the climax of The King’s Speech). Holland has just learned that his toddler son is deaf. While Holland describes the irony of Beethoven’s situation—one of the greatest composers not being able to hear—it’s clear to the viewer that he’s connecting it to his personal irony, as his son will never be able to hear the music that has been his life’s purpose.

 

A scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus, in which Mr. Holland discusses Beethoven’s deafness with his students. 

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December 12, 2016

“Hard Times Come Again No More”: Springsteen’s Vision of Community

Joanna Smolko (Athens, GA)

 

May 23, 2009, Izod Center, East Rutherford, New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen sings Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” with a spoken introduction asking for people to support local relief efforts. “We’ve gotta stand up, support our neighbors, and please support the local community food bank of New Jersey.”

 

As Bruce Springsteen’s career unfolded, he became increasingly overt about his political framework and his belief that music can be a powerful means both for illuminating issues of social injustice and for bringing people together in community.  Springsteen mined the rich lodes of traditional American music in his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006). Here, he found a treasure trove: traditional songs that glimmered and shone as he gave them roots—rock inspired settings and elements that could also be forged and shaped into new works. Following this album, he continued to explore the ways that traditional songs could be melded together with rock and roll. Springsteen’s performance of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” was part of his 2009 Working on a Dream tour, and his subsequent reworking of the lyrics in new songs shows his process of adaptation. In particular, “Hard Times” can be read as a song of mourning in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009 and a call to respond with community-based activism and cooperation.  

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