Google Custom Search

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Music of the spheres

There is an old hymn of the church that mentions the phenomenon known as "the music of the spheres." The reference goes back to an era when man's knowledge of the universe had advanced beyond that of an earth-centric world where the planet was flat, to a new understanding that placed the sun in the center of our solar system, with spherical planets revolving around it.

Many theologians at first condemned this new understanding of the universe as contrary to Biblical teaching. But others embraced the new understanding as an outgrowth of the belief that God's ways are "not our ways" and are far beyond our ability to fully grasp.

These theologians heartily accepted the new system of science which portrayed a universe that was made up of spheres moving around each other in harmony. It was even thought that this movement, and spinning of the earth, and it, in turn, spinning around other spheres created a heavenly, divine music, which became known as "the music of the spheres."

And, in fact, astronomers confirmed at one point as their understanding of the universe grew, that there is, indeed, a music that is made by the spin. It is more like a humming sound, a low pitched buzz, or hum, that is created by the movement of the planets and other objects in space.

God, thus, is the first composer, the first maestro, if you will, who created a system where music is made.

One piece of music seems to capture at least part of what I am talking about here. In it, I can seem to hear the "music of the spheres,' the divine sound made by a divine creation.

That piece of music is Gustav Holst's The Planets.

The piece is most remarkable due to Holst's interpretation of the music he hears when connected mystically to the sound of the planets. And the only one, in my opinion, who was worthy of a musician's interpretation of Holst was the late, great Eugene Ormandy of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

"The Planets," as all symphonies, is presented in various movements, and such is the case with this one. Thus, due to time constraints, I will offer only one of the group, the one titled, "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity."

But first, a word about Ormandy.

If ever there were a musical genius, look no further than this Hungarian born violinist who made his mark as famed conductor of what was considered at the time as the best symphony orchestra in the world.

Ormandy began playing the violin at age three. By the age of six he could hear and identify complete symphonies with all of their harmonies and the various parts the instruments played. And by age seven he was already giving concerts as a violinist, including being invited to play for the royal family of Hungary. And by the age of 14 he had graduated from the university and began to establish himself as a virtuoso violinist who played all over Europe.

After coming to America, Ormandy began playing violin for various orchestras, and there are still recordings available to this day of a very young Eugene Ormandy being the featured violinist on some of the major classical recordings of the time.

But at one point he wrote to his father back in Hungary that although he enjoyed playing the violin he was always strapped for money. He stated that he could make much more money as a conductor, and that would be his next goal.

In Ormandy's case being at the right place at the right time was key. His violin work had earned him the attention of some very important people in classical music, and when he let it be known he was interested in conducting, several big names were willing to take a chance on him when the opportunity presented itself.

When Arturo Toscanini of the Philadelphia Orchestra became ill, he tapped Ormandy to conduct in his place at a scheduled concert. Ormandy was an immediate sensation. It just so happened that the Minnesota Symphony needed a permanent conductor, and, when word spread of Ormandy's triumph in Philly, he was immediately offered the job. Ormandy would stay with the Minnesota Symphony until 1936, when the famed Leopold Stokowski, who was then conductor for the Philadelphia Orchestra, offered him a job as assistant conductor.

Ormandy jumped at the chance to work with Stokowski. And later, when Stokowski fell ill and was no longer able to fulfill his duties, Ormandy was offered the position as sole musical director and conductor for the Philly Orchestra.

That was in 1938. For the next 44 years Ormandy would lead the Philadelphia Orchestra to become known as perhaps the best in the world, certainly the most recognized and awarded symphony of that era.

It was Ormandy who developed what became known as "the Philadelphia sound." That sound was based upon Ormandy's belief that a good orchestra should strive for balance above all, with an emphasis on strings and woodwinds. This gave the Philly Orchestra a velvety, romantic sound that was a distinct departure from what most orchestras were doing at the time in emphasizing brass instruments and its accompanying shrill tones.

Ormandy's manner of interpreting pieces of music based upon his beliefs about what an orchestra should sound like was a big hit with music lovers who bought the orchestra's works by the millions, but it left him vulnerable to the harshly critical voices of the old guard in music schools, and even among some of his peers.

Some of the music professors did not believe Ormandy's sound was suitable for the great classics such as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, or Hayden. The private joke that students told around and about was that these "self appointed guardians of the old guard" always felt that they were obligated to get in a dig or two at Ormandy, or else they would have failed their students in some way.

Others, such as Igor Stravinsky, insulted Ormandy openly by stating that his interpretations "lacked imagination." Others said that Ormandy was lacking in passion and emotion as he led the orchestra. One in particular, a German musician, was quite open about his disdain for Ormandy, and the feeling was mutual. Ormandy once described him as "that little Nazi" when he had been particularly harsh in his criticism.

But, truth be told, egos are huge in music. And Ormandy was a perfect target because he was the one getting the most attention, and money. Further, the criticism of the old guard came across as nothing more than sour grapes. Ormandy had his defenders among some in the old guard who would quickly rush in to counter the criticism, more often than not by pointing out to listeners that when listening to Ormandy's interpretation of the great classics such as Bach, how could anyone with a discerning ear claim that this was not the absolute best rendition of the piece to date?

Personally, for my money I would not go out and buy a CD set of classical music unless it had either "Ormandy" or "Philadelphia Orchestra" on it. Why take a chance on something that may be below par when you can get the best?

As for Ormandy's manner of conducting, he was not into the theatrics and antics for which orchestra conductors became known with the advent of people like Leonard Bernstein of the New York Philharmonic. While Bernstein had a unique style that suited his personality, unfortunately many younger conductors today act as if he is THE role model who must be emulated whether it suits their personality or not.

Ormandy, on the other hand, was ultimately dignified. He did not wish to do anything on stage that would cheapen the experience of the music or to take one's focus off of the sound. He could seem detached, but a mere cursory look into his eyes as he led the orchestra told the real story. Here was a man who was ultimately passionate about the music. You could see it in his expressions. He could get a bit dramatic when the music called for it, but his ultimate desire was to focus the listener on the composer's piece...and, the wonderful orchestra playing it.

Ormandy's genius is only confirmed by the fact that he is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Kennedy Center Honor for Lifetime Achievement, the invitation to bring the Philadelphia Orchestra to various venues around the world at at time when such a thing simply was not done.

It is also highly significant that Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra were the very first conductor/orchestra to be invited to do an extended performance tour throughout Communist China.

The piece below is a delightful number from Holst's The Planets. The focus is on jollity, and the music is befitting the subject matter. Note the well-oiled machine Ormandy had developed. Everything was in balance, except for one point, when, in the conductor's view, the brass section had become too loud -- a no no for Ormandy. You will see at that point that Ormandy discretely lifts up his finger to his mouth and forms the word "shhhh" as the signal that the trumpets needed to quiet down so as not to overshadow the other instruments.

Enjoy....this is as good as it gets.

No comments: