The Soloist by Steve Lopez

Soloist CoverThe One Book, One Philadelphia selection for 2009 is The Soloist by Steve Lopez, which has also been made into a movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. The Free Library asked me if I’d like to write something short—a few sentences—about each of the musical works mentioned in the book, for materials they were putting together for this seventh annual city-wide educational project. Since Lopez writes about Nathaniel Ayers, a violin-playing homeless man in Los Angeles who turns out to be a former Juilliard double bass student, he mentions a lot of musical titles along the way.

I count 46. Forty-six multiplied by a few sentences comes to, oh, somewhere around a lot, so I said to the Library, “You said ‘short,’ right?” “Short,” they said, “please, short.”

Okay, I thought, describing some of the greatest works ever composed ought to be something I could do. Sure, some of the finest musical minds in the world have written really thick books, often without pictures, describing these pieces, and have subsequently had all of their conclusions questioned by some of the other finest musical minds in the world, but that ought not deter me.

And the readers for this will not be the usual orchestra-program-note audience. No, they’ll be everyone: from people who have never seen a cello (or who couldn’t pick one out of a lineup of Things They Haven’t Seen, such as: 1. Unicorn, 2. Candid Politician, 3. Cello, and 4. Wide Receiver Who Simply Hands Ball To Referee After Scoring Touchdown), all the way to people who build cellos for a living. They’ll be movie buffs and literature professors and high school students and musicologists. This would have to be educational without being pedantic, illuminating without being abstruse, lively but not goofy, pretty but not superficial, less filling but with great taste, vanilla but chocolate, red but blue, yes but no. “Sure,” I thought, “I can do this.”

Mark Twain, who had been sitting on a rattan chair on his porch, cleared his throat and rose to his feet, as he often has throughout my life. He brushed tobacco off his vest, pointed the bit of his pipe at me, and said, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt,” and so, he sat. Wise old Solomon, always standing farther away than I’d like (even though I’m grateful for the companionship), then walked over to me. He put his hand on my shoulder, and, casting a sideways glance at Twain, offered, slightly more charitably, “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise.”

“I know, and I thank you,” I nodded to Solomon, adding, to myself, “I think.” “Thanks!,” I called out to Mr. Twain, “but they did ask me, you know!” Twain slowly shook his head, Solomon smiled wistfully, and I went ahead and wrote these out. I made them as short as I could, but even at that, there wasn’t enough room in the booklet for the descriptions of all the pieces. About two-thirds made it in, and some of those we cut down even further. Below, however, is everything. (The Free Library has just uploaded a PDF of the complete list here, as well.)

I got my feet wet by first writing about Stevie Wonder and Henry Mancini (not all the references are classical), and then I worked my way through the book. I mention Juilliard and Cleveland (Ayers’s hometown) wherever possible, and still don’t know how I finished off Beethoven’s Ninth, even in six sentences. Read the book if you have the chance. Lopez at first is attracted to Ayers just as column fodder, but ends up being changed as much himself as ever he hoped to change the “Violin Man.” Steve Lopez is speaking at the Free Library on January 14th, by the way.

Here are the titles as they’re found in The Soloist, with page references, my descriptions, and YouTube videos I thought were particularly attractive:

Bach, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750) Bourée in C major from the Cello Suite No. 3 p 153f

The bourée is a French dance, as are all the movements in the suites from this quintessential German composer. The music theorist and sometime hothead Johann Mattheson (he almost killed Handel in a swordfight) wrote this about the the bourrée in general: “its distinguishing feature resides in contentment and a pleasant demeanor, at the same time it is somewhat carefree and relaxed, a little indolent and easygoing, though not disagreeable.”

Bach Cello Suite No. 1: Prelude p106; Prelude No. 1 p 202

The first movement of this first suite is the most recognized music of all the movements of all the suites, finding its way into TV commercials, film scores, and Bobby McFerrin concerts. A series of the simplest of broken chords over a repeated bass note tax any cellist’s ability to connect tones and drive the motion forward, all the while placing each pitch perfectly in tune.

Bach cello suites p 86f

Perhaps the greatest works for unaccompanied solo cello ever written, and among the most popular of Bach’s pieces. Each suite contains six dance movements. They range in technique from straightforward to ferociously difficult, the interweaving of multiple voices being the most pronounced feature. In spite of the highest technical demands on the best cellists of any period, this is music of such utter beauty and emotional depth that they provide a bottomless well of interpretation. Mostly unknown before the 20th century, they were first popularized by Pablo Casals, the first to record all of them, in the late 1930s.

Bach Passacaglia p 144

From the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582; composed for pedal harpsichord and rewritten for organ, it has also been transcribed for orchestra numerous times. The Cleveland Orchestra played the Russian composer Alexander Goedicke’s orchestration of this on their first concert in Severance Hall in 1931. A passacaglia is a series of variations over a repeated melody in the bass.

Bach Sonata No. 2 p 232

Four movements for unaccompanied violin; transcribed for many instruments, including the double bass, on which Nathaniel Ayers would have played this in his Juilliard year-end exam. The original manuscript to these sonatas was rescued from a butcher shop, where it was about to be used to wrap meat.

Beethoven, Ludwig van (1770-1827) Beethoven’s Eighth p 23, 211

His Symphony No. 8. Unusual for a classical symphony in that the last movement, not the first, is the most profound, and unusual for Beethoven in that the entire work is full of musical jokes, including one on the newly invented metronome. Overshadowed by the weightier Seventh, it struggled with critics early on because it was not like the Seventh. But it is appreciated now for its own charms, which include a knock-down ending unlike anything else he wrote.

Beethoven Beethoven’s Fifth p 211

His Symphony No. 5. Not only Beethoven’s most popular symphony, but probably the most recognized classical piece of all time. At least the first four notes are. “Da-da-da-dummm” practically defines “symphony” to millions of people. It has signified the knock of Fate on the door and also the Morse Code equivalent of “V for Victory” by the BBC during World War II. Beethoven took over four years to compose this, a gargantuan amount of time for him. This is the first symphony to employ trombones; their blast at the start of the last movement must have elicited much jumping from seats. The one symphony, more than any other, to inspire greatness from, and to cause fear in, composers and orchestras alike. When American orchestras began to appear in the mid- to late-1800s, they set before themselves this goal: to be able to play the Beethoven Fifth.

Beethoven Beethoven’s Ninth p 170, 174

With his Third and Fifth, the most revolutionary of Beethoven’s symphonies. It is a work of huge scope, a just-this-side-of-unmanageable work with chorus and soloists on an equal footing with instruments, unheard of at the time (and hardly heard of since). This is Beethoven’s last symphony, and for many, it finishes off the Classical Period while starting the Romantic. Some composers have considered it bad luck to attempt to write more than nine (Mahler tried to, couldn’t finish his Tenth, and died). It culminates in a setting of the “Ode to Joy” of Friedrich Schiller, calling every person to the realization that we are all brothers.

Beethoven Beethoven’s Sixth p 40

His Symphony No. 6, the “Pastorale.” His “nature” symphony, it depicts the world in frankly descriptive ways. Other composers have written music of this type, but this was a departure for Beethoven. He describes the feelings of walking in the country (an activity he loved), a scene by a brook, country folk gathering, a storm, a song of shepherds, and thanksgiving after the storm. One of the most-loved of his symphonies, it is more difficult to play than it seems, with many exposed soloistic passages for the players.

Beethoven cello sonata p 34

Beethoven’s five sonatas for cello and piano are the first by a major composer, and there are still relatively few in the repertoire. This instrumental combination presents difficulties, since, unlike with violin, the sound of the cello can easily be swallowed up by the mid to low piano notes. The issue of balance is therefore a great test of the ensemble-playing abilities of the best players.

Beethoven Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3 p 210

From the first of Beethoven’s works to be published. Dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky, a financial supporter of Beethoven for many years (before their falling out), as well as a Masonic brother of Mozart, and a friend of the first biographer of Bach. The piano trio—violin, cello, and piano—is one of the most popular of chamber aggregations, since it easily accommodates top, middle, and bottom ranges.

Beethoven Serenade in D major, Op. 8 p 210

A string trio (violin, viola, cello) in six movements that Beethoven also arranged for viola and piano, calling it Notturno. Dedicated to a Count von Browne, whom Beethoven called Mæcenas, referring to an advisor to Caesar Augustus who supported Virgil, Horace, and other poets. The name Mæcenas has come to signify any wealthy patron of the arts.

Beethoven Seven Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” p 259

For cello and piano, the tune is from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. Improvisation was a normal part of the musician’s arsenal in Beethoven’s time, the performer often being expected to extemporize on audience-suggested themes in concert. Beethoven himself did that, and these variations come from that tradition. The piece has the strange-looking catalog number of WoO 46, which simply stands for Werke ohne Opus, or a work that the composer never got around to numbering. Later catalogers grouped all these together and then gave them numbers.

Beethoven Six Variations on an Original Theme in F major p 259

For solo piano, composed in 1802, right around the time of Beethoven’s heart-rending “Heiligenstadt Testament,” a letter detailing the recognition of his growing deafness, the explanation of his moody despair, the rejection of suicide, and the acceptance of death, whenever it should arrive. The theme is called “original” in the title because it was normally expected that variations would be on someone else’s theme.

Beethoven Sonata in D major for Piano and Cello p 259

Beethoven called this last of his five cello sonatas “The Free Sonata,” as it is the most romantic and least classical of them all.

Beethoven Sonata in G minor for Piano and Cello p 259

The second of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas, which, together with the first, comprise his early opus 5. It is in just two movements, and was written in Berlin before he moved to Vienna.

Beethoven sonatas p 11

Probably refers to the 32 sonatas for piano; these constitute a landmark in music generally, not just for piano literature. Beethoven fulfilled the legacy of sonata form established by Haydn and Mozart by creating works that are thoroughly integrated thematically. The melodic individuality and harmonic intensity is so powerful, that the greatest musicians look on these as almost a reinvention of the elements of form.

Beethoven String Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18, No. 5 p 210

Of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets, this is from the first set. His very last quartet, Op. 135, was also the last work he finished and is otherworldly in its harmonic advances. This one, however, is very classical, modeled on a Mozart quartet in the same key.

Beethoven Symphony No. 3, “Eroica” p 97; Beethoven’s Third p 99, 104, 107ff; Eroica p 97, 104;

The “Heroic” symphony of 1804, it signals a break from the past more than any other Beethoven composition. Enraptured by the spirit of revolution, he dedicated it to Napoleon, but then angrily crossed out the name from the score when Napoleon declared himself Emperor. The heroic style, which indeed revolutionized music for generations, incorporates the themes of defiance, death and rebirth, and triumph; it is reflected musically in driving, military rhythms and sudden changes in volume and harmony, always to the greatest dramatic effect.

Beethoven Twelve Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” p 259

For cello and piano, the tune, like the seven variations above, is from Mozart’s Magic Flute. Papageno the bird-man wishes for a wife. So many girls out there, can’t he have just one?

Bloch, Ernest (1880-1959) Prayer From Jewish Life, No. 1, for cello and piano p 202

Eschewing virtuosity, this is an expression of deep faith, sadness, and sensitivity. Born in Switzerland, Bloch studied violin and composition in Brussels and Germany. He moved to the U.S. in 1916, attained American citizenship in 1924, and was the first Director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, 1920-25. A daughter, Suzanne, taught harpischord and composition at Juilliard.

Bloch Rhapsody for Cello p 35

The short title for Schelomo, Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra. One of Bloch’s many works on Jewish themes, this presents the wise and questioning figure of Solomon as found in the book of Ecclesiastes. Probably Bloch’s most-performed work: beautiful, longing, and a standard in the cello repertoire.

Brahms, Johannes (1833-1897) double concerto p 61

A very late work of Brahms, and his last orchestral work, the Concerto for Violin and Cello is the first concerto by a major composer for just these two instruments. It reminds us how advanced an artist he was, something even the avant-garde Schoenberg appreciated, but which cuts against the view of Brahms as hidebound or afraid of modernity. His duet writing here has been likened to Puccini, this for perhaps the greatest composer never to write an opera. Brahms created this work partly to heal a relationship with the violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom he had once been close, and for whom he had written his Violin Concerto.

Brahms First Symphony p 144

Haunted by the legacy of Beethoven, Brahms worked on his Symphony No. 1 for 15 years before allowing it to be published. Critics quickly recognized it as a landmark in the Germanic symphony tradition. From wrenching anguish to joyful contentedness, this symphony represents what most people consider to be Brahms’s own legacy: a picture of humanity as struggling but ultimately hopeful. His music glows.

Diamond, Neil (b. 1941) Sweet Caroline p 175

A no. 4 hit in 1969. Inspired by President Kennedy’s daughter Caroline, who was eleven when Diamond wrote it. He sang it on her 50th birthday at a 2007 concert. Diamond was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984. In 2002 he was the third most successful adult contemporary artist in the history of the Billboard chart, after Elton John and Barbra Streisand.

Dvořák, Antonin (1841-1904) Dvořák’s Cello Concerto p 105

Dvořák was in New York and attended performances of Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto No. 2 in 1894. (Herbert, before his Babes in Toyland fame, was an impressive cellist and conductor as well as successful composer of non-pop music.) Dvořák was so impressed with the work, and that the cello could legitimately solo in front of an orchestra (he had his doubts that it could be heard well enough), that he went ahead and wrote what is now, by the numbers, the most popular cello concerto ever, performed and recorded more than any other.

Elgar, Edward (1857-1934) Elgar Cello Concerto p 30, 179

Known for his hale and hearty British optimism, Elgar changed course with this piece from 1919, affected as he was by World War I, health problems, and advancing age. The concerto is nostalgic and introspective, filled with glorious melodies, and daringly opens with a solo statement that dies away to nothing. This is Elgar’s last great work. Many consider that Jacqueline du Pré attained stardom with the Elgar, and it is said that the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, upon hearing her play this, removed it from his repertoire.

Koussevitzky, Serge (1874-1951) Koussevitzky p 229

Koussevitzky’s Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra. By the famous Russian conductor (and less-famous bassist), one of the few concertos for this instrument in the repertoire. Koussevitzky wrote this in 1902, long before he took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra as Music Director (1924-49), where his legacy includes commissions of composers such as Stravinsky and Bartók.

Liszt, Franz (1811-1886) Liszt piano concerto p 266

Of his hundreds of works involving piano, there are but two numbered concertos. The first is more virtuosic, and the second is generally considered more integrated, with the piano showing off less and being a more congenial musical partner with the orchestra.

Mancini, Henry (1924-1994) Moon River p 264

Song composed to lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Won the 1961 Academy Award for Best Original Song, featured in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Its melody has a small range, since Mancini wrote it specifically for Audrey Hepburn, who was not a trained singer. Mancini was born in Cleveland, raised in West Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, and attended Juilliard before being drafted into the army. An inlet near Savannah, Georgia, Johnny Mercer’s hometown, was named Moon River after the song became a hit.

Mendelssohn, Felix (1809-1847) Mendelssohn’s Fourth p 61

Inspired by a trip abroad, the “Italian” symphony Mendelssohn called “the jolliest piece I have ever done.” Although the most popular of his symphonies (and perhaps most popular of all his works after the “Wedding March” from Midsummer Night’s Dream), he was never completely happy with it and never finished revising it before his early death.

Mendelssohn Mendelssohn’s Third p 61

Called the “Scottish” after Mendelssohn’s trip to the Isles (which also resulted in his Hebrides Overture) and because of its tip of the cap to Scottish folk music in the second movement. He made this movement the Scherzo; normally the third movement is the place for that, so it’s almost as if he couldn’t wait to get to those tunes.

Saint-Saëns, Camille (1835-1921) Carnival of the Animals, The Elephant p 227, 229

A 14-movement suite originally for chamber ensemble but often played in its full orchestra version. Ogden Nash later wrote humorous poems to be recited before each section, with typically Nashian rhymes as “circus / mazurkas” and “If you think the elephant preposterous, / You’ve probably never seen a rhinosterous.” Most of the sections spotlight an instrument or two, and the soloist for “The Elephant” is, as might be guessed, the double bass. It amusingly quotes the Dance of the Sylphides of Berlioz (although slower and lower) and Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals, The Swan p 98, 151, 204, 207

Saint-Saëns was somewhat embarrassed by Carnival, thinking its frivolity would damage his reputation as a serious composer. He allowed none of it to be published during his lifetime—except for “The Swan,” a ravishingly expressive cello solo. It is the most famous music of the entire work.

Saint-Saëns Concerto for Violoncello p 61

Most probably referring to the first, in A minor, of two cello concertos by Saint-Saëns, considered by some to be the greatest of all concertos for this instrument. Unusual in that it is in one continuous movement, it helped establish Saint-Saëns in the first rank of French composers. Nathaniel Ayers is correct, there are two sweeping lines of 18 and 19 notes, used as upbeats, or “pickups,” to phrases.

Schubert, Franz (1797-1828) Arpeggione p 136, 176, 202

Not just the name of the piece that Schubert wrote in 1824, but the name of the instrument as well. The arpeggione was a type of bowed guitar or small viola da gamba, invented just in 1823 only to effectively disappear within a decade. The Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano is now played mostly in transcriptions for cello or viola.

Schubert Piano Trio in B-flat major p 267

Composed in Schubert’s last year and not published until eight years after his death, this Op. 99 trio is a large-scale work considered to be one of his masterpieces. It overflows with tunefulness and Viennese conviviality. One would not guess from this music that Schubert’s health was rapidly deteriorating at the time.

Sherman Brothers, Robert B. (b. 1925) and Richard M. (b. 1928) It’s a Small World After All p 56

Academy Award-winning songwriters, they’ve written more motion picture song scores than any other songwriting team in history, including Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and The Jungle Book. Worked for Walt Disney 1960–66. This song written for an attraction at Disney theme parks, first built for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Sibelius, Jan (1865-1957) Symphony No. 2 p 61, 269

Finland’s greatest composer, Sibelius helped establish a national identity for his country in no small part through this symphony, the Finale of which is practically a hymn of independence from Russian domination. How much of that was intended by the composer is debated, but the nation and its natural beauty inspired his music throughout his career. The Philadelphia Orchestra was in the vanguard of celebrations of his 90th birthday in 1955.

Strauss, Richard (1864-1949) Don Quixote p 61

A tone poem for large orchestra with solos for cello (the Don) and viola (Sancho Panza) throughout. It describes the knight’s adventures in 14 sections, testing all the talents of professional orchestral players as well as necessitating large and expressive playing from the soloists. Many an orchestral audition list includes music from this work, regardless of the instrument.

Tchaikovsky, Piotr Ilyich (1840-1893) Serenade for Strings p 225, 235

When he started composing this in 1880, Tchaikovsky didn’t know whether it would be a string quartet or a symphony. It instead became what may be the signature string orchestra work of all time, and a distillation of everything Romantic in music. The composer is not known as a nationalist, but he includes two Russian folk songs in the Finale.

Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme p 61

It’s classically oriented (Rococo bridges the Baroque and Classical periods in music), but the theme is original, and it comes closest to being the cello concerto Tchaikovsky never wrote. It is cool and refined, but includes passages of blazing difficulty for the soloist and orchestra. Completed and premiered in 1877, it did not see the light of day in its original version (the first soloist changed many of the notes on the manuscript) until 1941.

Traditional Song of the Birds p 150, 176f

Catalan tune made famous by Pablo Casals (1876-1973), the Spanish cellist and conductor. He played for both President Kennedy in 1961 and President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. Casals is known for his recording of the Bach Cello Suites, and for refusing to return to his homeland after the Spanish Civil War, while it was under the rule of Franco.

Traditional Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star p 170

The earliest appearance of this tune is to the French song “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman” in 1761. Sometimes erroneously thought to have been composed by Mozart, since he did write a popular set of variations on it.

Wonder, Stevie, (b. 1950) My Cherie Amour p viii

Born Stevland Hardaway Judkins in Saginaw, Michigan. This song made it to No. 4 on both the Billboard Pop and R&B charts, 1969.

Wonder You Are the Sunshine of My Life p viii

Wonder’s first No. 1 hit on the adult contemporary chart, 1973. Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, 1973. No. 281 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

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