Posted by Mike
The subject is experimental – an agreement, sort of. You see, I was instructed to write on this topic. So here we go – and this is going to be different from my other postings. Maybe you’ll see the real person behind the persona! But I’ll make no promises and give no guarantees. I will say this – and that is that what I know about music you can write in the palm of your hand – and that with invisible ink!
The person in the family who was the musician was one of my great grandparents. That was Professor Louis George. He came to New Orleans from Prague and never returned home. He must have arrived sometime before the Civil War. The minimal history I have is that he played violin in an orchestra that came to play in New Orleans. At some point he settled in Houma, which is about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, and became the church organist, composed and taught music, married and had only one child, a son. He died in 1887. That’s about all I know – although I do have a picture of him, printed on the inside cover of a pamphlet of sheet music for a Catholic Mass that he composed and that was privately published by his son, my grandfather, who at the time was working for the newspaper in Houma. I remember when I was about 20, my uncle the dentist brought out the pieces of an old violin. It had been Louis George’s. There was a label inside that read “Stradivarius.” My uncle laughed and said, “Of course it’s not a Strad!” A couple of years ago I discovered that there was another family violin. This reportedly was owned by my grandfather, Louis George’s son. Recently, in a very indirect way that violin has come into my hands. I had never handled a violin before I opened the case and held this one. They really are beautiful instruments. It’s somewhat worn, clearly played a lot; and is still playable now. I tried to play it! Wow! How difficult it must be to learn. I wanted to know more about this particular violin, so I checked it out and found a label glued to the inside of the body that I could just barely decipher. It reads, and I may have the spelling a little off, “Antonius Stradivarius, Cremonenfis, faciebat anno 1720.”
I’ll admit that I was a little excited by what I read there. However, I remembered what my uncle had said about the other violin. In addition, that family, although up and coming town folk – my grandfather became a dentist after his work in printing – was not wealthy, and having a Stradivarius was extremely unlikely. Following that discovery I did a little research on the Internet. Information on the Stradivarius family’s production indicated that virtually all of the Stradivariuses had been accounted for a number of years ago, and some of the unaccounted were believed lost during the Second World War. During that war if you recall, the British firebombed Dresden and the entire city burned. Dresden was of absolutely no strategic value. Rather, it was primarily a center of learning and culture. There were a number of Strads known to be lost in the fire. It was the burning of Dresden that was the seminal event in the life of the writer Kurt Vonnegut. He was a prisoner of war at the time and was saved with other prisoners, as they were kept in a cellar that protected them during the bombing. The devastation and death that Vonnegut observed after he and the other prisoners emerged from their refuge had a profound effect upon him, and he reflected on aspects of that experience frequently in his writings. The prisoners were forced to help in disposing of the many bodies that littered the city after the bombing and the fires.
Back to violins. Wikipedia has a very informative site on violins, including Stradivariuses. In that site there is a link to another article (www.afvbm.com/strad.htm), entitled, “So, you found a Strad!” It seems that during the latter half of the 19th century, there were a number of factories in Germany and Eastern Europe that manufactured violins. Some of the violins were very cheap. Many of these had the very same label that I found on my grandfather’s violin. So… I don’t have a Strad. Do I have a cheap, or good, or nice, or excellent violin? The next time someone comes to the house who knows and plays violin, I’ll ask. Until then it likely will stay in its case until a grandchild has an urge to learn.
I’ve kinda got off topic with the talk about my violin – so I’ll see if I can get back to “The mystery and mood of a major seventh.” Last Saturday I unexpectedly had to drive to Orlando in the afternoon (after I had worked at the computer for half a day). I was tired and my back hurt, and I had this little essay in mind (it’s been on my mind continuously for three weeks!); so hoping for inspiration as I was driving I turned on the radio and listened to one of the local stations that mainly plays “classic” pop, I think from the 60’s through the 80’s, “THE NEW 96-9, THE EAGLE!” I find myself enchanted by the lyrics of pop music – Many of the lyrics are dynamic, creative, rife with images and metaphors that come alive; and some are prosaic and merely display a lot of energy: “I live in the fast lane – Coming attractions – She pretended not to notice – She’ll be wrapped around my finger – Baby it’s a little too early to know if it’s going to work. All I know is you look good in my shirt” – real writers must go crazy; having ideas running constantly through the mind…continuously cluttered with material for the next… – “Don’t hesitate, Cause your love won’t wait – Oh baby, I love you so. Want to be with you night and day – I can see the sunset in your eyes – Smoking in the boy’s room.” I’m driving down Orange Avenue in Orlando (finally) and behind this car; it’s an Azera. Interesting; I think I smell scents from the Orient….The reception was getting very fuzzy, so I find a local Country Music broadcast and listen for a while. Just based on that 2 hour experience I have this to say about the pop and country music that I heard: the pop music had a lot of charming and unique images and metaphors and a lot that were commonplace, but full of energy. The country music mainly gave concrete life narratives, full of crisis, strong emotions, and also full of energy. They both have their place.
Unfortunately, I was no closer to the issue of the mystery and mood of a major seventh. I was thinking about mood though. I happened to listen in on a Spanish music station for a while. There is a chord sequence that is common in Cuban music. By itself it is nothing special. In the key of G it’s G minor, C minor, then D7th. But in Cuban music it’s the rhythm that makes all the difference. It’s the Afro-Cuban rhythm that gives that particular sequence of chords in Latin music the sense of strength, excitement and anticipation. We have nothing to equal it in Western music. Of course we have at times incorporated many of the unique African rhythms into some of our music, most notably in Gershwin’s work and in some of the big band music from the 30’s and 40’s. In listening to American pop, however, the rhythmic variations of Latin music have yet to creep in.
Well, I think we’re finally there – after all this time. I’m sitting at the piano now and I’m playing a straight C chord, in fact, C, D, E chords. They sound very sturdy and solid. OK, now it’s C7, D7, E7. These have a lightness and one gets a sense of anticipation. Is that because in Western music we’ve learned that the 7th is a transitional chord, something that needs a resolution of some kind? Playing C minor, Dm, Em, I get a sense of mystery. We may be getting very close to what we’re seeking! C minor natural 7 gives us discordance in addition to the mystery. CMaj7 and the other Maj7 chords? I’m holding my breath….Listening to a major seventh I have a feeling of completion – but also a sense of some something – an ethereal something else – an unknown quantity – as if there are angels flying about!
The image above is William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Return of Spring. Bouguereau lived from 1825 to 1905. He was a late French Romantic painter. The topics of his larger paintings were generally allegorical or classic. You will find a larger rendition of this painting at Wikimedia Commons under Angels. Just click on the thumbnail. We are fortunate in Jacksonville (Florida) to have two Bouguereau paintings locally at the Cummer Museum.
“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.” – George Eliot (1819-1880)
“Good night sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” – William Shakespeare (1564-1616)