Classic Mornings

And the French Elves Take the Gold!


Tell me it wasn’t a letdown. After 2 weeks of marveling at winter sports virtuosi from around the world, suddenly it was all over.

But just before the final weekend of the Olympics, I sensed that Classic Mornings listeners were probably caught up in all the excitement of the Pyeongchang games. So I wanted to try and bring a bit of Olympic-like atmosphere to the program.

In the past, we’ve had fun getting into the spirit of racing events. I remember playing three rather brisk performances of Frédéric Chopin’s Waltz in D flat major (op. 64, no.1) to see which pianist could manage the fastest “Minute” Waltz (the nickname for the waltz, which generally takes about two minutes to perform). I’ve done the same with arrangements of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” and various composers’ galops – those dances in which couples actually galop around the dance floor. I’m sure I played those around the time of the Kentucky Derby.

I was inspired to stage yet another mini musical competitive event with the arrival of a new release featuring the French cellist Gautier Capuçon. The CD is titled Intuition (Erato 190295715854) and includes a work by the Prague-born cellist and composer David Popper (1843-1913) called Elfentanz (Dance of the Elves). It’s a showpiece that I’ve known about since 1998 when we received English cellist Steven Isselis’ recording Cello World (RCA 68928). A year or so ago, German cellist Alban Gerhardt included it on a recording of encores that were played by the late Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (Hyperion 68136).

Thanks to the lure of the Olympics telecasts, I was aware that many had gotten into the habit of watching the same event over and over, though with different athletes each time around. That occurs in music competitions as well. But on a classical music radio program that airs during mid-morning, I wanted to keep it to a short piece that listeners would look forward to hearing a few times, as if watching those downhill events of the Olympics.

I called it the “Elf” event. I played all three recordings of Popper’s Elfentanz in the order in which the performers “qualified” (i.e. when their recordings came into the Friends of WILL library). As it turned out, Isserlis’s Elves clocked in at 2:59, Gerhardt’s at 2:29 and Capuçon’s (which featured cello and orchestra, unlike the other two with cello and piano) at 2:21. Speed isn’t everything in music performance, not even in this work. But it sure adds to the fun.

Speaking of clocks, last Friday marked the 225th anniversary of the first performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, known as “The Clock.” That came just a week ahead of springing forward. It brings to mind an old commercial in which wristwatches were put through the kind of physical endurance trials that some Olympic athletes face. And the tag line at the end boasted that after all of that, the watch still was ticking. 

The clock still “ticks” in performances of what is one of Haydn’s most popular symphonies. It’s the second movement of the symphony with its clock-like rhythm, which inspired the nickname. 

I’ve wondered whether those who are growing up without ever having heard a ticking clock would ever come to understand the nickname or have as much fun when introduced to the symphony. The same goes for the “Viennese Musical Clock” from Zoltan Kodaly’s Háry János Suite, Albert Ketèlbey’s The Clock and the Dresden Figures, Leroy Anderson’s Syncopated Clock, and other works that go “tick-tock.” Let’s hope that at the very least, young children are still hearing Hickory Dickory Dock being read or sung to them.

It’s not a new challenge for classical music. Generations have been delighted by works that are based on centuries-old literature, that were written for instruments that are now obsolete, that have used tunes which have become obscure or that poked fun at long-forgotten individuals. There are revivals all the time of composers and pieces that once were abandoned. Somehow it seems that performers and listeners eventually come to find this music in their own time.