Don’t Just Leave It To Biber or Ma

August 15, 2019
 

Are you one of them? Do you engage in that particular type of singing that’s known as “bocca chiuso,” “bouche fermée” or “Brummstimme?” It’s singing without words and with the mouth closed, as the Italian and French terms suggest, or with a growling, grumbling voice, according to the German term.

It’s more commonly known as humming. There are some famous choruses in music for which the composers intended the singers to hum such as the so-called “Humming Chorus” in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly or Neptune in Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

There’s also a bit of unintended humming in music. Pianists Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson, and Fazil Say have been notorious for humming on their recordings. It’s definitely noticeable. And don’t just take my word for it. Years ago while playing a Mozart recording with Fazil Say, a listener called and asked if I was humming along with the performance. I had to assure him that it was the pianist, and that it would have been much more annoying if it had been me.

I read recently that the Hungarian pianist Jenő Jandó hums while he performs. I’ve been playing his recordings for decades. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it. According to an online explanation, he puts an unlit cigarette in his mouth during recording sessions. I guess that sort of “filters” out the humming. I’m not sure what he does in live concerts.

I wouldn’t have known about Jandó if I hadn’t stumbled upon the information online. But there’s no excuse for not having made another discovery much sooner than I did, which was just a week ago.

When you host music programs, you get pretty familiar with the artwork on quite a few recordings. I had glanced at the baby picture on one of them for years. You can’t help but notice the 2-year old dressed in red clothing with white and red decorative trim. She looks content in the arms of her smiling daddy on the front cover of the CD booklet. And on the back cover of the CD, there is a close-up of her face looking at you from behind the listing of the selections.

I remember reading through the notes to that 1996 recording, which is titled My Gift To You (Dorian 90218). Pianist Antonin Kubalek, who died in 2011, mentioned the birth of his daughter Karolina as a life- changing event. He said that he had always disliked recordings of “favorite piano pieces,” but that Karolina’s arrival had changed his mind, “I wanted to leave something of me for her – a gift of music that I hope she can share with all the sweet children on this earth….I want to give my child – our children – the opportunity to hear what kind of music we, their parents, grew up with as children, and link this musical experience to their own choice of what their most treasured music will be throughout their lives.”

It took years before I became curious enough to find out what became of that little girl. Last week, while playing Beethoven’s famous “Minuet in G” from the recording, I quickly searched for Karolina Kubalek online. What a surprise to see a link to a concert program with a photo of her at the piano. Yes, she’s a concert pianist! And you can see an obvious resemblance to the little girl on the CD cover! Daddy’s recording was successful, to say the least.

It brought to mind the recent incident in which a 10-year old girl and her mother were turned away at an open-air Yo-Yo Ma concert in Chicago that had attracted a capacity crowd. The fact that others, who simply claimed they had family members already inside, gained admittance led the girl to write a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune. The immediate happy ending was Yo-Yo Ma sending her a note, a signed photo, and a recording of the music she would have heard at the concert.

The “long-term happy ending” may well be whatever inspiration comes from that gesture: an invitation to explore Bach, interest in Yo-Yo Ma’s performances or a curiosity about classical music in general. 

I’m not holding my breath that a familiar name in our time is going to suddenly make a 17th century composer a hit among young people. There are 2 famous Biebers out there these days. One is a singer and the other a major league baseball pitcher. August 12th marked the 375th anniversary of the birth of classical music’s most famous Biber, whose name is pronounced the same, though spelled differently.

Heinrich Biber was born in Bohemia. He’s been called the greatest violinist of the 17th century. And he wrote a good bit of music for his instrument, among his other works. He spent much of his life in Salzburg, where Mozart was born just over a half century after Biber died. In 1690, he was knighted by Emperor Leopold. At that point, he became known as Heinrich Biber von Bibern. He and his wife had 11 children. Only 4 of them survived. But all 4 were gifted musically and went on to become musicians.

Biber made his mark on young people back in his time. Antonin Kubalek and Yo-Yo Ma have made their contributions. I’m hoping we can do the same with the classical music on WILL-FM. Invite the young people in your life to join us for Classic Mornings, Monday through Friday from 9-noon on FM 90.9 or online at will.illinois.edu. What a thrill it would be just to hear one of them hum along to a selection, and maybe someday while performing.


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These programs are partially sponsored by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.

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