Straw, Sticks, Bricks and Brahms

February 27, 2020
 

Had I seen it?  If I had, I didn’t remember it.

So I went looking for the cartoon from 1943 last week. I’d gotten a clue that one of the Hungarian Dances by Johannes Brahms made an appearance in it. That’s what sparked my curiosity.

The title of the cartoon is a play on the expression which, as I understand, goes back to the 16th century: “a pig in a poke.”  A poke is a sack. And I learned that piglets were sold in a poke, without buyers being able to see what they were buying. The phrase has come to be used for something purchased without having been examined closely.

The cartoon is known as Pigs in a Polka. And audiences over the years may not have been aware that what they were getting on the soundtrack was bits and pieces of several of the Hungarian Dances of Johannes Brahms, which were used and reused for a telling of the story of “The Three Little Pigs.” Yes, they build their 3 houses out of straw, sticks and bricks and encounter a wolf, not to mention Brahms throughout the entire story.

Though it was nominated for an Academy Award back in 1943, I didn’t stay with it very long, except to note the details of the soundtrack. By the way, there are no polkas. But it’s a fun play-on-words title.

Among the Hungarian Dances by Brahms used in the cartoon is the most famous of all: no. 5 in G minor. I remember when it was performed as an encore by the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, conducted by the late Kurt Masur, at the Krannert Center in 1989. It was almost like hearing it for the first time!

It wasn’t so long ago when I learned for the first time that the dance tune actually came from a folk-inspired csárdas by Béla Keler (1820-1882). Brahms thought that the tunes he chose for his dances were folk melodies. It turns out that they had been written by composers of his day. The tune of the famous “5th” originated in the Bártfai Emlék Csárdás, op.31 by Keler, a violinist/composer who was born in a part of Hungary that today is a part of Slovakia. February 13th marked the bicentennial of his birth. I’m guessing that with the exception of Classic Mornings, the occasion didn’t get a lot of attention.

February 17th marked the bicentennial of another violinist/composer. Henri Vieutemps (1820-1881) was born in Verviers, Belgium. He began studying the violin when he was 4 years old. His father, a violin amateur, was his first teacher. Eventually, he would study with the famous Belgian violinist/composer Charles August de Bériot.

The story is told that Robert Schumann heard the 14 year old Vieuxtemps perform in Leipzig and began to compare him to the legendary Nicolò Paganini. That same year, Henri Vieuxtemps had the chance to meet Paganini when he played his London debut concert. According to violinist/musicologist Boris Schwarz, Paganini predicted a great future for Vieuxtemps.

Vieuxtemps went on to become a violin virtuoso and a composer of 5 violin concertos, as well as an impressive number of works for violin and piano. He toured internationally and was well received over the years in places like Paris, London and the United States – where he toured in the 1840s, 50’s and 70s. He spent years in Russia as violin soloist to the tsar and a professor of violin. He later taught at the Brussels Conservatory.

I can’t recall when I first heard of Henri Vieuxtemps. But I do remember that one of the first classical music recordings I bought was an LP with a pair of piano sonatas by Mozart performed by Christoph Eschenbach. It had been released in 1967. Eschenbach turned 80 on February 20th. A conductor as well, he led a program that’s on my “list” of memorable concerts in Champaign-Urbana. It featured the Schleswig Holstein Festival Orchestra from Germany with pianist Lang Lang back in 2010. I never forgot the excitement of the Beethoven 7th Symphony that concluded that concert.

Spanish conductor Jesús López-Cobos (1940-2018) would have turned 80 on February 25th. His recording with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra of Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances and Trittico Botticelliano (Telarc 80309) is on the “list” of recordings that I most enjoy playing for you.

Any day that you tune into Classic Mornings, there’s a chance that you’ll hear a piece of music that you’ll want to add to your list of favorites. So join us, Monday through Friday from 9 to noon on FM 90.9 or online at will.illinois.edu.


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