Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, September 12, 2004


I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music lately and haven’t felt much like talking about it. Mostly I “use” it as background music. I like the timbre of classic classical, the sweet strings of classic orchestral and the rippling piano of the piano soloists; I like the usually drum-less energy (though don’t get me wrong, I looove drums, and one of the best concerts I ever saw was by a drum ensemble led by pioneering Nigerian musical ambassador Babatunde Olatunji). And, when I’m listening closely, I tend to like good tunes, which classic classical can be hit or miss on. But when they hit, they hit that sweet spot for me oh-so-sweetly.

Pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski has been a fave lately. I picked up a used CD a year and a half ago or so, never having heard of him, because the CD booklet had an odd picture of a 19th century child with long hair playing piano, and the front cover had a picture of an old man in the 1980s, and both pictures were of Horszowski, who had been a child prodigy in the 1890s in Poland and who recorded well into his own 90s. His story -- and the pictures -- attracted me.

That CD I got, a late one but not his last, had the most gorgeous Mozart piano playing I’ve ever heard -- two of his sonatas. Like butter, smooth and sweet and soft, while bringing out all of Mozart’s counterpoint in crystal clarity, and with lively energy -- that’s how I’ve thought of Horszowski’s playing since first hearing. Horszowski also plays pieces by Chopin and Schumann on the album, and while they’re very nice, they didn’t send me reeling like the Mozart.

Right now I’m reading a very interesting and lively book from 1968 called “The Great Conductors,” written Harold Schonberg, who was the “New York Times” music critic at the time. It’s a history of conducting and orchestral music from the baroque period to the time of writing. Which makes it a partial history of the classical music of the period, but different than other classical music history I’ve read, which focuses on formal and harmonic innovations. This one focuses on timbre and ensemble and rhythm -- aspects of music more readily accessible to my ear -- as it talks about how orchestras changed in size and instrumentation, and how instruments themselves changed over the centuries.

Schonberg talks about Mozart’s musicianship and conducting. Apparently “smooth like oil” was a high compliment in Mozart’s vocabulary. It made me happy, that Mozart’s compliment to someone whose playing he liked was so close to how I thought about my new favorite Mozart pianist -- like oil, like butter.


Glenn Miller was a great songpicker and a great bandleader with a unique sweetly swinging style and sound. He composed only one of his big hits -- the gorgeous “Moonlight Serenade” -- but the sound he put together for that one was the blueprint for many others, even as he staffed out most of the arranging chores to Jerry Gray.

One of Miller’s (many) big hits was a swinging Gray arrangement of “American Patrol,” a popular march composed in 1885 by the otherwise forgotten F. W. Meacham. Gray used only the main theme, which only makes sense, because Meacham’s secondary themes are the American standards “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” “Dixie,” and “Yankee Doodle.”

I recently picked up a used copy of a CD by Mieczyslaw Horszowski recorded at the age of 97, a year or two later than the one I mentioned above. His playing was still buttery smooth and crystalline clear, and taking the place in my affections of the Mozart sonatas on the earlier album is the Sonata No. 6 in F Major of Beethoven. And the opening theme of the final movement, “Presto,” is very much like the principal theme of “American Patrol.” Meacham didn’t quote Beethoven exactly but borrowed the crucial opening licks. Call it “Son of F Major Sonata Presto.”

It’s a great tune. Meacham was right to borrow from it, and Miller and Gray were darn right to swing it, but the original Beethoven does just fine on its own too.


I sent off an op-ed on tax policy and Social Security to the “Seattle P-I” today, about 50 words under the 600-word “unsolicited op-ed” limit.

Short version: There’s $1.5 TRILLION dollars in the Social Security Trust Fund, because Social Security has run a surplus for almost 70 years now, and will continue to for another decade and a half. At that point, to make payments, it will have to dip into the Trust Fund. Unfortunatetly, Congress has borrowed the entirety of the Fund, and so-called conservatives talk as though there is no possibility that Congress will pay it back. Which means: The Social Security payroll deduction has just been a dishonest way to raise income taxes on the working poor and the middle class while giving the upper middle class and the rich a pass.

Furthermore: Bush’s plan for his hoped-for 2nd term of office is to work toward eliminating all taxes on interest, dividends, capital gains, and inheritance. Which means: People rich enough not to have to work would pay zero federal taxes.

The name for this fiscal policy is neo-feudalism.

I’ll let you know if they publish it.

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