Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: "Baton Bunny" music with and without the Bunny, plus a treasure trove of overtures and, oh yes, "Gaudeamus igitur"

In which we watch part of a cartoon, then listen
to an overture, and then another overture, and then --
can you imagine? -- drift off into other, er, stuff

A nice chunk of Chuck Jones's Baton Bunny (1959) -- from the confident-looking start, things deteriorate pretty quickly.

by Ken

As I mentioned most recently Friday night, New York City's Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, is currently hosting a grand exhibition devoted to one of the giants of animated film, Chuck Jones. And as I mentioned Friday night, this afternoon I hope to get to MoMI for this week's "Chuck Jones Matinee" (each week the same hour-long program is offered on Saturday and Sunday), to see -- in 35mm, on a large screen -- Duck Amuck, which I've already declared the greatest cartoon ever made, and What's Opera, Doc?, the famous Bugs Bunny classical-music extravaganza.

On my last weekend visit to the museum, the CJM program included a different classical-Bugs enterprise, one I didn't remember: Baton Bunny, from 1959. In it Bugs attempts to conduct Suppé's A Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna Overture, and you can see some of it above.

We've heard our fair share of Suppé, entirely in the form of overtures. Yes, occasional efforts are made to revive some of his numerous operettas, but they don't stick. A dozen or so of his overtures do, however, for the simple reason that they're utterly wonderful, utterly gorgeous music, and among them are a couple -- I mean Poet and Peasant and Light Cavalry -- that I would listen to as happily as anything in the orchestral repertory.

When the poster of our Baton Bunny clip posted it, a rash of commenters were frantic to know what the music was. The question was answered in due course, of course, but we're going to answer it in our own way -- with three distinctly different performances.

FRANZ VON SUPPÉ: A Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna: Overture

Two of these performances we've already heard, but I have no embarrassment in presenting them again. Paul Paray's 1959 Mercury LP of Suppé overtures is one of the great achievements of the phonographic industry. (It's augmented on the Living Presence CD by three overtures by Daniel-François Auber.) And the grand, boisterous Dutoit-Montréal performance, in grander, more boisterous Decca sound, is a splendid complement. The "new" performance -- at least new to us -- is the 1939 Beecham, whereupon hangs a tale, which we'll get to after we have our dose of Suppé.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Paul Paray, cond. Mercury, recorded November 1959

Guy Fouquet, cello; Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Charles Dutoit, cond. Decca, recorded c1984

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, cond. Columbia, recorded 1939 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)


The source is a veritable archive of overtures: 33 performances from 1926-47 of 29 overtures by 18 conductors, most of them legendary but some barely known today, contained in a single file on the Internet Archive, as dubbed from 78s by IA's indefatigable digitizer F. Reeder.

We're going to talk more about, and listen more to, overtures in general and this amazing overture collection. Dipping into it has been partly responsible for reakening an old passion for the genre -- a lot of my happiest listening over the years has been to overture collections, first on LP, then on CD. We've actually heard a heap of them over the years, but now we're going to hear more. I was inspired finally to order available CD editions of some favorite albums and performances, which should be tumbling in shortly.


Well, I thought we'd hear one more selection from the Reeder overture archive -- the very first, Brahms's Academic Festival Overture, conducted by the younger John Barbirolli during his short and not very happy stint as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Maybe on rehearing I won't be so thrilled, but when I first listened to this performance I was thrilled. It struck me as just the sort of performance I was looking for -- serious enough to be genuinely ebullient -- back when I was scavenging my CDs for a post on the piece.

More about that post in a moment, but for now let's listen to the performance.

BRAHMS: Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80

New York Philharmonic, John Barbirolli, cond. American Columbia, recorded Nov. 16, 1940 (digital transfer by F. Reeder)

Just for kicks, let's listen to the version that (now) Sir John made in 1967 when EMI arranged for him to record the complete Brahms symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic -- an undertaking that sounded like such a splendid idea but turned out so uninterestingly.

BRAHMS: Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80

Vienna Philharmonic, Sir John Barbirolli, cond. EMI, recorded December 1967

Barbirolli's 1967 Academic Festival isn't awful, it just kind of plods, without much oomph. Did it say without much oomph? It has just about none. It makes it sound like Brahms, pressed to compose something to thank the University of Breslau for its award of an honorary doctorate in 1879, slapdashedly threw together some university-associated tunes, added some of his own and wrapped the whole thing in butcher paper for delivery. Which isn't the case at all. Even the tunes Brahms piilfered, or especially those, he transformed into something pulsing with life, something that perhaps nobody else could have imagined, and when he finally brought "Gaudeamus igitur" thundering in, in a way that ought to lift the listener out of his seat, he produced a climax that has to have made any good German academic on the receiving end think, "He likes us! He really likes us!"

For more kicks, let's take a listen to that Bernstein-Vienna Academic Festival I remember finding the best of the lot I auditioned.

BRAHMS: Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80

Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. DG, recorded live, Oct. 12, 1981

Well, yes, that's more like it. I don't say that the piece can't be made to work at Sir John's slowpoke tempos, but it's interesting that Lenny B, who was in his own slowpoky phase, didn't choose to try to do so. (Maybe we should listen to his 1963 NY Phil recording, which would be sort of symmetrical, seeing as how we've heard Sir John in his "youth" conducting the NY Phil -- but would there ever be any end to this?)

("The original embodiment of the free and easy student life")

About "Gaudeamus igitur"

"Gaudeamus" has been the traditional university student's song for two hundred years, and the tune is still played (and even sung along to, depending on the university) at graduation ceremonies today. Historically, it has also been the university student's traditional drinking song, and is regarded as the original embodiment of the free and easy student life.


Although "Gaudeamus" is regarded as being the oldest surviving student's song, claims that it was written as early as the 13th century are largely unfounded. A Latin manuscript dated 1267 does indeed contain the words to verses two and three of the modern "Gaudeamus" (as part of a poem entitled "Scribere Proposui"); however, it did not contain the words "Gaudeamus igitur" or, indeed, any of the modern first verse, and was set to music which bears no resemblance to the well-known modern melody.

The earliest known appearance of something close to the modern lyrics is in a hand-written student songbook from Germany dating between 1723 and 1750; these were picked up by C. W. Kindleben, but he made important changes to them before he published the resultant (modern) lyrics in his Studentlieder in 1781 (the German origins of the modern lyrics explain the rather un-Latin word "
antiburschius" in the seventh verse, which is "Latinized" German referring to student fraternities).

The melody, however, is of less certain origin; it was already quite well-known when C. W. Kindleben published his lyrics.

A 200-strong alumni-fortified cohort of the University of Illinois's Varsity Men's Glee Club under the direction of Dr. Barrington Coleman sings the first and last of the ten stanzas of "Gaudeamus igitur," text established by Christian Wilhelm Kindleben (1748-1785), in spring 2012 in celebration of the group's 125th anniversary. (The translation is from Karl Aloritas's Karl's Choral Web Page, where you'll find the complete text and oodles of information including the score of Karl's mixed-voices edition and complete music files, down to S, A, T, and B parts!)


Just because I can't find any trace of it, or any of the audio files I could swear I must have made for it -- I distinctly remember sort of settling, with distinct reservations, on Leonard Bernstein's Vienna Phil version -- doesn't mean that I didn't in fact do such a post. Well, maybe it does. Or it at least strongly suggests that this may be the case. Could it be that I was so disappointed with my findings that I said to heck with it, at least until I had the enegy to comb my LP holdings?

Who can know?

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