J. D. Salinger (1919 – 2010)

J. D. Salinger on Time Magazine September 15, 1961

J. D. Salinger, American author, who was born on January 1, 1919, died three days ago at his home in New Hampshire, at the age of 91.  (Have you noticed how long people are living nowadays?  Isn’t it great!)  Salinger’s reputation rests primarily on one novel, three novellas, and a handful of short stories, and while the literary world is holding its collective breath over the possibility of new posthumous works, Salinger’s status as one of the giants of American letters is secure, even if nothing new is ever forthcoming.

Salinger’s greatest strength as a writer was his ability to create flesh and blood characters, and infuse life into them.  I know of no other author whose characters come to life more vividly than his.  If I were asked to name just a few of his greatest creations, I would begin with Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, the title characters from Franny and Zooey, Seymour and Muriel Glass from A Perfect Day for Bananafish, and Boo Boo Tannenbaum from Down at the Dinghy.  I could go on and on, and it pains me not to mention a whole host of his minor characters, all of whom are drawn with unerring accuracy and attention to detail.  I must mention, however, the extraordinary success that Salinger achieved in his portrayals of children.  If you are familiar with his short stories, take another look at Sybil in Bananafish, at Lionel in Down at the Dinghy, and at Teddy and Booper in Teddy.  In his portrayals of children at least, Salinger’s achievements have not only never been exceeded, they are unequaled.

A key component of Salinger’s success in characterization was his uncanny ear for dialog.  If there is a writer’s equivalent of perfect pitch in a musician, Salinger had it in spades.  When his characters speak, we can see right into their souls.  We learn at least as much about them from how they speak as from what they say.

To illustrate this, I have reproduced below a short excerpt from A Perfect Day for Bananafish.  One of Salinger’s most compelling works, Bananafish is my idea of the perfect short story.  If you haven’t read it, you should run – not walk – to your nearest library or bookstore, pick up a copy of Nine Stories, and read the very first one.

A Perfect Day for Bananafish (excerpt)

There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through.  She used the time, though.  She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called “Sex Is Fun-or Hell.”  She washed her comb and brush.  She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit.  She moved the button on her Saks blouse.  She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole.  When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.

She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing.  She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.

With her little lacquer brush, while the phone was ringing, she went over the nail of her little finger, accentuating the line of the moon.  She then replaced the cap on the bottle of lacquer and, standing up, passed her left – the wet – hand back and forth through the air.  With her dry hand, she picked up a congested ashtray from the window seat and carried it with her over to the night table, on which the phone stood.  She sat down on one of the made-up twin beds and – it was the fifth or sixth ring – picked up the phone.

“Hello,” she said, keeping the fingers of her left hand outstretched and away from her white silk dressing gown, which was all that she was wearing, except mules – her rings were in the bathroom.

“I have your call to New York now, Mrs. Glass,” the operator said.

“Thank you,” said the girl, and made room on the night table for the ashtray.

A woman’s voice came through. “Muriel?  Is that you?”

The girl turned the receiver slightly away from her hear.  “Yes, Mother.  How are you?” she said.

“I’ve been worried to death about you.  Why haven’t you phoned?  Are you all right?”

“I tried to get you last night and the night before.  The phone here’s been – ”

“Are you all right, Muriel?”

The girl increased the angle between the receiver and her ear.  “I’m fine.  I’m hot.  This is the hottest day they’ve had in Florida in – ”

“Why haven’t you called me?  I’ve been worried to – ”

“Mother, darling, don’t yell at me.  I can hear you beautifully,” said the girl.  “I called you twice last night.  Once just after – ”

“I told your father you’d probably call last night.  But, no, he had to – Are you all right, Muriel?  Tell me the truth.”

“I’m fine.  Stop asking me that, please.”

“When did you get there?”

“I don’t know.  Wednesday morning, early.”

“Who drove?”

“He did,” said the girl.  “And don’t get excited.  He drove very nicely.  I was amazed.”

He drove?  Muriel, you gave me your word of – ”

“Mother,” the girl interrupted, “I just told you.  He drove very nicely.  Under fifty the whole way, as a matter of fact.”

“Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?”

“I said he drove very nicely, Mother.  Now, please.  I asked him to stay close to the white line, and all, and he knew what I meant, and he did.  He was even trying not to look at the trees – you could tell.  Did Daddy get the car fixed, incidentally?”

“Not yet.  They want four hundred dollars, just to – ”

“Mother, Seymour told Daddy that he’d pay for it.  There’s no reason for – ”

“Well, we’ll see.  How did he behave – in the car and all?”

“All right,” said the girl.

“Did he keep calling you that awful – ”

“No.  He has something new now.”


“Oh, what’s the difference, Mother?”

“Muriel, I want to know.  Your father – ”

“All right, all right.  He calls me Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948,” the girl said, and giggled…

Isn’t that amazing? Don’t you feel like you know these people, after just a few minutes of dialog?  This is Salinger’s great gift: He creates real people.  Characterization is far more important to him than plot, which serves primarily as a means for him to delve into his characters.  We, the readers, feel that we know them.  Within a few lines, their issues, their lives, become important to us, and we care about them.

If you are unfamiliar with Salinger, I would begin with The Catcher in the Rye. It is a classic, and mandatory reading for everyone.  Then I would pick up his volume of Nine Stories, and read A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Down at the Dinghy, and Teddy.  For your next course, read Franny and Zooey, and if you still hunger for more, read Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour – An Introduction and the rest of the Nine Stories.  You may get hooked on Salinger, but you will never regret a single minute of the time you spend with him.

Derrick Robinson

Earl Wild (1915 – 2010)

It was with sadness that I learned today of the death of pianist Earl Wild, who died at the age of 94 on Saturday, January 23 at his home in Palm Springs, California.  Although I have known of Earl Wild for years, and enjoyed his arrangements of several Gershwin songs, it was only recently that I gained an appreciation for the breadth and depth of his achievements.   He was a classical pianist of enviable taste and technique, at home in an astonishing variety of musical styles and eras.  He was a composer as well, famous for his piano transcriptions of songs as different as those of Gershwin and Rachmaninoff.

His career was remarkable as much for its longevity as its diversity.  He was born in Pittsburgh on November 26, 1915, and began giving recitals in 1928 at the age of 12.  To put that into historical perspective, that was just one year after Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in one season, and one year before the onset of the Great Depression!  He gave his final concert at age 92 in February 2008, drawing to a close a career that had spanned 80 years.

It was just three weeks ago that I featured Earl Wild on this blog in a performance of “Danse” by Debussy, a tribute that was by no means intended as a memorial.  Here, from that same recital, is a performance of Chopin’s brilliant Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor.  After such a performance – and such a career – what is left to say but, “Bravo!”

Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 8:59 am  Comments (1)  
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Sergei Prokofiev: Sonata No. 6 in A major Pianist – Boris Feiner

Sergei Prokofiev on the cover of Time Magazine, November 19, 1945

If some beneficent genie were to grant me the ability to play any three sonatas of my choosing, the sixth sonata by Prokofiev would have to be one of the three.  The first of Prokofiev’s three “War Sonatas”, the 6th was composed in 1939-1940, and given its first performance on April 8, 1940 with the composer at the piano.  I heard it for the first time in 1965, in a recital by Van Cliburn, who later released it – together with the sonata by Samuel Barber – on an RCA record appropriately titled “Two 20th-Century Masterpieces”.  In the liner notes to that album, Edward Jablonski writes, “One of his most majestic compositions, [the Sixth] is typically Prokofievian in the grandeur of the first movement, the wit of the second, the wistful beauty of the third and the propulsive drive of the finale.”

The pianist in this recording is Boris Feiner, whom we met earlier this month in a recording of Debussy’s “Pour le Piano”.  In an unusual co-mingling of performances, Mr. Feiner elected to upload video of the first two movements from a recital in Bad Bergzabern, Germany on September 29, 2006, and the third and fourth from a recital five days earlier, in Rheinsberg.

Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 8:27 am  Leave a Comment  
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Claude Debussy: Two Pieces for Piano

“L’Isle Joyeuse” – Sae Lee, Piano

“L’Isle Joyeuse” (The Joyous Isle) and “Danse” by Claude Debussy have been two of my favorite piano pieces for many years.  I first became acquainted with them in high school through an old Angel Records recording by the incomparable Walter Gieseking, much of which is available on YouTube, but without any video of the pianist.

Sae Lee was born in Osaka, Japan and began her musical studies at the age of four.  We learn from her website (www.sae-lee.com) that she pursued her piano studies in Tokyo and Paris, and was the first-prize winner at numerous competitions.  In addition to her work as a solo artist, she currently performs regularly with saxophone player Miha Rogina in the chamber ensemble “Duo Kalypso”.

“Danse” – Earl Wild, Piano

The legendary pianist Earl Wild was born on November 26, 1915.  A veteran of the concert hall by the age of 19, he was still giving recitals in 2005 at age 90.  In addition to being a virtuoso pianist, he is a composer and has made numerous piano transcriptions of works by other composers.

In this video, Wild plays a piece by Debussy sometimes called “Tarantelle Styrienne”, but more commonly known simply as “Danse”.

Published in: on January 7, 2010 at 3:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Claude Debussy: Suite “Pour le Piano” Pianist – Boris Feiner

As Elizabeth Middleton mentioned in the email quoted in the previous post, many classical music radio stations across the country have disappeared.  Here in Seattle, however, we are fortunate to have KING-FM broadcasting twenty-four hours a day at 98.1 on the FM dial.  I’m a regular listener to KING-FM, particularly when I’m in my car.  Although they consistently program more baroque (and less 20th-century) music than I would like, and persist in an annoying veneration of Mozart, I have nevertheless spent hundreds of hours over the years listening to KING-FM, and have been introduced to many pieces of music that have become favorites of mine.

The following video presents one of those favorites.  I was out running errands recently, with my car radio tuned as always to 98.1, when Debussy’s suite “Pour le Piano” came over the air, in a dazzling performance by French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.  I was captivated with the piece, and immediately made plans to feature it on this blog.  Although I couldn’t find a performance by Bavouzet on YouTube, I did find this wonderful performance featuring the Israeli pianist, Boris Feiner.

Born in 1981 in Kiev, Boris Feiner began studying piano at age 7.  He moved to Israel in 1991 and to Germany in 2004.  This recording was made in Bad Bergzabern on October 17, 2008.

If your local classical radio station is one of those that have ceased broadcasting, you can still enjoy KING-FM over the internet at www.king.org.

Published in: on January 6, 2010 at 7:33 am  Comments (3)  
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