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Good Vexations?

Erik Satie, French composer, who lived from 1866 to 1925 (Gallica Digital Library/Wikimedia)

You’ve heard of “Good Vibrations.” Could you go for good vexations, or is that a contradiction in terms? Erik Satie, the French composer (1866–1925), wrote a little piece for piano called “Vexations.” It’s about a half a page long. A couple of weekends ago, it took Igor Levit about 15 and a half hours to play it.

What the . . .?

The composer directed that his little piece be played 840 times — in a row. Why? Who would ever do it? Who would ever listen to it? Here we enter the realm of the psychological . . .

I discuss this in my new episode of Music for a While. What else is on the menu? An American song, written in the 1940s, dearly loved of Sir Bryn Terfel, the Welsh bass-baritone. It’s “If I Can Help Somebody,” the best-known composition of Alma Bazel Androzzo. She was born in Tennessee, brought up in Philadelphia. Many, many singers have recorded this marvelous song over the years, including Gracie Fields, Mahalia Jackson, Billy Eckstine — and Terfel.

What kind of song is it? A hymn. Or a gospel song. Or a gospel song with a folk element to it. Or a song that can be rendered pop-like. In any event, “it’s a song,” as I say in my podcast.

I also have some Penderecki, paying tribute to that late composer. (He died in March.) I had a brief talk with him several years ago, in a concert hall, immediately after a premiere of his: La Follia, for solo violin. Brilliant piece, and brilliant man.

What else? Well, a lot else, but I end with Berceuse, or Lullaby, which Busoni wrote in 1909, in memory of his mother. Kind of extraordinary, right? To write a lullaby in memory of your mother. He was extraordinary all the way around, Busoni.

At the outset of this new episode, I say, “Got a real smorgasbord for you — even more than usual. An almost wacky variety.” True. Again, here.

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