August 29, 2015 Leave a comment
Here’s a great article on the Indonesian Gamelan’s influence on Debussy. I’ve written the same topic here (Gamelan) and here (Debussy’s Estampes).
( A love affair with music)
August 29, 2015 Leave a comment
Here’s a great article on the Indonesian Gamelan’s influence on Debussy. I’ve written the same topic here (Gamelan) and here (Debussy’s Estampes).
August 27, 2015 Leave a comment
Great, thoughtful, informative post about this piece and the historical context in which Beethoven birthed it.
Originally posted on History Of The Music:
Ludwig Van Beethoven
If I recall correctly, the tale goes somewhat like this:
Beethoven was chatting with his comrades in his home when one of the other men informs the maestro that Napoleon Bonaparte has just crowned himself Emperor of France. Heretofore Napoleon had represented to the revolutionary people of Europe–of which Beethoven was most definitely one–the heroic paradigm, the model of a man for the common people who were striving to rise about levels that had, for so many centuries, been socially and legally impossible for them to breach. Napoleon had done this–breached those bounds–but in so doing, he had elevated himself–and his wife–above all others, again creating a massive gap between the people and their governance.
Incensed, as the story goes, Beethoven stormed over to his recently completed score of his third Symphony, the Napoleon, snatched the dedication page and tore it to shreds, all the while…
View original 1,163 more words
August 20, 2015 16 Comments
Few works of classical music can make you laugh. Opera seems particularly ill-visited by the comic muse. Think of Tosca throwing herself of a parapet; Mimi dying of consumption; and Pagliacci stabbing his wife in a jealous rage. Not necessarily what I would call knee-slapping stuff. Even comic opera like The Barber of Seville doesn’t really make me dissolve in howls of laughter. But there is one aria from Die Zauberflote that does.
The opera opens with a dragon in hot pursuit of the Egyptian prince, Tamino. He swoons in fear, but just then, three ladies, the minions of the Queen of the Night, come to his rescue and slay the dragon. As noted in my previous post, Papageno then enters singing his aria, “Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja” (I am the, walrus, sorry “bird catcher”). The singing wakes Tamino, who asks if it was Papageno who saved his life. Papageno says yes, but the three ladies yell at him and for his impertinent lie, and lock his mouth shut.
There follows a hilarious duet between Tamino and Papageno, which, by dint of his condition, Papageno must hum. That piece still makes me laugh, even after 40 years.
Just why did that aria tickle my fancy so much? Probably in Mozart’s time period, people still believed in dragons and magic, so the previous scene with the dragon might have actually seemed frightening to Mozart’s audience. To relieve the stress, Mozart introduces a clown to lighten things up. I was wondering what role a willing suspension of disbelief might play in this. All opera requires this, because who in real life ever sings what’s on their mind unless they be aphasic? Maybe it’s the irony that for once a character in an opera can’t sing, and making him hum a duet despite that is funny. Good clean fun.
What this makes me realize, however, was how my sense of humor started to change as a result of living in the French House at Indiana University in the 1970s. I now wonder if the change was for the better. Until then my sense of humor had been fairly benign. I loved slapstick and corny jokes as a boy. In middle school we studied satire and sarcasm, but the intent was to poke fun of pompous authority figures. At the French House, among my highly vocal and articulate dorm mates, the two preferred forms of humor were wit and putdown, as is often the case with cliques. At the same time, because we were studying French, we all became obsessed with the concept of decadence, i.e., leading a voluptuous and sensual existence. Usually that gets translated into alcohol use and abuse, which tends to sap one’s creativity. The result was that many of us became cynical, lost our nerve, and abandoned our dreams. The clique often couldn’t deal with those who had clear goals and often these became the object of our ridicule or scorn.
I think of one of our dorm mates. He was a gifted singer, a baritone originally, who had discovered that by singing in falsetto, he had a perfect counter-tenor voice. He was active with the early music consort, and I went to see him once in a performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Since he didn’t actively seek to ingratiate himself with our clique, they sniped at him, and he didn’t seem too bothered by it. His name was Drew Minter and he went on to have an international career as a counter tenor.
I’m kind of torn up about this now. The French House was the first place I ever felt accepted for my interests by more than just one or two people. If one lacks a strong sense of self, as was my case at the time, one will gravitate and accept the values of the group that offers acceptance. Now I realize that in identifying with the group of people at the French House I did just that. So perhaps it’s time to let go of that. I am thankful for having met them all. They taught me so much. But in the words of some sage, “when your memories become more real than your dreams, the end is near.”
So since then, I tried to remain objective and non-judgmental of other groups. I’ve also tried to avoid participation in groups that tend to set themselves up as different or better than others–especially cultural or social groups.
Here’s a bio of Drew Minter and him performing Handel’s Vaghe fonti (Arioso di Ottone) from Agrippina.
August 16, 2015 10 Comments
When compiling the list of pieces I used to listen to as a child, some subconscious part of me made me leave out The Grand Canyon Suite. “It’s not serious, or classical music,” I heard a voice inside saying. As a child, however, I often played the recording of it that belonged to my older brother, Bob, on the days when I’d sneak into his room while he was at work.
The Grand Canyon Suite is a highly imagistic piece of music. Grofé tried to capture the majesty of the striated canyon as the light gradually reveals the dazzling colors at sunrise. In another section, he imitates the clopping of donkey hooves transporting tourists down into the canyon floor. Grofé then shamelessly uses the violins to imitate the bray of the asses as they lose their grip and then grind to a stubborn halt. You know how it goes: every filmmaker has used that technique in every documentary and cowboy western film. Still, I wonder, what lay behind my ignoring the piece?
Looking Grofé up in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, I find an entry for the composer. Well, if the musical Dons at Oxford thought him serious enough to include in their book, why should I turn my nose up at him? Also, while researching this piece, I learned that he was quite an accomplished musician, having orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Grofé’s entry also says the composer wrote The Grand Canyon Suite in 1931, which means he probably wasn’t the first composers to imitate animals. Let’s see: I think, Saint-Saens has braying assess in Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev, born just one year before Grofé, imitated a wolf, a duck, and a twittering bird in Peter and the Wolf. All of this occurred in the infant stages of film, and television and Walt Disney’s anthropomorphic animal documentaries were just a twinkling in a cartoonist’s eye. So it’s not really Grofé to blame for making this device hackneyed, it was Hollywood film or New York TV executives.
There must be more to my negative associations with this piece than just TV, and while thinking about my last couple entries, the answer suddenly popped out at me. Snobbism and ignorance. I mentioned earlier that a certain highly intellectual family I hung out with in high school weren’t really snobby people. Mind you, they could spot bad taste more quickly than anyone I’ve met. Yet, they did not look down their nose at the perpetrators of kitch. They usually just laughed at it or attributed it to greed.
In retrospect my actions become clear: in my desire to be “cultured” and an “intellectual” I divided the world into cultured and non-cultured, and labeled the one “good” and the other “bad.” Though my origin is definitely working class, I put on airs. Why? Why does anyone? To be liked? Respected? Popular? It’s now painfully clear that I drew the wrong conclusions about culture that the this family exposed me to. What the harm? The answer is “missing quite enjoyable experiences that some people label ‘popular.'”
Fortunately, life always give you a second chance when you make a mistake. While driving home from my daughter’s violin lesson when she was in her teens, the local public radio station playedThe Grand Canyon Suite. Instead of switching it off, I left it on for her to hear, so she could form her own opinion. I listened as if for the first time, and then I realized this piece was an old friend, and it was still fresh and vibrant for me. So here’s to Ferde Grofé and second chances.
August 13, 2015 2 Comments
Unlike most fans of classical music, I don’t necessarily compare performers and performances. Usually, whatever recording was the first I heard becomes the definitive performance for me. Of course there were exceptions: I listened to about 10 versions of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony-by Walter, Solti, Szell, Bernstein, Toscanini and others-before finally choosing one by Karajan. And that wasn’t for any profound reason; I just happened to prefer it because I could hear the oboe and English horn passage in the second movement more clearly than any of the others.
The definitive performance of Carmina Burana for me is the one with Michael Tilson Thomas, in which the soprano, Judith Blegen sings the arias mentioned in the title of today’s post. This recording was one of the first ever done in quadraphonic sound, and so they spared no expense to making it a blockbuster. They had a chorus of 250 singers and used some of the best soloists of the day. On the liner notes it says that Blegen was a regular at the Met during this time period, and she was so good that all they needed was one take. The aria, “Amor Volat Unique” (love flies everywhere), requires the soprano to hold a note for a full 30 seconds. For a long time, Blegen’s was the only recording I heard in which the singer could sustain the note for that long. In some recordings, the sopranos actually took a breath midway through. Unfortunately, this version has been removed from Youtube.
“Amor volat unique” has to be one of the most beautiful songs on the album. It starts with a musical interlude in which flutes waft along playing a melody that the soprano will sing at the end. A boys’ chorus then chimes in and with cherubic delivery sing about the rightness of young men and women joining together. Then comes that chillingly beautiful soprano solo:
“If a girl lacks a man
she misses all delight;
darkest night is at the bottom
of her heart.
This is the bitterest fate.
Blegen’s performance still sends shivers down my spine, these 30+ years later. The second soprano solo is called “Stetit Puella”.
The poetry has an almost Haiku-like simplicity, but it captures perfectly the feeling of being dumbstruck by love:
There stood a maid
in a red tunic;
when it was touched
the tunic rustled.
There stood a girl,
like a rose;
her face was radiant;
her mouth bloomed.
Sometimes, however, you can get burned even by a good orchestra and performer. When I lived in Italy five years after first hearing Carmina Burana, my girlfriend bought a copy on Deutsche Gramophon with Eugen Joachum conducting and Gundula Janowitz singing. Not only did Janowitz break the note into two with a huge breath, on the aria, “Dulcissime” where the soprano has to slide up to an impossibly high note, her voice actually cracked. It sounded like a cross between a squawk and a scream.
Here’s Kathleen Battle singing “Dulcissime” another piece that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Depending on your point of view, Carmina Burana may or may not be the perfect music for an adolescent virgin male to listen to in the Spring. Back then (circa 1975 at the ripe age of 20) I found the songs devoted to love quite poignant and used to just sit around listening to them and dissolve into self-pity. I wonder now at how I could have missed the exhortation in the words to just go out and get on with it. There I was living in a dorm among women who shared similar tastes in music, art and literature, and I was still too tongue-tied to do anything about it. Perhaps it goes back to having formed a warped notion of Romantic love from reading too much Dostoyevsky. Remember, a number of his women characters are fallen women, whom the protagonist worships from afar and sees the means to salvation.
They really should teach you how to fall in love high school.
August 9, 2015 1 Comment
Today I answer the question my daughter posed in 1999 and which sowed the seed for this web site. We were on the way to her weekly violin lesson, and as always I had tuned the car radio to the local classical music station. Some piece came on and I started whistling along. Claire, age twelve, said to me: “Daddy. What is your favorite piece of music?” Without hesitation I can now say that the one piece to which I consistently turn—for solace, joy, intellectual stimulation, or just plain fun—is Stravinsky’s Petrushka.
Most musicologists will say that Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring has had more influence on the direction of 20th Century music than any other piece written. However, I find Petrushka much more satisfying because it stands perfectly balanced between the classical tradition out of which Stravinsky came and the new one—containing complex rhythms and harmonies—which he helped create. To me, Stravinsky’s musical work reminds me of many of the visual artists, like Monet and Cezanne, who started out classically trained, moved through impressionism and then virtually invented abstract art—Monet in color and Cezanne in form.
Stravinsky had begun Petrushka as a concert piece for piano and orchestra. He took it to the impresario of the Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev, who had produced the Firebird. Diaghilev told him to turn in into a ballet because of the success of the earlier work. The ballet revolves around a menage a trois between three puppets―Petrushka, a ballerina and a Moor. Stravinsky had been inspired by the image of a puppet, “suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet.”
Here’s a 1928 recording with Stravinsky conducting himself:
Petrushka is divided into five sections, one for each scene. The first and the last scene are set during the Russian Mardi Gras, during the Shrove Tide Fair. Stravinsky captures perfectly the excitement a child feels at the sights and sounds of a fair. He starts out with a bright bubbly introduction: flutes, strings and harp bounce along at a rapid pace like butterflies flashing in the sun. All of a sudden, the string basses rush in and play a syncopated rhythm that takes control. The full orchestra joins in and plays in this vein, from time to time punctuated with a blast from a trumpet or flute. Then the piece changes rhythm again as the entire orchestra joins in building to a climax before it abruptly stops. Then Stravinsky starts it all over again but on the second pass he brings everything rushing to a halt on the shoulders of the tympanis playing like tom-toms.
According to Ted Libbey in his book, The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection during this first section, “two bars of superimposed 3/4 and 7/8 are followed by two bars of 2/4 and 5/8 and one of 3/4 and 8/8.” These complex rhythms set up such a feeling of energy and ebullience that I never tire of hearing it.
Unlike The Rites of Spring where one passage flows into the next, each scene, save one, is divided into discrete subsections with rhythms and feelings of their own. The third movement, for example, called “The Charlatan’s Booth,” starts out with an ominous bassoon and drum that leads us through the dark folds of a tent and into the inner sanctum. There the flute plays a wistful melody that has a hint of magic to it. Shimmering violins add to the effect. Stravinsky then launches into an amazing Russian Dance, which he based on a folk song that he had his mentor, Rimsky-Korsakov, sent him while he was composing the piece. The staccato rhythm of this dance backed by the bright clear orchestration makes this one of the most joyous pieces I know of.
Stravinsky did a large part of his composing at the piano. Odd then that he did not write a piano concerto. Instead he treated the instrument as an integral part of the orchestra. This shows in the scene called “Petrushka’s Room.” Here Stravinsky uses the piano sometimes as a percussion instrument and at others to create a haunting feeling that seems to evoke the strings of a puppet. This piece is where Petrushka has his little fight with the orchestra, especially the mocking trumpets. This I think is the pivotal movement of the whole piece in which Stravinsky sets up a “mano a mano” between the old tradition of tonality with the new that he invents in this piece. He creates haunting and jarring chords by having trumpets and other instruments plays at intervals of fifths and sevenths. He later said this is some of the writing of which he was the proudest.
Here is a piano version of three scenes from Petrushka that I find astounding:
For me this piece holds so many associations for me with the bucolic atmosphere of Indiana University where I went to college. Every day to get to Ballentine hall, where most of my language and literature courses took place, I would walk past the school of music. The road ran past the school’s huge circular annex, which was given over to sound proof practice rooms. Starting in spring when it became warm enough, the students practicing inside would throw open the windows and I would be serenaded every day. One piece that I often heard came from the third scene of Petrushka, which takes place in the Moor’s room. The piece is called “Dance of the Ballerina.”
Petrushka loves the ballerina, but given that she’s in the Moor’s room, we know Petrushka is the odd man out. The ballerina’s dance is oddly masculine and martial—it consists of 45 seconds of a trumpet solo. And it was this trumpet solo that I remember hearing on many occasions on my walks past the school of music. It must be a set audition piece for all trumpet players.
To mark the beginning of the last scene, the return to the Shrove Tide Fair, Stravinsky uses the roll of the tympanis once again. There follow a series of dances for various characters. After a wonderful lush soaring introduction, he moves into the “Dance of the Nursemaids,” which I think is one of my all-time favorite melodies by Stravinsky. I think of a wonderful Russian snow scape at night with a troika slushing along. But by the end, Stravinsky has changed the mood once again to a sparkling sunny day. Suddenly Stravinsky changes the rhythm to a lumbering one accompanied by a mocking clarinet, which captures the ridiculous sight of a peasant and a bear dancing together. The “Dance of the Gypsy Girls” is fiery and exotic. It is followed by the “Dance of Coachmen and Grooms” who skip along in a kind of stately but comic way. The second to last piece is called “The Masqueraders” and contains a lot of brass that convey a sense of confusion, urgency and anxiety. Stravinsky brings back the opening theme, but gives it a sort of American Indian feeling to it. Before long, we realize something is amiss. The Moor kills Petrushka. In the last scene Stravinsky conveys the feeling of night with quiet, but shimmering violins and a wary clarinet. Petrushka dies, yet he raises from the dead and dances above the Shrove Tide Fair shaking his angry fist at the lovers and having the last laugh, which a pair of trumpets play in different keys.
Here’s the finale:
For me, the mix of the old and the new, the innovation, the depth of emotion, and the all-encompassing nature of this work clearly shows Stravinski’s genius and listening to it once again makes me certain that it belongs at the top of my list of all time favorites.
August 6, 2015 5 Comments
I’ve been writing a lot lately about pieces that have watery themes. Bach certainly did not have water on the brain when he penned this minuet, but in the 60s the tune was used in a Motown pop record. A woman with a strong, gospel-trained voice belted out the words, which went something like “How gentle is the rain…”
It’s not hard to imagine how this melody got to Detroit. In 1994, my daughter started violin lessons. Her teacher used the Suzuki books, which have graded pieces. The Minuet in G major is one of the last ones in the first book. It also happens to be one of the first pieces in the key of G, which on the violin requires different fingering than what you’ve been blithely playing for nearly a year.
In the key of A, starting on the third string, you play open string, put the first finger down for B and then play C and D with the second and third fingers–all three being equally spaced. On the G scale, however–which starts with the third finger on the second string–when you get to the A string, you put the first finger down like you’ve always done, but to play B you suddenly put the second finger down right next to the first! All major scales go whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. The hard thing on the violin is that there are no frets to represent whole and half steps. The piano is luxurious in a way because the placement of the keys and the black keys clearly show which are whole and half.
The minuet was a French country dance that became very popular in the 17th century and which was eventually formalized by composers as an integral part of the suite. Eventually as suites migrated and changed into symphonies, the minuet movement developed into the scherzo. As a simple dance form, it had a three-beat rhythm, like a waltz. It is a good piece for beginners because the strong beat helps you remember it.
Bach had two wives and 20 children! Four of his sons became famous composers in their own right. Their household must have been something. You think: a prototype for the Von Trap family. When I looked online for this piece, I found it buried in what is called the “The Anna Magdalena Notebooks.” He wrote these to teach his second wife, Anna Magdalena, how to play. Poor lady. Imagine having to bear that many children and then sit down to tickle the ivories. I had trouble finding time to have quality time with my two daughters when they were little! How did Anna Magdalena do it? Recently, I heard that after Anna Magdalena raised those children, they abandoned her and she died penniless.