July 9, birthday of Ottorino Respighi and Dean Goffin

Dean Goffin (1916-1984) is probably my favorite composer from New Zealand. That was a trick answer: I don’t of any others, though, I’ve been to Auckland and probably should have made and attempt to research some before my trip. Wikipedia lists him as being the first “prolific” Salvation Army band composer as opposed, I guess, to those lazy non-prolific ones. He wrote lots for the Salvation Army band, and also for non-Army orchestras.

Goffin: Rhapsody in Brass


I don’t think it’s necessary to say much about Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), since he’s very well known.  We think of him for his “Rome” works (Pines, Fountains), but here’s a nice piece for piano

Notturno for piano (1904)

July 8, birthday of Percy Grainger: Free Music No. 1 (For Four Theremins) [1936]

Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882 – 1961) is probably best known as a champion of English folk songs, many of which he arranged for orchestra.  That’s all I really knew about him and it didn’t surprise me to learn he was friends with Delius and Grieg.  What did surprise me, however, was that he was a bit of an innovator, even writing pieces for the theremin, which you will know from 1950s and 60s sci-fi films like “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

Free Music No. 1 (For Four Theremins) [1936]

July 5, birthday of Joseph Holbrooke: Trio in D, Op. 28

Another “new” composer, for me at least, Joseph Holbrooke (1878-1958), received a traditional musical education from his father, a violent widower, and later at the Royal Academy of Music. He tried making it as a teacher, a music hall accompanist, and a Pantomime orchestra conductor. None were successful, and he had to return home a number of times or be supported by a benefactor. He loved Edgar Allen Poe’s works, and the second piece here, “Amontillado, Op. 123” is quite interesting.

Trio in D, Op. 28


July 4, birthday of Irving Caesar, “Tea For Two”

Irving Caesar (1895 – 1996) was a prolific American songwriter. He grew up in the same neighborhood (and was friends with) the Marx Brothers, and he wrote songs with George Gershwin and Victor Herbert among other, primarily for Broadway shows. Other songs include:

Tea For Two

July 1, birthday of Hans Werner Henze: Second Sonata on Shakespearean Characters

Hans Werner Henze (1926 – 2012) was born in Gütersloh, Westphalia.  His father was a World War I veteran injured in the Battle of Verdun. The father recognized the boys musical talents and provided the boy with a musical education.  But running up to WWI, his father became a Nazi and re-enlisted in the German Army, where, in 1943, he was killed on the Eastern Front.  Hans was sent to Hitler Youth camps, and later became a radio operator before being captured by the British in 1944.  After the war, he fled Germany to Italy in 1953 because of German intolerance of homosexuality.  There, in the town of Marino he flourished as a composer, and his political view became increasingly leftist.  He tried a stint in Cuba, but became disillusioned with Castro.  He was influenced by Stravinski, serialism, atonality, jazz and Arabic music.  You can hear the Stravinski in his “Elegy for Young Lovers.”

Second Sonata on Shakespearean Characters

Tristan (1973) – Preludes for piano, tape and orchestra

Elegy for Young Lovers

Thomas Tallis: Tallis – Spem in alium

Spem in Alium first burst into my brain some 30 years ago. Someone in Britain made a depressing short film about a middle aged man, whose wife dies and sad to be alone, decides to commit suicide.  He checks into a hotel intending to down some booze and pills.  He’s interrupted by a beautiful blonde woman who is also depressed and is going to commit suicide.  The man tells the woman she must live, that life is too precious, and convinces her not to kill herself.  That does the trick.  Happy with himself that he did this life affirming act, he goes back into the room and drinks the liquor and pops the tablets.  The camera pulls away showing him lying there, a serene look on his face, with Spem in Alium playing welling up.

Even though as a young man discovering new works of classical music, I used to have elaborate fantasies of running through fields or meeting some beautiful woman, these days I cringe whenever I see someone’s attempt to paint a visual picture of a work of music.  Stravinsky hated this as well, but that’s because Walt Disney used The Rites of Spring in Fantasia and did not pay the composer any royalties.

When I hear Spem in Alium, the movie still flashes briefly before my mind’s eye, but I quick dispel it picturing instead a choir of singers.

I once heard a vapid classical music host on a Washington, DC, radio station describe Spem in Alium as “a big, big piece of work.”  I wonder if he loves Wagner’s operas for the same reason.

It is an eight-voice motet, which is often performed by 5 sets of 8 voices making up a choir of 40 voices. It was reportedly composed for the first birthday of Queen Elizabeth the First, but according to Wikipedia, there’s a letter from 1611 that describes its composition:

“In Queen Elizabeth’s time yeere was a songe sen[t] into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned ye name to be called ye Apices of the world) wch beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of — bearinge a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe, and Tallice beinge very skilfull was felt to try whether he would undertake ye matter, wch he did and made one of 40 partes wch was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house, wch so farre surpassed ye other that the Duke, hearinge yt songe, tooke his chayne of Gold from his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke and gave yt him.”

While searching for some recordings of it to share with you, I see that Spem was used for the soundtrack to “50 Shades of Gray,” a film about Bondage.  Some people just can’t leave well enough alone.

Below are some different recordings including a non-choral one by the Kronos Quartet.  I’d be interested in hearing which you like the best.

Harry Christophers


Tallis Scholars


Taverner Choir: Alan Wilson, Taverner Choir, Andrew Parrott, Bud Owens, Paul Nicholson


Kronos Quartet

Summer Reruns–Igor Stravinsky, Petrushka

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.


MP3: Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, The Firebird & Apollo

Igor Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks Concerto

I’m including this work by my hero, Stravinsky today, which happened to be on the flip side of the work I discussed in my previous post–Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Stravinsky wrote this piece in 1938 on a commission from the Bliss family in Washington, DC.

The Bliss family built a huge mansion above Georgetown in Washington, DC.  Now called Dumbarton Oaks, it sits on a wonderful piece of land which they had landscaped with Italian and English gardens containing arbors, topiary, fountains and a wonderful conservatory. They furnished their mansion with bits and pieces of plundered European castles and villas. In addition, the family also collected Byzantine, pre-Columbian and Greek and Roman objects. Among their treasures was what has turned out to be the best collections of Byzantine coins in the world. They willed their estate to Harvard University, who turned it into a center of study for Byzantine and Pre-Columbian scholarship.

Commissioned by the Bliss family, Stravinsky wrote Dumbarton Oaks Concerto at the height of what is called his “neo-classical” period. After composing his revolutionary ballets Petrushka and Rite of Spring, which revolutionized notions of harmony, rhythm and orchestration, Stravinsky returned to more traditional forms. He felt a certain affinity toward Bach, having been drawn to that composer by his own teacher Rimsky-Korsakov who taught him counterpoint. Though he imitates parts of the traditional concerto form (pre-solo instruments), he manages to blend in his own unique sense of rhythm and impressionistic coloring that in parts reminds me of his earlier ballets. This is a quaint piece, extremely listenable, and a nice addition to any classical library.

I have a special place in my heart for Dumbarton Oaks. I first learned of the place when I lived in the French House from 1975- 1976. One of the guys who lived there majored in art history and concentrated on the Byzantine era. He regaled us with stories about the Emperor Justinian and the depraved Empress Theodora. But what really caught my fancy was the high art form to which the Byzantine artisans had taken mosaics. They covered entire walls, the inside of domes, and every available surface with shimmering and vibrant tiny pieces of cut glass. The themes were religious and naturalistic and are amazing.

When I lived in Italy several years later, I made a special point of visiting the city of Ravenna, which was a major Byzantine port, which has scores of churches, tombs and monuments containing mosaics. You can still go there to learn the craft of mosaic making. I stopped by one on my visit and saw the students taking long rods of colored glass and with a special, bladed hammer and anvil chop off piece of glass, called tessera, that they would use to “paint” their pictures of glass.

I’m happy now that I live just about a mile from Dumbarton Oaks and from time to time, when I need refueling I go and wander around the museum, looking at amazing works from long ago.

Download MP3s or buy CD of Stravinsky: ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ Concerto

Wikipedia Entry

Igor Stravinsky Le Renard

Stravinsky remains one of my favorite composers. I’ve already written about his L’Histoire Du Soldat, which was a kind of “commedia dell’arte” play set to his music. After that he wrote two more pieces like this, Les Noces, and today’s piece, Le Renard.

Le Renard is what you might call a “challenging” work that requires a certain amount of concentration. For example, I wouldn’t recommend downloading it to your ipod to accompany your roller-blading.  However, it dates from around the same time as L’Histoire and was also a collaboration with C.F. Ramuz, the Swiss writer.

Stravinsky had spent summers with his family in Switzerland starting 1910, and took up residency there when the borders were closed closed at the start of WWI.  During the war, he struggled to make a living and remained there until 1920.

The play, commissioned in Switzerland during 1916, was seen as a satire of Russian army and the church.  It is based on a mediaeval Russian folktale about a rooster, ram and cat that outwit a fox. He wrote it for a small ensemble and it was novel for the time, combining acrobatic dance with operatic singing.  The role of the rooster is given to a tenor or counter tenor and his warning song is somewhat dissonant and shrill.

I like the piece, however, because Stravinsky used a cymbalom, an instrument akin to a hammered dulcimer, which is used in Eastern European and Asian music. It figures prominently in Hungarian music and whenever I hear it, something stirs deep down in my bones.  Maybe it’s my Magyar heritage.

Buy CD or Download MP3s of Stravinsky’s “Le Renard”

Wikipedia Entry for “Le Renard”

Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird

My older brother, Ken, had a girlfriend back in grade school, named Donna. She went on to marry Ken’s best friend, and then Ken married Donna’s best friend Carolyn. Donna major in English, because she loved to read. Whenever she found an author who appealed to her, she would methodically read every one of his or her books. She worked her way through all of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner.

I respected her approach, but being a Gemini myself, I have been unable to follow that route either with authors or composers. I’m much too easily distracted by the latest sight, sound, taste and have spent my life, jumping from one interest to another. This is the way of the dilettante, and though it’s too late to change my ways, I wouldn’t if I could. It has served me well.

My one exception to dilettantism in the world of music, however, has been Igor Stravinsky. After I discovered Rite of Spring and Petrushka I started to check out and buy anything by Stravinsky that I could. I still listened to other composers, of course, but I always returned–and still do, by the way–to Igor’s music.  It’s worth doing.  Everyone knows his big ballet works, but once I heard a snippet from his opera, A Rake’s Progress, which I had never hear before, that was so lovely that it almost melted my heart.

The third piece of Stravinsky, that I devoted some time to was his probably most well-known piece,The Firebird. This was his first ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris. Since it predates Rite of Spring and Petrushka it lies closer to the Russian school out of which Stravinsky came.  (He studied under Rimsky-Korsakov.) In The Firebird for example, you can hear echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Great Gate of Kiev” from Pictures at an Exhibition. At the same time, it is much more melodic, owing to the influence of Tchaikowsky. Finally, the lush and shimmering orchestration reminds me of the Impressionists, Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky’s near immediate elders in Paris.

This piece makes me think of a quote by Stravinsky: “all great composers steal.” Now I don’t know whether I’d call this work plagiarism. Rather, I’d say he was such a genius that he had completely mastered the artistic techniques and traditions of Western music until his time. The Firebird shows his attempt to synthesize everything he knew, or at least demonstrate his mastery of them, perhaps before finding his own unique voice, which burst on the scene and turned the music world upside down with the Rite of Spring.

I find it puzzling that no one in the 20th century was able to touch him. Why did so many composers who came after him get lost in the world of 12 tone, atonality, minimalism and serialism, some of which Stravinsky himself explored, instead of standing on his shoulders? The philosopher, T.E. Hulme, of course, wrote a book on how artistic movements become more abstract when a civilization is undergoing chaos–for example Byzantine art became progressively two dimensional as the empire collapsed. And in prosperous times, Hulme noted that art became increasingly naturalistic and representative as happened in Renaissance Florence. So maybe that is what happened in 20th century music as well. As European civilization collapsed under two world wars and then the cold war’s threat of annihilation, perhaps our music represented that angst. After the Vietnam War ened and until the economic meltdown of 2008, tastes ran toward the more lush and stimulating music of the neo-romanticists like Aarvo Paart and Henryk Gorecki. Thank god. If I hear another monotonous piece by Phillip Glass, I think I’ll stick knitting needles in my ears.

The youtube video above is the Suite he composed in 1919.  Below is a longer version with Stravisnky conducting.  It seems to be from Japanese TV.

Download MP# or Buy CD of Stravinsky Conducting Firebird

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