Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


Haiku Wednesday: Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus

Stag on a mountaintop; the painting The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Landseer, 1851

As the hart longs for
Fountains of water, so my
Soul longs for you, Lord.

The haiku above is a translation of the Latin words of Palestrina’s motet Sicut cervus, drawn from Psalm 42 of the Old Testament of the Bible.

I recently had the sublime pleasure of singing this motet.  One can hear the piece and know that it is beautiful.  But by singing this piece in the middle of a small mixed ensemble I learned something that I would never have known otherwise.

This piece breathes.  Though it was written so many hundreds of years ago, it is alive.  The lines rise and fall gently, as the chest rises and falls when one is at peace, at rest, or in meditation.  The lines rise and fall in pitch, describing a smooth arc.  The dynamics change, one voice rising in volume as it enters, then falling away as a new voice begins.  As the voices intertwine, there is a heartbeat, there is breath, and the piece becomes a living thing.  The motet ends with a hushed tone of hope, or assurance, or belief, all the voices uniting as one, as one living being.

And when you sing it, you realize that you, and your one voice, are now part of a stream of singers that have sung this very piece for hundreds of years.  Your voice rises now, as have so many voices before you, and when it falls away, a new singer will begin.  And the music will live on forever.

Here is Sicut cervus.


Image attribution: The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1851 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,


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International Women’s Day: Kassiani of Constantinople

music note with feminist symbol (ankh) below

Today is International Women’s Day, and it seemed appropriate to bring you music from one of the earliest known female composers whose music has survived, Kassiani, or Cassia of Constantinople.  She was born around 810 CE and died before 865 CE.

Kassiani founded a convent and became its abbess.  There she wrote music and poetry.  Her music is still sung in the Orthodox Church.

About fifty of her hymns have come down to us and 789 verses that are not liturgical, mainly epigrams.

Here is an arrangement of the Hymn of Kassiani, sung in English.  It is hauntingly beautiful.  You can find the score here.

Would you like to read more about female composers throughout history?  Here are some earlier posts you may enjoy:

Hildegard von Bingen: Medieval Composer, Extraordinary Woman

Medieval Women in Music: Trobairises

Celebrating International Women’s Day

Lost Mendelssohn Easter Sonata Found—and it’s by Fanny, Not Felix

Haiku Wednesday: Barbara Strozzi

Christine de Pizan in The Music of Agincourt

Haiku Wednesday: Nadia Boulanger

Haiku Wednesday: Amy Beach

Haiku Wednesday: Yes, women write music

Haiku Wednesday: Women in Music


Image attribution: Music note with feminist symbol (ankh), C. Gallant.

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Aristide Cavaillé-Coll: French Organ Builder Extraordinaire

Aristide Cavaillé-Coll

In the late 19th and early 20th century, France produced a cavalcade of composers who were also exceptional organists, including Charles-Marie Widor, César Franck (born in Belgium, lived in France), Gabriel Fauré, and Camille San-Saëns.

While each had their own individual style, the sound of French organ music of that era was defined by one man: Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.

Cavaillé-Coll was an organ builder.  In his lifetime, his firm installed or reconstructed around 500 organs in churches in Europe, Great Britain, and Latin America.

Cavaillé-Coll was responsible for a number of technical innovations and for the introduction of organ voices that imitate various instruments in the orchestra.  This led to these organs being called “symphonic organs.”  Franck said, “My new organ?  It’s an orchestra!” and Widor praised the responsiveness of the organ and variety of new orchestral voices.1

The organ builder worked closely with composers, and modified his designs based on their input.  One might suggest that organ compositions might also have been influenced by the opportunities provided by Cavaillé-Coll’s instruments.

The best known of the Cavaillé-Coll organs is at the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, France.  The church has two organs, the main, and the choir organ.  It is said that sometimes Widor and Fauré (Saint-Sulpice’s choir director at the time) would improvise at the same time at the two organs and try to confound each other with abrupt key changes.2

Charles-Marie Widor’s most widely-known organ work is his Toccata, which is the final movement of his Organ Symphony No. 5 (he wrote ten).  Here is a live recording of Widor’s Toccata played on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-Sulpice by Ethan LaPlaca.  While the video was never meant to be a final-cut video (people talking in the background, light distortions, a camera tilt oops), I picked it for the sheer exuberance of playing and the brilliance of the sound.  The page turner to the organist’s right is Daniel Roth, the current organist of Saint-Sulpice, the same post Widor and Marcel Dupré held before him.

Here is a recording of Charles Widor playing his Toccata on the Saint-Sulpice organ when he was 88 years old.  Fierce debates rage about the tempo—is the tempo Widor used in the recording the one that he intended for the piece, or was it influenced by his advanced age?  Do some organists play it too fast?  Here is a very fast performance.  You be the judge.

There is a documentary, The Genius of Cavaillé-Coll, which comes as a box set that includes video from 15 different organs, music CDs, and a book of technical specifications.

A number of Cavaillé-Coll organs have been digitally sampled so that one can reproduce the sound using a virtual pipe organ (an electronic organ using recorded samples of an actual pipe organ via computer software, typically Hauptwerk or the free open-source program GrandOrgue).  While it will not be the same as sitting at the console in Saint-Sulpice, it’s a little closer to home.  Here is a Cavaillé-Coll virtual pipe organ performance of Henri Mulet’s Carillon Sortie performed by David Lines.


  2. Duchen, Jessica. Gabriel Fauré. London: Phaidon, 2000, p. 32, viaé.


Image attribution: Aristide Cavaille-Coll, heliography by Dujardin, circa 1894, age 83 [Public domain] via


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Telemann Fans:  New Aria Discovered!

Georg Philipp Telemann

RISM has reported1 that a new aria from an opera by Georg Philipp Telemann has been found in Braunschweig, Germany.  The aria, “Mein Herz is viel zu schwach, Euch zu verlassen” [My heart is far too weak to leave you], is believed to be from the opera Die königliche Schäferin Margenis [The Royal Shepherdess Margenis].

The manuscript is written in German organ tablature notation, but a modern transcription has been published in the German-language music journal Concerto.2

You can read more about the discovery here.

A previously unknown set of fantasias for viola da gamba by Telemann was found in 2015Recordings of that set of fantasias have since been released.


  1. “Mein Herz ist viel zu schwach” – A Newly Discovered Aria by Georg Philipp Telemann., Feb. 19, 2018.
  2. Lauterwasser, Helmut, “’Mein Herz ist viel zu schwach, Euch zu verlassen’ Eine neu entdeckte Arie von Georg Philipp Telemann,” [“My heart is far too weak to leave you” A Newly discovered aria by Georg Philipp Telemann], CONCERTO – Das Magazin für Alte Musik No 277 (January/February 2018), pp 22-25.


Image attribution:  Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767), [Public domain] hand-colored aquatint by Valentin Daniel Preisler, after a lost painting by Louis Michael Schneider, 1750.



Choral Music by Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

I saw a reference to the choral music of Johannes Brahms, and realized that, other than the German Requiem, I didn’t know much about it.  So I decided to go check it out.

Whoa.  I’ve been missing a lot.

Listen to this Adoramus te, a short piece, reminiscent of Palestrina to my ear.

Brahms was a master of counterpoint, and this is clearly displayed in his motets.  I particularly liked Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen for its emotional impact and the precision required of the choir.  Brahms wrote many of his choral works for an a cappella choir, which for me, as an amateur chorister, is particularly terrifying.

Brahms also wrote secular choral works, including the Fest- und Gedenksprüche, written for the city of Hamburg when he was made an honorary citizen (here’s a sample), and folk song settings.

And to close, a song to make you say ahhhh.  While this folk song setting tells a sad story (lyrics here), Brahms’s setting adds a touch of sweetness.  Here is In Stiller Nacht.




Image attribution: Johannes Brahms, photograph By C. Brasch, Berlin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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Music for a Busy Day:  Czardas by Vittorio Monti

Hi folks!  I haven’t blogged in a while, it’s been rather busy here.  How busy?  Here’s a fun video of Vittorio Monti’s Czardas that’s a pretty close representation.

And here’s a performance with violin and piano (the instruments Monti originally wrote the piece for).

I will now resume my plate spinning.

Thanks to reader Laurie C. for bringing the first video to my attention.



Difficult Times for Classical Music

Image of music staves with complex time signatures with caption "These are difficult times."

Recently, I was talking with some folks who were lamenting the dwindling size of classical concert audiences, and we were trying to think of ways to rebuild them.  It’s a nearly universal phenomenon.

I think I understand one of the reasons why classical music (concert or recording) is such a hard sell these days.


Or rather, time and focus.

Both, it would seem, are in precious little supply these days.  There is more to do, there are shorter deadlines, there are more things vying for our attention.

And a symphony takes, say, 45 minutes.  Nobody has 45 minutes in one block anymore.  And that’s just listening time.  If you’re going to a concert, you have to include travel time, intermission…you get the idea.  And to get to the concert, you’re probably going to have to fight traffic, not conducive to preparing one for focused listening.  Oh, and don’t forget to turn off your phone before the concert (and check if there’s anything you need to attend to immediately?).  After the concert, when you turn your phone back on, it will be sure to alert you if you missed anything.

But then, people go to pop concerts.  Since the time commitment’s the same, what’s different?  Well, there’s more moving around on stage, possibly dancing.  People have their phones out taking pictures or videos, tweeting.  There might be a light show* and pyrotechnics.  I don’t advocate pyrotechnics for a classical concert (except in the case of the 1812 Overture, then definitely).  And it’s hard to dance with a cello.

And, the obvious, the songs are shorter, the form of the music is easier to grasp, and the tempi are probably faster.  James Gleick, in his book Faster,1 explored the speeding up of modern life; others have noted the same trends.  You can have your groceries delivered if you have no time to shop, and make dinner in an Instant Pot cooker if you have no time to cook.  Texts have replaced emails, which replaced written letters (cursive writing is facing near extinction).  We are in the age of the tweet and tl;dr (too long; didn’t read…thank you for your continued reading!)

What was the complaint about Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations in 1981?  Oh yeah—too slow.  Was he trying to tell us something?


Schubert’s sonatas have been said to unfold “at heavenly length.”**

When was the last time you had the luxury of that kind of time?


So, what do we do about these concerts?  I wish I had a surefire answer.  We might make them more approachable, more lively.  We might change the programming a little; in the early 20th century, one might hear a sonata movement, not the entire sonata.  That’s not necessarily true to the composer’s intent, but now, if something catches your ear, you can probably hear the rest of it on demand and explore.  Others have noted the tyranny that audio recording has imposed on live performance—there is less risk-taking, because people want to hear what they heard in the recording, which is flawless, immaculate (and the product of numerous takes and editing).  I’d prefer to hear someone playing from their soul, taking some risks, even if it means a few mistakes are made.

Or we can hope that the pendulum will swing back, and people will begin to turn away from the relentless jangling go go go of getting and spending,2 quick, easy, fast, now living, and turn more toward a slower, more deliberate pace, with focused attention and the taking of time.  And, with that, the savoring of classical music.

Thank you for your precious time and attention, now and always.

And now, Glenn Gould’s 1981 version of the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.



*The organist Virgil Fox had light shows at some of his concerts.  But then that was the 1970s…

**Robert Schumann first applied it to Schubert’s Symphony in C Major; it was later more broadly applied to his sonatas.


  1. Gleick, James,  Faster.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.
  2. from William Wordsworth’s The World Is Too Much With Us, via It was written around 1802, published in 1807 (also see Written in London. September, 1802).


Image attribution: Difficult times via