Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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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.

References

  1. http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/h/hmu01591a.php

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Image attribution: Johannes Brahms, photograph By C. Brasch, Berlin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JohannesBrahms.jpg

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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.


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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.

Time.

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.

 

Footnotes

*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.

References

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

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Image attribution: Difficult times via https://imgur.com/gallery/Mb8q5.


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Haiku Wednesday: Arcangelo Corelli

Portrait of Arcangelo Corelli by Hugh Howard

“Concerti Grossi,
Arcangelo Corelli”
Said the disc label.

I had not heard it,
So thought I’d give it a try
One hectic morning.

And in the chaos
That swirled around me that day
Came a soothing calm.

Like spring’s first flowers,
A sunny day in winter,
Crisp cider in fall,
I don’t know how, but
Arcangelo Corelli
Somehow made me smile.

Arcangelo Corelli is perhaps best known for his development of the concerto grosso form and for his advancement of violin technique.  His set of 12 concerti (Op. 6) was published in 1714.  They inspired Handel to write his own set of concerti (also Op. 6).  Corelli’s concerti remain popular to this day.  There’s something about Corelli’s music.  Somehow, it seems to catch you unawares* and relax you.  It’s happy, without being cloying.  Pleasant, but not boring or insipid.  Engaging, but not overwhelming (on the day in question, Beethoven or Schubert, even Mozart, would have been a bad choice.  Too much drama!).  Some days, Corelli is the perfect fit.

Here is Corelli’s Concerto in F Major, Op. 6, No. 2, played on original instruments by Voices of Music.

 

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* “unawares” is a strange, low-frequency English word that looks wrong, but isn’t.  It’s an adverb form that’s a leftover from Middle English, which also gave us “towards” and “afterwards.”  The more you know….

Image attribution: Portrait of Arcangelo Corelli by Hugh Howard, 1697, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


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Free Live Concert Webcast: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Grosse Fuge and More

Broadcast tower topped by music note, globe in background

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) will present a live concert webcast tonight, 13 January 2018, at 8 PM CST (2 AM GMT).  You can see it here.  Here’s the program:

Jessie Montgomery: Records from a Vanishing City
Beethoven: Grosse Fuge for String Quartet
Beethoven: Violin Concerto

The soloist will be Steven Copes, concertmaster of the SPCO.

If you can’t make it, it will soon be available as part of the SPCO’s library of classical music performances.  With performances of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, John Adams, Hugo Wolf, Shostakovich and more, you’re sure to find a favorite.


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Free Lectures on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas by Jonathan Biss

Beethoven

Happy New Year, everyone!  It’s good to be back after a very busy holiday season.

Great news for piano music lovers!  Pianist Jonathan Biss is back with his third series of lectures on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas on Coursera.org.  Biss is in the process of recording all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

This series, like the previous two, is designed for everyone—no prior knowledge is needed.  And if you missed the first two lecture series, they are also available on Coursera.  The first series provides a wealth of background information to understand Beethoven’s world and the sonata form.  I wrote about series one here.  The second series focuses on the exploration of individual sonatas, including the Waldstein and Pathétique.

Here are links for the three lecture series on Coursera

Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas

Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Part 2

Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Part 3.

Need more Beethoven?  This post provides more resources for learning more about Beethoven.

Here is a video of Biss playing a portion of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor.

You can hear the entire sonata here.

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Image attribution:  Beethoven, Painting by Carl Jäger (1833-1887), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beethoven_.jpg.


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Haiku Wednesday: For George

George Butterworth, around 1914

Silence need not fall,
Nor memories fade away.
Music will endure.

Recently, I had the honor of presenting one of my compositions at a composers circle.  The blog has been quiet lately because I have been diligently preparing for that event and a major choral event.

I started writing The Lost (for George Butterworth) after a 2016 blog post for Veterans Day.  At that time, I did more research into Butterworth than had appeared in the initial post, and his story affected me deeply.

George Butterworth was a promising young English composer.  One of his best-known works, which I quoted in remembrance of him in my composition, is The Banks of Green Willow, which you can hear here.  He was friends with Ralph Vaughan Williams, and, as noted in the blog post The Symphony Lost in the Mail, helped Vaughan Williams reconstruct his symphony score when it disappeared.

He was also a folk dancer.  There is film of him performing (in 1912!), alone, and as part of a group.  You can see it here.  At one point as four people are folk dancing, Butterworth and his friend accidentally collide, and you can see them laughing at their mistake.

Butterworth served ably in World War I.  In 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, he was killed by a sniper.  The fighting was so ferocious that the dead were quickly buried where they fell.  Butterworth’s body was never recovered.

Butterworth:  a composer, a lively, laughing dancer.  Cut down.  Lost.

The introduction of this piece expresses mourning for those lost in battle on the windswept fields of the Somme in France.  A brief four-part writing segment asks, in disbelief, whether this is how it must be, with a resigned answer of yes, which returns later in the piece.  The major key section is a paraphrase of Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, as a half-remembered melody from long ago, twisted at the end by a bitterly mock-heroic snippet of an anthem as Butterworth must abandon his music to go off to war.  A sudden strong C minor chord represents Butterworth’s death, and the pain of that loss, followed by resignation and the return to the introductory theme.

Here is The Lost.

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Image attribution: Photograph of George Butterworth, about 1914 [Public domain], via Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Butterworth_2.jpg