Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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A Delightful Evening

I haven’t posted because I was preparing for a piano get-together this evening.  A group of adult piano students gather and play what we’ve been working on for each other.  There’s wonderful conversation, bread, cheese, wine, dessert, laughter, music.  It’s always a lot of fun.

I played a piano arrangement of one of John Dowland’s less somber songs, Now O Now I Needs Must Part (somehow, I usually end up playing something in a minor key, but tonight I broke the trend by playing in G major, though I can’t exactly say it was upbeat).  Someone played a song from Rent.  Someone played an Erik Satie composition.  It was all great, but for me, there was an extra special treat.

A duo played my ukulele and piano arrangement of Bach’s Minuet in G.

I could not have been more delighted to hear it come to life.  I had heard it in electronic form, but to hear it played live on real instruments, a Steinway and a lovely mellow-toned lute-like ukulele, was an incredible gift.  I am grateful for the time the players put into learning it and their wonderful performance.  The instruments were perfectly balanced with each other.

This was so cool!

If you play an instrument, if you know other people who play instruments, rustle up some desserts and get together.  Have a no-fault music night (I’ll ignore your mistakes if you ignore mine).  You’ll all be nervous.  It will be ok.  It will also be fun.

I hope your musical evening will be as entertaining as mine was.


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Haiku Wednesday: Tubas and More

Bass Tuba

A euphonium
Is not a sousaphone, nor
A tuba, oh no.

Though the sound goes round
And round, and emerges deep
In tone, soft or loud,
Do not believe that
Oom-pah-pah is all that you
Will ever hear—no.
For mellow is one
Of the tones that will surprise,
And, yes, delight you.

Oh, when the saints go
Marching in, the angels play
harps, cherubim, flutes;
But somewhere in the
Line, I know, you are sure to
Find, yes, a tuba.

I thought this post would be easy.

I thought I could simply contrast the tuba, euphonium, sousaphone, add some pictures, some samples, and done!

But no.

It wasn’t long before I found the saxtuba, the helicon and its ancestors the buccina and cornu, and, then Wagner came along, and…

Anyway, let’s get started.  Most folks have heard of a tuba.  It is the lowest-pitched of the brass instruments.  There are contrabass tubas, the lowest of all, and slightly smaller (and slightly higher-pitched) bass tubas.  The fundamental pitch of a contrabass tuba can be 32 Hz or 29 Hz.  The threshold of human hearing is 20 Hz.  Click this link to see how a tuba is madeSee the world’s largest tuba here.

A euphonium is pitched an octave higher than the lowest contrabass tuba.  It is also somewhat smaller.  Here’s a comparison picture, showing the euphonium on the left and tuba on the right.

Euphonium and tuba

The brass instrument you’re likely to see in a marching band, its bright bell shining in the sun, is a sousaphone.  It was popularized by John Philip Sousa, the American march king.  Sousa was unhappy with the predecessor of the sousaphone, the helicon.  He wanted the sound to go up over the band.  And so the sousaphone was created.  But the original bells pointed skyward, which became a problem when marching on a rainy day. So eventually the bell shifted to a forward-pointing position.

Sousaphone

Sousaphone

Helicon

Helicon

The helicon was derived from the saxtuba, which in turn was derived from the cornu and buccina, which signaled the Roman legions in ancient times.

Saxtuba

Saxtuba

Cornu players (cornicen) on Trajan's Column

Cornu players (cornicen) on Trajan’s Column

You’ve probably noted the “sax” tacked onto saxtuba.  There’s also a family of instruments called saxhorns.  That’s because Adolphe Sax, father of the saxophone (which is actually a woodwind, not a brass instrument), was prolific in his production of brass instruments.  Here’s a page cataloging various Sax instruments.

Adolphe Sax's instrument catalogue

One day, Richard Wagner entered Adolphe Sax’s shop.  He was looking for a certain sound for his new opera.  He was shown a saxhorn, but it wasn’t quite what he wanted, so he had another instrument builder create a Wagner tuba for use in Das Rheingold, for the Valhalla theme.  You can hear it here.

Double Wagner tuba

Double Wagner tuba

And now to the music!

Here is the Concerto in F Minor for Bass Tuba and Orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Here is John Williams’s Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra featuring some flying finger passages for the tuba.

And finally, the soulful Czardas by Vittorio Monti, arranged here for solo tuba and three trombones.

Wishing you a happy Tuba Thursday!

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Image attributions

Euphonium and Tuba by user Elf at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEuphoniumAndTuba_wb.jpg

Sousaphone by Yamaha Corporation (Yamaha Music Europe) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYamaha_Sousaphone_YSH-411.jpg

Helicon by Matthias Bramboeck (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHelikon-Stowasser-Graz.jpg

Saxtuba by Anonymous (http://www.jstor.org/pss/842482) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASaxtuba.jpg

Cornu players (cornice) carved on Trajan’s column, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACornicen_on_Trajan’s_column.JPG

Sax instrument chart by Adolphe Sax [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdolphe_Sax_instrument_catalogue.jpg

Wagner tuba by Zanetta (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADouble_Wagner_tuba_by_Alexander.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: Barbara Strozzi

Portrait of Barbara Strozzi

Barbara Strozzi
A beautiful singer and
A fine composer.

She had four children,
Never married, and published
Books of her own songs.

Unconventional,
Daring, creative, and bold,
Barbara Strozzi.

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was a remarkable composer and singer who lived in the golden age of Venice.  She wrote an abundant amount of music, and had it published in her own lifetime.  And her publications contained only her compositions.  Typically, the works of female composers were included in musical anthologies with male composers.  Barbara Strozzi’s publications were all her own.

She was the daughter of Isabella Garzoni, a servant of Giulio Strozzi, a poet and librettist.  Strozzi, who may have been her biological father, adopted her, and encouraged her musical education.  Barbara studied with composer Francesco Cavalli.

That her father encouraged her musical education would have been remarkable enough.  But when he later formed a circle of musicians, Barbara regularly attended, and frequently sang at these gatherings.  She was praised for her musical ability, and some of the members dedicated works to her.  She began composing by setting her father’s poems to music, but soon began writing her own poetry for her music.

Barbara Strozzi’s independent streak made her a magnet for slander in her time.  She bore four children, but never married.  It is believed that the father of most, if not all, of the children was Giovanni Paolo Vidman, a patron of music and a member of the circle of musicians that Barbara’s father founded.

Barbara Strozzi was a financially secure woman.  Venetian records indicate that she was a smart investor, and had enough resources to make loans—including to Giovanni Vidman.  Independent indeed.

But let’s get to the music.  You can find sheet music for some of her compositions here.

Here’s a lovely song, Voi pur begl’occhi, sete, which begins “Beautiful eyes, you are indeed a door to paradise”

And here is the haunting Lagrime mie.  The opening words are “My tears, why will you not fall and quench the fiery pain that takes away my breath and crushes my heart?”  Wow.

You can find many fine recordings of the works of Barbara Strozzi at your favorite music streaming site or vendor.  Check them out!

References

Biography of Barbara Strozzi from a blog dedicated to her life and works, http://barbarastrozzi.blogspot.com/2008/06/history-barbara-strozzi-composer-1619.html

Core Donato Editions, publications of the works of Barbara Strozzi http://www.cordonatoeditions.com/

Barbara Strozzi, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Strozzi

Glixon, Beth L. “New Light on the Life and Career of Barbara Strozzi.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 81, no. 2, 1997, pp. 311–335. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/742467.

Glixon, Beth L. “More on the Life and Death of Barbara Strozzi.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 83, no. 1, 1999, pp. 134–141. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/742264.

Rosand, Ellen. “Barbara Strozzi, ‘Virtuosissima Cantatrice’: The Composer’s Voice.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 31, no. 2, 1978, pp. 241–281. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/830997.

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Image attribution: Portrait believed to be of Barbara Strozzi titled Gambenspielerin [The Viola da Gamba Player] by Bernardo Strozzi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABarbara_Strozzi_1.jpg


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Free Live Webcast:  Tchaikovsky’s 5th, Stravinsky, and a New Work by Wynton Marsalis; or, Cossacks, Elephants, and a Hootenanny

On Friday, June 2, 2017 at 10:45AM EDT (GMT -5), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will offer a free live online concert that will include a new work by Wynton Marsalis featuring violinist Nicola BenedettiHere is her official website.  Here’s the program:

Stravinsky: Circus Polka
Wynton Marsalis: Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5.

The circus polka was composed for a ballet choreographed by George Balanchine for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.  It was performed by fifty elephants and fifty ballerinas.  Balanchine said he phoned Stravinsky:1

“I wonder if you’d like to do a little ballet with me,” Balanchine said.
“For whom?”
“For some elephants.”
“How old?” Stravinsky asked.
“Very young,” Balanchine assured him.
There was a pause.  Then Stravinsky said gravely, “All right. If they are very young elephants, I will do it.”2

I have to hear this now.  By the way, the elephant ballet was only performed for a short time, after which it became popular among solely human dancers.

I’m also eager to hear Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto.  From the reviews I’ve read, it is a thoroughly American concerto, with movements titled Rhapsody, Rondo, Blues, and Hootenanny.  Marsalis packs the work to overflowing with musical ideas and notions, and the work you hear on Friday may differ from previous performances—it seems to be a work in evolution.  A documentary has been created, The Making of a Concerto, which you can see at the link.  Here is the trailer.

Rounding out the program is Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, in which Tchaikovsky wrestles with the concept of fate.  And in the finale, the wrestling becomes fierce.  Check out this wild review from 1892, written by William Foster Apthorp, who was no great fan of “modern” music:8

In the Finale we have all the untamed fury of the Cossack, whetting itself for deeds of atrocity, against all the sterility of the Russian steppes.  The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker.  Pandemonium, delirium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!9

Wow.  Elephants, a hootenanny, and pandemonium.  Don’t miss it!

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circus_Polka
  2. Krista, Davida. George Balanchine: American Ballet Master. Minneapolis: Lerner Publication, p 72.
  3. http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/11/01/500059901/the-transatlantic-collaboration-behind-wynton-marsalis-new-violin-concerto
  4. http://wyntonmarsalis.org/news/entry/nicola-benedetti-performs-wynton-marsaliss-violin-concerto-los-angeles
  5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/nso-offers-exuberant-marsalis-concerto/2016/10/27/b5c1c3cc-9cb9-11e6-b4c9-391055ea9259_story.html?utm_term=.f1f925b105e4
  6. http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/reich/ct-cso-marsalis-review-ent-0714-20160713-column.html
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/nov/08/london-symphony-orchestra-nicola-benedetti-james-gaffigan-wynton-marsalis
  8. http://www.sfsymphony.org/Watch-Listen-Learn/Read-Program-Notes/Program-Notes/Tchaikovsky-Symphony-No-5-in-E-minor.aspx
  9. Boston Evening Transcript, October 24, 1892 via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._5_(Tchaikovsky)


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Graduation Music

Stick figure with diploma in graduation attire

It’s graduation season!  And in America that means we will be hearing a lot of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 1.  You know the tune—Disney used it to great effect in Fantasia 2000.

”But wait,” you might be saying.  “Pomp and Circumstance No. 1?”  Indeed.  Elgar wrote six Pomp and Circumstance MarchesYou can read about the first time No. 1 was used in an American graduation ceremony here.

March No. 1 is called “Land of Hope and Glory.”

And here are March No. 2, March No. 3, March No. 4, March No. 5, and March No. 6 (which Elgar left incomplete—it was completed by Anthony Payne).

I actually gave a speech at my high school graduation.  I found it years later, and it was waaay too long.  Here’s what I would say now:

  1. Graduation day is a new beginning. So is every day.
  2. Get out there and try new things. They may not work out, and that’s ok.   See point 1.
  3. Sometimes when you flip a coin to make a decision, you find out what you don’t want.  But then you know.  Coin flips need not be binding.
  4. Don’t wait until you’re 100% ready or the product/situation is 100% perfect or you’ll never accomplish anything.
  5. Learning doesn’t stop when you no longer have teachers and classrooms. Go find stuff out!
  6. Try to make things better—the world, your neighborhood, yourself.

Two years ago, I started this blog.  I wasn’t ready.   I had never done anything like it before.  I made mistakes.  I still make mistakes.  But I know way more about music now than I ever did.  It’s been fun sharing what I’ve learned with people—people in 134 countries!  So, start catapulting, my friends!

And what better way to end than with another piece of graduation music, the Academic Festival Overture, in which Brahms cleverly incorporates the tunes of a number of student drinking songs.  You can see it here.  Prost!


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Free Concert Webcast: Beethoven’s Ninth and Bob Dylan Reimagined

Tonight, May 19, 2017 at 8PM EDT (GMT -5), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will present a free webcast.  The program will feature Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan.

Corigliano has set Bob Dylan’s words to music that is very different from the original recordings.  You can read more about the song cycle here on the composer’s website.  Those interested in a more detailed musical analysis of the work can find one at the link.

You can see the concert at http://www.dso.org/live.


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Haiku Wednesday: Bach’s Ukulele-Piano Duet

Bach in Hawaiian shirt photobombs picture of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig

Bach photobombs tourist’s picture of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig

What would Bach do if
He had a ukulele?
I picture the scene:

We see him scowling,
As he does in his portraits,
Unwrapping a box.

Carefully, he lifts
The lid, and peering inside,
Smiles, then roars, laughing.

The kids all gather
As he gleefully extracts
His new tiny lute.

And, of course, he then
Plays it instantly and well,
Playing his own tune.

A kid brings a bow
As he sees what it can do,
Thinking what he’ll do.

And as the kids leave,
He sits at his desk. With quill
In hand, he begins…

A friend of mine got a ukulele for Christmas.  We were talking about the availability of music, and joking, said there were no ukulele and piano duets.

We were picturing a ukulele trying to contend with a concert grand, figuring that, short of amplifying the ukulele or alternating solos, it would be an exercise in futility.  A clavichord, maybe, they were known for being whisper soft.  But a piano?  It’s a classic(al) David and Goliath story.

Of course, I couldn’t leave it alone.

The easiest way to make it happen was to borrow from Bach.  So I borrowed the Minuet in G Major (BWV Anh. 114) from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.  As it turns out, it is now believed that Bach borrowed this little ditty from Christian Petzold.

Those of a certain age will remember hearing it popularized as the song “How Gentle is the Rain?” or “A Lover’s Concerto”.  I transposed it from G major to C major to make it easier for the ukulele to play.  Then, I tried to figure out how to integrate a piano without overwhelming the ukulele, while allowing them each to have their moments to shine.

No matter what, the pianist will need to use restraint (and the soft pedal).  A piano, even the subtlest piano, can easily overpower the ukulele.  But balance can be achieved, and it’s fun!

Here’s what it sounds like.  Warning: if you use the link rather than the player displayed on this page, you may hear unrelated music afterward.  Can’t prevent it (Soundcloud!).  Hit the pause button (at the bottom of the Soundcloud page).

Here’s what it looks like (below).  Click the image to magnify, or click the following link to view/download/print the Minuet for ukulele and piano as a PDF file.

Sheet music, Minuet for Ukulele and Piano page 1Minuet for ukulele and piano-2

If you’re a ukulele player (ukulelist?), give it a try and let me know how it turns out!

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Image attribution: Photograph of Leipzig Thomaskirche by Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomaskirche_Leipzig_Westseite_2013.jpg.  Vintage Hawaiian shirt by Omaopio (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVintage_aloha_shirt.JPG. Portrait of Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johann_Sebastian_Bach.jpg.