Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Free Concert Webcast:  Mahler’s Ninth and More

Gustav Mahler

On Sunday, December 10, 2017 at 3:00 PM EST (GMT -5), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will offer a free concert webcast of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Leonard Slatkin conducting.  The program will also feature the world premiere of Feuertrunken (Fire-Drunk) by Joshua Cerdenia.

You can see the concert here.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._9_(Mahler)
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2014/jul/29/mahlers-ninth-tom-service-symphony-guide
  3. Simon Rattle discusses Mahler’s Ninth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3DHYRMoTN4
  4. Leonard Bernstein discusses Mahler’s Ninth https://youtu.be/xDW1qQYcjto
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Haiku Wednesday: The Symphony Lost in the Mail

Mail truck driving off with papers flying out the back, stick figure aghast

So, George said to Ralph,
“You should write a symphony.”
He pondered the thought.

He had some sketches,
Some tone poems that would do,
And he set to work.

After the debut,
He sent it to Germany
To a conductor.

It never got there.
A war broke out; it was lost.
What would Ralph do now?

Ralph called his friend George,
Who had been reviewing it
As it was written.

And with some others,
Ralph rebuilt the symphony.
It would live again!

That’s the story of
A London Symphony of
One Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The above haiku (although simplistic) is the true story of A London Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  In a biography, Vaughan Williams is quoted as saying,

We were talking together one day when he said in his gruff, abrupt manner: ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony’. I answered… that I’d never written a symphony and never intended to… I suppose Butterworth’s words stung me and, anyhow, I looked out some sketches I had made for… a symphonic poem about London and decided to throw it into symphonic form… From that moment, the idea of a symphony dominated my mind. I showed the sketches to George bit by bit as they were finished…1

The Butterworth in the quote is English composer George Butterworth, a personal favorite of mine.  Vaughan Williams dedicated A London Symphony to Butterworth.

The symphony was first performed in 1914.  Thereafter, Vaughan Williams sent the score to conductor Fritz Busch in Germany.

After it was posted, World War I broke out.  In the chaos that ensued, the score really was lost in the mail.

Vaughan Williams called upon Butterworth and some others to help him rebuild the symphony from sketches and orchestral parts he still had.

Finally, the symphony was reconstructed.  But that’s not the end of the story.

This 1913 version underwent several revisions.  Vaughan Williams published the 1920 version.  He revisited it again, and the 1933 version explicitly states that earlier versions should not be performed.  He revised it again, and published a new version in 1936, and that’s the version that is performed today.

Except.

Vaughan Williams’s widow permitted one recording of the original 1913 score.  She was so happy with the recording by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox, that subsequent performances have been made possible.3

Opinions differ strongly about these two versions.  Some say Vaughan Williams said not to perform the earlier one; they say that later editing improved the symphony, giving it a tighter, more cohesive structure.

Some, however, say the removal of nearly 20 minutes of material from the 1913 version totally changed the character of the work.  In its original version it is more like the tone poems it derived from, less like a symphony, and it is a darker, more contemplative work.  They say Vaughan Williams cut out some beautiful melodies for the sake of conciseness.  But then Vaughan Williams himself described one removed passage as “a bad hymn tune.”2

I’m not sure where I stand on this.  I can see both sides.  I’ve listened to both, and I’ll give you links to performances of both.

Regardless of which you prefer, you will be treated to a picture of a bustling London through its day, and, in the end, through the ages.

I hope you will enjoy it.

Here is a performance of the 1913 version, conducted by Richard Hickox.

Here is a performance of the standard version.

References

  1. Lloyd, Stephen, in Ralph Vaughan Williams in Perspective, ed. Lewis Foreman, Albion Music Ltd, 1998.  “The quoted text in (a) is a portmanteau of two originals, the bulk being from a letter to Sir Alexander Butterworth, father of the composer” via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_London_Symphony.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_London_Symphony.
  3. McGregor, Andrew, “Vaughan Williams. A London Symphony. Review” http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/88cz/
  4. You can see the revised score at http://imslp.org/wiki/File:PMLP60779-Vaughan-Williams_-_Symphony_No._2_(orch._score).pdf.

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Image attribution: C. Gallant, 2017.


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Haiku Wednesday: Old Music, New World

Sheet music in old notation showing parts of the Quechua hymn Hanacpachap cussicuinin
Thousands of miles from
Home, they sought the solace of
A familiar faith.

The same sun shone down,
And the church looked just the same,
But a world away.

And new believers,
At home here, sought connection,
Familiar comfort.

And on that Sunday,
The music sounded the same,
But the words were new.

And both would smile in
This new and ancient landscape,
Worlds joined in music.

I love the things I find during my random walks through music history.  I was doing research on Tomás Luis de Victoria (around 1548-1611; you’ll see a post on him soon) when I found out that he published a collection of his music for distribution throughout Europe and the New World.  The New World.  I hadn’t thought about it before.  Typically, newly built colonial cities in the Americas had a central town square, and on one side of this square there was always a church, if not a cathedral.  And these churches needed music.

Victoria’s music traveled to Bogota, Colombia; Lima and Cusco, Peru; Mexico City, Mexico; and other cities in the New World.  The Spanish composer Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla didn’t send his music; he came to Mexico, composed music in the city of Puebla, and was the music director of the city’s cathedral.  Composer Juan García de Zéspedes, born in Puebla, studied under Gutiérrez de Padilla and later succeeded him as the music director.

At the cathedral of Santiago de Guatemala, now Antigua Guatemala, the Portuguese composer Gaspar Fernandes compiled a collection of choral music written by him and by the Spanish composers Francisco Guerrero, Cristóbal de Morales, and Pedro Bermúdez.  Fernandes and Bermúdez were also active at the cathedral in Puebla, Mexico.

I discovered that there is a wealth of information on sacred and secular music in the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s.  Some are listed in the references, but there are many more.

I had only begun to scratch the surface when this music stopped me in my tracks, music that I needed to share.  The first vocal polyphonic work published in the New World (in 1631) is from Peru, and it is in the Quechua language.  It is Hanacpachap cussicuinin, a hymn to the Virgin Mary.  And it is beautiful.  Here are the words of the first verse (presented today in Haiku form):

O, Joy of Heaven,
We praise you a thousand times,
Tree of thrice-blessed fruit.
Hope of humankind,
You help all those who are weak.
Attend to our prayer.

And now, here is a performance of Hanacpachap cussicuinin.

References

  1. Tomás Luis de Victoria, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom%C3%A1s_Luis_de_Victoria.
  2. Sacred Music: God’s Composer.  Music by Tomás Luis de Victoria.  BBC DVD, 2012.  https://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Music-Gods-Composer-Victoria/dp/B006ZBJJI2
  3. Cramer, Eugene, Tomás Luis de Victoria: A Guide to Research. Psychology Press, 1998, 53-72.
  4. http://www.lacompania.com.au/reviews/cds/
  5. Bowers, Teresa, “The Golden Age of Choral Music in the Cathedrals of Colonial Mexico,” The Choral Journal, Vol 40 No 9 (April 2000) pp 9-13 via jstor.org.
  6. Escalada, Oscar, “Hanaqpachaq: The First Polyphonic Work Published (and Composed?) in the New World” [trans., ed. David Castleberry], The Choral Journal, Vol 43 No 2 (September 2002) pp 9-16 via jstor.org.
  7. Also see works by musicologist Robert Stevenson.

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Image attribution: Juan Pérez Bocanegra. Ritual, formulario, e institución de curas para administrar a los naturales de este reyno, los santos sacramentos del baptismo, confirmacion, eucaristia, y viatico, penitencia, extremauncion, y matrimonio: con aduertencias muy necessarias. Lima: Geronymo de Contreras, 1631, p 708, via the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/ritualformulario00pr.


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Two Choral Groups Walk into a Bar…

I’m currently learning Ave Maria by Franz Biebl with my choir.  I was looking for videos, found the one below, and had to share it with you.

No joke here:  two vocal ensembles, Cantus and Chanticleer, walked into a bar one night and decided to sing Biebl’s Ave MariaListen.  This is magical.

 


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Haiku Wednesday: Schubert–Last Hope, Last Leaves of Autumn

Stick figure looks at the last leaf on a tree in autumn

Here and there upon
The trees, many colored leaves
Remain, and often,

I stand there and think.
I spy one leaf, and upon
It, I hang my hopes.

The wind stirs the leaf.
I shake. If it falls, I’ll fall,
And weep for lost hope.

The haiku above is a rendering of the words of Wilhelm Müller’s poem Letzte Hoffnung [Last Hope], which was set to music by Franz Schubert as part of his Winterreise song cycle.  Here is Letzte Hoffnung, performed by tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch.

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Image attribution: Drawing by C. Gallant, 2017.

The painting that is the background in the YouTube video is Abandoned by Jakub Schikaneder.  He was known for his paintings of lonely figures–a perfect choice for Winterreise.


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Concert Etiquette Poll

Stick figure asleep at concert


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Haiku Wednesday: Lvov To Pennsylvania, By Way of Ancient Greece and Russia

Bryn Mawr lantern and bust of Athena

O, friends of wisdom,
Let us gather together
And name those things that
We all hold so dear:
Beauty with simplicity,
And without softness.

Our talent is used
To accomplish deeds: this, our
Finest achievement,
Our noble venture;
And proper is our pride in
What we have achieved.

And our hope is great,
The achievement is worthy,
Yea, our hope is great.

The words above are a translation from ancient Greek of a song called “Sophias.”  It is one of the traditional songs of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.  And its origins span the globe.

As a preface, let me tell you a little about a college tradition.  On a dark night each October, the Bryn Mawr freshman class, wearing black academic robes, gathers in the courtyard of a building that looks like it could be found on the set of a Harry Potter movie.

Great Hall at Bryn Mawr College

Sophomores file in, singing a hymn to Athena, goddess of wisdom, in Greek, as a candle-lit lantern is placed behind each freshman (see a little here).  When all the lanterns have been bestowed, the freshman take up their lanterns and all the students (and alumnae observing in the background) sing “Sophias”.  It is haunting, mysterious, and wonderful.  Even when sung without academic robes.

In the early years of the college, the tradition was for each freshman class to come up with its own Lantern Night song.  The Class of 1889 came up with “Sophias”.  Later, it became one of the permanent Lantern Night songs, along with the hymn to Athena (contribution of the class of 1893).1

The words were extracted from Thucydides’s account of Pericles’s Funeral Oration, as found in The Peloponnesian War (Book 2, Chapter 40)2 …because everyone has common knowledge of that, and ancient Greek, and thinks, “hey, you know what would be good for our song?”  Right?  Sure. But that’s the kind of place Bryn Mawr is.  I recall attending a lantern-lit funeral for a pet goldfish involving orations in Greek and English (oddly, modern English) before solemn interment in a tiny grave dug with a spoon that may have been liberated from the cafeteria.

And now for the Russian content (and the classical music content—thank you for your patience).  The melody was written by Alexei Fyodorovich Lvov.  He was a Russian composer and violinist who was friends with Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer.  His string quartet regularly held private concerts for Russian aristocracy, and guest performers at these concerts included Liszt, Robert and Clara Schumann, and Berlioz.3 In “Sophias,” Bryn Mawr students used Lvov’s religious work, “Of Thy Mystical Supper” (“Вечери Твоея тайныя”), which can be heard here performed by an ensemble wearing period attire.  Please note the bass, who sings the incredibly deep notes underpinning this beautiful piece of music.

Lvov is also known for composing the Russian Imperial Anthem, “God Save the Tsar” (“Боже, Царя храни”).  In another interesting twist, this melody is regularly sung by students of the University of Pennsylvania as they sing the words to “Hail, Pennsylvania.”

Lvov also composed operas, a concerto, and various works for strings (sheet music here).  To conclude, here is Lvov’s Violin Concerto.

References

  1. Bryn Mawr College Special Collections Facebook page, “Lantern Night Songs,” https://www.facebook.com/pg/Bryn-Mawr-College-Special-Collections-205274397222/photos/?tab=album&album_id=10151998179002223
  2. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0200%3Abook%3D2%3Achapter%3D40
  3. “Alexei Lvov”, Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexei_Lvov

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Image attributions:  Photographs by C. Gallant.