Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

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Music History as Entertainment

I recently came across some entertaining and captivating music history series produced by the BBC (and was reminded of a few others from the past).

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music.  Howard Goodall is a composer and a lively presenter (American PBS fans: he wrote the themes for the tv shows Red Dwarf, Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley, and Mr. Bean, as well as film scores, choral music, and musicals).  This six-part series covers music history from prehistory to modern times, with modern examples used in earlier periods to illustrate the timelessness of certain musical techniques.  Unfortunately, the only official venue to see the series is on the BBC site, which offers only clips.  A shorter version was also produced for use in schools.  I have an inquiry in to the BBC to find out if they will be releasing it on DVD, but have not yet received a reply.  The material of the series is also available in book form, available at the usual venues and possibly at your local library (The Story of Music, Howard Goodall, 780.9 G).  Here’s the BBC page with clips.  Sadly, this other BBC clip page doesn’t seem to be working at this time (or perhaps because I am not in the UK).  Here Howard Goodall talks about the making of the series.  One of his inspirations was Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts (more on that later).

Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs is a more commercially accessible series.  The five-part series, instead of covering the panorama of musical history, focuses on key moments in music history:  the invention of notation, opera, equal temperament, the piano, and recording.  This is available on DVD and in book form.  No clips are available on the BBC website.

Goodall is not the first to use video to bring music history to the public.  Leonard Bernstein was a trailblazer here in his production of the Young People’s Concerts series and his Omnibus tv broadcasts.  Both series are available on DVD (and possibly at your library, 780.15L) at the usual venues and at the Leonard Bernstein website.  Here’s a trailer to give you a taste.

A slightly different and equally compelling approach was taken by Wynton Marsalis in his Marsalis on Music series.  This series focuses more on jazz, but also covers fundamental concepts like rhythm and meter.  My favorite title is Tackling the Monster-Practice.  The series has a companion book.  The DVD and book are available at your favorite seller and on his website.  If you’re a Marsalis fan, he has a lot of video clips on his website.   Here’s the trailer for the series.

One more BBC series and I promise I’ll stop, but this is the most musically beautiful of them all, though more narrowly focused.  It is Sacred Music with presenter Simon Russell Beale.  If you get a chance to see this, you’ll be blown away by the music of The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers.  Stunning, gorgeous choral music.  In the first series, the first program covers plainchant to Bach, the second Palestrina, the third Tallis and Byrd, and the fourth Bach.  A second series covers Brahms and Bruckner; Fauré and Poulenc; Gorecki and Pärt; and modern UK composers, including James MacMillan. Only the first series is available at present on DVD.  No clips are available on the BBC website for the seriesAn interview with Beale on the second series was published by The Guardian.  Here’s the trailer for the series Sacred Music.

I hope you’ll get a chance to take a look at these series.  You’re sure to enjoy them.


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Gamelan in the park: music is everywhere

So I’m walking near a playground in a park when I hear…gamelan music?  In the corner of the playground I found a number of musical installations with attached rubber mallets.  Of course I tested them all, and all produced these beautiful muted, round tones, very pleasant to the ear with no dissonance.  A xylophone-like structure revealed that the pipes had been tuned to a pentatonic-like scale.  They were visually interesting as well.

No camera, no video with me.  Just a notebook to write down written on the installations.

I found out that musician Richard Cooke started a company to produce these instruments for parks and playgrounds to encourage children to make music (and sound good in the process, even further encouragement).  And I wasn’t the only adult to pick up a mallet.

I typically don’t combine the words “soothing” and “playground” but that was in fact the case.  I’d still be there if the rumble of thunder didn’t put an end to outdoor music making.

Here’s a video with an overview of the company’s products and installations.


Haiku Wednesday: Unraveling Ravel: More than Bolero




There’s no music in it.” So

Said Maurice Ravel.

When you mention Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), the first thing that comes to mind is Bolero.  And for most folks, that’s the only thing.  But on more than one occasion Ravel made deprecating comments about this piece.  He told Arthur Honegger, “I’ve written only one masterpiece – Bolero.  Unfortunately there’s no music in it.”1  At the premiere, when a woman in the audience shouted, “Rubbish!” he said, “That old lady got the message!”2

Whether Ravel was being facetious or not, there’s more to hear.  Ravel was known for composing a piece for piano, and then adapting it for orchestra; such works include Pavane pour une infante défunte (piano version here, orchestra version here) and Le tombeau de Couperin (piano; orchestra).

Ravel also composed music for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé.  Apparently there were numerous disputes between choreographer Michel Fokine and Ravel.  Ravel wrote, “I have to tell you that the last week has been insane: preparing a ballet libretto for the next Russian season.  [I’ve been] working up to 3 a.m. almost every night.  To confuse matters, Fokine does not know a word of French, and I can only curse in Russian.  Irrespective of the translators, you can imagine the timbre of these conversations.”3

I would not have wanted to be that interpreter.

Other Ravel works to check out include his fiendishly difficult piano piece Gaspard de la nuit, and his post-war masterpiece La valse, which is labeled a choreographic poem for orchestra. The link here is to Glenn Gould’s compelling piano solo transcription.  For somewhat lighter fare, see Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole, in which he reflects the flavor of Spanish music through his own unique lens.

Ravel’s own performances of his music survive in piano rolls created in 1913 and 1922, which have subsequently been translated to LP and CD format.

The Wikipedia entry on Maurice Ravel contains great detail on Ravel’s life, and is heavily annotated and documented (read the notes, they’re very interesting and entertaining).

Oh, and I suppose you might want to hear Bolero.  Well, I couldn’t make up my mind which link to include.  So here’s a sparkly, silky version by André Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra, and here’s a flashmob video of a youth orchestra in jeans in Algemesí, Spain.  Enjoy!


  1. Nichols, Roger, Ravel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, p 301 via Wikipedia.
  2. Nichols, Roger, Ravel Remembered. London: Faber and Faber, 1987, pp 47-48 via Wikipedia.
  3. Morrison, Simon, “The Origins of Daphnis et Chloe (1912)”, 19th-Century Music, 2004, p 54 via Wikipedia.

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Beware the Guidonian Hand and New Findings on Old Notations

Guidonian Hand

When I first heard the phrase “Guidonian Hand” it sounded to me like something from a cheezy horror movie; in fact, from the 1963 sci-fi movie The Crawling Hand (the guys at Mystery Science Theater 3000 did a wonderful, punny send-up of this movie).

But in fact the Guidonian Hand is the invention of the man who brought us the precursor of today’s music notation, Guido of Arezzo (991-after 1033).  It was a method of reminding beginning singers which note to sing.  Scales of notes are mapped to the joints and tips of the fingers.  The choirmaster would point to the appropriate point on the hand and the students would sing the note (one hopes).  You start at the tip of the thumb on ut (there was no do in the do-re-mi then), work your way down the thumb, then across from index finger to pinky, then up one joint, across to the index, up one joint, etc.  As a choir singer, I’m glad we’ve moved past this!

And speaking of old notations, there’s news on the history of the notation of polyphony!  I know, exciting, right?!  Prepare to geek out:  researcher Giovanni Varelli was cataloging instances of music notation in the British Library’s holdings of ancient manuscripts when he came across this page with music notated using neumes (those are the squiggles above the words).

Detail, Harley MS 3019, fol. 56v. Copyright British Library Board.

Detail, Harley MS 3019, fol. 56v. Copyright British Library Board.

That wasn’t the big discovery though.  Just above it was an illustration with vertical lines with dots on the bottom and lines on the top.

PolyphonyB British Library

Detail, Harley MS 3019, fol. 56v. Copyright British Library Board.

It turns out to be the same music.  The lines match the melody, and the dots indicate a harmonization of the melody.  If you look to the left you can see, written vertically the letters a through g, a dead giveaway that it’s music (once you get to g you wrap around to a again).  This pushes the use of polyphony notation back to the year 900!  You can read the whole story hereThe music notated on the page can be heard here.

Not old enough for you?  How about this:  we used to think the music of ancient Greece was lost.  Instruments have been found, but without notation, there’s no way to know how a tune goes (we can’t say, “Hey, Homer, hum a few bars for me”).  But researcher Armand D’Angour has found evidence of musical notation inscribed as letters over the words of songs in Greek stone inscriptions and Egyptian papyrus dating from 450 BCE to 300 CE.  He has linked it to mathematical ratios of musical intervals.  You can read the story here.

Classicist David Creese has brought back to life one of these tunes found on a Greek column. The tune was composed by Seikilos.  Here’s what it sounded like (audio file copyright BBC).

A Guidonian Hand, a haunting tune brought back to life, mysterious notations…maybe I wasn’t so far off with the sci-fi reference after all.

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Where To Begin with Beethoven


Pianist Artur Schnabel compared Beethoven’s work to a mountain range:  vast, imposing, with infinite pathways to explore.

So where do you start with Beethoven?  Here’s my suggestion. has a free, go-at-your-own-pace, on-demand set of lectures, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas.  The series is sponsored by the Curtis Institute of Music and hosted by renowned pianist Jonathan Biss.  Before he even gets to Beethoven, Biss gives an overview of the state of music in Bach’s time and in the time of Haydn and Mozart, so you have a background to understanding the environment in which Beethoven wrote.  He then explains the sonata form.  Even if you have little to no musical background, you should be fairly comfortable with the material, which is presented in a lively and interesting manner.

The lectures then move into the various periods of Beethoven’s sonata writing, with ample and engaging illustrative samplings of the works.  The course includes notes and lists of resources, and one can stream sonatas discussed in the course, performed by Jonathan Biss.

I took this course and learned a great deal about the sonatas and Beethoven (as well as Bach, Haydn, and Mozart).  I gained a deeper understanding of the music, and could enjoy and appreciate it more as a result of taking the course.

Biss is currently in the middle of a nine-year project to record all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.  Some are already available.  He has also published Amazon “singles” (short books) on Beethoven and Schumann, which I have read and enjoyed (see the recordings and books here).

I had the good fortune of meeting Mr. Biss after a performance some time ago.  After I introduced myself as one of his “Courserians,” he began to talk enthusiastically about the course, and told me that he planned to augment the course with lectures devoted to individual sonatas (he has).  It was clear he was happy to bring Beethoven to a wider audience, which was already evident in his lectures.  That wider audience is now in excess of 100,000 students from 160 countries!

So go to Coursera, sign up for a free account, and start exploring Beethoven’s sonatas.  While you’re there, you’ll also find an on-demand course on the string quartet (also brought to you by the Curtis Institute of Music) and a variety of other courses on music and many other subjects.   A course on the rudiments of music will start up 3 August 2015.  And keep an eye out for Write Like Mozart, a fantastic course on composition (sadly, not currently available).

Which is your favorite Beethoven sonata?  If you don’t have one yet, that’s ok—you will soon!


Haiku Wednesday: Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez

A moment in time:
It happened to be Josquin.
Frozen in memory.

The October skies
Were vivid blue with clouds by

The air was so crisp
And leaves rustled underfoot;
World in equipoise.

Then I heard Josquin,
Motets of aching beauty,
Many years too late.

As the notes wove
Around each other and me,
Nothing was the same.

In 2012 I wrote this to a friend:

How did I manage to live 50 years without hearing Josquin Des Prez motets?  Yesterday the sky was bright blue, the clouds were puffy and white, and Josquin…sublime.

It was a before and after moment.  After was somehow…different.  It was early in my forays into polyphony, and since then other pieces of that period have endeared themselves to me more:  Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, Lotti’s Crucifixus for eight voices.  But that combination of Josquin and autumn will remain with me always.

Josquin des Prez (around 1450-1521) was a Franco-Flemish composer.  He was one of the great experimentalists, adopting a variety of different styles.  His music spread widely thanks to the use of the newly invented printing press.  One of his more well-known works is the Missa L’homme armé, whose theme is based on a popular tune.  He wrote both sacred and secular music.

Here is a Josquin gem, La Déploration sur le Mort de Jean Ockeghem, performed by Vox Luminis.

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Music for the Dawn of Time: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

How does one write music for the dawn of time?  This was the task faced by Ernst Reijseger, Dutch cellist and composer.  Reijseger composed the music for the movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams, directed by Werner Herzog.

The movie and the music are captivating.  The documentary is about the Chauvet Cave in France.  Discovered in 1994, it holds paintings that are 32,000 years old.  32,000.  They are among the oldest known cave paintings.  And they are beautiful. In some parts of the cave, some paintings overlap one another.  Carbon dating found that the paintings were made 5000 years apart.  5000. Here is the French Ministry of Culture’s website on the cave in French Here is the Bradshaw Foundation’s website on the cave art in English.

It is difficult for the modern brain to grasp this expanse of time.  It is going into King Tut’s tomb and using it for the exact same purpose, as if no time had passed at all.  And this is the smaller number to deal with.

The artwork is utterly human.  And yet the purpose is incomprehensible.  Not so the handprints, which serve as a signature as distinct as John Hancock’s.

There is a “Venus” painting at the site that is similar to artifacts found at sites farther to the east in Germany.  And at these sites, in addition to the Venus figurines, whistles and bone flutes were found.  And they are around 42,000 years old.

Music endures.

Thanks to my friend and commenter Paul B. for introducing me to this movie.

Here is the trailer to Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  It is available for sale, for streaming, and possibly also at your local library (759.0112C).  The DVD contains a bonus video on the recording of Reijseger’s film score and conversations with the composer on his music and his custom-made 5-string cello (so he could play even lower notes).

Postscript:  I found out that even older paintings have been found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. They are 42,000 years old.  Read about the Sulawesi artwork here.