Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


Haiku Wednesday: Beethoven’s Ninth for iPad (free!) and more


What would Ludwig say
Seeing his work so displayed,
Manuscript on screen?

See Beethoven’s Ninth
In hands of four conductors
Right on your iPad.

If you have an iPhone or iPad, Touchpress has some nice classical music apps for you!

I’ll start with the free app:  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  The app includes four Deutsche Gramophon recordings of the work (audio and video), and you can switch between performances to see how one conductor and orchestra’s performance differs from another.  The scrolling score is displayed at the bottom of the screen.  You can also use Beethoven’s 1825 manuscript to follow along.  The app includes interviews with musicians and conductors.  The four conductors (and performances) are Fricsay (1958), Karajan (1962), Bernstein (1979), and Gardiner (1992).  Here’s a promo.

The company has also produced a number of other paid apps (around $14 each):  Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (promo video link), the Liszt Sonata in B Minor (includes a performance by pianist Stephen Hough), and The Orchestra.  In searching for a promo video for The Orchestra, I found a YouTube comment by the Philharmonia Orchestra directing me to YouTube videos that their orchestra members have made to introduce their instruments.  The videos are quite detailed, so if you ever had celeste or clarinet questions, check it out!  A thorough video review of The Orchestra, the app, is available here.

Touchpress has also partnered with the Juilliard String Quartet to create an app for Schubert’s Death and the Maiden.  Here’s a promo video for the app.

I couldn’t preview these for you because I don’t have an iPad, so if you do try the free Beethoven (or splurge for any of the others), please let us all know what you think.


Image attribution:  Modified image of painting of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,


1 Comment

Ear training, music theory, bonus points, and Toki Pona

I just found another website that may be helpful in learning ear training, music rudiments, composers, and, if you so inclined, a language or two (can’t help it, I’m an inveterate linguist).

It’s  Their “courses” are set up like flash cards (with audio where appropriate).  The system keeps track of what you get wrong and what you get right and drills accordingly, incrementally adding new information.  You set up a free account, and take your pick of any number of courses.

The music courses include note identification (reading), interval training, pitch identification, scales and chords, music theory, composers, music terms, and “Who Composed Me?”.  There are also courses for the ABRSM exams, British school exams on one’s knowledge of music rudiments.  That’s just the music part.  There are courses devoted to languages, programming, art history, math, science, and law, just to name a few areas of study.

Their goal is to make learning fun.  You get points for correct answers, so the competitive among us (who, me?) risk getting a little carried away.  But it’s better to keep coming back and doing a little, rather than trying to cram, you’ll get further faster.  I have used this approach in language learning in Duolingo and Mango (Mango is typically available through libraries), and it does work.  It’s worth noting that Memrise co-founder and CEO Ed Cooke studied cognitive science.

There is also a users forum or community in which you may wish to participate.  You may even choose to create a course if you’d like.

So, is there an app for that?  Yes, via Apple App Store, Google Play Store, and Amazon App Store.  Sorry, no Window phone app available.

Give it a try and let us all know what you think.  I’m working on pitch recognition, ear training (intervals), and, off-topic, “Who Painted Me?” at the moment.  And maybe I’ll try my hand at the constructed language Toki Pona, since, oddly, that’s how I found this website in the first place!

Leave a comment

Archeological Sight Reading


This is a fragment of the play Orestes, written by Euripides (c 480-406 BCE).  The fragment is thought to have been written around 200 BCE.  It is the text of the first chorus (verses 338-344 for the classicists out there).  The marks above the text are musical notations.  For more on the fragment, see the World Digital Library page for this item.

Ok, everybody, all together now:

ἰὼ Ζεῦ,
τίς ἔλεος, τίς ὅδ᾽ ἀγὼν
φόνιος ἔρχεται,
335θοάζων σε τὸν μέλεον, ᾧ δάκρυα
δάκρυσι συμβάλλει
πορεύων τις ἐς δόμον ἀλαστόρων
ματέρος αἷμα σᾶς, ὅ σ᾽ ἀναβακχεύει;
340ὁ μέγας ὄλβος οὐ μόνιμος ἐν βροτοῖς:
κατολοφύρομαι κατολοφύρομαι.
ἀνὰ δὲ λαῖφος ὥς
τις ἀκάτου θοᾶς τινάξας δαίμων
κατέκλυσεν δεινῶν πόνων ὡς πόντου
λάβροις ὀλεθρίοισιν ἐν κύμασιν.
345τίνα γὰρ ἔτι πάρος οἶκον ἕτερον ἢ τὸν ἀπὸ
θεογόνων γάμων,
τὸν ἀπὸ Ταντάλου, σέβεσθαί με χρή;

O Zeus! What pity, what deadly struggle is here, [335] hurrying you on, the wretch on whom some avenging fiend is heaping tears upon tears, bringing to the house your mother’s blood, which drives you raving mad? [340] Great prosperity is not secure among mortals. I lament, I lament! But some divine power, shaking it to and fro like the sail of a swift ship, plunges it deep in the waves of grievous affliction, violent and deadly as the waves of the sea. [345] For what other family must I still revere, rather than the one from a divine marriage, from Tantalus.]

(from Euripides. The Complete Greek Drama, edited by Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O’Neill, Jr. in two volumes. 2. Orestes, translated by E. P. Coleridge. New York. Random House. 1938.)

Find more Euripides (in Greek or English) at Tufts University’s website.

Sound like opera?  You’re right:  the story has been turned into an opera by Handel (who used the story as told by Euripides), Sergeiy Taneyev (NY Times article on it here) and Iannis Xenakis (both of whom used the version of the story told by Aeschylus).

Here’s is an aria from Handel’s Oreste.


Image attribution:  Orestes 338-44 via the World Digital Library.


Haiku Wednesday: En hiver by Paul Hindemith

If Rilke had written En hiver in haiku:

Frans_Francken_II_Der_geigende_Tod (1)

Der geigende Tod by Frans Francken the Younger (c 1625).

La mort meurtrière,
Elle joue du violon et
Elle court dans les rues.
Et la mort salue,
“Bonjour, bonsoir, mes amis!”
Mais personne ne parle.

 That murderous Death,
He plays the violin and
He runs through the streets.
And Death greets us all,
“Good day, and good night, my friends!”
But no one answers.

Der mörderisch Tod,
Er spielt die Violine,
Läuft durch die Strassen.
Der Tod grüsst jeden,
“Guten Tag, meine Freunde!”
Niemand antwortet.

The music for En hiver was written by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) in 1939, the fifth of six pieces in the work Six Chansons.  The six songs are settings of poems in French by Rainer Maria Rilke (Rilke wrote in French and German).  The text is found in Vergers, written in 1924/1925.

Hindemith, like Schoenberg, began writing in the style of the late Romantic period.  But unlike Schoenberg, who steered toward atonality and developed the 12-tone method, Hindemith was influenced by the contrapuntal style of Bach.  However, like Schoenberg, he used all 12 notes in the octave, but allowed there to be “centers of gravity” of tonality more common in traditional music.

Here is a video of En hiver and Verger performed by the University of California Chamber Chorus.

And if you’ll kindly indulge me, here’s an off-topic bonus haiku:

Today New Jersey
And all born there celebrate
Bruce Springsteen’s birthday.


Image attribution:  Frans Francken the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

1 Comment

Second Viennese Schooled

It’s a new choir season, and I was listening to the music that we would be singing and looking at the sheet music, following along.  So I see this piece in German, and I’m reading it…and it’s getting more and more chromatic, and I find myself thinking “who wrote this?!”

So I page back.

Arnold Schoenberg.  Oh!

I wasn’t expecting Schoenberg.  In my head I’m hearing Monty Python’s “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”  Or Arnold Schoenberg for that matter.


Arnold Schoenberg was one of the key members of the Second Viennese School of composers, which also included the composers Alban Berg and Anton Webern and others.  Here’s a somewhat cheeky overview of the Second Viennese School (with examples) and a more straightforward description.

Schoenberg (1874-1951) is best known as the father of the 12-tone method  (sometimes called serialism), in which all 12 notes in an octave are used equally, and no one note has dominance over another.  This is very different from traditional music, which is written in a particular key, in which certain notes carry more “weight” than others, and there is a tendency to return to the “home” note of the key (e.g., C in the key of C).  The 12-tone method is a topic which engenders strong opinions and reactions because it is so different from what one typically expects in music.

So there aren’t many 12-tone lullabies (which I then Googled; but here’s one, and here’s a 12-tone Mary Had a Little Lamb).

Which in turn led me to this: the composer of the 12-tone Mary has a long YouTube video (30 minutes) on 12-tone composing and its history that is interesting and quirky (stick figure Stravinsky?).

But back to the unexpected piece in my choir binder.

Schoenberg didn’t start out writing 12-tone music.  His early work was consistent with the style of the late Romantic period (think Brahms and Wagner).  One of his best known early works is Verklärte Nacht (in English Transfigured Night, Op. 4, composed in 1899).  Here is a performance by the Emerson String Quartet.

The music in my binder is Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth, Op. 13, composed in 1907), a piece which was written as Schoenberg was making the transition from the harmonies of the Romantic period to something new and unexplored.

The transition is new and unexplored for me as well, but I’m sure it will be fascinating.


Image attribution:  Arnold Schoenberg by Man Ray [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.


Frugal and Fugal

Got a buck?  Amazon has a bargain for you.

In its digital music section, Amazon has a wide variety of classical mp3 collections.  There is a group that generally goes under the name “Big [fill in the blank] Box.”  Typically they are digital forms of Bach Guild or Vox recordings, gathered together in virtual box sets.  The offerings change, but typically there are a number available for a whopping $0.99.  That’s right, ninety-nine of your finest American cents.

And they are a deal.

The boxes can have anywhere from 30-40 to over 100 tracks from a particular composer or time period or genre.  Some boxes feature a particular instrument (sorry, no Big Bassoon Box).  If you’re just getting started in classical music, this is a great way to have an opportunity to hear a good variety of music (sometimes over 10 hours!) from a particular composer.


Are they all going to be performances by premier artists?  Not necessarily (although Alfred Brendel and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson have been among the artists I’ve seen, among others).  Are they the definitive performances of the work?  Probably not–but once you figure out what the definitive performances are (or your favorites) you can get them on Amazon (or Ebay, or Classical Archives, or ArkivMusic, or your favorite venue).  But you have to start somewhere.  And 99 cents is a pretty good way to start.

You’ll probably have to install the Amazon music player (a painless process), but it’s compact  (doesn’t take up a lot of space on your computer) and easy to use.  You’re not required to use it though, the files are in standard mp3 format.  If you’re an iTunes user, Amazon can automatically download your music to iTunes.  All your purchases are also automatically stored in the Amazon cloud, free, accessible on any device that supports the app.  You can also import your personal music library, but there is a fee.

Curious about Haydn, Telemann, Debussy, or Mahler? There’s a box for you.  Flute, violin, guitar? Step right up.  Baroque?  Several boxes are available.

Want something a little more lightweight, yet still classical (since 13 hours of Mahler might be a bit much)?  The “100 must-have [fill in the blank] classics” series is there to provide a classical soundtrack to your day or your next dinner party (the horror classics is probably not a good idea though).  Tell your friends who are not classical fans, they might just get interested.

And then, if you wouldn’t mind, send them over here.  Thanks!


Image attribution: screenshot of Big Baroque Box at


Haiku Wednesday: Bach’s Crab Canon

“…for yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.”

“Seems…? nay, it is, I know not ‘seems.'”


Seems it so or not?
Or can, can you know you saw?
I know and I saw.
Saw I, and know I
Saw. You know you can, can or
Not–or so it seems.

Bach’s Musical Offering provides a splendid example of a crab canon.  In a crab canon, two musicians play the musical line, one starting from the beginning, one starting from the end.  When they reach the “end”, they reverse direction and start playing toward the point at which they started.  It has been likened to a palindrome, a word or phrase which reads the same way forward and backward.

A wonderful animation has been created to illustrate the principle.

Want to see how it works for yourself?  Visit Timothy A. Smith’s page, where you can print, then cut out and make your own Möbius strip of music.

Now, look at the haiku again.

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”