Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


Brahms Speaks and Plays in 1889 Recording


In 1889 Thomas Edison sent a representative to Europe to demonstrate his new invention, the phonograph.  Gatherings would be held where prominent figures of the day could hear this new marvel of technology, and they were encouraged to set up sessions to make recordings as well.  In Vienna, one of these individuals was none other than Johannes Brahms.

Brahms was quite taken with the new device.  It is said that he wrote to Clara Schumann, “it’s as though one were living a fairy-tale.”[1]  And so, a recording session was arranged.

An account of the recording session was given by the son of the man in whose home the recording was made.  He describes Brahms as excited, and one might say he sounds like it in the recording.  After identifying himself, he immediately launches into his Hungarian Dance No. 1.  On the recording he also plays a snippet of Die Libelle by Strauss.  Here is Brahms.

I am amazed that this recording exists, and it’s wonderful.  There is a wealth of historical recordings of classical music played by the very composers who wrote it, and I will bring more of them to you over time, but this is one of the oldest and, to me, most exciting.

Click here for more details about this recording and its history.

The Smithsonian Institution is partnering with a number of other institutions to preserve the many early recordings in their collection.  Here’s an article on their efforts to preserve the earliest sound recordings.  The scientifically minded among us will enjoy this presentation on the techniques used to non-invasively retrieve the data on these fragile recording media (more extensive paper here).

And now for an encore.  Brahms was a close friend of violinist Joseph Joachim.  Here is a recording of Joseph Joachim made in 1903.




Image attribution

Edison wax cylinder phonograph, photo by Norman Bruderhofer, (own work (transferred from de:File:Phonograph.jpg))[CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Brahms




Black Friday Shopping? Have/had enough?

Today throngs of American shoppers are doing their holiday shopping.  Whether you are among them, or returning, triumphant, from your foray, or deciding to opt out entirely … or even if none of this applies to you, some soothing music would probably be welcome.  Here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with an aria from Bach cantata BVW 82, Ich habe genug.

For the entire cantata (24 minutes), click here.



Haiku Wednesday: Thanksgiving

Music lifts our hearts,
Soothes, calms, revives, restores us
Let us be grateful


Here in the United States, many people will celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow.  It’s a time to reflect on the things we are grateful for.  Music lovers have many things to be grateful for.


The music of the last 1,000 years can be accessed with a few clicks.

The scores are also available.

A wealth of music from around the globe can be experienced without taking a plane, ship, or extensive trek.

Live performances are everywhere.

Musical instruments are readily available, as are talented teachers to help us learn.

There are books and courses to add depth to our knowledge.

Singing is free.


We have heard music Beethoven never heard.

Some of us have already outlived Mozart and Schubert.


So sing, or play an instrument, or listen to your favorite recording, and celebrate music, share it with friends and family.

And now, I wish you joy:


Light in the Darkness: The Story of a Song

There is a song that has been sung since 200 CE, perhaps 150 CE.  For a song, that is a nearly unfathomable extent of time.  And precisely what makes it fascinating to me.

The song, written in Greek, is Phos Hilaron (Φως Ίλαρον), most commonly known in English as O Gladsome Light.  It has been called the first Christian hymn, because it is the first Christian music that does not contain verses from the Bible.  It was sung when lamps were lit at twilight.


Its great antiquity is documented by Basil of Caesarea (329-379 CE) who uses the very word “antiquity,” as well as “ancient form” when discussing the hymn (De Spiritu Sancto, 29:73).

And that’s only some 150 years into its history.

Sadly, we do not know what music was used at that time, only the words survive.  Neumes for music notation would not be invented for another 600 years.

The words however, were translated, spread widely, and found new music.  The song found expression in Byzantine chants, ancient Armenian liturgy, and Russian Orthodox Znamenny chant.

In the West, its history is temporarily obscured by the Dark Ages, but it survived.

Since then, the song has been adopted and adapted by a wide variety of Christian denominations.

In the 1500s, John Calvin expressed the opinion that psalms should be sung by the entire congregation, not just a small group of performers.  He supervised the creation of the Genevan Psalter, a collection of psalms to be sung by everyone.  The book contains music for a text called the Song of Simeon, also known as Nunc dimittis.  The music was written by Louis Bourgeois in 1549.  Here it is in the 1565 edition of Les Pseaumes de David.

Nunc Dimittis_Les Pseaumes de David Clemen Marot THeodorus Beze 1565

When Robert Bridges (1844-1830) translated the Greek text of Phos hilaron into English, he found the Bourgeois version of Nunc dimittis to be a perfect fit, and this version, now called O Gladsome Light, may be found in a number of hymnals.  Here it is sung by the incomparable Cambridge Singers under John Rutter.

The text was also used by Tchaikovsky, Gretchaninoff, and Rachmaninoff in their Vespers (All-Night Vigil) and is called Gentle light, or Svyetye tikhiy.

Here is Gretchaninoff’s, a gem.

In the 20th century, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote music for a group of four hymns, the last being O Gladsome Light, here called Evening Hymn.

From 200 to 2015 and beyond, these ancient words will continue to be a source of inspiration to composers.  Here is Gladsome Light in the original Greek, as set in Vespers by Stelio Scordilis.



Phos Hilaron, Wikipedia article,

Basil of Caesarea, Wikipedia article,

The Sacred Writings of Saint Basil, published by Jazzybee Verlag, 2012.

Genevan Psalter, Wikipedia article,

O Gladsome Light, for information on Robert Bridges,


Image attribution

Icon of St. Basil the Great from the
St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev, 11th Century, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Genevan Psalter.  Whole book may be found at

Displayed page may be found at


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More Concerts On Demand


The weekend is coming, time for some concerts!

I just found a new website,  It lists concerts available on demand (orchestra concerts, operas, dance performances).  You can also look for upcoming events, read reviews, and access their database on composers and performers.

Clicking here will take you directly to the page that lists on-demand video concerts.  At the time I accessed the website many events were from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra website, itself a purveyor of a good number of concerts (, as well as the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (

Increasingly, orchestras are making available recordings of their performances, some via radio stations.  They are usually available for only a short period of time.  You can hear performances by the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera on’s on-demand page.  The Cleveland Orchestra also makes performances available for a short time via radio station WCLV.  Don’t miss the Boston Symphony Orchestra and special guest stars on WGBH.  New York’s WQXR has an archive of live concert recordings and videos and also hosts an archive of performances from Carnegie Hall.

Or, hey, check this out:  the Toronto Symphony Orchestra will provide free access to the Naxos Music Library as part of its Beethoven On Demand program.  Sign up for their free TSO E-Mail Club to obtain access.  And don’t miss their super podcasts (conversations with Itzhak Perlman, instrument mishap stories and more!).

Have a great music-filled weekend!

Image attribution: Candies Vending Machine 1952. By Minnesota Historical Society [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Modified by C. Gallant.

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Haiku Wednesday: Telemann, Newton, and Roy G. Biv Walk into a Concert…


Color joins music
The ocular harpsichord
The world’s first light show.

After the recent excitement about the discovery of a lost work by Telemann, I couldn’t resist this story, which I read in an entertaining article by Becky Ferreira.

Turns out, Telemann also wrote several pieces for the ocular harpsichord.

Wait…the what?  Ok, settle in for a slightly convoluted story.

It’s hard to believe that there once was a time when people didn’t know how colors worked, but it’s true.  The laws of physics governing them hadn’t been worked out yet.  People were coming up with all kinds of theories, and Isaac Newton decided to throw his hat in the ring too.  Maybe he shouldn’t have, what with the apple and all; or maybe the theory came after that alleged apple assault (actually it did; his Principia Mathematica that discussed gravity came out in 1687.  As a further side note, a piece of Newton’s apple tree escaped Earth’s gravity briefly in 2010).

Anyway, in his 1704 work Opticks, Newton presented his theory of colors.  He also related the seven colors you see in a prism (or a rainbow; hence the Roy G. Biv) to musical notes, the seven notes in the diatonic scale.  Here Newton used the Dorian scale, the white notes on a piano starting with D.  Newton theorized that the spectrum of colors and the diatonic scale used the same ratios.


As it turns out, Newton didn’t get it quite right (but I think we can cut him some slack, given the whole gravity thing, and calculus).  But his theory generated a lot of excitement and discussion (for more on historical discussions of color and music, read this).

The French mathematician Louis Bertrand Castel, inspired by Newton’s theory, souped up a harpsichord, adding sixty lanterns with different colors whose light would be shown when specific notes were pressed.  Castel said, “the pressing of the keys would bring out the colors with their combinations and their chords; in one word, with all their harmony, which would correspond exactly to that of any kind of music.” (Franssen, via Ferreira).

Sadly, the only image of the ocular harpsichord, also called the color organ, is one that lampoons the device (shown above).

Enter Telemann (finally).  Telemann saw the ocular harpsichord while he was in Paris, and penned a description of the device.  He also was inspired to write several pieces of music for it.  Sadly, I could not find those specific pieces—I wanted to see how chromatic they were (sorry! couldn’t resist).

While the ocular harpsichord has not survived, the idea of combining light, color, and music certainly has, providing a new avenue to interpret the tonal colors of music.

Here is John Adams’s Harmonium, as visualized on the face of Usher Hall, Edinburgh.


With thanks to my friend Louis B. for referring me to the Ferreira article.


Becky Ferreira, “Behold the Ocular Harpsichord, the Laser Light Show of the 18th Century”, Motherboard, 16 November 2015.

Maarten Franssen, The Ocular Harpsichord of Louis-Bertrand Castel,

Isaac Newton, Opticks, 1704, Book I, Part II, Proposition VI, Problem 2


Image attribution

Castel’s ocular harpsichord, characactured by Charles Germain de Saint Aubin, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons,’s_%22ocular_organ%22.jpgNewton’s color wheel.

Color wheel.  Isaac Newton, Opticks [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons