Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


Musical Time Travel: Where Would You Go?

Recursive clocks in a snail-shell pattern. Photo Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11

Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11

If you could travel in time and visit any musical moment, where would you go?

Would you go to the contentious premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring?

Or sit quietly in a salon while Chopin played nocturnes?

Would you sip wine in a Paris café with Les Six?

Or listen to the fiery playing of Paganini?

Perhaps you’d prefer the soulful notes of Marin Marais.

Or maybe you would sit quietly in a chapel while Bach played improvisations now lost to time.

Where (when) would you go?  I invite all of you to tell us your choice in the comments section.

While there are any number of places I can think of, unmissable moments in music, there is only one I could not resist.

Vienna.  The night Schubert played and sang Winterreise to a stunned group of friends.

“Come to Schober’s today and I will play you a cycle of terrifying songs; they have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs.” He then, with a voice full of feeling, sang the entire Winterreise for us. We were altogether dumbfounded by the sombre mood of these songs, and Schober said that one song only, “Der Lindenbaum”, had pleased him. Thereupon Schubert leaped up and replied: “These songs please me more than all the rest, and in time they will please you as well.”1

Indeed, they have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs.  I have listened to many performances.  While I have my personal favorite, I have always wondered who comes closest to Schubert’s intent.  To whom would Schubert say, “Genauso” [just like that].

Until we work out that time travel issue, we will never know.  In the meantime, I will present the last in that cycle of terrifying songs.  Here is Ian Bostridge’s unblinking performance of Der Leiermann.  Julius Drake is the pianist.

So where would you go?


  1. Haywood, Ernest. “Terrifying Songs,” Radio Times 20 January 1939.
  2. Franz Schubert Winterreise. Directed by David Alden. Performed by Ian Bostridge, tenor, and Julius Drake, pianist.  Kultur, NVC Arts, 1997. DVD.
  3. Ian Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of An Obsession. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
  4. Youens, Susan, Retracing a Winter’s Journey: Schubert’s Winterreise.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.


Image attribution: Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5. Photo by CityGypsy11 ( Commons [CC BY-NC 2.0])


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Haiku Wednesday: New Songs from 1000 Years Ago

Medieval manuscript depicting musicians, from Boethius's book De Musica

A leaf from Boethius’s book De Musica

Underground rivers
Course in ancient passages
Undeterred by time.

Neumes flow on the page
In forgotten passages,
Unheard—until now.

Carefully the notes
Are traced and coaxed from hiding
To sound once again.

Flow and dance again,
River of sound, and so quench
Our thirst for knowledge.

After decades of work, University of Cambridge researcher Dr. Sam Barrett has made a breakthrough that has brought once silent neumes back to life.

Barrett has been studying and gathering as many manuscripts containing neumes as possible and assessing them in terms of musical performance and music setting practices of the neume era.

Of particular interest was a manuscript known as the Cambridge Songs. The 11th-century Cambridge Songs manuscript includes a setting of parts of a poem by the Roman philosopher Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. You can read it in English here.

But there was one problem.  There was a page missing from the manuscript.

By chance, the page was rediscovered in Frankfurt.  A scholar had cut out the page in 1840 and taken it home.  This page was a tipping point in the research.  It made it possible to reconstruct the songs.  You can read the University of Cambridge article on the discovery here.  Here is the page.

Leaf from the Cambridge Songs manuscript containing The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius with neumes

Leaf from the Cambridge Songs manuscript containing The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius with neumes

Barrett partnered with Benjamin Bagby of the group Sequentia to test whether interpretations of the neumes were feasible given the limitations imposed by instruments of the time, as well as by human hands and voice.

You may not be hearing on the radio anytime soon, but you can hear an excerpt of The Consolation of Philosophy here now.  You can follow the words using the manuscript.



Image attribution

A page from Boethius’s De musica.  Manuscript of the University of Cambridge (MS Ii.3.12, ff.73v-74).


The Ubiquitous Pachelbel’s Canon

You know Pachelbel’s Canon in D.  You do, maybe you just don’t recognize the title.  But you’ve heard it.  Here, listen and watch Pachelbel’s Canon performed by Voices of Music.  Or if you like the visual representations of Stephen Malinowski, you can see his rendering of Pachelbel’s Canon here (the performers are also Voices of Music).

Yes, that one.  Sadly, despite its soothing beauty, it has become a cliché.  It has been used on television, in commercials (this commercial is clever and ridiculous), and to accompany many wedding walks down the aisle.

It’s ingenious.  It’s insidious.  It’s wildly successful.  It doesn’t stop with Pachelbel.

There are countless songs that use the series of chords he uses.  So many, in fact, that lists have been compiled.  Here’s a site listing its use in popular culture.  Here is a YouTube playlist of popular songs using the Pachelbel’s Canon progression.  And these lists leave out older songs such as Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Autumn Leaves, and the Village People’s Go West.

In fact, this pattern has become so pervasive, it seems to have sent one former cellist over the edge, and I leave you today with his wonderful musical rant on Pachelbel’s Canon.  Enjoy!


Haiku Wednesday: Tchaikovsky


The Nutcracker Suite
Is not the only thing that
Tchaikovsky composed.

Sure, the 1812;
But dig deeper and you’ll find
Lustrous, stunning gems.

Every Christmastime, the music of Tchaikovsky rings out again, as ballet dancers charm onlookers in the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies and other dance confections.

But there is more to Tchaikovsky than The Nutcracker.  Or the 1812 Overture (turn down your volume before clicking).  Or Swan Lake.

There is the wondrous Violin Concerto in D Major.  And then there are the late symphonies.

Symphonies 4-6 explore the concept of fate, and whether one masters it or yields to it. Tchaikovsky called fate “that tragic power which prevents the yearning for happiness from reaching its goal.”1  Wow.

In his Symphony No. 6, also called the Pathétique, Tchaikovsky breaks the mold of the symphony form.  His first and last movements are slow, which is unusual.  Also unconventional is that the waltz movement is not in standard 3/4 time, but 5/4, making it sound just a little off.  The third movement, the Scherzo, too seems to go a little awry.  In its final movement, the symphony does not end with a flourish, but rather, it fades away.  The symphony ends with repeated muffled bass notes, which then just stop.  To me, this sounds like the final beats of a heart.

Tchaikovsky died nine days after the premiere of the sixth symphony.

There are many fine recordings of the late symphonies.  Conductors whose names kept popping up in my reading were Mravinsky and Karajan.  Mravinsky’s interpretation is deemed intense; Karajan’s, a benchmark.  Other performances by Russian orchestras that I found interesting were conducted by Pletnev and Rostopovich.  Choose your favorite, and get ready for an unforgettable experience.

If you want to hear Tchaikovsky’s voice, fortunately, we have a small snippet.

If you want to read more about Tchaikovsky, here are two free books that are available online.  First, The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modeste. Second, Tchaikovsky by Edwin Evans, available free via Google Books or Internet Archive.  Also see the Tchaikovsky Research webpageIf you can read Russian, you can find a number of Tchaikovsky’s manuscripts here.


  1. Libbey, Ted. The NPR Guide To Building a Classical CD Collection. New York: Workman Press, 1994, p. 188, 189-192.
  2. Kozinn, Allan, The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music. New York: Times Books, 2004, pp 147-150.


Image attribution: Photograph of Tchaikovsky [public domain] from book Tchaikovsky by Edwin Evans.  London:  J.M. Dent & Co., New York:E.P. Dutton & Co., 1906


A Little Monday Music: Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale


The Valse Sentimentale is the last movement in Tchaikovsky’s work Six Pieces (Op. 51) for solo piano, composed in 1882.

You can read the history of the creation of this set of six pieces here (if you’re a Tchaikovsky fan, this website is a wealth of information; here’s the main page).  Here you can see the manuscript of the pieces in Tchaikovsky’s own hand (click on the book icon in the middle of the page).

Here is Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale performed by pianist Lucas Debargue.

There’s an interesting story behind the solo piano video presented above.  The French pianist in the video, Lucas Debargue, was awarded fourth place by the judges in the 15th International Tchaikovsky Competition.  Of six finalists, there was one gold, a joint silver, a joint bronze, and fourth place.  Yet his performance was widely acclaimed, leading some to question the judges’ decisions (first place was awarded to Russian Dmitri Masleev).

Conductor Valery Gergiev, chairman of the competition, made the bold move of insisting that Debargue play at the concert showcasing the winners of the competition, and that is the performance presented above.  You can read more about the competition and the controversy here and here and here, from one of the judges.

I’m not going to get into that debate.

But I suppose if you disagree with an interpretation, any interpretation, it makes you think about how you believe it should be interpreted.  It makes you think about the music.  And that is always a good thing.  I can’t help but recall Leonard Bernstein’s disagreement with Glenn Gould over the Brahms Piano Concerto No 1, in which the two had widely differing opinions about how the piece should be played.

Interested in hearing more from the International Tchaikovsky Competition?  Want to be an unofficial judge?  The performances of participants in the piano, cello, violin, and voice competitions can be found here.  This might be the soundtrack of your Monday!


Image attribution: Photograph of Tchaikovsky [public domain] from book Tchaikovsky by Edwin Evans.  London:  J.M. Dent & Co., New York:E.P. Dutton & Co., 1906

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Detroit Rach City: Free DSO Rachmaninoff/Stravinsky Webcast

On April 16, 2016 at 8 PM EDT (GMT-4) the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will present a free live webcast, titled “Ravishing Rachmaninoff.”

The program will include Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 1, featuring French pianist Lise de la Salle, and conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero of the Nashville Symphony.  Also on the program is Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and the world premiere of Something for the Dark by Sarah Kirkland Snider, a winner of the DSO’s Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award for female composers.

You can see the webcast at

PS For those who didn’t recognize it, the title is a play on the song Detroit Rock City by the rock group Kiss.  You now know how old I am.  Rach on!