Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

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Haiku Wednesday: Summer, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and Savings

Miniature of 'The Spanish Dance'; from Códice de trajes, Germany, 1547.

It’s summer! Have a party and dance!

In the northern climes,
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!

Vivaldi wrote some
Sonnets for The Four Seasons;
That I never knew!

The Four Seasons app
Is on sale for the summer,
And we say “Woo-hoo”!

Summer is here in the northern hemisphere.  School is out, the heat is ramping up, and summer thunderstorms blaze through, leaving (hopefully) cooler air in their wake.

People have been singing about summer for a long time.  The first stanza of today’s haiku refers to one of the earliest notated songs in English, Sumer Is Icumen In (loudly sing cuckoo).  The earliest manuscript dates to the mid- to late-13th century.  Here’s some sheet music to follow along, and here’s the tune.

Manuscript of song Sumer Is Icumen In from the British Library

Sumer Is Icumen In. MS Harley 978 f. 11v, British Library.

Somewhat later (between 1720 and 1723), Antonio Vivaldi wrote The Four Seasons.  You may hear familiar refrains, as it is frequently used in television commercials.  Something that I learned is that the piece is accompanied by four sonnets, possibly written by Vivaldi himself.  You can find the four sonnets in Italian and English in the link, but here is the translation of the one for summer (Boreas is the north wind):

Under the merciless sun
Languishes man and flock; the pine tree burns,
The cuckoo begins to sing and at once
Join in the turtledoves and the goldfinch.
A gentle breeze blows, but Boreas
Joins battle suddenly with his neighbor,
And the shepherd weeps because overhead
Hangs the dreaded storm, and his destiny.

His tired limbs are robbed of their rest
By his fear of the lightning and the heavy thunder
And by the furious swarm of flies and hornets.

Alas, his fears are well founded
There is thunder and lightning in the sky
And the hail cuts down the lofty ears of corn.1

The sonnet itself is broken into three sections, which is not uncommon for the sonnet form, but also echoes the three movements of the composition.  See if you can hear what is depicted above.  Here is Vivaldi’s Summer.

(I know it’s summer, but educators can find a teacher resource kit on Vivaldi and The Four Seasons at the link.  It’s written for students in grades 4-6, but I enjoyed reading it!)

Now, if you have an iPad or iPhone, you are in luck.  This summer, Touchpress is offering the Vivaldi Four Seasons app for $2.99 (70 percent off!)

Here’s a review of the Vivaldi Four Seasons app.  Here is the website for the app (which is available through the Apple iTunes App Store).

The Four Seasons app joins Touchpress’s other iPad offerings, The Liszt Sonata, The Orchestra, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (free!).

I hope you will enjoy lots of music this summer, and I hope your living is easy.

The blog will be on summer vacation for a week.  See you again soon!




Image attributions:

Miniature of ‘The Spanish Dance’; from Códice de trajes, Germany, 1547, BNE MS Res 285, ff. 2v-3r via  The original can be found at the Biblioteca Nacional de España BNE MS Res 285, ff. 2v-3r,

Manuscript of Sumer Is Icumen In, MS Harley 978 f. 11v.  British Library digitized manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons  See the original (and more) at the British Library website


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Antarctica: Its Symphonies

Steam rising from Mount Erebus, Earth's southernmost active volcano, Antarctica.

Steam rising from Mount Erebus, Earth’s southernmost active volcano, Antarctica. Photo credit: Eric Christian/NASA

The continent of Antarctica is an unknown land to most people.  It is one of Earth’s last frontiers.  It is dangerous.  It is unforgiving.  And it is starkly beautiful.

Antarctica has been the source of inspiration for a number of musical compositions. Here, I’d like to highlight two Antarctic symphonies.

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote the score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic.  He then used this material in the composition of his Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No 7). Here is the complete symphony.

Peter Maxwell Davies was selected to compose music with an Antarctic theme to mark the 50th anniversary of the Sinfonia Antartica.  After an excursion to Antarctica, Davies wrote his Antarctic Symphony (Symphony No 8).

Davies mentioned how strongly he was affected by the roar of cracking ice and an avalanche that he experienced during the expedition, describing the avalanche as “a whisper and a hiss that paradoxically seemed to be more profoundly quiet than the previous silence.”  You can read Davies’s notes on the Antarctic Symphony in the link.

This video of a calving glacier is not from Antarctica, but it might give you a sense of the wonder and, perhaps, terror, of the sounds that Davies heard, interpreted, and incorporated in his symphony.

And now, here is Davies’s Antarctic Symphony.

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Where To Find Other Chamber Music Players

Image: stick figure musicians overrun castle

What do you do if you’re an amateur musician, and you’ve decided that this getting together and making music thing I mentioned yesterday sounds like a pretty good idea, but you’re a cello short of a quartet?  Or you’re low, because there’s no oboe.  Or you need that sweet sound of an alto sax.

There’s a solution!

Visit the Amateur Chamber Music Players webpage and become a member.  They have a directory of thousands of amateur musicians around the globe who would love to get together with you and make some music.  That’s right, around the globe.  So pack your mandolin, bassoon, accordion, or whatever you have, or just your vocal cords if you’re a singer, and get ready for a road trip–or a trip around the corner.

With much thanks to Tom Benjamin for telling me about this fantastic resource.


Haiku Wednesday: Musical Meet-up, Medieval or Modern

Painting, The Concert, Gerard van Honthorst 1623. A group of musicians gathered around a table.

A long time ago,
Musicians would play tunes in
Small groups in some house.

If you were rich, a
String quartet or a duo
Might play tunes for you.

If you were poor, a
Fiddler, flute, drum and the like
Might play tunes with you.

Someone would sing a
Song of love, or of sadness,
(or both), or brave deeds.

On a fine spring night
Music and song would ring out.
Rich? Poor? Just happy.

Music is music,
There for everyone’s delight.
So let’s play and sing!

I was thinking about those days of old when music happened in the home.

That home might be a royal court, where nobility summoned the house musicians to play for events, or just because the noble felt like some music (ancient streaming).  Maybe the noble played an instrument too.  They might be good (because they had time on their hands to practice), or they might be bad—imagine having to listen to your boss play the flute badly as you smile broadly!

Or maybe a pick-up band would form in someone’s home (or maybe the local pub) and folks would take turns entertaining their friends with their newly-acquired skill or a new song that they heard (or wrote).  Someone would call out for an old favorite, and everyone would join in.

Or in a later time, when many homes had pianos, families would gather and sing, or someone would play with the family there nearby, reading, playing, knitting.  But music would fill the air.

That seems to be gone.  I use the word seems for a reason.

While it’s true that these days it seems like everyone is on their phone or computer or dashing around catching up on things left undone, gatherings of local musicians are not completely gone.  Gatherings of amateurs are not gone.

You might need to search a bit, but I believe you’ll find there are local halls, homes, even public venues, where musicians meet to play together.  In the US, one might check a site like for gatherings in your area (there’s a separate category for music).  Or you might join a local choral group.

Or start a gathering.  You probably know someone who plays a guitar or other instrument, someone who likes to sing.  Think of Schubert playing for a group of friends at someone’s home.  It could be your home.  Or, hey, how about a party where everyone brings their old band instruments?  They’re probably just lurking in some closet anyway.

Will it be professional grade?  Maybe, maybe not–who cares? Will it be fun?–absolutely.  Even the occasional squeaking reed or flubbed note is good for a laugh among good-natured friends.

(And at the end of the night, if someone decides they really don’t want to play their band clarinet anymore, why not urge them to donate it to a school?)

Hearing and learning other people’s music is learning about them.  New music can mean new friends.

Later I will meet with some other adult piano students, and we will play for each other.  I always hear music I have not heard before (and want to learn).  And we talk, and trade stories, and laugh.

And I already miss my choirs, their season of singing over for now.  We gather and sing and encourage each other at our practice sessions, and unite as one to bring beautiful music to our listeners.

Doesn’t that sound like more fun than some summer rerun on the television?


Image attribution: The Concert by Gerard van Honthorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,


A French Horn Mystery

French horn, hand, and question mark

Today I want to address a question that has been on the minds of concertgoers for, perhaps centuries.

Why do French horn players put their hand in the bell?

So I did a little research and I found out many things, but the first thing I found out is this:

French horns are complicated.

Playing them is complicated, their history and evolution is complicated, assembling them can even be complicated.

But back to the original question.  A long time ago, horns did not have valves, the buttons you press to alter the pitch.  It turns out you can produce several tones blowing through a valve-less horn, the natural tone of the horn and the overtones of that pitch (here’s an article on overtones).  But you can’t produce the whole scale.

When horn players put their hand in the bell of the horn, using the technique used as “hand stopping,” depending on how they shape their hand, they can alter the pitch of the tone, and get a full scale.  When the hand blocks the bell, it can also alter the timbre of the instrument.

Now that horns have valves, horn stopping is not strictly necessary, but is still used to alter timbre.

The scientifically-inclined among you may enjoy this article, “Spectral Analysis of the French Horn and the Hand-in-Bell Effect,” which also contains references to articles on the acoustics of other brass instruments.

Here is a portion of an interview with the first female French horn player (and first female in the horn section) of the Berlin Philharmonic, Sarah Willis, demonstrating horn stopping.

By the way, the instrument is called a French horn only in English.  Everywhere else it is called a horn.  Whether the instrument originated in France is a matter of some debate.

In the References section you will find a number of great resources to find out more details about this fascinating instrument.

But I can’t leave you without some actual horn music.  There is, of course, Mozart’s Horn Concerto No 2, among other great horn works, but I wanted you to hear this lovely horn and organ duo performance of Pie Jesu by Gabriel Fauré.


“Ten Facts You Should Know About the French Horn,”

The Arizona State University Horn Studio (a fine collection of articles and music)

Horn WikiBook with information on technique, repertoire, and more

Sarah’s [Sarah Willis] Horn Hangouts on her YouTube channel

Watts, Adam, “Spectral Analysis of the French Horn and the Hand-in-Bell Effect”,

WIkipedia-French horn


Image attributions: Hand from; French horn from Dover Ready-to-Use Old-Fashioned Music Illustrations.

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See the Cliburn Amateur Competition Live

Hands on piano keyboard

Piano enthusiasts, next week is your week!

The Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition is for “outstanding non-professional pianists age 35 and older.”  The competition can be seen via live webcast on June 19-25.  There will be over 40 hours of performances, commentary, and interviews.  The performances will also be available later for viewing on demand.

You can find the webcasts at  If you want to see what the kids have been up to, you can see videos from the 2015 Cliburn Junior Competition on The Cliburn’s YouTube channel.

Want more?  You can find videos from the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition on the YouTube channel of the Chopin Institute or on the Chopin Competition website.  Videos from the International Tchaikovsky Competition can be found on the YouTube channel of or on the website of the Tchaikovsky Competition.



Haiku Wednesday: Blogiversary Gift

No cat videos,
No cute animals at all.
No, just straight to work.

No Facebook for me,
No Twitter pix or the like.
Nope; straight to…YouTube.

See One Hundred Great
Works of Classical Music:
A playlist for you!

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) developed a program called Classical 100.  It’s 100 pieces of music selected to introduce elementary school children to classical music.  I’ve written about it.

I set myself the task of finding performance videos for the 100, so you could not only hear them, but see them performed.

And here is the result, my blogiversary gift to you:  a video playlist of the Classical 100.

You can always access the list under the tab at the top More Useful Stuff. When you hover over that tab, you’ll find the list right there with Dowland DIY Haiku (you can read more about that escapade in the post Haiku Wednesday: John Dowland, Cut-Up).

I hope you’ll enjoy it!