Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Schubert’s Serenade

Portrait of Franz Schubert, around 1827

Franz Schubert, around 1827.

My songs call to you
Through the night in this still grove;
Come, my beloved.

Leaves rustle softly
In the moonlight; do not fear
A betraying spy.

The nightingales’ call
Beckons you sweetly to come,
Come, my love, to me.

They know of longing,
Love’s pain; they soothe each faint heart
With silvery singing.

Let your heart be stirred,
Hear me, trembling I await.
Come, make me happy.

One Sunday, during the summer of 1826, Schubert with several friends was returning from Potzleinsdorf to the city, and on strolling along through Währing, he saw his friend Tieze sitting at a table in the garden of the “Zum Biersack.” The whole party determined on a halt in their journey. Tieze had a book lying open before him, and Schubert soon began to turn over the leaves. Suddenly he stopped, and pointing to a poem, exclaimed, “such a delicious melody has just come into my head, if I but had a sheet of music paper with me.” Herr Doppler drew a few music lines on the back of a bill of fare, and in the midst of a genuine Sunday hubbub, with fiddlers, skittle players, and waiters running about in different directions with orders, Schubert wrote that lovely song.1

And so the beauty of the stillness of night and a lover’s longing were captured in music.  And a sweet serenade was composed amidst clinking glasses, crashing bowling pins, loud music, and chatter.  Amazing.

Schubert’s Ständchen (Serenade) is one of his later songs, published posthumously as part of the collection Swanengesang (Swan Song). Ständchen is a setting of a poem by Ludwig Rellstab.  The haiku above is a recasting of Rellstab’s poem.

You can find the German lyrics and an English translation hereA score is hereArrangements for various ensembles (and Liszt’s piano solo arrangement) may be found at the link.

It is pointless for me to say anything more about this beautiful song; just listen.

Here is Ständchen performed by tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Antonio Pappano.

If you’d like to hear a purely instrumental version, here is a lovely performance by violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Rohan de Silva.

References

  1. Von Hellborn, Kreissle, The Life of Franz Schubert Vol. 2, trans. by Arthur Duke Coleridge. London:  Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869, P 75-76.

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Image attribution: Portrait of Franz Schubert by Franz Eybl, attributed to Anton Depauly, previously thought to be Joseph Mähler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFranz_Schubert_c1827.jpg

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A Cup of Jo(hann): Bach’s Coffee Cantata

Cup of coffee with Bach on it

 

“If I can’t, three times a day,
Be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee,
In my anguish I will turn into
A dried-up roast goat.”

This is the lament heard in Johann Sebastian Bach’s secular cantata BWV 211, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht [Be still, stop chattering], which is better known as the Coffee Cantata.

In this little comic cantata, a father bemoans the fact that his daughter cannot live without coffee.  He tries to find a way to persuade her to stop drinking it.  She agrees to quit if he can find a suitable husband, but she exacts a promise from her suitors that she will be permitted to continue to drink coffee.  She sings,

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
Lovelier than a thousand kisses,
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I must have coffee,
And, if someone wants to delight me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift.

This coffee commercial brought to you by Zimmermann’s coffee house.

Bach actually had a gig in a coffee house, in fact, Zimmermann’s.  He directed a small ensemble, the collegium musicum that met regularly at Zimmermann’s and played for the customers.  Can you imagine sitting there drinking your coffee and listening to Bach play?  This ensemble, with evolving membership, had been playing in Leipzig for years, and had previously been led by Kuhnau and Telemann(!)

Here is a full performance of the Coffee Cantata conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

You can see the German lyrics and English translation here.

So grab a cup of coffee and enjoy a break with Bach!

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Image attributions:  Image of coffee cup By lual (Open Clip Art Library image’s page) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACoffee_cup_icon.svg.

Image of J. S. Bach.  Artist unknown, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJohannSebastianBach1685-1750UndSoehne.jpg.

Mashup by C. Gallant.

 


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Composers’ Cats, Cat Composers, and Fugues for Friday

Drawing of cat walking on music manuscript

It’s almost Caturday, people, almost the weekend.  So let’s have some fun!

Wait, not a cat fan?  OK, here’s a Fugue for Friday for you (free sheet music available; see link).

In researching the post on Borodin’s cats, I found some fun stuff for the cat fans among you.

Here you can see the history of classical music in cat GIFs.

Here is a collection of composers and their favorite felines.

And then (as if that weren’t enough) cats that look like famous composers.

As you could imagine from the scene at Borodin’s house, cats probably regularly “helped” him as he wrote and played his music.  This kind of help has been offered for a long time:  in the 15th century, a cat left its mark on a medieval manuscript.

And then, in the 1700s, according to legend, Domenico Scarlatti’s cat Pulcinella walked across the keyboard (which was said to be a common occurrence) prompting him to write a fugue on the cat’s theme.  While Scarlatti himself never called it the Cat Fugue, the Fugue in G Minor (K. 30, L. 499) has been known by that nickname ever since.

You might also enjoy this jazzy adaptation of Scarlatti’s cat fugue by Greg Anderson, performed here by Anderson and Roe.

And if this hasn’t been enough frivolity for you, here’s the Nyan Cat Fugue, featuring triple invertible counterpoint and humorous commentary.

Have a relaxing weekend!  Here is a photo of composer Amy Beach enjoying tea with a friend and a cat.

Composer Amy Beach (right), Marcella Craft, and cat warily eyeing photographer H. Wiedenmann, 1913. Courtesy University of New Hampshire Library.

Composer Amy Beach (right), Marcella Craft, and cat warily eyeing photographer H. Wiedenmann, 1913. Courtesy University of New Hampshire Library.

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Photo attribution:  Photo of Amy Beach, Marcella Craft, and cat from the University of New Hampshire Library, Special Collections, the Amy Cheney Beach collection.  Photo taken February 14, 1913 by H. Wiedenmann, Munich.  This photo available at Flicker:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/unhlibrary/15594465084/in/album-72157650163621065/


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Haiku Wednesday: Borodin’s Cats

Alexander BorodinCats were everywhere:
The dining table, even
Borodin’s shoulders.

 

Cats—the Internet is full of them.

And, apparently, so was Borodin’s house.

Rimsky-Korsakov tells the story of visiting Alexander Borodin and having to contend with his numerous cats.  When Rimsky-Korsakov would try to shoo a cat away from his plate, as cats sauntered across the dining table, Borodin’s wife would attempt to excuse the cat’s behavior and tell a story about it.  She named one Fisher (Ribolov) because he liked to catch fish with his paw through holes in the ice of the river.  Another cat had the habit of bringing orphaned kittens home, and they too found a home with the Borodins.

But sometimes even Borodin’s limits were tested.  When one nestled upon his shoulders for a snooze, becoming a too warm and heavy scarf, Borodin said, “Listen, Your Majesty, this has gotten out of hand.”  But Borodin didn’t move—and neither did the cat.

And now, some music.  Here are Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor (you can read more about them here).

References

А. П. Бородин в воспоминаниях современников [A. P. Borodin in the Reminiscences of His Contemporaries], edited by A. P. Zorina.  Moscow: Muzyka, 1985, p 57, which quotes Rimsky-Korsakov’s autobiography, Летопись моей музыкальной жизни [My Musical Life], (various editions available in Russian and English).

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Image attribution:  Alexander Borodin, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABorodin.jpg

 


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Biber Fever

Heinrich Biber

No, I’m not talking about Justin.  I’m talking about a composer whose music has been widely praised for centuries.  The one whose works have posed challenges for generations of musicians.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) was a composer and violinist whose innovations in violin technique opened new inroads to the exploration of the possibilities of the instrument.

Biber developed fingering and bowing techniques that made it possible to make more extensive use of the neck and use multiple stops so that polyphony could be played.  Here is a brilliant example, Biber’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in E Minor.

Biber also made ample use of alternate tunings (scordatura) in his compositions.  In his Mystery Sonatas (also called the Rosary Sonatas or Copper-Engraving Sonatas*) each sonata requires a different tuning for the violin (!).  Biber’s passacaglia at the end of the Mystery Sonatas has been recognized as one of the earliest known solo violin works, and may well have influenced Bach in the composition of his ChaconneHere is Biber’s beautiful passacaglia.

In addition to his violin music, Biber also wrote a large number of vocal works, including masses, requiems, and motets.  He also wrote at least one opera.  A performance of Biber’s Requiem may be seen here.

While many of his vocal works featured large choirs and large orchestras (the Missa Salsburgensis calls for several choirs, with a total of 53 vocal parts; here’s an excerpt), he was also adept at writing for more modest ensembles.  His Stabat Mater is for just four voices.

An unusual and noteworthy piece is Battalia, Biber’s musical representation of a battle and its aftermath.  Biber incorporates dissonance, uses the cello to represent a drum, and in short, creates a piece of music that does not sound like it was written in 1673.  A detailed description can be found here.

Be sure to check out the Heinrich Biber Homepage for a discography, list of recordings, and detailed articles on the composer and his works.  Biber scores may be found here.

Biber was well known and imitated in his lifetime and was acclaimed as a composer well into the 18th century.  Thereafter, Biber’s music fell out of favor, but there has been a recent resurgence of interest in his music, leading to a number of performances and new recordings.

Looks like Biber is making a comeback.

[Postscript:  Indeed!  Hours after posting this I found out a recording of Biber’s Rosary Sonatas had won Gramophone’s 2016 Baroque Instrumental Award.]

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*The sonatas were dedicated to and presented to the Archbishop of Salzburg in a score that included copper engravings at the head of each sonata.  You can see the copper engravings at the bottom of the linked page.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinrich_Ignaz_Franz_Biber
  2. http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Heinrich_Ignaz_Franz_von_Biber.aspx
  3. http://www.bluntinstrument.org.uk/biber/
  4. https://www.sfsymphony.org/Watch-Listen-Learn/Read-Program-Notes/Program-Notes/Biber-Battalia-a-9.aspx
  5. Gilman, Kurt Ardee, The Importance of Scordatura in the Mystery Sonatas of Heinrich Biber, https://ttu-ir.tdl.org/ttu-ir/bitstream/handle/2346/13688/31295006549181.pdf

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Image attribution: Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, 1681, engraving by Paulus Seel, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heinrich_Biber.png


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Haiku Wednesday: Mompou

Mist over a lake

How like a haiku
Is the music of Mompou:
What is needed, stays;
What is not, is gone.
Once the image is painted
The sound fades away.

“The music of Federico Mompou is the music of evaporation.”1

These words by pianist Stephen Hough caught my attention.  I hadn’t heard the name Mompou, or his music, for a few years.  At that time I had heard some pieces from his Canciones y Danzas (Songs and Dances).  And delicate little pieces they were.

But evaporation?  Definitely.  Let me explain.

In his delicate miniatures, Mompou distilled his music down to quintessential elements.  It is simple in the way a haiku is simple—there may be few notes, few words, but they are exactly the ones needed to convey the thought, nothing extraneous is included.  Some pieces even dispense with the bar lines separating measures of music in a seeming suspension of time.  Listen to Impresiones intimas (Intimate Impressions) No 1, the first piece in this video, just one minute in length.

Mompou began writing music in 1917, and was an honorary member of Les Six in Paris.  He was still writing in 1979.  Perhaps his most well-known work is Música Callada (Silenced Music; typically translated as Music of Silence or Silent Music), a cycle of music written in four books between 1959 and 1967.

Mompou’s works have been recorded by many performers.  In this video Canción y danza No. 6 is performed by six different pianists (so you can compare their approaches). Here is a video of Mompou playing his own work and telling stories about his life (in Spanish, no English subtitles).

Here is a documentary for Spanish-speakers (no English subtitles available).

Here soprano Victoria de los Ángeles sings Mompou’s Damunt de tu només les flors (Above you, only the flowers) with Mompou at the piano.

Here pianist Alicia de Larrocha plays Mompou’s Canciones y danzas with the score in the background.

Those who would like to play the music of Mompou may benefit from the contents of a letter written by Mompou’s wife, pianist Carmen Bravo.  Here is a translated excerpt:

The majority of pianists who play the works of F. M., despite their obvious dedication and the loving care with which they interpret it, do not always manage to comprehend the blend of spirituality, poetry, and passion intermingled in it, and, many times they highlight one of these elements too much, forgetting the others, or relegating them to a secondary status.  Another essential factor in the interpretation of this music is its characteristic “rubato,” which is difficult to apply, and apply judiciously.2

So much to consider in so few notes.  It is indeed the art of haiku.

“My only desire is to write works in which nothing is missing and nothing is superfluous.”

Federico Mompou

References

  1. Stephen Hough, official website, writings, http://www.stephenhough.com/writings/album-notes/mompou-piano-music.php
  2. Fundació Frederic Mompou, http://fundaciomompou.cat/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Consells-de-Carmen-Bravo-sobre-la-musica-de-F.Mompou.pdf . Translation by C. Gallant.

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Image attribution: Photo by Eric Christian, copyright 2016.


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Advice to Not-So-Young Musicians

In case you missed it in my Twitter feed, I thought you might enjoy this humorous video, “How To Be a Classical Musician.”

Since you’re reading this, you are likely to be over five years of age, and (according to the video) too old to learn violin, so, if you don’t play an instrument already, which instrument would be best for you?  Again, more silliness to help you make your selection, a funny flowchart titled “Which musical instrument should I choose?”  It is too detailed to see small on this page, so the link takes you to the attachment page, where you can magnify it clearly (click the image, then click it again to magnify).

The long and short of it all?  It doesn’t matter–pick the instrument you love/can afford/can fit in your space/can play without getting evicted.  If that doesn’t work out, pick another one. And don’t let little things hold you back.

rit

Want more advice?  See the Robert Schumann essay from which my title is drawn, “Advice to Young Musicians,” which I have written about previously (see post here).  Cellist Steven Isserlis will release a new version of this classic soon that includes his own insights.

And then, to quote a more recent source of musical advice, “Rumble, young musicians, rumble.”1

References

  1. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/bruce-springsteen-gives-advice-to-young-musicians-at-sxsw/

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Image attributions: Musical instrument flowchart from the now defunct Sinfini Music, which has been absorbed by Deutsche Grammophon.  Ritardando illustration from https://flic.kr/p/bDbXTR