Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Chopin’s “Raindrop”

Raindrops on window

Raindrops on windows
Race each other like children,
Streaming down the glass.

The rainfall sounds like
Running feet.  Why are you in
Such a great hurry?

Even the streams rush,
Carrying hapless leaves that
Carelessly fell in.

They all find their way
To the sea by diff’rent paths
To be rain again.

And notes like raindrops
Fall again and again in
Patterns clearly heard.

Beautiful music
Weaves around these notes making
Streams of melodies,

Beginning in one
Form, changing, then returning
To where they began.

Slow down; refocus,
And you will hear and see things
As never before.

A rainy day made me think of Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude (Op. 28, No. 15).  It is one in a set of 24 preludes, one in each major and minor key.

Chopin did not give it the name “Raindrop”—in fact he was adamant that the music was not intended to be an imitation of any natural sound.  The suggestion came from an account by George Sand from the time when Chopin was writing the preludes.  She and her son were caught out in a rainstorm, and they returned to a distraught Chopin, who thought they were dead.  He said he had a dream, a nightmare, while playing the piano, that he had drowned, and heavy, icy drops of water were falling on his chest.  From this, he composed a prelude, presumed to be this one.1

In my post about Bach’s Magnificat I pointed out how Bach had used repeated notes.  You will hear Chopin use them here too.  It is these repeated notes that people associate with raindrops.  But it is important to hear how Chopin’s melodies weave in and around these repeated notes.  From the gentle beginning through the turbulent middle section, a storm if you will, to the return to a gentle conclusion, the repeated notes persist, even though there are the great changes in the music around them.  The result is pure genius.  I would suggest that you listen to the piece more than once; each time you listen, you will hear something new.

I hope you will enjoy Chopin’s Prelude No. 15, performed by Yundi Li.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prelude,_Op._28,_No._15_(Chopin)
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/music/western_tradition/chopin1.shtml

For sheet music of the full set of preludes see http://imslp.org/wiki/Preludes,_Op.28_(Chopin,_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric) . For the “Raindrop” Prelude by itself, see http://www.mutopiaproject.org/ftp/ChopinFF/O28/Chop-28-15/Chop-28-15-let.pdf

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Image attribution: Raindrops on a window by Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARain_drops_on_window_01_ies.jpg

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Stravinsky’s “Funeral Song”, Lost for 107 Years, To Be Performed

Cover of Stravinsky's

Stravinsky’s Funeral Song, long thought to be lost, has been found, and will be performed for the first time in 107 years on December 2, 2016.

Stravinsky wrote Funeral Song in 1908 as a tribute after the death of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov.  It was last performed in January 1909, with Felix Blumenfeld conducting.  The piece was never published, and was considered lost in the chaos and upheaval of the Russian Revolution.  Stravinsky said that Funeral Song was the best thing he had ever written before The Firebird, but, unfortunately, he could not remember the music to reconstruct it.  In memoirs written in 1935 Stravinsky said,

I no longer remember the music, but I recall very well my idea for the work.  It was like a procession of all the soli instruments of the orchestra, coming in turns to each leave a melody in the form of a wreath on the master’s tomb, all the while with a low background of murmuring tremolos, like the vibrations of bass voices singing in a choir.

Various attempts had been made over the years to find the piece, all in vain.  However, during building repairs at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, after removing pianos and tons of scores from a music library, a small, previously inaccessible storage area was uncovered.  Chillingly, the music was supposed to have been destroyed.  Luckily, librarian Irina Sidorenko called musicologist Natalia Braginskaya, a Stravinsky expert who had been seeking the work at the conservatory, to tell her Funeral Song had been found.

In all, 58 orchestral parts of the 106-measure piece, which is in A minor and marked with a tempo of Largo assai, were found.  Braginskaya and a team of experts at the conservatory worked to reconstruct the full orchestral score of the piece, which will be published by Boosey and Hawkes.  It is stated that the piece is marked by a romantic style uncharacteristic of later Stravinsky works, although some of the harmony and instrumentation is reminiscent of The Firebird.

Funeral Song will be performed on December 2, 2016 at 2PM by the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev.  A live webcast of the performance of Funeral Song may be seen on Medici.tv (see link for details).

For a glimpse of the score, here is a link to a Russian-language video about the discovery. English subtitles are provided.  The score may be seen beginning at time stamp 5:45.

References

  1. http://www.medici.tv/?utm_source=Mainlist&utm_campaign=f922db39eb-353_20161124_insc_en&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_ae558c6ab2-f922db39eb-320041237#/valery-gergiev-stravinsky-chant-funebre
  2. http://conservatory.ru/node/4043, Возвращение Погребальная песни Игора Стравинского [The Return of Igor Stravinsky’s Funeral Song]
  3. https://mariinsky.tv/1066 and https://youtu.be/fB6Cj-m_pMY [with English subtitles]
  4. https://mariinsky.tv/1067 and https://youtu.be/lPyZODmsxCI [with English subtitles].


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Haiku Wednesday: Thanksgiving

Cornucopia with fruit, vegetables, and sunflowers

‘Tis a gift to be
Simple; ‘tis a gift to be
Free.  And ‘tis a gift
To come down again
Where we are meant to be.  And
We will find ourselves
In the place just right:
The valley of love, delight.
Turn; we’ll come round right.

Tomorrow in the United States Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving.  For those who don’t know the story of the first Thanksgiving, people that we call the Pilgrims came to America hoping to start a new life in 1620.  Half of them died during the first winter.  The following year at harvest time the survivors had a great feast with their neighbors, the Native Americans of the region.

Thinking about this holiday and the music of America, Aaron Copland came to mind.  His Appalachian Spring includes an American folk tune, the Shaker song Simple Gifts, the words of which are paraphrased in the haiku above.

Today’s video is the portion of Appalachian Spring that uses Simple Gifts as a theme.  The ballet performed to Copland’s music was choreographed by Martha Graham.  This performance was filmed in 1959.

No matter where you are, I hope you will enjoy the company of family, friends, and colleagues tomorrow, and perhaps give a thought to what you are thankful for.

References

  1. http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/history/first-thanksgiving/
  2. https://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/homework-help/who-were-pilgrims

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Image attribution: Cornucopia image courtesy of Cliparts.co, http://cliparts.co/clipart/3700819


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Urtexts, Editions, and Artists, oh my!

blavatar2It’s been an odd morning.

I was about to work on this morning’s post, but I thought I should probably check email first.  In the process, I noticed that a particular online vendor had Bärenreiter Urtexts on sale.

That should have been my first clue that my life is a little different these days. The fact that I had received such an email at all.  Not to mention that I knew that an Urtext is a publication of the original score of a work as written by the composer, and that Bärenreiter is a major publisher of that type of score.

“Hey, what’s the big hurry?”

“Haven’t you heard?!  They’re having a sale on Urtexts at …”

Said no one ever.

So, I send my first improbable email of the morning, the one where I ask my choir director which vocal score we’re going to use for the spring performance.

Which vocal score.

When I started with the choir, I had never seen a vocal score before, and had to figure out which staff I was supposed to follow.  Now I’m asking which published version I need.

So I send that off, and am about to get back to this morning’s post when a new email comes in.  I am asked whether we have an audio snippet by Artist of a public domain work that we can use for publicity for Artist’s upcoming themed concert.  Because everyone gets emails like that, right?

So I see if we have anything that might be appropriate.  Well, maybe.  I look up what the copyright law is for my particular country.  Published before 1923 is probably ok.  Copyright is complicated.  But hey, presto, there’s something that might work.  Let me check the date on that composition.  Because everyone does that, right?

Well, it turns out there are two differing editions of the work.  The first one is in the public domain, but the second edition, which is a) more commonly performed, and b) published much later, is not.

So I find myself on the verge of sending the following email to Artist:

“Hi Artist,

“Could you tell me whether you used the first or second edition when you recorded Composition by Composer?”

Wrote no one ever.

As an alternative, I suppose I could have tried to find the two scores, or at least the public domain one, and listened to the recording, following the score…

Finding myself at risk of impersonating a musicologist (and what is the penalty for that crime?), I instead reply to the requester.

“Maybe.  How badly do you need it?”

Guess I’ll save my original post for another day.  I gotta go do a price check on Urtexts.


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Schubert and Andras Schiff

Portrait of Franz Schubert, around 1827

Franz Schubert c. 1827.

In my wanderings through the Internet, I came across a documentary on the life of Schubert presented by pianist András Schiff.  I enjoyed hearing Schiff’s perspectives on Schubert’s life and works, which to me lifted it from the realm of typical documentary fare. Schiff’s illustrative playing on a rather wonderful Bösendorfer make it that much better.

The Royal College of Music has made three of Schiff’s master classes available on their YouTube channel.  The classes are on Schumann, Schubert, and Haydn.

And now here is Schiff playing the Andantino from Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, D. 959.


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Haiku Wednesday: Tension

Piano strings

Strings in tension strain
Against powerful posts and
Await their calling.

Vibrating, they speak,
The sound echoes out across
All of space and time.

Too tense, and they break.
Too slack, and naught is produced.
Balance is the key.

 

I read a phenomenal statement last night.

A piano can have as many as 236 strings.  Each string is under a tension of 160-200 pounds.  In a regular piano, this translates to 18 tons.  In a concert grand, it is close to 30 tons.1

Wow.

Even a violin is subjected to 50 pounds of tension across its delicate frame.2

But tension alone does not produce music; these strings must move to create sound.  Combine tension and motion, and you produce something that must be seen to be believed.  Here is the vibration of a violin string in slow motion.

You don’t have to search for very long before finding articles full of gnarly equations on the physics of vibration, harmonics, and the Helmholtz corner (here’s an equation-free article on the bowing of a violin and another, aptly named “Why is the violin so hard to play?”).  It came as no surprise then to find that physicist Richard Feynman had turned his keen mind to piano tuning.  Feynman’s letter to his piano tuner can be found here.  I hope the tuner could read equations.3

We can all be grateful for the technical wizardry of Stradivarius and Guarneri and Babcock’s cast-iron frames that would have kept Liszt from wrecking his pianos, but let’s turn again to the music that can be coaxed from these taut strings.

I hope you will enjoy Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk playing the fourth movement of Franck’s Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano.

References

  1. http://www.piano.christophersmit.com/strings.html
  2. http://physicscentral.com/explore/action/fiddle.cfm
  3. http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic726013.files/Piano%20tuning.pdf

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Image attribution:  Piano strings, photo by Alan Levine from Strawberry, United States (Music Strings) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Piano_strings_6.jpg


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Veterans Day

Veterans Day poster of silhouettes of soldiers against a sky

Today we remember those who have served in the armed forces; in some parts of the world this is called Remembrance Day or Armistice Day.

I have already written about the music written for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.  Music has also been written for those who survived, but who paid a terrible price.

In The Wound Dresser, John Adams sets the poetry of Walt Whitman, who as a volunteer nurse cared for Civil War soldiers.  You can hear John Adams talk about his composition here.

The pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in World War I.  He approached a number of composers, commissioning works written for the piano using the left hand alone.  Ravel wrote the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.  Erich Korngold wrote a piano concerto that Wittgenstein liked so much (Op. 17), he commissioned a second, a suite for two violins, cello, and piano (Op. 23).  Benjamin Britten’s Diversions for piano left hand and orchestra (Op. 21) was also written for Wittgenstein, as was Prokofiev’s Concerto No 4.  In all, Wittgenstein commissioned around 40 pieces for piano left hand.

Frank Bridge wrote Three Improvisations for his friend Douglas Fox who lost his arm in World War I.

Leoš Janáček (Capriccio for Piano and Winds) and Bohuslav Martinů (Divertimento for Piano and Chamber Orchestra) wrote music for Czech pianist Otakar Hollman, whose right hand was permanently injured in World War I (Hollman plays in the links given above).  For more on the genre of piano left hand music, see the articles referenced below, and the lefthandpianomusic YouTube channel.

The music I want to feature today is by George Butterworth, considered one of the promising composers of the early 20th century.  I was surprised in my research to find film of Butterworth dancing—he was a Morris dancer.  The film dates from 1912.  Butterworth was cut down by a sniper’s bullet during the Battle of the Somme in World War I.  Here is Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow.

A heartfelt thank you to all those who have served, and may all those who now serve come home safely.

Freedom isn’t free.

References

http://www.classicfm.com/discover/music/left-hand-piano-music/

https://crosseyedpianist.com/2012/05/14/guest-post-a-history-of-left-hand-piano/

Photograph of the blogger's father as a soldier, 1945

My father, 1945

Wounded Warriors Family Support http://www.wwfs.org/wounded-warriors-family-support/information-main/about-us

Fisher House Foundation https://www.fisherhouse.org/about/

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) http://www.taps.org/about/

Image attribution: Detail of poster created for Veterans Day 2008 by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (http://www1.va.gov/opa/vetsday/gallery.asp) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVeterans_day_2008_poster.jpg