Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Winter

Trees covered in ice and snowCardinal in ice-covered tree

Ice has turned the trees
Into a fine filigree:
A shawl of white lace,

Tracery beaded
With berries, ‘til cardinals
And jays replace them.

Water droplets cling
To the tips of icicles,
Forming pearl-edged fringe.

Winter’s shawl remains
Until spring smiles and dons her
New leafy green dress.

Snowy winters have been a great source of inspiration to countless composers.  I thought I’d present a few and give you some resources to find more if you would like a playlist that provides the sonic image of a snowy day (whether you’re in the midst of one looking out at the falling snow with a cup of hot cocoa, or sipping a cool drink while looking for a little relief from sweltering heat).

Here is Tchaikovsky’s December, performed by Denis Matsuev, from The Seasons.

And how can we forget Vivaldi?  Here is the first movement of Winter performed by Voices of Music from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

Want more?  Check out WQXR’s page “10 Pieces That Sound Like a Winter Wonderland”, as well as Classic fm’s “Winter Music.”  If you subscribe to a music streaming service, I’m sure you can find more classical winter playlists for your listening pleasure.

And to close, a wonderful percussion performance of Debussy’s The Snow is Dancing from The Children’s Corner.

 

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Image attributions: Trees covered in snow and ice, photo by C. Gallant, 2016.  Cardinal in tree branches covered in ice, photo courtesy of Genuine Kentucky website [no photographer credit given], http://www.genuinekentucky.com/kentucky-is-even-beautiful-covered-in-ice-pictures-of-the-day/.


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Explore Beethoven Piano Sonatas with Jonathan Biss on Coursera

Ludwig van Beethoven Jonathan Biss, photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Pianist Jonathan Biss has created a new set of lectures on selected Beethoven piano sonatas on Coursera.org.  The course is free, and is designed “for people of all levels of experience with Beethoven’s music (including no experience at all!).”1 This set of lectures will cover Sonata No. 3, Op. 2, No. 3; Sonata No. 8, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”); Sonata No. 21, Op. 53 (“Waldstein”); and Sonata No. 27, Op. 90.

This course, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Part 2, will begin in mid-January, but you can enroll now.

The first course, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, will begin again on January 2, but you can enroll now as well.  This course provides an overview of the 32 sonatas, and contains a wealth of detail on the sonatas themselves and music history.

I took the first course, enjoyed it, and learned a lot.  You can read more about the course in an earlier blog post.  You may learn more about Jonathan Biss at his website, which contains the least serious biography I have ever seen.

Biss is in the process of recording all 32 of the Beethoven piano sonatas, and several CDs have already been released.

Follow this link for my post containing more free Beethoven resources.

Follow this link for my post containing more on Beethoven’s late string quartets.

And now, here is Jonathan Biss performing Beethoven’s Sonata No 5 in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 1.

 

References

  1. https://www.coursera.org/learn/exploring-beethoven-piano-sonatas-2
  2. http://www.jonathanbiss.com/

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Image attributions: Beethoven, Painting by Carl Jäger (1833-1887), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beethoven_.jpg.  Jonathan Biss, photo by Benjamin Ealovega, http://www.jonathanbiss.com/img/publicity/Jonathan_Biss_104_credit_Benjamin_Ealovega.jpg.

 


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Catapulting Without a Net: The View is Amazing

Stick figure flying through the air, notated music trailing behind

Recently I had the great pleasure of singing Bach’s Magnificat in a fantastic choir with marvelous soloists and musicians.  It was a thrilling performance, the music ringing in the hall, simply glorious.

Each time I sing one of the great choral masterpieces with them, it’s like adding another sparkling jewel to a treasure chest—the Brahms German Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Vespers.  Each one has its own unique beauty, and I learn something new from each one of them.  Readers are already aware of some of the things I learned in preparing Magnificat (see here and here).  But there’s something else that made this performance special, a first.

I sang it from memory.

But the memorizing itself is unimportant compared to what I learned from the performance.

It is amazing the things you notice when you can manage to pry the score loose from the death-grip with which your hands cling to it, fearful of missing a note or an entrance (or, worse, committing an unintentional solo), and raise your head for a prolonged period.

First, you notice the attentive, expectant faces of the audience.  This would be terrifying if it weren’t for the fact that most of them are smiling.  This only strengthens your commitment to sing your best for them.

Next, the choir director, whom you should be looking at most of the time anyway (but probably don’t—see death-grip above).  But instead of the glance up from the score to check in for tempo, dynamics, a cue or special instruction (usually notated in my score by “WATCH!”), you get to see when they’re not looking at you (instead of vice versa).  And you realize, as they cue every entry for every voice, that you’re not the only one who has things memorized, and in fact, they’ve memorized much more than you have.  Which is just one of the reasons why they’re standing on a podium, and you’re not.

Another thing you notice, something you may take for granted, is the voices surrounding you.  I don’t mean the person standing next to you, against whom you might cautiously check your pitch and volume.  I heard the lines of entire sections, the earth-rumbling basses stating the fugue theme, the sopranos and altos singing the wonderful descending lines of the Gloria, fluttering downward like a twirling, falling leaf.  The tenors adding their color notes and flourishes, voices arching dramatically skyward.  And the sound is bigger, because you’re not hearing individual raindrops anymore—you’re hearing a torrent of notes.

And the instrumental music, by turns sweet, jingling, thundering, soul-stirring, each interweaving line issuing forth from the hands of a masterful musician, without whom the voices would seem incomplete.  Fingers, flying, execute a precise figure, partnered in this instance with fleet-footed organ pedaling.  A dance indeed.

You recognize the staggering number of hours that have been devoted by everyone to make this music come to life.

And finally, Bach.  You realize he’s taken the word “dispersit” (scatters) and depicted it in the music, as it is repeated first to your left, then your right, directly in front of you, in back—surround sound hundreds of years before it existed. That beautiful phrase you recognize from the St. Matthew Passion?  He used it here first, but you didn’t notice it before.  And again and again he weaves magic into the music, and you are left awestruck by his genius.

I hope you will take time today to look up, and listen, and perhaps catch something you’ve been missing.

Me?  I have a new score to memorize.

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Image attribution: Musical catapulting stick figure. Copyright Chris Gallant 2015.


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Learning (and Describing) How Music Works: Free Online Resources

Cartoon by Toby Rush, man describing a musical passage to a woman "And then the bassoon choir comes in like flaming honeydew melons from on high"

Cartoon from “Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People” by Toby Rush.

You can enjoy music without knowing how it works, but knowing even a little bit will help you hear things you might have missed otherwise (for example, those repeated notes in Bach’s Magnificat and Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude).

And you’ll be able to describe to people what’s great in the music you’ve heard.  There are lots of great resources to help you learn how.

I recently found a set of pages explaining various aspects of music notation (and more) using a format you don’t typically see:  it looks like a graphic novel.  And I love the title:

Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People

While there’s a lot of information on each page, it’s very pleasing to the eye and easy to read.  The pages are available in several languages, and the English-language pages include British and American versions to accommodate, for example, the differing names for note lengths (quaver versus eighth note).

Read these pages, and soon you too will be able to casually toss around terms like “circle of fifths,” “complex meter,” “species counterpoint,” and “motivic development”!

But if you find yourself saying, “Hold on there, Sparky (Sparky is the Music Theory Dog of the series), you’re getting a little ahead of me,” here are some more options.

Coursera’s online course “Fundamentals of Music Theory,” offered by the University of Edinburgh, will start up on January 30, 2017 (a little off-topic, but also on Coursera, Yale University’s course “Introduction to Classical Music” begins January 2, 2017).

If you don’t have a lot of time, try  http://oneminutemusiclesson.com/lessons/

If you like to go at your own pace, see http://www.musictheory.net/lessons

If you’re keen on lots of details, check out  http://www.dolmetsch.com/theoryintro.htm

If you like using flash cards, look at the musical offerings on Memrise.com

Spend a little time at any of these websites, and pretty soon you’ll be able to say

Photo of Clara Schumann captioned "I see what you did there"

Just watch out for those flaming honeydew melons.

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Image attributions:  Cartoon from Toby Rush’s “Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People” http://tobyrush.com/theorypages/

Clara Schumann, photograph by Elliott & Fry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AClara_Schumann%2C_pianist_and_wife_of_Robert_Schumann_(crop).jpg


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Music is Everywhere

Here are some musicians finding music in very unusual places.  Enjoy!

First, the Triple Concerto for Faucet, Water Pipes, and Fiddle

And now, Siegfried’s Horn Call for Horn (and Chair)

And this post would not be complete without P.D.Q. Bach’s “Erotica” Variations for Banned Instruments (safe for work, despite title!).  My favorite is the lasso d’amore (the orange whirly tube).

See if you can find some unexpected music today!


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Free Concert Webcast: Emanuel Ax and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Play Beethoven, Elgar

Pianist Emanuel Ax

Pianist Emanuel Ax. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Here’s another free webcast from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra!  On December 11, 2016 at 3PM (GMT -5) pianist Emanuel Ax will be featured in a program of Beethoven and Elgar. Leonard Slatkin will conduct.  Here’s the program:

Beethoven:  Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus

Beethoven:  Piano Concerto No. 2

Elgar:  Symphony No. 1

If you can’t see the webcast at that time, the DSO offers an reasonably-priced alternative. For a donation to the orchestra of $50 or more, you can access DSO Replay, their catalog of previous webcasts, for a year.  There are over 100 works available, viewable on desktops, tablets, and mobile devices, in high-definition, and more than 26 new concerts are added during the season.  Find out more about DSO Replay here.


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The Sugar Plum Fairy’s Celesta

‘Tis the season for Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, and one of the most well-known pieces from that work is the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

So how do you get that magical tinkling sound?  The celesta.

The celesta is a keyboard instrument that produces its sound through the striking of metal plates with little hammers connected to the keys, in the same way that pianos strike strings.

Here is a video from the Colorado Springs Philharmonic introducing the celesta.

If you are interested in a more in-depth treatment of the mechanics and the manufacturing of celestas, see this video from Schiedmayer Celesta GmbH.

Would you like to see The Nutcracker in its entirety?  You can!  EuroArts presents it on YouTube (with minimal commercial interruption).  You can find the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy at time stamp 1:29:00.  If you would like to see a purely orchestral version, you can see The Nutcracker performed by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (with the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy at 1:22:00).

But the celesta doesn’t go back in the storage room after the Christmas season!  It is used in a number of other works, namely Mahler’s Symphony No. 6Symphony No. 8, and Das Lied von der Erde, as well as several symphonies by Shostakovich.  A wonderful use of the celesta can be found in Gustav Holst’s The Planets in the mystical final movement Neptune.

It can also be found in Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite, and many operas.

Listen, and I think you’ll be surprised how often you’ll find the celesta adding that extra bit of magic to the music around you!