Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


3 Comments

That Jokester Joseph Haydn!

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy

The last post was kind of heavy, so I thought I’d lighten things up.  And what better way than with a joke?

In particular, Joseph Haydn’s string quartet Op. 33 No. 2, known as “The Joke.”

In this string quartet, Haydn plays with the listener’s expectations of what a string quartet “should” sound like, what the listener expects to hear.  And when we are surprised by what we hear, sometimes we laugh.  And sometimes we jump—this is, after all, the same man who wrote the “Surprise” Symphony (No. 94)You can hear the symphony’s famous second movement here (headphone/earbud listeners might want to pull them away from their ears before time stamp 0:40).

I found a great short TEDx talk by the St. Lawrence String Quartet on the last movement of “The Joke”  that provides a fun explanation of what Haydn is up to.  When the movement ends, you can’t help but chuckle.

They also have an extended discussion that includes other movements of the string quartet, and that video can be found here.

A funny point is brought out that involves the minuet (scherzo) movement.  This minuet had already showed signs of Haydn’s tinkering:  the “graceful” minuet had some starts and stops that would make it a little difficult to dance to.  Then, (in the trio section) Haydn put an interesting fingering notation over some notes.  Editors must have scratched their heads and said, “that can’t be right—play two successive notes on the same string with the same finger?!”  What you end up with, if you play it with Haydn’s fingering, is an effect that sounds like…well, a slide whistle.  It’s a funny sound, perhaps slightly inebriated-sounding, that seems to poke fun at the stately minuet.  You can hear a wonderful example of it here.

Ah, but enough explanations!  Let’s let Haydn do the talking.  Here is this wonderful string quartet in its entirety.  Enjoy!

_____

Image attribution: Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1757-circa 1805) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJoseph_Haydn.jpg


1 Comment

Haiku “Wednesday”: Better Late than Never

Frederic Chopin

Consider Chopin,
Whose pianistic brilliance
Reached beyond the grave:

His unpublished works
Were supposed to be destroyed;
But fate intervened.

But then sometimes fate
Abruptly ends the music–
Sometimes in mid-line.

These posthumous works
Let the creative candle
Burn a bit longer,

Another insight
Into the life and soul of
A voice lost to us.

Work gets interrupted, whether it’s the humble writing of a blog, or the composition of a symphony.   Sometimes things are…terminally interrupted, or lie finished, but unpublished, languishing long after a composer’s death.

Chopin requested that all unpublished works that were “not worthy of me” be destroyed after his death.1  But Chopin’s mother and sisters countermanded that, and had Chopin’s friend Julian Fontana pick out the best pieces, which were then published and cataloged as posthumous works.2,3

And this is hardly a unique case.  After Schubert’s death, some of his unpublished songs were gathered into a song cycle that was called Schwanengesang (Swan Song).  While some of the songs appeared on consecutive pages in Schubert’s manuscript version, by no means were all of the songs unambiguously meant to be presented together, and his last song, Taubenpost, was clearly added by the publisher.4

And then there is the matter of incomplete works.  Schubert’s eighth symphony remained unfinished at the time of his death.  Mozart’s Requiem was incomplete—he had written sketches for several movements, and it fell to Franz Süssmayr to complete it, who added some movements of his own for good measure.

Bach’s The Art of Fugue ends in the middle of a fugue.  Mahler’s last symphony was unfinished, and Puccini’s opera Turandot was missing part of the finale at the time of his death.5

Last page of Bach's The Art of Fugue

Last page of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. The note written by CPE Bach says, “in this fugue, where the name B A C H is introduced in the countersubject, the composer died.”

In some cases, the works are presented as is (Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9).  But given the human nature to tinker, some latter-day composers have tried their hand at completing some of these incomplete works based on the composer’s sketches (see here for a list).  Not all of these extrapolations have been universally accepted.  They are interesting experiments though.

Some works that see the light of day only posthumously may be awkward yearbook pictures from a composer’s youth, others unsuccessful experiments that the composer neglected to pitch into the fireplace.  Others, gems that lacked a bit of polishing and a publisher.  Yet all give one more glimpse into the composer’s life, like finding a photo of a relative long gone.  I cannot help but quote Douglas Hofstadter’s poignant reference to a Chopin étude (please forgive the length) from his book I Am a Strange Loop.6

One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parents’ house, and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, aid to me, with a note of despair, “What meaning does that photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.” The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remark set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.

After a few minutes of emotional pondering—soul-searching, quite literally—I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines.

“In the living room we have a book of the Chopin études for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad—and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the world for 150 years now.  Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning.  Those pianists in turn have conveyed to many millions of listeners, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Frédéric Chopin’s heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Chopin’s interiority—to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Frédéric Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards—scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Frédéric Chopin. Each of those strange geometries of notes has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experiences of another human being—his sufferings, his joys, his deepest passions and tensions—and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be that human being, and many people feel intense love for him.  In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again, but in the medium of brains other than his own.   Like the score to a Chopin étude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.”

 

I think it’s appropriate to close with a work that might never have been heard: Chopin’s Nocturne in C -sharp minor.

References

  1. http://www.radiochopin.org/episodes/item/862-episode-163-fryderyk-posthumous-chopin-polonaise-in-b-flat-minor-adieu-a-guillaume-kolberg
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miscellaneous_compositions_(Chopin)
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_compositions_by_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric_Chopin_by_opus_number#Published_posthumously_2
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwanengesang
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unfinished_creative_work
  6. Hofstadter, Douglas R., I Am a Strange Loop. New York: Basic Books, 2007 pp 9-10.

Image attribution: Final page of Bach’s The Art of Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Berlin State Library, Germany.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABach-unfinishedfugue.jpg .  The note at the end, written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, says, “in this fugue, where the name B A C H is introduced in the countersubject, the composer died.”


1 Comment

America’s Musical Presidents

boom-box-lincoln

Here in the United States it is Presidents’ Day.  Last year, I talked about America’s first presidents and founding fathers and their connections with music.  But there have been a few other American presidents who played musical instruments—and I found some footage to show you!

I’ve already talked about Thomas Jefferson, who was a talented musician and great lover of music.

John Quincy Adams, sixth president and son of John Adams, the second president, played the flute, and even composed some pieces for flute while a student at Harvard.1

John Tyler, tenth president, wanted to become a concert violinist, but took up law instead.1

Ulysses S. Grant, however, is known for this quote:3

“I only know two tunes.  One of them is Yankee Doodle and the other isn’t.”

Chester A. Arthur, one of our lesser-known presidents, played the banjo1

Chester A Arthur with banjo

Chester A. Arthur with banjo

Woodrow Wilson, violinist and glee club tenor,4 said during World War One, “Music now, more than ever before, is a national need.”1

Warren G. Harding organized the Citizen’s Cornet Band, and said, “I played every instrument but the slide trombone and E-flat cornet”1

Warren G Harding with sousaphone

Warren G. Harding with sousaphone

Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan played the harmonica.2

Franklin Roosevelt played the piano and sang in his school choir.2

His successor, Harry S. Truman, also played the piano,1 and you can hear a snippet here.

Richard Nixon played piano,1 accordion, and violin.3  He also dabbled in composing (the sound is missing from this video after the first segment, and has been omitted).

Gerald Ford, while not a musician himself, said, “The future of our nation depends on providing our children with a complete education that includes music.”2

Bill Clinton made no secret of his saxophone skills, playing Heartbreak Hotel on the Arsenio Hall tv show. But I prefer his performance at an event in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival, when he joined the greats of jazz on stage.

And, after singing a little Al Green on an earlier occasion, when B. B. King and Mick Jagger asked him to sing a few lines, how could Barack Obama refuse?

References

  1. http://www.toptenz.net/top-10-musically-inclined-presidents.php
  2. http://www.nafme.org/the-most-musical-united-states-presidents/
  3. http://music.allpurposeguru.com/2012/03/americas-top-ten-musical-presidents/
  4. http://minormusicllc.com/?p=20

Image attributions: Warren G. Harding with tuba and Chester A. Arthur with banjo via http://music.allpurposeguru.com/2012/03/americas-top-ten-musical-presidents/ .


Leave a comment

Schumann Goes to the Movies?

Robert Schumann, 1850

The other day I decided I would listen to some Mozart overtures.  DSO Replay has an “Outstanding Overtures” category, and there a number of overtures from their recent MozartFest.

I looked away for a bit, and suddenly, I realized it wasn’t Mozart I was listening to anymore.  The style was different.  In fact, it sounded like the soundtrack to an action movie, maybe one with a romantic plot line as well.  If you closed your eyes, you could imagine the credits rolling on the screen.  What was this?

It turned out it was Schumann’s Overture to Manfred.

Seeing that it’s an overture, you might be thinking, “Schumann wrote opera?” Well, he wrote one, Genoveva, that was poorly received at the time.*  Manfred is not an opera, it’s incidental music, that is, music that is intended to set a mood (or accompany a play; and if you look it up, it has now become synonymous with soundtrack).  The Overture to Manfred was written about the same time as Genoveva.  It is based on the poem Manfred by Lord Byron.  It includes an overture, choral and solo performances, and musical interludes.

If this is a soundtrack, here is the plot.  The poem Manfred tells the story of a man consumed by guilt for some sin which remains unnamed.  He grieves for Astarte (he may have had something to do with her death), and conjures spirits to help him forget. They can’t help him.  He attempts suicide and fails.  He sees Astarte, who tells him he will die the next day, and he does.  You can read and download the poem in a modern PDF file hereYou can read and download it as a scan of the 1817 publication here.

Byron was living with the family of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at the time, and they entertained each other with gothic tales of ghosts and horror.  Mary Shelley was in the midst of writing Frankenstein.

When Schumann read Manfred, he was greatly affected by it, and immediately started writing music for it.  The poem is also the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony.

I hope you will enjoy the overtureIf you would like to see the entire work, it can be seen here.  The score may be found here.

_____

*One opera house turned it down.  When it was finally performed, there were only three performances.  There are occasional revivals.3  In 2008 Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded Genoveva as a staged performance (it is available on DVD).4

 

References

  1. Manfred, Byron’s poem https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manfred and Manfred, Schumann’s composition https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manfred_(Schumann)
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Schumann
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genoveva
  4. http://www.operatoday.com/content/2010/08/robert_schumann.php

 

Image attribution: Photograph of Robert Schumann by Johann Anton Völlner, Hamburg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schumann-photo1850.jpg


Leave a comment

Mozart Mania: Over 8 Hours of Free Webcasts Now Available!

Mozart

More Mozart than you can shake a baton at!

More Mozart than you can Handel!

Ok, I’ll stop now.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has made all six programs of its MozartFest concert series available on YouTube until March 3, 2017.  That’s over eight hours of music available for your viewing and listening enjoyment.  Here’s the link for the “Mo-Fest BingeFest playlist.”

Here’s what you can see.

Overtures!

to Cosi fan Tutte

to Don Giovanni

to La Clemenza di Tito

to The Marriage of Figaro

to The Magic Flute

to The Abduction from the Seraglio

Concertos!

Bassoon Concerto

Flute Concerto

Concerto for Flute and Harp (exquisite!)

Horn Concertos 1, 2, 3, and 4

Oboe Concerto

Symphonies!

No 35, “Haffner”

No 36, “Linz”

No. 38, “Prague”

No. 39

No. 40

No. 41, “Jupiter”

But wait, there’s more!

Eine kleine Nachtmusik

Concertone

Sinfonia Concertante

You can also see works by Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Mahler, Bruckner, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and more on the Detroit Symphony Orchestra channel.  Click the Videos tab to see what’s available.


Leave a comment

Free Live Webcast: Joshua Bell and the National Symphony Orchestra

 

Joshua Bell

On February 11, 2017 at 8:00PM EST (GMT-5), medici.tv will present a concert by Joshua Bell and the National Symphony Orchestra.  The live webcast is free.  Here is the link.

The program will include Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole.  The latter will include a dance performance by the Dance Heginbotham dance company.

The performance will also be streaming on the medici.tv Facebook channel.

If you won’t be able to watch the live webcast, it will be available on demand at medici.tv for 90 days.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._7_(Beethoven)
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphonie_espagnole
  3. “Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5481664