Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday:  An Unexpected Jazz Suite

Dmitri Shostakovich with dark glasses

Tapping my toes to
Some lively jazzy music
Really makes my day.
So who wrote this piece?
Dmitri Shostakovich.
Wait…what?!  Believe it!

I was streaming some classical music, probably Bach, and all of a sudden, I realized I was listening to some jazz-like music, probably 1930s vintage, judging from the sound of it.  What was this?  Shostakovich Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 1.  What?!  And then the Hawaiian guitar came in.  Mind blown.

Better known for his symphonies and film music (and operas), Dmitri Shostakovich also wrote two jazz suites.  The first was written in 1934, and the second in 1938 for the Soviet Union’s new State Jazz Orchestra.  Each of the suites has three movements.  The first has a waltz, polka, and foxtrot; the second a scherzo, lullaby, and serenade.

Here you can see a performance of Shostakovich’s Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 1.

The score of the second suite was lost during the Second World War, but a piano score was found in 1999.  An orchestral arrangement was created, and you can see Suite No. 2 performed here.

Prior to the rediscovery of the piano score, Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra was mistakenly believed to be Jazz Suite No. 2.  You can see the Suite for Variety Orchestra here.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suite_for_Jazz_Orchestra_No._1_(Shostakovich)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suite_for_Jazz_Orchestra_No._2_(Shostakovich)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suite_for_Variety_Orchestra_(Shostakovich)

http://www.classicfm.com/composers/shostakovich/music/jazz-suites/

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Image attribution: Dmitri Shostakovich in the audience at the Bach Celebration of July 28, 1950. Photo by Roger & Renate Rössing, retouched, Deutsche Fotothek (By Fotothek_df_roe-neg_0002792_002_Portrait_Dmitri_Dmitrijewitsch_Schostakowitchs_im_Publikum_der_Bachfeier.jpg: Roger & Renate Rössing, credit Deutsche Fotothek. derivative work: Improvist [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons).  Lenses modified by C. Gallant.

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Sing for Your Supper:  Renaissance Notation Knives

Renaissance Notation Knife, about 1550

Renaissance Notation Knife, about 1550. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A slice of life from Renaissance Italy has been preserved in the form of knives with musical notation.  These rare knives, dating from about 1550, can be found in the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in a few other locations.  For a detailed picture of a complete set, see this article from the WQXR blog.

Each knife contains the vocal line for one male voice (superius, contratenor, tenor, bassus).  One side of the blade displays a benediction, and the other, grace to be sung at the table.  You can hear (and download) recordings of the beautiful polyphonic music on the knives from this webpage of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

If you’re thinking, “they don’t make things like that anymore,”

Plastic Notation Knife

you’re almost right.  One artisan has created a beautiful modern reproduction that you can see at the link.

References

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-notation-knife/

http://www.wqxr.org/story/listen-these-knives-can-carry-tune/

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Image attribution:  Renaissance notation knife, Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-notation-knife/

Modern clear plastic notation knife, C. Gallant, 2017.


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It’s Been a Wonderful Future: Accidental Time Travel with Bach

Recursive clocks in a snail-shell pattern. Photo Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11

Photo: Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11 (Flickr.com/Creative Commons).

I did some unintentional time travelling yesterday.

I was testing out a new audio cable, and decided to connect it to my audio receiver.

On a whim, I decided to try it with an LP. I randomly grabbed a record from a section of the shelf I knew would yield some favorite, and put on my headphones.

As the needle settled into the groove, I settled into my armchair.  The sound was fine.  In fact, it was superb.

I had picked out an album of Bach organ works that I’ve had since I was a teenager.  I found myself sitting in the same position I would have been in then: seated diagonally, head nestled in the wing of the armchair, leg draped over the armrest, dangling, foot keeping time.  Like then, I closed my eyes and absorbed the sound of what my mother would call “staring into space music.”

Here is the Fugue in C Minor (BWV 537) played by Ton Koopman.

Back then the world was still a mostly unknown place to me.  Germany, where Bach was from, was a far-off land where they spoke a language I didn’t understand.  I was sure I’d never get there.  People didn’t just go to Europe.  Not the folks I knew, anyway.

Then, and now, the music made me think of the soaring stained-glass windows of cathedrals that I’d seen in books.  If I opened my eyes back then, outside my window I saw soaring green trees, or the tracery of bare branches, or autumn leaves forming their own stained-glass pattern.  At dusk, the view was marred by the light of a small gas station sign beyond the woods that seemed so far off then, though it was only a mile away.

I wasn’t sure what I’d end up doing, but I was looking forward to stepping out into that great big world and starting the adventure.  As there was no internet at the time, and “blogger” would have sounded like some made-up nonsense word, well, how could I have known?

Here is the Fugue in G Minor (BWV 578) also played by Ton Koopman.

And then, the reverie was broken; an LP side only lasts so long.  And I was back to the future, now my present.

And how unexpectedly glorious that future had been.  Once I learned to drive, I passed that gas station regularly, though I didn’t recognize it and make the connection at first.  The world grew.  I learned to speak German, and have been to Germany a couple of times, though not yet to any of Bach’s towns.

And as I had listened to Bach in my current comfortable chair, I realized I understood more of what was happening, there were more “I see what you did there” moments.  I now have access to sheet music, to see for myself—and now everyone does.  And if you’ve got an internet connection, you can listen online to Bach works for organ, cello and more for free without annoying pops or crackles from the record (though they’re so familiar now I find them somewhat endearing).

I don’t know where Bach will take you, but I believe it will be a wonderful journey.

Bon voyage!

Here is the Toccata in F Major (BWV 540) played by Diane Bish.  Some folks will say this is played too fast, but I love it, it’s exciting!

List of Bach Freebies

Performances

Organ http://www.blockmrecords.org/bach/

Cello https://costanzabach.stanford.edu/

Vocal and instrumental http://allofbach.com/en/ (this website will eventually have performances of all of Bach’s compositions; read about it here)

Goldberg Variations:  http://www.opengoldbergvariations.org/ and https://kimiko-piano.com/open-goldberg

Spotify users:  someone has made curated playlists for all of Bach’s works.  Read about it here.

Spotify users:  if you want to hear the Hänssler Classic complete set of Bach recordings (under the direction of Helmuth Rilling), read about it here.

Sheet music

Sheet music and, for some pieces, MIDI or mp3 files http://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Bach,_Johann_Sebastian

Open Well-Tempered Clavier https://musescore.com/opengoldberg/sets/openwtc

Open Goldberg Variations  https://musescore.com/opengoldberg/goldberg-variations

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Image attribution: Recursive clocks in a snail-shell pattern. Photo Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11, Flickr.com, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC 2.0. Click here for source page.


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A Delightful Evening

I haven’t posted because I was preparing for a piano get-together this evening.  A group of adult piano students gather and play what we’ve been working on for each other.  There’s wonderful conversation, bread, cheese, wine, dessert, laughter, music.  It’s always a lot of fun.

I played a piano arrangement of one of John Dowland’s less somber songs, Now O Now I Needs Must Part (somehow, I usually end up playing something in a minor key, but tonight I broke the trend by playing in G major, though I can’t exactly say it was upbeat).  Someone played a song from Rent.  Someone played an Erik Satie composition.  It was all great, but for me, there was an extra special treat.

A duo played my ukulele and piano arrangement of Bach’s Minuet in G.

I could not have been more delighted to hear it come to life.  I had heard it in electronic form, but to hear it played live on real instruments, a Steinway and a lovely mellow-toned lute-like ukulele, was an incredible gift.  I am grateful for the time the players put into learning it and their wonderful performance.  The instruments were perfectly balanced with each other.

This was so cool!

If you play an instrument, if you know other people who play instruments, rustle up some desserts and get together.  Have a no-fault music night (I’ll ignore your mistakes if you ignore mine).  You’ll all be nervous.  It will be ok.  It will also be fun.

I hope your musical evening will be as entertaining as mine was.


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Haiku Wednesday: Tubas and More

Bass Tuba

A euphonium
Is not a sousaphone, nor
A tuba, oh no.

Though the sound goes round
And round, and emerges deep
In tone, soft or loud,
Do not believe that
Oom-pah-pah is all that you
Will ever hear—no.
For mellow is one
Of the tones that will surprise,
And, yes, delight you.

Oh, when the saints go
Marching in, the angels play
harps, cherubim, flutes;
But somewhere in the
Line, I know, you are sure to
Find, yes, a tuba.

I thought this post would be easy.

I thought I could simply contrast the tuba, euphonium, sousaphone, add some pictures, some samples, and done!

But no.

It wasn’t long before I found the saxtuba, the helicon and its ancestors the buccina and cornu, and, then Wagner came along, and…

Anyway, let’s get started.  Most folks have heard of a tuba.  It is the lowest-pitched of the brass instruments.  There are contrabass tubas, the lowest of all, and slightly smaller (and slightly higher-pitched) bass tubas.  The fundamental pitch of a contrabass tuba can be 32 Hz or 29 Hz.  The threshold of human hearing is 20 Hz.  Click this link to see how a tuba is madeSee the world’s largest tuba here.

A euphonium is pitched an octave higher than the lowest contrabass tuba.  It is also somewhat smaller.  Here’s a comparison picture, showing the euphonium on the left and tuba on the right.

Euphonium and tuba

The brass instrument you’re likely to see in a marching band, its bright bell shining in the sun, is a sousaphone.  It was popularized by John Philip Sousa, the American march king.  Sousa was unhappy with the predecessor of the sousaphone, the helicon.  He wanted the sound to go up over the band.  And so the sousaphone was created.  But the original bells pointed skyward, which became a problem when marching on a rainy day. So eventually the bell shifted to a forward-pointing position.

Sousaphone

Sousaphone

Helicon

Helicon

The helicon was derived from the saxtuba, which in turn was derived from the cornu and buccina, which signaled the Roman legions in ancient times.

Saxtuba

Saxtuba

Cornu players (cornicen) on Trajan's Column

Cornu players (cornicen) on Trajan’s Column

You’ve probably noted the “sax” tacked onto saxtuba.  There’s also a family of instruments called saxhorns.  That’s because Adolphe Sax, father of the saxophone (which is actually a woodwind, not a brass instrument), was prolific in his production of brass instruments.  Here’s a page cataloging various Sax instruments.

Adolphe Sax's instrument catalogue

One day, Richard Wagner entered Adolphe Sax’s shop.  He was looking for a certain sound for his new opera.  He was shown a saxhorn, but it wasn’t quite what he wanted, so he had another instrument builder create a Wagner tuba for use in Das Rheingold, for the Valhalla theme.  You can hear it here.

Double Wagner tuba

Double Wagner tuba

And now to the music!

Here is the Concerto in F Minor for Bass Tuba and Orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Here is John Williams’s Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra featuring some flying finger passages for the tuba.

And finally, the soulful Czardas by Vittorio Monti, arranged here for solo tuba and three trombones.

Wishing you a happy Tuba Thursday!

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Image attributions

Euphonium and Tuba by user Elf at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEuphoniumAndTuba_wb.jpg

Sousaphone by Yamaha Corporation (Yamaha Music Europe) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYamaha_Sousaphone_YSH-411.jpg

Helicon by Matthias Bramboeck (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%3AHelikon-Stowasser-Graz.jpg

Saxtuba by Anonymous (http://www.jstor.org/pss/842482) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASaxtuba.jpg

Cornu players (cornice) carved on Trajan’s column, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACornicen_on_Trajan’s_column.JPG

Sax instrument chart by Adolphe Sax [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdolphe_Sax_instrument_catalogue.jpg

Wagner tuba by Zanetta (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADouble_Wagner_tuba_by_Alexander.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: Barbara Strozzi

Portrait of Barbara Strozzi

Barbara Strozzi
A beautiful singer and
A fine composer.

She had four children,
Never married, and published
Books of her own songs.

Unconventional,
Daring, creative, and bold,
Barbara Strozzi.

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was a remarkable composer and singer who lived in the golden age of Venice.  She wrote an abundant amount of music, and had it published in her own lifetime.  And her publications contained only her compositions.  Typically, the works of female composers were included in musical anthologies with male composers.  Barbara Strozzi’s publications were all her own.

She was the daughter of Isabella Garzoni, a servant of Giulio Strozzi, a poet and librettist.  Strozzi, who may have been her biological father, adopted her, and encouraged her musical education.  Barbara studied with composer Francesco Cavalli.

That her father encouraged her musical education would have been remarkable enough.  But when he later formed a circle of musicians, Barbara regularly attended, and frequently sang at these gatherings.  She was praised for her musical ability, and some of the members dedicated works to her.  She began composing by setting her father’s poems to music, but soon began writing her own poetry for her music.

Barbara Strozzi’s independent streak made her a magnet for slander in her time.  She bore four children, but never married.  It is believed that the father of most, if not all, of the children was Giovanni Paolo Vidman, a patron of music and a member of the circle of musicians that Barbara’s father founded.

Barbara Strozzi was a financially secure woman.  Venetian records indicate that she was a smart investor, and had enough resources to make loans—including to Giovanni Vidman.  Independent indeed.

But let’s get to the music.  You can find sheet music for some of her compositions here.

Here’s a lovely song, Voi pur begl’occhi, sete, which begins “Beautiful eyes, you are indeed a door to paradise”

And here is the haunting Lagrime mie.  The opening words are “My tears, why will you not fall and quench the fiery pain that takes away my breath and crushes my heart?”  Wow.

You can find many fine recordings of the works of Barbara Strozzi at your favorite music streaming site or vendor.  Check them out!

References

Biography of Barbara Strozzi from a blog dedicated to her life and works, http://barbarastrozzi.blogspot.com/2008/06/history-barbara-strozzi-composer-1619.html

Core Donato Editions, publications of the works of Barbara Strozzi http://www.cordonatoeditions.com/

Barbara Strozzi, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Strozzi

Glixon, Beth L. “New Light on the Life and Career of Barbara Strozzi.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 81, no. 2, 1997, pp. 311–335. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/742467.

Glixon, Beth L. “More on the Life and Death of Barbara Strozzi.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 83, no. 1, 1999, pp. 134–141. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/742264.

Rosand, Ellen. “Barbara Strozzi, ‘Virtuosissima Cantatrice’: The Composer’s Voice.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 31, no. 2, 1978, pp. 241–281. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/830997.

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Image attribution: Portrait believed to be of Barbara Strozzi titled Gambenspielerin [The Viola da Gamba Player] by Bernardo Strozzi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABarbara_Strozzi_1.jpg


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Free Live Webcast:  Tchaikovsky’s 5th, Stravinsky, and a New Work by Wynton Marsalis; or, Cossacks, Elephants, and a Hootenanny

On Friday, June 2, 2017 at 10:45AM EDT (GMT -5), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will offer a free live online concert that will include a new work by Wynton Marsalis featuring violinist Nicola BenedettiHere is her official website.  Here’s the program:

Stravinsky: Circus Polka
Wynton Marsalis: Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5.

The circus polka was composed for a ballet choreographed by George Balanchine for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.  It was performed by fifty elephants and fifty ballerinas.  Balanchine said he phoned Stravinsky:1

“I wonder if you’d like to do a little ballet with me,” Balanchine said.
“For whom?”
“For some elephants.”
“How old?” Stravinsky asked.
“Very young,” Balanchine assured him.
There was a pause.  Then Stravinsky said gravely, “All right. If they are very young elephants, I will do it.”2

I have to hear this now.  By the way, the elephant ballet was only performed for a short time, after which it became popular among solely human dancers.

I’m also eager to hear Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto.  From the reviews I’ve read, it is a thoroughly American concerto, with movements titled Rhapsody, Rondo, Blues, and Hootenanny.  Marsalis packs the work to overflowing with musical ideas and notions, and the work you hear on Friday may differ from previous performances—it seems to be a work in evolution.  A documentary has been created, The Making of a Concerto, which you can see at the link.  Here is the trailer.

Rounding out the program is Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, in which Tchaikovsky wrestles with the concept of fate.  And in the finale, the wrestling becomes fierce.  Check out this wild review from 1892, written by William Foster Apthorp, who was no great fan of “modern” music:8

In the Finale we have all the untamed fury of the Cossack, whetting itself for deeds of atrocity, against all the sterility of the Russian steppes.  The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker.  Pandemonium, delirium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!9

Wow.  Elephants, a hootenanny, and pandemonium.  Don’t miss it!

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circus_Polka
  2. Krista, Davida. George Balanchine: American Ballet Master. Minneapolis: Lerner Publication, p 72.
  3. http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/11/01/500059901/the-transatlantic-collaboration-behind-wynton-marsalis-new-violin-concerto
  4. http://wyntonmarsalis.org/news/entry/nicola-benedetti-performs-wynton-marsaliss-violin-concerto-los-angeles
  5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/nso-offers-exuberant-marsalis-concerto/2016/10/27/b5c1c3cc-9cb9-11e6-b4c9-391055ea9259_story.html?utm_term=.f1f925b105e4
  6. http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/reich/ct-cso-marsalis-review-ent-0714-20160713-column.html
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/nov/08/london-symphony-orchestra-nicola-benedetti-james-gaffigan-wynton-marsalis
  8. http://www.sfsymphony.org/Watch-Listen-Learn/Read-Program-Notes/Program-Notes/Tchaikovsky-Symphony-No-5-in-E-minor.aspx
  9. Boston Evening Transcript, October 24, 1892 via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._5_(Tchaikovsky)