Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Autumn Nocturne

Photograph of lake viewed through autumn leaves

The sky is slate gray
Dead leaves crunch beneath my feet
Or skitter away.

Collar turned up, I
Shove my hands in my pockets
Against the cold wind.

I walk along with
Furrowed brow, lost in thought, with
Even measured steps.

Looking up, I see
Autumn’s rich, vibrant colors
Surrounding the lake.

More than the cold, it
Takes my breath away–there is
Beauty everywhere.

Here is Stefan Jackiw performing Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor as a violin solo. Exquisite.

Here you can find a haunting piano solo performance of the nocturne by Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose story became known worldwide in the movie “The Pianist.”

References

  1. About the nocturne:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturne_in_C-sharp_minor,_Op._posth._(Chopin)
  2. Sheet music:  http://imslp.org/wiki/Nocturne_in_C-sharp_minor,_B.49_(Chopin,_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric)

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Image attribution: Lake view through autumn leaves by http://www.ForestWander.com [CC BY-SA 3.0 us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Looking_through_tree_autumn_leaves_lake_-_West_Virginia_-_ForestWander.jpg

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Molecular Bach

Portrait of Bach inside the ring of a caffeine molecule

In my last post, I gave you a quick glance at a problem I was having with a Bach piece–a furry problem.

After the cat stopped “helping” me* with Bach’s Invention No. 1, I decided to examine the work in closer (and less fuzzy) detail.  I decided to go molecular.

Let’s look at some of the printed music.

If you’re very good at reading music, you can see which notes sound with which other ones, and how they interact with each other.  You can see patterns in the music.

But for some reason I was having a hard time.  And I suspected that closer inspection would yield more information that I was picking up trying to play it as written.  So I decided to take an extreme close-up approach.

I took each measure, and expanded it to an entire line of music paper.  I then broke up each line into sixteen segments, to accommodate the sixteenth notes in the music.  Each little segment contained a single note (except where there are ornaments, like trills and mordents).  Then I transcribed the invention (thankfully, it’s only 22 measures).

When you get down to that molecular level, and you’re transcribing each note, patterns appear much more clearly.  It feels a little like examining a picture at the pixel level (and kind of looks like it), but it reveals so much.  It turns out that nearly every measure of the invention, in both the bass and treble clefs, uses one of three patterns: (1) four or more notes in an ascending or descending scale (blue); (2) movement by thirds in a scale-like way, up or down (for example, C-E-D-F, two steps forward, one step back, repeat; red); (3) eighth notes in intervals greater than a third (green).  And the patterns repeat, over and over.  First, he goes up (1), then down (2); or down (1) and then up (2).  The simplicity of the movement was shocking.  When you think Bach, you think complicated.  You think of this flurry of intricate notes.  You don’t think of individual snowflakes.

But no.  It goes up as a scale; it goes down by thirds.  Again. And again.  Look, and enjoy the many smiley faces formed by linking the segments to indicate eighth notes.

Bach's Invention 1 with patterns indicated

Now, Bach might be looking down at me and saying, “Well of course it’s simple.  I wrote it for my son Wilhelm Friedemann to learn how to play.  And it’s only a a two-part invention, not three, or a four-part fugue.”

But that’s the genius of Bach.  With the utmost simplicity, he builds beauty.  He takes bricks and makes cathedrals.  He does the same kind of thing in the Magnificat, in Omnes Generationes, making the simple spectacular.  Bach’s music can be enjoyed without understanding the details involved in the composition, but once you see the patterns, once you can say, “I see what you did there”, you can appreciate it even more.

Here is Invention No. 1.

Here is Invention No 1 played by five different pianists:  Walter Gieseking, Rosalyn Tureck, James Friskin, Tatiana Nikolayeva, and Glenn Gould.

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*the cat is also very helpful with conference calls and intricate computer machinations.  Thankfully, she is not as helpful as Borodin’s cats.

References

  1. Here’s the sheet music:  http://www.mutopiaproject.org/ftp/BachJS/BWV772/bach-invention-01/bach-invention-01-a4.pdf

Image attribution:  Caffeine molecule by Mstroeck at the English language Wikipedia [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:Caffeine_Molecule.png.

Bach portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johann_Sebastian_Bach.jpg.

Seems appropriate to use the caffeine molecule for the guy who wrote the Coffee Cantata.


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“No Bach today, pet cat please”

I ran into some difficulty while studying a Bach piece today.

Cat paw on sheet music for Bach Invention 1

 

Cat paws on sheet music for Bach Invention 1

 

Cat lying on sheet music for Bach Invention 1

Apparently, I no can has Bach.¹

References

  1. It’s not that I can’t grammar today, it’s a reference to the I Can Has Cheezburger meme.  A sampling of images can be found here.  Good thing it’s Caturday, I may have just wasted your afternoon, if you start looking at them.


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Haiku Wednesday: Beyond–Bach in Interstellar Space

Poster showing the outline of the Voyager spacecraft against a blue and black painted background representing space

Beethoven, Mozart,
Bach wrote music for all time,
And now, all of space.

Bach traveled on foot
Over two hundred miles to
Hear great music, learn.

Now his music flies
Beyond the sun’s reach, into
Interstellar space.

This week NASA is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Voyager 1 spacecraft.  When Voyager 1 and 2 were launched, each carried a golden record containing images and the sounds of Earth.  Along with greetings in over 50 human languages, whale song, and sounds of nature, there was a selection of the world’s music, including classical music.

One of the spacecraft has now left our solar system and is in interstellar space; the other will be there soon.  And as they travel through the dark and empty space between the stars, our “silent ambassadors”1 carry the story of who we are.  Here are the classical selections chosen for the record:

Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement, performed by the Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, conductor.

Bach, “Gavotte en rondeaux” from Partita No. 3 in E major for violin, performed by Arthur Grumiaux

Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No. 1, performed by Glenn Gould, piano.

Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor.

Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina, performed by the Budapest String Quartet (read more about the Cavatina here).

Holborne, “The Fairie Round”, performed by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London.

Mozart, The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, No. 14, performed by Edda Moser, soprano and the Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor.

Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance, performed by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor.

Bach walked 250 miles to hear the music of Dieterich Buxtehude and learn from him. The Voyager spacecraft are now 10-12 billion miles from Earth and are outward bound at around 40,000 miles per hour.  They’re still sending back fascinating and valuable data. Like Bach, they have traveled a long way in the pursuit of knowledge.  And the results have been glorious.

Image of Saturn, its rings, and moons taken by the Voyager spacecraft.

Image of Saturn, its rings, and two moons taken by the Voyager spacecraft. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

What music would you select to represent all of us?

References

  1.  https://www.space.com/37860-voyager-mission-40-years-ed-stone-interview.html
  2.  http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/voyager-nasa-exploring-unknown-1.4267178
  3. https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/golden-record/whats-on-the-record/music/
  4. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/voyager/index.html
  5. https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/

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Image attribution:  Like the image? Download it (and more) for free at https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/downloads/

Image of Saturn courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/galleries/images-voyager-took/saturn/.


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To Sing on the Water

Photograph of the rippling, shimmering water of a lake as seen from a kayak

Sometimes, you have to get out of the office. Way out of the office.  Or just away.  To a place where there are no computers, no connectivity, no cell phone coverage.  No chargers, no chatter, no cable.

The middle of a large body of water is optimal.

Sunshine and breezes on a beautiful day can go a long way toward recharging your own battery, and the shimmer of a beautiful lake, the splash of water as your boat travels along are incomparable antidotes for the noise and bustle of a busy life.  And we’re all busy, too busy, always aware of the ticking clock, the march of time.

All this hustle and bustle might seem to be a modern phenomenon, but really it’s not.  People have been escaping to nature for a very long time.

Schubert, ah Schubert!  He knew; of course, he knew.  In his song Auf dem Wasser zu singen. Schubert sets to music a poem of Friedrich Leopold zu Stolberg-Stolberg that describes a boat trip at evening and reflects on the passage of time.  The piano ripples like the water, and the play of light and shadow at evening is reflected in Schubert’s characteristic shifts between major and minor keys.  The poet also notes the passage of time: each day time escapes, flying away.  But he is not disturbed, as he says that he will take wing and escape from time someday.

Here is Schubert’s Auf dem Wasser zu singen, performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore.

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Image attribution:  Photograph by C. Gallant, 2015.


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Bach and Awe

J. S. Bach

Every now and then, I listen to Bach, and as the music starts, and I start to hear the melody lines interweave, I think, “You know, I think I’m starting to get this.” And then Bach throws in three more lines, ramps up the speed, and I realize something:

I’m not even close.

It’s very much the same feeling you might get when you’re learning a foreign language, and you decide to test your newfound skill with a native speaker.  And your methodical elementary-school-level bid is met joyfully with a flood of fluency, the torrent of a mountain stream, water flowing over and around rocks, streams combining in ways that leave one wondering where one begins and another ends.  Itisveryhardtounderstandwhenyoudon’tknowwherethewordsactuallyend.

The same goes for Bach.  When those melodic lines start to intertwine, you can try to follow them, and you catch a glimpse of one every now and then as it goes by, but it is really tough to grasp everything that is going on.

I was listening to Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 (BWV 1052), and immediately had to listen to it again to try to figure out what was going on, it was so good.  The first movement begins simply enough as Bach states his theme.  Ah, but then, the keyboard and orchestra begin stating the theme individually, and the keyboard adds a rippling line, and here the water image is particularly apt, as the strings and keyboard take turns surging forward then receding.  If you want to hear it and follow the score, you can do so here.

This video provides a balanced, and amazingly fast, performance of the first movement.

Another fascinating video puts the keyboard in a more prominent role, this time with Glenn Gould at piano and Leonard Bernstein conducting.  The performance begins at 5:08, but Bernstein’s introductory remarks about the performance of music that bears few interpretative markings may be of interest as well.

Ok, so now we reach the second movement.  And one would expect the same sort of interplay of instruments and lines.  You know, predicting, because you’re starting to get this.

Not even close.

Bach pulls the rug out from under your feet, beginning the second movement with an extended statement, everyone playing the same note (within the particular octave their instrument plays).  It then develops into a thought-filled, deeply expressive, one might even say somber, melody.

The liveliness of the first movement returns in the third movement, and it is classic Bach.

And yet.

There are moments, something in the strings, that seems to reach forward in time toward the Classical era.

And that’s the stunning thing with Bach.  Every now and then, you come across a phrase, and there is foreshadowing of music yet to come.  It’s there, little glimpses of the future, and yet, it’s undeniably Bach.

One more thing.  Here’s the kicker about the keyboard concerto.  Most experts say that he put it together from earlier works, probably a violin concerto, judging by the violin-like features, and there’s some direct copying from earlier cantatas.

As stunning as it is, it’s just a reworking of stuff he already wrote.

And that’s the Bach and awe of it all.

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References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keyboard_concertos_by_Johann_Sebastian_Bach

https://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/keyboard-concerto-d-minor-bwv-1052-johann-sebastian-bach


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Eclipse!

Stick people safely viewing solar eclipse

These highly responsible stick people know to use their eclipse glasses and pinhole projectors at all times except during totality, when it’s ok to view the eclipse directly.

It’s Eclipse Day in the US, and the moon will cast its shadow along a path that stretches across the entire country, allowing everyone (including Alaska and Hawaii) to see at least a partial eclipse. Some lucky folks in a 70-mile-wide band will get to see a total eclipse.

So what does this have to do with classical music?

It is likely that Handel saw the 1715 total eclipse over London. Later, in 1741, he wrote the aria Total Eclipse for his oratorio Samson. You can read more about the aria and that eclipse here.

Today, the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco, the Kronos Quartet, and composer Wayne Grim will produce a sonification of the 2017 total eclipse, turning digital data into music. You can read about it here. You can hear Grim’s interpretation of the 2016 total eclipse in Micronesia here.

If you’re not in the US (or if your skies are cloudy) you can still see the eclipse via webcasts:

NASA coverage beginning at 12PM EDT (GMT-4) https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/eclipse-live-stream

Exploratorium coverage beginning at 1PM EDT (GMT-4) https://www.exploratorium.edu/eclipse

And now, Handel’s Total Eclipse.

Note:  If you’re in the US and you don’t have eclipse glasses, you can print out a pinhole projector here, and view the sun’s image safely.  Wishing you clear skies!