Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Schubert–Last Hope, Last Leaves of Autumn

Stick figure looks at the last leaf on a tree in autumn

Here and there upon
The trees, many colored leaves
Remain, and often,

I stand there and think.
I spy one leaf, and upon
It, I hang my hopes.

The wind stirs the leaf.
I shake. If it falls, I’ll fall,
And weep for lost hope.

The haiku above is a rendering of the words of Wilhelm Müller’s poem Letzte Hoffnung [Last Hope], which was set to music by Franz Schubert as part of his Winterreise song cycle.  Here is Letzte Hoffnung, performed by tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch.

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Image attribution: Drawing by C. Gallant, 2017.

The painting that is the background in the YouTube video is Abandoned by Jakub Schikaneder.  He was known for his paintings of lonely figures–a perfect choice for Winterreise.

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Haiku Wednesday: Lvov To Pennsylvania, By Way of Ancient Greece and Russia

Bryn Mawr lantern and bust of Athena

O, friends of wisdom,
Let us gather together
And name those things that
We all hold so dear:
Beauty with simplicity,
And without softness.

Our talent is used
To accomplish deeds: this, our
Finest achievement,
Our noble venture;
And proper is our pride in
What we have achieved.

And our hope is great,
The achievement is worthy,
Yea, our hope is great.

The words above are a translation from ancient Greek of a song called “Sophias.”  It is one of the traditional songs of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.  And its origins span the globe.

As a preface, let me tell you a little about a college tradition.  On a dark night each October, the Bryn Mawr freshman class, wearing black academic robes, gathers in the courtyard of a building that looks like it could be found on the set of a Harry Potter movie.

Great Hall at Bryn Mawr College

Sophomores file in, singing a hymn to Athena, goddess of wisdom, in Greek, as a candle-lit lantern is placed behind each freshman (see a little here).  When all the lanterns have been bestowed, the freshman take up their lanterns and all the students (and alumnae observing in the background) sing “Sophias”.  It is haunting, mysterious, and wonderful.  Even when sung without academic robes.

In the early years of the college, the tradition was for each freshman class to come up with its own Lantern Night song.  The Class of 1889 came up with “Sophias”.  Later, it became one of the permanent Lantern Night songs, along with the hymn to Athena (contribution of the class of 1893).1

The words were extracted from Thucydides’s account of Pericles’s Funeral Oration, as found in The Peloponnesian War (Book 2, Chapter 40)2 …because everyone has common knowledge of that, and ancient Greek, and thinks, “hey, you know what would be good for our song?”  Right?  Sure. But that’s the kind of place Bryn Mawr is.  I recall attending a lantern-lit funeral for a pet goldfish involving orations in Greek and English (oddly, modern English) before solemn interment in a tiny grave dug with a spoon that may have been liberated from the cafeteria.

And now for the Russian content (and the classical music content—thank you for your patience).  The melody was written by Alexei Fyodorovich Lvov.  He was a Russian composer and violinist who was friends with Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer.  His string quartet regularly held private concerts for Russian aristocracy, and guest performers at these concerts included Liszt, Robert and Clara Schumann, and Berlioz.3 In “Sophias,” Bryn Mawr students used Lvov’s religious work, “Of Thy Mystical Supper” (“Вечери Твоея тайныя”), which can be heard here performed by an ensemble wearing period attire.  Please note the bass, who sings the incredibly deep notes underpinning this beautiful piece of music.

Lvov is also known for composing the Russian Imperial Anthem, “God Save the Tsar” (“Боже, Царя храни”).  In another interesting twist, this melody is regularly sung by students of the University of Pennsylvania as they sing the words to “Hail, Pennsylvania.”

Lvov also composed operas, a concerto, and various works for strings (sheet music here).  To conclude, here is Lvov’s Violin Concerto.

References

  1. Bryn Mawr College Special Collections Facebook page, “Lantern Night Songs,” https://www.facebook.com/pg/Bryn-Mawr-College-Special-Collections-205274397222/photos/?tab=album&album_id=10151998179002223
  2. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0200%3Abook%3D2%3Achapter%3D40
  3. “Alexei Lvov”, Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexei_Lvov

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Image attributions:  Photographs by C. Gallant.

 


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Haiku Wednesday: Faure’s In Paradisum

The Assumption of the Virgin, painting by Francesco Botticini

May angels lead you
Into paradise, and may
Martyrs receive you,
And lead you into
Holy Jerusalem with
Choirs of angels.
And with Lazurus,
Once a poor man, may you have
Your eternal rest.

At this time of year, many cultures hold observances that remember and honor the dead.  In his Requiem, Gabriel Fauré uses the Latin text of the In paradisum section of the requiem liturgy (reproduced in English as a haiku above).  Here you can hear the original plainchant (and practice reading the ancient notation).

And here is Fauré’s transformation, complete with his notion of an angel choir.  Beauty and rest.

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Image attribution: The Assumption of the Virgin by Francesco Botticini, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Francesco_Botticini_-_The_Assumption_of_the_Virgin.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: Handel’s Semele

Painting of Jupiter and Semele by Luca Ferrari
“Wherever you walk
There will be trees and flowers,
For you are lovely.”

So said Jupiter
To Semele; she doubted.
You know where this goes.

Whenever humans
Get involved with the Greek gods,
It doesn’t end well.

Tonight, 25 October 2017 at 19:00 CET (GMT +1), operavision.eu and the Garsington Opera will present Handel’s Semele, the story of a mortal woman seduced by Jupiter.  Handel filled this oratorio with wonderful arias.  However, the audience at the premiere was shocked, as Handel presented this sensual story during the solemn Lenten season.

No previews from tonight’s performance are available, but I really wanted you to hear a sample from Semele, so here is a performance of “Where’er you walk” by John Mark Ainsley.

Semele will be available for a few months after the initial webcast.

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Image attribution: Jupiter and Semele by Luca Ferrari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luca_Ferrari_-_Jupiter_and_Semele.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: Sitka Spruce

Photo, looking up at a group of sitka spruce trees

Sitka spruce photo by Peter Pearsall/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Once the wind would howl
Around your supple branches.
You stood, majestic,
Among the tall trees.
A silent sentinel, you
Looked out on the world.

That was not your fate.
To be cut down in your prime
Seems all too bitter,
But keen eyes picked you
To help others see and hear
A whole inner world.

And now the sound swirls
Like snowflakes, landing softly,
Hushed and whispering;
Or hits you like hail,
Ferocious, unrelenting.
You pay it no mind,
As you once did on
An Alaskan hillside; but
Now, Sitka, you sing.

Sitka spruce is the wood most commonly used for piano soundboards due to its resonance, flexibility, and great strength.  Piano soundboards resonate and propagate the sound generated by the strings of the piano.

Today’s haiku was inspired by a documentary.  Sitka traces the restoration of the Steinway grand piano at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.  The soundboard of the piano at The Phillips Collection had cracked, and this had adversely affected the sound.  Piano fans will enjoy seeing the inner workings of the instrument, and the meticulous work involved in restoration process.  The soundtrack is provided by Joseph Haydn (performed by Olivier Cavé).

And now, here is Sitka.

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Image attribution: Sitka spruce photo by Peter Pearsall/US Fish and Wildlife Service, https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Cape_Meares/wildlife_and_habitat/sitka_spruce.html


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Haiku Wednesday: Spanish Dance

The candles flicker,
The music swells; a dancer’s
Skirt swirls as she spins.

The faint tap of heels
Echoes against the dance floor
As two move as one,
Each seeing only
Their partner.  They dance, and hope
It will never end.

Today’s musical offering is from Enrique Granados.  Granados wrote a collection of Spanish dances for piano in 1890 (12 danzas españolas, Op. 37, H. 142, DLR 1:2).

During a visit to the US, Granados recorded some piano rolls of his music. Here is Granados playing Danza Española No. 5, Andaluza.  The original piano rolls are reproduced using a Steinway grand piano, so the sound is sumptuous.  In the piano roll Granados takes some lively liberties with his composition; he is clearly not meticulously following the score.

You may also enjoy Granados playing the haunting Danza Española No. 2, Oriental.

 

References

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

http://www.pianola.org/reproducing/reproducing.cfm

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232823598_Piano-roll_recordings_of_Enrique_Granados_A_study_of_a_transcription_of_the_composer’s_performance


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Haiku Wednesday: Small is Beautiful; Palestrina’s Missa Brevis

lavender plant with tiny flowerslavender plant

Look closely; you’ll find
Hidden beauty sometimes in
The smallest places.

It had been quite a day.  An ugly day.

It was the kind of day that, for me, only the exquisite beauty of Renaissance polyphony would wash away.  And who better than Palestrina?

So I settled into my favorite chair, started some music, and closed my eyes.  Beautiful.

Except…

I noticed that the movements were going by a lot quicker than I expected.   Palestrina was moving at quite a clip.  Before I knew it, the piece was over.  Wait, what?  Already?  Which Palestrina had I selected?

It turned out I had selected an album containing Palestrina’s Missa Brevis, from his Third Book of Masses of 1570.  It is a complete mass, no movements omitted, as can be the case in some masses.  But it seemed noticeably shorter than some of his other masses.  How much shorter?  I did the only thing I could think of to verify my impression.

Selected Palestrina Masses performed by The Tallis Scholars conducted by Peter Phillips
Title Kyrie Gloria Credo Sanctus Benedic-tus Agnus Dei I Agnus Dei II
Missa Benedic-tus es 5:59 7:10 10:59 10:22 6:45
Missa Nasce La Gioja Mia 3:06 4:33 7:25 4:52 4:25
Missa Assump-ta Est Maria 4:42 5:41 8:06 5:31 5:50
Missa Sicut Lilium Inter Spinas 3:42 6:12 9:01 5:19 5:02 n/a
Missa Papae Marcelli 4:02 5:37 8:56 6:40 6:40
Missa Brevis 2:52 3:07 5:24 4:34 5:33

You can see from the table that a) I’m a nerd; b) most of the movements of the Missa Brevis are half the length of those in the Missa Benedictus es, and for the most part are noticeably shorter than those of other masses.

While the work is short, Palestrina more than makes up for it in the beauty of his composition.  This could be the most peaceful 2:52 of your day: here is the Kyrie from the Missa Brevis.

You can watch a performance of the entire piece (23 minutes) here.

If you will be performing this work with a choir and need some help learning your part, you can visit the CyberBass page for the Missa Brevis, where you can hear and download your part for each movement.  Scores are available at the Choral Public Domain Library, or at the Petrucci Music Library (IMSLP).

May you find beauty in unexpected places.
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Image attributions: Photos of lavender plant and flower by C. Gallant, 2017.