Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday:  Alkan’s Funeral March for a Dead Parrot

This parrot is dead;
He is no more; he’s passed on.
He has ceased to be.

He’s expired and
Gone to meet his maker, a
Stiff, bereft of life,

Demised, not pining.
The choir invisible
Now has a parrot.

The words for this haiku are excerpts from Monty Python’s classic Dead Parrot Sketch, which you can see below.  But the inspiration for the post is Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot.

Oddly, this is not the first time I’ve done a post on music written about a bird, or even for a dead bird.  Mozart had a starling whose song may be heard in his music, and for whom he wrote a poem.  Telemann wrote the Cantata of Funeral Music for an Artistically Trained Canary-Bird Whose Demise Brought the Greatest Sorrow to His Master

So, there’s precedent (and decedent for that matter).  But the subject of this post is Alkan’s funeral march.  It has been said that he was inspired to write this after the appearance of Rossini’s opera The Thieving Magpie [La gazza ladra] in Paris.1  In his score, Alkan advises lovers of La gazza ladra not to attribute any “impertinence” to the dead parrot’s song, you know, not that he was parodying Rossini or anything.

In this funeral march, the soloists sing “As-tu déjeune, Jaco”, which is roughly equivalent to the English “Polly want a cracker?”

Alas, it is too late.  Here is Alkan’s Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot.

 

Here is Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch.

 

References

  1. https://www.allmusic.com/composition/marcia-funebre-sulla-morte-dun-papagallo-for-chorus-3-oboes-bassoons-funeral-march-for-a-dead-parrot-mc0002396751

 

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Haiku Wednesday: Charles Gounod

Charles Gounod

Today’s a good day
To get to know Charles Gounod,
The French composer.

Ave Maria
Is the only thing most know
(and the Hitchcock theme).

But he wrote over
600 pieces; one, a
National anthem.

And so, I urge you
To get to know Charles Gounod,
The French composer.

If you ask people what they know about Charles Gounod, you’re likely to hear about his adaptation of Bach’s Prelude in C Major, the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria.

Some might mention his opera Faust (here’s a short excerpt).

Some might remember that he wrote The Funeral March of a Marionette, known to some readers of a certain age as the theme to the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Then it gets very quiet.

And yet Gounod wrote over 600 pieces, including two symphonies and the delightful Petite Symphonie for woodwinds.

Gounod wrote several masses, his best-known being the Messa Solennelle de Saint-Cecile.  Gounod’s Marche Pontificale became the national anthem of Vatican City.

A rather unusual piece (and instrument) that you need to see is Gounod’s Concerto for piano-pédalier and orchestra.  It is a grand piano equipped with pedals like an organ.  Here is the first movement.*

Want more?  For all things Charles Gounod, be sure to check out charles-gounod.com, a webpage created by Gounod’s great-great-grandson, containing photographs, letters, a discography, and more.

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*Composer Charles-Valentin Alkan wrote a number of pieces for the piano-pédalier, including a series of preludes, as well as etudes for the feet alone.  Looks like that might be another blog post!

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Gounod
  2. http://www.charles-gounod.com/vi/
  3. http://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Gounod,_Charles

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Image attribution:  Charles Gounod by Nadar (a.k.a. Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, 1820–1910): Photographer Adam Cuerden – Restoration. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACharles_Gounod_(1890)_by_Nadar.jpg.


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Haiku Wednesday: Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus

Stag on a mountaintop; the painting The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Landseer, 1851

As the hart longs for
Fountains of water, so my
Soul longs for you, Lord.

The haiku above is a translation of the Latin words of Palestrina’s motet Sicut cervus, drawn from Psalm 42 of the Old Testament of the Bible.

I recently had the sublime pleasure of singing this motet.  One can hear the piece and know that it is beautiful.  But by singing this piece in the middle of a small mixed ensemble I learned something that I would never have known otherwise.

This piece breathes.  Though it was written so many hundreds of years ago, it is alive.  The lines rise and fall gently, as the chest rises and falls when one is at peace, at rest, or in meditation.  The lines rise and fall in pitch, describing a smooth arc.  The dynamics change, one voice rising in volume as it enters, then falling away as a new voice begins.  As the voices intertwine, there is a heartbeat, there is breath, and the piece becomes a living thing.  The motet ends with a hushed tone of hope, or assurance, or belief, all the voices uniting as one, as one living being.

And when you sing it, you realize that you, and your one voice, are now part of a stream of singers that have sung this very piece for hundreds of years.  Your voice rises now, as have so many voices before you, and when it falls away, a new singer will begin.  And the music will live on forever.

Here is Sicut cervus.

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Image attribution: The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1851 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_Monarch_of_the_Glen%2C_Edwin_Landseer%2C_1851.png


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Haiku Wednesday: Arcangelo Corelli

Portrait of Arcangelo Corelli by Hugh Howard

“Concerti Grossi,
Arcangelo Corelli”
Said the disc label.

I had not heard it,
So thought I’d give it a try
One hectic morning.

And in the chaos
That swirled around me that day
Came a soothing calm.

Like spring’s first flowers,
A sunny day in winter,
Crisp cider in fall,
I don’t know how, but
Arcangelo Corelli
Somehow made me smile.

Arcangelo Corelli is perhaps best known for his development of the concerto grosso form and for his advancement of violin technique.  His set of 12 concerti (Op. 6) was published in 1714.  They inspired Handel to write his own set of concerti (also Op. 6).  Corelli’s concerti remain popular to this day.  There’s something about Corelli’s music.  Somehow, it seems to catch you unawares* and relax you.  It’s happy, without being cloying.  Pleasant, but not boring or insipid.  Engaging, but not overwhelming (on the day in question, Beethoven or Schubert, even Mozart, would have been a bad choice.  Too much drama!).  Some days, Corelli is the perfect fit.

Here is Corelli’s Concerto in F Major, Op. 6, No. 2, played on original instruments by Voices of Music.

 

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* “unawares” is a strange, low-frequency English word that looks wrong, but isn’t.  It’s an adverb form that’s a leftover from Middle English, which also gave us “towards” and “afterwards.”  The more you know….

Image attribution: Portrait of Arcangelo Corelli by Hugh Howard, 1697, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


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Haiku Wednesday: The Symphony Lost in the Mail

Mail truck driving off with papers flying out the back, stick figure aghast

So, George said to Ralph,
“You should write a symphony.”
He pondered the thought.

He had some sketches,
Some tone poems that would do,
And he set to work.

After the debut,
He sent it to Germany
To a conductor.

It never got there.
A war broke out; it was lost.
What would Ralph do now?

Ralph called his friend George,
Who had been reviewing it
As it was written.

And with some others,
Ralph rebuilt the symphony.
It would live again!

That’s the story of
A London Symphony of
One Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The above haiku (although simplistic) is the true story of A London Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  In a biography, Vaughan Williams is quoted as saying,

We were talking together one day when he said in his gruff, abrupt manner: ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony’. I answered… that I’d never written a symphony and never intended to… I suppose Butterworth’s words stung me and, anyhow, I looked out some sketches I had made for… a symphonic poem about London and decided to throw it into symphonic form… From that moment, the idea of a symphony dominated my mind. I showed the sketches to George bit by bit as they were finished…1

The Butterworth in the quote is English composer George Butterworth, a personal favorite of mine.  Vaughan Williams dedicated A London Symphony to Butterworth.

The symphony was first performed in 1914.  Thereafter, Vaughan Williams sent the score to conductor Fritz Busch in Germany.

After it was posted, World War I broke out.  In the chaos that ensued, the score really was lost in the mail.

Vaughan Williams called upon Butterworth and some others to help him rebuild the symphony from sketches and orchestral parts he still had.

Finally, the symphony was reconstructed.  But that’s not the end of the story.

This 1913 version underwent several revisions.  Vaughan Williams published the 1920 version.  He revisited it again, and the 1933 version explicitly states that earlier versions should not be performed.  He revised it again, and published a new version in 1936, and that’s the version that is performed today.

Except.

Vaughan Williams’s widow permitted one recording of the original 1913 score.  She was so happy with the recording by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox, that subsequent performances have been made possible.3

Opinions differ strongly about these two versions.  Some say Vaughan Williams said not to perform the earlier one; they say that later editing improved the symphony, giving it a tighter, more cohesive structure.

Some, however, say the removal of nearly 20 minutes of material from the 1913 version totally changed the character of the work.  In its original version it is more like the tone poems it derived from, less like a symphony, and it is a darker, more contemplative work.  They say Vaughan Williams cut out some beautiful melodies for the sake of conciseness.  But then Vaughan Williams himself described one removed passage as “a bad hymn tune.”2

I’m not sure where I stand on this.  I can see both sides.  I’ve listened to both, and I’ll give you links to performances of both.

Regardless of which you prefer, you will be treated to a picture of a bustling London through its day, and, in the end, through the ages.

I hope you will enjoy it.

Here is a performance of the 1913 version, conducted by Richard Hickox.

Here is a performance of the standard version.

References

  1. Lloyd, Stephen, in Ralph Vaughan Williams in Perspective, ed. Lewis Foreman, Albion Music Ltd, 1998.  “The quoted text in (a) is a portmanteau of two originals, the bulk being from a letter to Sir Alexander Butterworth, father of the composer” via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_London_Symphony.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_London_Symphony.
  3. McGregor, Andrew, “Vaughan Williams. A London Symphony. Review” http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/88cz/
  4. You can see the revised score at http://imslp.org/wiki/File:PMLP60779-Vaughan-Williams_-_Symphony_No._2_(orch._score).pdf.

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Image attribution: C. Gallant, 2017.


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Haiku Wednesday: Old Music, New World

Sheet music in old notation showing parts of the Quechua hymn Hanacpachap cussicuinin
Thousands of miles from
Home, they sought the solace of
A familiar faith.

The same sun shone down,
And the church looked just the same,
But a world away.

And new believers,
At home here, sought connection,
Familiar comfort.

And on that Sunday,
The music sounded the same,
But the words were new.

And both would smile in
This new and ancient landscape,
Worlds joined in music.

I love the things I find during my random walks through music history.  I was doing research on Tomás Luis de Victoria (around 1548-1611; you’ll see a post on him soon) when I found out that he published a collection of his music for distribution throughout Europe and the New World.  The New World.  I hadn’t thought about it before.  Typically, newly built colonial cities in the Americas had a central town square, and on one side of this square there was always a church, if not a cathedral.  And these churches needed music.

Victoria’s music traveled to Bogota, Colombia; Lima and Cusco, Peru; Mexico City, Mexico; and other cities in the New World.  The Spanish composer Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla didn’t send his music; he came to Mexico, composed music in the city of Puebla, and was the music director of the city’s cathedral.  Composer Juan García de Zéspedes, born in Puebla, studied under Gutiérrez de Padilla and later succeeded him as the music director.

At the cathedral of Santiago de Guatemala, now Antigua Guatemala, the Portuguese composer Gaspar Fernandes compiled a collection of choral music written by him and by the Spanish composers Francisco Guerrero, Cristóbal de Morales, and Pedro Bermúdez.  Fernandes and Bermúdez were also active at the cathedral in Puebla, Mexico.

I discovered that there is a wealth of information on sacred and secular music in the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s.  Some are listed in the references, but there are many more.

I had only begun to scratch the surface when this music stopped me in my tracks, music that I needed to share.  The first vocal polyphonic work published in the New World (in 1631) is from Peru, and it is in the Quechua language.  It is Hanacpachap cussicuinin, a hymn to the Virgin Mary.  And it is beautiful.  Here are the words of the first verse (presented today in Haiku form):

O, Joy of Heaven,
We praise you a thousand times,
Tree of thrice-blessed fruit.
Hope of humankind,
You help all those who are weak.
Attend to our prayer.

And now, here is a performance of Hanacpachap cussicuinin.

References

  1. Tomás Luis de Victoria, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom%C3%A1s_Luis_de_Victoria.
  2. Sacred Music: God’s Composer.  Music by Tomás Luis de Victoria.  BBC DVD, 2012.  https://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Music-Gods-Composer-Victoria/dp/B006ZBJJI2
  3. Cramer, Eugene, Tomás Luis de Victoria: A Guide to Research. Psychology Press, 1998, 53-72.
  4. http://www.lacompania.com.au/reviews/cds/
  5. Bowers, Teresa, “The Golden Age of Choral Music in the Cathedrals of Colonial Mexico,” The Choral Journal, Vol 40 No 9 (April 2000) pp 9-13 via jstor.org.
  6. Escalada, Oscar, “Hanaqpachaq: The First Polyphonic Work Published (and Composed?) in the New World” [trans., ed. David Castleberry], The Choral Journal, Vol 43 No 2 (September 2002) pp 9-16 via jstor.org.
  7. Also see works by musicologist Robert Stevenson.

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Image attribution: Juan Pérez Bocanegra. Ritual, formulario, e institución de curas para administrar a los naturales de este reyno, los santos sacramentos del baptismo, confirmacion, eucaristia, y viatico, penitencia, extremauncion, y matrimonio: con aduertencias muy necessarias. Lima: Geronymo de Contreras, 1631, p 708, via the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/ritualformulario00pr.


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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.