Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday:  Hands

Six foot six Sergei
Rachmaninoff’s hands were huge,
With enormous span.

Do not ask “Can you
Reach a tenth?” Ask “Can you reach
The listener’s heart?”

I was doing some research on Rachmaninoff because there’s going to be a free online concert this weekend (June 9, 2019).  Anytime you start looking, you’re going to come across at least one article on Rachmaninoff’s hands.

Basically, the guy had huge mitts.

And I was going to write about comparative hand sizes of famous musicians, and flexibility, and speed, and blah, blah, blah.  It’s all been written before.

And I didn’t want even one of you to say, “well, I have small hands, that’s never going to work, so why bother.”  Or stiff hands, or slow hands, or whatever.

Nonsense.  Whatever you love to do, go for it!  You don’t have to be Rachmaninoff, or Rembrandt, or Robert Frost.  Or whoever.  Enjoy what you can do.  And you might surprise yourself if you keep at it.

If you don’t play an instrument and love music, you don’t have to be a specialist to share the music and help someone to hear what you hear and enjoy.

Here is a video of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-Sharp Minor, Op. 32, No. 12, performed by Wael Farouk.  Dr. Farouk, director of piano studies at Carthage College and a faculty member of the Chicago College of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, was told that he would never be able to be a concert pianist because of shortened ligaments in his hands.  He has performed all of Rachmaninoff’s solo piano works.

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Image attribution:  Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1936 or earlier, photographer unknown, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARachmaninoff_plyaing_Steinway_grand_piano.jpg.

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Haiku Wednesday: Not Your Typical Prelude and Fugue

American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein

Prelude, Fugue and Riffs
Leonard Bernstein conducting
Hang on tight; listen.

As usual, looking for something else, I happened upon this great 1955 video of Leonard Bernstein conducting his composition Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs.  It’s a wild ride, and not what you’d typically think of when you hear “prelude and fugue.”

At the same time, I found another video of the same piece, this time by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony.  An equally good performance, but perhaps a bit more …controlled? Refined?  I enjoyed it just as much, and I hope you will too.

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Image attribution:  Leonard Bernstein, by Jack Mitchell [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leonard_Bernstein_by_Jack_Mitchell.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday:  Getting Away From It All

Painting, L'Embarquement pour Cythere by Jean-Antoine Watteau, couples in 18th century garb in an idyllic landscape with a body of water and cherubim in the background

L’Embarquement pour Cythera by Watteau

Where would you go now
To escape your cares and woes?
If you could go now?

Would it be some isle,
Warm, sunny, a sandy beach,
An azure ocean?

A forest clearing
Overarched with leafy trees
And dappled sunlight?

A remote cabin,
Soft rainfall gently tapping
The windows and roof?

A cityscape with
Humming traffic and lively
Nightlife, full of fun?

A snowy mountain,
Glistening in the moonlight,
Silent and peaceful.

You can see it now,
Can’t you? It’s in your mind’s eye.
Or maybe you’re there.

I hope you find peace
Wherever you may be now
On your joyous isle.

 

In 1904, Claude Debussy vacationed on the island of Jersey with his mistress (and later, second wife) Emma Bardac.  It was there that he put the finishing touches on the composition L’isle joyeuse.  Debussy deliberately used the English isle instead of the French ile to allude to Jersey.

This piece was influenced by the paintings of Jean-Antoine Watteau, in particular, L’Embarquement pour Cythera, pictured above.

Here is a fine performance of L’isle joyeuse by Marc-André Hamelin.

I hope you find your joyous isle, even for just a little while.

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References

For more information on Debussy’s sojourn in Jersey, see http://www.litart.co.uk/index.htm , in particular, the page on L’isle joyeuse.

Also see https://notesfromapianist.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/j-is-for-joyeuse-debussys-lisle-joyeuse/

Image attribution

L’Embarquement pour Cythera by Jean-Antoine Watteau [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:L%27Embarquement_pour_Cythere,_by_Antoine_Watteau,_from_C2RMF_retouched.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: GOOD MORNING!

music note with laughter emoji inside

It’s early morning.
It’s still dark, I’m on the road.
I need some music.

Without looking, I
Slip a disc into the slot.
DA DA DA DUM! No!

Beethoven attack!
Off. Fumbling, I find a disc.
Well, let’s try again.

Chopin is lovely,
But too lively this morning–
It’s a rude etude.

Who picked this music?!
I’ll put 4’33” on,
Looping, for a while.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

 

Chopin:  Etude in A Minor, Op 10, No 2

Cage: 4’33”


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Haiku Wednesday:  The Rat’s Lullaby

A mother mouse in a long dress rocking a baby mouse with a cradle full of baby mice beside her.

Mutter Rattelein
Schau mal! Was hast du getan?
Für deine Kinder,
In der alten Burg,
Machtest Du ein Bettelein
Von alten Seiten.

Bisschen bei Bisschen,
Du hast die Musik zerriss’n
In kleine Stücke.

Du hast ein weiches
Nest für die Kinder gewebt
So wären sie warm.

Kinder, Ihr nicht wisst
Sie war Komponist eines
Ratzenwiegenlied.

 

Wee Mother Rat, look
Now what you have done here, look!
For your small children,
In the old castle,
You made a soft little bed
From some old pages.

Bite by tiny bite,
You rendered all the music
Into small pieces.

You wove the music
Into a softly lined nest
So they would be warm.

Your babes didn’t know
You were the composer of
A rat lullaby.

 

I would like to tell you today the story of Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel.  He lived about the same time as Bach, and was much admired by his contemporaries.  He was highly regarded by most people…but perhaps not so much by his successor as Kapellmeister in the court at Gotha, Georg Benda.

Benda wrote that he had saved the best stuff, and separated it from the “junk.”  That “junk” was stored in a castle attic, where it was mostly destroyed by rats.

While I suppose it’s possible that rats could have eaten the manuscripts, I recall a time that mice got into my outdoor garden shed.  I found that they had nibbled the owner’s manual for my mower into long, neat strips, and made them into a nest.  And this is what I pictured that they had done with poor Stölzel’s music.

There is good news and bad news about our composer and his repurposed compositions.  An obituary listed his prolific output, which included 1,358 cantatas, a passion, oratorios, masses, instrumental works, and five operas.

Of perhaps thousands of works composed in Gotha, only about a dozen survive.  His operas are gone.

Luckily, however, some of Stölzel’s music was published, and works he had written for the court at Sondershausen were preserved.  However, even there, Stölzel’s music was disrespected: his manuscripts were found in a box behind the organ in 1870.

A few of Stölzel’s compositions were reworked by Johann Sebastian Bach, including the aria Bist du bei mir, which for many years was attributed to Bach himself.  This aria, found in the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, was an aria from Stölzel’s opera Diomedes.  He also performed some of Stölzel’s cantatas in Leipzig.  One of Stölzel’s works, a minuet can be found in Bach’s Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.

Recently, I heard a piece of Stölzel’s music performed live (where I first heard the story of his music), and what struck me was how lively and engaging it was.  It’s hard to feel “meh” about this music—it grabs you by the hand and makes you run with it.  Let me give you some examples to choose from:

Here is the Concerto grosso a quattro cori in D.

And a Concerto for Trumpet in D major.

How about a trio sonata for organ!

Here’s another sonata

Even this religious work, a Te Deum, is lively.

Here is a discussion thread of enthusiastic commentary about Stölzel on the Bach Cantatas website.  And here’s a video to introduce folks to Stölzel’s Brockes Passion.

But this article would not be complete without the one work Stölzel is known best for.  Here is a beautiful rendition of Bist du bei mir.  I hope you will enjoy it.

With thanks to the Rebel Ensemble for their wonderful performance and the Stölzel story.

References

Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gottfried_Heinrich_St%C3%B6lzel.

Fritz Hennenberg. Das Kantatenschaffen von Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. Volume 8 of Beiträge zur musikwissenschaftlichen Forschung in der DDR. Leipzig, 1976 (Benda quote on p. 22).

Lorenz Christoph Mizler (editor). “VI. Denkmal dreyer verstorbenen Mitglieder der Societät der musikalischen Wissenschafften; B.”, pp. 143–157 in Lorenz Christoph Mizler‘s Musikalische Bibliothek, Volume IV Part 1. Leipzig, Mizlerischer Bücherverlag, 1754.

Image attribution:  Illustration from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, Beatrix Potter (1866—1943) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beatrix_Potter,_Two_Bad_Mice,_Hunca_Munca_babies.png (ok, technically not a rat, but you have to admit it’s a cute picture).


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Haiku Wednesday:  Name That Tune—the Quodlibet

music note with laughter emoji inside
A quodlibet is
Music that quotes others’ works;
So, it’s a mashup.

It goes back to Bach
And probably before that
‘Cause that’s what we do:

Humans match patterns,
And we disrupt those patterns
Just to get a laugh.

(“Cabbage and turnips
Have driven me away” is
Part of Bach’s Goldbergs?!)

A quodlibet is a musical composition that quotes other works, usually several at a time, to show that two disparate items can be combined.  It can be like a musical joke.  That was certainly the case in the 17th and 18th centuries.

It’s said that the Bach family loved to perform quodlibets for each other for entertainment.  Variation 30 of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a quodlibet.  It brings together two German folk tunes: “Ich bin so lang bei dir nicht gewes’n” [“I haven’t been with you for so long”] and “Kraut und Rüben, haben mich vertrieben” [“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away.”  The whole line is “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, if my mother would have cooked meat, I would have stayed longer”].  You can find a more technical discussion of this variation here.

Here is Variation 30.

It’s pretty, but if you don’t know the tunes it refers to (understandable; it has been several hundred years), it won’t get a laugh.  Though you might get a chuckle out of the fact that at least one of the songs included in this elegant little piece of music is, um, rather bawdy.  Let’s just say the Bach boys wouldn’t have been singing it around their grandmother.

A few years back, I wrote a post that featured a quodlibet that combined 57 classical themes by 33 composers.  You can read that post here.

Today, I bring you the Quodlibet For Small Orchestra by Peter Schickele, which has so many classical themes one would be hard pressed to catch them all.  There are also some popular tunes thrown in for good measure.  And it’s not only what he includes, but how he includes it that will make you laugh.

If you would like to know why this is funny, you may consult this study, which specifically focuses on Schickele’s work.  If you’d like to read about the origin of PDQ Bach, read this interview with Peter Schickele.

I hope you have a happy day!

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Image attribution:  C. Gallant, 2018.


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Haiku Wednesday: Chopin on Period Pianos

Frederic Chopin
What would Chopin play
If given the choice today:
Fortepiano
By Erard, Pleyel,
A Broadwood, Buchholtz, or Graf?
Or would Chopin choose
A Bösendorfer,
A Steinway D, or maybe
A Fazioli?
We’ll never know, but
We can hear his music on
Antique pianos.

Today’s post was prompted by a livestream of the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments presented by the Chopin Institute.  The institute will hold international competitions using period instruments once every five years.  You can read about the pianos hereYou can see a recording of the first stage, AM session here and you can see the PM session here.  The early stages of the competition will also include pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach.  Videos of the entire competition will be made available on the Chopin Institute’s YouTube channel and its Facebook page, and, if you’re on the go, via a free app for iOs and Android.

Watching people play 19th century instruments on a cell phone.  Surreal.

Performances from previous years’ competitions (on modern pianos) may also be viewed on the institute’s YouTube channel.

It’s an interesting concept, and I am curious to see how competitors may tailor their performances to the different responsiveness of period instruments.  Will they coax from these more delicate instruments a sound similar to what Chopin might have heard as he played?  Will they select a piano with two foot pedals…or with four?  The pianos also vary in the number of keys on the keyboard, varying from 6-1/2 to 7 octaves (a modern piano has just over 7, a Bösendorfer Imperial has 8).

You will certainly enjoy hours of piano music.  The last phase of the competition will feature performances with an orchestra.

Here is a video of a performance of Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu on Chopin’s own piano, an 1848 Pleyel.

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Image attribution:  Drawing of Chopin by Maria Wodzińska (Own work copied by Nihil novi) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChopin%2C_by_Wodzinska.JPG