Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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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!

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The Music of Agincourt

Drawing of the Battle of Agincourt from a French manuscript of the late 1400s

Last week, I was off doing what I call “saturation genealogy.”  That’s where I immerse myself in research until I can’t absorb any more names, dates, places, lineages..lots of work, but fun too as new discoveries are made.

I know, fun summer vacation, right?

Anyway, somewhere along the way I found a family tree that someone else had created that would seem to indicate that an ancestor of my spouse was at the Battle of Agincourt (on the French side).  That will have to be investigated further, but it got me to thinking about what sort of secular music those folks might have been listening to.

1415 would have been rich in chansons, and the first name that sprung to mind was Guillaume de Machaut.  Here is his Douce Dame Jolie.

A song of the 14th century that might still have been making the rounds is Je Voy Mon Cuer.  You can see it here, played on a cool modern reproduction of a portative organ.

A little later, survivors would have recounted the battle to their rapt listeners while the music of Guillaume Dufay sounded through the hall. Here is the lovely Vergine bella, che di sol vestita .

Sadly, the supposed ancestor was one of the casualties.  By that time, poet Christine De Pizan had written the heart-wrenching Deuill Angoisseux, written in 1390 on the death of her husband.  Gilles Binchois set it to music in the mid-1400s.  The French and English words can be found here.  An extended version filmed at Chateau de Germolles, a residence of the dukes of Burgundy, can be seen at the link.

I guess the account would not be complete without the Agincourt Carol, written in England in celebration of the English victory.  The instrument at the very beginning is a crumhorn, in case you’re wondering.  You can see manuscripts containing the carol here.

If you’re in the mood for more Medieval music, there are a number of extended playlists available online, including the interestingly-named “Medieval Music – ‘Hardcore’ Party Mix” full of lively dance tunes.

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Image attribution:  Battle of Agincourt, from the Chroniques d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet (early 15th century) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASchlacht_von_Azincourt.jpg.  Original manuscript Biblioteque National de France.


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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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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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Graduation Music

Stick figure with diploma in graduation attire

It’s graduation season!  And in America that means we will be hearing a lot of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 1.  You know the tune—Disney used it to great effect in Fantasia 2000.

”But wait,” you might be saying.  “Pomp and Circumstance No. 1?”  Indeed.  Elgar wrote six Pomp and Circumstance MarchesYou can read about the first time No. 1 was used in an American graduation ceremony here.

March No. 1 is called “Land of Hope and Glory.”

And here are March No. 2, March No. 3, March No. 4, March No. 5, and March No. 6 (which Elgar left incomplete—it was completed by Anthony Payne).

I actually gave a speech at my high school graduation.  I found it years later, and it was waaay too long.  Here’s what I would say now:

  1. Graduation day is a new beginning. So is every day.
  2. Get out there and try new things. They may not work out, and that’s ok.   See point 1.
  3. Sometimes when you flip a coin to make a decision, you find out what you don’t want.  But then you know.  Coin flips need not be binding.
  4. Don’t wait until you’re 100% ready or the product/situation is 100% perfect or you’ll never accomplish anything.
  5. Learning doesn’t stop when you no longer have teachers and classrooms. Go find stuff out!
  6. Try to make things better—the world, your neighborhood, yourself.

Two years ago, I started this blog.  I wasn’t ready.   I had never done anything like it before.  I made mistakes.  I still make mistakes.  But I know way more about music now than I ever did.  It’s been fun sharing what I’ve learned with people—people in 134 countries!  So, start catapulting, my friends!

And what better way to end than with another piece of graduation music, the Academic Festival Overture, in which Brahms cleverly incorporates the tunes of a number of student drinking songs.  You can see it here.  Prost!