Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Piano’s Everests: Islamey and Gaspard de la Nuit

Elisa Tomellini plays grand piano on top of a mountain in the Alps

Elisa Tomellini plays grand piano on top of a mountain in the Alps.
Photo copyright Joseph Giachino.

Islamey by Mily Balakirev and Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel are considered the most difficult pieces for solo piano.

I had the great good fortune recently of hearing an excellent live performance of Gaspard de la Nuit.

Wow.  There are no words to describe the experience, but I’ll try.

The sound of the piece is stunning, the visual perception of the performance, no less so.  The hands cross over one another, the fingers move so fast, they can be a blur to the human eye.  And as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of notes roll by, you realize the pianist has memorized all of them.  And that is only one part of it.  The first hurdle is technical—being able to physically play the piece.  The second is expressive—and that’s where the piece comes to life, and the pianist adds his own interpretation.

Ravel based this 1908 piece on a collection of poems, Gaspard de la Nuit, by Aloysius Bertrand.  If you read French, you can find the book of poems here (free on Project Gutenberg).  If you want to see the three poems that Ravel used (in French and English), you can see them here.

The first movement is about a water nymph that tries to tempt the listener to join her in her underwater realm.  The second movement is a depiction of a hanged man on a scaffold in the desert.  The third movement depicts the antics of a goblin, Scarbo, as he capers through the night.

Here is Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, performed by Lucas Debargue.

If you want to read the sheet music to see what the pianist has read (and memorized) to perform this piece, you can follow along here to a performance by Benjamin Grosvenor.

There is a masterclass on YouTube for Gaspard de la Nuit, taught by Vlado Perlemuter, who studied with Ravel and recorded all of Ravel’s solo piano music.

In the third movement of Gaspard, Ravel had the intention of creating a piece of music more difficult that Balakirev’s Islamey, written in 1869.  Balakirev drew his themes from folk music of the Caucasus and Crimea.

Here is Balakirev’s Islamey, performed by Giuseppe Mentuccia.

Here is a masterclass on Islamey taught by Lang Lang.  It’s worth noting that the person performing the piece in the masterclass is 17 years old.

In watching these masterclasses, one thing that stands out is that the comments laser-focus in on specific measures, specific phrases.  As I said earlier, when you learn music at this level, you don’t just learn the notes; that’s just the first step.  Then, you consider the execution of phrases, their speed, the speed of separate sections of a given phrase, how connected, smooth, a phrase should be, how the volume evolves over a phrase.  And that’s just one phrase.

Most of us may never be able to play Islamey, or its equivalent for the instrument we play.  And some of us do not play instruments.  But thinking about the music in this detail, listening for these nuances, will make the music richer, fuller, and more enjoyable.

We may not make it to Everest, but even the view from the foothills is worth the trek.

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Image attribution:  Elisa Tomellini plays a grand piano at a concert given on top of a mountain in the Alps, setting a world record for the world’s highest piano concert (4460 meters), via http://dmajor.tv/2017/07/11/elisa-tomellini-the-highest-piano-concert-the-world/.  Photo copyright Joseph Giachino.

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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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International Women’s Day: Kassiani of Constantinople

music note with feminist symbol (ankh) below

Today is International Women’s Day, and it seemed appropriate to bring you music from one of the earliest known female composers whose music has survived, Kassiani, or Cassia of Constantinople.  She was born around 810 CE and died before 865 CE.

Kassiani founded a convent and became its abbess.  There she wrote music and poetry.  Her music is still sung in the Orthodox Church.

About fifty of her hymns have come down to us and 789 verses that are not liturgical, mainly epigrams.

Here is an arrangement of the Hymn of Kassiani, sung in English.  It is hauntingly beautiful.  You can find the score here.

Would you like to read more about female composers throughout history?  Here are some earlier posts you may enjoy:

Hildegard von Bingen: Medieval Composer, Extraordinary Woman

Medieval Women in Music: Trobairises

Celebrating International Women’s Day

Lost Mendelssohn Easter Sonata Found—and it’s by Fanny, Not Felix

Haiku Wednesday: Barbara Strozzi

Christine de Pizan in The Music of Agincourt

Haiku Wednesday: Nadia Boulanger

Haiku Wednesday: Amy Beach

Haiku Wednesday: Yes, women write music

Haiku Wednesday: Women in Music

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Image attribution: Music note with feminist symbol (ankh), C. Gallant.


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Aristide Cavaillé-Coll: French Organ Builder Extraordinaire

Aristide Cavaillé-Coll

In the late 19th and early 20th century, France produced a cavalcade of composers who were also exceptional organists, including Charles-Marie Widor, César Franck (born in Belgium, lived in France), Gabriel Fauré, and Camille San-Saëns.

While each had their own individual style, the sound of French organ music of that era was defined by one man: Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.

Cavaillé-Coll was an organ builder.  In his lifetime, his firm installed or reconstructed around 500 organs in churches in Europe, Great Britain, and Latin America.

Cavaillé-Coll was responsible for a number of technical innovations and for the introduction of organ voices that imitate various instruments in the orchestra.  This led to these organs being called “symphonic organs.”  Franck said, “My new organ?  It’s an orchestra!” and Widor praised the responsiveness of the organ and variety of new orchestral voices.1

The organ builder worked closely with composers, and modified his designs based on their input.  One might suggest that organ compositions might also have been influenced by the opportunities provided by Cavaillé-Coll’s instruments.

The best known of the Cavaillé-Coll organs is at the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, France.  The church has two organs, the main, and the choir organ.  It is said that sometimes Widor and Fauré (Saint-Sulpice’s choir director at the time) would improvise at the same time at the two organs and try to confound each other with abrupt key changes.2

Charles-Marie Widor’s most widely-known organ work is his Toccata, which is the final movement of his Organ Symphony No. 5 (he wrote ten).  Here is a live recording of Widor’s Toccata played on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-Sulpice by Ethan LaPlaca.  While the video was never meant to be a final-cut video (people talking in the background, light distortions, a camera tilt oops), I picked it for the sheer exuberance of playing and the brilliance of the sound.  The page turner to the organist’s right is Daniel Roth, the current organist of Saint-Sulpice, the same post Widor and Marcel Dupré held before him.

Here is a recording of Charles Widor playing his Toccata on the Saint-Sulpice organ when he was 88 years old.  Fierce debates rage about the tempo—is the tempo Widor used in the recording the one that he intended for the piece, or was it influenced by his advanced age?  Do some organists play it too fast?  Here is a very fast performance.  You be the judge.

There is a documentary, The Genius of Cavaillé-Coll, which comes as a box set that includes video from 15 different organs, music CDs, and a book of technical specifications.

A number of Cavaillé-Coll organs have been digitally sampled so that one can reproduce the sound using a virtual pipe organ (an electronic organ using recorded samples of an actual pipe organ via computer software, typically Hauptwerk or the free open-source program GrandOrgue).  While it will not be the same as sitting at the console in Saint-Sulpice, it’s a little closer to home.  Here is a Cavaillé-Coll virtual pipe organ performance of Henri Mulet’s Carillon Sortie performed by David Lines.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristide_Cavaill%C3%A9-Coll
  2. Duchen, Jessica. Gabriel Fauré. London: Phaidon, 2000, p. 32, via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_Fauré.

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Image attribution: Aristide Cavaille-Coll, heliography by Dujardin, circa 1894, age 83 [Public domain] via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAristide_Cavaill%C3%A9-Coll.jpg.


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Telemann Fans:  New Aria Discovered!

Georg Philipp Telemann

RISM has reported1 that a new aria from an opera by Georg Philipp Telemann has been found in Braunschweig, Germany.  The aria, “Mein Herz is viel zu schwach, Euch zu verlassen” [My heart is far too weak to leave you], is believed to be from the opera Die königliche Schäferin Margenis [The Royal Shepherdess Margenis].

The manuscript is written in German organ tablature notation, but a modern transcription has been published in the German-language music journal Concerto.2

You can read more about the discovery here.

A previously unknown set of fantasias for viola da gamba by Telemann was found in 2015Recordings of that set of fantasias have since been released.

References

  1. “Mein Herz ist viel zu schwach” – A Newly Discovered Aria by Georg Philipp Telemann. RISM.info, Feb. 19, 2018. http://www.rism.info/en/home/newsdetails/article/2/mein-herz-ist-viel-zu-schwach-a-newly-discovered-aria-by-georg-philipp-telemann.html.
  2. Lauterwasser, Helmut, “’Mein Herz ist viel zu schwach, Euch zu verlassen’ Eine neu entdeckte Arie von Georg Philipp Telemann,” [“My heart is far too weak to leave you” A Newly discovered aria by Georg Philipp Telemann], CONCERTO – Das Magazin für Alte Musik No 277 (January/February 2018), pp 22-25.

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Image attribution:  Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767), [Public domain] hand-colored aquatint by Valentin Daniel Preisler, after a lost painting by Louis Michael Schneider, 1750.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Telemann.jpg.


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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.