Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


1 Comment

Chopin Waltzes, Cats, and Dogs

cat paw on piano

When you think of Chopin, you don’t necessarily think of whimsical musical pieces about cats and dogs.  But the story goes that two of his waltzes may have been inspired by pets.

The pets actually belonged to George Sand and her family, with whom Chopin was living at the time.  They had a cat, Valdeck, and two dogs, Marquis and Dib.

Valdeck, being a cat, would occasionally walk or scamper across Chopin’s piano.  That part of the story is certainly true, as anyone who owns a cat and a piano will attest.  The story goes that the notes the cat sounded in its journey across the keyboard caught Chopin’s ear.  We’ll never know for sure if that is true, but a minute into Chopin’s Waltz in F Major (Op. 34 No. 3), there is a sprightly flutter of notes up and down the keyboard that might sound to you like a cat running on the keyboard.  You can judge for yourself.

As for Marquis, the story goes that Marquis was chasing his tail, and George Sand challenged Chopin to write music to describe it.  And so they say the “Little Dog Waltz” was born, though most people know it by the name Minute Waltz (Op. 64 No. 1).  Listen and see if you can picture the dog chasing its tail.

And if you have a minute, you might also want to check out this humorous rendition by Marc-André Hamelin, in which the music goes somewhat, and delightfully, awry).

While we may never know if these stories are completely true, we know that Chopin wrote the Galop Marquis with Marquis in mind:  his name on the manuscript!

Manuscript of Chopin's Galop Marquis

_____

Image attribution:

“Piano Playing Cat” by ryansmut February 1, 2010, http://ryansmut.deviantart.com/art/piano-playing-cat-152617468

Image of Galop Marquis manuscript, http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/books-manuscripts/chopin-frederic-gallop-marquis-manuscrit-musical-5151994-details.aspx


1 Comment

Haiku Wednesday: Faure’s Berceuse from the Dolly Suite

Gabriel Faure playing piano four hands with Mlle. Lombard, 1913

He smiles as she sits
With him at the piano.
Her hands are so small.
“Happy Birthday, dear,”
He says, “I wrote this for you.”
Together they play.
She smiles as Mom looks on
With love at the two.

Listen to this lovely piano four-hands work, Berceuse, by Gabriel Fauré.

Ahhh. Isn’t that wonderful?  Gabriel Fauré wrote six piano four-hands pieces for Hélène Bardac, nicknamed Dolly, who was the daughter of Emma Bardac, a singer and Fauré’s mistress.  The six pieces are known as the Dolly SuiteBerceuse is the first piece in the suite, which was written for Dolly’s first birthday.

Fauré enjoyed playing the suite in public and with the young children of his friends.  The photograph above shows Fauré playing the piano with a child identified as Mademoiselle Lombard in 1913.  Below is a picture of young Dolly with her mother Emma Bardac and her older brother Raoul from around 1895, about the time Fauré was writing the pieces.

Emma Bardac and children Helene (Dolly) and Raoul

Some folks may remember Berceuse as the theme of BBC Radio 4’s program Listen with Mother, which was a popular children’s radio program in the 1950s through early 1980s.

You may hear the entire Dolly Suite here. You may find the sheet music here.

_____

Image attributions: Gabriel Fauré at the piano with young Mlle. Lombard at Trevano, Lake Lugano, 1913.  Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Musique, Est.FauréG.101 via Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gabriel_Faur%C3%A9_jouant_%C3%A0_quatre_mains_avec_Melle_Lombard.jpg

Emma Bardac and her children, Raoul and Hélène (Dolly), c. 1895 from Gabriel Fauré: A Musical Life by Jean-Michel Nectoux, trans. Roger Nichols.  Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 287.


Leave a comment

Haiku Wednesday: A Look at the History of Classical Recordings

Edison wax cylinder phonograph

Edison bellowed
“Mary had a little lamb”
Into a small horn.

History was made:
Voices’ vibrations turned to
The tiniest grooves.

People gathered ‘round
To hear the tinny sounds, now
Played upon demand.

In the suave sixties
You could spin disks—hi-fi sound!
Don’t scratch the record!

Fast forward. Today
Music’s turned to ones, zeroes,
Heard around the world.

And we all walk ‘round
And hear hi-fi sound that’s fed
To only our ears.

(In the future, will
All the world’s music be sent
Right into our brains?)

From the very beginning of recorded sound, classical music was a presence, and it was significant in the development of music technology.

The first wave of development included Edison’s recording of sound on wax cylinders.  You can see a demonstration of how Edison’s original wax cylinder recordings were made here.

As soon as he developed mobile recording equipment, Edison sent his engineer, Theo Wangemann, to Europe to collect recordings.  Here is an 1889 recording of Brahms playing an excerpt of Hungarian Dance No. 1Here is Otto Neitzel, a student of Liszt and a teaching colleague of Tchaikovsky, playing a portion of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1890.  This is believed to be the first recording of a work of Chopin.

This 1903 recording was an attempt to record a live opera performance, the opening scene of Act 2 of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.  You can find more Edison recordings here.

Shortly thereafter, the opera recordings of tenor Enrico Caruso became wildly popular.  He recorded on cylinder first (here’s one from 1903, E lucevan le stelle from Puccini’s Tosca), and then on disks (Questa o Quella from Verdi’s Rigoletto).

Another treasure of this era is a recording of Rachmaninoff playing his Etude-Tableau in A minor (Op. 39 No. 6) in 1925.

Vinyl came into its own, and conductor Leopold Stokowski made the medium his domain, crafting a “Stokowski sound” that would translate well to vinyl, bringing classical music to countless households.  Here is a Stokowski recording of the first movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 (Op. 95) from 1934.  The sound of vinyl continued to improve:  here is Eugene Ormandy’s recording of the same piece from 1944.

An aside:  Rachmaninoff and Stokowski recorded Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  Apparently, it nearly turned into a slugfest, as the two men strongly disagreed about the interpretation (ok, wait–with the infamous Bernstein-Gould disagreement over the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, I can see where there could be a difference of opinion…Brahms wasn’t there.  But this was Rachmaninoff’s piece, and he was standing right there.  Ah, Stokowski!).  You can hear it fully restored here.

The fifties brought stereo sound; of course, you might say the idea had been around for a long time, but technology had to catch up:  the Venetian polychoral style that was used at St. Mark’s in Venice, a style that was popular from the 1540s, made use of choirs singing in alternation from separated choir lofts.  Wow, just like headphones!  But then, Thomas Tallis could be said to have invented surround sound with his composition Spem in alium for eight choirs of five voices each, first sung in an octagonal hall, around 1570. You can hear Spem in alium here.

Classical music was also present at the advent of digital sound: Sony’s first CD release was to be Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations; Philips released Bach’s Mass in B Minor on CD.1

Today, CDs and mp3s are making it possible for anyone to hear not only the masterworks of the most famous composers (not to mention various interpretations), but also the works of less well-known composers, others whose works have not been heard for hundreds of years, and others who finished their compositions just this year.

No one knows how music will be delivered in the future; but thanks to recording technology, we now have about 1000 years of classical music at our disposal, to be heard wherever and whenever we want.

Life is good.

References

  1. Elie, Paul, Reinventing Bach, New York; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, p. 325, 331.

_____

Image attribution: Photograph of Edison wax cylinder phonograph (1899) by Norman Bruderhofer, http://www.cylinder.de (own work (transferred from de:File:Phonograph.jpg)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


1 Comment

Haiku Wednesday:  Debussy’s Clouds (Nuages)

Nocturne - Blue and Silver - Chelsea, painting by James McNeill Whistler

Nocturne – Blue and Silver – Chelsea, by James McNeill Whistler

Clouds, no two alike,
Slowly drift across the sky,
A painting that moves.

Debussy drew clouds
In the darkening sky with
Subtly shifting sounds.

He painted his scenes
In harmonies, in music,
As none had before.

‘Nuages’ renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white.1

–Claude Debussy

When Claude Debussy premiered his set of three nocturnes, the first of which is Nuages [Clouds], critics were perplexed.  They tried to explain its structure using traditional forms, but the explanations didn’t quite fit.  One can imagine that Debussy might have responded, “Precisely.”  He was moving away from traditional musical notions and toward something that had not yet been defined, or perhaps could not be defined.

How does one describe the beauty of a cloud?

Debussy was influenced by the paintings of James McNeill Whistler,2 one of a number of painters Debussy knew in Paris.  You can see Whistler’s Nocturne paintings here (type “nocturne” in the search box).

Both artists sought to reinterpret the word “nocturne”:

Whistler: “By using the word ‘nocturne’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first.”3

Debussy: “The title Nocturnes is to be interpreted here in a general and, more particularly, in a decorative sense. Therefore, it is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests.”4

Debussy’s music combines elements that are changing, evolving, with elements that remain the same—moving clouds against a static sky, with colors changing slowly as night falls.

Here is Nuages, performed by the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Pierre Boulez.

If you would like to “see” the piece in a fascinating graphical form (notes represented by shapes moving across the page), you can find it here.

When was the last time you got to sit quietly and watch the clouds go by?  It has probably been too long.

I think I hear a cumulus calling me.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturnes_(Debussy)
  2. http://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/nocturnes-claude-debussy
  3. Dorment, Richard and MacDonald, Margaret F. James McNeill Whistler, published by Harry N. Abrams, 1995, p 122 via http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/whistler-nocturne-blue-and-silver-chelsea-t01571
  4. Brook, Donald. Five great French composers: Berlioz, César Franck, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel: Their Lives and Works. Ayer Publishing. p. 168 via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturnes_(Debussy)
  5. http://www.classical-music.com/article/story-debussys-nocturnes
  6. http://resource.download.wjec.co.uk.s3.amazonaws.com/vtc/2015-16/15-16_23/Debussy/Debussy%20-%20Nuages%20notes.pdf
  7. http://upers.kuleuven.be/sites/upers.kuleuven.be/files/page/files/2010_1_2.pdf

_____

Image attribution:

Nocturne – Blue and Silver – Chelsea, James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturne:_Blue_and_Silver_%E2%80%93_Chelsea

 


3 Comments

Medieval Women in Music: Trobairises

Comtessa Beatriz de Dia, medieval composer

Comtessa Beatriz de Dia, medieval composer

When I was researching my post for International Women’s Day, I came across a fascinating topic:  trobairises.

Trobairises (singular trobairitz) were female troubadours, primarily of southern France where the Occitan language was/is spoken, of the 12th and 13th centuries.  They are the first recorded female composers of secular music.  The names of about 20 trobairises are known, and around 32 works have been attributed to them.  These consist of only lyrics.  There is only one for which we also have the musical notation, A chantar m’er by the Comtessa Beatriz de Diá.1

Here is an image of the manuscript

Music manuscript of A Chantar by Beatriz de Dia

Here is a link to an a capella performance.

You may hear it here with instrumental accompaniment.

The earliest work attributed to a trobairitz, a woman named Tibors de Sarenom, is Bels dous amics, for which only the words survive.  This song dates from around 1150.2

The name of only one female composer of this period from northern France is known (in northern France, a troubadour was known as a trouvère; there is no female counterpart to this term).  Marie de France was active in the period 1160-1215, and it is believed she did her writing in England.3  Texts of her poetry, the Lais of Marie de France, may be found in an English manuscript of the 13th century (coincidentally, this same manuscript also contains the song Sumer Is Icumen In, long held as the oldest secular song in English).

Here you can find a list of known trobairises with links containing more information about them.

[Postscript:  I thought the absence of female trouvères was odd, so I dug a little deeper.  I turned up a book, Songs of the Women Trouvères, which documents eight named female trouvères, and a wealth of songs and motets that may have been written by women.]

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trobairitz
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tibors_de_Sarenom
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_de_France
  4. Bruckner, Matilda, Shepard, Laurie, and White, Sarah, Songs of the Women Troubadours. Routledge, 2000. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0815335687/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0815335687&linkCode=as2&tag=medievalistsn-20&linkId=VQVFQAAVBQ6O5IVH

_____

Image attribution: Image of Comtessa Beatriz de Dia, [public domain] Bibliothèque Nationale, MS cod. Fr. 12473, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=342295.  Image of A chantar m’er, [Public domain] Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, fr. 844 via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_chantar_pg._1.jpg and https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_chantar_pg._2.jpg


1 Comment

Happy Birthday, Chopin!

Frederic Chopin

Piano works are
What he’s known for, but there’s more
That you need to hear:

Concertos, duets,
His versions of Polish songs,
A stirring trio.

Get to know Chopin
In a whole new dimension
In non-solo works.

Now let us all say
Happy birthday to the great
Frédéric Chopin.

It is Chopin’s birthday today! Church records list his birthday as February 22, 1810, but since Chopin and his family celebrated his birthday on March 1, it is considered the correct date.

Where does one begin to write about Chopin?  He was brilliant.  His works revolutionized the piano repertoire, and enriched the world of music forever.  His mazurkas and polonaises captured the soul of Poland, his nocturnes and preludes plumbed the depths of human emotions.  Countless words have been written about his piano solo works.

So I’m going to write about his other works.

Did you know that Chopin didn’t write solely for the piano?  Certainly, there is a piano present in all his works (and he wrote a piece for two pianos, Rondo in C for Two Pianos, Op. 73, Op. posth.), but lesser known are his compositions that include other instruments.

Chopin wrote two concertos for piano and orchestra (Op. 11 and Op. 21).  There are many wonderful videos of the concertos performed at the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, and you can find them here.  You can also hear and see Piano Concerto No 1 performed by Evgeny Kissin (Zubin Mehta conducting) or Martha Argerich (Jacek Kaspszyk conducting)Here is a link to Piano Concerto No 2 performed by Arthur Rubinstein (conducted by Andre Previn).

Cello fans will enjoy this video of Chopin’s Cello Sonata (Op. 65) performed by Natalia Gutman and Sviatoslav Richter, or this performance of the Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major (op. 3) performed by Daniil Shafran and Anton Ginsburg.

Here is Chopin’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano (Op. 8), a wonderfully stirring piece of music.

Chopin also set several poems in Polish to music.  Here is one of his Polish songs for voice and piano.

And now, since it is Chopin’s birthday, here is a fun tribute to him, the song Happy Birthday in the style of Chopin, with some added improvisation.


3 Comments

That Jokester Joseph Haydn!

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy

The last post was kind of heavy, so I thought I’d lighten things up.  And what better way than with a joke?

In particular, Joseph Haydn’s string quartet Op. 33 No. 2, known as “The Joke.”

In this string quartet, Haydn plays with the listener’s expectations of what a string quartet “should” sound like, what the listener expects to hear.  And when we are surprised by what we hear, sometimes we laugh.  And sometimes we jump—this is, after all, the same man who wrote the “Surprise” Symphony (No. 94)You can hear the symphony’s famous second movement here (headphone/earbud listeners might want to pull them away from their ears before time stamp 0:40).

I found a great short TEDx talk by the St. Lawrence String Quartet on the last movement of “The Joke”  that provides a fun explanation of what Haydn is up to.  When the movement ends, you can’t help but chuckle.

They also have an extended discussion that includes other movements of the string quartet, and that video can be found here.

A funny point is brought out that involves the minuet (scherzo) movement.  This minuet had already showed signs of Haydn’s tinkering:  the “graceful” minuet had some starts and stops that would make it a little difficult to dance to.  Then, (in the trio section) Haydn put an interesting fingering notation over some notes.  Editors must have scratched their heads and said, “that can’t be right—play two successive notes on the same string with the same finger?!”  What you end up with, if you play it with Haydn’s fingering, is an effect that sounds like…well, a slide whistle.  It’s a funny sound, perhaps slightly inebriated-sounding, that seems to poke fun at the stately minuet.  You can hear a wonderful example of it here.

Ah, but enough explanations!  Let’s let Haydn do the talking.  Here is this wonderful string quartet in its entirety.  Enjoy!

_____

Image attribution: Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1757-circa 1805) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJoseph_Haydn.jpg