Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Lvov To Pennsylvania, By Way of Ancient Greece and Russia

Bryn Mawr lantern and bust of Athena

O, friends of wisdom,
Let us gather together
And name those things that
We all hold so dear:
Beauty with simplicity,
And without softness.

Our talent is used
To accomplish deeds: this, our
Finest achievement,
Our noble venture;
And proper is our pride in
What we have achieved.

And our hope is great,
The achievement is worthy,
Yea, our hope is great.

The words above are a translation from ancient Greek of a song called “Sophias.”  It is one of the traditional songs of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.  And its origins span the globe.

As a preface, let me tell you a little about a college tradition.  On a dark night each October, the Bryn Mawr freshman class, wearing black academic robes, gathers in the courtyard of a building that looks like it could be found on the set of a Harry Potter movie.

Great Hall at Bryn Mawr College

Sophomores file in, singing a hymn to Athena, goddess of wisdom, in Greek, as a candle-lit lantern is placed behind each freshman (see a little here).  When all the lanterns have been bestowed, the freshman take up their lanterns and all the students (and alumnae observing in the background) sing “Sophias”.  It is haunting, mysterious, and wonderful.  Even when sung without academic robes.

In the early years of the college, the tradition was for each freshman class to come up with its own Lantern Night song.  The Class of 1889 came up with “Sophias”.  Later, it became one of the permanent Lantern Night songs, along with the hymn to Athena (contribution of the class of 1893).1

The words were extracted from Thucydides’s account of Pericles’s Funeral Oration, as found in The Peloponnesian War (Book 2, Chapter 40)2 …because everyone has common knowledge of that, and ancient Greek, and thinks, “hey, you know what would be good for our song?”  Right?  Sure. But that’s the kind of place Bryn Mawr is.  I recall attending a lantern-lit funeral for a pet goldfish involving orations in Greek and English (oddly, modern English) before solemn interment in a tiny grave dug with a spoon that may have been liberated from the cafeteria.

And now for the Russian content (and the classical music content—thank you for your patience).  The melody was written by Alexei Fyodorovich Lvov.  He was a Russian composer and violinist who was friends with Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer.  His string quartet regularly held private concerts for Russian aristocracy, and guest performers at these concerts included Liszt, Robert and Clara Schumann, and Berlioz.3 In “Sophias,” Bryn Mawr students used Lvov’s religious work, “Of Thy Mystical Supper” (“Вечери Твоея тайныя”), which can be heard here performed by an ensemble wearing period attire.  Please note the bass, who sings the incredibly deep notes underpinning this beautiful piece of music.

Lvov is also known for composing the Russian Imperial Anthem, “God Save the Tsar” (“Боже, Царя храни”).  In another interesting twist, this melody is regularly sung by students of the University of Pennsylvania as they sing the words to “Hail, Pennsylvania.”

Lvov also composed operas, a concerto, and various works for strings (sheet music here).  To conclude, here is Lvov’s Violin Concerto.

References

  1. Bryn Mawr College Special Collections Facebook page, “Lantern Night Songs,” https://www.facebook.com/pg/Bryn-Mawr-College-Special-Collections-205274397222/photos/?tab=album&album_id=10151998179002223
  2. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0200%3Abook%3D2%3Achapter%3D40
  3. “Alexei Lvov”, Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexei_Lvov

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Image attributions:  Photographs by C. Gallant.

 

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Haiku Wednesday: Faure’s In Paradisum

The Assumption of the Virgin, painting by Francesco Botticini

May angels lead you
Into paradise, and may
Martyrs receive you,
And lead you into
Holy Jerusalem with
Choirs of angels.
And with Lazurus,
Once a poor man, may you have
Your eternal rest.

At this time of year, many cultures hold observances that remember and honor the dead.  In his Requiem, Gabriel Fauré uses the Latin text of the In paradisum section of the requiem liturgy (reproduced in English as a haiku above).  Here you can hear the original plainchant (and practice reading the ancient notation).

And here is Fauré’s transformation, complete with his notion of an angel choir.  Beauty and rest.

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Image attribution: The Assumption of the Virgin by Francesco Botticini, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Francesco_Botticini_-_The_Assumption_of_the_Virgin.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: Handel’s Semele

Painting of Jupiter and Semele by Luca Ferrari
“Wherever you walk
There will be trees and flowers,
For you are lovely.”

So said Jupiter
To Semele; she doubted.
You know where this goes.

Whenever humans
Get involved with the Greek gods,
It doesn’t end well.

Tonight, 25 October 2017 at 19:00 CET (GMT +1), operavision.eu and the Garsington Opera will present Handel’s Semele, the story of a mortal woman seduced by Jupiter.  Handel filled this oratorio with wonderful arias.  However, the audience at the premiere was shocked, as Handel presented this sensual story during the solemn Lenten season.

No previews from tonight’s performance are available, but I really wanted you to hear a sample from Semele, so here is a performance of “Where’er you walk” by John Mark Ainsley.

Semele will be available for a few months after the initial webcast.

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Image attribution: Jupiter and Semele by Luca Ferrari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luca_Ferrari_-_Jupiter_and_Semele.jpg


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Discovery!  Unknown Viola Work by Shostakovich Found in Archives

Photograph of new Shostakovich viola work

Courtesy of mos.ru.

The Strad reports that a previously unknown work for viola and piano written by Dmitri Shostakovich has been found in Moscow.  The discovery was announced on the composer’s birthday (25 September).

The piece is titled Impromptu Op. 33 (Shostakovich later assigned the number to another work).  It was found among the papers of violist Vadim Borisovsky of the Beethoven Quartet.  It is believed it was written for violist Alexander Ryvkin of the Glazunov Quartet.  The duet was written, apparently in one sitting, in 1931.

We do not yet know what this newly-found work sounds like.  Shostakovich wrote one other work for the viola, the Viola Sonata (his last composition), which was written in 1975.  You can listen to it here.

Read the article in The Strad here.

References

https://www.thestrad.com/news/a-new-work-for-viola-by-shostakovich-discovered-in-moscow-state-archives/7151.article#.WctqF1zRpVU.twitter


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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.