Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Tonus peregrinus

Renaissance painting of people in procession in an ornate twisting mountainous background. Journey of hte Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli.

Tonus peregrinus is an ancient plainchant mode.  It differs from other modes in that the first half of the verse begins on one note of the scale, and the second half begins on a different note (this was a deviation from the norm at the time).   Here’s what the chant looks and sounds like in its basic form.

The name means “wandering tone,” or as I saw it described in one source “pilgrim’s tone.”  Of course, both names work.  The phrases “wander” to an extent that is unusual for plainchant.  Christian pilgrims wandered their way across Europe to the Holy Land.  It has also been suggested that this rule-bending chant mode may have come from Eastern Christian religious practice, or perhaps an even more ancient form of chant.  So, it appears to have done a bit of wandering itself.

Here is an example of the use of the tonus peregrinus, which is typically used in the singing of Psalm 114.  In this example it is sung in English with organ accompaniment.

I haven’t written much here on the blog lately because I have been doing a bit of peregrination myself of late, physical and virtual, as a number of changes have occurred around me.

I have helped no fewer than three sets of folks move their belongings from one household to another, some over long distances.  Anyone who has ever moved knows it is not just the physical moving of stuff that is exhausting—it is all the paperwork, and details, and the sheer mental adjustment to new surroundings (where did I put the light bulbs? where is the nearest bank?).  Thankfully, my only challenge was lifting things and finding my way from point A to B.  GPS made my peregrinations much easier than those of the pilgrims of old.

Earlier in the year, a place where I spent a great deal of time as a child passed from family hands, so the places where I once walked were no longer mine to tread, my steps redirected from once familiar paths. Rooms deprived of their furniture echo differently.  The tone is shifted, slightly, but perceptibly.

The elderly relative who had lived there is living a contented life, but can no longer clearly identify other family members.  They are familiar, perhaps, on a good day, but, as they say, the mind wanders.

Even more changes:  recently, our choir director retired.  While we are sad to see him step down from the podium, we are happy that he will enjoy a well-deserved retirement.  When the new director signals the downbeat, some of the music will be the same, but we know it may sound a little different.  After all, Glenn Gould’s Chromatic Fantasy (Bach) is different from András Schiff’s Chromatic Fantasy, and Wanda Landowska’s Chromatic Fantasy (and of course, Gould’s Goldberg Variations are different from … Gould’s Goldberg Variations).

Also, recently I performed a piece of music that I had written.  It was first set to paper five years ago.   It has undergone some changes since then, though the basic tune remained the same.

Tonus peregrinus.  Things change, they shift in unexpected ways.  And we continue to meet new challenges and new opportunities.  It may not be clear how things will turn out, or where we’ll end up.  But we keep wandering anyway.

In my search for examples of tonus peregrinus, I stumbled upon a work by Perotin on an album by the group Tonus Peregrinus.  The work, Beata viscera, is not an example of tonus peregrinus; it is a monophonic conductus, a work for one voice, typically used in processions.  This was probably sung at Notre Dame in Paris–it too will return, but be not quite the same.  The twisting and turning of the melody, beautiful and haunting, made it a perfectly imperfect accompaniment to this post.  Here is Beata viscera by Perotin, performed by soprano Rebecca Hickey.

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Image attribution:  Procession of the Youngest King, also known as Journey of the Magi, by Benozzo Gozzoli [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gozzoli_magi.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:  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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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.