Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Some Moosic from Edvard Grieg

A Cow, photo by Dave Wild (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photo by Dave Wild.

I was driving through the countryside the other day, and saw some cows grazing in a field.  I was reminded of Edvard Grieg’s Cattle Call, a solo piano piece I had played a long time ago.  Grieg has always been a favorite of mine.  I particularly enjoy the little vignettes he creates in his solo piano miniatures, in particular, his Lyric Pieces.

When I went to look it up again, I remembered that there was more than one Cattle Call.  There are four pieces known as Cattle Call, or Cow Call, or Cow Keeper’s Tune.  Op. 17 No. 22 and Op. 66 No. 1 were written for solo piano.  Op. 63 No. 2, which expands on the first Cattle Call, was written for a string ensemble.  And there is a song called Cow Call from Op. 67.

Each of them evokes a peaceful, bucolic, restful end-of-the-day feeling.  This is music to make you say ahhhh.  I think we all could use that sometimes.

Here are some lovely performances of Grieg’s Cattle Call pieces.

Op. 66. No. 1

Cow Call from Op. 67

Op. 63 No. 2 for strings

(It would seem from these videos that cows also enjoy moosic, in these cases, the cello and harp)

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A footnote for musical completeness (‘cause that’s how I roll).  The Cow Call from Op. 67 is not part of the published Op. 67.  Grieg set a number of poems from Arne Garborg’s poem cycle Haugtussa.  The published music includes eight songs.  But Grieg wrote 12 others that were not included (these are designated EG 152), including Cow Call.  Information from https://imslp.org/wiki/Haugtussa%2C_Op.67_(Grieg%2C_Edvard).

Image attribution:

“A Cow”, photo by publicenergy [Dave Wild, https://www.flickr.com/photos/publicenergy/], 2007, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.   https://www.flickr.com/photos/publicenergy/1846375599/.

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To the Sun:  Classical Music and an Exciting NASA Mission

The Sun. Credit: NASA/SDO

The Sun. Credit: NASA/SDO

Many composers have written music to evoke the mood of seeing the rising sun, and I thought I’d bring some of this music to you today because an exciting new scientific mission is about to begin.  Early Saturday morning, NASA, the American space agency, is sending an unmanned spacecraft closer to the Sun than ever before to study its many mysteries.  It is the Parker Solar Probe.

NASA has wanted to implement this mission since the dawn of the space age, but it is only now that the technology is available to make it possible.  Parker Solar Probe’s heat shield will withstand temperatures of 2500 degrees Fahrenheit (1377 Celsius) while the measuring instruments in its shadow will remain at a comfortable room temperature.

You can see live coverage of the launch of the Parker Solar Probe, named for pioneering scientist Eugene Parker, at https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html#public starting at 3:00 AM EDT (GMT-4) on Saturday, August 11, 2018 (the launch window begins at 3:33 AM).

And now to the music.  We must start with an excerpt of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, iconic sunrise music if there ever was any.

You can see Gustavo Dudamel conduct the entire piece with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra here.  And here is an audio recording of Richard Strauss conducting his own piece in 1944 with the Vienna Philharmonic.

For a calmer start to your morning, I suggest Grieg’s Morning Mood.

Here is the beautiful and haunting On the Nature of Daylight (Entropy) by Max Richter.

You may also enjoy Aulis Sallinen’s Sunrise Serenade, Op. 63 for two trumpets and orchestra.  And here is Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture, Op. 17.

Reaching back in time, here is Joseph Haydn’s Quartet in B flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4 “Sunrise.”

Finally, here is the oldest surviving music about the sun, nearly the oldest surviving written music, the Hymn to the Sun by Mesomedes of Crete, second century CE.

Wishing NASA the best of luck with its pioneering mission, and wishing all of you sunny days ahead!

 

Previous space-related posts you may enjoy

Haiku Wednesday:  Beyond–Bach in Interstellar Space

Beethoven’s Cavatina–The Universe in the Palm of Your Hand


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Haiku Wednesday: Toccata

Flashing fingers fly
And dance across the keyboard
Weaving their magic.

Feet too join the dance
Executing bass figures,
Sliding as on ice.

The word toccata
Means to touch—fingers, yes, and
Heart and soul and mind.

The toccata is by nature a flashy piece of music.  It typically includes fast runs of notes, and can sound like an improvisation.  It is a showcase for a musician’s skills.  Toccatas are typically written for a keyboard instrument, but that’s not a requirement—toccatas have been written for string instruments, and even for orchestra (the prelude to Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo is a toccata).  While the form had its heyday in the Baroque period, with Bach, master improviser, at the summit (Toccata in D Minor, the toccata everyone knows), the form never entirely went away.

Schumann wrote a Toccata in C (Op. 7) which he believed was the most difficult music at the time.  In this video, you can follow the sheet music, which will give you an idea of the complexity.  Liszt also gave it a whirl (Toccata, S. 197a).

Ravel included a toccata in his Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie from Estampes is a toccata as well.  One can also look to the finale of Widor’s Symphony No. 5 for a fine example of a toccata.  You can find some videos of the finale here, including Widor himself playing the toccata.

Khachaturian wrote a toccata that became very popular (the suite it came from is nearly forgotten).  The link features pianist Lev Oborin, who was the first to perform it.

For some real flash (and the piece that prompted this post) check out Prokofiev’s Toccata Op. 11.  Here it is on a piano.  Now add feet:  here is the same toccata on an organ.

Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto begins with a toccata.  The last movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 8 contains a toccata.  Also check out John Rutter’s Toccata in 7.

And now for the strings!  The last movement of John Adams’s Violin Concerto contains a toccata, and Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 5, a viola concerto, also contains a toccata (he also wrote a Toccata for a Mechanical Piano, meaning a player piano, which you can see here).

If you’re ever having a blah day, and need a quick pick-me-up, try a toccata!


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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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Choral Music by Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

I saw a reference to the choral music of Johannes Brahms, and realized that, other than the German Requiem, I didn’t know much about it.  So I decided to go check it out.

Whoa.  I’ve been missing a lot.

Listen to this Adoramus te, a short piece, reminiscent of Palestrina to my ear.

Brahms was a master of counterpoint, and this is clearly displayed in his motets.  I particularly liked Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen for its emotional impact and the precision required of the choir.  Brahms wrote many of his choral works for an a cappella choir, which for me, as an amateur chorister, is particularly terrifying.

Brahms also wrote secular choral works, including the Fest- und Gedenksprüche, written for the city of Hamburg when he was made an honorary citizen (here’s a sample), and folk song settings.

And to close, a song to make you say ahhhh.  While this folk song setting tells a sad story (lyrics here), Brahms’s setting adds a touch of sweetness.  Here is In Stiller Nacht.

References

  1. http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/h/hmu01591a.php

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Image attribution: Johannes Brahms, photograph By C. Brasch, Berlin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JohannesBrahms.jpg


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Glenn Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations Outtakes Released

Photograph of Glenn Gould, pianist

Photo by Don Hunstein / Glenn Gould Foundation

Glenn Gould was not only a great pianist, he was also well-versed in the art and technology of audio recording.  He was the final arbiter of what appeared on his released recordings.  Any retrospective look at his 1955 and 1981 recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations will mention the countless alternate versions of individual variations that Gould discarded in favor of the performances that ultimately were released.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to wonder what those outtakes were like.  The difference between his 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Variations is stunning.  What alterations were occurring in 1955 that we didn’t get the chance to hear?  Some outtakes were made available in the retrospective A State of Wonder recording that included both the earlier and later renditions.  But it was only a small sample.

Finally, it is possible to hear them all.  Sony has released a box set containing all of the alternate versions that were recorded in the 1955 sessions.  There are five CDs of outtakes.  The box set also includes a coffee table book that includes audio engineering notes and the score, the 1955 and 1981 recordings on CD, the 1955 recording on vinyl, and a poster.  You can see the box set here.

Or should we perhaps trust Gould’s meticulous selection of variations, seamlessly spliced together, as representing his vision of what the Goldberg Variations should be, as he saw it in 1955?  I will leave it to you to decide.

Here is a video of Gould playing some of the variations in a television broadcast from 1964.

 

References

  1. Siegel, Robert and Huizenga, Tom, “The Gould That Didn’t Glitter: New Box Set of ‘Goldberg Variations’ Outtakes” Deceptive Cadence from NPR Classical, October 25, 2017.  http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/10/25/559611543/the-gould-that-didnt-glitter-new-box-set-of-goldberg-variations-outtakes?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=classical&utm_term=music&utm_content=2052
  2. Clements, Andrew, “Goldberg Variations, Complete Sessions CD Review—Glenn Gould’s Obsession, Meticulously Assembled” The Guardian online version, September 13, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/13/goldberg-variations-complete-sessions-cd-review-glenn-gould

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Image attribution:  Photograph of Glenn Gould by Don Hunstein / Glenn Gould Foundation [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Glenn_Gould_1.jpg