Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Molecular Bach

Portrait of Bach inside the ring of a caffeine molecule

In my last post, I gave you a quick glance at a problem I was having with a Bach piece–a furry problem.

After the cat stopped “helping” me* with Bach’s Invention No. 1, I decided to examine the work in closer (and less fuzzy) detail.  I decided to go molecular.

Let’s look at some of the printed music.

If you’re very good at reading music, you can see which notes sound with which other ones, and how they interact with each other.  You can see patterns in the music.

But for some reason I was having a hard time.  And I suspected that closer inspection would yield more information that I was picking up trying to play it as written.  So I decided to take an extreme close-up approach.

I took each measure, and expanded it to an entire line of music paper.  I then broke up each line into sixteen segments, to accommodate the sixteenth notes in the music.  Each little segment contained a single note (except where there are ornaments, like trills and mordents).  Then I transcribed the invention (thankfully, it’s only 22 measures).

When you get down to that molecular level, and you’re transcribing each note, patterns appear much more clearly.  It feels a little like examining a picture at the pixel level (and kind of looks like it), but it reveals so much.  It turns out that nearly every measure of the invention, in both the bass and treble clefs, uses one of three patterns: (1) four or more notes in an ascending or descending scale (blue); (2) movement by thirds in a scale-like way, up or down (for example, C-E-D-F, two steps forward, one step back, repeat; red); (3) eighth notes in intervals greater than a third (green).  And the patterns repeat, over and over.  First, he goes up (1), then down (2); or down (1) and then up (2).  The simplicity of the movement was shocking.  When you think Bach, you think complicated.  You think of this flurry of intricate notes.  You don’t think of individual snowflakes.

But no.  It goes up as a scale; it goes down by thirds.  Again. And again.  Look, and enjoy the many smiley faces formed by linking the segments to indicate eighth notes.

Bach's Invention 1 with patterns indicated

Now, Bach might be looking down at me and saying, “Well of course it’s simple.  I wrote it for my son Wilhelm Friedemann to learn how to play.  And it’s only a a two-part invention, not three, or a four-part fugue.”

But that’s the genius of Bach.  With the utmost simplicity, he builds beauty.  He takes bricks and makes cathedrals.  He does the same kind of thing in the Magnificat, in Omnes Generationes, making the simple spectacular.  Bach’s music can be enjoyed without understanding the details involved in the composition, but once you see the patterns, once you can say, “I see what you did there”, you can appreciate it even more.

Here is Invention No. 1.

Here is Invention No 1 played by five different pianists:  Walter Gieseking, Rosalyn Tureck, James Friskin, Tatiana Nikolayeva, and Glenn Gould.

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*the cat is also very helpful with conference calls and intricate computer machinations.  Thankfully, she is not as helpful as Borodin’s cats.

References

  1. Here’s the sheet music:  http://www.mutopiaproject.org/ftp/BachJS/BWV772/bach-invention-01/bach-invention-01-a4.pdf

Image attribution:  Caffeine molecule by Mstroeck at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caffeine_Molecule.png.

Bach portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johann_Sebastian_Bach.jpg.

Seems appropriate to use the caffeine molecule for the guy who wrote the Coffee Cantata.

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Bach and Awe

J. S. Bach

Every now and then, I listen to Bach, and as the music starts, and I start to hear the melody lines interweave, I think, “You know, I think I’m starting to get this.” And then Bach throws in three more lines, ramps up the speed, and I realize something:

I’m not even close.

It’s very much the same feeling you might get when you’re learning a foreign language, and you decide to test your newfound skill with a native speaker.  And your methodical elementary-school-level bid is met joyfully with a flood of fluency, the torrent of a mountain stream, water flowing over and around rocks, streams combining in ways that leave one wondering where one begins and another ends.  Itisveryhardtounderstandwhenyoudon’tknowwherethewordsactuallyend.

The same goes for Bach.  When those melodic lines start to intertwine, you can try to follow them, and you catch a glimpse of one every now and then as it goes by, but it is really tough to grasp everything that is going on.

I was listening to Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 (BWV 1052), and immediately had to listen to it again to try to figure out what was going on, it was so good.  The first movement begins simply enough as Bach states his theme.  Ah, but then, the keyboard and orchestra begin stating the theme individually, and the keyboard adds a rippling line, and here the water image is particularly apt, as the strings and keyboard take turns surging forward then receding.  If you want to hear it and follow the score, you can do so here.

This video provides a balanced, and amazingly fast, performance of the first movement.

Another fascinating video puts the keyboard in a more prominent role, this time with Glenn Gould at piano and Leonard Bernstein conducting.  The performance begins at 5:08, but Bernstein’s introductory remarks about the performance of music that bears few interpretative markings may be of interest as well.

Ok, so now we reach the second movement.  And one would expect the same sort of interplay of instruments and lines.  You know, predicting, because you’re starting to get this.

Not even close.

Bach pulls the rug out from under your feet, beginning the second movement with an extended statement, everyone playing the same note (within the particular octave their instrument plays).  It then develops into a thought-filled, deeply expressive, one might even say somber, melody.

The liveliness of the first movement returns in the third movement, and it is classic Bach.

And yet.

There are moments, something in the strings, that seems to reach forward in time toward the Classical era.

And that’s the stunning thing with Bach.  Every now and then, you come across a phrase, and there is foreshadowing of music yet to come.  It’s there, little glimpses of the future, and yet, it’s undeniably Bach.

One more thing.  Here’s the kicker about the keyboard concerto.  Most experts say that he put it together from earlier works, probably a violin concerto, judging by the violin-like features, and there’s some direct copying from earlier cantatas.

As stunning as it is, it’s just a reworking of stuff he already wrote.

And that’s the Bach and awe of it all.

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References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keyboard_concertos_by_Johann_Sebastian_Bach

https://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/keyboard-concerto-d-minor-bwv-1052-johann-sebastian-bach


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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.


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Haiku Wednesday: Music That Gets Stuck in Your Head

What can you do when
Music gets stuck in your head?
I guess it depends.

If it’s some horrid
Tune, ill conceived or performed,
You must replace it.

But a fine tune can
Resonate through the day, a
Personal soundtrack.

It’s happened to all of us: something sparks the memory of a tune, or you hear a snippet on the radio, or from a passing car.

And suddenly it’s stuck, your brain rehearsing the notes in an infinite loop.  If you’re lucky, it’s more than a few lines.

Some people call it an earworm, a uniquely unappealing term, though I suppose it’s apt if the song in question is something you probably didn’t want to hear the first time you heard it.  For me, there is an abysmal song from the 80s that, once sparked, will.not.go.away until I Berlioz-blast it from my brain.  I won’t tell you what it is, because that would be wrong.

But sometimes, the sticking of a tune can be a delight, and that happened to me yesterday.  I’m not saying I want it to get stuck in your head, but I think you’d like to hear it.

I was checking out some Deutsche Grammophon listings on Spotify (Essential Liszt, Essential Bach), when I saw Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist.  So I started clicking.

Everything stopped when I played Tchaikovsky’s Romance in F Minor (Op. 5) performed by Joseph Moog (here’s the album listing from the record company).  It caught my ear.  It stayed with me all afternoon, and I was ok with that.  It begins with a sentimental minor-key melody that reminds me of a thought-filled walk along a riverside in the fall, the ornaments glistening like sun sparkling on the water.  The middle section is suddenly lively, as if one had to cross a busy intersection before continuing along the river.  The middle section gradually subsides into calm and returns to the main theme.

This is Opus 5?

Then I found out Tchaikovsky had written a cantata, overture, symphonic poem, symphony, and two operas before he got around to writing the Romance.  But he was so exacting that he destroyed the poem and the operas, and probably winced every time someone brought up the cantata, overture, and symphony.  But he kept the Romance, and it is a well-loved piece.

Here is Moog’s performance on YouTube for those of you who do not have Spotify.

Of course, before I found this YouTube video, I found two other interesting performances, by Mikhail Pletnev and Sviatoslav Richter, that I thought you might enjoy.

You can find the sheet music here.

References

  1. Leonard, James, Romance, for piano in F minor, Op. 5, Allmusic.com, http://www.allmusic.com/composition/romance-for-piano-in-f-minor-op-5-mc0002659624
  2. Jakubowski, Kelly, “Earworms: why some songs get stuck in our heads more than others,” The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/earworms-why-some-songs-get-stuck-in-our-heads-more-than-others-68182
  3. Kelly Jakubowski, Sebastian Finkel, Lauren Stewart, and Daniel Müllensiefen, “Dissecting an Earworm: Melodic Features and Song Popularity Predict Involuntary Musical Imagery,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, November 3, 2016, http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/aca-aca0000090.pdf


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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

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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

 


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Haiku Wednesday: Fauré’s Requiem

Sunbeams over landscape

Fauré’s Requiem
Gently, quietly leads to
Light, out of darkness.

Light, rest, and mercy,
Fulfillment of promises,
A message of peace.

“Eternal rest grant
To them; let perpetual
Light shine upon them.”

And when Fauré passed
From this realm of sweet music,
They sang it for him.

Fauré’s Requiem is comforting, meditative, and utterly unforgettable.

Like Brahms’s German Requiem, there is a gentleness in its approach.  Brahms focuses on comforting the living, and Fauré focuses on the concept of eternal rest.

This gentle sound is achieved in several ways.  The orchestration is not for a huge ensemble: in addition to a choir and vocal soloists, the original 1888 version called for an organ and string section, with optional inclusion of tympani and harp.  That’s it.  A few more instruments were added in a later version, but this is not an earth-shaking, vast orchestra.

This is also a quiet work.  While there are a few measures that are loud,  forte or fortissimo (f and ff), there are many more that are soft, piano (p) or softer (pp and even ppp, which is nearly whisper soft). Fauré notates these dynamics meticulously.  In the first movement, the choir sings the word “exaudi,” “hear” (my prayer) loudly—and then immediately repeats it very softly, which is brilliant, as the quiet repetition brings even more attention to the word.  Because it is overall quiet, when Fauré does increase the volume, it has a great impact—listen for it.  There are points at which the choir sings with no (or minimal) orchestral accompaniment (for example, the beginning of the second movement), and this has a particularly dramatic effect (and may be slightly terrifying for the amateur chorister).

Another way in which Fauré achieves this gentle, soothing tone is through his melodies and harmonies.  Some of the melodies could easily be interpreted as lullabies, and Fauré said that someone had called his Requiem a “lullaby of death” (as an aside, can you imagine actually telling the composer this?).  And throughout the piece, the harmonies shift subtly, with wonderful chromatic touches to word-paint the text.

Are you a chorister learning the Requiem?  There are several resources available on the web.  Parts videos are available on YouTube.  You might also want to look at the ChoralPractice website.  Once you register (for free) you can access your part of the Requiem and hear it sung by a person.  The site allows you to adjust the balance between your part and the other parts and you can repeat a loop for those passages you find tricky.  The sheet music scrolls as it is performed so you can follow it.  If you need to listen away from your computer, you can purchase and download mp3s of your part, sung by a person, from the Rehearsal Arts website.

You can also find sheet music for the Requiem here and here.  And there are many great audio recordings of this work available for purchase.

A search of YouTube will yield many viewing choices, as well as audio accompanied by a scrolling score (here’s one conducted by John Rutter).

Here is a fine performance of Fauré’s Requiem by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir, with soloists Roderick Williams (baritone) and Sylvia Schwartz (soprano), for your viewing pleasure.

References

  1. Requiem (Fauré) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Requiem_(Faur%C3%A9)
  2. Choral Music Notes: Gabriel Fauré Requiem in d, Op. 48, http://www.jamescsliu.com/classical/Faure_Requiem.html
  3. McKendrick, Ryan Parker, A Conductor’s Analysis of Gabriel Fauré ‘s Requiem, Op. 48http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=music_theses
  4. Gabriel Fauré : Requiem, http://www.classicfm.com/composers/faure/music/requiem/
  5. Program notes for Fauré’s Requiem, https://www.sfsymphony.org/Watch-Listen-Learn/Read-Program-Notes/Program-Notes/FAURE-Requiem,-Opus-48.aspx
  6. Scherer, Barrymore L, “Fauré ’s Requiem in Chamber Form,” The New York Times, December 8, 1985, http://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/08/arts/faure-s-requiem-in-chamber-form.html

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Image attribution: Sunbeams over landscape, [CC0 Public Domain] via https://pixabay.com/en/sunbeams-sky-clouds-landscape-691635/


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Free Webcast: Wagner’s Entire Ring Cycle

stick figure singing opera on a television with a viking helmet for an antennaGot plans for the weekend?  I have a suggestion:  binge watch a tale of greed, forbidden love, death, revenge, and apocalypse.  And the soundtrack is incredible!

BBC Arts and The Space are presenting for free online viewing performances of the operas in Wagner’s Ring cycle produced by Opera NorthHere’s the trailer.

It is available worldwide at this link. There are English subtitles.  Each of the four operas is presented separately, in case you don’t have a spare 15 hours straight to watch the entire cycle.  Here’s where you can find out more about each of the four operas in the cycle and the performers.  Here is the trailer for Siegfried.

In the reference section, you can find some fine websites that provide an introduction to the Ring before you embark on this epic journey.   Here is the Southbank Centre’s animated guide to the Ring.  And I particularly like this 2 1/2-minute video in which the Sydney Symphony Orchestra tells the story of the Ring.

I hope you will enjoy the Ring!

 

Postscript–because someone is bound to ask.  For those of you (in particular, Americans of a certain age) who can’t hear Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries without thinking “Kill the wabbit,” here’s a link to the Bugs Bunny cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?”  In addition to using Ride of the Valkyries, the cartoon borrows from Wagner’s opera TannhäuserYou can read about it here.

References

Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Der_Ring_des_Nibelungen

“Wagner’s Ring Cycle: Where to Start” http://www.classicfm.com/composers/wagner/guides/wagner-ring-cycle-where-start/

This website from the University of Michigan will help you learn more about the symbolism used in the Ring cycle http://www.umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/Teutonic_Mythology/ringsum.html

Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s guide to the Ring https://youtu.be/AgzZ_nLOJJE

Southbank Centre’s animated guide to the Ring https://youtu.be/ykQ7jc09OAk

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Image attribution: Stick figure singing opera on a television with a viking helmet as an antenna, C. Gallant, 2016.