Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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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.


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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!

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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


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Schumann Goes to the Movies?

Robert Schumann, 1850

The other day I decided I would listen to some Mozart overtures.  DSO Replay has an “Outstanding Overtures” category, and there a number of overtures from their recent MozartFest.

I looked away for a bit, and suddenly, I realized it wasn’t Mozart I was listening to anymore.  The style was different.  In fact, it sounded like the soundtrack to an action movie, maybe one with a romantic plot line as well.  If you closed your eyes, you could imagine the credits rolling on the screen.  What was this?

It turned out it was Schumann’s Overture to Manfred.

Seeing that it’s an overture, you might be thinking, “Schumann wrote opera?” Well, he wrote one, Genoveva, that was poorly received at the time.*  Manfred is not an opera, it’s incidental music, that is, music that is intended to set a mood (or accompany a play; and if you look it up, it has now become synonymous with soundtrack).  The Overture to Manfred was written about the same time as Genoveva.  It is based on the poem Manfred by Lord Byron.  It includes an overture, choral and solo performances, and musical interludes.

If this is a soundtrack, here is the plot.  The poem Manfred tells the story of a man consumed by guilt for some sin which remains unnamed.  He grieves for Astarte (he may have had something to do with her death), and conjures spirits to help him forget. They can’t help him.  He attempts suicide and fails.  He sees Astarte, who tells him he will die the next day, and he does.  You can read and download the poem in a modern PDF file hereYou can read and download it as a scan of the 1817 publication here.

Byron was living with the family of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at the time, and they entertained each other with gothic tales of ghosts and horror.  Mary Shelley was in the midst of writing Frankenstein.

When Schumann read Manfred, he was greatly affected by it, and immediately started writing music for it.  The poem is also the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony.

I hope you will enjoy the overtureIf you would like to see the entire work, it can be seen here.  The score may be found here.

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*One opera house turned it down.  When it was finally performed, there were only three performances.  There are occasional revivals.3  In 2008 Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded Genoveva as a staged performance (it is available on DVD).4

 

References

  1. Manfred, Byron’s poem https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manfred and Manfred, Schumann’s composition https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manfred_(Schumann)
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Schumann
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genoveva
  4. http://www.operatoday.com/content/2010/08/robert_schumann.php

 

Image attribution: Photograph of Robert Schumann by Johann Anton Völlner, Hamburg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schumann-photo1850.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: Antonio Salieri

Portrait of Antonio Salieri by Joseph Willibrord Mähler

They say he poisoned
Amadeus Mozart; but
That is not the truth.

And then they called him
A second-rate composer;
If he was so bad,

Why then did Schubert,
Liszt, Beethoven, and Czerny
Call him their teacher?

He’s been much maligned,
Old Antonio Salieri.
Here’s the real story.

If you ask people who Antonio Salieri was, the two most likely answers might be

“Who?”

or

“Isn’t he the guy who poisoned Mozart?”

Since I’ve been pointing you in the direction of a series of free Mozart concerts in the last few weeks (more to come—stay tuned!), I thought it only fair that I clear up some of the misunderstandings about Salieri.

First, Salieri didn’t poison Mozart.  Though the two had their differences, they respected each other.  Salieri produced a revival of Mozart’s Figaro in Vienna (when he had the opportunity to produce an opera of his own), and Mozart himself wrote of Salieri’s enthusiastic reactions during a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute that the two attended together.1 A collaboration between Salieri and Mozart, once considered lost, was found in 2016.  After Mozart’s death, Salieri taught his son, Franz Xaver Mozart.

Salieri’s students included the composers mentioned above, and more.2 Students were keen to learn about vocal writing from him, as Salieri was a highly-regarded figure and a very successful opera composer.  But Salieri didn’t always get it right: fortunately, Schubert ignored Salieri’s disdain for the German Lied,3 and went on to write over 600 of them.  Salieri taught most of his students for free, remembering how one of his mentors had once taught him for free.  I think it’s fun to note that, “from time to time Salieri treated his pupils, Schubert among them, to ice cream, which was obtainable from a lemonade kiosk….”4  Picture Salieri, Schubert, and other students standing on a Vienna street corner eating ice cream!

As for the second-rate composer jibe … well, when you’re constantly being compared to Mozart, that’s a no-win situation, isn’t it?  The criticism is typically leveled at his non-operatic works.  You can judge for yourself:  more of his secular and religious orchestral and chamber works may be found here.  Here is Salieri’s lively Sinfonia Veneziana.

When it came to opera, however, Salieri was an innovator.  He would mix aspects of serious and comic opera, use established singing styles in unexpected ways, and he even incorporated ballet.  Many of his operas were very successful, in particular, Armida and Les DanaïdesYou can see the entire opera Les Danaïdes at this link.  Some of his other operas, including Tarare, Axur, re d’Ormus, L’Europa Riconosciuta, and La grotto di Trofonio are also available online.

Here is the overture to Les Danaïdes.

If you find yourself becoming a Salieri fan, you might want to check out some of these recent recordings.

Salieri—he’s making a comeback.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Salieri
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_music_students_by_teacher:_R_to_S#Antonio_Salieri
  3. Gibbs, Christopher H., “Writing Under the Influence?: Salieri and Schubert’s Early Opinion of Beethoven” Current Musicology No 75, Spring 2003, p 125 (quoting Deutsch, Otto Erich, Schubert: Memoirs by his Friends, trans. Rosamond Ley and John Nowell. London: A &C Block, 1958 pp 20 and 130). https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/27300266.pdf
  4. Reference 3, quoting Deutsch, p 66.

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Image attribution: Portrait of Antonio Salieri by Joseph Willibrord Mähler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAntonio_Salieri_painted_by_Joseph_Willibrord_M%C3%A4hler.jpg.