Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Of Foot Pedals, Clogs, and a Romance: A Random Walk

This is why I can’t get anything done.

It all started with the Charles Gounod blog post.  I was doing my typical random walk through the internet, looking for interesting works to bring you, when I found the piano-pédalier: a grand piano fitted with a set of organ pedals hooked up to another piano.  Oh my.

My first thought was that this instrument has to be every pianist’s nightmare (in which, perhaps, you arrive on stage to find, not a standard grand piano, but a piano-pédalier and a very expectant audience.  And you may or may not be fully clothed.  It is a nightmare after all).

So then I started looking for more information on the piano-pédalier, which led me to composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, who was, I found out, a master of the instrument.  I plan to write a blog post about him.  I also found out his works are deemed, let’s say, rather difficult, with the possible exception of some of his miniatures, that is, his Preludes (Op. 31) and his Esquisses (Op. 63).  Since I’m all about playing the not-very-difficult, I decided to look for those.  I will note, however, that the Preludes and Esquisses contain works in every major and minor key, so I’ll be skipping over some of those, particularly the ones with numerous sharps and flats.  I found some recently published sheet music, and realized I own a book that has a couple of his pieces in it.  I then also found his listing in the ever-popular imslp.org library of public domain sheet music.  Which reminded me,  in addition to the Alkan post, I still needed to write a post on the other library of sheet music I found.  Soon!

So, later, I decided to listen to Alkan’s Preludes.  I found them quite interesting, and regretted that I been doing Paperwork that Needed To Be Handled instead of sitting in a chair, with a cup of tea, following along with a score.  I’ll just have to listen to them again!  Soon!

A full day later, after doing Things Which Must Be Done (cooking, washing dishes, laundry, etc.), I remembered that I had not yet extracted my book of sheet music to see what Alkan pieces were included.  So, settling into a chair with my music in one hand, and a cup of tea in the other, I found exactly two Alkan pieces oddly juxtaposed with one another:  First Love Letter (Op. 63, No. 46) and Man in Clogs (Op. 63, No. 23).  Was the First Love Letter from the Man in Clogs?  To the Man in Clogs?  It seemed an unlikely prospect.  In addition to being in clogs, the Man in Clogs is also in a key with five flats, with lots of grace notes that seem to depict rather graceless walking.  Hmmm…five flats and grace notes.  Since I hadn’t looked at this book (Anthology of Romantic Piano Music) for a while, I decided to see who else was represented (and perhaps find some less challenging key signatures).

Surprisingly, there were works by Amy Beach, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and Clara Schumann, in addition to the usual suspects, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn (Felix), Rachmaninoff, Schumann (Robert), and Tchaikovsky, as well as others.  My eyes settled upon a familiar name:  Gabriel Fauré.

What a wonderful time I had last year learning and singing Fauré’s Requiem!  What piece of his was here?  Romance sans paroles [Romance without Words] Op. 17 No 3.  Wait—this is do-able!  (Have I done it already?  If I did start learning it, I know I never finished.)  The left hand is a very regular pattern; four flats, not so bad; a little messing about with the left pedal of the piano, and the right, but hey, it’s not like wrangling a piano-pédalier, right?  I read through it in my head, and thought, yes, I’m going right to the piano to try this!

But then I realized I had better write this post before I forget the weaving path by which I came to this point.  And so, due to the Romance Without Words, the Man in Clogs will have to wait just a little longer (perhaps he can read over his First Love Letter, a romance with words, while he’s waiting).

And Mr. Fauré will have to wait as well, because my tea is now cold, and I just need to go warm it up.  Then, I promise, I’m going right to the piano.   As soon as I answer this ringing phone…

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References

  1. Anthology of Romantic Piano Music: Intermediate to Early Advanced Works by 36 Composers, Maurice Hinson, ed.  Alfred Publishing Co, Inc., 2002.
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Haiku Wednesday: Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus

Stag on a mountaintop; the painting The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Landseer, 1851

As the hart longs for
Fountains of water, so my
Soul longs for you, Lord.

The haiku above is a translation of the Latin words of Palestrina’s motet Sicut cervus, drawn from Psalm 42 of the Old Testament of the Bible.

I recently had the sublime pleasure of singing this motet.  One can hear the piece and know that it is beautiful.  But by singing this piece in the middle of a small mixed ensemble I learned something that I would never have known otherwise.

This piece breathes.  Though it was written so many hundreds of years ago, it is alive.  The lines rise and fall gently, as the chest rises and falls when one is at peace, at rest, or in meditation.  The lines rise and fall in pitch, describing a smooth arc.  The dynamics change, one voice rising in volume as it enters, then falling away as a new voice begins.  As the voices intertwine, there is a heartbeat, there is breath, and the piece becomes a living thing.  The motet ends with a hushed tone of hope, or assurance, or belief, all the voices uniting as one, as one living being.

And when you sing it, you realize that you, and your one voice, are now part of a stream of singers that have sung this very piece for hundreds of years.  Your voice rises now, as have so many voices before you, and when it falls away, a new singer will begin.  And the music will live on forever.

Here is Sicut cervus.

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Image attribution: The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1851 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_Monarch_of_the_Glen%2C_Edwin_Landseer%2C_1851.png


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Music for a Busy Day:  Czardas by Vittorio Monti

Hi folks!  I haven’t blogged in a while, it’s been rather busy here.  How busy?  Here’s a fun video of Vittorio Monti’s Czardas that’s a pretty close representation.

And here’s a performance with violin and piano (the instruments Monti originally wrote the piece for).

I will now resume my plate spinning.

Thanks to reader Laurie C. for bringing the first video to my attention.


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Difficult Times for Classical Music

Image of music staves with complex time signatures with caption "These are difficult times."

Recently, I was talking with some folks who were lamenting the dwindling size of classical concert audiences, and we were trying to think of ways to rebuild them.  It’s a nearly universal phenomenon.

I think I understand one of the reasons why classical music (concert or recording) is such a hard sell these days.

Time.

Or rather, time and focus.

Both, it would seem, are in precious little supply these days.  There is more to do, there are shorter deadlines, there are more things vying for our attention.

And a symphony takes, say, 45 minutes.  Nobody has 45 minutes in one block anymore.  And that’s just listening time.  If you’re going to a concert, you have to include travel time, intermission…you get the idea.  And to get to the concert, you’re probably going to have to fight traffic, not conducive to preparing one for focused listening.  Oh, and don’t forget to turn off your phone before the concert (and check if there’s anything you need to attend to immediately?).  After the concert, when you turn your phone back on, it will be sure to alert you if you missed anything.

But then, people go to pop concerts.  Since the time commitment’s the same, what’s different?  Well, there’s more moving around on stage, possibly dancing.  People have their phones out taking pictures or videos, tweeting.  There might be a light show* and pyrotechnics.  I don’t advocate pyrotechnics for a classical concert (except in the case of the 1812 Overture, then definitely).  And it’s hard to dance with a cello.

And, the obvious, the songs are shorter, the form of the music is easier to grasp, and the tempi are probably faster.  James Gleick, in his book Faster,1 explored the speeding up of modern life; others have noted the same trends.  You can have your groceries delivered if you have no time to shop, and make dinner in an Instant Pot cooker if you have no time to cook.  Texts have replaced emails, which replaced written letters (cursive writing is facing near extinction).  We are in the age of the tweet and tl;dr (too long; didn’t read…thank you for your continued reading!)

What was the complaint about Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations in 1981?  Oh yeah—too slow.  Was he trying to tell us something?

 

Schubert’s sonatas have been said to unfold “at heavenly length.”**

When was the last time you had the luxury of that kind of time?

 

So, what do we do about these concerts?  I wish I had a surefire answer.  We might make them more approachable, more lively.  We might change the programming a little; in the early 20th century, one might hear a sonata movement, not the entire sonata.  That’s not necessarily true to the composer’s intent, but now, if something catches your ear, you can probably hear the rest of it on demand and explore.  Others have noted the tyranny that audio recording has imposed on live performance—there is less risk-taking, because people want to hear what they heard in the recording, which is flawless, immaculate (and the product of numerous takes and editing).  I’d prefer to hear someone playing from their soul, taking some risks, even if it means a few mistakes are made.

Or we can hope that the pendulum will swing back, and people will begin to turn away from the relentless jangling go go go of getting and spending,2 quick, easy, fast, now living, and turn more toward a slower, more deliberate pace, with focused attention and the taking of time.  And, with that, the savoring of classical music.

Thank you for your precious time and attention, now and always.

And now, Glenn Gould’s 1981 version of the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

 

Footnotes

*The organist Virgil Fox had light shows at some of his concerts.  But then that was the 1970s…

**Robert Schumann first applied it to Schubert’s Symphony in C Major; it was later more broadly applied to his sonatas.

References

  1. Gleick, James,  Faster.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.
  2. from William Wordsworth’s The World Is Too Much With Us, via poetryfoundation.org. It was written around 1802, published in 1807 (also see Written in London. September, 1802).

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Image attribution: Difficult times via https://imgur.com/gallery/Mb8q5.


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Two Choral Groups Walk into a Bar…

I’m currently learning Ave Maria by Franz Biebl with my choir.  I was looking for videos, found the one below, and had to share it with you.

No joke here:  two vocal ensembles, Cantus and Chanticleer, walked into a bar one night and decided to sing Biebl’s Ave MariaListen.  This is magical.

 


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Concert Etiquette Poll

Stick figure asleep at concert


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Thrift Shop Score!

Literally and figuratively.  Found this classic Edition Peters score of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on a bottom shelf.  Paid 99 cents!

Photograph of score of Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Want to hear what it sounds like?  Follow the links to a fine performance conducted by John Eliot Gardiner: Part 1, Part 2.

Need a score?  Find one here (no thrift shop runs required).