Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday:  Short Ride in a Time Machine

First of all, they crawl.
Then hold your hand and toddle.
You let go.  “Go! Go!”

Training wheels off, they
Teeter on their bike until
You let go. “Go! Go!”

You sit next to them.
They take the wheel, learn to drive:
“Light’s green now—go, go!”

Then one day they stride
License in hand to their car.
Their stuff is all packed.
And then as you watch
The red lights leave the driveway,
You let go.  “Go! Go!”

 

Today’s music is John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast MachineYou can hear John Adams tell the story of the origin of the piece here.  He says, “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?”

Sometimes in life you do things that are exciting, and somewhat terrifying, and you’re extraordinarily glad you did.


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It’s Been a Wonderful Future: Accidental Time Travel with Bach

Recursive clocks in a snail-shell pattern. Photo Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11

Photo: Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11 (Flickr.com/Creative Commons).

I did some unintentional time travelling yesterday.

I was testing out a new audio cable, and decided to connect it to my audio receiver.

On a whim, I decided to try it with an LP. I randomly grabbed a record from a section of the shelf I knew would yield some favorite, and put on my headphones.

As the needle settled into the groove, I settled into my armchair.  The sound was fine.  In fact, it was superb.

I had picked out an album of Bach organ works that I’ve had since I was a teenager.  I found myself sitting in the same position I would have been in then: seated diagonally, head nestled in the wing of the armchair, leg draped over the armrest, dangling, foot keeping time.  Like then, I closed my eyes and absorbed the sound of what my mother would call “staring into space music.”

Here is the Fugue in C Minor (BWV 537) played by Ton Koopman.

Back then the world was still a mostly unknown place to me.  Germany, where Bach was from, was a far-off land where they spoke a language I didn’t understand.  I was sure I’d never get there.  People didn’t just go to Europe.  Not the folks I knew, anyway.

Then, and now, the music made me think of the soaring stained-glass windows of cathedrals that I’d seen in books.  If I opened my eyes back then, outside my window I saw soaring green trees, or the tracery of bare branches, or autumn leaves forming their own stained-glass pattern.  At dusk, the view was marred by the light of a small gas station sign beyond the woods that seemed so far off then, though it was only a mile away.

I wasn’t sure what I’d end up doing, but I was looking forward to stepping out into that great big world and starting the adventure.  As there was no internet at the time, and “blogger” would have sounded like some made-up nonsense word, well, how could I have known?

Here is the Fugue in G Minor (BWV 578) also played by Ton Koopman.

And then, the reverie was broken; an LP side only lasts so long.  And I was back to the future, now my present.

And how unexpectedly glorious that future had been.  Once I learned to drive, I passed that gas station regularly, though I didn’t recognize it and make the connection at first.  The world grew.  I learned to speak German, and have been to Germany a couple of times, though not yet to any of Bach’s towns.

And as I had listened to Bach in my current comfortable chair, I realized I understood more of what was happening, there were more “I see what you did there” moments.  I now have access to sheet music, to see for myself—and now everyone does.  And if you’ve got an internet connection, you can listen online to Bach works for organ, cello and more for free without annoying pops or crackles from the record (though they’re so familiar now I find them somewhat endearing).

I don’t know where Bach will take you, but I believe it will be a wonderful journey.

Bon voyage!

Here is the Toccata in F Major (BWV 540) played by Diane Bish.  Some folks will say this is played too fast, but I love it, it’s exciting!

List of Bach Freebies

Performances

Organ http://www.blockmrecords.org/bach/

Cello https://costanzabach.stanford.edu/

Vocal and instrumental http://allofbach.com/en/ (this website will eventually have performances of all of Bach’s compositions; read about it here)

Goldberg Variations:  http://www.opengoldbergvariations.org/ and https://kimiko-piano.com/open-goldberg

Spotify users:  someone has made curated playlists for all of Bach’s works.  Read about it here.

Spotify users:  if you want to hear the Hänssler Classic complete set of Bach recordings (under the direction of Helmuth Rilling), read about it here.

Sheet music

Sheet music and, for some pieces, MIDI or mp3 files http://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Bach,_Johann_Sebastian

Open Well-Tempered Clavier https://musescore.com/opengoldberg/sets/openwtc

Open Goldberg Variations  https://musescore.com/opengoldberg/goldberg-variations

_____

Image attribution: Recursive clocks in a snail-shell pattern. Photo Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11, Flickr.com, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC 2.0. Click here for source page.


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A Delightful Evening

I haven’t posted because I was preparing for a piano get-together this evening.  A group of adult piano students gather and play what we’ve been working on for each other.  There’s wonderful conversation, bread, cheese, wine, dessert, laughter, music.  It’s always a lot of fun.

I played a piano arrangement of one of John Dowland’s less somber songs, Now O Now I Needs Must Part (somehow, I usually end up playing something in a minor key, but tonight I broke the trend by playing in G major, though I can’t exactly say it was upbeat).  Someone played a song from Rent.  Someone played an Erik Satie composition.  It was all great, but for me, there was an extra special treat.

A duo played my ukulele and piano arrangement of Bach’s Minuet in G.

I could not have been more delighted to hear it come to life.  I had heard it in electronic form, but to hear it played live on real instruments, a Steinway and a lovely mellow-toned lute-like ukulele, was an incredible gift.  I am grateful for the time the players put into learning it and their wonderful performance.  The instruments were perfectly balanced with each other.

This was so cool!

If you play an instrument, if you know other people who play instruments, rustle up some desserts and get together.  Have a no-fault music night (I’ll ignore your mistakes if you ignore mine).  You’ll all be nervous.  It will be ok.  It will also be fun.

I hope your musical evening will be as entertaining as mine was.


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Graduation Music

Stick figure with diploma in graduation attire

It’s graduation season!  And in America that means we will be hearing a lot of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 1.  You know the tune—Disney used it to great effect in Fantasia 2000.

”But wait,” you might be saying.  “Pomp and Circumstance No. 1?”  Indeed.  Elgar wrote six Pomp and Circumstance MarchesYou can read about the first time No. 1 was used in an American graduation ceremony here.

March No. 1 is called “Land of Hope and Glory.”

And here are March No. 2, March No. 3, March No. 4, March No. 5, and March No. 6 (which Elgar left incomplete—it was completed by Anthony Payne).

I actually gave a speech at my high school graduation.  I found it years later, and it was waaay too long.  Here’s what I would say now:

  1. Graduation day is a new beginning. So is every day.
  2. Get out there and try new things. They may not work out, and that’s ok.   See point 1.
  3. Sometimes when you flip a coin to make a decision, you find out what you don’t want.  But then you know.  Coin flips need not be binding.
  4. Don’t wait until you’re 100% ready or the product/situation is 100% perfect or you’ll never accomplish anything.
  5. Learning doesn’t stop when you no longer have teachers and classrooms. Go find stuff out!
  6. Try to make things better—the world, your neighborhood, yourself.

Two years ago, I started this blog.  I wasn’t ready.   I had never done anything like it before.  I made mistakes.  I still make mistakes.  But I know way more about music now than I ever did.  It’s been fun sharing what I’ve learned with people—people in 134 countries!  So, start catapulting, my friends!

And what better way to end than with another piece of graduation music, the Academic Festival Overture, in which Brahms cleverly incorporates the tunes of a number of student drinking songs.  You can see it here.  Prost!


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Musical Construction Project Ahead and a Detour Down Memory Lane

Helmeted stick figure holding sign with music note next to a road made of piano keys

I’ve been working on an interesting musical construction project I want to tell you about.  But first, I want to take you on a detour to give you some background.

When I was still in school, I had a Yamaha Electone organ, one of the home organs that were popular in the 1970s.  Here’s a picture from the ad booklet.  Check out those sideburns!  Does this picture scream 70s or what?

Cover of Yamaha E10R booklet

That model is bigger than what you’d normally think of as a “home” model.  I didn’t start out with that one though.

It all started with a little air-driven couple-octave reedy toy organ that was not so much musical as LOUD.  Like a bad accordion hooked up to an air pump.  Not cool.

One Christmas, my father got my mother a fancy (by comparison) Magnus organ with buttons for six of the most popular major and minor chords.  Same principle as the first one, but much more sophisticated (wow! volume control!).

Child playing a Magnus chord organ

I played it more than my mother did, and soon set up the LOUD keyboard next to the Magnus, and played them both at the same time.  It was time for a model with two keyboards.

So, I graduated to a Yamaha with two short keyboards and an octave of pedals.  Pretty nifty.  There was one problem.

I started running out of keys.

Oddly enough, one of my children ran into the same problem with an electric keyboard I had, which prompted me to buy the Piano That Does 11.

Loudness does seem to be a theme here, doesn’t it?

So, a short time later, my parents traded in the little Yamaha for the big Electone.  But here was the deal:  I could have the Electone, but there would be no lessons.

I worked my way through the home course that was provided, and bumbled my way into reading music and chords and pedaling.  It was wonderful.  It was loud (yeah, I know…).  If I played a certain frequency loud enough, the metal Venetian blinds would rattle. Not optimal concert conditions.  See photo for Venetian blinds.

Person playing a Yamaha Electone organ

When I moved away, the Electone waited for me at home.  My mother polished it every week.

I had planned to get a truck and move it to my current residence.  One day, I switched it on and gave it a whirl (literally—it has a spinning Leslie speaker).  Suddenly, no sound.  An internal fuse had failed.  Once I found out which one to replace (with the help of a technician), I would pop one in whenever this occurred.

Unfortunately, it started occurring regularly.  I couldn’t play for more than a few minutes before it died.  Clearly, there were bigger problems.

I was torn.  I hated to let it go.  It would probably cost too much to fix (if I could find someone to fix it, if it was fixable).  It would cost to move it to my house, and then, how long would it last?

How could I replace it?  I have two keyboards (aside from the Piano That Does 11) at my home.  But pedalboards are expensive.

So I started researching.

I found webpages showing ways to convert old pedalboards so they can be used with modern technology.  Keyboard output can be integrated as well.  There is software called Hauptwerk that has samples of the great organs of the cathedrals of the world that you can use as the voices of your keyboards and pedals.  So I could play one of the great Cavaillé-Coll organs in my own home! And there are no Venetian blinds to rattle!

Which brings me to my construction project.

I brought the pedalboard and bench to my house.  The pedalboard has not been converted yet, but it’s a start.  I’ve already set up my keyboards.

I slid onto the bench, powered up both keyboards, selected voices, balanced the volumes (not too loud), and…magic.  It’s wonderful, and surprising vestiges of what I once played remain in my memory.  But more importantly, my musical world is much larger than it was back then, and I think I see some Bach organ works in my future.

Hmmmm, I wonder if that spinning speaker can be rewired….

 

Here’s one piece I aspire to, Bach’s Fugue in G Major, called the “Gigue” fugue.  The performer, Rob Stefanussen is using Hauptwerk in this video.


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Haiku Wednesday: Women in Music

music note with feminist symbol (ankh) below

They threw away half
Of all the great music that
Might have been written.

They threw away half
Of all of the great music
That could have been heard.

No time to write for
The hand that rocked the cradle
And maintained the home.
No baton left for
A matron, mom, or maiden
On the podium.

For lack of training
And of opportunity
We lost their voices…
Nearly—just a few
Managed to break down the walls
And make themselves heard.

Today is more than
Women’s Day—it’s time to rise,
Conduct, play, compose.

Today is International Women’s Day.  You may see any number of articles on Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, maybe even Hildegard von Bingen or Amy Cheney Beach.  You can follow the links to articles on each of these remarkable women in this blog.

Women were traditionally underrepresented in classical music.  What’s the situation now?

If you look at an old photograph of any orchestra, you’ll see a sea of tuxedos, and not a woman in sight (wait…maybe there’s one hidden behind the harp).  Look at a current photo, and you’ll see some women in the orchestra.  So, progress is being made.  But you’re still unlikely to find an equal distribution.

When we turn to the topic of female conductors, everyone first thinks of Marin Alsop—and then perhaps there is a long pause.   However, journalist Jessica Duchen has compiled a list of over 100 female conductors.  Duchen includes links to the conductors’ websites as well as brief bios, and these are fascinating.  But if we can name only one out of a hundred, there is still a long way to go.

Sadly, a search using the words “women classical music soloists” yields articles with titles containing the words”hottest,” “sexiest,”  and “pin-ups”…and I’m going to be ill now.

While there may be more women composers now than in previous times, a 2014 study11 found that women constitute only 15 percent of composition faculty in the top 20 music schools in the United States.  More than half of these schools have no women among the composition faculty at all.  Women constitute less than 15 percent of living composers whose works are presented by orchestras and in new-music series.11

So…

Are things better than they were?  Yes.

Has the problem of underrepresentation been solved?  No.

We still have a long way to go, but the progress that has been made is somewhat encouraging.

Below you will find a number of articles on this topic that may be of interest.

References

  1. Gregory, Alice, “A History of Classical Music (The Women-Only Version),”  The New York Times, December 2, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/02/arts/music/01womencomposers.html?_r=0
  2. “The Great Women Composers,” Classic fm, http://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/latest/great-women-composers/
  3. Rivera, Jennifer, “Where Are All the Women in Classical Music?” The Huffington Post, September 21, 2016 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-rivera/where-are-all-the-women-i_1_b_12095342.html
  4. Tsioulcas, Anastasia, “What is Classical Music’s Women Problem?” NPR Classical Deceptive Cadence, October 9, 2013 http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2013/10/09/230751348/what-is-classical-musics-women-problem
  5. Pentreath, Rosie, “9 of the Best Contemporary Female Composers,” Classical-music.com, March 8, 2017 http://www.classical-music.com/article/six-best-contemporary-female-composers
  6. Cooper, Elinor, “10 Female Composers You Should Know,” Classical-music.com, March 8, 2016 http://www.classical-music.com/article/10-female-composers-you-should-know
  7. Duchen, Jessica, “Why the Male Domination of Classical Music Might Be Coming to an End,” The Guardian, February 28, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/feb/28/why-male-domination-of-classical-music-might-end
  8. Tilden, Imogen, “’This is not a woman’s issue’—Tackling Conducting’s Gender Problem,” an interview with Marin Alsop. The Guardian, February 6, 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/feb/06/this-is-not-a-womans-issue-tackling-conductings-gender-problem
  9. Beer, Anna, “The Sound of Silence: Classical Music’s Forgotten Women,” The Guardian, April 2, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/02/sound-silence-classical-musics-forgotten-women-caccini-strozzi
  10. Elizabeth, Jordannah, “10 Black Female Women Composers To Discover,” https://bitchmedia.org/post/10-black-female-women-composers-to-discover
  11. “Her Music: Today’s Emerging Female Composer,” WQXR, August 20, 2014, http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/her-music-emerging-female-composer-today/


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Haiku “Wednesday”: Better Late than Never

Frederic Chopin

Consider Chopin,
Whose pianistic brilliance
Reached beyond the grave:

His unpublished works
Were supposed to be destroyed;
But fate intervened.

But then sometimes fate
Abruptly ends the music–
Sometimes in mid-line.

These posthumous works
Let the creative candle
Burn a bit longer,

Another insight
Into the life and soul of
A voice lost to us.

Work gets interrupted, whether it’s the humble writing of a blog, or the composition of a symphony.   Sometimes things are…terminally interrupted, or lie finished, but unpublished, languishing long after a composer’s death.

Chopin requested that all unpublished works that were “not worthy of me” be destroyed after his death.1  But Chopin’s mother and sisters countermanded that, and had Chopin’s friend Julian Fontana pick out the best pieces, which were then published and cataloged as posthumous works.2,3

And this is hardly a unique case.  After Schubert’s death, some of his unpublished songs were gathered into a song cycle that was called Schwanengesang (Swan Song).  While some of the songs appeared on consecutive pages in Schubert’s manuscript version, by no means were all of the songs unambiguously meant to be presented together, and his last song, Taubenpost, was clearly added by the publisher.4

And then there is the matter of incomplete works.  Schubert’s eighth symphony remained unfinished at the time of his death.  Mozart’s Requiem was incomplete—he had written sketches for several movements, and it fell to Franz Süssmayr to complete it, who added some movements of his own for good measure.

Bach’s The Art of Fugue ends in the middle of a fugue.  Mahler’s last symphony was unfinished, and Puccini’s opera Turandot was missing part of the finale at the time of his death.5

Last page of Bach's The Art of Fugue

Last page of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. The note written by CPE Bach says, “in this fugue, where the name B A C H is introduced in the countersubject, the composer died.”

In some cases, the works are presented as is (Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9).  But given the human nature to tinker, some latter-day composers have tried their hand at completing some of these incomplete works based on the composer’s sketches (see here for a list).  Not all of these extrapolations have been universally accepted.  They are interesting experiments though.

Some works that see the light of day only posthumously may be awkward yearbook pictures from a composer’s youth, others unsuccessful experiments that the composer neglected to pitch into the fireplace.  Others, gems that lacked a bit of polishing and a publisher.  Yet all give one more glimpse into the composer’s life, like finding a photo of a relative long gone.  I cannot help but quote Douglas Hofstadter’s poignant reference to a Chopin étude (please forgive the length) from his book I Am a Strange Loop.6

One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parents’ house, and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, aid to me, with a note of despair, “What meaning does that photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.” The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remark set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.

After a few minutes of emotional pondering—soul-searching, quite literally—I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines.

“In the living room we have a book of the Chopin études for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad—and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the world for 150 years now.  Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning.  Those pianists in turn have conveyed to many millions of listeners, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Frédéric Chopin’s heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Chopin’s interiority—to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Frédéric Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards—scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Frédéric Chopin. Each of those strange geometries of notes has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experiences of another human being—his sufferings, his joys, his deepest passions and tensions—and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be that human being, and many people feel intense love for him.  In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again, but in the medium of brains other than his own.   Like the score to a Chopin étude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.”

 

I think it’s appropriate to close with a work that might never have been heard: Chopin’s Nocturne in C -sharp minor.

References

  1. http://www.radiochopin.org/episodes/item/862-episode-163-fryderyk-posthumous-chopin-polonaise-in-b-flat-minor-adieu-a-guillaume-kolberg
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miscellaneous_compositions_(Chopin)
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_compositions_by_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric_Chopin_by_opus_number#Published_posthumously_2
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwanengesang
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unfinished_creative_work
  6. Hofstadter, Douglas R., I Am a Strange Loop. New York: Basic Books, 2007 pp 9-10.

Image attribution: Final page of Bach’s The Art of Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Berlin State Library, Germany.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABach-unfinishedfugue.jpg .  The note at the end, written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, says, “in this fugue, where the name B A C H is introduced in the countersubject, the composer died.”