Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Beauty and Creativity Are Everywhere

Here is the link to Yo-Yo Ma’s new video, in which he performs the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.  This would be beauty enough; but the music forms the background to clips of people around the world expressing their creativity and showing how culture connects us all.  It is exuberant and full of hope, something we can all aspire to as this new year begins.  The video was created as part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project, in which he will be playing Bach’s six cello suites in 36 cities around the world.

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Haiku Wednesday:  The Rat’s Lullaby

A mother mouse in a long dress rocking a baby mouse with a cradle full of baby mice beside her.

Mutter Rattelein
Schau mal! Was hast du getan?
Für deine Kinder,
In der alten Burg,
Machtest Du ein Bettelein
Von alten Seiten.

Bisschen bei Bisschen,
Du hast die Musik zerriss’n
In kleine Stücke.

Du hast ein weiches
Nest für die Kinder gewebt
So wären sie warm.

Kinder, Ihr nicht wisst
Sie war Komponist eines
Ratzenwiegenlied.

 

Wee Mother Rat, look
Now what you have done here, look!
For your small children,
In the old castle,
You made a soft little bed
From some old pages.

Bite by tiny bite,
You rendered all the music
Into small pieces.

You wove the music
Into a softly lined nest
So they would be warm.

Your babes didn’t know
You were the composer of
A rat lullaby.

 

I would like to tell you today the story of Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel.  He lived about the same time as Bach, and was much admired by his contemporaries.  He was highly regarded by most people…but perhaps not so much by his successor as Kapellmeister in the court at Gotha, Georg Benda.

Benda wrote that he had saved the best stuff, and separated it from the “junk.”  That “junk” was stored in a castle attic, where it was mostly destroyed by rats.

While I suppose it’s possible that rats could have eaten the manuscripts, I recall a time that mice got into my outdoor garden shed.  I found that they had nibbled the owner’s manual for my mower into long, neat strips, and made them into a nest.  And this is what I pictured that they had done with poor Stölzel’s music.

There is good news and bad news about our composer and his repurposed compositions.  An obituary listed his prolific output, which included 1,358 cantatas, a passion, oratorios, masses, instrumental works, and five operas.

Of perhaps thousands of works composed in Gotha, only about a dozen survive.  His operas are gone.

Luckily, however, some of Stölzel’s music was published, and works he had written for the court at Sondershausen were preserved.  However, even there, Stölzel’s music was disrespected: his manuscripts were found in a box behind the organ in 1870.

A few of Stölzel’s compositions were reworked by Johann Sebastian Bach, including the aria Bist du bei mir, which for many years was attributed to Bach himself.  This aria, found in the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, was an aria from Stölzel’s opera Diomedes.  He also performed some of Stölzel’s cantatas in Leipzig.  One of Stölzel’s works, a minuet can be found in Bach’s Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.

Recently, I heard a piece of Stölzel’s music performed live (where I first heard the story of his music), and what struck me was how lively and engaging it was.  It’s hard to feel “meh” about this music—it grabs you by the hand and makes you run with it.  Let me give you some examples to choose from:

Here is the Concerto grosso a quattro cori in D.

And a Concerto for Trumpet in D major.

How about a trio sonata for organ!

Here’s another sonata

Even this religious work, a Te Deum, is lively.

Here is a discussion thread of enthusiastic commentary about Stölzel on the Bach Cantatas website.  And here’s a video to introduce folks to Stölzel’s Brockes Passion.

But this article would not be complete without the one work Stölzel is known best for.  Here is a beautiful rendition of Bist du bei mir.  I hope you will enjoy it.

With thanks to the Rebel Ensemble for their wonderful performance and the Stölzel story.

References

Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gottfried_Heinrich_St%C3%B6lzel.

Fritz Hennenberg. Das Kantatenschaffen von Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. Volume 8 of Beiträge zur musikwissenschaftlichen Forschung in der DDR. Leipzig, 1976 (Benda quote on p. 22).

Lorenz Christoph Mizler (editor). “VI. Denkmal dreyer verstorbenen Mitglieder der Societät der musikalischen Wissenschafften; B.”, pp. 143–157 in Lorenz Christoph Mizler‘s Musikalische Bibliothek, Volume IV Part 1. Leipzig, Mizlerischer Bücherverlag, 1754.

Image attribution:  Illustration from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, Beatrix Potter (1866—1943) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beatrix_Potter,_Two_Bad_Mice,_Hunca_Munca_babies.png (ok, technically not a rat, but you have to admit it’s a cute picture).


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Free! Live! Bach!  St. John Passion Webcast

Broadcast tower topped by music note, globe in background

On November 4, 2018 at 2:00 CST (UTC-6) (that’s 3:00 PM for US East Coast folks), The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra will present a live webcast of Bach’s Saint John Passion.  The performance will have a stellar cast of soloists, featuring Nicholas Mulroy, Matthew Brook, William Berger, Joélle Harvey, Tim Mead, and Nick PritchardJonathan Cohen will conduct.

You can see the webcast at this link.

If you can’t watch at that time, you can catch it (and much, much more!) later on demand in the SPCO Concert Library.

US readers: remember to set your clocks back one hour tonight, or you’ll be super-early to the concert.


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Haiku Wednesday:  Name That Tune—the Quodlibet

music note with laughter emoji inside
A quodlibet is
Music that quotes others’ works;
So, it’s a mashup.

It goes back to Bach
And probably before that
‘Cause that’s what we do:

Humans match patterns,
And we disrupt those patterns
Just to get a laugh.

(“Cabbage and turnips
Have driven me away” is
Part of Bach’s Goldbergs?!)

A quodlibet is a musical composition that quotes other works, usually several at a time, to show that two disparate items can be combined.  It can be like a musical joke.  That was certainly the case in the 17th and 18th centuries.

It’s said that the Bach family loved to perform quodlibets for each other for entertainment.  Variation 30 of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a quodlibet.  It brings together two German folk tunes: “Ich bin so lang bei dir nicht gewes’n” [“I haven’t been with you for so long”] and “Kraut und Rüben, haben mich vertrieben” [“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away.”  The whole line is “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, if my mother would have cooked meat, I would have stayed longer”].  You can find a more technical discussion of this variation here.

Here is Variation 30.

It’s pretty, but if you don’t know the tunes it refers to (understandable; it has been several hundred years), it won’t get a laugh.  Though you might get a chuckle out of the fact that at least one of the songs included in this elegant little piece of music is, um, rather bawdy.  Let’s just say the Bach boys wouldn’t have been singing it around their grandmother.

A few years back, I wrote a post that featured a quodlibet that combined 57 classical themes by 33 composers.  You can read that post here.

Today, I bring you the Quodlibet For Small Orchestra by Peter Schickele, which has so many classical themes one would be hard pressed to catch them all.  There are also some popular tunes thrown in for good measure.  And it’s not only what he includes, but how he includes it that will make you laugh.

If you would like to know why this is funny, you may consult this study, which specifically focuses on Schickele’s work.  If you’d like to read about the origin of PDQ Bach, read this interview with Peter Schickele.

I hope you have a happy day!

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Image attribution:  C. Gallant, 2018.


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Haiku Wednesday: Chopin on Period Pianos

Frederic Chopin
What would Chopin play
If given the choice today:
Fortepiano
By Erard, Pleyel,
A Broadwood, Buchholtz, or Graf?
Or would Chopin choose
A Bösendorfer,
A Steinway D, or maybe
A Fazioli?
We’ll never know, but
We can hear his music on
Antique pianos.

Today’s post was prompted by a livestream of the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments presented by the Chopin Institute.  The institute will hold international competitions using period instruments once every five years.  You can read about the pianos hereYou can see a recording of the first stage, AM session here and you can see the PM session here.  The early stages of the competition will also include pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach.  Videos of the entire competition will be made available on the Chopin Institute’s YouTube channel and its Facebook page, and, if you’re on the go, via a free app for iOs and Android.

Watching people play 19th century instruments on a cell phone.  Surreal.

Performances from previous years’ competitions (on modern pianos) may also be viewed on the institute’s YouTube channel.

It’s an interesting concept, and I am curious to see how competitors may tailor their performances to the different responsiveness of period instruments.  Will they coax from these more delicate instruments a sound similar to what Chopin might have heard as he played?  Will they select a piano with two foot pedals…or with four?  The pianos also vary in the number of keys on the keyboard, varying from 6-1/2 to 7 octaves (a modern piano has just over 7, a Bösendorfer Imperial has 8).

You will certainly enjoy hours of piano music.  The last phase of the competition will feature performances with an orchestra.

Here is a video of a performance of Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu on Chopin’s own piano, an 1848 Pleyel.

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Image attribution:  Drawing of Chopin by Maria Wodzińska (Own work copied by Nihil novi) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChopin%2C_by_Wodzinska.JPG


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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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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.