Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Bach’s Ukulele-Piano Duet

Bach in Hawaiian shirt photobombs picture of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig

Bach photobombs tourist’s picture of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig

What would Bach do if
He had a ukulele?
I picture the scene:

We see him scowling,
As he does in his portraits,
Unwrapping a box.

Carefully, he lifts
The lid, and peering inside,
Smiles, then roars, laughing.

The kids all gather
As he gleefully extracts
His new tiny lute.

And, of course, he then
Plays it instantly and well,
Playing his own tune.

A kid brings a bow
As he sees what it can do,
Thinking what he’ll do.

And as the kids leave,
He sits at his desk. With quill
In hand, he begins…

A friend of mine got a ukulele for Christmas.  We were talking about the availability of music, and joking, said there were no ukulele and piano duets.

We were picturing a ukulele trying to contend with a concert grand, figuring that, short of amplifying the ukulele or alternating solos, it would be an exercise in futility.  A clavichord, maybe, they were known for being whisper soft.  But a piano?  It’s a classic(al) David and Goliath story.

Of course, I couldn’t leave it alone.

The easiest way to make it happen was to borrow from Bach.  So I borrowed the Minuet in G Major (BWV Anh. 114) from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.  As it turns out, it is now believed that Bach borrowed this little ditty from Christian Petzold.

Those of a certain age will remember hearing it popularized as the song “How Gentle is the Rain?” or “A Lover’s Concerto”.  I transposed it from G major to C major to make it easier for the ukulele to play.  Then, I tried to figure out how to integrate a piano without overwhelming the ukulele, while allowing them each to have their moments to shine.

No matter what, the pianist will need to use restraint (and the soft pedal).  A piano, even the subtlest piano, can easily overpower the ukulele.  But balance can be achieved, and it’s fun!

Here’s what it sounds like.  Warning: if you use the link rather than the player displayed on this page, you may hear unrelated music afterward.  Can’t prevent it (Soundcloud!).  Hit the pause button (at the bottom of the Soundcloud page).

Here’s what it looks like (below).  Click the image to magnify, or click the following link to view/download/print the Minuet for ukulele and piano as a PDF file.

Sheet music, Minuet for Ukulele and Piano page 1Sheet music, Minuet for ukulele and piano, page 2

If you’re a ukulele player (ukulelist?), give it a try and let me know how it turns out!

_____

Image attribution: Photograph of Leipzig Thomaskirche by Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomaskirche_Leipzig_Westseite_2013.jpg.  Vintage Hawaiian shirt by Omaopio (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVintage_aloha_shirt.JPG. Portrait of Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johann_Sebastian_Bach.jpg.


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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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Free Concert Webcast: Bach, Shostakovich Jazz, and New Jazz from Michel Camilo

Dmitri Shostakovich with dark glasses

Am I hip yet?

On Saturday, April 22, 2017 at 8 PM EDT (GMT -5), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will present a free concert webcast.  The program includes orchestral transcriptions of Bach works, Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No. 1, and the world premiere of Michel Camilo’s Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra (his official website is here).  The orchestra will be conducted by Leonard Slatkin.  You can see the concert here.

Be there or be square.


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Free Online: Innovative Performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Haydn’s The Creation

 

This week, visit the website of The Opera Platform to see two innovative performances.

On April 13, 2017 at 1 PM EDT (GMT -4), see an abridged performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with an additional final chorus composed by James MacMillan.  This staged performance, called The Passion, will feature The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers and the Streetwise OperaDetails on the performance can be found here.  This performance will be available through October 12, 2017.

On April 16, 2017 at 1 PM EDT (GMT -4), see Haydn’s The Creation, staged and danced by Rambert, one of Britain’s leading dance companies.  Details on the performance can be found here.  This performance will be available through October 15, 2017.

References

The Story of Haydn’s Creationhttp://www.classical-music.com/article/story-haydns-creation.


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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.”


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Catapulting Without a Net: The View is Amazing

Stick figure flying through the air, notated music trailing behind

Recently I had the great pleasure of singing Bach’s Magnificat in a fantastic choir with marvelous soloists and musicians.  It was a thrilling performance, the music ringing in the hall, simply glorious.

Each time I sing one of the great choral masterpieces with them, it’s like adding another sparkling jewel to a treasure chest—the Brahms German Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Vespers.  Each one has its own unique beauty, and I learn something new from each one of them.  Readers are already aware of some of the things I learned in preparing Magnificat (see here and here).  But there’s something else that made this performance special, a first.

I sang it from memory.

But the memorizing itself is unimportant compared to what I learned from the performance.

It is amazing the things you notice when you can manage to pry the score loose from the death-grip with which your hands cling to it, fearful of missing a note or an entrance (or, worse, committing an unintentional solo), and raise your head for a prolonged period.

First, you notice the attentive, expectant faces of the audience.  This would be terrifying if it weren’t for the fact that most of them are smiling.  This only strengthens your commitment to sing your best for them.

Next, the choir director, whom you should be looking at most of the time anyway (but probably don’t—see death-grip above).  But instead of the glance up from the score to check in for tempo, dynamics, a cue or special instruction (usually notated in my score by “WATCH!”), you get to see when they’re not looking at you (instead of vice versa).  And you realize, as they cue every entry for every voice, that you’re not the only one who has things memorized, and in fact, they’ve memorized much more than you have.  Which is just one of the reasons why they’re standing on a podium, and you’re not.

Another thing you notice, something you may take for granted, is the voices surrounding you.  I don’t mean the person standing next to you, against whom you might cautiously check your pitch and volume.  I heard the lines of entire sections, the earth-rumbling basses stating the fugue theme, the sopranos and altos singing the wonderful descending lines of the Gloria, fluttering downward like a twirling, falling leaf.  The tenors adding their color notes and flourishes, voices arching dramatically skyward.  And the sound is bigger, because you’re not hearing individual raindrops anymore—you’re hearing a torrent of notes.

And the instrumental music, by turns sweet, jingling, thundering, soul-stirring, each interweaving line issuing forth from the hands of a masterful musician, without whom the voices would seem incomplete.  Fingers, flying, execute a precise figure, partnered in this instance with fleet-footed organ pedaling.  A dance indeed.

You recognize the staggering number of hours that have been devoted by everyone to make this music come to life.

And finally, Bach.  You realize he’s taken the word “dispersit” (scatters) and depicted it in the music, as it is repeated first to your left, then your right, directly in front of you, in back—surround sound hundreds of years before it existed. That beautiful phrase you recognize from the St. Matthew Passion?  He used it here first, but you didn’t notice it before.  And again and again he weaves magic into the music, and you are left awestruck by his genius.

I hope you will take time today to look up, and listen, and perhaps catch something you’ve been missing.

Me?  I have a new score to memorize.

_____

Image attribution: Musical catapulting stick figure. Copyright Chris Gallant 2015.


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Bach’s Blahs Busters

Miniature of 'The Spanish Dance'; from Códice de trajes, Germany, 1547.

Gettin’ gigue-y wit’ it

Hey, ready to start another fine workweek?

Me neither.

Whether it’s the Monday blahs, a rainy day, or feeling like you didn’t get enough sleep (or all three), sometimes we all need a little kickstart.

You know what we need?  Some Bach.  Immediately.  Better than caffeine.

My first prescription is the Gigue Fugue (Fugue in G Major, BWV 577).  You may know I’m a fan of the fugue (see here and here …and here), but this one is special.  You see, you get to dance the fugue. Check out Matthias Havinga having a great time with this fugue.  His playing is brilliant!

Feel a little better?  I hope so.

If you need a little pick-me-up later, here’s the Great Fugue in G Minor (BWV 542) performed by Cameron Carpenter.  Ever see someone play three keyboards with two hands?  Look for it.  And more dancing!

If you’d prefer a more subdued, half-caf version, you can watch this colorful graphical representation of the score, which will help you see how all those notes repeat and interweave.

I hope you have a wonderful day!

References

  1.  http://www.matthiashavinga.com/
  2. http://www.cameroncarpenter.com/