Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


A little Levit-y

No April Fools foolishness today.  But a little fun.

I hope everyone is staying home and staying safe out there.  After a while though, you might be wondering what to do with your time.  Here’s one idea.  This is pianist Igor Levit.  The caption is “And what’s Corona doing to you?”  If you go to his Twitter feed, you can check out his wonderful mini-concerts.

In other news, now that all the pesky humans are staying inside in Llandudno, the goats have taken over the streets. Boars are strolling through Bergamo. What could be next? Could there be trouble brewing?

Personally, I’m thinking more of Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets. Mute the above video and try it!


A tip of the hat to Clara Parkes of The Daily Respite who blogged about the Llandudno goats video.

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Haiku Wednesday: Not Your Typical Prelude and Fugue

American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein

Prelude, Fugue and Riffs
Leonard Bernstein conducting
Hang on tight; listen.

As usual, looking for something else, I happened upon this great 1955 video of Leonard Bernstein conducting his composition Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs.  It’s a wild ride, and not what you’d typically think of when you hear “prelude and fugue.”

At the same time, I found another video of the same piece, this time by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony.  An equally good performance, but perhaps a bit more …controlled? Refined?  I enjoyed it just as much, and I hope you will too.


Image attribution:  Leonard Bernstein, by Jack Mitchell [CC BY-SA 4.0 (],

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Free Concerts: Haydn to Cage

Broadcast tower topped by music note, globe in background

Here are three great live concert webcasts to choose from, with music ranging from Haydn to Bernstein to Cage. 

On Friday, February 22, 2019 at 8:00 PM EST (GMT -5) Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) will present works by John Cage, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, and Kristin Kuster.  You can see the concert at  Here’s the program:

Kristin KusterDune Acres (world premiere)

John Cage: 4’33” (after talking about this piece in a recent post, you get to see it live!)

Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto

Leonard Bernstein: Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs

Leonard Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and other selections

But wait, there’s more!  You’ll have to make a choice:

On Sunday, February 24, 2019 at 3:00 PM EST (GMT -5) Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will present “Maximum Minimal”, featuring music by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams.  You can see the concert here.  Here’s the program:

Steve Reich: Clapping Music

Philip Glass: Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean

Also on Sunday, February 24, 2019 at 3:00 EST (GMT -5), the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), conducted by Tito Muñoz, will present “Reflections on Home”.  You can see the concert here.  Here’s the program:

Felix Mendelssohn: Sinfonia No. 10 in B Minor for String Orchestra

Maya Miro Johnson: wherever you go, there you are (world premiere)

Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 96, The Miracle

Lembit Beecher: Say Home (world premiere)

If you’re not available for the SPCO concert, it will be available for on-demand viewing later at the SPCO concert library website.  Detroit Symphony Orchestra webcasts can be viewed at a later date with a subscription to their Replay program (a benefit of a tax-deductible contribution to the DSO).

Whatever you decide to watch, I hope you will enjoy it!

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Free Webcast Concert: “Seductive Showpieces” featuring De Falla, Gimenez, Marquez, Bernstein

Broadcast tower topped by music note, globe in background

Today, Saturday, May 13, 2017 at 8PM EDT (GMT -5) the Detroit Symphony will present a free concert featuring violinist Alexandra Soumm and conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto.  Here’s the program.  You can learn more about the works and composers at the links.

Márquez: Danzón No. 2

Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”)

De Falla: The Three-Cornered Hat

Gimenez: Intermezzo from La Boda de Luis Alonso

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Haiku Wednesday: Time

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 ( Commons).

How long is that note?
Tell me the tempo you want,
That’s the way I’ll know.

“’55 – too fast!”
“’81 is too damn slow!”
Glenn Gould played with time.

Album leaf- so brief,
Symphony – heavenly length,
Grosse Fuge – vast.

How much time is left?
When will we reach the coda?
Carpe musicam.

I’ve been thinking about time a lot lately.  Probably because there are some important deadlines on my horizon, and the clock is ticking very loudly.  Also because it’s one of my children’s birthday, and how can they be that age already?

As we say in linguistics, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana” (and yes, there really is a Wikipedia entry for this).

In music, time can be a very fluid thing.  While a note has a fixed duration relative to other notes in a given piece of music, its absolute duration is quite malleable.

So how fast is allegro?  And exactly how much rubato can you get away with (they do call it “stealing time” after all) before people start to raise their eyebrows at you?

It’s fuzzy–except when it’s not.  I’m thinking of the famous disagreement between Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein on the tempi of a Brahms concerto.  Gould insisted on stunningly slow tempi for certain portions of the concerto, and Bernstein felt it necessary to make an announcement before the piece began to make the audience aware that this would be a…unique…interpretation.

Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge was deemed too vast to be the last movement of the Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130.  But some have recorded the quartet with the fugue, leaving it to the listener to make up their own mind.

Schumann described Schubert’s ninth symphony using the word’s “heavenly length”; the phrase is now more typically applied to Schubert’s late sonatas. Both Schubert’s and Beethoven’s late sonatas seem worlds unto themselves, time stretching out infinitely.

But while it seems to extend endlessly, time can also be too short.  Monday’s featured artist, Jacqueline du Pré, was forced by illness to stop performing at age 27.  Schubert died at 31, having already produced over 600 songs, nine symphonies (and he had started a tenth).  What if he had lived to 80?  What would a Schubert who lived to the time of Brahms, Bruckner, San-Saëns, and Liszt write?

Alas, we will never know.

Minutes tick by, never to return.  You can blaze through Chopin’s Minute Waltz, sure, but after listening to many feats of pianistic wizardry, I have to go with Rubinstein’s less-blazing performance.  Each note is clear, distinct, and it becomes a small jewel.


So today, let us make the most of our notes, and make the best music we can, in any way that we can.  For there is but one certainty regarding time:

I am definitely going to be late to choir practice…again.

Carpe musicam!



Free Concert Webcast: Hilary Hahn and the DSO

Violinist Hilary Hahn

Violinist Hilary Hahn. Copyright Michael Patrick O’Leary.

On Friday, September 30, 2016 at 8:00PM EDT (GMT -5), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will present a free live webcast featuring violinist Hilary Hahn.  Here’s a short video of Hahn performing a Bach sarabande.

The webcast will also include the world premiere of Ferran Cruixent’s Big Data.  Here’s a short video to introduce you to Cruixent’s work, in particular, his composition Cyborg.

You can watch the webcast at Here’s the program:

Bernstein:  Overture to Candide

Gershwin:  Lullaby for String Orchestra

Ferran Cruixent:  Big Data (world premiere)

Beethoven:  Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

There will be an informal pre-concert presentation beginning at 7:00PM.


Image attribution:  Photo of violinist Hilary Hahn © Michael Patrick O’Leary via



A Little Monday Music: Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale


The Valse Sentimentale is the last movement in Tchaikovsky’s work Six Pieces (Op. 51) for solo piano, composed in 1882.

You can read the history of the creation of this set of six pieces here (if you’re a Tchaikovsky fan, this website is a wealth of information; here’s the main page).  Here you can see the manuscript of the pieces in Tchaikovsky’s own hand (click on the book icon in the middle of the page).

Here is Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale performed by pianist Lucas Debargue.

There’s an interesting story behind the solo piano video presented above.  The French pianist in the video, Lucas Debargue, was awarded fourth place by the judges in the 15th International Tchaikovsky Competition.  Of six finalists, there was one gold, a joint silver, a joint bronze, and fourth place.  Yet his performance was widely acclaimed, leading some to question the judges’ decisions (first place was awarded to Russian Dmitri Masleev).

Conductor Valery Gergiev, chairman of the competition, made the bold move of insisting that Debargue play at the concert showcasing the winners of the competition, and that is the performance presented above.  You can read more about the competition and the controversy here and here and here, from one of the judges.

I’m not going to get into that debate.

But I suppose if you disagree with an interpretation, any interpretation, it makes you think about how you believe it should be interpreted.  It makes you think about the music.  And that is always a good thing.  I can’t help but recall Leonard Bernstein’s disagreement with Glenn Gould over the Brahms Piano Concerto No 1, in which the two had widely differing opinions about how the piece should be played.

Interested in hearing more from the International Tchaikovsky Competition?  Want to be an unofficial judge?  The performances of participants in the piano, cello, violin, and voice competitions can be found here.  This might be the soundtrack of your Monday!


Image attribution: Photograph of Tchaikovsky [public domain] from book Tchaikovsky by Edwin Evans.  London:  J.M. Dent & Co., New York:E.P. Dutton & Co., 1906


Haiku Wednesday: Classic Books on Classical Music

Photo of stack of books about classical music

Richard Taruskin
Howard Goodall, Burkholder,
Grout, and Palisca.

Aaron Copland and
Leonard Bernstein, Grove, Schonberg,
And Willi Apel.

Need some history?
Explanations, or old scores?
Then seek them all out.

I just finished reading Howard Goodall’s The Story of Music, and I highly recommend it.  Goodall does a fantastic job of presenting the development of music from prehistory to today in language that everyone can understand.  You don’t have to read music, or have studied music.  You won’t get bogged down in terminology.  And it is very entertaining.  There was also a companion tv series, but sadly it is not available on DVD.  It too was very well done, very lively.  You may be able to find recordings of the original series on the internet.

I got to thinking about classic books that provide an in-depth look at western music and music history, and I wanted to let you know about some of them.  Some of these are for reading, some for reference.  This list is far from exhaustive.  You may want to leave a comment if you know of a great classic resource that I’ve omitted that you’d like to share.

So who are these people in the haiku?

Richard Taruskin is the author of The Oxford History of Western Music, a five-volume set that reaches from the time of early notation to the late 20th century.  Taruskin and Piero Weiss are the editors of Music in the Western World, which is a phenomenal collection of primary-source documents.  You can read excerpts of the letters of Monteverdi, or CPE Bach’s writing on playing keyboard instruments.  Or Josef von Spaun’s personal recollections of Schubert.

Howard Goodall is the author of not only The Story of Music, but also Big Bangs, in which he discusses revolutionary developments in music history, such as the development of notation and equal temperament.  Big Bangs is also available in DVD format.  Again, an excellent, easy to understand exposition.

Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca are the authors of the current ninth edition of A History of Western Music.  My ancient third edition is by Grout alone.  The latest edition incorporates music of the twenty-first century and permits streaming of all the repertoire in the Norton Anthology of Western Music.  As in Taruskin’s five-volume tome, you will find a wealth of information, abundant detail, and sheet music to illustrate the discussion.  BG&P are well known to many university music students.

Aaron Copland’s What To Listen for in Music will help you learn to identify elements of music such as rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone.  It will also teach you about different forms of music, such as the sonata, fugue, and variations.

Leonard Bernstein’s The Joy of Music takes a different approach.  He begins with a series of imaginary conversations to get at the meaning of music and other topics.  The second half of the book includes transcripts of some of his early Omnibus television programs on Beethoven, jazz, conducting, Bach, and opera, among other topics.  Later, Bernstein hosted the incomparable Young People’s Concerts, which are available on DVD.

Grove.  One word that speaks volumes.  20 actually.  But it’s not a person.  The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians is the comprehensive source of information on all things musical.  There is also a Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music.

Harold C. Schonberg is the author of The Lives of the Great Composers, The Great Conductors, and The Great Pianists.  The slant is more biographical than analytical, and if you love a good biography, you’ll enjoy Schonberg.

I include Willi Apel because he and Archibald T. Davison are the editors of the two-volume Historical Anthology of Music.  These are some meaty HAMs, two volumes of music scores for the period before the Classical era of classical music.  The Norton Anthology of Western Music covers a greater span of time, but there is something special about this collection.  Norton looks like regular sheet music.  And here is a slice of HAM (here’s L’Homme armé, which I wrote about recently):

Song L'homme arme and Kyrie of mass of same name by Dufay

And finally, let me not forget Charles Rosen, whose books The Classical Style, Sonata Forms, and others provide an in-depth treatment of these very specialized topics.

All of these are books are available through your favorite book vendor.  Some are available as ebooks.  For the budget-minded, look to the library, or eBay (or Amazon marketplace) for earlier editions of these classic works (eBay–HAMs–$10–just sayin’).


Bernstein, Leonard, The Joy of Music. Amadeus Press, 2004.

Burkholder, J. Peter, Grout, Donald Jay, and Palisca, Claude V., A History of Western Music, Ninth Edition. W. W. Norton & Co., 2014.

Burkholder, J. Peter, and Palisca, Claude V., The Norton Anthology of Western Music.  W. W. Norton & Co, 2014.

Copland, Aaron, What To Listen for in Music.  Various publishers, Copyright Aaron Copland 1985.

Davison, Archibald T., and Apel, Willi,  Willi Apel, Historical Anthology of Music.  Harvard University Press, 1949.

Goodall, Howard, Big Bangs.  Vintage (Rand), 2001.

Goodall, Howard, The Story of Music.  Pegasus, 2015.

Rosen, Charles , Sonata Forms.  W. W. Norton & Co., 1988.

Rosen, Charles, The Classical Style.  W. W. Norton & Co., 1998.

Sadie, Stanley, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, Inc., 1995.

Sadie, Stanley, The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music.  W. W. Norton & Co., 1994.

Schonberg, Harold C., The Lives of the Great Composers. W. W. Norton & Co., 1997.

Schonberg, Harold C., The Great Conductors. Simon & Schuster, 1967.

Schonberg, Harold C., The Great Pianists. Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Taruskin, Richard, The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Weiss, Piero and Taruskin, Richard, eds., Music in the Western World.  Schirmer Books, 2007.


Image attributions: C. Gallant, 2016.


Mahler Online: The DSO Concert, Manuscripts, and More


Did you get to see the DSO perform Mahler’s Symphony No 2 yesterday?  I hope so—it was fantastic!  Conductor Leonard Slatkin, the DSO, the soloists, and choir gave an expressive, emotion-filled performance, thoughtful and thought-provoking.  It was dramatic without being over-the-top apocalyptic, and there was a sweetness in the moments of nostalgic reflection that was just right.  Well done, one and all!

The symphony was preceded by the debut of Slatkin’s own Kinah, a touching tribute to his parents.  Kinah means elegy in Hebrew.  His father was a violinist and his mother was a cellist.  They were preparing to perform the Brahms “Double” Concerto together, but Slatkin’s father died the day before the concert.  In Kinah, Slatkin quotes passages of the concerto, but they are never completed, as the concert was never completed.  Slatkin’s brother, a cellist, plays his mother’s cello in the performance.

Mahler’s Second Symphony was performed as a tribute after the death of President John F. Kennedy.  The New York Philharmonic has a webpage on the performance where you can see a portion of the broadcast, Bernstein’s handwritten note on his decision to perform that symphony, and Bernstein’s score of the symphony.  Bernstein presented a Young People’s Concert on Mahler.  The script is available here.

The Morgan Library and Museum has a number of Mahler’s manuscripts, and you can view them online.  The University of Western Ontario also has some pages from Symphony No 1 and some other pieces either written by Mahler or containing his notations.  Here is a manuscript of Mahler’s song FrühlingsmorgenThe Library of Congress has digitized images of holdings of the Moldenhauer Archives of works by a number of composers (scroll down to see list).  Type Mahler’s name in the search box on the top left to see the manuscript list.

So much here, so serious, we need to end on a lighter note.  How about this:  did you know that when Mahler lived in New York (he was the conductor of the Metropolitan Opera) he liked riding the subway?  [1] He told artist Alfred Roller, “I am quite entranced with this country.” [2]


  1. The NPR Guide To Building a Classical CD Collection by Ted Libbey, New York: Workman Publishing, 1994 p 106.
  2. (link on “Met Premiere”). Do click around in this website, it is very interesting!


Image attribution: Gustav Mahler, photograph by E. Bieber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Music History as Entertainment

I recently came across some entertaining and captivating music history series produced by the BBC (and was reminded of a few others from the past).

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music.  Howard Goodall is a composer and a lively presenter (American PBS fans: he wrote the themes for the tv shows Red Dwarf, Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley, and Mr. Bean, as well as film scores, choral music, and musicals).  This six-part series covers music history from prehistory to modern times, with modern examples used in earlier periods to illustrate the timelessness of certain musical techniques.  Unfortunately, the only official venue to see the series is on the BBC site, which offers only clips.  A shorter version was also produced for use in schools.  I have an inquiry in to the BBC to find out if they will be releasing it on DVD, but have not yet received a reply.  The material of the series is also available in book form, available at the usual venues and possibly at your local library (The Story of Music, Howard Goodall, 780.9 G).  Here’s the BBC page with clips.  Sadly, this other BBC clip page doesn’t seem to be working at this time (or perhaps because I am not in the UK).  Here Howard Goodall talks about the making of the series.  One of his inspirations was Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts (more on that later).

Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs is a more commercially accessible series.  The five-part series, instead of covering the panorama of musical history, focuses on key moments in music history:  the invention of notation, opera, equal temperament, the piano, and recording.  This is available on DVD and in book form.  No clips are available on the BBC website.

Goodall is not the first to use video to bring music history to the public.  Leonard Bernstein was a trailblazer here in his production of the Young People’s Concerts series and his Omnibus tv broadcasts.  Both series are available on DVD (and possibly at your library, 780.15L) at the usual venues and at the Leonard Bernstein website.  Here’s a trailer to give you a taste.

A slightly different and equally compelling approach was taken by Wynton Marsalis in his Marsalis on Music series.  This series focuses more on jazz, but also covers fundamental concepts like rhythm and meter.  My favorite title is Tackling the Monster-Practice.  The series has a companion book.  The DVD and book are available at your favorite seller and on his website.  If you’re a Marsalis fan, he has a lot of video clips on his website.   Here’s the trailer for the series.

One more BBC series and I promise I’ll stop, but this is the most musically beautiful of them all, though more narrowly focused.  It is Sacred Music with presenter Simon Russell Beale.  If you get a chance to see this, you’ll be blown away by the music of The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers.  Stunning, gorgeous choral music.  In the first series, the first program covers plainchant to Bach, the second Palestrina, the third Tallis and Byrd, and the fourth Bach.  A second series covers Brahms and Bruckner; Fauré and Poulenc; Gorecki and Pärt; and modern UK composers, including James MacMillan. Only the first series is available at present on DVD.  No clips are available on the BBC website for the seriesAn interview with Beale on the second series was published by The Guardian.  Here’s the trailer for the series Sacred Music.

I hope you’ll get a chance to take a look at these series.  You’re sure to enjoy them.