Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: A Look at the History of Classical Recordings

Edison wax cylinder phonograph

Edison bellowed
“Mary had a little lamb”
Into a small horn.

History was made:
Voices’ vibrations turned to
The tiniest grooves.

People gathered ‘round
To hear the tinny sounds, now
Played upon demand.

In the suave sixties
You could spin disks—hi-fi sound!
Don’t scratch the record!

Fast forward. Today
Music’s turned to ones, zeroes,
Heard around the world.

And we all walk ‘round
And hear hi-fi sound that’s fed
To only our ears.

(In the future, will
All the world’s music be sent
Right into our brains?)

From the very beginning of recorded sound, classical music was a presence, and it was significant in the development of music technology.

The first wave of development included Edison’s recording of sound on wax cylinders.  You can see a demonstration of how Edison’s original wax cylinder recordings were made here.

As soon as he developed mobile recording equipment, Edison sent his engineer, Theo Wangemann, to Europe to collect recordings.  Here is an 1889 recording of Brahms playing an excerpt of Hungarian Dance No. 1Here is Otto Neitzel, a student of Liszt and a teaching colleague of Tchaikovsky, playing a portion of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1890.  This is believed to be the first recording of a work of Chopin.

This 1903 recording was an attempt to record a live opera performance, the opening scene of Act 2 of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.  You can find more Edison recordings here.

Shortly thereafter, the opera recordings of tenor Enrico Caruso became wildly popular.  He recorded on cylinder first (here’s one from 1903, E lucevan le stelle from Puccini’s Tosca), and then on disks (Questa o Quella from Verdi’s Rigoletto).

Another treasure of this era is a recording of Rachmaninoff playing his Etude-Tableau in A minor (Op. 39 No. 6) in 1925.

Vinyl came into its own, and conductor Leopold Stokowski made the medium his domain, crafting a “Stokowski sound” that would translate well to vinyl, bringing classical music to countless households.  Here is a Stokowski recording of the first movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 (Op. 95) from 1934.  The sound of vinyl continued to improve:  here is Eugene Ormandy’s recording of the same piece from 1944.

An aside:  Rachmaninoff and Stokowski recorded Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  Apparently, it nearly turned into a slugfest, as the two men strongly disagreed about the interpretation (ok, wait–with the infamous Bernstein-Gould disagreement over the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, I can see where there could be a difference of opinion…Brahms wasn’t there.  But this was Rachmaninoff’s piece, and he was standing right there.  Ah, Stokowski!).  You can hear it fully restored here.

The fifties brought stereo sound; of course, you might say the idea had been around for a long time, but technology had to catch up:  the Venetian polychoral style that was used at St. Mark’s in Venice, a style that was popular from the 1540s, made use of choirs singing in alternation from separated choir lofts.  Wow, just like headphones!  But then, Thomas Tallis could be said to have invented surround sound with his composition Spem in alium for eight choirs of five voices each, first sung in an octagonal hall, around 1570. You can hear Spem in alium here.

Classical music was also present at the advent of digital sound: Sony’s first CD release was to be Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations; Philips released Bach’s Mass in B Minor on CD.1

Today, CDs and mp3s are making it possible for anyone to hear not only the masterworks of the most famous composers (not to mention various interpretations), but also the works of less well-known composers, others whose works have not been heard for hundreds of years, and others who finished their compositions just this year.

No one knows how music will be delivered in the future; but thanks to recording technology, we now have about 1000 years of classical music at our disposal, to be heard wherever and whenever we want.

Life is good.

References

  1. Elie, Paul, Reinventing Bach, New York; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, p. 325, 331.

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Image attribution: Photograph of Edison wax cylinder phonograph (1899) by Norman Bruderhofer, http://www.cylinder.de (own work (transferred from de:File:Phonograph.jpg)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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Free Concert Webcast: Brahms, Tangos, a Bartered Bride, and More

Today I want to tell you about a free concert webcast on Saturday.  But first let me ask you this:  when you read the title, did you, for just a moment, picture Brahms dancing the tango?  No?  Ummm…me neither.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is offering a new free webcast featuring violinist Cho-Liang Lin, who will play Lalo Schifrin’s Tangos Concertantes.

Also on the program are Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride, and Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, “Reformation.”

You can see the concert Saturday, January 14, 2017 at 8:00 PM EST (GMT -5) at the DSO Live webpage.  At 7:00PM you can see an informal presentation by conductor Leonard Slatkin about the program.

I hope you’ll enjoy it!

Brahms dances the tango

References

  1. http://cholianglin.com/
  2. http://www.schifrin.com/ Note: this webpage automatically plays introductory music (The Theme from Mission Impossible). In case you’re at work; don’t want the boss to get the wrong idea.  You can click “Skip intro” to stop it.

Photo attribution:  Couple doing the tango via http://angelplant1920.thoughts.com/posts/beautiful–14, modified by C. Gallant using Johannes Brahms photograph by C. Brasch, Berlin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

 


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A Major for Morning and Evening

Frederic Chopin

I felt like a little something in A major today, something bright, energetic.

I think I found just the thing:  Chopin’s “Military” Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40 No 1.

Chopin composed it in 1838.  Pianist Arthur Rubinstein described this polonaise as “the symbol of Polish glory.”1

Here is a video of pianist Rafał Blechacz playing the Polonaise in A MajorBlechacz won the 15th International Chopin Piano Competition in 2005, not only taking the First Prize, but also the polonaise, mazurka, sonata, and concerto prizes.2

I realize some of you may be reading this at night.  Was that a little too intense for evening?

Johannes BrahmsI think I found just the thing: Brahms’s Intermezzo in A Major from Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118, No 2.  Brahms finished the Six Pieces in 1893, and they are dedicated to Clara Schumann.3

I hope you will enjoy this video of pianist Boris Giltburg performing the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major.  Check out Boris Giltburg’s blog, Classical Music for All, right here on WordPress, and you can find his official webpage here.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polonaises_Op._40_(Chopin)
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rafa%C5%82_Blechacz
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_Pieces_for_Piano,_Op._118_(Brahms)
  4. http://intermusica.co.uk/artist/Boris-Giltburg
  5. https://borisgiltburg.wordpress.com/

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


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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.

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


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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 (Flickr.com/Creative 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!

 


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Bell and Denk Play Brahms and Schumann on WQXR Webcast

I just finished watching WQXR’s webcast featuring violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It is available only today and tomorrow, so I hope you’ll get a chance to see it.  Here’s the program:

Robert Schumann: Romance No. 2

Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108

Brahms: Intermezzo in B minor, Op. 119, No. 1

Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 1

Clara Schumann:  Romance No.1

Bell and Denk, along with cellist Steven Isserlis, are releasing a new CD in September 2016, “For the Love of Brahms.”  The CD will include Brahms’s Trio in B Major, Op. 8 in it original formulation from 1854.  Typically, the 1889 revision by Brahms is performed.  It is said Brahms refined the trio and removed some of the less-reserved romanticism of his youth in the revision, so it will be very interesting to hear this original version.

 


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So You Want To Write a Fugue

P.D.Q.Bach music score with twisted staves.

I have been intrigued by fugues for a long time.  The one that most people have heard is from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, a Halloween staple and the opener in Disney’s original Fantasia movie.

But what is a fugue exactly?  It is a piece of music where different voices echo one another, but with a very specific formulation.  A voice means a melody line, which may be represented by a human voice, an instrument, or one of the melodies played simultaneously on a piano.

The opening passage, the theme of the piece, is called the subject.  For it to be an “official” fugue, the subject must be stated by each voice participating in the fugue.  Typically, the first restatement of the subject (in a different voice), called the answer, is an interval of a fifth higher.  The subject may be followed by a countersubject, a new passage that works well with the subject and will help in building the fugue.

The section where the subject, answer, and any countersubject are stated is called the exposition.  The way in which the voices play off one another is called counterpoint.  Typically, the key will change (sometimes multiple times), which keeps things interesting.

After the exposition, there is a development section.  The subject and countersubject may be restated, probably numerous times, but they don’t have to repeat themselves in the same way each time—otherwise it would be a round or canon (like “Row, row, row your boat”).  Changes will be made to reveal nuances in the musical passage (which sounds fancier than “to play around with it”), or to accommodate harmony in the interweaving of voices (so you don’t get unpleasant clashing of notes).

Finally, the whole fugue may wrap up with a coda or codetta that brings the fugue back to its initial key, but it’s not a necessary component.

Ok, so how do you do it?

Answer: not easily.

To start out, it helps to write a plain, vanilla passage for your subject (and countersubject), because once you start bouncing notes off one another, chaos will ensue if you pick weird intervals.

Chaos, like handing an 8-year-old an alarm clock and a screwdriver.  Bits will be left over; parts may disappear; things will not fit together right.  And it may never work.

That being said, it can be done, and done brilliantly.  Bach makes it look effortless.  His Well-Tempered Clavier presents preludes and fugues in every key, and his Art of Fugue is mind-boggling.  Here is a sample, Contrapunctus 11, with the themes indicated by different shapes.  Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is a monument (although it was not initially well received).  Brahms caps off his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of G. F. Handel (Op.24) with a wonderful fugue (measure-by-measure analysis here).  And in the 20th century, Paul Hindemith used a fugue in the last movement of his third piano sonata and achieved a thoroughly modern sound.

The fugue is alive and well, though you probably won’t hear it on a top-40 radio station.  That being said, YouTube yields facetious fugues written on themes by Adele and Lady Gaga and more (the Nokia ringtone?!).

But the fugue that tickled me the most was this one by none other than Glenn Gould, titled So You Want To Write a Fugue.  The link is to a performance; you can find a performance with a visual presentation of the words and music here.

See the references for sites where you can find out more about the fugue.

References

Anatomy of a Fugue, a television program about the fugue and its history by Glenn Gould (really, a whole television program about the fugue) https://youtu.be/5_y6q4m0vew

Anatomy of a Fugue, a detailed written description unrelated to the television program above, from Northern Arizona University http://www2.nau.edu/tas3/fugueanatomy.html

How to Analyze a Fugue http://www2.nau.edu/tas3/analyzefugue.html

Yale University lecture on the Fugue: Bach, Bizet, and Bernstein https://youtu.be/nn1Xfr4cAU8

What is a Fugue? https://youtu.be/3tU1PDS9kyI

Composing a Fugue from Earlham College http://legacy.earlham.edu/~tobeyfo/musictheory/Book2/FFH2_CH8/8C_FugueComposition.html

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Image attribution:  Schickele, Peter, The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q.Bach.  New York: Random House, 1976, p 149.  Original caption: “An unfinished keyboard piece employing invertible counterpoint.”