Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Veterans Day

Veterans Day poster of silhouettes of soldiers against a sky

Today we remember those who have served in the armed forces; in some parts of the world this is called Remembrance Day or Armistice Day.

I have already written about the music written for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.  Music has also been written for those who survived, but who paid a terrible price.

In The Wound Dresser, John Adams sets the poetry of Walt Whitman, who as a volunteer nurse cared for Civil War soldiers.  You can hear John Adams talk about his composition here.

The pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in World War I.  He approached a number of composers, commissioning works written for the piano using the left hand alone.  Ravel wrote the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.  Erich Korngold wrote a piano concerto that Wittgenstein liked so much (Op. 17), he commissioned a second, a suite for two violins, cello, and piano (Op. 23).  Benjamin Britten’s Diversions for piano left hand and orchestra (Op. 21) was also written for Wittgenstein, as was Prokofiev’s Concerto No 4.  In all, Wittgenstein commissioned around 40 pieces for piano left hand.

Frank Bridge wrote Three Improvisations for his friend Douglas Fox who lost his arm in World War I.

Leoš Janáček (Capriccio for Piano and Winds) and Bohuslav Martinů (Divertimento for Piano and Chamber Orchestra) wrote music for Czech pianist Otakar Hollman, whose right hand was permanently injured in World War I (Hollman plays in the links given above).  For more on the genre of piano left hand music, see the articles referenced below, and the lefthandpianomusic YouTube channel.

The music I want to feature today is by George Butterworth, considered one of the promising composers of the early 20th century.  I was surprised in my research to find film of Butterworth dancing—he was a Morris dancer.  The film dates from 1912.  Butterworth was cut down by a sniper’s bullet during the Battle of the Somme in World War I.  Here is Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow.

A heartfelt thank you to all those who have served, and may all those who now serve come home safely.

Freedom isn’t free.

References

http://www.classicfm.com/discover/music/left-hand-piano-music/

https://crosseyedpianist.com/2012/05/14/guest-post-a-history-of-left-hand-piano/

Photograph of the blogger's father as a soldier, 1945

My father, 1945

Wounded Warriors Family Support http://www.wwfs.org/wounded-warriors-family-support/information-main/about-us

Fisher House Foundation https://www.fisherhouse.org/about/

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) http://www.taps.org/about/

Image attribution: Detail of poster created for Veterans Day 2008 by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (http://www1.va.gov/opa/vetsday/gallery.asp) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVeterans_day_2008_poster.jpg

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Pushkin and Britten: The Poet’s Echo

Painting of Alexander Pushkin by Pyotr Sokolov

Alexander Pushkin

I hope you’ve had a chance to watch the production of Eugene Onegin I shared with you on Saturday.  Tchaikovsky’s adaptation of Pushkin’s novel in verse is stunning.

I got to wondering who else had set Pushkin’s verse to music.  The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin states that about 500 composers have set Pushkin’s poetry to music, yielding thousands of art songs and choral pieces.  Many of the composers are Russian, but I wondered if any non-Russian composers had taken up the challenge.

So who was brave enough to try?  Benjamin Britten.  And he succeeded spectacularly.

Britten wrote the song cycle The Poet’s Echo (Op. 76) in 1965 for Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano and wife of cellist Mstislav Rosropovich.  The song cycle contains six songs: Echo, My Heart, Angel, The Nightingale and the Rose, Epigram, and Lines Written During a Sleepless Night.  The links take you to Vishnevskaya’s recording on YouTube.

Here is Galina Vishnevskaya singing the first song in the series, Echo.

The sound quality of this reproduction of the recording is not optimal; however, if it is the Decca recording, which I believe it is, Vishnevskaya sings and Britten himself is at the piano.  I also enjoyed the performance of the song cycle posted to YouTube and performed by Lene Strindberg.

An eerie moment occurred during the first performance of the song cycle at the Pushkin House Museum.  During the last song, Lines Written During a Sleepless Night, the clock spontaneously struck midnight in time with the performance.  Was it the poet’s echo?

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Poet%27s_Echo

Kahn, Andrew, ed. and Gasparov, Boris, chapter author.  The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin.  Cambridge University Press, 2006-2007. http://universitypublishingonline.org/cambridge/companions/chapter.jsf?bid=CBO9781139001250&cid=CBO9781139001250A017 .

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Image attribution:  Alexander Pushkin by Pyotr Sokolov, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pushkin_Alexander_by_Sokolov_P..jpg


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Memorial Day

Battlefield memorial, helmet on rifle, World War I

Battlefield memorial, World War I.

Today in the US we commemorate those who have died while serving in the armed forces.

There is an abundance of music written for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Charles Ives’s Decoration Day (what Memorial Day was called at an earlier time in America) incorporates Taps into his depiction of Memorial Day proceedings in New England.  Here is a performance of Decoration Day.

Walt Whitman’s poem Dirge for Two Veterans has been set to music by a number of composers.  Here are links to performances of settings of this poem by Holst, Kurt Weill, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Maurice Ravel wrote Le Tombeau de Couperin, a suite for solo piano in six movements.  Each movement is dedicated to a friend who lost his life in World War I.  A performance of Le Tombeau de Couperin can be found here.

Frank Bridge’s intense Piano Sonata was written in memory of a friend who was killed in World War I.  You can hear it here.

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was first performed at the consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed during World War II.  The poignancy of the piece is heightened by the use of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action one week before the end of World War I.  A performance can be found here.  A short documentary on War Requiem from the Royal Opera House can be found here.  A recording of a moving performance at Coventry Cathedral is available on DVD.

Sadly, I’m sure there are other notable works that I’ve omitted with a similar origin.  It is utterly human and noble to try to create beauty from loss.

I salute the bravery of those who serve.

I honor the memory of those we have lost.

Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 2nd Marines Memorial Service

Boots, rifle, dog tags, and kevlar helmet stand in solitude to honor Cpl. Orville Gerena, Lance Cpl. David Parr, and PFC Jacob Spann during a service held by Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 2nd Marines, the ground combat element of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq Feb. 18, 2006. The three Charlie Company Marines were killed conducting counterinsurgency operations in Iraq’s Al Anbar province.

References

Wounded Warriors Family Support http://www.wwfs.org/wounded-warriors-family-support/information-main/about-us

Fisher House Foundation https://www.fisherhouse.org/about/

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) http://www.taps.org/about/

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Image attributions:

Helmet and Rifle, World War I.  Courtesy of Getty Images Hulton Collection. http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/battlefield-grave-high-res-stock-photography/HH8040-001

Helmet and Rifle, 2006, Iraq.  22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit website http://www.22ndmeu.marines.mil/News/ArticleView/tabid/196/Article/510146/22nd-meu-blt-12-marines-mourn-the-loss-of-three-warriors.aspx