Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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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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Free Concert Webcast: Stravinsky, Chopin, and a World Premiere

Broadcast tower topped by music note, globe in background

Today, Friday, June 1, 2018 at 10:45 AM EDT (GMT -4) the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will webcast a free live concert.  Here’s the program:

Jared Miller: Luster (World Premiere)
Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No 1
Igor Stravinsky: Rite of Spring

Robert Spano will conduct, and the Chopin piano concerto will feature pianist Seong-Jin ChoSee the concert at dso.org/live.


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Haiku Wednesday: Autumn Nocturne

Photograph of lake viewed through autumn leaves

The sky is slate gray
Dead leaves crunch beneath my feet
Or skitter away.

Collar turned up, I
Shove my hands in my pockets
Against the cold wind.

I walk along with
Furrowed brow, lost in thought, with
Even measured steps.

Looking up, I see
Autumn’s rich, vibrant colors
Surrounding the lake.

More than the cold, it
Takes my breath away–there is
Beauty everywhere.

Here is Stefan Jackiw performing Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor as a violin solo. Exquisite.

Here you can find a haunting piano solo performance of the nocturne by Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose story became known worldwide in the movie “The Pianist.”

References

  1. About the nocturne:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturne_in_C-sharp_minor,_Op._posth._(Chopin)
  2. Sheet music:  http://imslp.org/wiki/Nocturne_in_C-sharp_minor,_B.49_(Chopin,_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric)

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Image attribution: Lake view through autumn leaves by http://www.ForestWander.com [CC BY-SA 3.0 us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Looking_through_tree_autumn_leaves_lake_-_West_Virginia_-_ForestWander.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: Chopin at Dusk

Dusk. As the light fades,
Birds sing their last song, and deer
Emerge from the woods.

A crescent moon peeks
Through the trees, gathers courage,
And rises boldly.

An open window.
Notes like fireflies twinkle
In the cool night air.

They dance for a while,
Then fade away, but surely
They’ll last forever.

You might be expecting a nocturne here.  But what inspired this was Chopin’s Andante Spianato.  Below is a performance by Daniil Trifonov.*  I also like the performance of Benjamin Grosvenor on his Dances album.  Both sublime.

Have a pleasant evening.

 

*Email subscribers, please click here to see the video on my webpage.

References

http://daniiltrifonov.com/

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Image attribution: Nightfall image via https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1324389, CC0, public domain.


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Chopin Waltzes, Cats, and Dogs

cat paw on piano

When you think of Chopin, you don’t necessarily think of whimsical musical pieces about cats and dogs.  But the story goes that two of his waltzes may have been inspired by pets.

The pets actually belonged to George Sand and her family, with whom Chopin was living at the time.  They had a cat, Valdeck, and two dogs, Marquis and Dib.

Valdeck, being a cat, would occasionally walk or scamper across Chopin’s piano.  That part of the story is certainly true, as anyone who owns a cat and a piano will attest.  The story goes that the notes the cat sounded in its journey across the keyboard caught Chopin’s ear.  We’ll never know for sure if that is true, but a minute into Chopin’s Waltz in F Major (Op. 34 No. 3), there is a sprightly flutter of notes up and down the keyboard that might sound to you like a cat running on the keyboard.  You can judge for yourself.

As for Marquis, the story goes that Marquis was chasing his tail, and George Sand challenged Chopin to write music to describe it.  And so they say the “Little Dog Waltz” was born, though most people know it by the name Minute Waltz (Op. 64 No. 1).  Listen and see if you can picture the dog chasing its tail.

And if you have a minute, you might also want to check out this humorous rendition by Marc-André Hamelin, in which the music goes somewhat, and delightfully, awry).

While we may never know if these stories are completely true, we know that Chopin wrote the Galop Marquis with Marquis in mind:  his name on the manuscript!

Manuscript of Chopin's Galop Marquis

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Image attribution:

“Piano Playing Cat” by ryansmut February 1, 2010, http://ryansmut.deviantart.com/art/piano-playing-cat-152617468

Image of Galop Marquis manuscript, http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/books-manuscripts/chopin-frederic-gallop-marquis-manuscrit-musical-5151994-details.aspx


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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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Happy Birthday, Chopin!

Frederic Chopin

Piano works are
What he’s known for, but there’s more
That you need to hear:

Concertos, duets,
His versions of Polish songs,
A stirring trio.

Get to know Chopin
In a whole new dimension
In non-solo works.

Now let us all say
Happy birthday to the great
Frédéric Chopin.

It is Chopin’s birthday today! Church records list his birthday as February 22, 1810, but since Chopin and his family celebrated his birthday on March 1, it is considered the correct date.

Where does one begin to write about Chopin?  He was brilliant.  His works revolutionized the piano repertoire, and enriched the world of music forever.  His mazurkas and polonaises captured the soul of Poland, his nocturnes and preludes plumbed the depths of human emotions.  Countless words have been written about his piano solo works.

So I’m going to write about his other works.

Did you know that Chopin didn’t write solely for the piano?  Certainly, there is a piano present in all his works (and he wrote a piece for two pianos, Rondo in C for Two Pianos, Op. 73, Op. posth.), but lesser known are his compositions that include other instruments.

Chopin wrote two concertos for piano and orchestra (Op. 11 and Op. 21).  There are many wonderful videos of the concertos performed at the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, and you can find them here.  You can also hear and see Piano Concerto No 1 performed by Evgeny Kissin (Zubin Mehta conducting) or Martha Argerich (Jacek Kaspszyk conducting)Here is a link to Piano Concerto No 2 performed by Arthur Rubinstein (conducted by Andre Previn).

Cello fans will enjoy this video of Chopin’s Cello Sonata (Op. 65) performed by Natalia Gutman and Sviatoslav Richter, or this performance of the Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major (op. 3) performed by Daniil Shafran and Anton Ginsburg.

Here is Chopin’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano (Op. 8), a wonderfully stirring piece of music.

Chopin also set several poems in Polish to music.  Here is one of his Polish songs for voice and piano.

And now, since it is Chopin’s birthday, here is a fun tribute to him, the song Happy Birthday in the style of Chopin, with some added improvisation.