Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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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.


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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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Discovery of New Chopin Photograph Announced

Newly discovered photograph of Chopin

The Institut Polonais in Paris has announced that a new previously unknown photograph of Frédéric Chopin has been discovered.  The photograph. which was found by Swiss physicist and Chopin enthusiast Alain Kohler in collaboration with Gilles Bencimon of Radio France Internationale, is in the possession of a private collector.  Kohler is also known for locating Chopin’s Pleyel piano.  The Institut Polonais press release (in French) can be found here.

It is stated that the newly found daguerreotype was created in the studio of Louis-Auguste Bisson in or around 1847 (Chopin died in 1849).  The photograph was compared against other known photographs and portraits to evaluate its authenticity, and the circumstantial evidence appears to support the claim.  This would be only the third known photograph of Chopin.  Another was taken by Bisson in 1849 (below, left), and this is the most widely known image.  Another image, poorer in quality, dates from around 1847 (below, right).   Questions have been raised about another photograph, a post-mortem photograph that is said to depict Chopin.

Frederic ChopinFrederic Chopin, c. 1847

References

  1. http://www.institutpolonais.fr/#/event/1731/2
  2. http://slippedisc.com/2017/01/swiss-physicist-finds-new-chopin-photograph/

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Image attribution:  Newly found photograph said to be of Frédéric Chopin, assumed photographer Louis-Auguste Bisson (1847), [Public domain], via http://slippedisc.com/2017/01/swiss-physicist-finds-new-chopin-photograph/ ; 1849 Chopin photograph by Louis-Auguste Bisson, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frederic_Chopin_photo.jpeg; previously known 1847 image of Chopin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chopin1847_R_SW.jpg .


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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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Haiku Wednesday: Chopin’s “Raindrop”

Raindrops on window

Raindrops on windows
Race each other like children,
Streaming down the glass.

The rainfall sounds like
Running feet.  Why are you in
Such a great hurry?

Even the streams rush,
Carrying hapless leaves that
Carelessly fell in.

They all find their way
To the sea by diff’rent paths
To be rain again.

And notes like raindrops
Fall again and again in
Patterns clearly heard.

Beautiful music
Weaves around these notes making
Streams of melodies,

Beginning in one
Form, changing, then returning
To where they began.

Slow down; refocus,
And you will hear and see things
As never before.

A rainy day made me think of Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude (Op. 28, No. 15).  It is one in a set of 24 preludes, one in each major and minor key.

Chopin did not give it the name “Raindrop”—in fact he was adamant that the music was not intended to be an imitation of any natural sound.  The suggestion came from an account by George Sand from the time when Chopin was writing the preludes.  She and her son were caught out in a rainstorm, and they returned to a distraught Chopin, who thought they were dead.  He said he had a dream, a nightmare, while playing the piano, that he had drowned, and heavy, icy drops of water were falling on his chest.  From this, he composed a prelude, presumed to be this one.1

In my post about Bach’s Magnificat I pointed out how Bach had used repeated notes.  You will hear Chopin use them here too.  It is these repeated notes that people associate with raindrops.  But it is important to hear how Chopin’s melodies weave in and around these repeated notes.  From the gentle beginning through the turbulent middle section, a storm if you will, to the return to a gentle conclusion, the repeated notes persist, even though there are the great changes in the music around them.  The result is pure genius.  I would suggest that you listen to the piece more than once; each time you listen, you will hear something new.

I hope you will enjoy Chopin’s Prelude No. 15, performed by Yundi Li.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prelude,_Op._28,_No._15_(Chopin)
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/music/western_tradition/chopin1.shtml

For sheet music of the full set of preludes see http://imslp.org/wiki/Preludes,_Op.28_(Chopin,_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric) . For the “Raindrop” Prelude by itself, see http://www.mutopiaproject.org/ftp/ChopinFF/O28/Chop-28-15/Chop-28-15-let.pdf

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Image attribution: Raindrops on a window by Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARain_drops_on_window_01_ies.jpg