Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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A Nocturne for Granville

Photograph of musician Granville Reynolds, taken between 1872 and 1888.

Today I’d like to tell you a little story.

The gentleman you see at the top of the page is a musician named Granville C. Reynolds.

I have been trying to find out more about him for over 20 years.

It all started with that photograph, or rather, the original sepia version of the photograph.  It was probably taken some time between 1872 and 1888.  Granville was born in 1846.

Granville didn’t start out as a musician though.  The son of a shoe manufacturer in Massachusetts, in 1865 he is a shoe fitter; in 1866, a mechanic.  That year, he married, and by the end of the year was a father of a little boy in Connecticut.

But then something happened.  In one record of his marriage, the entry is crossed out.  In 1869, his wife remarries.  In 1876, Granville’s father in his will excludes Granville’s “son by his wife now said to be divorced from him and to be married and living with another man.”  The child is not named.  Did the family not even know his name?  What on earth happened?

Granville maddeningly disappears from the records after 1866, and emerges in 1875 in Rhode Island as a teacher of music.  He is there for only one year, then he disappears again.

He reappears in 1880, living with his parents.  Occupation: musician.  But what instrument?

I came across an intriguing notice in an 1884 periodical.  In the “New Music” column we find

“Golden Days are Coming Dearest: ” Words by George Birdseye; music by Granville C. Reynolds, is unquestionably the sweetest song of the season. Brimming over with melody, cheery and hopeful it will touch an answering chord in every heart. [1]

I cannot find this music. Birdseye’s poem was set a number of times, but I can’t find Granville’s.  I can’t even prove that the Granville C. Reynolds mentioned is our Granville.

But knowing that he was a musician, I can only hope that the “sweetest song of the season” is his.

Granville died of a stroke in 1888.  He was only 42 years old.

Up until a few weeks ago, that was all that I could ever find.  I had resigned myself to the fact that I might never know what instrument he played.

And then—I found the most unusual genealogical clue I have ever encountered.

Searching in a genealogy database, I plugged in Granville’s name, the way I always do, hoping new data might have been uploaded.  And I found this:

October 16th. Mother called for a piano record on the Victrola.  One of the Nocturnes was played, and Roy gave the name of Granville Reynolds.  He was known to mother’s people, when she was a young girl, Reynolds then being a man of about forty years of age.

“He played that, if you remember, at your home that evening when he called….He says he passed through the change not long after. He says it was better for him, for he was worn out.” [2]

What was this?!  It turns out, it was a passage from the book The Second Letters from Roy, by Leon Stevens, published in 1918.  The premise of Letters from Roy and The Second Letters from Roy is that Leon’s brother Roy, deceased, was communicating with his living family from the Great Beyond, in a chatty correspondence about people and events past and present.

While I can’t vouch for the validity of the premise, I do know that the author’s family and the Reynolds family lived in the same place at the same time, so it is likely that they had crossed paths with Granville during his natural life. And the details about Granville fit.

He played a nocturne.  The only piano nocturnes recorded on Victrola records were Chopin’s.

Granville was a pianist.

And so it is only fitting to close with a Chopin nocturne.  The one that, to me, best suited Granville was Chopin’s Nocturne Op 9 No 1, played here by Arthur Rubinstein.

A side note:  I created the colorized picture of Granville at the MyHeritage genealogy website.  Until the end of April you can colorize your own black and white (or sepia) photos for free, as many as you would like, and download them.  Visit myheritage.com/incolor for details.

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  1. The Southern World, Atlanta, GA, March 15, 1884, p 192, via newspaperarchive.com.
  2. The Second Letters from Roy by Leon Herbert Stevens, Boston: Christopher Publishing House, 1918 p 125 via hathitrust.org. Originally found on myheritage.com.


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Sorry, Chopin, and Thank You

Frederic Chopin

Hi readers!  I feel the need to revise this post now that I have more information on the piece presented here.  My original post is in plain text.  My amendments are in italics.

I recently saw a Twitter post that included a performance of one of Chopin’s works. Titled Largo, it was a piece I was unfamiliar with. Short, a little sentimental. Beautiful. Undeniably Chopin.*

And now the asterisk, the bane of a baseball player’s record, comes into play here.  While the style may be undeniably Chopin, the Largo that is so beautiful is a piano arrangement of Handel’s Largo.  See the video below.

And had Chopin’s wishes been carried out, we would never have heard it.

Chopin’s final request was that all his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed. However, his mother and sisters intervened; instead, they had Julian Fontana review the manuscripts and put together a posthumous collection. [1]

This may be why Chopin requested that his manuscripts be destroyed.  He didn’t want his noodling around, riffing on Handel, to be mixed in with his own work, some of which he may have considered unfinished, or unpolished.  Oddly, when I then listened to Handel’s Largo, I remembered it, but didn’t make the connection when I first heard Chopin’s version.  Reminds me of my Chopin+performer post, except here we have Handel+Chopin.

Among the rescued pieces are a collection of Polish songs, and a variety of piano pieces, including wonderful nocturnes and waltzes.

Here is Largo, performed by pianist James Rhodes.  The tweet reads, “Today I discovered a Chopin piece that I had never heard before.  I can’t believe it.  It’s only two minutes long, but I LOVE it.  His ‘Largo, B109.’ I hope you enjoy it.”

And here is a lovely performance of Handel’s Largo

 

So, apologies to Chopin for not carrying out his wishes, but a thank you for adding a little more beauty to the world.  Because Handel in the hands of Chopin is also a wonderful thing.

If you’d like to read about more about works almost lost to time, check out these posts about the rediscovery of pieces by Shostakovich, Vivaldi, Telemann (here too), Stravinsky, Mozart (and here), and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.

Thanks to weemspiano for kindly pointing out the Handel connection that I missed before posting, prompting this revision.

And thanks to all the readers along with me on this random walk I call Catapulting into Classical.

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* Not an actual footnote.  Just keep reading.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miscellaneous_compositions_(Chopin).


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Haiku Wednesday: GOOD MORNING!

music note with laughter emoji inside

It’s early morning.
It’s still dark, I’m on the road.
I need some music.

Without looking, I
Slip a disc into the slot.
DA DA DA DUM! No!

Beethoven attack!
Off. Fumbling, I find a disc.
Well, let’s try again.

Chopin is lovely,
But too lively this morning–
It’s a rude etude.

Who picked this music?!
I’ll put 4’33” on,
Looping, for a while.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

 

Chopin:  Etude in A Minor, Op 10, No 2

Cage: 4’33”


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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.