Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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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His unpublished works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   Sometimes things are…terminally interrupted, or lie finished, but unpublished, languishing long after a composer’s death.

Chopin requested that all unpublished works that were “not worthy of me” be destroyed after his death.1  But Chopin’s mother and sisters countermanded that, and had Chopin’s friend Julian Fontana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  After Schubert’s death, some of his unpublished songs were gathered into a song cycle that was called Schwanengesang (Swan Song).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


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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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A Little Vacation

Stick figure fishing with treble clef as hook

Catapulting into Classical will be “off the air” this week. In the meantime, I encourage you to search the internet for your favorite composer (or one you’ve heard of, but don’t know well) and listen to a little something. Or maybe play a CD or LP that you haven’t heard in a long time. Or how about pulling up an interesting playlist on Spotify or the like?  Or purchase a recent release–lots of great new recordings out there!

If you hear something you like, let us know what it is, and what you like about it. We’re all looking for the next new thing…even if it was new hundreds of years ago.

I hope you have a wonderful, music-filled week!

Can’t go without some music.  Here is Yundi Li playing Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude, Op. 28, No 15.


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A Run of Notes: The Worldwide WordPress 5k

sneakers with treble clefs on lacesThis week WordPress bloggers around the world will be running or walking five kilometers as part of the Worldwide WordPress 5k.

As a runner, I was ready to step up to the challenge.  But to stay true to the blog, I knew I wanted to talk about classical music.  So I thought I’d talk about the music that gets me through a typical five mile run.

The first leg of my run is uphill, which is a pain going out, but great coming back!  To avoid starting out too fast, I typically pick something slow.

If I’m in a particularly Early Music mood, I enjoy listening to The Sixteen’s Allegri: Miserere CD, which contains Lotti’s Crucifixus, Allegri’s Miserere, and Palestrina’s Stabat Mater and Missa Papae Marcelli.

The slow tempos keep me focused, and the CD makes for a great overall meditative run, but I’m not setting any records.

Piano fans might like the Goldberg Variations.  But if you’re a Gould fan, pick ’55 not ’81 or you’ll never make it up the hill (if you’re not familiar with these recordings, read this article).

Some days I need a little more help getting up that hill, or every hill for that matter.  Twitter followers may remember this post:

Liszt…I think he could get you up a hill, over a brick wall, and through a field of flames.  Here, listen to Transcendental Etude No. 8.

Don’t you feel more heroic already?  Makes you want to don a superhero cape and strike a pose on a hilltop.  But if you peek at the sheet music, you’ll find that the person sitting on that piano bench just got a better workout than you did running up that hill!

If you’re looking for an assortment of classical music for your workout, you might consider All You Need Classics: Workout, currently available as a digital download from Amazon for 99 cents.  You might want, as some reviewers have suggested, to edit the playlist to get the tempos you’d prefer for your workout.  They vary widely, and some items on the album will leave you wondering what they have to do with workouts.

I’m not sure I can recommend 30 Must-Have Classical Marches (also 99 cents) for this purpose (which you’d think would be better) because of its inclusion of the Wedding March (running to or away?) and … Chopin’s Funeral March.  Not good as telephone on-hold music either (especially when you’ve been on hold for over 30 minutes, like I was, and are pessimistic of ever reaching a human in your lifetime).

For record-breaking runs, I prefer something more along the line of Heavy Classix 1 (and 2), or collections like them, that focus on the loud, intense, and fast .  Though I must say I’m not keen to run to Sabre Dance—that’s music for plate spinning.  Oddly, though in my mind I connect that music with that variety act, I could find no videos that did.

The 5/4 time of Mars from Holst’s The Planets makes me run funny.

Ok, so let’s assume we’ve made it to the halfway point.  What’s good music for getting back home?

Well, if you’re a piano fan, I suggest Chopin’s 24 Preludes (Op. 28)–perhaps minus the Largos and Lentos.

Or, if you’re feeling heroic after the Liszt, how about Beethoven’s Symphony No 3, Eroica?

No matter what you pick, it’s fantastic to be out in nature listening to classical music.

If any runners out there have suggestions for great selections, let us all know!

Below are some websites with playlists.  Also check Spotify and YouTube.

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/100568-runners-classical-playlist/

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/50-running-classics-marathon/id849703931

http://www.classicalmpr.org/story/2012/01/03/music-for-running-jogging

Here’s an article on finding the beats per minute of your music to get the tempo you want for your workout http://gizmodo.com/5906815/the-most-mathematically-perfect-playlist-for-running

 


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See the Cliburn Amateur Competition Live

Hands on piano keyboard

Piano enthusiasts, next week is your week!

The Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition is for “outstanding non-professional pianists age 35 and older.”  The competition can be seen via live webcast on June 19-25.  There will be over 40 hours of performances, commentary, and interviews.  The performances will also be available later for viewing on demand.

You can find the webcasts at cliburn.org.  If you want to see what the kids have been up to, you can see videos from the 2015 Cliburn Junior Competition on The Cliburn’s YouTube channel.

Want more?  You can find videos from the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition on the YouTube channel of the Chopin Institute or on the Chopin Competition website.  Videos from the International Tchaikovsky Competition can be found on the YouTube channel of Medici.tv or on the website of the Tchaikovsky Competition.

 


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Haiku Wednesday: 24 Preludes

Twenty-four preludes
Each key, its own universe
Beauty crystallized.

But whose? You may ask.
Is it Bach? Shostakovich?
Chopin? Debussy?

Today it’s Chopin
Preludes to infinity,
Where will they lead you?

Pianist James Rhodes has posted an interesting video at Apple Music.  He urges people to take the time, just a little time each day, to do something they have always wanted to do.  Want to play the piano?  He says there are pieces even a beginner can learn if they put in some time, some effort.  He suggests Chopin’s Prelude in E minor.

Imagine playing it for your friends.  Not a piano person?  Ok, how about guitar? (sweet lesson on playing the prelude here). Friends not into classical music?  I think Jimmy Page has it covered here. Don’t get me started on Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai.

Not a guitarist, not a musician at all?  Then press play and play it for your friends.  You’ve just become an ambassador of classical music.  And think of how much music you’d get to know, if you listened to just a little every day.

So how about those preludes?

Chopin wrote them in the winter of 1838-39 in Majorca.  At the time, Chopin was immersed in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, two volumes each containing 24 preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys.  Chopin’s preludes are brief, lasting from 12 to 90 measures.  Some are immensely challenging to play.  Each seems to convey an emotion, but which one is open to interpretation.  Alfred Cortot and Hans von Bülow (who was married to Liszt’s daughter Cosima, before she left him for Wagner; read his quotes at the bottom of the Wikipedia article for a laugh) wrote brief descriptions for each prelude, but experience them for yourself, and see what each says to you.

Now I think I have some practicing to do.

Here are some resources if you’d like to know more about Chopin’s preludes.

First, of course, the sheet music, if you’d like to try that Prelude in E minor or follow as you listen (scroll down for sheet music) http://imslp.org/wiki/Preludes,_Op.28_(Chopin,_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric)

Inevitably, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preludes_(Chopin)

Radio Chopin, where you can hear each prelude individually http://www.radiochopin.org/the-preludes

[Analysis] Discussion of the individual preludes:  brief (http://www.chopinmusic.net/works/preludes/), with moderate detail (http://culture.pl/en/article/breaking-down-chopins-24-preludes) and [in depth] more (http://www.ourchopin.com/analysis/prelude.html)

A thesis paper on the history of the prelude and Chopin’s preludes in particular at http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1947&context=theses


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Chopin’s Berceuse

In researching Chopin’s piano, I came across radiochopin.org.  It presents 200 short podcasts (or you can read the text online) on the works of Chopin.

The one on Chopin’s Berceuse (cradle song), caught my eye.  In particular, because of this passage:

When the toddler took to calling him “P’tit Chopin”, the composer melted. He spent hours cradling the child, kissing her tiny hands, making faces and playing peek-a-boo.

The toddler was Louisette Viardot, the daughter of a friend of Chopin, Pauline Viardot, who was a singer and composer with close ties to a number of composers and writers of her time.

We build a notion of a composer.  We think we know Chopin.  We imagine what he might have been like.

That passage did not fit with my image of Chopin.

The Berceuse is a glimpse into a seldom-seen side of Chopin.  It is the only lullaby he wrote.  Here is a web page detailing the origins of the piece.

Countless pianists have recorded this piece over the last 100 years.  The variety of interpretations was surprising to me.  One video compiling early recordings presented renditions that were lighter in touch and quicker than many of today’s recordings. A search on YouTube will reveal a wealth of choices, new and old.

This one by Guiomar Novaes, however, is my favorite, because of the tenderness of expression.  I hope you will enjoy it.