Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Faure

Luminous music,
Tender, calm, and so peaceful:
Gabriel Fauré

A requiem that dwells on
Eternal rest and light, peace,
Mercy and welcome.

Grace and elegance,
Music that soothes and comforts:
Gabriel Fauré.

The more I have read about Gabriel Fauré, the more I have wanted to read.  And the more I have listened to his music, the more I have wanted to hear.  What a fascinating fellow!

He was drawn to music at an early age, and was sent to study at a music school in Paris, which in time was headed by Camille Saint-Saëns.  At first, Saint-Saëns was Fauré’s teacher, but the two became close friends.

After graduation, Fauré worked as a church organist…until he showed up one Sunday morning in his evening clothes after partying all night.  Thereafter, he became the organist at a different church.1

He fought in the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. 1

After the war, he was choirmaster at Saint-Sulpice, where Charles-Marie Widor was organist.  The church had two organs, and the two would improvise together, trying to trick each other with unexpected key changes.  Saint-Saëns described Fauré as “a first-class organist when he wanted to be.” 1

As a professor at the Paris Conservatory, Fauré taught Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger, among others.  He later became the school’s director, and modernized procedures and updated the curriculum to include works by Debussy and Wagner.  Old-timers were not amused by the inclusion of this newfangled music.  However, the group of contemporary composers known as Les Six adored him. 1

Fauré’s music spanned the period between Romanticism and 20th century music.  His later music hints at the changes that were occurring at the time, away from a fixed tonality and traditional chord progressions, and toward more amorphous harmonies.  His last work was his first string quartet, finished less than two months before he died. 1

An example of Fauré embracing the modern is now a great treasure.  He recorded a number of piano rolls, and through them, we can hear him playing his own music.  At the links you can hear Fauré play his Pavane (Op. 50), a Valse Caprise from Op. 38, a Valse Caprice from Op. 59, and Nocturne No. 7 (Op. 74).

I would be remiss to omit Fauré’s Requiem.  I could write an entire post on it—and I will, because I am currently learning to sing it.  But I need to immerse myself in it more first to be able to adequately describe it to you.  It is a towering work, a giant, but one that whispers.  A deeply emotional work, yet one that Fauré said that he wrote “for nothing—for fun, if I may say so!”2   The Requiem departs from the traditional requiem text, and focuses on eternal rest and perpetual light.  In a way, it is reminiscent of the Brahms German Requiem in its comforting tone.   It is beautiful, and I look forward to singing it and telling you more about it soon.

It is hard to know what to highlight, there are so many works I could present for you.  I’ll pick two.  First, his lovely song Aprés Un Rêve, sung here by Pumeza Matshikiza with pianist Simon Lepper.

And, for now, I leave you with Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine (Op. 11) for orchestra and choir.  Fauré wrote this when he was 19 years old, and it took first prize in a composition competition (imagine his competitors!).

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_Faur%C3%A9
  2. Letter from Fauré to composer Maurice Emmanuel, quoted in Nectoux, Jean-Michel, Gabriel Fauré – A Musical Life, trans. Roger Nichols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p 116.
  3. http://www.classicfm.com/composers/faure/guides/howard-goodall-gabriel-faure/

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Image attribution:  Photograph of Gabriel Fauré by De Jongh, Lausanne, 1907 [Public domain in US], original held by the Bibliothèque nationale de Francehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Faure1907.jpg


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Catapulting Without a Net: The View is Amazing

Stick figure flying through the air, notated music trailing behind

Recently I had the great pleasure of singing Bach’s Magnificat in a fantastic choir with marvelous soloists and musicians.  It was a thrilling performance, the music ringing in the hall, simply glorious.

Each time I sing one of the great choral masterpieces with them, it’s like adding another sparkling jewel to a treasure chest—the Brahms German Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Vespers.  Each one has its own unique beauty, and I learn something new from each one of them.  Readers are already aware of some of the things I learned in preparing Magnificat (see here and here).  But there’s something else that made this performance special, a first.

I sang it from memory.

But the memorizing itself is unimportant compared to what I learned from the performance.

It is amazing the things you notice when you can manage to pry the score loose from the death-grip with which your hands cling to it, fearful of missing a note or an entrance (or, worse, committing an unintentional solo), and raise your head for a prolonged period.

First, you notice the attentive, expectant faces of the audience.  This would be terrifying if it weren’t for the fact that most of them are smiling.  This only strengthens your commitment to sing your best for them.

Next, the choir director, whom you should be looking at most of the time anyway (but probably don’t—see death-grip above).  But instead of the glance up from the score to check in for tempo, dynamics, a cue or special instruction (usually notated in my score by “WATCH!”), you get to see when they’re not looking at you (instead of vice versa).  And you realize, as they cue every entry for every voice, that you’re not the only one who has things memorized, and in fact, they’ve memorized much more than you have.  Which is just one of the reasons why they’re standing on a podium, and you’re not.

Another thing you notice, something you may take for granted, is the voices surrounding you.  I don’t mean the person standing next to you, against whom you might cautiously check your pitch and volume.  I heard the lines of entire sections, the earth-rumbling basses stating the fugue theme, the sopranos and altos singing the wonderful descending lines of the Gloria, fluttering downward like a twirling, falling leaf.  The tenors adding their color notes and flourishes, voices arching dramatically skyward.  And the sound is bigger, because you’re not hearing individual raindrops anymore—you’re hearing a torrent of notes.

And the instrumental music, by turns sweet, jingling, thundering, soul-stirring, each interweaving line issuing forth from the hands of a masterful musician, without whom the voices would seem incomplete.  Fingers, flying, execute a precise figure, partnered in this instance with fleet-footed organ pedaling.  A dance indeed.

You recognize the staggering number of hours that have been devoted by everyone to make this music come to life.

And finally, Bach.  You realize he’s taken the word “dispersit” (scatters) and depicted it in the music, as it is repeated first to your left, then your right, directly in front of you, in back—surround sound hundreds of years before it existed. That beautiful phrase you recognize from the St. Matthew Passion?  He used it here first, but you didn’t notice it before.  And again and again he weaves magic into the music, and you are left awestruck by his genius.

I hope you will take time today to look up, and listen, and perhaps catch something you’ve been missing.

Me?  I have a new score to memorize.

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Image attribution: Musical catapulting stick figure. Copyright Chris Gallant 2015.


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Bach: For All the Generations

bach

Sometimes when I’m practicing my current choir music, Bach’s Magnificat, I have to sit there and shake my head.  At first, it was a case of “How on Earth am I going to do this?!” Over time, however, lots of time, I’ve arrived at a new question: “How on Earth did he do this?!”

So one day, armed with my own score and a pencil, I decided to try to figure out exactly what he was up to in those lines of music.

I think it’s highly appropriate that the first thing I saw as I opened to Omnes generationes was an instruction from my choir director that I had transcribed:

Breathe as needed.  Observe rests.

Sound advice.

I decided to tackle the most obvious component of this movement to see what Bach did.  The entire piece consists of two words, “omnes generationes” [all the generations] repeated again and again.  Bach brings this phrase in with five repeated eighth notes on the same pitch—a clarion trumpet call, announcing “all, all the generations.”  It’s insistent.

You don’t have to read music to see this note pattern, it’s easy to pick out.  Look, I’ll show you:

 

Excerpt of score of Bach's Magnificat, Omnes generationes, showing theme and florid section

While the five-note theme is a trumpet, the voice in the “florid” section of notes is a stringed instrument.  I picture a bow moving back and forth across the strings as the notes bounce up and down in my throat.  Some nights I need a little more rosin.

But getting back to Bach, what does he do with this?  Knowing I was only scratching the surface, I went through and circled the first note of all the instances of that five-note theme in each voice (Soprano 1, Soprano 2, Alto, Tenor, Bass).

He uses it 46 times in 27 measures.

He must mean it.

Then, I looked at what note in the scale of D major he used to start the phrase.

Answer:  all of them

Except instead of G he used G#, and then he threw in B# (C natural) for good measure, so we have

D   E   F#   G#   A   B   B#/C   C#

And this gets worked in with all the other notes swirling around it.  Musical Sudoku at its finest.

And then, to make sure you didn’t miss the point, for effect he brings the phrase in, slightly offset in time, in each voice (it’s called stretto, Italian for tight or narrow, as in tightly packed voices).

Score of Bach's Magnificat, Omnes generationes, example of stretto

“Did you miss it?” asks Johann.  “If you did, I’ll make everybody come to a halt, and then bring in everyone together, then let the basses bring it home.”

Excerpt of Bach's Magnificat, Omnes generationes, showing simultaneous statement of theme

Wow.

Just…wow.

And this is the easy phrase to explain.

And now I think it’s time to observe a rest.  But first, let’s listen to Omnes generationes.

References

Bach, J. S., Magnificat in D BWV 243.  Barenreiter 5103a vocal score.  Vocal Score arranged by Eduard Müller, Edited by Alfred Dürr. Clifton, NJ, European American Music Distributors Corporation, 1956.

Link to scores online: http://imslp.org/wiki/Magnificat_in_D_major,_BWV_243_(Bach,_Johann_Sebastian)


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Haiku Wednesday: Bach’s Magnificat

Picture and illuminated text of the Magnificat from the duc de Berry Book of Hours

Magnificat:  Bach
Caref’lly tends an ancient tune,
A master gard’ner.

Deep roots reach down and
Back to far-off times and words,
While song seeks the sky.

“My soul magnifies
The Lord, my spirit exults
In God, my savior.”

So begins the song;
In Bach’s hands it blooms, now a
Polyphonic rose,

Whose petals burst forth
In melismatic splendor,
Delicate sweetness.

 

Choirs everywhere are beginning their work on Bach’s Magnificat for Christmastime performances, and I’d like to tell you a little bit about it today.

The Magnificat is one of the oldest Christian hymns, and its words have been set by numerous composers, including Monteverdi, Tallis, Bach, Bruckner, Vaughan Williams, Rutter, Tavener, and Pärt.

There are two versions of Bach’s Magnificat, dated 1723 and 1733.  The former (designated BWV 243a) includes Christmas hymns.  The latter (BWV 243) omits the hymns and differs somewhat from the 1723 version.  The later version is the one that is most commonly performed.  It is one of only a few Latin texts set by Bach, who primarily worked with German texts.

Bach alternates movements featuring the full choir with soloist performances.  There are many fantastic recordings of this work, from one-voice-per-part performances to those with full choirs.  The wonderful weaving of voices is something you have to hear—my talking about it is merely the rustling of dry leaves.  Listen to the lovely duet Et misericordia:

Here is a full performance.  The overture is Bach at his exuberant best.  The score is available here.  Choristers who would like a little help learning their parts might like to check out the Magnificat at cyberbass.com, where you can find a midi recording of each part.  If you’d like someone to actually sing it for you, and you have a little money, check out the Magnificat at rehearsalarts.com, where you can purchase a recording of a person singing your part.

Whether you’re singing, playing in the orchestra, or listening, Bach’s Magnificat is a joy to experience.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnificat
  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnificat_(Bach)

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Image attribution:  The Visitation and Magnificat text from the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry (Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 59v), [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Folio_59v_-_The_Visitation.jpg .  The original document is at the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.