Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


1 Comment

Haiku Wednesday:  Debussy’s Clouds (Nuages)

Nocturne - Blue and Silver - Chelsea, painting by James McNeill Whistler

Nocturne – Blue and Silver – Chelsea, by James McNeill Whistler

Clouds, no two alike,
Slowly drift across the sky,
A painting that moves.

Debussy drew clouds
In the darkening sky with
Subtly shifting sounds.

He painted his scenes
In harmonies, in music,
As none had before.

‘Nuages’ renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white.1

–Claude Debussy

When Claude Debussy premiered his set of three nocturnes, the first of which is Nuages [Clouds], critics were perplexed.  They tried to explain its structure using traditional forms, but the explanations didn’t quite fit.  One can imagine that Debussy might have responded, “Precisely.”  He was moving away from traditional musical notions and toward something that had not yet been defined, or perhaps could not be defined.

How does one describe the beauty of a cloud?

Debussy was influenced by the paintings of James McNeill Whistler,2 one of a number of painters Debussy knew in Paris.  You can see Whistler’s Nocturne paintings here (type “nocturne” in the search box).

Both artists sought to reinterpret the word “nocturne”:

Whistler: “By using the word ‘nocturne’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first.”3

Debussy: “The title Nocturnes is to be interpreted here in a general and, more particularly, in a decorative sense. Therefore, it is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests.”4

Debussy’s music combines elements that are changing, evolving, with elements that remain the same—moving clouds against a static sky, with colors changing slowly as night falls.

Here is Nuages, performed by the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Pierre Boulez.

If you would like to “see” the piece in a fascinating graphical form (notes represented by shapes moving across the page), you can find it here.

When was the last time you got to sit quietly and watch the clouds go by?  It has probably been too long.

I think I hear a cumulus calling me.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturnes_(Debussy)
  2. http://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/nocturnes-claude-debussy
  3. Dorment, Richard and MacDonald, Margaret F. James McNeill Whistler, published by Harry N. Abrams, 1995, p 122 via http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/whistler-nocturne-blue-and-silver-chelsea-t01571
  4. Brook, Donald. Five great French composers: Berlioz, César Franck, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel: Their Lives and Works. Ayer Publishing. p. 168 via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturnes_(Debussy)
  5. http://www.classical-music.com/article/story-debussys-nocturnes
  6. http://resource.download.wjec.co.uk.s3.amazonaws.com/vtc/2015-16/15-16_23/Debussy/Debussy%20-%20Nuages%20notes.pdf
  7. http://upers.kuleuven.be/sites/upers.kuleuven.be/files/page/files/2010_1_2.pdf

_____

Image attribution:

Nocturne – Blue and Silver – Chelsea, James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturne:_Blue_and_Silver_%E2%80%93_Chelsea

 


1 Comment

Haiku Wednesday: Winter

Trees covered in ice and snowCardinal in ice-covered tree

Ice has turned the trees
Into a fine filigree:
A shawl of white lace,

Tracery beaded
With berries, ‘til cardinals
And jays replace them.

Water droplets cling
To the tips of icicles,
Forming pearl-edged fringe.

Winter’s shawl remains
Until spring smiles and dons her
New leafy green dress.

Snowy winters have been a great source of inspiration to countless composers.  I thought I’d present a few and give you some resources to find more if you would like a playlist that provides the sonic image of a snowy day (whether you’re in the midst of one looking out at the falling snow with a cup of hot cocoa, or sipping a cool drink while looking for a little relief from sweltering heat).

Here is Tchaikovsky’s December, performed by Denis Matsuev, from The Seasons.

And how can we forget Vivaldi?  Here is the first movement of Winter performed by Voices of Music from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

Want more?  Check out WQXR’s page “10 Pieces That Sound Like a Winter Wonderland”, as well as Classic fm’s “Winter Music.”  If you subscribe to a music streaming service, I’m sure you can find more classical winter playlists for your listening pleasure.

And to close, a wonderful percussion performance of Debussy’s The Snow is Dancing from The Children’s Corner.

 

_____

Image attributions: Trees covered in snow and ice, photo by C. Gallant, 2016.  Cardinal in tree branches covered in ice, photo courtesy of Genuine Kentucky website [no photographer credit given], http://www.genuinekentucky.com/kentucky-is-even-beautiful-covered-in-ice-pictures-of-the-day/.


Leave a comment

Free Opera Binge Watching!

stick guy singing opera on a television with a viking helmet for an antenna

I had hoped to showcase this weekend’s livestream of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (musical direction by Kirill Petrenko, with a fine cast including Jonas Kaufmann) from the Bavarian State Opera.  However, it has been postponed.  For more information, click hereHere is a video about the production.

Undeterred, I searched the internet for a replacement.

I have found you hours and hours of opera.  And I don’t mean The Ring cycle.

The Vienna State Opera  is currently offering for free Wagner’s Parsifal and Götterdämmerung (ok, some of The Ring; click here for details). The opera company typically offers livestreams by subscription (single, monthly, by season).  You can watch at the time of event, or slightly time shifted to accommodate your time zone.

Not a Wagner fan? Here’s what The Opera Platform website has for you right now (the assortment changes over time; click here for details):

Bell  In Parenthesis

Bizet  Carmen

Boesmans  Reigen

Debussy  Pelléas et Mélisande (not available for viewing in the US)

Puccini  Manon Lescaut

Rossini  The Barber of Seville

Tchaikovsky  Eugene Onegin

Tchaikovsky  The Queen of Spades

Verdi  Macbeth

Wagner  Parsifal

(this is the same production available at the Vienna State Opera site)

Wagner  The Valkyries

 Enjoy!

_____

Image attribution: C. Gallant, 2016.


4 Comments

A Salute to Muzio Clementi

Portrait of Muzio Clementi by Thomas Hardy

Muzio Clementi

If you are now or have ever been a piano student, or attended a student recital, you know Muzio Clementi.1  His Op. 36 piano sonatinas are no strangers to the fingers of piano students all over the world.

The sad thing is, that’s all most people know about him.

That, and that he had a keyboard duel with Mozart that ended in a diplomatic draw (read more about the Clementi-Mozart match here).2

Clementi was born in Rome in 1752, and his family encouraged his musical studies.  He was already a composer and parish organist at age 14 when he came to the attention of a visiting Sir Peter Beckford.  Beckford made an agreement with Clementi’s father, according to which Muzio would live on Beckford’s estate and receive music lessons to age 21, in exchange for musical entertainment.  This agreement lasted until 1774.

It was during Clementi’s subsequent three-year European tour that the famous musical duel with Mozart occurred (on 24 December 1781).  At the time, he was promoting Broadwood pianos—making him one of the first Broadwood artists, just as we have Steinway artists today.

A Clementi piano, 1805Later in life, Clementi was the spokesman for his own piano line.  Here is a picture of a Clementi piano.3 Those interested in piano restoration will enjoy this account of the restoration of a Clementi piano.4

He also had his own publishing firm, and acquired directly from Beethoven the right to publish his music in England.5

Beethoven was a great admirer of Clementi.  In fact before they met formally, Clementi wrote to a business partner that he saw Beethoven grinning at him when he saw Clementi in public.6 Grinning.  Hard to imagine, given the stern image we traditionally have of Beethoven.

Clementi is well known to piano students for his piano sonatas and sonatinas, but also for his Gradus Ad Parnassum, a set of instructional pieces, which may be the basis for Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum (although some say it is Czerny’s set by the same name that Debussy is referring to in his somewhat satirical piece).7  Here is a list of Clementi’s compositions.

Speaking of Carl Czerny, he was one of Clementi’s students, as were Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Ignaz Moscheles, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Ludwig Berger (teacher to Felix Mendelssohn) and John Field (who influenced Chopin).

For all things Clementi, visit the website of the Muzio Clementi Society.

And now, a little Clementi–not Op. 36.  Here is the finale from his Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor, Op. 26 No. 2, performed by Roberto Giordano.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muzio_Clementi
  2. http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/mozart-and-clementi-pianistic-duel-parts-1-2/
  3. Morse, Frances Clary, Furniture of the Olden Time. Macmillan, 1917, p 290. https://archive.org/details/furnitureofolden00morsrich
  4. http://www.clementisociety.com/ClementiPianos.html 
  5. Albrecht, Theodore, ed., Letters to Beethoven and Other Correspondence: 1824-1828, ed. University of Nebraska Press, 1996, p 185.  (https://books.google.com/books?id=MHf-MHqVSKoC&pg=PA185&lpg=PA185#v=onepage&q&f=false)
  6. Albrecht, Theodore, ed., Letters to Beethoven and Other Correspondence: 1824-1828, ed. University of Nebraska Press, 1996, p 186. (https://books.google.com/books?id=MHf-MHqVSKoC&pg=PA186&lpg=PA186#v=onepage&q&f=false).
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gradus_ad_Parnassum

_____

Image attributions

Muzio Clementi by Thomas Hardy (1757-1804) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMuzio_Clementi.jpeg

Clementi piano in Furniture of the Olden Time by Frances Clary Morse.  Macmillan, 1917, p 290. https://archive.org/details/furnitureofolden00morsrich


Leave a comment

The French Connections: The Soundtrack

FrenchConnectionsCircle003

For each of the composers in the illustration I have selected a piece of music or two for your listening pleasure.  I deliberately tried not to pick the pieces the composers are best known for, so there will be no Carnival of the Animals here. The exception is Widor’s Toccata, because, well, it’s a cool piece of music, and that’s the instrument I started on (and no, I never got that far—not even close.  But one can dream).

Fauré Pelléas et Mélisande Suite Op 80

Poulenc Stabat Mater

Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No 3

Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2

Franck Violin Sonata in A Major, 4th Movement

(Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk! Thanks WQXR!)

Berlioz Reveries

Got some time?  Here’s the complete Symphonie fantastique performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Widor Suite for flute and piano

This is what Widor is known for: the Toccata from his Symphony No 5

Here’s the beginning of a Widor documentary.  If you’re an organ fan, you’ll enjoy this.

Gounod Repentir

Debussy Beau Soir

Beau soir indeed.


Leave a comment

The French Connections

FrenchConnectionsCircle003

While I was researching Maurice Ravel for last week’s Haiku Wednesday, I kept seeing connections between various French composers, more so than I had seen with other composers (or maybe I haven’t looked hard enough yet).  So I started reading about them to learn more, and found the connections fascinating.

Of course we know now about Ravel (1875-1937).  Ravel studied with Émile Decombes, a student of Chopin’s, as did Alfred Cortot, whom I mentioned in a previous post.  Later Ravel studied with Gabriel Fauré.  Ravel’s father introduced him to Erik Satie (1866-1925).  Satie at some point turned his back on Ravel, and Satie’s student Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) said (after Satie had also turned against Poulenc) “I admire him as ever, but breathe a sigh of relief at finally not having to listen to his eternal ramblings on the subject of Ravel.”1

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) studied organ under the tutelage of Camille Saint-Saëns, and the two remained close friends.  In 1871 he took the post of choirmaster at a church where the organist was Charles-Marie Widor.  The two frequently improvised organ duets.  Fauré was a charter member of the Société National de Musique founded by Saint-Saëns.  Also members were Georges Bizet (1838-1875), Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894), Jules Massenet (1842-1912), and César Franck (1822-1890). 2  One of Franck’s students at the Paris Conservatory was Claude Debussy (1862-1918)3

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) studied organ at the Paris Conservatory (organ was emphasized over piano because of the greater career opportunities for organists).  As an organist he came to the attention of Hector Berlioz.   After the collapse of his marriage, Saint-Saëns became attached to Gabriel Fauré’s family.4

Charles-Marie Widor received his first organist post with the support of Saint-Saëns and Charles Gounod.  When César Franck died, Widor took his post as professor at the Paris Conservatory.  Widor was a staunch proponent of Bach’s organ music and one of his students was Albert Schweitzer.  Widor founded the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau and served as its director until 1934, at which time Maurice Ravel succeeded him.5

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was introduced to Bach’s music by Fanny Mendelssohn.  One of Gounod’s students was Georges Bizet.  When Gounod died, the music for the service was conducted by Fauré with Saint-Saëns at the organ.6

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) became friends with Franz Liszt, when both attended a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with an overture composed by Berlioz.  Liszt was a witness at Berlioz’s marriage to Harriet Smithson.7  Liszt was also in attendance at a mass where organ improvisations were performed by César Franck.  Liszt highly praised Franck’s work and began including Franck’s work in concerts in Germany.8  Liszt is said to have called his friend Camille Saint-Saëns “the greatest organist in the world.”  Saint-Saëns dedicated his third symphony to Liszt.9

Tune in tomorrow for more on the music behind these French connections.

Resources

  1. Kelly, Barbara L, Music and Ultra-modernism in France: A Fragile Consensus, 1913-1939. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2013, p 57, Wikipedia entry on Maurice Ravel.
  2. Wikipedia article on Gabriel Fauré.
  3. Wikipedia article on Claude Debussy.
  4. Wikipedia article on Camille Saint-Saëns.
  5. Wikipedia article on Charles-Marie Widor.
  6. Wikipedia article on Charles Gounod.
  7. Wikipedia article on Hector Berlioz.
  8. Vallas, Leon, Cesar Franck, Trans. Hubert J. Foss. New York: Oxford Universty Press, 1951, p 127. Trans. of La veritable histoire de Cesar Franck, 1949, via Wikipedia article on Cesar Franck.
  9. Wikipedia article on Franz Liszt.