Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus

Stag on a mountaintop; the painting The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Landseer, 1851

As the hart longs for
Fountains of water, so my
Soul longs for you, Lord.

The haiku above is a translation of the Latin words of Palestrina’s motet Sicut cervus, drawn from Psalm 42 of the Old Testament of the Bible.

I recently had the sublime pleasure of singing this motet.  One can hear the piece and know that it is beautiful.  But by singing this piece in the middle of a small mixed ensemble I learned something that I would never have known otherwise.

This piece breathes.  Though it was written so many hundreds of years ago, it is alive.  The lines rise and fall gently, as the chest rises and falls when one is at peace, at rest, or in meditation.  The lines rise and fall in pitch, describing a smooth arc.  The dynamics change, one voice rising in volume as it enters, then falling away as a new voice begins.  As the voices intertwine, there is a heartbeat, there is breath, and the piece becomes a living thing.  The motet ends with a hushed tone of hope, or assurance, or belief, all the voices uniting as one, as one living being.

And when you sing it, you realize that you, and your one voice, are now part of a stream of singers that have sung this very piece for hundreds of years.  Your voice rises now, as have so many voices before you, and when it falls away, a new singer will begin.  And the music will live on forever.

Here is Sicut cervus.

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Image attribution: The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1851 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_Monarch_of_the_Glen%2C_Edwin_Landseer%2C_1851.png

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International Women’s Day: Kassiani of Constantinople

music note with feminist symbol (ankh) below

Today is International Women’s Day, and it seemed appropriate to bring you music from one of the earliest known female composers whose music has survived, Kassiani, or Cassia of Constantinople.  She was born around 810 CE and died before 865 CE.

Kassiani founded a convent and became its abbess.  There she wrote music and poetry.  Her music is still sung in the Orthodox Church.

About fifty of her hymns have come down to us and 789 verses that are not liturgical, mainly epigrams.

Here is an arrangement of the Hymn of Kassiani, sung in English.  It is hauntingly beautiful.  You can find the score here.

Would you like to read more about female composers throughout history?  Here are some earlier posts you may enjoy:

Hildegard von Bingen: Medieval Composer, Extraordinary Woman

Medieval Women in Music: Trobairises

Celebrating International Women’s Day

Lost Mendelssohn Easter Sonata Found—and it’s by Fanny, Not Felix

Haiku Wednesday: Barbara Strozzi

Christine de Pizan in The Music of Agincourt

Haiku Wednesday: Nadia Boulanger

Haiku Wednesday: Amy Beach

Haiku Wednesday: Yes, women write music

Haiku Wednesday: Women in Music

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Image attribution: Music note with feminist symbol (ankh), C. Gallant.


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Medieval Women in Music: Trobairises

Comtessa Beatriz de Dia, medieval composer

Comtessa Beatriz de Dia, medieval composer

When I was researching my post for International Women’s Day, I came across a fascinating topic:  trobairises.

Trobairises (singular trobairitz) were female troubadours, primarily of southern France where the Occitan language was/is spoken, of the 12th and 13th centuries.  They are the first recorded female composers of secular music.  The names of about 20 trobairises are known, and around 32 works have been attributed to them.  These consist of only lyrics.  There is only one for which we also have the musical notation, A chantar m’er by the Comtessa Beatriz de Diá.1

Here is an image of the manuscript

Music manuscript of A Chantar by Beatriz de Dia

Here is a link to an a capella performance.

You may hear it here with instrumental accompaniment.

The earliest work attributed to a trobairitz, a woman named Tibors de Sarenom, is Bels dous amics, for which only the words survive.  This song dates from around 1150.2

The name of only one female composer of this period from northern France is known (in northern France, a troubadour was known as a trouvère; there is no female counterpart to this term).  Marie de France was active in the period 1160-1215, and it is believed she did her writing in England.3  Texts of her poetry, the Lais of Marie de France, may be found in an English manuscript of the 13th century (coincidentally, this same manuscript also contains the song Sumer Is Icumen In, long held as the oldest secular song in English).

Here you can find a list of known trobairises with links containing more information about them.

[Postscript:  I thought the absence of female trouvères was odd, so I dug a little deeper.  I turned up a book, Songs of the Women Trouvères, which documents eight named female trouvères, and a wealth of songs and motets that may have been written by women.]

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trobairitz
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tibors_de_Sarenom
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_de_France
  4. Bruckner, Matilda, Shepard, Laurie, and White, Sarah, Songs of the Women Troubadours. Routledge, 2000. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0815335687/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0815335687&linkCode=as2&tag=medievalistsn-20&linkId=VQVFQAAVBQ6O5IVH

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Image attribution: Image of Comtessa Beatriz de Dia, [public domain] Bibliothèque Nationale, MS cod. Fr. 12473, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=342295.  Image of A chantar m’er, [Public domain] Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, fr. 844 via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_chantar_pg._1.jpg and https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_chantar_pg._2.jpg


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A Classical Music Revolution: In Your Living Room and Down the Pub

For years, critics have been bemoaning the increasing average age of classical music concert attendees.  They worry that the candlelight of classical music, once so bright, is beginning to flicker.

Nonsense.

While silver hair may dominate in gilded concert halls, there’s an unexpected place you might find a more youthful and lively group of classical music fans.

Down the pub.

It was with great delight that I learned of two wonderful recurring events, Polyphony Down the Pub and Counterpint.  I first read about them in this blog post in Luis Henriques’s early music blog (check it out!).

London pubs are the common venues for these events—singers sign up and gather at the appointed (appinted?) place and time and sing Renaissance polyphony…to the delight (and possibly confusion, though I hope not consternation) of non-singing pubgoers.

Sometimes you just have to take polyphony into your own hands.

I cannot tell you how much I want to be in London right now.  And I don’t even drink beer.

Image of glass of beer with text "Universal Languages: Love. Music. Beer."

But here’s another option for up-close-and-personal classical music:  Groupmuse.

This US company matches young classical musicians with hosts who hold concerts for 10 to 50 people in their own homes.  An audience member might pay as little as $10 for the ultimate front row seat (or couch).  The first set is always classical music; the second set is the performer’s choice.  Soloists and quartets can be booked.  An article describing this service states that the typical audience consists of mostly millennials.1

Gray hair?  None in sight.

Classical music is far from dead.  But the market is evolving—not everyone has access to a concert hall, or can afford to go to one.  Not everyone wants to.  Online streaming has made it possible not only to hear the piece of music we want, but to hear that music played by the specific performer we’d like to hear (without the extraneous noise of crinkling candy wrappers, cell phones, or coughing—ok, with the exception of the Horowitz in Moscow live recording before a seemingly tubercular audience—or Glenn Gould’s humming).  So live performance producers need to be more creative to meet the changing demands of the market.

We are already seeing this in the live streaming of concerts and operas and their availability on demand, as well as in the proliferation of small groups of music makers, local opera companies, and local symphony orchestras.  And I expect this trend will continue to expand.

There once was a time when only kings could summon musicians, only royalty could afford concerts.  Those days are gone.

¡Viva la revolución!

References

  1. https://www.wired.com/2016/10/groupmuse-classical-music-concerts/
  2. Toffler, Alvin, The Third Wave. New York: William Morrow & Co, Inc., 1980, Chapter 13 “De-Massifying the Media,” in particular, pp 144-153.

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Image attribution: Image from press kit of International Beer Day, http://internationalbeerday.com/press-kit/.


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Haiku Wednesday: Summer, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and Savings

Miniature of 'The Spanish Dance'; from Códice de trajes, Germany, 1547.

It’s summer! Have a party and dance!

In the northern climes,
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!

Vivaldi wrote some
Sonnets for The Four Seasons;
That I never knew!

The Four Seasons app
Is on sale for the summer,
And we say “Woo-hoo”!

Summer is here in the northern hemisphere.  School is out, the heat is ramping up, and summer thunderstorms blaze through, leaving (hopefully) cooler air in their wake.

People have been singing about summer for a long time.  The first stanza of today’s haiku refers to one of the earliest notated songs in English, Sumer Is Icumen In (loudly sing cuckoo).  The earliest manuscript dates to the mid- to late-13th century.  Here’s some sheet music to follow along, and here’s the tune.

Manuscript of song Sumer Is Icumen In from the British Library

Sumer Is Icumen In. MS Harley 978 f. 11v, British Library.

Somewhat later (between 1720 and 1723), Antonio Vivaldi wrote The Four Seasons.  You may hear familiar refrains, as it is frequently used in television commercials.  Something that I learned is that the piece is accompanied by four sonnets, possibly written by Vivaldi himself.  You can find the four sonnets in Italian and English in the link, but here is the translation of the one for summer (Boreas is the north wind):

Under the merciless sun
Languishes man and flock; the pine tree burns,
The cuckoo begins to sing and at once
Join in the turtledoves and the goldfinch.
A gentle breeze blows, but Boreas
Joins battle suddenly with his neighbor,
And the shepherd weeps because overhead
Hangs the dreaded storm, and his destiny.

His tired limbs are robbed of their rest
By his fear of the lightning and the heavy thunder
And by the furious swarm of flies and hornets.

Alas, his fears are well founded
There is thunder and lightning in the sky
And the hail cuts down the lofty ears of corn.1

The sonnet itself is broken into three sections, which is not uncommon for the sonnet form, but also echoes the three movements of the composition.  See if you can hear what is depicted above.  Here is Vivaldi’s Summer.

(I know it’s summer, but educators can find a teacher resource kit on Vivaldi and The Four Seasons at the link.  It’s written for students in grades 4-6, but I enjoyed reading it!)

Now, if you have an iPad or iPhone, you are in luck.  This summer, Touchpress is offering the Vivaldi Four Seasons app for $2.99 (70 percent off!)

Here’s a review of the Vivaldi Four Seasons app.  Here is the website for the app (which is available through the Apple iTunes App Store).

The Four Seasons app joins Touchpress’s other iPad offerings, The Liszt Sonata, The Orchestra, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (free!).

I hope you will enjoy lots of music this summer, and I hope your living is easy.

The blog will be on summer vacation for a week.  See you again soon!

References

  1. http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/part2/vivaldi01.html

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Image attributions:

Miniature of ‘The Spanish Dance’; from Códice de trajes, Germany, 1547, BNE MS Res 285, ff. 2v-3r via http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/01/celebrating-an-anniversary-in-high-style.html.  The original can be found at the Biblioteca Nacional de España BNE MS Res 285, ff. 2v-3r, http://www.bne.es/es/Micrositios/Exposiciones/GeometriaPespuntes/Exposicion/Seccion2/Obra4.html?origen=galeria

Manuscript of Sumer Is Icumen In, MS Harley 978 f. 11v.  British Library digitized manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASumer_is_icumen_in_-_Summer_Canon_(Reading_Rota)_(mid_13th_C)%2C_f.11v_-_BL_Harley_MS_978.jpg.  See the original (and more) at the British Library website  http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=harley_ms_978_f011v


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The 40-Part Motet Revisited: A Work of Art

Octagon with lines connecting all vertices with one anotherI recently wrote about the 40-part motet written by Thomas Tallis, and showed you a wonderful visualization of the piece, which is titled Spem in alium.

Here is a video about how artist Janet Cardiff has taken this music and created a unique installation, The Forty Part Motet.

Thanks to friend and reader Paul B. for telling me about the Cardiff installation.

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Image attribution:  Octagon with lines connecting all vertices with one another, via openclipart.org.