Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Of Foot Pedals, Clogs, and a Romance: A Random Walk

This is why I can’t get anything done.

It all started with the Charles Gounod blog post.  I was doing my typical random walk through the internet, looking for interesting works to bring you, when I found the piano-pédalier: a grand piano fitted with a set of organ pedals hooked up to another piano.  Oh my.

My first thought was that this instrument has to be every pianist’s nightmare (in which, perhaps, you arrive on stage to find, not a standard grand piano, but a piano-pédalier and a very expectant audience.  And you may or may not be fully clothed.  It is a nightmare after all).

So then I started looking for more information on the piano-pédalier, which led me to composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, who was, I found out, a master of the instrument.  I plan to write a blog post about him.  I also found out his works are deemed, let’s say, rather difficult, with the possible exception of some of his miniatures, that is, his Preludes (Op. 31) and his Esquisses (Op. 63).  Since I’m all about playing the not-very-difficult, I decided to look for those.  I will note, however, that the Preludes and Esquisses contain works in every major and minor key, so I’ll be skipping over some of those, particularly the ones with numerous sharps and flats.  I found some recently published sheet music, and realized I own a book that has a couple of his pieces in it.  I then also found his listing in the ever-popular imslp.org library of public domain sheet music.  Which reminded me,  in addition to the Alkan post, I still needed to write a post on the other library of sheet music I found.  Soon!

So, later, I decided to listen to Alkan’s Preludes.  I found them quite interesting, and regretted that I been doing Paperwork that Needed To Be Handled instead of sitting in a chair, with a cup of tea, following along with a score.  I’ll just have to listen to them again!  Soon!

A full day later, after doing Things Which Must Be Done (cooking, washing dishes, laundry, etc.), I remembered that I had not yet extracted my book of sheet music to see what Alkan pieces were included.  So, settling into a chair with my music in one hand, and a cup of tea in the other, I found exactly two Alkan pieces oddly juxtaposed with one another:  First Love Letter (Op. 63, No. 46) and Man in Clogs (Op. 63, No. 23).  Was the First Love Letter from the Man in Clogs?  To the Man in Clogs?  It seemed an unlikely prospect.  In addition to being in clogs, the Man in Clogs is also in a key with five flats, with lots of grace notes that seem to depict rather graceless walking.  Hmmm…five flats and grace notes.  Since I hadn’t looked at this book (Anthology of Romantic Piano Music) for a while, I decided to see who else was represented (and perhaps find some less challenging key signatures).

Surprisingly, there were works by Amy Beach, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and Clara Schumann, in addition to the usual suspects, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn (Felix), Rachmaninoff, Schumann (Robert), and Tchaikovsky, as well as others.  My eyes settled upon a familiar name:  Gabriel Fauré.

What a wonderful time I had last year learning and singing Fauré’s Requiem!  What piece of his was here?  Romance sans paroles [Romance without Words] Op. 17 No 3.  Wait—this is do-able!  (Have I done it already?  If I did start learning it, I know I never finished.)  The left hand is a very regular pattern; four flats, not so bad; a little messing about with the left pedal of the piano, and the right, but hey, it’s not like wrangling a piano-pédalier, right?  I read through it in my head, and thought, yes, I’m going right to the piano to try this!

But then I realized I had better write this post before I forget the weaving path by which I came to this point.  And so, due to the Romance Without Words, the Man in Clogs will have to wait just a little longer (perhaps he can read over his First Love Letter, a romance with words, while he’s waiting).

And Mr. Fauré will have to wait as well, because my tea is now cold, and I just need to go warm it up.  Then, I promise, I’m going right to the piano.   As soon as I answer this ringing phone…

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References

  1. Anthology of Romantic Piano Music: Intermediate to Early Advanced Works by 36 Composers, Maurice Hinson, ed.  Alfred Publishing Co, Inc., 2002.
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Aristide Cavaillé-Coll: French Organ Builder Extraordinaire

Aristide Cavaillé-Coll

In the late 19th and early 20th century, France produced a cavalcade of composers who were also exceptional organists, including Charles-Marie Widor, César Franck (born in Belgium, lived in France), Gabriel Fauré, and Camille San-Saëns.

While each had their own individual style, the sound of French organ music of that era was defined by one man: Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.

Cavaillé-Coll was an organ builder.  In his lifetime, his firm installed or reconstructed around 500 organs in churches in Europe, Great Britain, and Latin America.

Cavaillé-Coll was responsible for a number of technical innovations and for the introduction of organ voices that imitate various instruments in the orchestra.  This led to these organs being called “symphonic organs.”  Franck said, “My new organ?  It’s an orchestra!” and Widor praised the responsiveness of the organ and variety of new orchestral voices.1

The organ builder worked closely with composers, and modified his designs based on their input.  One might suggest that organ compositions might also have been influenced by the opportunities provided by Cavaillé-Coll’s instruments.

The best known of the Cavaillé-Coll organs is at the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, France.  The church has two organs, the main, and the choir organ.  It is said that sometimes Widor and Fauré (Saint-Sulpice’s choir director at the time) would improvise at the same time at the two organs and try to confound each other with abrupt key changes.2

Charles-Marie Widor’s most widely-known organ work is his Toccata, which is the final movement of his Organ Symphony No. 5 (he wrote ten).  Here is a live recording of Widor’s Toccata played on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-Sulpice by Ethan LaPlaca.  While the video was never meant to be a final-cut video (people talking in the background, light distortions, a camera tilt oops), I picked it for the sheer exuberance of playing and the brilliance of the sound.  The page turner to the organist’s right is Daniel Roth, the current organist of Saint-Sulpice, the same post Widor and Marcel Dupré held before him.

Here is a recording of Charles Widor playing his Toccata on the Saint-Sulpice organ when he was 88 years old.  Fierce debates rage about the tempo—is the tempo Widor used in the recording the one that he intended for the piece, or was it influenced by his advanced age?  Do some organists play it too fast?  Here is a very fast performance.  You be the judge.

There is a documentary, The Genius of Cavaillé-Coll, which comes as a box set that includes video from 15 different organs, music CDs, and a book of technical specifications.

A number of Cavaillé-Coll organs have been digitally sampled so that one can reproduce the sound using a virtual pipe organ (an electronic organ using recorded samples of an actual pipe organ via computer software, typically Hauptwerk or the free open-source program GrandOrgue).  While it will not be the same as sitting at the console in Saint-Sulpice, it’s a little closer to home.  Here is a Cavaillé-Coll virtual pipe organ performance of Henri Mulet’s Carillon Sortie performed by David Lines.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristide_Cavaill%C3%A9-Coll
  2. Duchen, Jessica. Gabriel Fauré. London: Phaidon, 2000, p. 32, via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_Fauré.

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Image attribution: Aristide Cavaille-Coll, heliography by Dujardin, circa 1894, age 83 [Public domain] via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAristide_Cavaill%C3%A9-Coll.jpg.


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Haiku Wednesday: Faure’s In Paradisum

The Assumption of the Virgin, painting by Francesco Botticini

May angels lead you
Into paradise, and may
Martyrs receive you,
And lead you into
Holy Jerusalem with
Choirs of angels.
And with Lazurus,
Once a poor man, may you have
Your eternal rest.

At this time of year, many cultures hold observances that remember and honor the dead.  In his Requiem, Gabriel Fauré uses the Latin text of the In paradisum section of the requiem liturgy (reproduced in English as a haiku above).  Here you can hear the original plainchant (and practice reading the ancient notation).

And here is Fauré’s transformation, complete with his notion of an angel choir.  Beauty and rest.

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Image attribution: The Assumption of the Virgin by Francesco Botticini, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Francesco_Botticini_-_The_Assumption_of_the_Virgin.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: Faure’s Berceuse from the Dolly Suite

Gabriel Faure playing piano four hands with Mlle. Lombard, 1913

He smiles as she sits
With him at the piano.
Her hands are so small.
“Happy Birthday, dear,”
He says, “I wrote this for you.”
Together they play.
She smiles as Mom looks on
With love at the two.

Listen to this lovely piano four-hands work, Berceuse, by Gabriel Fauré.

Ahhh. Isn’t that wonderful?  Gabriel Fauré wrote six piano four-hands pieces for Hélène Bardac, nicknamed Dolly, who was the daughter of Emma Bardac, a singer and Fauré’s mistress.  The six pieces are known as the Dolly SuiteBerceuse is the first piece in the suite, which was written for Dolly’s first birthday.

Fauré enjoyed playing the suite in public and with the young children of his friends.  The photograph above shows Fauré playing the piano with a child identified as Mademoiselle Lombard in 1913.  Below is a picture of young Dolly with her mother Emma Bardac and her older brother Raoul from around 1895, about the time Fauré was writing the pieces.

Emma Bardac and children Helene (Dolly) and Raoul

Some folks may remember Berceuse as the theme of BBC Radio 4’s program Listen with Mother, which was a popular children’s radio program in the 1950s through early 1980s.

You may hear the entire Dolly Suite here. You may find the sheet music here.

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Image attributions: Gabriel Fauré at the piano with young Mlle. Lombard at Trevano, Lake Lugano, 1913.  Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Musique, Est.FauréG.101 via Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gabriel_Faur%C3%A9_jouant_%C3%A0_quatre_mains_avec_Melle_Lombard.jpg

Emma Bardac and her children, Raoul and Hélène (Dolly), c. 1895 from Gabriel Fauré: A Musical Life by Jean-Michel Nectoux, trans. Roger Nichols.  Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 287.


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Haiku Wednesday: Fauré’s Requiem

Sunbeams over landscape

Fauré’s Requiem
Gently, quietly leads to
Light, out of darkness.

Light, rest, and mercy,
Fulfillment of promises,
A message of peace.

“Eternal rest grant
To them; let perpetual
Light shine upon them.”

And when Fauré passed
From this realm of sweet music,
They sang it for him.

Fauré’s Requiem is comforting, meditative, and utterly unforgettable.

Like Brahms’s German Requiem, there is a gentleness in its approach.  Brahms focuses on comforting the living, and Fauré focuses on the concept of eternal rest.

This gentle sound is achieved in several ways.  The orchestration is not for a huge ensemble: in addition to a choir and vocal soloists, the original 1888 version called for an organ and string section, with optional inclusion of tympani and harp.  That’s it.  A few more instruments were added in a later version, but this is not an earth-shaking, vast orchestra.

This is also a quiet work.  While there are a few measures that are loud,  forte or fortissimo (f and ff), there are many more that are soft, piano (p) or softer (pp and even ppp, which is nearly whisper soft). Fauré notates these dynamics meticulously.  In the first movement, the choir sings the word “exaudi,” “hear” (my prayer) loudly—and then immediately repeats it very softly, which is brilliant, as the quiet repetition brings even more attention to the word.  Because it is overall quiet, when Fauré does increase the volume, it has a great impact—listen for it.  There are points at which the choir sings with no (or minimal) orchestral accompaniment (for example, the beginning of the second movement), and this has a particularly dramatic effect (and may be slightly terrifying for the amateur chorister).

Another way in which Fauré achieves this gentle, soothing tone is through his melodies and harmonies.  Some of the melodies could easily be interpreted as lullabies, and Fauré said that someone had called his Requiem a “lullaby of death” (as an aside, can you imagine actually telling the composer this?).  And throughout the piece, the harmonies shift subtly, with wonderful chromatic touches to word-paint the text.

Are you a chorister learning the Requiem?  There are several resources available on the web.  Parts videos are available on YouTube.  You might also want to look at the ChoralPractice website.  Once you register (for free) you can access your part of the Requiem and hear it sung by a person.  The site allows you to adjust the balance between your part and the other parts and you can repeat a loop for those passages you find tricky.  The sheet music scrolls as it is performed so you can follow it.  If you need to listen away from your computer, you can purchase and download mp3s of your part, sung by a person, from the Rehearsal Arts website.

You can also find sheet music for the Requiem here and here.  And there are many great audio recordings of this work available for purchase.

A search of YouTube will yield many viewing choices, as well as audio accompanied by a scrolling score (here’s one conducted by John Rutter).

Here is a fine performance of Fauré’s Requiem by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir, with soloists Roderick Williams (baritone) and Sylvia Schwartz (soprano), for your viewing pleasure.

References

  1. Requiem (Fauré) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Requiem_(Faur%C3%A9)
  2. Choral Music Notes: Gabriel Fauré Requiem in d, Op. 48, http://www.jamescsliu.com/classical/Faure_Requiem.html
  3. McKendrick, Ryan Parker, A Conductor’s Analysis of Gabriel Fauré ‘s Requiem, Op. 48http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=music_theses
  4. Gabriel Fauré : Requiem, http://www.classicfm.com/composers/faure/music/requiem/
  5. Program notes for Fauré’s Requiem, https://www.sfsymphony.org/Watch-Listen-Learn/Read-Program-Notes/Program-Notes/FAURE-Requiem,-Opus-48.aspx
  6. Scherer, Barrymore L, “Fauré ’s Requiem in Chamber Form,” The New York Times, December 8, 1985, http://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/08/arts/faure-s-requiem-in-chamber-form.html

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Image attribution: Sunbeams over landscape, [CC0 Public Domain] via https://pixabay.com/en/sunbeams-sky-clouds-landscape-691635/


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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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A French Horn Mystery

French horn, hand, and question mark

Today I want to address a question that has been on the minds of concertgoers for, perhaps centuries.

Why do French horn players put their hand in the bell?

So I did a little research and I found out many things, but the first thing I found out is this:

French horns are complicated.

Playing them is complicated, their history and evolution is complicated, assembling them can even be complicated.

But back to the original question.  A long time ago, horns did not have valves, the buttons you press to alter the pitch.  It turns out you can produce several tones blowing through a valve-less horn, the natural tone of the horn and the overtones of that pitch (here’s an article on overtones).  But you can’t produce the whole scale.

When horn players put their hand in the bell of the horn, using the technique used as “hand stopping,” depending on how they shape their hand, they can alter the pitch of the tone, and get a full scale.  When the hand blocks the bell, it can also alter the timbre of the instrument.

Now that horns have valves, horn stopping is not strictly necessary, but is still used to alter timbre.

The scientifically-inclined among you may enjoy this article, “Spectral Analysis of the French Horn and the Hand-in-Bell Effect,” which also contains references to articles on the acoustics of other brass instruments.

Here is a portion of an interview with the first female French horn player (and first female in the horn section) of the Berlin Philharmonic, Sarah Willis, demonstrating horn stopping.

By the way, the instrument is called a French horn only in English.  Everywhere else it is called a horn.  Whether the instrument originated in France is a matter of some debate.

In the References section you will find a number of great resources to find out more details about this fascinating instrument.

But I can’t leave you without some actual horn music.  There is, of course, Mozart’s Horn Concerto No 2, among other great horn works, but I wanted you to hear this lovely horn and organ duo performance of Pie Jesu by Gabriel Fauré.

References

“Ten Facts You Should Know About the French Horn,” https://blog.sheetmusicplus.com/2014/04/18/ten-facts-you-should-know-about-the-french-horn/

The Arizona State University Horn Studio (a fine collection of articles and music) http://www.public.asu.edu/~jqerics/articles_online.htm

Horn WikiBook with information on technique, repertoire, and more https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Horn/Introduction

Sarah’s [Sarah Willis] Horn Hangouts on her YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/hornmatters/videos

Watts, Adam, “Spectral Analysis of the French Horn and the Hand-in-Bell Effect”, http://physics.illinois.edu/undergrad/reu/2009/Watts_Adam.pdf

WIkipedia-French horn https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_horn

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Image attributions: Hand from  http://www.clipartpanda.com/clipart_images/outline-of-an-hand-clip-art-21795208; French horn from Dover Ready-to-Use Old-Fashioned Music Illustrations.