Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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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.


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Haiku Wednesday: Nadia Boulanger

Photograph of Nadia Boulanger, 1925.

Nadia Boulanger, 1925.

Nadia Boulanger
Teacher to great composers
Quietly excelled

“Nadia Boulanger knew everything there was to know about music; she knew the oldest and the latest music, pre-Bach and post-Stravinsky, and knew it cold.  All technical know-how was at her fingertips: harmonic transposition, the figured bass, score reading, organ registration, instrumental techniques, structural analyses, the school fugue and the free fugue, the Greek modes and Gregorian chant.  Needless to say this list is far from exhaustive.”1

Aaron Copland, from On Music

When you read album liner notes, music books, profiles of performers and composers, you’ll start to see the name Nadia Boulanger popping up regularly.  Here’s why.

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was a composer and conductor, pianist and organist, but is perhaps best known as a teacher.  Here are only some of her students:

Aaron Copland, John Eliot Gardiner, Dinu Lipatti, Vigil Thomson, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass, Ástor Piazzolla, Elliott Carter, and Quincy Jones.

She was the first woman to conduct the following orchestras:

BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, Hallé, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Washington National Symphony, London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic Society London.

Boulanger studied at the Paris Conservatoire, and won several prizes while she was there.  She studied composition with Gabriel Fauré.  She became friends with Fauré, poet Paul Valéry, and Igor Stravinsky.

She founded the French Music School for Americans in Fontainebleau, and this was a magnet for American composers in the 1920s  (however, she told Gershwin, as had Ravel, “I can teach you nothing”).2  American composers were drawn by her rigorous instruction and encyclopedic knowledge of the repertoire.

She visited Great Britain and the US on numerous occasions to teach and conduct, and taught at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore during World War II.  She returned to France after the war.  She taught until nearly the very end, and died at age 92.

American composer Quincy Jones said, “Nadia Boulanger used to tell me all the time, ‘Quincy, your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being.’ It’s okay to play fast and all that other stuff, but unless you have a life experience, and have something to say that you’ve lived, you have nothing to contribute at all.”3

Because of her many students, and the great influence she had upon them, Nadia Boulanger continues to cast a long shadow in the music history of the 20th century.

Here is Nadia Boulanger speaking about music and genius.

Here is her Fantaisie pour piano et orchestra

References

  1. Copland, Aaron, On Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1963, pp. 87-88.
  2. Rosenstiel, Leonie and Rosenstiel, Annette, Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music. New York:  W. W. Norton & Co, 1982, p 216.
  3. https://www.arts.gov/audio/quincy-jones-nadia-boulanger
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nadia_Boulanger

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Image attribution: Photograph of Nadia Boulanger, 1925 by Edmond Joaillier, Paris (Bibliothèque nationale de France) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ANadia_Boulanger_1925.jpg


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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.