Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Schubert, Snow, and Gray Hair

Stick figure with gray snowflakes falling on his head

Snow fell on my hair
Making it a shiny white.
I thought I’d turned gray.

And I was happy
To be close to journey’s end;
But it did not last,

For soon the snow thawed.
My black hair made me despair.
How far must I go?

From night until dawn
Many a head will turn gray,
But, sadly, not mine.

The above haiku is a paraphrase of Wilhelm Müller’s poem Der Greise Kopf, set to music by Franz Schubert.  It is part of Schubert’s epic song cycle Winterreise.  The song immediately precedes The Crow, previously described here.  The wanderer, having left his lover and the comforts of home, wanders through an inhospitable winter landscape. Here he seems to find the coating of snow making his hair gray ironic; he wishes he were old, and that his journey, that is, his wandering and his life, were closer to an end.  For him, bitterly, it is not to be.

Here is Der Greise Kopf performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Murray Perahia.

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Image attribution: Stick figure in snow by C. Gallant, 2017.


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Haiku Wednesday: Schubert’s “The Crow” from Winterreise

Crow

Driven out of town,
A lone crow travels with me
On my long journey.

It flies o’er my head,
Follows me from tree to tree,
Faithful companion.

Crow, wondrous creature,
Will you never forsake me,
Always by my side?

Or, Crow, is it that
I am to be your next meal
Soon as I am dead?

It won’t be long now;
Wand’ring with my walking stick
Will soon reach its end.

So, Crow, let me see
One who’s faithful to the grave;
That I’ve never seen.

The above haiku is a recasting of Wilhelm Müller’s poem Die Krähe [The Crow] that Franz Schubert set to music in his 1827 song cycle Winterreise.

Winterreise is a masterpiece among song cycles, one in which pianist and singer play equal roles, painting pictures with words and notes, creating a universe filled with fiery emotions and frosty, unforgiving landscapes.

Winterreise’s 24 songs chronicle the despair and descent of a man who has left his love, and who travels out into the bleak winter landscape, never to return.  In this song, the crow, which at first seems friendly, is transformed into a malevolent shadow, constantly following, ready to prey upon the wanderer.

Singer Elena Gerhardt said, “You have to be haunted by this cycle to be able to sing it.”1  It is certainly one of those pieces of music that, once heard, is not easily forgotten.  Here is an account of the first time Winterreise was played and sung, by Schubert himself, before a stunned audience:

“Come to Schober’s today and I will play you a cycle of terrifying songs; they have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs.” He then, with a voice full of feeling, sang the entire Winterreise for us. We were altogether dumbfounded by the sombre mood of these songs, and Schober said that one song only, “Der Lindenbaum”, had pleased him. Thereupon Schubert leaped up and replied: “These songs please me more than all the rest, and in time they will please you as well.”2

There are many wonderful performances of Winterreise.  One singer whose name is perennially associated with this song cycle is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who performs Die Krähe in this video with pianist Murray Perahia.

Favorites of mine include the recording of Winterreise by Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis and Ian Bostridge’s intense video performance of Winterreise with Julius Drake.  Your favorite streaming service will have dozens of recordings to choose from, from the deep baritone Thomas Quasthoff to the mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig, and the unforgettable idiosyncratic performance of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten.  I have enjoyed all of them; I hope in time they will please you as well.

References

  1. Schubert Winterreise, Sleeve notes HMV ALPS 1298/9 (Gramophone Co. Ltd 1955).
  2. Haywood, Ernest. “Terrifying Songs,” Radio Times, 20 January 1939.
  3. Ian Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of An Obsession. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
  4. Youens, Susan, Retracing a Winter’s Journey: Schubert’s Winterreise.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

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Image attribution:  Crow, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corvus#/media/File:Corvus-brachyrhynchos-001.jpg.


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Telemann and the Dead Canary

CanaryEnsemble

 

Oh, alas, my canary is dead!
To whom can I bemoan my misery,
To whom can I bemoan my bitter pain?
Who will take this song to heart with me,
To whom can I bemoan this misery?

 

The other day I told you about Mozart’s starling, and the poem he wrote in its memory.  Today, I’m going to tell you about music written by Georg Philipp Telemann for another departed avian friend.  But first let me tell you about Telemann.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was an über-prolific composer of the baroque period (over 3,000 compositions!).  He was born in Magdeburg in what is now Germany.  He was mainly self-taught and learned to play a wide variety of instruments, despite his family’s initial vehement opposition to a musical career.

Telemann was highly regarded, and held prominent music posts in Leipzig, Eisenach, Hamburg and other cities. He knew Bach and Handel, who bought and studied his works.  He was godfather to Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel.

Telemann was offered the music director post of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, which he declined; only then was it offered to Bach (after yet another candidate turned down the post).

In later centuries, criticism was leveled at Telemann for the sheer volume of music that he composed (accused of quantity over quality).  It should be noted that during his time in Hamburg, he was required to produce two cantatas per Sunday, a passion per year, and other liturgical music as needed.

A variety of his works can be heard on Telemann’s Wikipedia page.  Many more can be heard and viewed on YouTube.  Here is just one, his Sonata in F Major.

Ahhhh.  Soothing.

Now for the canary.  While he was in Hamburg, a patron commissioned a cantata, a lament over the loss of a pet canary that had been killed by a cat.  Telemann produced it straightaway, with the title Cantata of Funeral Music for an Artistically Trained Canary-Bird Whose Demise Brought the Greatest Sorrow to His Master.  After wondering whether Telemann was being paid by the word, I listened to this unusual offspring among Telemann’s teeming brood.

It’s a tragic/comic lament.  The bird’s owner describes his great pain at the bird’s loss, its great skill, and the terrible end it has come to.  He expresses his anger at Death, for being unfeeling, and hopes that he will be torn up and burst from eating the bird (!). Finally, he sadly bids the bird a fond farewell, and reads the epitaph on the bird’s tombstone, which is written in dialect.

I found a video of this odd cantata, illustrated with apt photos, featuring none other than the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau  (Part 1Part 2Part 3—really, there are three parts).  Here is a highlight, the aria Mein Kanarine, gute Nacht.  A sweet song for a sweet songbird.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georg_Philipp_Telemann

http://www.baroquemusic.org/bqxtel.html

http://www.allmusic.com/artist/mn0001456424/biography

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Image attribution:  Georg Philipp Telemann Engraving by Georg Lichtensteger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_quartets#/media/File:Telemann3.jpg

Canary, by [No machine-readable author provided]. Muriel Gottrop~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACanary.jpg.  Modified by C. Gallant.

Angel with harp. Jan Matejko, Church of St. Mary in Krakow, 1895.  [Public domain] via Wikimedia


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Black Friday Shopping? Have/had enough?

Today throngs of American shoppers are doing their holiday shopping.  Whether you are among them, or returning, triumphant, from your foray, or deciding to opt out entirely … or even if none of this applies to you, some soothing music would probably be welcome.  Here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with an aria from Bach cantata BVW 82, Ich habe genug.

For the entire cantata (24 minutes), click here.

 


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Throwback Thursday Quote – Robert Schumann Gives Advice

Robert Schumann 1850

What is it to be musical?  You will not be so, if your eyes are fixed on the notes with anxiety and you play your piece laboriously through…. But you will be so…if you have not only music in your fingers, but also in your head and heart.

The composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote Advice to Young Musicians (Musikalische Haus- und Lebensregeln) to provide useful tips and guidelines for beginning music students.  It was published in 1850 in Schumann’s journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (find the original German publication here).  An English translation (by Henry Hugo Pierson) followed by the original German has been made available via Project Gutenberg.  It is also available at imslp.org.

It’s a quick read with many thought-provoking considerations whether you’re a newcomer or an old hand, and also contains some advice that I find humorous.  For example,

Play strictly in time!  The playing of many a virtuoso resembles the walk of an intoxicated person.  Do not take such as your model  (in other words, lay off the rubato and ruby port)

From vocalists you may learn much, but do not believe all that they say.

Never help to circulate bad compositions; on the contrary, help to suppress them with earnestness.  You should neither play bad compositions, nor, unless compelled, listen to them.

Don’t pull any punches there, Schumann!

Here is Wilhelm Kempff playing Schumann’s Vogel als Prophet.  [Note: the video is no longer available.]  Here is Schumann’s Vogel als Prophet played by Maria Joao Pires.

Those who speak French can practice in the presentation on Schumann which follows the piece.  An interview with Wilhelm Kempff (in French) on Schumann can be seen here.  [Video no longer available.]  The Melo Classics Les Grandes Interpretes channel on YouTube has great historical musical videos of pianists, violinists, and singers (wow, Sviatoslav Richter and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau rehearsing Hugo Wolf’s Der Feuerreiter ‘Sehet ihr am Fensterlein’.)