Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Time

Recursive clocks in a snail-shell pattern. Photo Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11

Photo: TIme Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11 (Flickr.com/Creative Commons).

How long is that note?
Tell me the tempo you want,
That’s the way I’ll know.

“’55 – too fast!”
“’81 is too damn slow!”
Glenn Gould played with time.

Album leaf- so brief,
Symphony – heavenly length,
Grosse Fuge – vast.

How much time is left?
When will we reach the coda?
Carpe musicam.

I’ve been thinking about time a lot lately.  Probably because there are some important deadlines on my horizon, and the clock is ticking very loudly.  Also because it’s one of my children’s birthday, and how can they be that age already?

As we say in linguistics, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana” (and yes, there really is a Wikipedia entry for this).

In music, time can be a very fluid thing.  While a note has a fixed duration relative to other notes in a given piece of music, its absolute duration is quite malleable.

So how fast is allegro?  And exactly how much rubato can you get away with (they do call it “stealing time” after all) before people start to raise their eyebrows at you?

It’s fuzzy–except when it’s not.  I’m thinking of the famous disagreement between Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein on the tempi of a Brahms concerto.  Gould insisted on stunningly slow tempi for certain portions of the concerto, and Bernstein felt it necessary to make an announcement before the piece began to make the audience aware that this would be a…unique…interpretation.

Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge was deemed too vast to be the last movement of the Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130.  But some have recorded the quartet with the fugue, leaving it to the listener to make up their own mind.

Schumann described Schubert’s ninth symphony using the word’s “heavenly length”; the phrase is now more typically applied to Schubert’s late sonatas. Both Schubert’s and Beethoven’s late sonatas seem worlds unto themselves, time stretching out infinitely.

But while it seems to extend endlessly, time can also be too short.  Monday’s featured artist, Jacqueline du Pré, was forced by illness to stop performing at age 27.  Schubert died at 31, having already produced over 600 songs, nine symphonies (and he had started a tenth).  What if he had lived to 80?  What would a Schubert who lived to the time of Brahms, Bruckner, San-Saëns, and Liszt write?

Alas, we will never know.

Minutes tick by, never to return.  You can blaze through Chopin’s Minute Waltz, sure, but after listening to many feats of pianistic wizardry, I have to go with Rubinstein’s less-blazing performance.  Each note is clear, distinct, and it becomes a small jewel.

 

So today, let us make the most of our notes, and make the best music we can, in any way that we can.  For there is but one certainty regarding time:

I am definitely going to be late to choir practice…again.

Carpe musicam!

 


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A Run of Notes: The Worldwide WordPress 5k

sneakers with treble clefs on lacesThis week WordPress bloggers around the world will be running or walking five kilometers as part of the Worldwide WordPress 5k.

As a runner, I was ready to step up to the challenge.  But to stay true to the blog, I knew I wanted to talk about classical music.  So I thought I’d talk about the music that gets me through a typical five mile run.

The first leg of my run is uphill, which is a pain going out, but great coming back!  To avoid starting out too fast, I typically pick something slow.

If I’m in a particularly Early Music mood, I enjoy listening to The Sixteen’s Allegri: Miserere CD, which contains Lotti’s Crucifixus, Allegri’s Miserere, and Palestrina’s Stabat Mater and Missa Papae Marcelli.

The slow tempos keep me focused, and the CD makes for a great overall meditative run, but I’m not setting any records.

Piano fans might like the Goldberg Variations.  But if you’re a Gould fan, pick ’55 not ’81 or you’ll never make it up the hill (if you’re not familiar with these recordings, read this article).

Some days I need a little more help getting up that hill, or every hill for that matter.  Twitter followers may remember this post:

Liszt…I think he could get you up a hill, over a brick wall, and through a field of flames.  Here, listen to Transcendental Etude No. 8.

Don’t you feel more heroic already?  Makes you want to don a superhero cape and strike a pose on a hilltop.  But if you peek at the sheet music, you’ll find that the person sitting on that piano bench just got a better workout than you did running up that hill!

If you’re looking for an assortment of classical music for your workout, you might consider All You Need Classics: Workout, currently available as a digital download from Amazon for 99 cents.  You might want, as some reviewers have suggested, to edit the playlist to get the tempos you’d prefer for your workout.  They vary widely, and some items on the album will leave you wondering what they have to do with workouts.

I’m not sure I can recommend 30 Must-Have Classical Marches (also 99 cents) for this purpose (which you’d think would be better) because of its inclusion of the Wedding March (running to or away?) and … Chopin’s Funeral March.  Not good as telephone on-hold music either (especially when you’ve been on hold for over 30 minutes, like I was, and are pessimistic of ever reaching a human in your lifetime).

For record-breaking runs, I prefer something more along the line of Heavy Classix 1 (and 2), or collections like them, that focus on the loud, intense, and fast .  Though I must say I’m not keen to run to Sabre Dance—that’s music for plate spinning.  Oddly, though in my mind I connect that music with that variety act, I could find no videos that did.

The 5/4 time of Mars from Holst’s The Planets makes me run funny.

Ok, so let’s assume we’ve made it to the halfway point.  What’s good music for getting back home?

Well, if you’re a piano fan, I suggest Chopin’s 24 Preludes (Op. 28)–perhaps minus the Largos and Lentos.

Or, if you’re feeling heroic after the Liszt, how about Beethoven’s Symphony No 3, Eroica?

No matter what you pick, it’s fantastic to be out in nature listening to classical music.

If any runners out there have suggestions for great selections, let us all know!

Below are some websites with playlists.  Also check Spotify and YouTube.

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/100568-runners-classical-playlist/

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/50-running-classics-marathon/id849703931

http://www.classicalmpr.org/story/2012/01/03/music-for-running-jogging

Here’s an article on finding the beats per minute of your music to get the tempo you want for your workout http://gizmodo.com/5906815/the-most-mathematically-perfect-playlist-for-running

 


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So You Want To Write a Fugue

P.D.Q.Bach music score with twisted staves.

I have been intrigued by fugues for a long time.  The one that most people have heard is from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, a Halloween staple and the opener in Disney’s original Fantasia movie.

But what is a fugue exactly?  It is a piece of music where different voices echo one another, but with a very specific formulation.  A voice means a melody line, which may be represented by a human voice, an instrument, or one of the melodies played simultaneously on a piano.

The opening passage, the theme of the piece, is called the subject.  For it to be an “official” fugue, the subject must be stated by each voice participating in the fugue.  Typically, the first restatement of the subject (in a different voice), called the answer, is an interval of a fifth higher.  The subject may be followed by a countersubject, a new passage that works well with the subject and will help in building the fugue.

The section where the subject, answer, and any countersubject are stated is called the exposition.  The way in which the voices play off one another is called counterpoint.  Typically, the key will change (sometimes multiple times), which keeps things interesting.

After the exposition, there is a development section.  The subject and countersubject may be restated, probably numerous times, but they don’t have to repeat themselves in the same way each time—otherwise it would be a round or canon (like “Row, row, row your boat”).  Changes will be made to reveal nuances in the musical passage (which sounds fancier than “to play around with it”), or to accommodate harmony in the interweaving of voices (so you don’t get unpleasant clashing of notes).

Finally, the whole fugue may wrap up with a coda or codetta that brings the fugue back to its initial key, but it’s not a necessary component.

Ok, so how do you do it?

Answer: not easily.

To start out, it helps to write a plain, vanilla passage for your subject (and countersubject), because once you start bouncing notes off one another, chaos will ensue if you pick weird intervals.

Chaos, like handing an 8-year-old an alarm clock and a screwdriver.  Bits will be left over; parts may disappear; things will not fit together right.  And it may never work.

That being said, it can be done, and done brilliantly.  Bach makes it look effortless.  His Well-Tempered Clavier presents preludes and fugues in every key, and his Art of Fugue is mind-boggling.  Here is a sample, Contrapunctus 11, with the themes indicated by different shapes.  Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is a monument (although it was not initially well received).  Brahms caps off his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of G. F. Handel (Op.24) with a wonderful fugue (measure-by-measure analysis here).  And in the 20th century, Paul Hindemith used a fugue in the last movement of his third piano sonata and achieved a thoroughly modern sound.

The fugue is alive and well, though you probably won’t hear it on a top-40 radio station.  That being said, YouTube yields facetious fugues written on themes by Adele and Lady Gaga and more (the Nokia ringtone?!).

But the fugue that tickled me the most was this one by none other than Glenn Gould, titled So You Want To Write a Fugue.  The link is to a performance; you can find a performance with a visual presentation of the words and music here.

See the references for sites where you can find out more about the fugue.

References

Anatomy of a Fugue, a television program about the fugue and its history by Glenn Gould (really, a whole television program about the fugue) https://youtu.be/5_y6q4m0vew

Anatomy of a Fugue, a detailed written description unrelated to the television program above, from Northern Arizona University http://www2.nau.edu/tas3/fugueanatomy.html

How to Analyze a Fugue http://www2.nau.edu/tas3/analyzefugue.html

Yale University lecture on the Fugue: Bach, Bizet, and Bernstein https://youtu.be/nn1Xfr4cAU8

What is a Fugue? https://youtu.be/3tU1PDS9kyI

Composing a Fugue from Earlham College http://legacy.earlham.edu/~tobeyfo/musictheory/Book2/FFH2_CH8/8C_FugueComposition.html

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Image attribution:  Schickele, Peter, The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q.Bach.  New York: Random House, 1976, p 149.  Original caption: “An unfinished keyboard piece employing invertible counterpoint.”


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A Little Monday Music: Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale

Tchaikovsky

The Valse Sentimentale is the last movement in Tchaikovsky’s work Six Pieces (Op. 51) for solo piano, composed in 1882.

You can read the history of the creation of this set of six pieces here (if you’re a Tchaikovsky fan, this website is a wealth of information; here’s the main page).  Here you can see the manuscript of the pieces in Tchaikovsky’s own hand (click on the book icon in the middle of the page).

Here is Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale performed by pianist Lucas Debargue.

There’s an interesting story behind the solo piano video presented above.  The French pianist in the video, Lucas Debargue, was awarded fourth place by the judges in the 15th International Tchaikovsky Competition.  Of six finalists, there was one gold, a joint silver, a joint bronze, and fourth place.  Yet his performance was widely acclaimed, leading some to question the judges’ decisions (first place was awarded to Russian Dmitri Masleev).

Conductor Valery Gergiev, chairman of the competition, made the bold move of insisting that Debargue play at the concert showcasing the winners of the competition, and that is the performance presented above.  You can read more about the competition and the controversy here and here and here, from one of the judges.

I’m not going to get into that debate.

But I suppose if you disagree with an interpretation, any interpretation, it makes you think about how you believe it should be interpreted.  It makes you think about the music.  And that is always a good thing.  I can’t help but recall Leonard Bernstein’s disagreement with Glenn Gould over the Brahms Piano Concerto No 1, in which the two had widely differing opinions about how the piece should be played.

Interested in hearing more from the International Tchaikovsky Competition?  Want to be an unofficial judge?  The performances of participants in the piano, cello, violin, and voice competitions can be found here.  This might be the soundtrack of your Monday!

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Image attribution: Photograph of Tchaikovsky [public domain] from book Tchaikovsky by Edwin Evans.  London:  J.M. Dent & Co., New York:E.P. Dutton & Co., 1906   https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATchaikovsky_1906_Evans.PNG


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Haiku Wednesday: Unraveling Ravel: More than Bolero

Maurice_Ravel_1925

Bolero

“Unfortunately,

There’s no music in it.” So

Said Maurice Ravel.

When you mention Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), the first thing that comes to mind is Bolero.  And for most folks, that’s the only thing.  But on more than one occasion Ravel made deprecating comments about this piece.  He told Arthur Honegger, “I’ve written only one masterpiece – Bolero.  Unfortunately there’s no music in it.”1  At the premiere, when a woman in the audience shouted, “Rubbish!” he said, “That old lady got the message!”2

Whether Ravel was being facetious or not, there’s more to hear.  Ravel was known for composing a piece for piano, and then adapting it for orchestra; such works include Pavane pour une infante défunte (piano version here, orchestra version here) and Le tombeau de Couperin (piano; orchestra).

Ravel also composed music for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé.  Apparently there were numerous disputes between choreographer Michel Fokine and Ravel.  Ravel wrote, “I have to tell you that the last week has been insane: preparing a ballet libretto for the next Russian season.  [I’ve been] working up to 3 a.m. almost every night.  To confuse matters, Fokine does not know a word of French, and I can only curse in Russian.  Irrespective of the translators, you can imagine the timbre of these conversations.”3

I would not have wanted to be that interpreter.

Other Ravel works to check out include his fiendishly difficult piano piece Gaspard de la nuit, and his post-war masterpiece La valse, which is labeled a choreographic poem for orchestra. The link here is to Glenn Gould’s compelling piano solo transcription.  For somewhat lighter fare, see Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole, in which he reflects the flavor of Spanish music through his own unique lens.

Ravel’s own performances of his music survive in piano rolls created in 1913 and 1922, which have subsequently been translated to LP and CD format.

The Wikipedia entry on Maurice Ravel contains great detail on Ravel’s life, and is heavily annotated and documented (read the notes, they’re very interesting and entertaining).

Oh, and I suppose you might want to hear Bolero.  Well, I couldn’t make up my mind which link to include.  So here’s a sparkly, silky version by André Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra, and here’s a flashmob video of a youth orchestra in jeans in Algemesí, Spain.  Enjoy!

Footnotes:

  1. Nichols, Roger, Ravel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, p 301 via Wikipedia.
  2. Nichols, Roger, Ravel Remembered. London: Faber and Faber, 1987, pp 47-48 via Wikipedia.
  3. Morrison, Simon, “The Origins of Daphnis et Chloe (1912)”, 19th-Century Music, 2004, p 54 via Wikipedia.


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B@ch’s blog

I was reading a post on Schubert in Jeremy Denk’s blog (another here) when I got to thinking.  What if classical composers had blogs?

Schubert would almost certainly be writing his from a pub with wifi, and given the sheer volume of songs that he produced, he probably would have been a prolific blogger.  The question is, how many people would hide him on Facebook due to his dark postings?

Bach probably wouldn’t have had time to blog, with those weekly cantatas he had to write, and all those children.  He might have been more of a microblogger.  @JSBach “This Sunday: Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen.  Don’t miss it! #bachcantata #SDG”.  SDG is Soli Deo Gloria [Glory to God alone], which Bach wrote on his compositions.

Mozart would most definitely be Not Safe For Work (NSFW), judging from the contents of his occasionally lewd and scatological letters.

I’d love to see Beethoven take on a troll (or would he just turn a deaf ear to him…sorry, bad joke).  Anyone who can write a piece with the title Rage over a Lost Penny could take down a cranky poster.  Here’s a blisteringly fast performance by Evgeny Kissin.

If Schoenberg could restrict himself to a 12-tone row, he could handle the Twitter character limit (I can’t–maybe you’ve already noticed; in my profession I get paid by the word, and it shows).

Can you imagine Glenn Gould’s blog?  It would be a perfect venue for his unique perspectives, interactive, and yet not.  Comments would probably be turned off.

I wonder if the pattern of their words would be reminiscent of their music, if the ebb and flow of phrases would match the cadence of their characteristic musical phrases.

Whose blog would you love to read?