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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Two Live Concert Webcasts Tonight!

Broadcast tower topped by music note, globe in background

Decisions, decisions!  There are two live concert webcasts tonight.  Which will you pick?

Tonight, April 7, 2018, at 8PM EDT (GMT-4) the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), conducted by Leonard Slatkin, and violinist Yoonshin Song will present Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2.  There will be a pre-concert interview with composer Steven Bryant at 7PM.  You can view the DSO concert here.  Here’s the full program:

Steven Bryant: Zeal (world premiere!)

Béla BartókViolin Concerto No. 2

Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll

Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

At 9PM EDT (GMT-4) The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and violinist Maureen Nelson will present Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark AscendingYou can view the SPCO concert here.  Here’s the full program:

Charles Gounod: Petite symphonie for Wind Instruments

Lembit BeecherThe Conference of the Birds

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending

Antonín Dvořák: Serenade for Strings

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has a free app available for iPhone, iPad, and iTouch so you can enjoy their live concert webcasts and concert library wherever you go.  The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has a free DSO To Go app which is available for iPhone, iPad, and Android.

What if you can’t make either concert?  The SPCO has a free concert library that you can watch on demand.  The DSO has their Replay performance archive, which is available for a year with a $50 donation to the DSO.

I hope you will enjoy the concerts!


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Haiku Wednesday: Charles Gounod

Charles Gounod

Today’s a good day
To get to know Charles Gounod,
The French composer.

Ave Maria
Is the only thing most know
(and the Hitchcock theme).

But he wrote over
600 pieces; one, a
National anthem.

And so, I urge you
To get to know Charles Gounod,
The French composer.

If you ask people what they know about Charles Gounod, you’re likely to hear about his adaptation of Bach’s Prelude in C Major, the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria.

Some might mention his opera Faust (here’s a short excerpt).

Some might remember that he wrote The Funeral March of a Marionette, known to some readers of a certain age as the theme to the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Then it gets very quiet.

And yet Gounod wrote over 600 pieces, including two symphonies and the delightful Petite Symphonie for woodwinds.

Gounod wrote several masses, his best-known being the Messa Solennelle de Saint-Cecile.  Gounod’s Marche Pontificale became the national anthem of Vatican City.

A rather unusual piece (and instrument) that you need to see is Gounod’s Concerto for piano-pédalier and orchestra.  It is a grand piano equipped with pedals like an organ.  Here is the first movement.*

Want more?  For all things Charles Gounod, be sure to check out charles-gounod.com, a webpage created by Gounod’s great-great-grandson, containing photographs, letters, a discography, and more.

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*Composer Charles-Valentin Alkan wrote a number of pieces for the piano-pédalier, including a series of preludes, as well as etudes for the feet alone.  Looks like that might be another blog post!

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Gounod
  2. http://www.charles-gounod.com/vi/
  3. http://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Gounod,_Charles

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Image attribution:  Charles Gounod by Nadar (a.k.a. Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, 1820–1910): Photographer Adam Cuerden – Restoration. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACharles_Gounod_(1890)_by_Nadar.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.


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The French Connections

FrenchConnectionsCircle003

While I was researching Maurice Ravel for last week’s Haiku Wednesday, I kept seeing connections between various French composers, more so than I had seen with other composers (or maybe I haven’t looked hard enough yet).  So I started reading about them to learn more, and found the connections fascinating.

Of course we know now about Ravel (1875-1937).  Ravel studied with Émile Decombes, a student of Chopin’s, as did Alfred Cortot, whom I mentioned in a previous post.  Later Ravel studied with Gabriel Fauré.  Ravel’s father introduced him to Erik Satie (1866-1925).  Satie at some point turned his back on Ravel, and Satie’s student Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) said (after Satie had also turned against Poulenc) “I admire him as ever, but breathe a sigh of relief at finally not having to listen to his eternal ramblings on the subject of Ravel.”1

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) studied organ under the tutelage of Camille Saint-Saëns, and the two remained close friends.  In 1871 he took the post of choirmaster at a church where the organist was Charles-Marie Widor.  The two frequently improvised organ duets.  Fauré was a charter member of the Société National de Musique founded by Saint-Saëns.  Also members were Georges Bizet (1838-1875), Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894), Jules Massenet (1842-1912), and César Franck (1822-1890). 2  One of Franck’s students at the Paris Conservatory was Claude Debussy (1862-1918)3

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) studied organ at the Paris Conservatory (organ was emphasized over piano because of the greater career opportunities for organists).  As an organist he came to the attention of Hector Berlioz.   After the collapse of his marriage, Saint-Saëns became attached to Gabriel Fauré’s family.4

Charles-Marie Widor received his first organist post with the support of Saint-Saëns and Charles Gounod.  When César Franck died, Widor took his post as professor at the Paris Conservatory.  Widor was a staunch proponent of Bach’s organ music and one of his students was Albert Schweitzer.  Widor founded the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau and served as its director until 1934, at which time Maurice Ravel succeeded him.5

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was introduced to Bach’s music by Fanny Mendelssohn.  One of Gounod’s students was Georges Bizet.  When Gounod died, the music for the service was conducted by Fauré with Saint-Saëns at the organ.6

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) became friends with Franz Liszt, when both attended a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with an overture composed by Berlioz.  Liszt was a witness at Berlioz’s marriage to Harriet Smithson.7  Liszt was also in attendance at a mass where organ improvisations were performed by César Franck.  Liszt highly praised Franck’s work and began including Franck’s work in concerts in Germany.8  Liszt is said to have called his friend Camille Saint-Saëns “the greatest organist in the world.”  Saint-Saëns dedicated his third symphony to Liszt.9

Tune in tomorrow for more on the music behind these French connections.

Resources

  1. Kelly, Barbara L, Music and Ultra-modernism in France: A Fragile Consensus, 1913-1939. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2013, p 57, Wikipedia entry on Maurice Ravel.
  2. Wikipedia article on Gabriel Fauré.
  3. Wikipedia article on Claude Debussy.
  4. Wikipedia article on Camille Saint-Saëns.
  5. Wikipedia article on Charles-Marie Widor.
  6. Wikipedia article on Charles Gounod.
  7. Wikipedia article on Hector Berlioz.
  8. Vallas, Leon, Cesar Franck, Trans. Hubert J. Foss. New York: Oxford Universty Press, 1951, p 127. Trans. of La veritable histoire de Cesar Franck, 1949, via Wikipedia article on Cesar Franck.
  9. Wikipedia article on Franz Liszt.