Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

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Stick people safely viewing solar eclipse

These highly responsible stick people know to use their eclipse glasses and pinhole projectors at all times except during totality, when it’s ok to view the eclipse directly.

It’s Eclipse Day in the US, and the moon will cast its shadow along a path that stretches across the entire country, allowing everyone (including Alaska and Hawaii) to see at least a partial eclipse. Some lucky folks in a 70-mile-wide band will get to see a total eclipse.

So what does this have to do with classical music?

It is likely that Handel saw the 1715 total eclipse over London. Later, in 1741, he wrote the aria Total Eclipse for his oratorio Samson. You can read more about the aria and that eclipse here.

Today, the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco, the Kronos Quartet, and composer Wayne Grim will produce a sonification of the 2017 total eclipse, turning digital data into music. You can read about it here. You can hear Grim’s interpretation of the 2016 total eclipse in Micronesia here.

If you’re not in the US (or if your skies are cloudy) you can still see the eclipse via webcasts:

NASA coverage beginning at 12PM EDT (GMT-4)

Exploratorium coverage beginning at 1PM EDT (GMT-4)

And now, Handel’s Total Eclipse.

Note:  If you’re in the US and you don’t have eclipse glasses, you can print out a pinhole projector here, and view the sun’s image safely.  Wishing you clear skies!



Catapulting Without a Net: The View is Amazing

Stick figure flying through the air, notated music trailing behind

Recently I had the great pleasure of singing Bach’s Magnificat in a fantastic choir with marvelous soloists and musicians.  It was a thrilling performance, the music ringing in the hall, simply glorious.

Each time I sing one of the great choral masterpieces with them, it’s like adding another sparkling jewel to a treasure chest—the Brahms German Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Vespers.  Each one has its own unique beauty, and I learn something new from each one of them.  Readers are already aware of some of the things I learned in preparing Magnificat (see here and here).  But there’s something else that made this performance special, a first.

I sang it from memory.

But the memorizing itself is unimportant compared to what I learned from the performance.

It is amazing the things you notice when you can manage to pry the score loose from the death-grip with which your hands cling to it, fearful of missing a note or an entrance (or, worse, committing an unintentional solo), and raise your head for a prolonged period.

First, you notice the attentive, expectant faces of the audience.  This would be terrifying if it weren’t for the fact that most of them are smiling.  This only strengthens your commitment to sing your best for them.

Next, the choir director, whom you should be looking at most of the time anyway (but probably don’t—see death-grip above).  But instead of the glance up from the score to check in for tempo, dynamics, a cue or special instruction (usually notated in my score by “WATCH!”), you get to see when they’re not looking at you (instead of vice versa).  And you realize, as they cue every entry for every voice, that you’re not the only one who has things memorized, and in fact, they’ve memorized much more than you have.  Which is just one of the reasons why they’re standing on a podium, and you’re not.

Another thing you notice, something you may take for granted, is the voices surrounding you.  I don’t mean the person standing next to you, against whom you might cautiously check your pitch and volume.  I heard the lines of entire sections, the earth-rumbling basses stating the fugue theme, the sopranos and altos singing the wonderful descending lines of the Gloria, fluttering downward like a twirling, falling leaf.  The tenors adding their color notes and flourishes, voices arching dramatically skyward.  And the sound is bigger, because you’re not hearing individual raindrops anymore—you’re hearing a torrent of notes.

And the instrumental music, by turns sweet, jingling, thundering, soul-stirring, each interweaving line issuing forth from the hands of a masterful musician, without whom the voices would seem incomplete.  Fingers, flying, execute a precise figure, partnered in this instance with fleet-footed organ pedaling.  A dance indeed.

You recognize the staggering number of hours that have been devoted by everyone to make this music come to life.

And finally, Bach.  You realize he’s taken the word “dispersit” (scatters) and depicted it in the music, as it is repeated first to your left, then your right, directly in front of you, in back—surround sound hundreds of years before it existed. That beautiful phrase you recognize from the St. Matthew Passion?  He used it here first, but you didn’t notice it before.  And again and again he weaves magic into the music, and you are left awestruck by his genius.

I hope you will take time today to look up, and listen, and perhaps catch something you’ve been missing.

Me?  I have a new score to memorize.


Image attribution: Musical catapulting stick figure. Copyright Chris Gallant 2015.


Total Eclipse

Total solar eclipse

No sun, no moon
All dark amidst the blaze of noon

So begins Handel’s aria Total Eclipse in the oratorio Samson.  Handel wrote Samson in 1741-1742 after hearing a reading of Milton’s poem Samson Agonistes.  In this case, the darkness is caused not by an actual eclipse, but by blindness.  Milton, himself blind, tells the biblical story of the strongman Samson, who was blinded after the hair which gave him his superhuman strength was cut off and he was captured by enemies.  Handel’s vision was beginning to fail by this time, and it appears he was deeply affected by the poem; at the gathering, a guest

read through the whole poem of Sampson Agonistes and whenever he rested to take breath Mr. Handel (who was highly pleas’d with the Piece) played I really think better than ever, and his Harmony was perfectly adapted to the Sublimity of the Poem1

Samson was one of the first oratorios to showcase a tenor in the leading role.2  And Handel places immense trust in his tenor in the aria Total Eclipse, as he at times sings unaccompanied by the orchestra.  I hope you will enjoy this beautiful, dramatic aria, Total Eclipse.

Handel himself may have experienced an actual total solar eclipse.  On May 3, 1715 a total eclipse was seen from Cornwall to London (three and a half minutes of totality in London).3

On August 21, 2017 many people in the US will be able to experience a total eclipse for themselves. The path of the eclipse will cross the entire United States, causing it to be all dark amidst the blaze of noon.  For more information, see these websites.




Image attribution:  Solar eclipse 22 July 2009 taken by Lutfar Rahman Nirjhar from Bangladesh [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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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.


Anatomy of a Fugue, a television program about the fugue and its history by Glenn Gould (really, a whole television program about the fugue)

Anatomy of a Fugue, a detailed written description unrelated to the television program above, from Northern Arizona University

How to Analyze a Fugue

Yale University lecture on the Fugue: Bach, Bizet, and Bernstein

What is a Fugue?

Composing a Fugue from Earlham College


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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Portrait of Dieterich Buxtehude by Johannes Voorhout, 1674.

After writing about Haydn, and how much of his work remains generally unknown, I got to thinking about other composers whose worthy work has been overlooked.  And one name came to mind immediately.

Dieterich Buxtehude.

Why Buxtehude?

Handel went to visit him (and was offered a job, on the condition that he marry Buxtehude’s daughter—he departed shortly thereafter).  He was a distinct influence on Brahms.

Bach walked 250 miles to Lübeck to hear him play, and spent three months there absorbing his music and techniques.  Wow.  Few modern bands excite that kind of devotion…

Bach wearing t-shirts in the style of popular modern bands

Buxtehude is mainly known for his organ works.  He also, however, composed numerous works for voice, as well as chamber music.  Only the librettos of his oratorios survive.

Here is a fine example of a vocal piece by Buxtehude, Quemadmodum desiderat cervus (BuxWV92).

Chamber music fans will enjoy the Sonata in D Major for viola da gamba, violone, and harpsichord (BuxWV267)

And finally, one of Buxtehude’s better known organ works, the Prelude, Fugue, and Chaconne in C Major (BuxWV137), played here much faster than anyone else, but with great verve and precision, by Ton Koopman (side note: the organ pipes used as a background to this video seem very Monty Pythonesque to me).

Those looking for more by Buxtehude will not be disappointed by YouTube.

Need sheet music?  Go to the webpage of the International Dieterich Buxtehude Society.  Its president, Ton Koopman (whom you heard above), has recorded all of Buxtehude’s surviving music, and has made the sheet music available for download.  The downloads page also lists other online sources for Buxtehude’s music.



Image attributions: Portrait of Buxtehude, detail from the painting A Musical Party by Johannes Voorhout, 1674, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of J. S. Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons., modified by C. Gallant, 2016.

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Music and America’s First Presidents

boom-box-lincolnGeorge Washington with Headphones

Today in the United States we are celebrating Presidents’ Day.  President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is 12 February and President George Washington’s birthday is 22 February.  The Monday between the two is designated as a federal holiday.

It got me to thinking, “What would George Washington have listened to?”  And from there I discovered some interesting facts about America’s founding fathers.

George Washington said in a letter to a composer who had sent him some music that he could “neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note of any instrument.”1   But while George couldn’t play music himself, he considered it very important.  So important that he ordered the army’s fife and drum musicians to shape up and practice or be demoted and receive a cut in pay!2

His wife Martha, her children, and grandchildren, however, all studied music.  There was a harpsichord at Washington’s home, Mount Vernon.3   Among the music to be found there was an arrangement of a Haydn symphony, an arrangement of the overture of Gluck’s opera Iphigenia at Aulis, an excerpt of Handel’s Water Music, and some sonatas by J. C. Bach.4

President Thomas Jefferson played violin and cello, and purchased a pianoforte for his wife during their engagement.  Apparently, before the engagement, rival suitors gave up and left after overhearing a duet between Jefferson on his violin and his beloved on the harpsichord as they sang together.  Jefferson enjoyed the works of Haydn, as well as Italian, French, and Scottish music, and several observers noted that Jefferson was always singing or humming a tune.  Jefferson said that music “is the favorite passion of my soul.”  Unfortunately, he continued, “fortune has cast my lot in a country where it is in a state of deplorable barbarism.”5  Oh dear!

Although he was not a president, founder Benjamin Franklin must be noted for his wide-ranging musical talents.  He played viola da gamba,6 harp, violin, and guitar.7  He may have composed music. He also invented an improvement on the playing of the rims of water-filled glasses, the armonica, or glass harmonica, for which Mozart and Beethoven composed music.  Here is Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Harmonica.

However, it must be noted that Franklin was not a great fan of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus.  After seeing a performance in London, in a letter to his brother Franklin accused Handel of, among other things, putting the accents in the wrong places and “screaming without cause.”8  Don’t pull any punches there, Ben!  You can see the text of Franklin’s diatribe here (scroll down to images, “Franklin’s letter to his brother”).

President Abraham Lincoln, while not a musician himself, took great pleasure in attending concerts (especially operas) and hearing bands and singers perform.  See a lengthy article on Lincoln and his tastes in music here.  Lincoln attended a performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute in 1865, and was a fan of the music of American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk9 (here is Gottschalk’s composition The Union (Fantasy on Patriotic Airs).

Visit the following link for a look into music and musical performances at the White House.


  1. “George Washington to Francis Hopkinson, February 5, 1789,” in The Writings of George Washington, Vol 30, pp 196-197 via
  2. “General Orders, June 4, 1777,” in The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, Vol 8, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1931, pp 181-182 via
  3. Britt, Judith S., Nothing More Agreeable: Music in George Washington’s Family. Mount Vernon, VA: The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, 1984 p 11 via
  4. Britt, p 30.

Image attributions

George Washington with headphones via

Lincoln with boombox via

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Archeological Sight Reading


This is a fragment of the play Orestes, written by Euripides (c 480-406 BCE).  The fragment is thought to have been written around 200 BCE.  It is the text of the first chorus (verses 338-344 for the classicists out there).  The marks above the text are musical notations.  For more on the fragment, see the World Digital Library page for this item.

Ok, everybody, all together now:

ἰὼ Ζεῦ,
τίς ἔλεος, τίς ὅδ᾽ ἀγὼν
φόνιος ἔρχεται,
335θοάζων σε τὸν μέλεον, ᾧ δάκρυα
δάκρυσι συμβάλλει
πορεύων τις ἐς δόμον ἀλαστόρων
ματέρος αἷμα σᾶς, ὅ σ᾽ ἀναβακχεύει;
340ὁ μέγας ὄλβος οὐ μόνιμος ἐν βροτοῖς:
κατολοφύρομαι κατολοφύρομαι.
ἀνὰ δὲ λαῖφος ὥς
τις ἀκάτου θοᾶς τινάξας δαίμων
κατέκλυσεν δεινῶν πόνων ὡς πόντου
λάβροις ὀλεθρίοισιν ἐν κύμασιν.
345τίνα γὰρ ἔτι πάρος οἶκον ἕτερον ἢ τὸν ἀπὸ
θεογόνων γάμων,
τὸν ἀπὸ Ταντάλου, σέβεσθαί με χρή;

O Zeus! What pity, what deadly struggle is here, [335] hurrying you on, the wretch on whom some avenging fiend is heaping tears upon tears, bringing to the house your mother’s blood, which drives you raving mad? [340] Great prosperity is not secure among mortals. I lament, I lament! But some divine power, shaking it to and fro like the sail of a swift ship, plunges it deep in the waves of grievous affliction, violent and deadly as the waves of the sea. [345] For what other family must I still revere, rather than the one from a divine marriage, from Tantalus.]

(from Euripides. The Complete Greek Drama, edited by Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O’Neill, Jr. in two volumes. 2. Orestes, translated by E. P. Coleridge. New York. Random House. 1938.)

Find more Euripides (in Greek or English) at Tufts University’s website.

Sound like opera?  You’re right:  the story has been turned into an opera by Handel (who used the story as told by Euripides), Sergeiy Taneyev (NY Times article on it here) and Iannis Xenakis (both of whom used the version of the story told by Aeschylus).

Here’s is an aria from Handel’s Oreste.


Image attribution:  Orestes 338-44 via the World Digital Library.