Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Free Lectures on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas by Jonathan Biss

Beethoven

Happy New Year, everyone!  It’s good to be back after a very busy holiday season.

Great news for piano music lovers!  Pianist Jonathan Biss is back with his third series of lectures on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas on Coursera.org.  Biss is in the process of recording all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

This series, like the previous two, is designed for everyone—no prior knowledge is needed.  And if you missed the first two lecture series, they are also available on Coursera.  The first series provides a wealth of background information to understand Beethoven’s world and the sonata form.  I wrote about series one here.  The second series focuses on the exploration of individual sonatas, including the Waldstein and Pathétique.

Here are links for the three lecture series on Coursera

Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas

Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Part 2

Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Part 3.

Need more Beethoven?  This post provides more resources for learning more about Beethoven.

Here is a video of Biss playing a portion of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor.

You can hear the entire sonata here.

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Image attribution:  Beethoven, Painting by Carl Jäger (1833-1887), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beethoven_.jpg.

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Haiku Wednesday: For George

George Butterworth, around 1914

Silence need not fall,
Nor memories fade away.
Music will endure.

Recently, I had the honor of presenting one of my compositions at a composers circle.  The blog has been quiet lately because I have been diligently preparing for that event and a major choral event.

I started writing The Lost (for George Butterworth) after a 2016 blog post for Veterans Day.  At that time, I did more research into Butterworth than had appeared in the initial post, and his story affected me deeply.

George Butterworth was a promising young English composer.  One of his best-known works, which I quoted in remembrance of him in my composition, is The Banks of Green Willow, which you can hear here.  He was friends with Ralph Vaughan Williams, and, as noted in the blog post The Symphony Lost in the Mail, helped Vaughan Williams reconstruct his symphony score when it disappeared.

He was also a folk dancer.  There is film of him performing (in 1912!), alone, and as part of a group.  You can see it here.  At one point as four people are folk dancing, Butterworth and his friend accidentally collide, and you can see them laughing at their mistake.

Butterworth served ably in World War I.  In 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, he was killed by a sniper.  The fighting was so ferocious that the dead were quickly buried where they fell.  Butterworth’s body was never recovered.

Butterworth:  a composer, a lively, laughing dancer.  Cut down.  Lost.

The introduction of this piece expresses mourning for those lost in battle on the windswept fields of the Somme in France.  A brief four-part writing segment asks, in disbelief, whether this is how it must be, with a resigned answer of yes, which returns later in the piece.  The major key section is a paraphrase of Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, as a half-remembered melody from long ago, twisted at the end by a bitterly mock-heroic snippet of an anthem as Butterworth must abandon his music to go off to war.  A sudden strong C minor chord represents Butterworth’s death, and the pain of that loss, followed by resignation and the return to the introductory theme.

Here is The Lost.

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Image attribution: Photograph of George Butterworth, about 1914 [Public domain], via Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Butterworth_2.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: Schubert–Last Hope, Last Leaves of Autumn

Stick figure looks at the last leaf on a tree in autumn

Here and there upon
The trees, many colored leaves
Remain, and often,

I stand there and think.
I spy one leaf, and upon
It, I hang my hopes.

The wind stirs the leaf.
I shake. If it falls, I’ll fall,
And weep for lost hope.

The haiku above is a rendering of the words of Wilhelm Müller’s poem Letzte Hoffnung [Last Hope], which was set to music by Franz Schubert as part of his Winterreise song cycle.  Here is Letzte Hoffnung, performed by tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch.

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Image attribution: Drawing by C. Gallant, 2017.

The painting that is the background in the YouTube video is Abandoned by Jakub Schikaneder.  He was known for his paintings of lonely figures–a perfect choice for Winterreise.


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Glenn Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations Outtakes Released

Photograph of Glenn Gould, pianist

Photo by Don Hunstein / Glenn Gould Foundation

Glenn Gould was not only a great pianist, he was also well-versed in the art and technology of audio recording.  He was the final arbiter of what appeared on his released recordings.  Any retrospective look at his 1955 and 1981 recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations will mention the countless alternate versions of individual variations that Gould discarded in favor of the performances that ultimately were released.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to wonder what those outtakes were like.  The difference between his 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Variations is stunning.  What alterations were occurring in 1955 that we didn’t get the chance to hear?  Some outtakes were made available in the retrospective A State of Wonder recording that included both the earlier and later renditions.  But it was only a small sample.

Finally, it is possible to hear them all.  Sony has released a box set containing all of the alternate versions that were recorded in the 1955 sessions.  There are five CDs of outtakes.  The box set also includes a coffee table book that includes audio engineering notes and the score, the 1955 and 1981 recordings on CD, the 1955 recording on vinyl, and a poster.  You can see the box set here.

Or should we perhaps trust Gould’s meticulous selection of variations, seamlessly spliced together, as representing his vision of what the Goldberg Variations should be, as he saw it in 1955?  I will leave it to you to decide.

Here is a video of Gould playing some of the variations in a television broadcast from 1964.

 

References

  1. Siegel, Robert and Huizenga, Tom, “The Gould That Didn’t Glitter: New Box Set of ‘Goldberg Variations’ Outtakes” Deceptive Cadence from NPR Classical, October 25, 2017.  http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/10/25/559611543/the-gould-that-didnt-glitter-new-box-set-of-goldberg-variations-outtakes?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=classical&utm_term=music&utm_content=2052
  2. Clements, Andrew, “Goldberg Variations, Complete Sessions CD Review—Glenn Gould’s Obsession, Meticulously Assembled” The Guardian online version, September 13, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/13/goldberg-variations-complete-sessions-cd-review-glenn-gould

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Image attribution:  Photograph of Glenn Gould by Don Hunstein / Glenn Gould Foundation [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Glenn_Gould_1.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: Sitka Spruce

Photo, looking up at a group of sitka spruce trees

Sitka spruce photo by Peter Pearsall/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Once the wind would howl
Around your supple branches.
You stood, majestic,
Among the tall trees.
A silent sentinel, you
Looked out on the world.

That was not your fate.
To be cut down in your prime
Seems all too bitter,
But keen eyes picked you
To help others see and hear
A whole inner world.

And now the sound swirls
Like snowflakes, landing softly,
Hushed and whispering;
Or hits you like hail,
Ferocious, unrelenting.
You pay it no mind,
As you once did on
An Alaskan hillside; but
Now, Sitka, you sing.

Sitka spruce is the wood most commonly used for piano soundboards due to its resonance, flexibility, and great strength.  Piano soundboards resonate and propagate the sound generated by the strings of the piano.

Today’s haiku was inspired by a documentary.  Sitka traces the restoration of the Steinway grand piano at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.  The soundboard of the piano at The Phillips Collection had cracked, and this had adversely affected the sound.  Piano fans will enjoy seeing the inner workings of the instrument, and the meticulous work involved in restoration process.  The soundtrack is provided by Joseph Haydn (performed by Olivier Cavé).

And now, here is Sitka.

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Image attribution: Sitka spruce photo by Peter Pearsall/US Fish and Wildlife Service, https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Cape_Meares/wildlife_and_habitat/sitka_spruce.html


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Haiku Wednesday: Spanish Dance

The candles flicker,
The music swells; a dancer’s
Skirt swirls as she spins.

The faint tap of heels
Echoes against the dance floor
As two move as one,
Each seeing only
Their partner.  They dance, and hope
It will never end.

Today’s musical offering is from Enrique Granados.  Granados wrote a collection of Spanish dances for piano in 1890 (12 danzas españolas, Op. 37, H. 142, DLR 1:2).

During a visit to the US, Granados recorded some piano rolls of his music. Here is Granados playing Danza Española No. 5, Andaluza.  The original piano rolls are reproduced using a Steinway grand piano, so the sound is sumptuous.  In the piano roll Granados takes some lively liberties with his composition; he is clearly not meticulously following the score.

You may also enjoy Granados playing the haunting Danza Española No. 2, Oriental.

 

References

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

http://www.pianola.org/reproducing/reproducing.cfm

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232823598_Piano-roll_recordings_of_Enrique_Granados_A_study_of_a_transcription_of_the_composer’s_performance


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Discovery!  Unknown Viola Work by Shostakovich Found in Archives

Photograph of new Shostakovich viola work

Courtesy of mos.ru.

The Strad reports that a previously unknown work for viola and piano written by Dmitri Shostakovich has been found in Moscow.  The discovery was announced on the composer’s birthday (25 September).

The piece is titled Impromptu Op. 33 (Shostakovich later assigned the number to another work).  It was found among the papers of violist Vadim Borisovsky of the Beethoven Quartet.  It is believed it was written for violist Alexander Ryvkin of the Glazunov Quartet.  The duet was written, apparently in one sitting, in 1931.

We do not yet know what this newly-found work sounds like.  Shostakovich wrote one other work for the viola, the Viola Sonata (his last composition), which was written in 1975.  You can listen to it here.

Read the article in The Strad here.

References

https://www.thestrad.com/news/a-new-work-for-viola-by-shostakovich-discovered-in-moscow-state-archives/7151.article#.WctqF1zRpVU.twitter