Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Bach’s Ukulele-Piano Duet

Bach in Hawaiian shirt photobombs picture of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig

Bach photobombs tourist’s picture of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig

What would Bach do if
He had a ukulele?
I picture the scene:

We see him scowling,
As he does in his portraits,
Unwrapping a box.

Carefully, he lifts
The lid, and peering inside,
Smiles, then roars, laughing.

The kids all gather
As he gleefully extracts
His new tiny lute.

And, of course, he then
Plays it instantly and well,
Playing his own tune.

A kid brings a bow
As he sees what it can do,
Thinking what he’ll do.

And as the kids leave,
He sits at his desk. With quill
In hand, he begins…

A friend of mine got a ukulele for Christmas.  We were talking about the availability of music, and joking, said there were no ukulele and piano duets.

We were picturing a ukulele trying to contend with a concert grand, figuring that, short of amplifying the ukulele or alternating solos, it would be an exercise in futility.  A clavichord, maybe, they were known for being whisper soft.  But a piano?  It’s a classic(al) David and Goliath story.

Of course, I couldn’t leave it alone.

The easiest way to make it happen was to borrow from Bach.  So I borrowed the Minuet in G Major (BWV Anh. 114) from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.  As it turns out, it is now believed that Bach borrowed this little ditty from Christian Petzold.

Those of a certain age will remember hearing it popularized as the song “How Gentle is the Rain?” or “A Lover’s Concerto”.  I transposed it from G major to C major to make it easier for the ukulele to play.  Then, I tried to figure out how to integrate a piano without overwhelming the ukulele, while allowing them each to have their moments to shine.

No matter what, the pianist will need to use restraint (and the soft pedal).  A piano, even the subtlest piano, can easily overpower the ukulele.  But balance can be achieved, and it’s fun!

Here’s what it sounds like.  Warning: if you use the link rather than the player displayed on this page, you may hear unrelated music afterward.  Can’t prevent it (Soundcloud!).  Hit the pause button (at the bottom of the Soundcloud page).

Here’s what it looks like (below).  Click the image to magnify, or click the following link to view/download/print the Minuet for ukulele and piano as a PDF file.

Sheet music, Minuet for Ukulele and Piano page 1Sheet music, Minuet for ukulele and piano, page 2

If you’re a ukulele player (ukulelist?), give it a try and let me know how it turns out!

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Image attribution: Photograph of Leipzig Thomaskirche by Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomaskirche_Leipzig_Westseite_2013.jpg.  Vintage Hawaiian shirt by Omaopio (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVintage_aloha_shirt.JPG. Portrait of Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johann_Sebastian_Bach.jpg.


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Haiku Wednesday: Music That Gets Stuck in Your Head

What can you do when
Music gets stuck in your head?
I guess it depends.

If it’s some horrid
Tune, ill conceived or performed,
You must replace it.

But a fine tune can
Resonate through the day, a
Personal soundtrack.

It’s happened to all of us: something sparks the memory of a tune, or you hear a snippet on the radio, or from a passing car.

And suddenly it’s stuck, your brain rehearsing the notes in an infinite loop.  If you’re lucky, it’s more than a few lines.

Some people call it an earworm, a uniquely unappealing term, though I suppose it’s apt if the song in question is something you probably didn’t want to hear the first time you heard it.  For me, there is an abysmal song from the 80s that, once sparked, will.not.go.away until I Berlioz-blast it from my brain.  I won’t tell you what it is, because that would be wrong.

But sometimes, the sticking of a tune can be a delight, and that happened to me yesterday.  I’m not saying I want it to get stuck in your head, but I think you’d like to hear it.

I was checking out some Deutsche Grammophon listings on Spotify (Essential Liszt, Essential Bach), when I saw Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist.  So I started clicking.

Everything stopped when I played Tchaikovsky’s Romance in F Minor (Op. 5) performed by Joseph Moog (here’s the album listing from the record company).  It caught my ear.  It stayed with me all afternoon, and I was ok with that.  It begins with a sentimental minor-key melody that reminds me of a thought-filled walk along a riverside in the fall, the ornaments glistening like sun sparkling on the water.  The middle section is suddenly lively, as if one had to cross a busy intersection before continuing along the river.  The middle section gradually subsides into calm and returns to the main theme.

This is Opus 5?

Then I found out Tchaikovsky had written a cantata, overture, symphonic poem, symphony, and two operas before he got around to writing the Romance.  But he was so exacting that he destroyed the poem and the operas, and probably winced every time someone brought up the cantata, overture, and symphony.  But he kept the Romance, and it is a well-loved piece.

Here is Moog’s performance on YouTube for those of you who do not have Spotify.

Of course, before I found this YouTube video, I found two other interesting performances, by Mikhail Pletnev and Sviatoslav Richter, that I thought you might enjoy.

You can find the sheet music here.

References

  1. Leonard, James, Romance, for piano in F minor, Op. 5, Allmusic.com, http://www.allmusic.com/composition/romance-for-piano-in-f-minor-op-5-mc0002659624
  2. Jakubowski, Kelly, “Earworms: why some songs get stuck in our heads more than others,” The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/earworms-why-some-songs-get-stuck-in-our-heads-more-than-others-68182
  3. Kelly Jakubowski, Sebastian Finkel, Lauren Stewart, and Daniel Müllensiefen, “Dissecting an Earworm: Melodic Features and Song Popularity Predict Involuntary Musical Imagery,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, November 3, 2016, http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/aca-aca0000090.pdf


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Chopin Waltzes, Cats, and Dogs

cat paw on piano

When you think of Chopin, you don’t necessarily think of whimsical musical pieces about cats and dogs.  But the story goes that two of his waltzes may have been inspired by pets.

The pets actually belonged to George Sand and her family, with whom Chopin was living at the time.  They had a cat, Valdeck, and two dogs, Marquis and Dib.

Valdeck, being a cat, would occasionally walk or scamper across Chopin’s piano.  That part of the story is certainly true, as anyone who owns a cat and a piano will attest.  The story goes that the notes the cat sounded in its journey across the keyboard caught Chopin’s ear.  We’ll never know for sure if that is true, but a minute into Chopin’s Waltz in F Major (Op. 34 No. 3), there is a sprightly flutter of notes up and down the keyboard that might sound to you like a cat running on the keyboard.  You can judge for yourself.

As for Marquis, the story goes that Marquis was chasing his tail, and George Sand challenged Chopin to write music to describe it.  And so they say the “Little Dog Waltz” was born, though most people know it by the name Minute Waltz (Op. 64 No. 1).  Listen and see if you can picture the dog chasing its tail.

And if you have a minute, you might also want to check out this humorous rendition by Marc-André Hamelin, in which the music goes somewhat, and delightfully, awry).

While we may never know if these stories are completely true, we know that Chopin wrote the Galop Marquis with Marquis in mind:  his name on the manuscript!

Manuscript of Chopin's Galop Marquis

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Image attribution:

“Piano Playing Cat” by ryansmut February 1, 2010, http://ryansmut.deviantart.com/art/piano-playing-cat-152617468

Image of Galop Marquis manuscript, http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/books-manuscripts/chopin-frederic-gallop-marquis-manuscrit-musical-5151994-details.aspx


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Haiku Wednesday: Faure’s Berceuse from the Dolly Suite

Gabriel Faure playing piano four hands with Mlle. Lombard, 1913

He smiles as she sits
With him at the piano.
Her hands are so small.
“Happy Birthday, dear,”
He says, “I wrote this for you.”
Together they play.
She smiles as Mom looks on
With love at the two.

Listen to this lovely piano four-hands work, Berceuse, by Gabriel Fauré.

Ahhh. Isn’t that wonderful?  Gabriel Fauré wrote six piano four-hands pieces for Hélène Bardac, nicknamed Dolly, who was the daughter of Emma Bardac, a singer and Fauré’s mistress.  The six pieces are known as the Dolly SuiteBerceuse is the first piece in the suite, which was written for Dolly’s first birthday.

Fauré enjoyed playing the suite in public and with the young children of his friends.  The photograph above shows Fauré playing the piano with a child identified as Mademoiselle Lombard in 1913.  Below is a picture of young Dolly with her mother Emma Bardac and her older brother Raoul from around 1895, about the time Fauré was writing the pieces.

Emma Bardac and children Helene (Dolly) and Raoul

Some folks may remember Berceuse as the theme of BBC Radio 4’s program Listen with Mother, which was a popular children’s radio program in the 1950s through early 1980s.

You may hear the entire Dolly Suite here. You may find the sheet music here.

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Image attributions: Gabriel Fauré at the piano with young Mlle. Lombard at Trevano, Lake Lugano, 1913.  Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Musique, Est.FauréG.101 via Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gabriel_Faur%C3%A9_jouant_%C3%A0_quatre_mains_avec_Melle_Lombard.jpg

Emma Bardac and her children, Raoul and Hélène (Dolly), c. 1895 from Gabriel Fauré: A Musical Life by Jean-Michel Nectoux, trans. Roger Nichols.  Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 287.


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Happy Birthday, Chopin!

Frederic Chopin

Piano works are
What he’s known for, but there’s more
That you need to hear:

Concertos, duets,
His versions of Polish songs,
A stirring trio.

Get to know Chopin
In a whole new dimension
In non-solo works.

Now let us all say
Happy birthday to the great
Frédéric Chopin.

It is Chopin’s birthday today! Church records list his birthday as February 22, 1810, but since Chopin and his family celebrated his birthday on March 1, it is considered the correct date.

Where does one begin to write about Chopin?  He was brilliant.  His works revolutionized the piano repertoire, and enriched the world of music forever.  His mazurkas and polonaises captured the soul of Poland, his nocturnes and preludes plumbed the depths of human emotions.  Countless words have been written about his piano solo works.

So I’m going to write about his other works.

Did you know that Chopin didn’t write solely for the piano?  Certainly, there is a piano present in all his works (and he wrote a piece for two pianos, Rondo in C for Two Pianos, Op. 73, Op. posth.), but lesser known are his compositions that include other instruments.

Chopin wrote two concertos for piano and orchestra (Op. 11 and Op. 21).  There are many wonderful videos of the concertos performed at the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, and you can find them here.  You can also hear and see Piano Concerto No 1 performed by Evgeny Kissin (Zubin Mehta conducting) or Martha Argerich (Jacek Kaspszyk conducting)Here is a link to Piano Concerto No 2 performed by Arthur Rubinstein (conducted by Andre Previn).

Cello fans will enjoy this video of Chopin’s Cello Sonata (Op. 65) performed by Natalia Gutman and Sviatoslav Richter, or this performance of the Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major (op. 3) performed by Daniil Shafran and Anton Ginsburg.

Here is Chopin’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano (Op. 8), a wonderfully stirring piece of music.

Chopin also set several poems in Polish to music.  Here is one of his Polish songs for voice and piano.

And now, since it is Chopin’s birthday, here is a fun tribute to him, the song Happy Birthday in the style of Chopin, with some added improvisation.


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Haiku “Wednesday”: Better Late than Never

Frederic Chopin

Consider Chopin,
Whose pianistic brilliance
Reached beyond the grave:

His unpublished works
Were supposed to be destroyed;
But fate intervened.

But then sometimes fate
Abruptly ends the music–
Sometimes in mid-line.

These posthumous works
Let the creative candle
Burn a bit longer,

Another insight
Into the life and soul of
A voice lost to us.

Work gets interrupted, whether it’s the humble writing of a blog, or the composition of a symphony.   Sometimes things are…terminally interrupted, or lie finished, but unpublished, languishing long after a composer’s death.

Chopin requested that all unpublished works that were “not worthy of me” be destroyed after his death.1  But Chopin’s mother and sisters countermanded that, and had Chopin’s friend Julian Fontana pick out the best pieces, which were then published and cataloged as posthumous works.2,3

And this is hardly a unique case.  After Schubert’s death, some of his unpublished songs were gathered into a song cycle that was called Schwanengesang (Swan Song).  While some of the songs appeared on consecutive pages in Schubert’s manuscript version, by no means were all of the songs unambiguously meant to be presented together, and his last song, Taubenpost, was clearly added by the publisher.4

And then there is the matter of incomplete works.  Schubert’s eighth symphony remained unfinished at the time of his death.  Mozart’s Requiem was incomplete—he had written sketches for several movements, and it fell to Franz Süssmayr to complete it, who added some movements of his own for good measure.

Bach’s The Art of Fugue ends in the middle of a fugue.  Mahler’s last symphony was unfinished, and Puccini’s opera Turandot was missing part of the finale at the time of his death.5

Last page of Bach's The Art of Fugue

Last page of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. The note written by CPE Bach says, “in this fugue, where the name B A C H is introduced in the countersubject, the composer died.”

In some cases, the works are presented as is (Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9).  But given the human nature to tinker, some latter-day composers have tried their hand at completing some of these incomplete works based on the composer’s sketches (see here for a list).  Not all of these extrapolations have been universally accepted.  They are interesting experiments though.

Some works that see the light of day only posthumously may be awkward yearbook pictures from a composer’s youth, others unsuccessful experiments that the composer neglected to pitch into the fireplace.  Others, gems that lacked a bit of polishing and a publisher.  Yet all give one more glimpse into the composer’s life, like finding a photo of a relative long gone.  I cannot help but quote Douglas Hofstadter’s poignant reference to a Chopin étude (please forgive the length) from his book I Am a Strange Loop.6

One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parents’ house, and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, aid to me, with a note of despair, “What meaning does that photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.” The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remark set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.

After a few minutes of emotional pondering—soul-searching, quite literally—I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines.

“In the living room we have a book of the Chopin études for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad—and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the world for 150 years now.  Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning.  Those pianists in turn have conveyed to many millions of listeners, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Frédéric Chopin’s heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Chopin’s interiority—to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Frédéric Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards—scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Frédéric Chopin. Each of those strange geometries of notes has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experiences of another human being—his sufferings, his joys, his deepest passions and tensions—and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be that human being, and many people feel intense love for him.  In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again, but in the medium of brains other than his own.   Like the score to a Chopin étude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.”

 

I think it’s appropriate to close with a work that might never have been heard: Chopin’s Nocturne in C -sharp minor.

References

  1. http://www.radiochopin.org/episodes/item/862-episode-163-fryderyk-posthumous-chopin-polonaise-in-b-flat-minor-adieu-a-guillaume-kolberg
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miscellaneous_compositions_(Chopin)
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_compositions_by_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric_Chopin_by_opus_number#Published_posthumously_2
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwanengesang
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unfinished_creative_work
  6. Hofstadter, Douglas R., I Am a Strange Loop. New York: Basic Books, 2007 pp 9-10.

Image attribution: Final page of Bach’s The Art of Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Berlin State Library, Germany.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABach-unfinishedfugue.jpg .  The note at the end, written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, says, “in this fugue, where the name B A C H is introduced in the countersubject, the composer died.”


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Binge Watching Brendel’s Schubert

Franz Schubert

I found a series of videos of Alfred Brendel playing Schubert impromptus, moments musicaux, and more that I wanted to share with you.

Here are some Schubert impromptus, D. 935

Here are some Moments musicaux, D. 780

Here are some more impromptus, D. 899

Here are Drei Klavierstücke. D. 946

Here is the Fantasie in C Major, D. 760, the Wanderer Fantasy

And if you’re really committed to binge watching (got four hours?), here are Schubert’s Piano Sonatas 14-21.

I think I’m going to need a bigger bowl of popcorn.

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Image attribution: Portrait of Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFranz_Schubert_by_Wilhelm_August_Rieder_1875.jpg