Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Autumn Nocturne

Photograph of lake viewed through autumn leaves

The sky is slate gray
Dead leaves crunch beneath my feet
Or skitter away.

Collar turned up, I
Shove my hands in my pockets
Against the cold wind.

I walk along with
Furrowed brow, lost in thought, with
Even measured steps.

Looking up, I see
Autumn’s rich, vibrant colors
Surrounding the lake.

More than the cold, it
Takes my breath away–there is
Beauty everywhere.

Here is Stefan Jackiw performing Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor as a violin solo. Exquisite.

Here you can find a haunting piano solo performance of the nocturne by Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose story became known worldwide in the movie “The Pianist.”

References

  1. About the nocturne:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturne_in_C-sharp_minor,_Op._posth._(Chopin)
  2. Sheet music:  http://imslp.org/wiki/Nocturne_in_C-sharp_minor,_B.49_(Chopin,_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric)

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Image attribution: Lake view through autumn leaves by http://www.ForestWander.com [CC BY-SA 3.0 us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Looking_through_tree_autumn_leaves_lake_-_West_Virginia_-_ForestWander.jpg

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To Sing on the Water

Photograph of the rippling, shimmering water of a lake as seen from a kayak

Sometimes, you have to get out of the office. Way out of the office.  Or just away.  To a place where there are no computers, no connectivity, no cell phone coverage.  No chargers, no chatter, no cable.

The middle of a large body of water is optimal.

Sunshine and breezes on a beautiful day can go a long way toward recharging your own battery, and the shimmer of a beautiful lake, the splash of water as your boat travels along are incomparable antidotes for the noise and bustle of a busy life.  And we’re all busy, too busy, always aware of the ticking clock, the march of time.

All this hustle and bustle might seem to be a modern phenomenon, but really it’s not.  People have been escaping to nature for a very long time.

Schubert, ah Schubert!  He knew; of course, he knew.  In his song Auf dem Wasser zu singen. Schubert sets to music a poem of Friedrich Leopold zu Stolberg-Stolberg that describes a boat trip at evening and reflects on the passage of time.  The piano ripples like the water, and the play of light and shadow at evening is reflected in Schubert’s characteristic shifts between major and minor keys.  The poet also notes the passage of time: each day time escapes, flying away.  But he is not disturbed, as he says that he will take wing and escape from time someday.

Here is Schubert’s Auf dem Wasser zu singen, performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore.

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Image attribution:  Photograph by C. Gallant, 2015.


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Bach and Awe

J. S. Bach

Every now and then, I listen to Bach, and as the music starts, and I start to hear the melody lines interweave, I think, “You know, I think I’m starting to get this.” And then Bach throws in three more lines, ramps up the speed, and I realize something:

I’m not even close.

It’s very much the same feeling you might get when you’re learning a foreign language, and you decide to test your newfound skill with a native speaker.  And your methodical elementary-school-level bid is met joyfully with a flood of fluency, the torrent of a mountain stream, water flowing over and around rocks, streams combining in ways that leave one wondering where one begins and another ends.  Itisveryhardtounderstandwhenyoudon’tknowwherethewordsactuallyend.

The same goes for Bach.  When those melodic lines start to intertwine, you can try to follow them, and you catch a glimpse of one every now and then as it goes by, but it is really tough to grasp everything that is going on.

I was listening to Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 (BWV 1052), and immediately had to listen to it again to try to figure out what was going on, it was so good.  The first movement begins simply enough as Bach states his theme.  Ah, but then, the keyboard and orchestra begin stating the theme individually, and the keyboard adds a rippling line, and here the water image is particularly apt, as the strings and keyboard take turns surging forward then receding.  If you want to hear it and follow the score, you can do so here.

This video provides a balanced, and amazingly fast, performance of the first movement.

Another fascinating video puts the keyboard in a more prominent role, this time with Glenn Gould at piano and Leonard Bernstein conducting.  The performance begins at 5:08, but Bernstein’s introductory remarks about the performance of music that bears few interpretative markings may be of interest as well.

Ok, so now we reach the second movement.  And one would expect the same sort of interplay of instruments and lines.  You know, predicting, because you’re starting to get this.

Not even close.

Bach pulls the rug out from under your feet, beginning the second movement with an extended statement, everyone playing the same note (within the particular octave their instrument plays).  It then develops into a thought-filled, deeply expressive, one might even say somber, melody.

The liveliness of the first movement returns in the third movement, and it is classic Bach.

And yet.

There are moments, something in the strings, that seems to reach forward in time toward the Classical era.

And that’s the stunning thing with Bach.  Every now and then, you come across a phrase, and there is foreshadowing of music yet to come.  It’s there, little glimpses of the future, and yet, it’s undeniably Bach.

One more thing.  Here’s the kicker about the keyboard concerto.  Most experts say that he put it together from earlier works, probably a violin concerto, judging by the violin-like features, and there’s some direct copying from earlier cantatas.

As stunning as it is, it’s just a reworking of stuff he already wrote.

And that’s the Bach and awe of it all.

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References

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

https://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/keyboard-concerto-d-minor-bwv-1052-johann-sebastian-bach


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Haiku Wednesday:  Butterfly

Monarch butterfly on a cluster of purple flowers

With fluttering wings
The butterfly alights on
A vibrant flower.

Sweet summer nectar,
Abundant blossoms, and a
Gentle summer breeze;
These are the good times,
And the butterfly dances
To music unheard.

Soon its wand’ring path
Will lead it to warmer climes
Before the air chills,
And fall’s orange leaves
Become a poor mimic on
The cold autumn wind.

Butterflies seem impossible; their wings are so delicate, their colors too bright to be real.  And yet, you can walk right up to them, and for the most part, they don’t mind if you look closely at the texture of their wings as they extract nectar from flowers one by one.  And then, on a whim, they fly off, seemingly not quite under control, in search of a new set of blossoms.

In Norway, Edvard Grieg too must have stopped to watch these marvels, and the result was Butterfly (Op. 43, No. 1) from his Lyric Pieces.  And here is a treat—this recording comes from a reproducing piano roll that was created as Grieg himself played the piece.  Perhaps you can hear the butterfly’s fluttering, somewhat chaotic flight in the notes.

 

More asides than references

If you’d like to see the reproducing piano at work, here is a video of Grieg’s Berceuse (Op. 38, No. 1) being played from a piano roll created by Grieg.

Grieg’s Lyric Pieces is great summer music.  You might also like Summer Evening (Op. 71, No. 2).

In case you were wondering, there are over 2,000 species of butterflies and moths in Norway.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Lepidoptera_of_Norway

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Image attribution: Monarch butterfly by Richiebits (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABBGMonarchButterflyWings.jpg


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A Delightful Evening

I haven’t posted because I was preparing for a piano get-together this evening.  A group of adult piano students gather and play what we’ve been working on for each other.  There’s wonderful conversation, bread, cheese, wine, dessert, laughter, music.  It’s always a lot of fun.

I played a piano arrangement of one of John Dowland’s less somber songs, Now O Now I Needs Must Part (somehow, I usually end up playing something in a minor key, but tonight I broke the trend by playing in G major, though I can’t exactly say it was upbeat).  Someone played a song from Rent.  Someone played an Erik Satie composition.  It was all great, but for me, there was an extra special treat.

A duo played my ukulele and piano arrangement of Bach’s Minuet in G.

I could not have been more delighted to hear it come to life.  I had heard it in electronic form, but to hear it played live on real instruments, a Steinway and a lovely mellow-toned lute-like ukulele, was an incredible gift.  I am grateful for the time the players put into learning it and their wonderful performance.  The instruments were perfectly balanced with each other.

This was so cool!

If you play an instrument, if you know other people who play instruments, rustle up some desserts and get together.  Have a no-fault music night (I’ll ignore your mistakes if you ignore mine).  You’ll all be nervous.  It will be ok.  It will also be fun.

I hope your musical evening will be as entertaining as mine was.


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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 1Minuet for ukulele and piano-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