Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

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Haiku Wednesday:  Hands

Six foot six Sergei
Rachmaninoff’s hands were huge,
With enormous span.

Do not ask “Can you
Reach a tenth?” Ask “Can you reach
The listener’s heart?”

I was doing some research on Rachmaninoff because there’s going to be a free online concert this weekend (June 9, 2019).  Anytime you start looking, you’re going to come across at least one article on Rachmaninoff’s hands.

Basically, the guy had huge mitts.

And I was going to write about comparative hand sizes of famous musicians, and flexibility, and speed, and blah, blah, blah.  It’s all been written before.

And I didn’t want even one of you to say, “well, I have small hands, that’s never going to work, so why bother.”  Or stiff hands, or slow hands, or whatever.

Nonsense.  Whatever you love to do, go for it!  You don’t have to be Rachmaninoff, or Rembrandt, or Robert Frost.  Or whoever.  Enjoy what you can do.  And you might surprise yourself if you keep at it.

If you don’t play an instrument and love music, you don’t have to be a specialist to share the music and help someone to hear what you hear and enjoy.

Here is a video of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-Sharp Minor, Op. 32, No. 12, performed by Wael Farouk.  Dr. Farouk, director of piano studies at Carthage College and a faculty member of the Chicago College of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, was told that he would never be able to be a concert pianist because of shortened ligaments in his hands.  He has performed all of Rachmaninoff’s solo piano works.


Image attribution:  Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1936 or earlier, photographer unknown, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Haiku Wednesday: A Look at the History of Classical Recordings

Edison wax cylinder phonograph

Edison bellowed
“Mary had a little lamb”
Into a small horn.

History was made:
Voices’ vibrations turned to
The tiniest grooves.

People gathered ‘round
To hear the tinny sounds, now
Played upon demand.

In the suave sixties
You could spin disks—hi-fi sound!
Don’t scratch the record!

Fast forward. Today
Music’s turned to ones, zeroes,
Heard around the world.

And we all walk ‘round
And hear hi-fi sound that’s fed
To only our ears.

(In the future, will
All the world’s music be sent
Right into our brains?)

From the very beginning of recorded sound, classical music was a presence, and it was significant in the development of music technology.

The first wave of development included Edison’s recording of sound on wax cylinders.  You can see a demonstration of how Edison’s original wax cylinder recordings were made here.

As soon as he developed mobile recording equipment, Edison sent his engineer, Theo Wangemann, to Europe to collect recordings.  Here is an 1889 recording of Brahms playing an excerpt of Hungarian Dance No. 1Here is Otto Neitzel, a student of Liszt and a teaching colleague of Tchaikovsky, playing a portion of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1890.  This is believed to be the first recording of a work of Chopin.

This 1903 recording was an attempt to record a live opera performance, the opening scene of Act 2 of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.  You can find more Edison recordings here.

Shortly thereafter, the opera recordings of tenor Enrico Caruso became wildly popular.  He recorded on cylinder first (here’s one from 1903, E lucevan le stelle from Puccini’s Tosca), and then on disks (Questa o Quella from Verdi’s Rigoletto).

Another treasure of this era is a recording of Rachmaninoff playing his Etude-Tableau in A minor (Op. 39 No. 6) in 1925.

Vinyl came into its own, and conductor Leopold Stokowski made the medium his domain, crafting a “Stokowski sound” that would translate well to vinyl, bringing classical music to countless households.  Here is a Stokowski recording of the first movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 (Op. 95) from 1934.  The sound of vinyl continued to improve:  here is Eugene Ormandy’s recording of the same piece from 1944.

An aside:  Rachmaninoff and Stokowski recorded Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  Apparently, it nearly turned into a slugfest, as the two men strongly disagreed about the interpretation (ok, wait–with the infamous Bernstein-Gould disagreement over the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, I can see where there could be a difference of opinion…Brahms wasn’t there.  But this was Rachmaninoff’s piece, and he was standing right there.  Ah, Stokowski!).  You can hear it fully restored here.

The fifties brought stereo sound; of course, you might say the idea had been around for a long time, but technology had to catch up:  the Venetian polychoral style that was used at St. Mark’s in Venice, a style that was popular from the 1540s, made use of choirs singing in alternation from separated choir lofts.  Wow, just like headphones!  But then, Thomas Tallis could be said to have invented surround sound with his composition Spem in alium for eight choirs of five voices each, first sung in an octagonal hall, around 1570. You can hear Spem in alium here.

Classical music was also present at the advent of digital sound: Sony’s first CD release was to be Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations; Philips released Bach’s Mass in B Minor on CD.1

Today, CDs and mp3s are making it possible for anyone to hear not only the masterworks of the most famous composers (not to mention various interpretations), but also the works of less well-known composers, others whose works have not been heard for hundreds of years, and others who finished their compositions just this year.

No one knows how music will be delivered in the future; but thanks to recording technology, we now have about 1000 years of classical music at our disposal, to be heard wherever and whenever we want.

Life is good.


  1. Elie, Paul, Reinventing Bach, New York; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, p. 325, 331.


Image attribution: Photograph of Edison wax cylinder phonograph (1899) by Norman Bruderhofer, (own work (transferred from de:File:Phonograph.jpg)) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Friday Freebies! Rachmaninoff and Puccini’s La Bohème

Photograph of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and Poster for Puccini's La Boheme

Get ready for a Friday doubleheader! (yes, I realize using a baseball term to describe classical concerts is a little weird, but go with me on this one)

At 10:45AM EDT (14:45 UTC), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will present “The Romance of Rachmaninoff.”  The program will include Rachmaninoff’s Russian Song and Symphony No. 1.  The conductor will be Neeme Järvi.  Cellist Zuill Bailey will be featured in composer Michael Daugherty’s Tales of Hemingway, a portrayal of the life of American author Ernest Hemingway.  You can see the DSO webcast here.

At 2:00PM EDT (18:00 UTC), The Opera Platform will present a performance of Puccini’s La Bohème from the Teatro Regio TorinoSee the performance and read more about it here.

For those watching at home, formal attire and/or rally caps are optional.


Image attributions: Sergei Rachmaninoff, photograph by Kubey Rembrandt (Philadephia, Pennsylvania) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,

La Bohème poster by Adolfo Hohenstein (1854-1928), Publisher: G. Ricordi & Co. (Allposters) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,

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Rachmaninoff Plays Gluck

Sergei Rachmaninoff playing a Steinway grand piano

I have a treat for you today: a recording of Rachmaninoff playing Gluck’s Melodie from Orfeo ed Euridice (transcribed by Giovanni Sgambati for solo piano).

What makes this special, besides hearing Rachmaninoff’s beautiful performance of this wonderful music, is the incredible clarity of this recording.  The original piano roll recording made using a reproducing piano (not your typical piano roll; it captured subtleties of fingering and pedaling, not just notes), has been converted for use with a Bösendorfer 290SE reproducing piano (read here about the 290 Imperial, the CEUS Reproducing System and the Disklavier reproducing system.  It is stunning.

You can find more of Rachmaninoff’s recordings on Amazon, both direct audio recordings and those created with the reproducing piano.

At this link you can read more about the history and mechanics of the original reproducing pianos.  The pages found there include mp3s and photographs of famous pianists and composers performing on a reproducing piano.


Image attribution:  Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1936 or earlier, photographer unknown, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Detroit Rach City: Free DSO Rachmaninoff/Stravinsky Webcast

On April 16, 2016 at 8 PM EDT (GMT-4) the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will present a free live webcast, titled “Ravishing Rachmaninoff.”

The program will include Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 1, featuring French pianist Lise de la Salle, and conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero of the Nashville Symphony.  Also on the program is Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and the world premiere of Something for the Dark by Sarah Kirkland Snider, a winner of the DSO’s Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award for female composers.

You can see the webcast at

PS For those who didn’t recognize it, the title is a play on the song Detroit Rock City by the rock group Kiss.  You now know how old I am.  Rach on!


Light in the Darkness: The Story of a Song

There is a song that has been sung since 200 CE, perhaps 150 CE.  For a song, that is a nearly unfathomable extent of time.  And precisely what makes it fascinating to me.

The song, written in Greek, is Phos Hilaron (Φως Ίλαρον), most commonly known in English as O Gladsome Light.  It has been called the first Christian hymn, because it is the first Christian music that does not contain verses from the Bible.  It was sung when lamps were lit at twilight.


Its great antiquity is documented by Basil of Caesarea (329-379 CE) who uses the very word “antiquity,” as well as “ancient form” when discussing the hymn (De Spiritu Sancto, 29:73).

And that’s only some 150 years into its history.

Sadly, we do not know what music was used at that time, only the words survive.  Neumes for music notation would not be invented for another 600 years.

The words however, were translated, spread widely, and found new music.  The song found expression in Byzantine chants, ancient Armenian liturgy, and Russian Orthodox Znamenny chant.

In the West, its history is temporarily obscured by the Dark Ages, but it survived.

Since then, the song has been adopted and adapted by a wide variety of Christian denominations.

In the 1500s, John Calvin expressed the opinion that psalms should be sung by the entire congregation, not just a small group of performers.  He supervised the creation of the Genevan Psalter, a collection of psalms to be sung by everyone.  The book contains music for a text called the Song of Simeon, also known as Nunc dimittis.  The music was written by Louis Bourgeois in 1549.  Here it is in the 1565 edition of Les Pseaumes de David.

Nunc Dimittis_Les Pseaumes de David Clemen Marot THeodorus Beze 1565

When Robert Bridges (1844-1830) translated the Greek text of Phos hilaron into English, he found the Bourgeois version of Nunc dimittis to be a perfect fit, and this version, now called O Gladsome Light, may be found in a number of hymnals.  Here it is sung by the incomparable Cambridge Singers under John Rutter.

The text was also used by Tchaikovsky, Gretchaninoff, and Rachmaninoff in their Vespers (All-Night Vigil) and is called Gentle light, or Svyetye tikhiy.

Here is Gretchaninoff’s, a gem.

In the 20th century, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote music for a group of four hymns, the last being O Gladsome Light, here called Evening Hymn.

From 200 to 2015 and beyond, these ancient words will continue to be a source of inspiration to composers.  Here is Gladsome Light in the original Greek, as set in Vespers by Stelio Scordilis.



Phos Hilaron, Wikipedia article,

Basil of Caesarea, Wikipedia article,

The Sacred Writings of Saint Basil, published by Jazzybee Verlag, 2012.

Genevan Psalter, Wikipedia article,

O Gladsome Light, for information on Robert Bridges,


Image attribution

Icon of St. Basil the Great from the
St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev, 11th Century, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Genevan Psalter.  Whole book may be found at

Displayed page may be found at



Rachmaninoff’s Least and Most Favorite Pieces

I fear I may have maligned poor Rachmaninoff Friday in highlighting his ill-tempered response to Harpo Marx’s goading.  Here the guy was just trying to get away for the weekend and do a little composing when this harpist gets on his last nerve, literally harping on his least favorite piece (Prelude in C-sharp Minor).  One could forgive him if he verbally vented his frustrations at his less-than-angelic next-door neighbor.  At the risk of further maligning Sergei, I can imagine the wealth of eloquent Russian obscenities that might have ornamented the air of that little California bungalow.  Russian profanity is a linguistic art form, with a stunning multitude of variations to a given theme.  But I digress…

Let us move from the profane to the sacred, and restore Rachmaninoff’s honor.  One of my favorite compositions by Rachmaninoff (and one of his favorites, as you will see below) is his choral masterpiece known in the west as All-Night Vigil (Vespers), Op. 37, written in less than two weeks (!) and first performed in 1915.

Prior to Rachmaninoff’s rendering, the text had been set by Tchaikovsky.  Tchaikovsky’s is firmly rooted in Russian soil.  Rachmaninoff’s goes further afield, incorporating distinctly western harmonies, but it always looks lovingly toward home.  There is a wonderful story about Rachmaninoff and the Vigil.  Here’s what Rachmaninoff told his biographer:

My favorite number in the work, which I love as I do The Bells, is the fifth canticle, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace” [Luke 2:29]. I should like this sung at my funeral.  Towards the end there is a passage sung by the basses—a scale descending to the lowest B-flat in a very slow pianissimo.  After I played this passage Danilin [director and conductor of the Moscow Synodical Choir] shook his head, saying, “Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!”  Nevertheless, he did find them, I knew the voices of my countrymen, and I well knew what demands I could make upon Russian basses!

from Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music

From the stirring first movement one finds moments of exquisite beauty and emotion, rich harmonies juxtaposed with traditional chant tunes.  The pealing of joyful Russian church bells is imitated by human voices.  The entire range of human vocal expression is showcased, from the heavenward soaring of soprano voices, expressive solos by altos and tenors, and the basses plumbing the depths of human vocal capability, artfully.  The strength and majesty of the human voice is placed at the service of ancient and profound expressions of belief.  And in its beauty it is, in both meanings of the phrase, beyond belief.

Here is a transliteration and translation of the text including notes on each movement.  Here is the score.

Here is a performance of the piece in its entirety.


Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music by Sergei Bertensson, Jay Leyda, and Sophia Satina, Indiana University Press, 1956, p 191.,_Op.37_(Rachmaninoff,_Sergei)


Harpo Marx and Rachmaninoff?


So my little bungalow in the Garden of Allah was a peaceful retreat.  It was the best place to practice I ever had—until a piano player moved into a bungalow across from mine and shattered the peace.

I was looking forward to a solid weekend of practice, without interruptions, when my new neighbor started to bang away.  I couldn’t hear anything below a forte on the harp.  There were no signs the piano banging was going to stop.  It only got more overpowering.  This character was warming up for a solid weekend of practice too.

I went to the office to register a complaint.  One of us had to go, I said, and it wasn’t going to be me because I was there first.  But the management didn’t see it my way.  The new guest, whose playing was driving me nuts, was Sergei Rachmaninoff.  They were not about to ask him to move.

I was flattered to have such a distinguished neighbor, but I still had to practice.  So I got rid of him my own way.

I opened the door and all the windows in my place and began to play the first four bars of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, over and over, fortissimo.  Two hours later my fingers were getting numb.  But I didn’t let up, not until I heard a thunderous crash of notes from across the way, like the keyboard had been attacked with a pair of sledge hammers.  Then there was silence.

This time it was Rachmaninoff who went to complain.  He asked to be moved to another bungalow immediately, the farthest possible from that dreadful harpist.  Peace returned to the Garden.

I didn’t really know until much later how sharp my intuition had been.  I found out that the great pianist and composer detested his Prelude in C-sharp Minor.  He considered it a very Minor piece of work.  He was haunted by it everywhere he went, by students who butchered it and by audiences who clamored for it, and he wished he’d never written it.  After playing the damn thing nonstop for two hours I knew exactly how he felt.

Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber, p 284-285.

I suppose this would be inevitable then.  Harpo plays Wreckmaninoff.

Here’s what the Prelude in C-sharp Minor is supposed to sound like–because this is a recording of Rachmaninoff himself playing, recorded on the piano roll of a Bösendorfer Reproducing Piano.

And yes, Harpo really did play the harp.  This is his own composition, Guardian Angels.


Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber.  Limelight Editions, 1962.  Hal Leonard Corp., 2004, p 284-285.


Image attributions:  Harpo Marx playing the harp, around 1926. Vandamm Studio, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1936 or earlier, photographer unknown, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.