Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


Leave a comment

Veterans Day

Veterans Day poster of silhouettes of soldiers against a sky

Today we remember those who have served in the armed forces; in some parts of the world this is called Remembrance Day or Armistice Day.

I have already written about the music written for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.  Music has also been written for those who survived, but who paid a terrible price.

In The Wound Dresser, John Adams sets the poetry of Walt Whitman, who as a volunteer nurse cared for Civil War soldiers.  You can hear John Adams talk about his composition here.

The pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in World War I.  He approached a number of composers, commissioning works written for the piano using the left hand alone.  Ravel wrote the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.  Erich Korngold wrote a piano concerto that Wittgenstein liked so much (Op. 17), he commissioned a second, a suite for two violins, cello, and piano (Op. 23).  Benjamin Britten’s Diversions for piano left hand and orchestra (Op. 21) was also written for Wittgenstein, as was Prokofiev’s Concerto No 4.  In all, Wittgenstein commissioned around 40 pieces for piano left hand.

Frank Bridge wrote Three Improvisations for his friend Douglas Fox who lost his arm in World War I.

Leoš Janáček (Capriccio for Piano and Winds) and Bohuslav Martinů (Divertimento for Piano and Chamber Orchestra) wrote music for Czech pianist Otakar Hollman, whose right hand was permanently injured in World War I (Hollman plays in the links given above).  For more on the genre of piano left hand music, see the articles referenced below, and the lefthandpianomusic YouTube channel.

The music I want to feature today is by George Butterworth, considered one of the promising composers of the early 20th century.  I was surprised in my research to find film of Butterworth dancing—he was a Morris dancer.  The film dates from 1912.  Butterworth was cut down by a sniper’s bullet during the Battle of the Somme in World War I.  Here is Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow.

A heartfelt thank you to all those who have served, and may all those who now serve come home safely.

Freedom isn’t free.

References

http://www.classicfm.com/discover/music/left-hand-piano-music/

https://crosseyedpianist.com/2012/05/14/guest-post-a-history-of-left-hand-piano/

Photograph of the blogger's father as a soldier, 1945

My father, 1945

Wounded Warriors Family Support http://www.wwfs.org/wounded-warriors-family-support/information-main/about-us

Fisher House Foundation https://www.fisherhouse.org/about/

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) http://www.taps.org/about/

Image attribution: Detail of poster created for Veterans Day 2008 by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (http://www1.va.gov/opa/vetsday/gallery.asp) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVeterans_day_2008_poster.jpg


2 Comments

Memorial Day

Battlefield memorial, helmet on rifle, World War I

Battlefield memorial, World War I.

Today in the US we commemorate those who have died while serving in the armed forces.

There is an abundance of music written for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Charles Ives’s Decoration Day (what Memorial Day was called at an earlier time in America) incorporates Taps into his depiction of Memorial Day proceedings in New England.  Here is a performance of Decoration Day.

Walt Whitman’s poem Dirge for Two Veterans has been set to music by a number of composers.  Here are links to performances of settings of this poem by Holst, Kurt Weill, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Maurice Ravel wrote Le Tombeau de Couperin, a suite for solo piano in six movements.  Each movement is dedicated to a friend who lost his life in World War I.  A performance of Le Tombeau de Couperin can be found here.

Frank Bridge’s intense Piano Sonata was written in memory of a friend who was killed in World War I.  You can hear it here.

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was first performed at the consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed during World War II.  The poignancy of the piece is heightened by the use of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action one week before the end of World War I.  A performance can be found here.  A short documentary on War Requiem from the Royal Opera House can be found here.  A recording of a moving performance at Coventry Cathedral is available on DVD.

Sadly, I’m sure there are other notable works that I’ve omitted with a similar origin.  It is utterly human and noble to try to create beauty from loss.

I salute the bravery of those who serve.

I honor the memory of those we have lost.

Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 2nd Marines Memorial Service

Boots, rifle, dog tags, and kevlar helmet stand in solitude to honor Cpl. Orville Gerena, Lance Cpl. David Parr, and PFC Jacob Spann during a service held by Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 2nd Marines, the ground combat element of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq Feb. 18, 2006. The three Charlie Company Marines were killed conducting counterinsurgency operations in Iraq’s Al Anbar province.

References

Wounded Warriors Family Support http://www.wwfs.org/wounded-warriors-family-support/information-main/about-us

Fisher House Foundation https://www.fisherhouse.org/about/

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) http://www.taps.org/about/

_____

Image attributions:

Helmet and Rifle, World War I.  Courtesy of Getty Images Hulton Collection. http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/battlefield-grave-high-res-stock-photography/HH8040-001

Helmet and Rifle, 2006, Iraq.  22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit website http://www.22ndmeu.marines.mil/News/ArticleView/tabid/196/Article/510146/22nd-meu-blt-12-marines-mourn-the-loss-of-three-warriors.aspx


Leave a comment

Haiku Wednesday: These Five Were a Handful—Balakirev’s Circle

hand holding Russian flag

Rimsky-Korsakov,
Balakirev, Borodin,
Mussorgsky and Cui.

These make up “The Five,”
Russia’s Mighty Handful of
Splendid composers.

The five composers noted above, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, and César Cui, made up the group that came to be known as The Five, or in Russia, the Balakirev Circle or Mighty Handful (Могучая кучка).  The group was led by Balakirev, and the goal was to elevate the standing of Russian traditional music (the musical nationalism movement, which was found in other countries as well).

The name Mighty Handful came from a review of a concert that included a number of Russian composers, including Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov (and Mikhail Glinka as well).  When the phrase was used disdainfully by critics, Balakirev and his group kept the name as a badge of honor.

One unusual thing that distinguished this group is that most of them kept their “day jobs.”  Borodin was a chemist (he is well known for his work with aldehydes and as co-discoverer of the Aldol reaction). Others were in the military or civil service.  What’s more, none were conservatory trained (which may have been part of the disdain noted above).

It was a challenge to pick some music to represent this group.  Hmm, challenge, mighty handful…actually there can be only one choice:  Balakirev’s Islamey, long considered one of the most difficult (if not the most difficult) piece of solo piano music of all time (Ravel wrote Gaspard de la Nuit with the intent of making it more difficult than Islamey!).

Here is Islamey, performed by Boris Berezovsky.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mighty_Handful_(composers)

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

_____

Image attribution

Photo by C. Gallant, 2016.


Leave a comment

The French Connections

FrenchConnectionsCircle003

While I was researching Maurice Ravel for last week’s Haiku Wednesday, I kept seeing connections between various French composers, more so than I had seen with other composers (or maybe I haven’t looked hard enough yet).  So I started reading about them to learn more, and found the connections fascinating.

Of course we know now about Ravel (1875-1937).  Ravel studied with Émile Decombes, a student of Chopin’s, as did Alfred Cortot, whom I mentioned in a previous post.  Later Ravel studied with Gabriel Fauré.  Ravel’s father introduced him to Erik Satie (1866-1925).  Satie at some point turned his back on Ravel, and Satie’s student Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) said (after Satie had also turned against Poulenc) “I admire him as ever, but breathe a sigh of relief at finally not having to listen to his eternal ramblings on the subject of Ravel.”1

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) studied organ under the tutelage of Camille Saint-Saëns, and the two remained close friends.  In 1871 he took the post of choirmaster at a church where the organist was Charles-Marie Widor.  The two frequently improvised organ duets.  Fauré was a charter member of the Société National de Musique founded by Saint-Saëns.  Also members were Georges Bizet (1838-1875), Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894), Jules Massenet (1842-1912), and César Franck (1822-1890). 2  One of Franck’s students at the Paris Conservatory was Claude Debussy (1862-1918)3

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) studied organ at the Paris Conservatory (organ was emphasized over piano because of the greater career opportunities for organists).  As an organist he came to the attention of Hector Berlioz.   After the collapse of his marriage, Saint-Saëns became attached to Gabriel Fauré’s family.4

Charles-Marie Widor received his first organist post with the support of Saint-Saëns and Charles Gounod.  When César Franck died, Widor took his post as professor at the Paris Conservatory.  Widor was a staunch proponent of Bach’s organ music and one of his students was Albert Schweitzer.  Widor founded the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau and served as its director until 1934, at which time Maurice Ravel succeeded him.5

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was introduced to Bach’s music by Fanny Mendelssohn.  One of Gounod’s students was Georges Bizet.  When Gounod died, the music for the service was conducted by Fauré with Saint-Saëns at the organ.6

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) became friends with Franz Liszt, when both attended a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with an overture composed by Berlioz.  Liszt was a witness at Berlioz’s marriage to Harriet Smithson.7  Liszt was also in attendance at a mass where organ improvisations were performed by César Franck.  Liszt highly praised Franck’s work and began including Franck’s work in concerts in Germany.8  Liszt is said to have called his friend Camille Saint-Saëns “the greatest organist in the world.”  Saint-Saëns dedicated his third symphony to Liszt.9

Tune in tomorrow for more on the music behind these French connections.

Resources

  1. Kelly, Barbara L, Music and Ultra-modernism in France: A Fragile Consensus, 1913-1939. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2013, p 57, Wikipedia entry on Maurice Ravel.
  2. Wikipedia article on Gabriel Fauré.
  3. Wikipedia article on Claude Debussy.
  4. Wikipedia article on Camille Saint-Saëns.
  5. Wikipedia article on Charles-Marie Widor.
  6. Wikipedia article on Charles Gounod.
  7. Wikipedia article on Hector Berlioz.
  8. Vallas, Leon, Cesar Franck, Trans. Hubert J. Foss. New York: Oxford Universty Press, 1951, p 127. Trans. of La veritable histoire de Cesar Franck, 1949, via Wikipedia article on Cesar Franck.
  9. Wikipedia article on Franz Liszt.


2 Comments

Haiku Wednesday: Unraveling Ravel: More than Bolero

Maurice_Ravel_1925

Bolero

“Unfortunately,

There’s no music in it.” So

Said Maurice Ravel.

When you mention Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), the first thing that comes to mind is Bolero.  And for most folks, that’s the only thing.  But on more than one occasion Ravel made deprecating comments about this piece.  He told Arthur Honegger, “I’ve written only one masterpiece – Bolero.  Unfortunately there’s no music in it.”1  At the premiere, when a woman in the audience shouted, “Rubbish!” he said, “That old lady got the message!”2

Whether Ravel was being facetious or not, there’s more to hear.  Ravel was known for composing a piece for piano, and then adapting it for orchestra; such works include Pavane pour une infante défunte (piano version here, orchestra version here) and Le tombeau de Couperin (piano; orchestra).

Ravel also composed music for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé.  Apparently there were numerous disputes between choreographer Michel Fokine and Ravel.  Ravel wrote, “I have to tell you that the last week has been insane: preparing a ballet libretto for the next Russian season.  [I’ve been] working up to 3 a.m. almost every night.  To confuse matters, Fokine does not know a word of French, and I can only curse in Russian.  Irrespective of the translators, you can imagine the timbre of these conversations.”3

I would not have wanted to be that interpreter.

Other Ravel works to check out include his fiendishly difficult piano piece Gaspard de la nuit, and his post-war masterpiece La valse, which is labeled a choreographic poem for orchestra. The link here is to Glenn Gould’s compelling piano solo transcription.  For somewhat lighter fare, see Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole, in which he reflects the flavor of Spanish music through his own unique lens.

Ravel’s own performances of his music survive in piano rolls created in 1913 and 1922, which have subsequently been translated to LP and CD format.

The Wikipedia entry on Maurice Ravel contains great detail on Ravel’s life, and is heavily annotated and documented (read the notes, they’re very interesting and entertaining).

Oh, and I suppose you might want to hear Bolero.  Well, I couldn’t make up my mind which link to include.  So here’s a sparkly, silky version by André Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra, and here’s a flashmob video of a youth orchestra in jeans in Algemesí, Spain.  Enjoy!

Footnotes:

  1. Nichols, Roger, Ravel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, p 301 via Wikipedia.
  2. Nichols, Roger, Ravel Remembered. London: Faber and Faber, 1987, pp 47-48 via Wikipedia.
  3. Morrison, Simon, “The Origins of Daphnis et Chloe (1912)”, 19th-Century Music, 2004, p 54 via Wikipedia.