Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


Leave a comment

Haiku Wednesday: Toccata

Flashing fingers fly
And dance across the keyboard
Weaving their magic.

Feet too join the dance
Executing bass figures,
Sliding as on ice.

The word toccata
Means to touch—fingers, yes, and
Heart and soul and mind.

The toccata is by nature a flashy piece of music.  It typically includes fast runs of notes, and can sound like an improvisation.  It is a showcase for a musician’s skills.  Toccatas are typically written for a keyboard instrument, but that’s not a requirement—toccatas have been written for string instruments, and even for orchestra (the prelude to Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo is a toccata).  While the form had its heyday in the Baroque period, with Bach, master improviser, at the summit (Toccata in D Minor, the toccata everyone knows), the form never entirely went away.

Schumann wrote a Toccata in C (Op. 7) which he believed was the most difficult music at the time.  In this video, you can follow the sheet music, which will give you an idea of the complexity.  Liszt also gave it a whirl (Toccata, S. 197a).

Ravel included a toccata in his Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie from Estampes is a toccata as well.  One can also look to the finale of Widor’s Symphony No. 5 for a fine example of a toccata.  You can find some videos of the finale here, including Widor himself playing the toccata.

Khachaturian wrote a toccata that became very popular (the suite it came from is nearly forgotten).  The link features pianist Lev Oborin, who was the first to perform it.

For some real flash (and the piece that prompted this post) check out Prokofiev’s Toccata Op. 11.  Here it is on a piano.  Now add feet:  here is the same toccata on an organ.

Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto begins with a toccata.  The last movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 8 contains a toccata.  Also check out John Rutter’s Toccata in 7.

And now for the strings!  The last movement of John Adams’s Violin Concerto contains a toccata, and Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 5, a viola concerto, also contains a toccata (he also wrote a Toccata for a Mechanical Piano, meaning a player piano, which you can see here).

If you’re ever having a blah day, and need a quick pick-me-up, try a toccata!

Advertisements


1 Comment

Piano’s Everests: Islamey and Gaspard de la Nuit

Elisa Tomellini plays grand piano on top of a mountain in the Alps

Elisa Tomellini plays grand piano on top of a mountain in the Alps.
Photo copyright Joseph Giachino.

Islamey by Mily Balakirev and Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel are considered the most difficult pieces for solo piano.

I had the great good fortune recently of hearing an excellent live performance of Gaspard de la Nuit.

Wow.  There are no words to describe the experience, but I’ll try.

The sound of the piece is stunning, the visual perception of the performance, no less so.  The hands cross over one another, the fingers move so fast, they can be a blur to the human eye.  And as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of notes roll by, you realize the pianist has memorized all of them.  And that is only one part of it.  The first hurdle is technical—being able to physically play the piece.  The second is expressive—and that’s where the piece comes to life, and the pianist adds his own interpretation.

Ravel based this 1908 piece on a collection of poems, Gaspard de la Nuit, by Aloysius Bertrand.  If you read French, you can find the book of poems here (free on Project Gutenberg).  If you want to see the three poems that Ravel used (in French and English), you can see them here.

The first movement is about a water nymph that tries to tempt the listener to join her in her underwater realm.  The second movement is a depiction of a hanged man on a scaffold in the desert.  The third movement depicts the antics of a goblin, Scarbo, as he capers through the night.

Here is Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, performed by Lucas Debargue.

If you want to read the sheet music to see what the pianist has read (and memorized) to perform this piece, you can follow along here to a performance by Benjamin Grosvenor.

There is a masterclass on YouTube for Gaspard de la Nuit, taught by Vlado Perlemuter, who studied with Ravel and recorded all of Ravel’s solo piano music.

In the third movement of Gaspard, Ravel had the intention of creating a piece of music more difficult that Balakirev’s Islamey, written in 1869.  Balakirev drew his themes from folk music of the Caucasus and Crimea.

Here is Balakirev’s Islamey, performed by Giuseppe Mentuccia.

Here is a masterclass on Islamey taught by Lang Lang.  It’s worth noting that the person performing the piece in the masterclass is 17 years old.

In watching these masterclasses, one thing that stands out is that the comments laser-focus in on specific measures, specific phrases.  As I said earlier, when you learn music at this level, you don’t just learn the notes; that’s just the first step.  Then, you consider the execution of phrases, their speed, the speed of separate sections of a given phrase, how connected, smooth, a phrase should be, how the volume evolves over a phrase.  And that’s just one phrase.

Most of us may never be able to play Islamey, or its equivalent for the instrument we play.  And some of us do not play instruments.  But thinking about the music in this detail, listening for these nuances, will make the music richer, fuller, and more enjoyable.

We may not make it to Everest, but even the view from the foothills is worth the trek.

_____

Image attribution:  Elisa Tomellini plays a grand piano at a concert given on top of a mountain in the Alps, setting a world record for the world’s highest piano concert (4460 meters), via http://dmajor.tv/2017/07/11/elisa-tomellini-the-highest-piano-concert-the-world/.  Photo copyright Joseph Giachino.


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.