Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Tubas and More

Bass Tuba

A euphonium
Is not a sousaphone, nor
A tuba, oh no.

Though the sound goes round
And round, and emerges deep
In tone, soft or loud,
Do not believe that
Oom-pah-pah is all that you
Will ever hear—no.
For mellow is one
Of the tones that will surprise,
And, yes, delight you.

Oh, when the saints go
Marching in, the angels play
harps, cherubim, flutes;
But somewhere in the
Line, I know, you are sure to
Find, yes, a tuba.

I thought this post would be easy.

I thought I could simply contrast the tuba, euphonium, sousaphone, add some pictures, some samples, and done!

But no.

It wasn’t long before I found the saxtuba, the helicon and its ancestors the buccina and cornu, and, then Wagner came along, and…

Anyway, let’s get started.  Most folks have heard of a tuba.  It is the lowest-pitched of the brass instruments.  There are contrabass tubas, the lowest of all, and slightly smaller (and slightly higher-pitched) bass tubas.  The fundamental pitch of a contrabass tuba can be 32 Hz or 29 Hz.  The threshold of human hearing is 20 Hz.  Click this link to see how a tuba is madeSee the world’s largest tuba here.

A euphonium is pitched an octave higher than the lowest contrabass tuba.  It is also somewhat smaller.  Here’s a comparison picture, showing the euphonium on the left and tuba on the right.

Euphonium and tuba

The brass instrument you’re likely to see in a marching band, its bright bell shining in the sun, is a sousaphone.  It was popularized by John Philip Sousa, the American march king.  Sousa was unhappy with the predecessor of the sousaphone, the helicon.  He wanted the sound to go up over the band.  And so the sousaphone was created.  But the original bells pointed skyward, which became a problem when marching on a rainy day. So eventually the bell shifted to a forward-pointing position.

Sousaphone

Sousaphone

Helicon

Helicon

The helicon was derived from the saxtuba, which in turn was derived from the cornu and buccina, which signaled the Roman legions in ancient times.

Saxtuba

Saxtuba

Cornu players (cornicen) on Trajan's Column

Cornu players (cornicen) on Trajan’s Column

You’ve probably noted the “sax” tacked onto saxtuba.  There’s also a family of instruments called saxhorns.  That’s because Adolphe Sax, father of the saxophone (which is actually a woodwind, not a brass instrument), was prolific in his production of brass instruments.  Here’s a page cataloging various Sax instruments.

Adolphe Sax's instrument catalogue

One day, Richard Wagner entered Adolphe Sax’s shop.  He was looking for a certain sound for his new opera.  He was shown a saxhorn, but it wasn’t quite what he wanted, so he had another instrument builder create a Wagner tuba for use in Das Rheingold, for the Valhalla theme.  You can hear it here.

Double Wagner tuba

Double Wagner tuba

And now to the music!

Here is the Concerto in F Minor for Bass Tuba and Orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Here is John Williams’s Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra featuring some flying finger passages for the tuba.

And finally, the soulful Czardas by Vittorio Monti, arranged here for solo tuba and three trombones.

Wishing you a happy Tuba Thursday!

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Image attributions

Euphonium and Tuba by user Elf at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEuphoniumAndTuba_wb.jpg

Sousaphone by Yamaha Corporation (Yamaha Music Europe) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYamaha_Sousaphone_YSH-411.jpg

Helicon by Matthias Bramboeck (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHelikon-Stowasser-Graz.jpg

Saxtuba by Anonymous (http://www.jstor.org/pss/842482) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASaxtuba.jpg

Cornu players (cornice) carved on Trajan’s column, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACornicen_on_Trajan’s_column.JPG

Sax instrument chart by Adolphe Sax [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdolphe_Sax_instrument_catalogue.jpg

Wagner tuba by Zanetta (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADouble_Wagner_tuba_by_Alexander.jpg

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Free Webcast: Wagner’s Entire Ring Cycle

stick figure singing opera on a television with a viking helmet for an antennaGot plans for the weekend?  I have a suggestion:  binge watch a tale of greed, forbidden love, death, revenge, and apocalypse.  And the soundtrack is incredible!

BBC Arts and The Space are presenting for free online viewing performances of the operas in Wagner’s Ring cycle produced by Opera NorthHere’s the trailer.

It is available worldwide at this link. There are English subtitles.  Each of the four operas is presented separately, in case you don’t have a spare 15 hours straight to watch the entire cycle.  Here’s where you can find out more about each of the four operas in the cycle and the performers.  Here is the trailer for Siegfried.

In the reference section, you can find some fine websites that provide an introduction to the Ring before you embark on this epic journey.   Here is the Southbank Centre’s animated guide to the Ring.  And I particularly like this 2 1/2-minute video in which the Sydney Symphony Orchestra tells the story of the Ring.

I hope you will enjoy the Ring!

 

Postscript–because someone is bound to ask.  For those of you (in particular, Americans of a certain age) who can’t hear Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries without thinking “Kill the wabbit,” here’s a link to the Bugs Bunny cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?”  In addition to using Ride of the Valkyries, the cartoon borrows from Wagner’s opera TannhäuserYou can read about it here.

References

Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Der_Ring_des_Nibelungen

“Wagner’s Ring Cycle: Where to Start” http://www.classicfm.com/composers/wagner/guides/wagner-ring-cycle-where-start/

This website from the University of Michigan will help you learn more about the symbolism used in the Ring cycle http://www.umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/Teutonic_Mythology/ringsum.html

Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s guide to the Ring https://youtu.be/AgzZ_nLOJJE

Southbank Centre’s animated guide to the Ring https://youtu.be/ykQ7jc09OAk

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Image attribution: Stick figure singing opera on a television with a viking helmet as an antenna, C. Gallant, 2016.


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Music is Everywhere

Here are some musicians finding music in very unusual places.  Enjoy!

First, the Triple Concerto for Faucet, Water Pipes, and Fiddle

And now, Siegfried’s Horn Call for Horn (and Chair)

And this post would not be complete without P.D.Q. Bach’s “Erotica” Variations for Banned Instruments (safe for work, despite title!).  My favorite is the lasso d’amore (the orange whirly tube).

See if you can find some unexpected music today!


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Haiku Wednesday: The Ring Cycle

The Ring by Wagner
Takes fifteen hours; and by
Sydney–two minutes.

When I was doing research on the availability of opera on the web, I came across this fun little video from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, “Wagner’s 15-hour Ring Cycle…in two in a half minutes” and wanted to share it with you.

 

If two and a half minutes was a too fast, you can read the story of The Ring Cycle here.

You might also enjoy the Sydney Symphony orchestra’s quick video “A Day in the Life of Maestro Darth Vader”.

Enjoy your day!


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Free Opera Binge Watching!

stick guy singing opera on a television with a viking helmet for an antenna

I had hoped to showcase this weekend’s livestream of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (musical direction by Kirill Petrenko, with a fine cast including Jonas Kaufmann) from the Bavarian State Opera.  However, it has been postponed.  For more information, click hereHere is a video about the production.

Undeterred, I searched the internet for a replacement.

I have found you hours and hours of opera.  And I don’t mean The Ring cycle.

The Vienna State Opera  is currently offering for free Wagner’s Parsifal and Götterdämmerung (ok, some of The Ring; click here for details). The opera company typically offers livestreams by subscription (single, monthly, by season).  You can watch at the time of event, or slightly time shifted to accommodate your time zone.

Not a Wagner fan? Here’s what The Opera Platform website has for you right now (the assortment changes over time; click here for details):

Bell  In Parenthesis

Bizet  Carmen

Boesmans  Reigen

Debussy  Pelléas et Mélisande (not available for viewing in the US)

Puccini  Manon Lescaut

Rossini  The Barber of Seville

Tchaikovsky  Eugene Onegin

Tchaikovsky  The Queen of Spades

Verdi  Macbeth

Wagner  Parsifal

(this is the same production available at the Vienna State Opera site)

Wagner  The Valkyries

 Enjoy!

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Image attribution: C. Gallant, 2016.


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Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde Online

Leighton-Tristan_and_Isolde-1902

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is making available a performance of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde on YouTube.  The first act is online now.  Act 2 will be released on August 31, and Act 3 will be released on September 14.

Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde had a substantial effect on Western music. Some consider it the first “modern” music. Even if you’re not an opera (or Wagner) fan, I hope you’ll take time to listen to the overture.

So much has been written on the “Tristan chord” used in this opera.  Wagner defies our expectations of what should come next, using chords that do not resolve in a traditional way.  The effect is one of unease, longing.  It was shocking at the time; it is still beautifully disquieting now.

Here is a short discussion of the Tristan chord by Antonio Pappano of the Royal Opera House.

Here is a brief explanation that features Wagner’s own Steinway piano.

See the opera performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra here.

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Image attribution:  Tristan and Isolde by Edmund Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALeighton-Tristan_and_Isolde-1902.jpg


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Opera in Pajamas

(you, not the performers.  Although that would be interesting)

Can’t make it to Milan to see an opera at La Scala?  I feel your pain.  Maybe this will help.

If you’re curious about opera, but didn’t know where to start, here’s a low-budget way (meaning, in this case, free) to see what it’s all about…in your pajamas if you’d like.

The Opera Platform website is intended for those new to opera as well as seasoned attendees and is intended to promote European opera companies.  A number of operas have been made available as video on demand and include subtitles.  A new opera is added each month, and is available on demand for six months.  See their About Us page for more details.  The site features operas by Wagner, Sibelius, and Verdi (La Traviata) to name a few, and Puccini’s La Boheme will be added soon.

Another venue for full opera performances is the Warner Classics TV channel on YouTube.  And the Metropolitan Opera offers a free 7-day trial to their Met Opera on Demand streaming service.

Need a little background info before you dive into the operas?  There are numerous books dedicated to demystifying opera (headed to the library?  Dewey decimal number 782.1).  Don’t have that much time?  Sinfini Music has put together a number of comic strips outlining the plots of famous operas.  You can find the comic strips here.

While these are great on-ramps to opera, there is no substitute for the thrill of live performance.  If you like what you hear, check the web for local opera companies and performances in your area.  There are a lot of talented folks out there who would love to have you come out and enjoy all the hard work, time, and devotion they put into their craft.   They’d also prefer that you not attend in your pajamas.

No opera in your area?  Head to your local library or favorite online merchant.  Many operas are available not only on CD but DVD as well (including BluRay).  Nothing beats a live performance, but the sound and visual quality of the recordings are typically top-notch.  I saw Les Troyens by Berlioz on BluRay and it was spectacular.

So settle into your chair, wherever it may be, and get ready for a treat.  If you see something you think is great, let us all know so we can see it too!

Postscript:  After writing this, I found two great operas on pristine LPs at my local thrift shop.  Total cost:  $3.90.

  • Wagner’s Tannhäuser, with soprano Birgit Nilsson and tenor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Deutsche Oper Berlin conducted by Otto Gerdes
  • Verdi’s Aida, with soprano Montserrat Caballé and tenor Placido Domingo, New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti.

which led me to find the Riccardo Muti’s recording label website on which one can stream Verdi’s Requiem and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under his direction.

Must. stop. finding. links.