Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Amy Beach: The Only Woman on Boston's Hatch Shell

Historians know the story well — the opportunities of an intelligent, talented woman are restricted by a culture that sees women only as wives and mothers. The musical careers of Nannerl Mozart and Fanny Mendelssohn were never allowed to develop, although both may have been as talented as their famous brothers. Alma Schindler ended her possible career as a composer the day her husband Gustav told her the Mahler family could only contain one composer.

Amy Beach (1867-1944) was a talented musician who confronted the same cultural restrictions as many women who came before her. Amy, however, was unwilling to accept the barriers imposed by the man’s world of composing and performing music, and her determination to overcome cultural restrictions led her to became one of the greatest and most significant musicians in American history.

Born Amy Cheney, she was a child prodigy whose parents opted not to enroll her in a music conservatory. Instead, she studied with private teachers and debuted as a concert pianist to great acclaim when she was only sixteen. By any standard Amy would have been headed for a successful career as a concert pianist — if she had been a man.

When she was eighteen she married Henry Beach, a Boston surgeon who was twenty-four years older. Dr. Beach told Amy to abandon her public performances, and at first she obeyed his wishes. Her creative spirit, however, could not be crushed, and she taught herself musical composition and orchestration. If her husband would not allow her to perform in public, she would at least be able to compose at home. In the process, she became a charter member of the first generation of American composers.

Amy was a product of the Romantic era’s desire to create music with a national sound. She therefore looked to her Irish roots for thematic material and created a sound that was uniquely Irish-American. In 1896, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra played her Symphony in E Minor (the "Gaelic" Symphony) she became the first American woman to compose music performed by a major orchestra. The symphony, characterized by its Irish-American themes, placed Amy in the first rank of American composers.

After her husband died in 1910, she returned to performing in public and toured Europe, playing her own compositions. In her later years she continued to compose and worked hard to promote the careers of young composers. She died of heart disease at the age of seventy-seven.

On July 9, 2000, Amy's name was added to the granite wall on Boston’s famous Hatch Shell, joining eighty-six other great composers. To this day, Amy Beach is the only woman listed on the wall with such composers as Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy.

Amy Beach, Theme and Variations for Flute and Strings




Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (9.5.15)
© 2012 James L. Smith

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, First Movement (1804)

With the two E-flat major chords that begin this symphony Beethoven started a revolution in music. This first movement alone was almost as long as entire symphonies of the time, the traditional third movement minuet became a scherzo, and, unlike previous symphonies, this symphony follows a dramatic narrative through all four movements. In my music history classes I normally place this symphony in the “Classical” category but could easily tag it as “Romantic.”


Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra




Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (9.2.15)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Haydn, Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major, Third Movement (1796)

Musicians playing the valveless trumpets of the eighteenth century were limited to playing notes from a harmonic series and were generally unable, except in higher registers, to provide satisfying melodic lines. However, new developments in the construction of trumpets during the late 1700s allowed the instruments to deliver satisfying melodies in all registers. Anton Weidinger, a trumpet virtuoso in the Vienna Court Orchestra, played a significant role in developing a five-keyed trumpet and then asked Joseph Haydn to compose a concerto for the new instrument. The Concerto in E-flat Major came from that request. 

A lesson for Tyros — a “concerto” provides audiences with a solo instrument accompanied by an orchestra. In the video below Haydn’s orchestral accompaniment has been scored for piano.


Markus Würsch, keyed trumpet; Peter Solomon, fortepiano


Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (8.17.15)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Separating the Composer from the Music

I often play Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss in my music history classes, using it to demonstrate the characteristics of romanticism and define the concept of a tone poem. It’s a piece of music that my students — whether they are teenagers or adults — seem to enjoy. 

How could they not enjoy it? In portraying the transfiguration of a human soul and the metaphorical “white light” that comes after death, it provides orchestral music that might best be described as “spiritual.” It’s guaranteed to raise a few goose bumps and moisten the eyes.

In any case, one of my students recently pointed out that before anyone became too enamored with Strauss's music they should know he cooperated with German Nazis in the 1930s. He dined with Adolf Hitler, socialized with Nazi officials, and served as president of the Reich Music Chamber. Strauss’s defenders point out that he was a reluctant Nazi who was generally apolitical and did not share the Nazi Party’s most disgraceful ideas. In 1935 he was even forced to resign from the Reich Music Chamber for his lack of Aryan loyalty. This defense does little to mollify the victims of Nazism. 

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
And Strauss was not the only notable composer guilty of objectionable behavior or beliefs. Beethoven’s deranged behavior drove his nephew to attempt suicide. Berlioz attempted to kill the fiancé of his lover. Saint-Saëns enjoyed the companionship of adolescent males and reportedly said, “I am not a homosexual, I am a pederast.”

Fortunately, none of these personal transgressions appear in the music these composers created. Their music has brought beauty and inspiration to generations of concert goers. People’s lives have been transformed by listening to their compositions.

And then there’s Richard Wagner — what a lousy, no good human being. He was greedy and ruthless. He ran from debts and had affairs with his friends' wives. He was racist and viciously anti-Semitic. He regarded himself as a god and once said, “I am not made like other people. I must have brilliance and beauty and light. The world owes me what I need.” 

Despite his shameful legacy as a human being Wagner’s music dramas are  filled with messages of the redemptive power of love. His work has moved music lovers to believe in the possibility of personal transformation through love and the purity of the human heart.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
So what should I make of all this? Should I never again listen to or enjoy the music of  Strauss or Wagner? Should I quit playing music by Saint-Saëns, the pederast, in my music history classes? Should I enjoy works of art created by such misguided, unpleasant, and sometimes evil human beings? 

If I decided not to listen to their music, I would only be denying myself some of the greatest music ever composed. And where would I draw the line? Should I abandon Brahms due to his habitual transactions with prostitutes? Should I not be inspired by the Beatles’s recording of “All You Need is Love” because John Lennon mocked people with physical disabilities? Should I avoid music (or any other art) created by someone whose personal behavior or philosophy I find despicable? 

I think not. Life is short, and I see no profit in denying myself great music because the person who created it was vile or corrupt. Music not only helps me make it through the day, it sometimes serves as my only salvation during those inevitable dark nights of the soul. If I require my composers to be good and decent human beings, I’m not left with much, if any music, to serve my needs. I must accept that some composers are flawed, imperfect, and sometimes odious creatures who nevertheless can create works of exquisite beauty. 

This Sunday (May 22) is Wagner’s 203rd birthday, and I have no desire to commemorate the memory of that loathsome man. I will, however, spend time on the day after his birthday listening to the Overture to Tannhäuser and Isolde’s “Love-Death” from Tristan and Isolde. No doubt I will enjoy the music, even if it was composed by an abhorrent human being.


Tannhäuser, Overture (Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic)


Tristan and Isolde, "Love-Death" (Waltraud Meier under the direction of Daniel Barenboim at Scala Milan)







© 2011 James L. Smith  (originally posted on SonataForm.blogspot.com)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Barber, Adagio for Strings – Quartet (1938)

Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings has been labeled “the saddest music ever written,” gaining status in the United States as the unofficial anthem of national mourning. During times of collective tragedy — such as the assassination of John Kennedy or the attacks of September 11 — Adagio Strings will certainly make an appearance. It has also been used with tragic effect in numerous films, such as The Elephant Man and Platoon. Although the Adagio is traditionally performed by string orchestra, Barber originally composed it as the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. The version embedded below is from the original version for string quartet.






Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (8.7.15)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Alive Inside: The Power of Music

"The imagining of music, even in relatively nonmusical people, tends to be remarkably faithful not only to the tune and feeling of the original but its pitch and tempo. Underlying this is the extraordinary tenacity of musical memory, so that much of what is heard during one’s early years may be ‘engraved’ on the brain for the rest of one’s life."
– Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

As a follow-up to a blog I posted two days ago titled "Music and the Doctrine of Ethos," I have embedded two film clips below that show how powerfully the memory of music is imprinted in our minds.

The first clip shows an old man named Henry reacting to music from his past. Henry is an Alzheimer’s patient who has spent over ten years in a nursing home. He is depressed and normally unresponsive when people speak to him. He comes alive, however, when listening to music. As seen in the film, music has the power to liberate Henry's memories more than any other form of therapy.

The clip I have embedded comes from Alive Inside, a documentary about the power of music and the social worker who uses it to help patients with dementia and Alzheimer's.

Man in Nursing Home Reacts to Music


“[Music] gives me the feeling of love, romance! … The Lord came to me and he made me a holy man, so he gave me these sounds.” – Henry

The second film clip comes from ABC’s Nightline and shows U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords finding her voice through music. In January 2011, Giffords was shot in an assassination attempt. Although the bullet passed through her head, she has recovered some of her ability to walk, speak, read, and write. She owes her life and partial recovery to many talented doctors and physical therapists. I have embedded this clip to show how music therapy was a large part of her recovery.

Gabby Giffords Finds Her Voice Through Music


2500 years ago the Greeks believed that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in positive ways. In modern times the doctrine of ethos seems to have modern science on its side.






Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (7.9.15)
© 2012 James L. Smith

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, BWV 1048 (1721)

“I love the Brandenburg Concertos and think they are so rhythmic, and so full of life, and so related in a way to jazz.” – Dave Brubeck, 2007

1st and 2nd Movements (2nd Movement begins at 5:53 – a short movement)


3rd Movement

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra


Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (7.30.15)

Monday, May 16, 2016

Music and the Doctrine of Ethos

Music has the power to magnify emotions.

Notice how music is used in films to exaggerate the drama, horror, or comedy in a story. It might be tragic enough to see an innocent child die in a film, but if the death is accompanied by the right music, the film can make you sob until you are honking like a goose.

A belief of the ancient Greeks held that music had a magical power to speak directly to human emotion. In what has come to be known as the doctrine of ethos, the Greeks believed that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in a positive way. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that when music was designed to imitate a certain emotion, a person listening to the music would have that emotion.

"We accept the division of melodies proposed by certain philosophers into ethical melodies, melodies of action, and passionate or inspiring melodies, each having, as they say, a mode corresponding to it". 
– Aristotle, Politics,  Bk 8, Pt 7

In Aristotle’s mind, someone listening to the wrong type of music would become the wrong type of person. Certain instruments and modes would take one toward either the logos (rational) or pathos (emotional), and it was essential to raise children with the right kind of music.

"Shall we argue that music conduces to virtue, on the ground that it can form our minds and habituate us to true pleasures as our bodies are made by gymnastics to be of a certain character?" 
– Aristotle, Politics, Bk. 8, Pt. 5

In a similar manner, many people in modern times believe music can be used to help educate children and promote good health.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music can be used to "promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication, and promote physical rehabilitation."

In an article posted on the Huffington Post," Therese J. Borchard, who is the author of the Beyond Blue column, writes that music can be used as therapy. “Everything with a beat moves my spirit,” writes Ms. Borchard. “I can't get enough of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, because I think so much better when these guys are playing in the background.”

I recommend reading what Ms. Borchard has written and then listen to the pieces I have embedded below to get a sense of what she is saying. Both pieces are referenced by Ms. Bochard in her article “Music Therapy: Got the Blues? Play Them."

Whether we call it music therapy or the doctrine of ethos, the concept is simple to grasp. At its best, music has the potential to affect our emotions so deeply that it can cleanse our soul and connect us with something that might only be described as “spiritual.”

Sarah Brightman singing “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera


Rachmaninoff, Prelude in C-sharp minor (Ruslan Sviridov, piano)




Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (7.8.15)
© 2012 James L. Smith

Friday, May 13, 2016

Mozart, Clarinet Concerto, Second Movement (1791)

This clarinet concerto was the last significant work Mozart finished before his death in December 1791. London’s Classic FM audience recently ranked the concerto at #8 in it’s 2015 Hall of Fame poll for favorite pieces of classical music. 


Martin Fröst, clarinet (Christoph Poppen conducting the German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra)


Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (6.15.15)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana, Intermezzo (1890)

Here’s a wonderful performance of one of classical music’s most beautiful pieces of music. Mascagni inserted this interlude into his opera Cavallaria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) to denote the passage of time. If it sounds familiar, you may have heard it in the film Raging Bull. (The music begins at 0:40 after much encouragement from the audience for an encore.) 


Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Gothenburg Symphony


Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (7.4.15)