Wednesday, July 20, 2016

An Illustrated History of Music

There's an old saying that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, which makes me wonder if the person who first said that (the source is unknown) ever considered using drawings to "talk" about music.

Take a look at the seven-minute video below and see how illustrations can serve as an introduction to music history. (A little better than dancing about architecture, I'd say.)

I'm amazed at how many styles of music and significant composers the video found time to include.



Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (6.12.15)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The American Sound in Classical Music

When listening to Chopin’s Polonaise in A Major we are told the music represents the sound of Poland. We are also told that Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 provides a musical slice of Hungarian culture, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture takes us into the sound of Czarist Russia. But what classical composer best provides the sound of America? What is the sound that best represents the United States? These are not easy questions to answer.

Since the 1890s, when Americans were beginning to develop their own traditions in classical music, composers have recognized the dilemma of creating the American sound. In 1892 the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák became the director of the newly formed National Conservatory of Music in New York City and was paid a sizable wage to help create an American school of composition. The problem confronting Dvořák stemmed from the absence of a unified American culture. Quite simply, there were too many different types of people living in the United States to create a sound that was distinctly American. (Like Dvořák, Gustav Mahler, the great Bohemian composer and conductor, also believed the United States was too culturally diverse to be represented by one type of music.)

Dvořák’s solution to the problem can be heard in the cultural diversity evident in his Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World"). The symphony includes original themes that sound somewhat like Stephen Foster tunes, African-American spirituals, and Native American music. Although From the New World has been accused of having too much of an eastern European accent to truly sound American, Dvořák did get the process of creating an American sound started, a process that has been forced to consider the diversity of American culture. 

Antonín Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Fourth Movement (1893)


After Dvořák left the United States in 1895, various classical composers have been associated with the creation of an American national sound — most notably Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Elliot Carter. 

Charles Ives (1874-1954) is best known for composing his memories of a pre-industrial, small-town America. Although his music ranks with the greatest composed by any American, the nationalism in his music did not acknowledge the tremendous ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity that defined the United States. Ives looked at America primarily through the eyes of someone who grew up in a small New England town in the late nineteenth century.

Charles Ives, Country Band March  (1903)


Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is probably most associated in the public's mind with the American sound, creating music that defined an ideal America. Copland’s music romanticized the United States and celebrated the best in the American Spirit. In general, he also avoided the complexities and diversity of the American experience.

Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring, "Simple Gifts" (1944)


The composer, in my opinion, who best captures the complexities of America — and therefore the true American sound — is Elliot Carter (1908-2012). I make that declaration, however, with a confession that I don't always understand his music, and I cannot overstate the challenges of listening to his compositions.

Carter was an intellectual composer, and the music he created is among the most cerebral that any of us will ever confront. Although he composed in a variety of musical styles, he was best known for the masterworks that did not romanticize the American experience and seemed designed to avoid any desire to evoke emotional reactions from listeners. His music is best understood on a purely intellectual level.  

What helps me understand Carter’s compositions is to think about the diversity of American culture and the reality of what that diversity should sound like when represented musically. I think about the “salad bowl” of humanity that defines the United States — the variety of religious, cultural, and philosophical beliefs, as well as the cultural gaps too often separate the American people according to their ethnic, racial, and other differences. I think about how America is home to almost all types of people. I then think about what all those various types of people would sound like if they were all expressing their differences at the same time. 

That, in a nutshell, is how to think about Carter’s music. It’s a type of music that celebrates democracy, freedom, and diversity. It's classical music's version of Martin Luther King's "Beloved Community," a society in which people of all types live together in peace.

In describing the complexity of his music, Carter used these words to describe his Variations for Orchestra:

I have tried to give musical expression to experiences anyone living today must have when confronted by so many remarkable examples of unexpected types of changes and relationships of character uncovered in the human sphere by psychologists and novelists.… The old notion of unity in diversity presents itself to us in an entirely different guise than it did to people living even a short while ago."

Carter's music may not be easy listening, but it challenges us to recognize the prodigious diversity that defines American culture.

Elliot Carter, Variations for Orchestra (1955)


Elliot Carter, Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (1961)



Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (4.5.16)
© 2012 James L. Smith

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Rachmaninoff's Hands

I first heard about Sergei Rachmaninoff’s hands when I was in college and a friend of mine, a piano major, was told that she would not be required to play some of Rachmaninoff’s music because she lacked the reach in her fingers. Since that day, I have noticed that it is difficult to read about Rachmaninoff without the size of his hands creeping into the text. Indeed, the legend of his hands is so pervasive that I often sense writers grasping for adjectives to describe his hands the way someone learning to swim might struggle to breathe.

In The Lives of the Great Composers, Harold C. Schonberg writes that Rachmaninoff’s hands were “supple,” “spectacular,” and “phenomenal.” The Sound Post reports that his oversized hands were "contrarily delicate.” Wikipedia states, “Rachmaninoff possessed extremely large hands, with which he could easily maneuver through the most complex chordal configurations.” 

And how big were Rachmaninoff's hands? In A Walk on the Wild Side, the pianist Earl Wild states, “His reach extended to a twelfth!” Put another way, Max Harrison in Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings reports that Rachmaninoff could "with his left hand stretch C–E-flat–G–C–G and the right could manage C (second finger)–E–G–C–E (thumb under).” 

Sit at a piano and see if your fingers can stretch from middle C to G in the next octave. Anyone with average-sized hands will probably be astonished that fingers can reach that far.

The reason Rachmaninoff's hands were so large may have stemmed from a genetic disorder. In the British Medical Journal (Volume 293, December 20-27, 1986) D.A.B. Young states,  “The extraordinary size and extensibility of Rachmaninoff's hands might indicate Marfan's syndrome.”

The disease is also mentioned in Wikipedia: “Along with his musical gifts, Rachmaninoff possessed physical gifts that may have placed him in good stead as a pianist. These gifts included exceptional height and extremely large hands with a gigantic finger stretch. They and Rachmaninoff's slender frame, long limbs, narrow head, prominent ears, and thin nose suggest that he may have had Marfan syndrome, a hereditary disorder of the connective tissue. This syndrome would have accounted for several minor ailments he suffered all his life. These included back pain, arthritis, eye strain and bruising of the fingertips.”

And how did the size of Rachmaninoff's hands affect his musical performance? Earl Wild states, “Hand size makes no difference whatsoever when playing the piano. As for the ideal fingers, Chopin’s boney, tapered fingers were perfect. Rachmaninoff also had marvelously tapered fingers, although in his case, it was his lush sound that made him famous as a pianist.”

Earl Wild also points out that the size of Rachmaninoff’s hands my have been an obstacle in his musical performance. “Rachmaninoff’s large hands, although a blessing, caused great problems for him…. In octave playing a large hand can be helpful, but an over-sized hand is definitely a hindrance. This is the reason we find so few octave passages in his compositions.”

If Rachmaninoff had not been a great musician, wholly committed to developing his skills as an artist, the size of his hands would not have mattered. He was not only one of the most highly acclaimed pianists of the twentieth century, he was also a great conductor and composer. Focusing too much attention on the size of his hands may be nothing more than an amusing sideshow.

As D.A.B. Young concluded in his article about Rachmaninoff's Marfan syndrome in the British Medical Journal, “I should add that Rachmaninov's eminence as a pianist was founded as much on his interpretation of the music of others, especially Chopin, as on the extraordinary virtuosity he displayed in performing some of his own compositions. Undoubtedly, his hands contributed to his virtuosity; but for his interpretation of others' work it was artistic genius, not large hands, that made his performance so memorable.”


Rachmaninoff playing the First Movement from his Piano Concerto No. 2 
(Recorded in 1929 with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra)


Igudesman and Joo, "Rachmaninoff Had Big Hands"





Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (3.20.16)
© 2011 James L. Smith

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Brubeck, "Blue Rondo à la Turk" (1959)

In 1958, the jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck was touring the Middle East when he heard a Turkish folk tune that repeated a rhythmic pattern divided into beats of 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 + 9. Brubeck later recast that Turkish music into a jazz tune titled "Blue Rondo à la Turk," a piece of music that serves as a great example of what can be done with odd meter in jazz. The Dave Brubeck Quartet first recorded the piece in 1959 for their ground-breaking album Time Out.

The rhythm of "Blue Rondo à la Turk" is organized into groups of nine beats, but it is the subdivision of the nine beats that makes the piece so fascinating. At the beginning of the tune, the nine beats are subdivided as 2 + 2 + 2 + 3. This subdivision is then repeated three times before switching to a subdivision of 3 + 3 + 3, which is only played once before switching back to 2 + 2 + 2 + 3. This pattern repeats itself several times before leading into an extended section of improvisation without the Turkish rhythms, which do make a reappearance at the end to wrap things up.

Whew! I wish you the best of luck at keeping up with what happens rhythmically, and I hope I have described it clearly and accurately. 


Dave Brubeck Quartet




Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (2.26.16)
© 2012 James L. Smith

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Evelyn Glennie: Teaching the World to Listen

"My aim really is to teach the world to listen. That is my only real aim in life." 
– Dame Evelyn Glennie

According to Evelyn Glennie's biographical information on her Facebook page, she is "the first person in history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist." What her Facebook bio does not mention is that she has been profoundly deaf since she was twelve years old. She claims to hear with parts of her body other than her ears and performs barefoot to help feel the music. In this TED talk from 2003, Glennie not only provides a great musical performance (beginning at 27:15), she also offers a new and more mindful way of listening to music. As a bonus to the TED talk, I have embedded a video of Glennie performing Piazzola's Libertango.


Evelyn Glennin, TED Talk, February 2003


Astor Piazzola, Libertango, perfromed by Evelyn Glennie



Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (2.9.16)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Schubert, Notturno in E-flat major (1827)

Franz Schubert was born 219 years ago (January 31, 1797), and his music sounds as beautiful today as ever. The Notturno in E-flat major is one of many soulful masterpieces from the heart of one of history's greatest composers. I can almost guarantee it will be a piece you will want to hear again and again. 

The piece is composed in ternary (ABA) form. Use the time indicators below to identify the beginning of each section in the Eggner Trio's performance.
  • 0:00 – Section A
  • 2:25 – Section B
  • 4:50 – Section A1
  • 6:10 – Section B1
  • 7:48 – Section A2
Enjoy!





Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (1.29.16)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Bach, Suite in E minor for Lute, "Bourée" (c. 1717)

Sometime around 1717, Johann Sebastian Bach composed the Suite in E minor for Lute, which includes a Bourée as the fifth of six movements. Over 250 years later, in 1968, Paul McCartney borrowed the Bourée as an inspiration for his song “Blackbird” on the Beatles' White Album. A year after that, the rock group Jethro Tull included the Bourée on their album Stand Up, providing even more evidence that Bach's music is ubiquitous in our culture. (For more information about what I'm saying, as well as a video showing how McCartney used the Bourée to create "Blackbird," see my blog titled “The Ubiquitous Bach”)

For what it's worth, a "Bourée" is a seventeenth-century French dance with two beats per measure.




Paul McCartney, "Blackbird"


Jethro Tull with Ian Anderson on flute at the AVO SESSION Basel, Switzerland


Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (1.16.16)


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Ubiquitous Bach

What type of music do I most enjoy? The answer depends on my mood. Some days I turn to folk, jazz, or rock. If I'm in the mood for something from the classical repertoire, I must make a choice about whether I want to hear something form the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, or Modern era. If I decide to hear something from the Romantic era, I must then decide whether I’m in the mood for Chopin, Brahms, or Mahler. 

So much music. So many choices. So little time.

I will say, however, that no matter what type of music I choose I’m likely to bump into Bach — I can't escape him. HIs music is everywhere, imposing itself on all types of music and entertainment. 

I turned to an old episode of Northern Exposure recently and caught the character played by Barry Corbin drinking wine and listening to the Goldberg Variations. A few days later I was streaming Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator and heard Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Every week or so I hear Jon Batiste greeting one of Stephen Colbert’s guests with something from Bach. After Sarah Silverman sat on Colbert’s couch, she asked Batiste, “What was that?” Batiste answered, “Bach,” as if Silverman should have known. (She should have.)

I hear Bach’s influence in songs by the Beatles, as well as the introduction to the Door’s Light My Fire. When I listen to jazz, I often hear music derived from Bach.

No matter where I’m going, there I am — listening to Bach. Bach died over 265 years ago, but more than any other composer his music is ubiquitous in our culture.

Just look at the information below.

The Internet Movie Database lists 1088 movie and television soundtracks from 1931-2016 that use Bach’s music. This number has increased from 755 since I first looked at it two years ago for a class I was teaching on Bach, and I expect the number will keep increasing. Anyone who watches movies and television cannot escape Bach.
  • Fifty Shades of Grey (Concerto in D minor)
  • The Butler (Partita No. 1 in B-flat)
  • The Iron Lady (Prelude in C major from Well-Tempered Clavier I)
  • The English Patient (Goldberg Variations)
  • Silence of the Lambs (Goldberg Variations)
  • Die Hard (Brandenburg Concerto No. 3)
  • The Godfather (Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor)
  • Sunset Boulevard (Toccata and Fugue in D minor)
  • Fantasia  (Toccata and Fugue in D minor)
Bach has influenced or been quoted directly in numerous popular songs.
  • The Beach Boys, “Lady Lynda” (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring)
  • Procol Harum, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (Air on the G String)
  • The Doors, “Light My Fire” – Ray Manzarek said his keyboard playing was influenced by Bach
  • Jethro Tull, “Bourée” (“Bourée” from Suite in E Minor for Lute)
  • The Beatles, “In My Life” (listen for the Bach-influenced keyboard solo)
  • The Beatles, “Penny Lane” (listen for the trumpet solo influenced by Bach’s Brandenburg Concert No. 2)
  • The Beatles, “Blackbird” (see the video embedded below to hear Paul McCartney explain the influence of the “Bourée” from Suite in E Minor for Lute)
Bach has influenced or been quoted directly by numerous jazz artists.
  • Modern Jazz Quartet, "Fugue in A Minor”
  • Classical Jazz Quartet, “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2”
  • Donald Fox Quartet, “Variations on a Bach Fugue”
Bach’s music has been heard at numerous historical events.
  • After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich sat by the ruins of the wall and played the "Sarabande" from Cello Suite No. 3 in C major.
  • During the Persian Gulf War in February 1991, Isaac Stern was preparing to play at Jerusalem Hall when an air raid siren sounded, obviously causing great concern for people attending the concert. Stern stepped on stage and began playing Bach’s “Sarabande” from Partita No. 1 for Solo Violin to calm everyone down. People in the audience sat through the rest of his performance wearing gas masks. (Stern's gas mask was kept offstage in case he needed it.)
  • For ten days after the September 11 attacks on 2001, public radio stations in New York City adhered to an all-news format. On September 23, WNYC-FM reverted to its classical format with a program titled “Bach: Solace and Inspiration.” The host, David Garland, described the music as something that would “reassure and renew the spirit.” Garland played Art of the Fugue, Goldberg Variations, Sleepers Wake, and Sheep May Safely Graze.
  • On September 11, 2002, Yo-Yo Ma played Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor at ground zero to commemorate the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The names of those who died were read aloud as Ma played.
  • On January 27, 2010, Steve jobs introduced the iPad to the press by playing Bach on iTunes. Jobs had been listening to Bach since he was a teenager. Yo-Yo Ma, one of Jobs’ friends, played at Jobs’ memorial in October 2011.
For almost 300 years, Bach's music has had a significant influence on musicians and composers, and it would not be stretching credulity to ask, “Who has NOT been influenced by Bach?”
  • Mozart studied Bach’s music and admired his ingenuity.
  • Beethoven thought of the Well-Tempered Clavier as his “musical Bible.”
  • Liszt memorized all forty-eight of the preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 and 2.
  • Chopin told his students that Bach’s music was “the highest and best school.” Chopin spent two weeks before every concert playing nothing but Bach and did not even practice his own compositions to prepare for a concert, playing only Bach.
  • Mendelssohn admired Bach more than any other composer. His family had long supported a Bach salon in Berlin. Mendelssohn re-introduced Bach to European audiences after he had remained relatively unknown to the general public for almost eighty years.
  • Schumann said, “Music owes as much to Bach as religion to its founder…. We are all bunglers next to him.”
  • Brahms said, “The two greatest events of my lifetime are the founding of the German Empire and the completion of the Bach Gesellschaft's publications."
  • Wagner proclaimed that the greatness of Bach was “almost inexplicably mysterious.”
  • Stravinsky went through a “neo-Bach” phase, composing music that used “the wonderful jolts, the sudden modulations, the unexpected harmonic changes, the deceptive cadences that are the joy of every Bach cantata.”
  • Villa-Lobos composed Bachianas Brasileiras, a collection of nine suites for various instruments and voice that were based on Bach’s style of composition.
  • Almost all modern musicians playing a keyboard instrument, string instrument, or wind instrument have developed their musical technique by playing Bach’s music.
There's so much more to say, but there it is … Bach is everywhere. You may find that it’s impossible to make it through the week without hearing Bach’s music or hearing a piece of music that bears his influence.

And why Bach? Why has Bach, more than any other composer, cast such an inescapable presence over music history?

First, let me state the obvious. Bach was a damned good composer, a highly skilled artist who gave us over 1100 pieces of music. In 1992, Phil G. Goulding published Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1000 Greatest Works and declared that Bach was the greatest composer of all time. In January 2011, a New York Times poll conducted by Anthony Tommasini also declared that Bach was history’s greatest composer. Even if he is not history's "greatest" composer, his music has certainly stood the test of time and remains as popular as ever.

The second reason that Bach’s music has become ubiquitous comes from its flexibility. Bach's music can be taken out of the early eighteenth century and easily transferred to the instruments and styles of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Bach’s music can be transposed and transformed to adapt to changing technology. It can be adapted to almost any format or medium, from chamber orchestras to full-size orchestras, from lutes to rock bands to digital performances. Bach’s music lends itself to constant reinvention. We can also listen to it as it sounded in the eighteenth century, and it will still sound great to the modern ear.

There's no doubt that long after everyone reading this blog is gone, the world will still be listening to the ubiquitous Bach.


Paul McCartney explaining how Bach influenced his song "Blackbird"


Modern Jazz Quartet, Fugue in A Minor


Yo-Yo Ma Playing Bach at a September 11 Memorial

The inspiration and much of the information for this blog came from Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie, a book I highly recommend, as well as the other books shown below.





Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (1.6.16)
© 2016 James L. Smith

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, First Movement (c. 1721)

Concertos normally feature a cadenza in which the orchestra quits playing and the soloist demonstrates virtuosity with an extended solo passage. This video of one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos features a three minute cadenza by the harpsichordist beginning at 6:38. Although I enjoy the cadenza and find it impressive, I can't erase from my mind what the English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham said about harpsichords: “Sounds like two skeletons copulating on a corrugated tin roof.” (Once you see some things, you can't unsee them.)


Paul Begala, harpsichord / Otto Büchner, violin / Paul Meisen, flute 



Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (12.18.15)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Sibelius, Symphony No. 5, Third Movement Finale (1915)

Although Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony seemingly has three movements, the first movement contains an allegro and a scherzo, providing the feeling of four movements for the symphony. In its entirety, the symphony can be heard as a “struggle” leading to the “victory” heard in the beautiful “Swan Theme” at 1:24 in the video below. (The theme was said to be inspired by the swan calls Sibelius heard after watching sixteen swans taking flight at once.) Note the unusual ending for the symphony. 


Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra



Posted on www.ClassicalTyro.com (12.7.15)