Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Claude Debussy: The Tranquil Revolutionary

"I am more and more convinced that music, by its very nature, is something that cannot be cast  into a traditional and fixed form. It is made up of colors and rhythms. The rest is a lot of humbug invented by frigid imbeciles riding on the backs of the Masters—who, for the most part, wrote almost nothing but period music. Bach alone had an idea of the truth."
– Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was one of the most accessible composers in music history, and if you don’t enjoy listening to his music, you may never enjoy anything from the classical repertoire.

I've often told students that a great piece of music must be heard several times before it can be fully understood or appreciated. With Debussy that is generally not the case. His compositions can make a lasting impression with a single hearing, and I don't use the word "impression" lightly.

Early in Debussy’s career his music was labeled “Impressionist," a term that had previously been applied to a style of painting associated with artists such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The term came from the title of Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise (shown below) and refers to paintings that use light and color to create a soft-focus image of a scene rather than a detailed representation. By that definition, it's easy to see why some people used the term to describe Debussy's music.

Although Debussy disliked the comparisons of his compositions to Impressionism, the adjectives used to describe Monet’s style of painting can also be used to described Debussy’s music. Like Monet's paintings, Debussy's music is often static and seemingly unconcerned with any need to move forward. Debussy's music might also be described as “blurred,” using harmony and timbre to create musical impressions. Like Monet's paintings, the mood of Debussy's music is more important than the image or story.

Debussy disliked the music of most other composers and criticized the work of Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven. (He did, however, seem to like Bach.) This disdain for the music of others can be heard in the way Debussy rejected the musical traditions of past masters and created a whole new musical language. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, he provided listeners with music unlike anything ever heard before. He was an artistic revolutionary and, for that reason alone, ranks as one of the most significant composers of the last century.

The best way to describe Debussy’s music is to take the following ingredients and mix them together. When finished you will have what amounted to a new type of music for the twentieth century.
  • He was unconcerned with the expectations of his audience, and created a musical language that divorced itself from the long-standing German traditions. He famously wrote: “I want my music to be as relevant to the twentieth century as the airplane.”
  • His music was largely programmatic, although he did not try to paint a picture or tell a story with his music as much as he tried to evoke a mood.
  • The sounds of his native language can be heard in his compositions. Debussy was French, and — like the language he spoke — his music was generally free of sharp accents and harsh consonants.
  • His music emphasized “color” through his creative use of musical timbre. He used instruments either by themselves or in unusual groupings to create sounds that had never been heard in an orchestra.
  • His music provided unorthodox harmonies and melodic lines. Generally unconcerned with whether his themes were set in a major or minor key, Debussy employed harmonies designed to evoke a certain mood, using whole tone scales (play C – D – E – F# – G#– A# – C on a piano), pentatonic scales (play the black keys on a piano), and chromatic scales (listen to the flute at the beginning of The Afternoon of a Faun on the video embedded below).
Although Debussy’s music was shockingly original when it was first composed, it did not cause the same social earthquake as other modernist music of the early twentieth century. Debussy was as much a revolutionary as composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, but the benevolent sound he created did not give people a sense that he had turned the musical world upside down — even though he had.

As for my statement above that unlike many other composers Debussy's music can make a lasting impression with a single hearing, let me finish by quoting Debussy on that very subject:

"Love of art does not depend on explanations, or on experience as in the case of those who say ‘I need to hear that several times.’ Utter rubbish! When we really listen to music, we hear immediately what we need to hear."

Debussy, “Claire de lunefrom Suite bergamasque (1905)
graphic score by Music Animation Machine

Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894)
Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra

© 2011 James L. Smith

Monday, October 3, 2016

Oscar Peterson's Master Class

The distinguished and elegant Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) was a Canadian jazz pianist who was trained in the European classical tradition. This short video of Mr. Peterson explaining styles of jazz piano is a gem. All told, the video provides six examples of jazz piano. 
  • Stride (Art Tatum)
  • Two-Fingered Percussiveness (Nat King Cole)
  • Lyric Octaves (Errol Garner)
  • Relaxed Block Chords (George Shearing)
  • Double Octave Melody Lines
  • Tonality-Based

As for Peterson’s own style, here’s how it's described in A Natural History of the Piano by Stuart Isacoff:

“The Peterson style was always characterized by rapid, graceful, blues-tinged melody lines unfurled in long, weaving phrases with the inexorable logic of an epic narrative; and, equally important, a visceral sense of rhythm, transmitted with fire and snap. Those qualities for which he was renowned — effortless fluidity and clockwork precision — were not merely aspects of his playing; they were the very foundation on which his artistic expression rested. And pulling them off required the highest level of athletic prowess.” 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Analyzing Works of Art in a History Class

Whether you teach European history, United States history, or some other historical topic, works of art are often a great tool for helping students gain a more sophisticated understanding of history. The purpose of this blog is to suggest one approach for helping history students analyze works of art. Although the approach might seem simple, it is nevertheless quite effective at helping students learn to reach historical conclusions on their own.

Once you have selected a work of art, ask students to analyze that work and then use their analysis to reach conclusions about the topic they are studying. You might, for example, choose Pablo Picasso's Guernica to help students better understand the rise of European fascism during the 1930s. Follow my two recommendations below and you should be able to create lessons that not only engage students but also help them become independent thinkers.

First, provide students with enough background information that they can place the work of art in historical context.

So that students will be able to reach conclusions about the work of art on their own, I recommend keeping the background information to a minimum,  

In the case of Picasso’s Guernica, I might, for example, provide students with a little information about the Spanish Civil War. I would probably also talk about the newly-established German Air Force and how it bombed the Spanish city of Guernica in April 1937. In supporting Francisco Franco, the fascist leader of Spain, Germany used Guernica to practice the techniques of air warfare that they would later use in the blitzkrieg of World War II. In attacking Guernica, a city of 7000, the Germans injured 900 Spaniards and killed 1700.

If students know that minimal amount of information, they should be able to glean much meaning from the painting.

Next, show students the work of art and ask them to answer three questions.
  1. What details in the painting catch your attention?
  2. What questions of curiosity are sparked by the painting?
  3. What conclusions can you make that are based on information in the painting?
Take note that these questions are designed to encourage students to examine the painting closely and come to their own conclusions about the rise of fascism. As always, history teachers should avoid teaching students what to think and instead teach them how to think.

If students need more time for research, provide that time after they have examined the painting closely (required by question #1), created a list of questions they want answered (required by question #2), and come to a few conclusions independently (required by question #3). In my experience, student research will be much more focused after they have already completed their analysis of a work based on the three questions.  

In Guernica, Picasso supplied several images of what happened to the one town after the bombing. From the image of the woman holding a dead child and screaming into the air to the single light shining upon the atrocities, Picasso created a touching portrait of human suffering that will most likely engage the hearts and minds of anyone who examines the images closely. Picasso also used the bombing of Guernica to create a painting that was anti-fascist and anti-war, a painting that portrays the cruelty that human beings can inflict on each other. 

As a teacher, I have never had to explain all that to students. Most students are able to figure it out by answering the three simple questions listed above. Additionally, students usually extract meanings from the painting that I have overlooked. 

The approach that I have outlined can also be used to ask students to synthesize historical information and make a comparison between Guernica and other works of art from other historical eras. In the case of Guernica, for example, I might ask students to compare and contrast Picasso’s painting with Francisco Goya's The Third of May, 1808 (1814). Although the two paintings were created almost 125 years apart, they were both painted by Spaniards, and they both offered similar themes and images inspired by similar events.

I must admit that writing about all this makes me miss my work with high school students. I can’t help but think about how much fun I had listening to students talk about Guernica and The Third of May. What my students taught me was always far more than I ever taught them.

As a postscript, I have an assignment for the readers of this blog, I ask that you watch the 3-D animation of Guernica embedded below and answer the three questions as you watch the video. If all goes as I expect, you should be inspired to learn much more about the events and themes surrounding Picasso's masterwork.

© 2012 James L. Smith

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Bacharach, South American Getaway (1969)

In 1970 Burt Bacharach won an Academy Award for Best Original Score for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the film, “South American Getaway” is performed by the Ron Hicklin Singers. The version I’ve embedded below, however, is arranged for cello ensemble, and if you’ve never heard Crocellomania, you’re in for a treat.

Crocellomania directed by Valter Dešpalj

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Erik Satie: Born Into an Old World

“I was born very young into a world very old.” – Erik Satie

Erik Satie (1866-1925) lived his looney life with a playful attitude. He was often overcome by unexpected fits of laughter. He wore nothing but gray velvet and carried black velvet umbrellas. During a love affair with a woman named Suzanne, he bought her a necklace made of sausages and said he liked the way she belched. His playfulness was even evident in the titles of his musical compositions:
  • “Genuine Limp Preludes (For a Dog)"
  • “Sketches and Exasperations of a Big Boob Made of Wood"
  • “Waltz of the Mysterious Kiss in the Eye"
  • “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” 
Satie's music is often described as “wallpaper” music. It's easy to understand the musical elements, and the music is comforting in how it affects its listeners. His Gnossiennne No. 1, for example, provides music that is quite somber and beautiful. (By the way, “Gnossienne” is a word that didn’t exist until Satie created it as a title for this piece.)

And here's a version of Satie’s well-known Gymnopédie No. 1, performed and animated by Stephen Malinowski. Malinowski describes Gymnopédie No. 1 as a "languorous melody moving just once (or less) each beat, accompanied by one bass note and one chord per measure.” If you enjoy watching this version, visit Malinowski's YouTube Channel, where it’s not difficult to become a fan of his animated work.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The 20 Greatest Symphonies

The September 2016 edition of BBC Music Magazine includes a ranking of "The 20 Greatest Symphonies of All Time." The ranking is based on a poll of 151 of the world's greatest conductors, including such notable maestros as Marin Alsop (São Paulo State Symphony), Sir Andrew Davis (Lyric Opera of Chicago), Alan Gilbert (New York Philharmonic), Zubin Mehta (Israel Philharmonic), Peter Oundjian (Royal Scottish National Orchestra), Sir Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic), and Leonard Slatkin (Detroit Symphony Orchestra).

The conductors who took part in the poll are obviously well-acquainted with the greatest symphonies in the classical repertoire, which, for me, gives the results some credibility. In other words, it's more than just a popularity poll taken from classical music audiences. The conductors were asked to rank their top three symphonies in any order, and based on their selections here are history's 20 greatest symphonies.
  1. Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, “Eroica” (1804)
  2. Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor, “Choral” (1824)
  3. Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major, “Jupiter” (1788)
  4. Mahler, Symphony No. 9 in D major, “Farewell” (1909)
  5. Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection” (1894)
  6. Brahms, Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1885)
  7. Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
  8. Brahms, Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1876)
  9. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique” (1893)
  10. Mahler, Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1896)
  11. Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808)
  12. Brahms, Symphony No. 3 in F major (1883)
  13. Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890)
  14. Sibelius, Symphony No. 7 in C major (1924)
  15. Mozart, Symphony No 40 in G minor (1788)
  16. Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A major (1812)
  17. Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937)
  18. Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D major (1877)
  19. Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral” (1808)
  20. Bruckner, Symphony No. 7 in E major (1883) 
Like all lists of this sort the rankings are not definitive, and the list should primarily serve as food for thought and a topic for entertaining discussion. In thrusting myself into that discussion I want to provide a few of my own takeaways from the list.

1.The ranking offers few surprises, containing a list of the traditional composers and pieces that I would expect. Beethoven leads the pack with five symphonies, followed by Brahms (four), Mahler (three), Bruckner (two), Mozart (two), Berlioz (one), Shostakovich (one), Sibelius (one), and Tchaikovsky (one). (Note that Brahms is the only composer on the list to bat a thousand — all four of his symphonies made the list.)

2. When I first heard about the project, I assumed Beethoven’s Ninth would earn the top spot on the list. I will say, however, that I am thrilled that Beethoven’s Third was chosen the “world’s greatest symphony.” I have taught classes deconstructing both the Third and the Ninth and find that I need much more time to explain what happens in the Third, a symphony that contains an abundance of musical content to analyze. It's a symphony that takes listeners on a journey through a complicated musical narrative that never fails to prompt great discussions after it's over. The first movement provides a roller coaster of edge-of-your-seat excitement, and the almost comic anarchy of the final movement gives listeners plenty to think about. The symphony’s message is abstruse and ambiguous, and it's difficult to imagine someone would listen to Beethoven's Third without wanting to hear it again and again and again.

3. I find personal validation in Mahler holding three spots in the top ten, beating out Beethoven and Brahms who each have two. For several years I’ve been tooting Mahler’s magic horn (!) in my music history classes, and now I have a list from BBC Music to validate my passion. I also love that Mahler’s Ninth is so high on the list, although I am not surprised. Mahler's Ninth juggles a variety of ideas and emotions that in the end become achingly silent. All music eventually goes silent, but only Mahler has ever connected music to silence so elegantly. For me, the end of Mahler’s Ninth sparks the sort of transcendent soul searching that can only come from music.

4. Although I have no significant complaints about the ranking, I would like to provide some of my own honorable mentions: composers and works that I would not have been surprised to see on the list. (I have decided to avoid listing additional works by the composers who already made the list.)
Regardless of how history's great symphonies are ranked, every symphony listed on this page is worth hearing — every one of them will provide a few of those nice moments that can only come from music.

Just for fun, here's an animated score of the breathtaking first movement of Beethoven’s Third. (The animation comes from the Music Animation Machine and the recording comes from the Bezdin Ensemble.)

Visit the Official Website of BBC Music Magazine at

Sunday, September 18, 2016

David McCullough's Five Lessons from History Every High School Student Should Learn

What American history buff does not know about David McCullough? He has hosted American Experience on PBS and narrated numerous PBS documentaries. Every time he writes a new book it hits the bestseller list. He has won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

In September 2011 McCullough attended the National Book Festival and was asked this question: “What are five lessons from history that our students need to know before they graduate from high school?”

A summary of his answer is provided below and then followed by the embedded video of McCullough's complete answer to the question.

David McCullough’s Five Lessons from History (with a Coda)
  1. What matters in history is knowing what happened and why, not memorizing dates and quotes.
  2. American history did not begin with the Declaration of Independence. Americans had hundreds of years of history before the Declaration. Students should, in particular, examine the history of Native Americans.
  3. Students should learn history through means other than books and teachers. Music, plays, art, and architecture can teach students much about history.
  4. Students should learn history through the “lab” technique. History should be a “hands on” experience, in which students reach conclusions on their own. When students figure it out for themselves, they will never forget it.
  5. Students should have an opportunity to work with original documents and travel to the places where history happened. Students should be given an opportunity to experience a connection with people from the past. 
  6. Coda: Attitudes about history are “caught not taught.” If a teacher is excited about the subject, students are more likely to be excited.
From National Book Festival, September 25, 2011

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ubiquitous American Music

As a supplement to my presentation to U.S. history teachers on classical music, I have embedded three pieces of music by American composers that are ubiquitous in concert halls around the world. For those not attending my presentations, I simply ask that you take time to enjoy the music. By any measure, these are three masterworks.

George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

Maxim Eshkenazy conducting the Symphony Orchestra of the Bulgarian National Radio
Andrew Armstrong (piano) 

Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings (1938)

Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring (1944)

Seikyo Kim conducting Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen

As a bonus, here’s a piece not heard often in concert halls but discussed at length in my presentation. In brief, it’s a piece that celebrates the democratic ideal — the uniqueness of the individual, as well as the responsibility of the individual to contribute to the community. (Keep in mind that Carter composed music designed to challenge the intellect rather than evoke emotion.)

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

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Maurice Ravel and the Destruction of the Waltz

World War I represents a breakdown in civilization that might lead some to think of the national leaders who caused it as “marching morons.”

In August 1914 the nations of Europe stumbled into a four-year conflict that killed over 16 million people. In one battle alone, the Battle of the Somme, over one million soldiers died, and the combatants of that battle might have been hard-pressed to explain what they were trying to achieve.

World War I can be seen as even more disastrous considering the decades of relative peace and prosperity that preceded it. (I stress the word “relative.”) For Europe, the late nineteenth century was a time of tranquility and economic growth that fostered much scientific and artistic innovation (think Darwin and Monet). Then came  World War I, the war that achieved little beyond causing a second world war and the deaths of another 60 million people. They called World War I the “war to end war.” Marching morons, indeed.

Countless works of art, including many films and literary works, have attempted to describe the insanity and destructiveness of World War I. A piece of orchestral music that many put into that category is Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, a piece composed in 1919 that some hear as a tone poem depicting European civilization descending into barbarism. Ravel denied this interpretation and stated, "This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement."

Ravel completed La Valse shortly after World War I, and it's easy to see how some might have heard the brutality of the war in Ravel's "ascending progression of sonority." In composing music that clearly portrays the decay and destruction of the Viennese waltz, Ravel created what many can't help but hear as a metaphor for what happened in Europe from 1850 to 1918.

Follow the time indicators listed below and listen to how the elegant Viennese waltz heard at the beginning of La Valse moves through several episodes before deteriorating into confusion and despair. Even though Ravel said he did not intend to describe what had happened to Europe during World War I, it's easy to hear how some people might have heard it that way. (After listening to the orchestral version, don't forget to listen to the encore embedded at the end — a terrific version of La Valse for solo piano by Steven Osborne.)

Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France

0:00 – The Mist
The music begins with a rumbling in the basses as an elegant Viennese waltz slowly emerges from the fog.

2:05 – Viennese Waltz
The waltz, played in its purest form, is introduced by the violins and eventually taken over by the full orchestra. The waltz then evolves through several episodes of its development, from graceful, sweet, and gentle to joyful and grandiose

2:49 – Episode 1
4:01 – Episode 2
4:32 – Episode 3
5:02 – Episode 4
5:52 – Episode 5
7:33 – Episode 6

8:03 – The Mist
We return to the fog from the beginning (a rebirth of the waltz) that takes us toward …

8:20 – Confusion, Part 1
A variety of instruments playing fragments of the Viennese waltz. Each fragment is played with unexpected modulations and instrumentation.

9:50 – Confusion, Part 2
The waltz begins to whirl out of control.

10:09 – Despair, Part 1
The waltz turns gloomy and gradually builds toward …

11:09 – Despair, Part 2

12:15 – Coda
The waltz dies as the music changes from three beats per measure (waltz time) to two beats per measure (march time).

As an encore, here's a version of La Valse for solo piano.

Steven Osborne, piano

© 2011 James L. Smith

Friday, September 9, 2016

Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 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