Tuesday, November 20, 2012

...and the mountains rising nowhere by Joseph Schnwantner (b.1943)

This is a hard one to introduce. I first heard this work sometime early on in my undergraduate college days. I can't say I fell totally in love with it at first. I still found 20th century works to be difficult to listen to, but the work quickly grew on me, especially due to one section.

But we'll get into that shortly.

Joseph Schwantner is a prolific American composer originally from Chicago. Unlike many composers, his main musical instrument was not piano but was, instead, guitar. I'm most familiar with his wind ensemble work, rather than orchestral, but he's written in both genres, as well as chamber music. His list of commissions is incredibly long. His music is known for its unique colors and his ability to draw on music from a huge variety of musical sources.

I love this quotation from him about his music: "I didn’t realize until many years later just how important the guitar was in my thinking...to get to the bottom line, when I think about my music, its absolutely clear to me the profound influence of the guitar in my music. When you look at my pieces, first of all is the preoccupation with color. The guitar is a wonderfully resonant and colorful instrument. Secondly, the guitar is a very highly articulate instrument. You don’t bow it, you pluck it and so the notes are very incisive. My musical ideas, the world I seem to inhabit, is highly articulate. Lots of percussion where everything is sharply etched, and then finally, those sharply articulated ideas often hang in the air, which is exactly what happens when you play an E major chord on the guitar. There are these sharp articulations, and then this kind of sustained resonance that you can easily do in percussion - a favorite trick of mine! I think it is right in my bone marrow. I don’t think there is any question about that. I think my music would look differently if I were a clarinet player. So it doesn’t mean I sit around thinking about the guitar when I am writing a piece. Not at all! There is something fundamental about how I think about music, that I think comes from my experiences as a young kid trying to play everything I could on the instrument."

Ok so back to the work. There I was sitting in Hosmer Hall listening to the wind ensemble perform it when somewhere in the middle of it, about 6:30 in, this brass chorale came out of nowhere and almost knocked me out of my seat. My hair stood up on my arms and I leaned forward and just GAPED. I couldn't believe it. You see, this was the warmup the brass section played before each of our marching band competitions. It was just this MOMENT out there before we went onto the field. They'd start and we'd all stop warming up, drift closer, listen intently, and then cheer when it was over. It basically worked us all up and at that moment we were ready. It was a "call to arms" of sort. I had always assumed Nick (our arranger) had written it. I was shocked to find out where it really came from and floored to have that brass chorale heard in such a different situation.

...and the mountains rising nowhere was Schnwatner's first work for wind ensemble. It was commissioned by the Eastman Wind Ensemble and premiered in 1977. The work is dedicated to children's author Carol Adler. The title comes from one of her poems.

arioso bells
an afternoon sun blanked by rain
and the mountains rising nowhere
the sound returns
the sound and the silence chimes

Schwantner said of the work: "While the work is not specifically programmatic, the poem nevertheless acted as the creative impetus for the composition and provided for me an enigmatic, complex, and powerful imagery creating a wellspring of musical ideas and feelings in sympathetic resonance with the poem."

You can listen to the work here. That brass chorale I mentioned above starts around 6:30.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Symphony No. 11 "The Year 1905" by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Why yes he does look
like Harry Potter!
The summer of 1998, which I spent up at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan was sort of my "Summer of Shostakovich." I still remember hearing this work for the first time. It was performed by the World Youth Symphony, a simply MASSIVE orchestra made up of the top students of the camp. I wasn't sure what to expect but I ended up spending most of the time on the edge of my seat (quite literally). I was nearly breathless by the time the work was done. It became an instant favourite.

The work is a program symphony (a multi-movement work that tells some sort of story) and is based on the 1905 Russian revolution. Some call this work "a film score without a film" and it certainly seems apt, especially as the composer did write several film scores. This is truly one of those works where you have to know the program in order to understand what is going on.

Movement I (The Palace Square) depicts the the Palace Square before the a group of striking workers and their family descended on it. That day (January 22, 1905), groups of workers gathered around the city. Holding religious icons and singing hymns and patriotic songs, they marched to the square to present a petition to the Tsar (complaining about the government's increased inefficiency, corruption, and harsh ways). Palace guards were told to only allow them so far. The movement is quiet and yet ominous all at the same time. It sets your hair on edge.

Movement II (The 9th of January) depicts the events of Bloody Sunday, directly following on the heels of the events in the first movement. (The 9th, btw is in the old style calendar, what we could now call the 22nd). Once the workers reached the Palace Square, the guards fired warning shots into the air and when that didn't deter them, they shot into the unarmed, peaceful crowd. Official records say that 96 were dead and 333 injured though unofficial anti-government reports put the number much higher than that. More moderate estimates put the number at around 1000 wounded or dead, including some who were trampled in the panic after the shooting began. I like this description from Wikipedia: This first section is busy and constantly moves forward. It builds to two steep climaxes, then recedes into a steep, frozen calm in the prolonged piccolo and flute melodies, underscored again with distant brass. Another full orchestra buildup launches into a pounding march, in a burst from the snare drum like gunfire and fugal strings, as the troops descend on the crowd. This breaks out into an intense section of relentless strings, and trombone and tuba glissandos procure a nauseating sound underneath the panic and the troops' advance on the crowd. Then comes a section of mechanical, heavily repetitive snare drum, bass drum, timpani, and tam-tam solo before the entire percussion sections breaks off at once. Numbness sets in with a section reminiscent of the first movement.

Movement III (Eternal Memory) is a lament on the violence.

Movement IV (Tocsin) is a march which reaches a violent climax before returning to the material from the opening of the symphony. At the end, the the tocsin (warning bell) rings out a harsh G minor chord while the orchestra attempts to counteract with G major. It ends with just the note G. Neither party wins. Ultimately this is meant to foreshadow the 1917 Revolution.

You can listen to the entire work here if you're up for a full length hour long symphony.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Piccolo Concerto by Lowell Liebermann (b.1961)

One day back in 1998 I was heading home for Thanksgiving with my best friend Jason. We were nearing the service plaza on the Thruway that I always get off at (Angola...it's fun! you get to walk on a pedestrian bridge over the road and it's fun to feel the bridge move a bit when the tractor trailers go under it!). We turned on one of the Classical music stations and there was this absolutely amazing piece playing. We were both so totally enthralled that we drove right past the service plaza entrance and then had to turn around (I was NOT missing Angola...it was tradition darnitall!). Luckily for us, the rest of our driving around kept us in the basic vicinity so we didn't lose the station and we were able to get to the end of the piece and find out what this glorious piece of music was.

As it turned out, it was the Piccolo Concerto by Lowell Liebermann. The work, which was commissioned by the National Flute Association, was written in 1996 and first performed by Jan Gippo. The first recording of the work was put out by James Galway (the recording we heard on the radio that day) in 1998. It is GLORIOUS. The opening of it is simply amazing and beautiful. Seriously. I know a lot of people want to avoid all modern music but don't avoid listening to this work. The first movement alone is worth listening to.

One reviewer said of it "This delightful work was full of eerie beauty and rollicking good humor." I think that sums it up entirely too well.

You can listen to James Galway perform the work on youtube.

I. Andante comodo (Seriously...if you listen to ANYTHING here listen to this movement)
II. Adagio: Part 1 | Part 2 (I could only find this divided into two parts -- a holdover from when youtube limited the amount of time on videos much more than they do now!)
III. Presto

Now this last movement is a lot of fun. See if you can recognize a couple quotations from very famous works that he used in the middle of it. If you're really into Classical music you may even sense one of them coming up long before he comes to it. It makes me laugh every time!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Clarinet Concerto in A by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Mozart. We all know Mozart right? Boy genius who was writing compositions practically from birth, those works coming fully formed out of his head and onto the paper. Perpetual child in a man's body. Other composers were so jealous that they attempted to murder him. Father was somewhat abusive and pushed his child too far and never gave him a proper education. We all know the "facts" right? Except...I don't think most of us actually do. Most things we "know" about Mozart are likely untrue or at the very least twisted so that they almost don't resemble the truth.

A few common myths:

1. Mozart dyed of poisoning. Alternately, Mozart died from an excess of alcohol and overwork. Reality? Mozart likely died because he had rheumatic fever and the common procedure during his time was to use leaches to let out blood. This further weakened him and he ultimately died. Recent research has also suggested strep throat in the place of rheumatic fever. The reality is really so much more mundane isn't it?

2. Mozart was buried in an unmarked pauper's (or mass) grave. Reality? Well, it's somewhat true. The falsity in this one comes about because people attribute this to Mozart's having been incredibly poor. But this was common practice during the time. Emperor Joseph II had abolished all the pomp and circumstance of funerals.

3. Mozart didn't work at composing and he everything he wrote down was perfect the first time. Reality? Mozart tended to sketch out his ideas and then compose the entire piece. He DID have much of it up in his head, but he liked to sketch it out so he wouldn't forget those ideas and then could go back and fill it all in. There are very few Mozart sketches left; his wife destroyed many of them. This idea of Mozart as writing with 100% inspiration and never having to work his way through a piece came about in the 19th century with a fake letter someone created to back up his story about Mozart.

Mozart WAS eccentric (aren't all the greats after all?) and may have suffered from some sort of bipolar disorder (when he was "up" he was jumping over billiard tables, meowing at the cat, and doing other crazy things; when he was down he was writing some of his most heart-wrenching music). He did have a rather disgusting sense of humor and many of his letters are littered with scatological humor. And seriously...on the latter? Here's an awesome verse from one of his letters to a cousin (the original German even rhymed):

Well, I wish you good night
But first shit into your bed and make it burst.
Sleep soundly, my love
Into your mouth your arse you'll shove.

Did you know that about Mozart?

Anyway, I don't think most of us really know Mozart. He's a fascinating figure, not just for his life and work, but for the myths and legends that have grown up around him.

One of his most famous and most-loved works is his Clarinet Concerto. Now here's the truly interesting thing about this work. Not many of us have ever heard the work as it was originally written. Evidence showed that it was first conceived of as a work for the Basset Horn in G, a lower member of the clarinet family that is no longer in use, but that Anton Stadler (the person the Concerto was written for) was known to be a virtuoso on. However, the final published version was written up in A. With a twist (you knew it couldn't be that easy right?). Some of the clarinet's line goes down to low C, when the Clarinet only goes down to E. So what on earth...? Well, it's likely the piece was written for the Basset Clarinet, an instrument that looks remarkably similar to the A Clarinet but has the capability to go down to the low C. It's long. REALLY long. I couldn't find a picture of it standing next to a regular A clarinet, but here's a photo of Kenneth Grant (of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra) holding one. Just look at the bottom of that instrument!

I remember when I was in high school wanting to play this work and looking at it, thinking "Wow that's easy." My instructor refused to let me touch it. Technically it is not the most demanding work (though it becomes more so when played on the original larger instrument!) but getting the right emotional subtlety takes much more maturity than I had when I was a teenager. It took me many years to realize that.

Here is Martin Fröst performing part of the first movement on the Basset Clarinet.

You can listen to the work here (this recording also features the Basset Clarinet, but is audio only):

I. Allegro (Please note that this particular recording drops out the opening section which features just the orchestra.)
II. Adagio
III. Rondo

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F Minor by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

In 1890, the great Johannes Brahms resolved to give up composing. I'm not quite certain why though I suspect it was related to his more conservative musical style and the way music was changing around him.

Luckily for us clarinetists, Brahms happened to hear Richard Mühlfeld, clarinetist with the Meiningen orchestra. Upon hearing his sound quality and his musicianship, Brahms was moved to take pen to paper yet again and ultimately wrote four works for Mühlfeld: the Clarinet Trio, the Clarinet Quintet, and two fantastic Clarinet Sonatas (which Brahms himself eventually rewrote for the viola).

Not only did we clarinetists end up with two great Sonatas by Brahms, but this opened the door for other composers to write Sonatas for the instrument and so we ended up with many great works.

The work was written in 1894 (as was the other Sonata). It is a four-movement work following the usual pattern one would see in String Quartets or Symphonies (fast first movement, slow and lyrical second movement, a dance-like third movement in 3, and a fast-paced final movement). Unlike the usual works written for clarinet at this time, the piano here is a true equal to the clarinet. In most works written around Brahms's time the clarinet was the lead and the piano fell into an accompanimental role. From talking to accompanists back when I was in college (and played this work), this was one of the most difficult piano "accompaniments." Brahms definitely didn't skimp on the piano part. And all of his triplets against duplets make the work difficult (but fun!) to put together.

I tried to find a recording on youtube that I really really liked, but struggled. So here's the best of the lot. I'm not a huge fan of the clarinetist's tone. It seems a little too bright and strident to me. I am, naturally, very very picky about which clarinetists I enjoy listening to! This recording is done by Johathan Cohler, clarinet and Judith Gordon, piano.

I. Allegro appassionato
II. Andante un poco Adagio
III. Allegretto grazioso
IV. Vivace

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

String Quartet No. 14 "Death and the Maiden" by Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

If you ever thought string quartets were boring, hold on to your hats! Franz Schubert, who is most known for the 600+ songs (including Der Leiermann) he wrote in his life, also wrote many fantastic string quartets. My favourite of them all is the "Death and the Maiden" string quartet written in 1824. This work showcases all of the power and beauty and intimacy of this genre.

This Quartet takes its name from a song that Schubert wrote in 1817. It was a setting of a poem by Matthias Claudius. The translation of the text of the poem is as follows:

The Maiden:
Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!
For life is sweet, is pleasant.
Go! leave me now alone!
Go! leave me now alone!

Give me thy hand, oh! maiden fair to see,
For I'm a friend, hath ne'er distress'd thee.
Take courage now, and very soon
Within mine arms shalt softly rest thee!"

While the 2nd movement of this work uses the melody from Schubert's song, the entire "death and the maiden" struggle permeates the entire work. Walter Willson Cobbett (author of the 1929 Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music) said of it "The struggle with Death is the subject of the first movement, and the andante accordingly dwells on Death's words. The finale is most definitely in the character of a dance of death; ghastly visions whirl past in the inexorable uniform rhythm of the tarantella." (The Tarantella is the traditional dance to ward off madness and death.)

Others have seen the quartet as a musical expression of Judaeo-Christian religious myths with each movement being about a different episode in the mythic process of death and resurrection.

Fascinating stuff, right?

Well, without further ado, I bring you the quartet! Performed here by the Alban Berg Quartet.

I. Allegro
II. Andante con moto
III. Scherzo Allegro molto
IV. Presto

If you'd like to hear the original Death and the Maiden song written by Schubert, you can find it here. The accompanist here, by the way, is the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, an amazing singer who has recorded many of Schubert's songs. He just recently passed away, making the world a much sadder place.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Concerto in C for Piccolo (Flautino), RV443 by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

I think I first came across this piece on an album that was some sort of compilation of relaxing Baroque era music. I know it was on cassette tape and I also know it was something I found at a garage sale back when I was in high school! So my love for this piece (or at least for the second movement of this piece) dates back pretty far (I won't say how far though!).

The work was originally not written for piccolo, obviously. Instead it was written for a Sopranino recorder, which is one of the highest-pitched recorders (only the Garklein, a tiny recorder pitched in C was higher than the F-pitched Sopranino). Today it's most often played on the piccolo, though there are some great recordings around that feature the Sopranino Recorder.

Vivaldi, the composer of this work, lived and worked for most of his life at an orphanage in Venice. He was actually trained to be a priest (thus earning him his nickname Il Prete Rosso, the Red Priest, due to his hair), but because of his precarious health (he suffered from asthma his entire life) he withdrew from active duty shortly after being ordained. He was hired to be the master of violin for the Devout Hospital of Mercy (and eventually became its music master), which took in oprhans, abandoned girls, and illegitimate offspring of the nobility (on the down low of course!). He worked there on and off for the next 30 years. Most of his works were written for the girls of this orphanage, often with Vivaldi himself playing the complicated violin solos.

Unfortunately for Vivaldi, while his works were immensely popular during his lifetime, after he died the works died out with him. Even Mendelssohn's revival of Bach's music didn't really get people interested in Vivaldi's music. It wasn't until the 20th century that the true revival of his music began, with many unpublished and forgotten works resurfacing. Works by Vivaldi have been uncovered as late as 2006.

You can see Lenka Smolcakova performing the work here on Sopranino Record.

Mvt. I
Mvt. II

And here's the last movement, since they have no recording of Ms. Smolcakova performing it. This one is performed with a modern orchestra and a piccolo. You should be able to hear the difference between the instruments. I much prefer the Sopranino Recorder!

Mvt. III

Friday, June 29, 2012

Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

A part of me is still sad about writing Copland's death date as I remember when he passed away. I had heard many of Copland's works prior to hearing this one for the first time and I enjoyed them, though they were my absolute favourite works on the face of the planet.

But then there was this one. I'm sure most of you have heard it. Perhaps multiple times as it's incredibly popular.

I still remember the first time I heard this work. It was almost 22 years ago now and I still remember it like it was yesterday. It was November 17, 1990. We were in Indianapolis, on the floor of the Hoosier Dome. All of the bands' performances were over and we were lined up at "retreat," an absolutely torturous thing wherein you have to stand out on the field, silent and at attention while waiting for the results that could mean you came in dead last or could mean you came in first place...and you cannot (or should not!) move a muscle no matter what happens. TORTURE. I tell you.

Anyway...all of a sudden the whole place was plunged into darkness. You really have NO idea what it's like being in such a huge Dome like that and suddenly have the place completely pitch black. We had no idea what was going on. It was unnerving and frightening and HUGELY dramatic.

And then The Fanfare for the Common Man began. And all of the colorguard members of all of the groups marched out with a big light show around them as a tribute to Copland, who had died earlier that year. It was amazing. And still to this day if I hear the work I sit up a little bit straighter and feel incredibly proud (this was the year our band one first in our class and got medals! like we were in the Olympics!).

Anyway, this work was written in 1942 by quintessential American composer Aaron Copland. It was partly inspired by a speech by the Vice President about the dawning of the century of the common man.

You can listen to it here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Moro lasso, al mio duolo by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1611)

I was pretty much fascinated by Gesualdo and his music from the first moment I read anything about him in my "Literature and Style" class when I was an undergrad. Once you know something about him it ought to pique your interest a little bit too.

Gesualdo was born in Venosa, a part of what is now Italy. If my memory serves me right, he was the second son of a nobleman and when his older brother died, he was forced to become the prince. This was most unfortunate for Gesualdo as his main interest in life from a young age was music. He had melomania -- a "mad passion" for music. In some ways, being a prince was a GOOD thing. It meant he could write music as he wanted to and did not have to please a patron. Had he needed to please someone else, there's a good chance we wouldn't have the amazing musioc

But doing his duty was also required and to that end, he married his first cousin, a woman who was supposed to have been uncommonly beautiful during her time. Now, it appears that Gesualdo might have neglected her a bit, preferring the company of his music (and, as rumor had it, men and young boys). So his wife took a lover. This didn't sit too well with Gesualdo and so he devised a plot. He made copies of all the keys to their apartment in Naples and "left" on a hunting trip (almost sounds like a Mozart opera plot doesn't it?). He entered the apartment with three men, found his wife and her lover in the middle of the deed and proceeded to kill them both. It seems that he used sword, dagger, AND pistol. When he left, he told his men "I do not believe they are dead!" and went back in to continue his assault on two people who were most assuredly dead. The wounds described are HORRIFIC.

This, of course, led to all sorts of crazy conjecture about him: stories abounded about his dragging the bodies to the bottom of the stairs and leaving them there, to his killing their child by putting him in a swing and essentially swinging him to death while he had people sing him madrigals. One that seems to possibly have been true was his cutting down the trees around his palace after the murders.

This last one actually makes sense. The law could not touch a prince. But he was not safe from revenge.

Ultimately, Gesualdo remarried, though his second marriage was no happier than the first. She accused him of abuse and spent far more time away from him than with him. In his later years Gesualdo suffered from depression (there are some thoughts that it was due to guilt over the murders) and had his servants whip him daily. He started a rather fruitless correspondence with a cardinal in an attempt to obtain skeletal remains of his uncle. He believed they would heal his mental disorder and perhaps even absolve him of his crimes.

He died alone at his caste. There have been some rumors that his second wife murdered him, though I don't believe there's likely any truth in that (though it sure would be a bit of karma there wouldn't it?).

Gesualdo's music is as interesting and unique as his personality and life. I still remember a really bad philosophy teacher I had who made the claim that no composer was truly creative as they were all just imitating what came before them. I used Gesualdo as an example of someone who veered quite far off the beaten path (one might say the same thing about Charles Ives in the 20th century -- both were able to do it because they did not rely on their musical endeavors for money). I saw that same professor at the music department the next day holding onto a bunch of CDs. Amusingly enough, he never brought it back up. I assume I proved my point.

Gesualdo wrote some sacred music but the real heart, the real MEAT of his output were his six books of secular madrigals. Most of these madrigals were extravagant settings of the extremes of emotion. Many deal with the pain of love, of death, of agony and ecstasy alike. It is incredibly experimental and chromatic music. The chromaticism of it was not really matched until Wagner came along, some 200 years later. His madrigals are rife with extreme examples of text-painting (where a composer depicts what is going on in the text musically) and tend to be sectional in nature: alternating slower, very chromatic sections, with faster diatonic sections. Some of this can be incredibly jarring.

I do believe his music truly represents who he was. It's beautiful and jarring and amazing and hard to listen to all at the same time.

The example I'm going to share is the one I usually use with my class. It's called "Moro Lasso, al mio duolo." The text (and translation) is as follows:

Moro lasso, al mio duolo grief,
E chi mi può dar vita,
Ahi, che m’ancide e non vuol darmi aita!

O dolorosa sorte,
Chi dar vita puòm ahi, mi dà morte!

I am dying, wretched, in my grief,
And [the one] who is able to give me life,
Alas, it is killing me and is not willing to give me aid!

O painful fate,
[The one] who is able to give me life, gives me death!

You can listen to it here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Song of the Angel by John Tavener (b.1944)

Back when I was an undergraduate and taking a 20th century music class, my instructor introduced us to modern composers who were still writing fantastic music. One of those was a lovely work for Cello and Strings called The Protecting Veil. I was pretty enamored of the work and so, some time later, when I visited Tower Records in New York City and was on the outlook for more 20th century music, I went to see what they might have by John Tavener.

I found a recording called Eternity's Sunrise and lucky for me, the recording was one I was able to listen to. I immediately went to the second track of the album. Why? Because it was called Song of the Angel and I will admit this up front: I was into a huge Phantom of the Opera obsession at the time (one of the many times my Phantom obsession has taken ahold of me). The "Angel of Music" reference is fairly strong in Phantom. Christine believes Erik (the Phantom) is her Angel of Music and (in the musical at least) the Phantom also refers to her as his Angel of Music.

I was absolutely transfixed by this particular piece from the moment I first heard it while standing there in the middle of Tower Records. I listened to the entire work (it's only 4:55) at least twice before my friend came to find me.

The work is written for soprano, violin, and strings. It is a setting of only the vowel sounds of the word "Alleluia." John Tavener says of it: "This music should be sung and played with a restrained ecstasy. It should not bring pounding of the heart, nor should it lead to melancholy. Like all the music of the East, it should reveal in tranquility an eternal, angelic, ecstatic breath which liberates and humanises."

For me, it was about more than that. Let me allow you to show how my imagination runs wild on occasion. Christine, of course, was a soprano and so I imagine her singing up in her dressing room to Erik's violin far below in his home by the fifth cellar lake. The work has a sort of eerie resonance that immediately put this imagery in my head.

So for all my Phantom friends, I say "definitely give this a listen." For everyone else I will say the same. It's a beautifully serene work.

You can listen to it here. (I will note that this is the same recording I have of it, so you'll be listening to the same sounds I first heard!)