Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Prelude in Db Major, Op. 28, No. 15 by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)

At first glance you may not realize you probably know this work.  Or, at the very least, you've heard of it.  This prelude is more commonly known as "The Raindrop Prelude."  I can't remember when I first heard this work, but the first time I did, the middle section of it caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand up.

It still does every single time I listen to it.

The work is one from a set of 24 preludes Chopin wrote and while they're all lovely, this is certainly the most famous.  It's a beautiful, fairly straight-forward work in ABA form.  The opening and closing sections are a sweet and lovely Db major.  The middle, more dramatic section, switches to its parallel minor (C# minor).

So why "raindrop"?  Where did that come from?  Chopin himself did not subtitle the work.  In fact, Chopin was far too much of an "absolute" composer to give any of his works subtitles.  ("Absolute" music is music written for music's sake alone, as opposed to program music which is intended to tell a story or give the listener some sort of atmospheric idea.)

There are two thoughts, both of which combined have given it this name.  The first came from George Sand, his lover of many years, who said upon arriving home in a rainstorm one evening that she came across a distraught Chopin who had had a horrible dream when he fell asleep at the piano.

He saw himself drowned in a lake. Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might – and he was right to – against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds.

Chopin himself vehemently denied that any of his music had such a picturesque idea.  But the idea of the "raindrop" aspect persisted.  He was certainly working on some prelude during this time.  But which one?  Why did this one end up with the subtitle and not another one?

Well, the other aspect of this piece that gives it its name is the near constant repetition of the pitch Ab (which turns into G# in the middle section).  It floats through nearly the entire work, coming in and out through the quieter A sections and becoming insistent in the middle.  If you concentrate though you can almost always pick it up.  Some have said this mimics the "gentle patter of rain."  Chopin would likely argue otherwise.  Unfortunately for Chopin, it is likely to always retain this nickname.

No matter which way you look at it, it's a lovely piece of music.

You can listen to it here on youtube.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Symphony No. 1 "The Lord of the Rings" by Johan de Meij (b.1953)

I will start this off by saying if I had to pick any single work as my #1 favourite work of all time it would be this particular piece.

I still remember my introduction to the work: Marian Catholic's 1991 marching band show. I remember watching it from back field at the BOA Grand Nationals in Indianapolis after getting the photos of our band taken. And I remember thinking "Wow this is boring." Despite that, they came in 2nd place to our 7th place finish (a great disappointment as we put on a much better show at Prelims than Finals).

Then my senior year of high school (the following year) I heard rumors of OUR marching band doing the same music and thought "Oh God that was so boring!" And to top it off, our wind ensemble instructor decided we were going to play the first and fifth movements of the work. The day we pulled it out in band and played the first chords of the first movement I was HOOKED. I couldn't believe I found the music boring and I knew that our arranger would rock the house with it.

I immediately ran out and bought a recording of the work. I have so many fond memories of it. It was done in band the year AFTER I graduated, but I was at rehearsals many times throughout the summer and into the fall. I went to States. I knew that show better than a lot of people did and still, to this day, I get chills down my spine. Strangely enough it means even more to me than the 1992 show we did my senior year.

To top all this off, my junior year of college, the Crane wind ensemble that I was a part of played the entire work. I auditioned for and was granted the Eb Clarinet part and got to play a huge solo in the 2nd movement. It was one of my three dream pieces to play on Eb Clarinet (the others being Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastic and Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, neither of which I've had the chance to play).

Suffice it to say, this work brings back a lot of fantastic memories!

The work was written in 1984-1987 and was premiered in 1988. Johan de Meij is a Dutch conductor, trombone player, and composer. If you go look for recordings for the work you'll find one by the London Symphony Orchestra and ones by The Royal Military Band, The Amsterdam Winds, and other wind groups. So naturally you'd want to get the original, right? You might assume that the original Symphony was written for a SYMPHONY Orchestra, but you'd be wrong. This is one of the truly outstanding and beautiful works written originally for a wind ensemble. I own the Royal Miltary Band's recording, as well as the arrangement for orchestra and both are fantastic in their own right. But I still prefer the power and majesty of the original.

My only disappointment with the work? They didn't use de Meij to compose the score for the movies!

You can listen to the movements on youtube.

I. Gandalf This movement is AMAZING.
II. Lothlorian The Eb Clarinet solo starts around 3:20, echoed by the Bb Clarinet a moment later. The other absolutely fantastic, chills up my spine moment, starts around 4:42. The way the brass cross over and take over from the woodwinds. DEAR GOD.
III. Gollum I think the slithering soprano sax solo is PERFECT here.
IV. Journey in the Dark (Made up of two subsections: The Mines of Moria and The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm)
The Hobbits This is a great happy ending to this piece.

If you're interested in our marching band show, here's a youtube video I ripped off an old VHS tape. It's not a fantastic recording, but you can still see the show pretty well.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Symphony No. 7 in A Major by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

I can't really remember when or how I was introduced to this piece. It very well might have been through Mr. Holland's Opus. There's a heartbreaking scene in the movie where the main character discovers his son is deaf and discusses Beethoven's deafness with his class. Playing in the background is the second movement of the Symphony No. 7.

Strangely enough, this was not the only movie to make use of this particular movement to highlight their child's deafness. Some years later, I discovered it was used in the Nicolas Cage movie, Knowing.

At any rate, whatever drew my attention to it, I found myself instantly in love with it. Enough so that I ended up using it as my senior music theory project. That's right, I spent an entire semester analyzing the work back in the Fall of 1996. I guess it's always had a special place in my heart.

The work was written in 1811-1812. Despite the emphasis on deaf children, Beethoven was not completely deaf at this time, though he had given up performing by this time and was almost entirely focused entirely on his inner world of composition. (If you want to envision what Beethoven's hearing might have been like around this time, check out this page).

Immediately after its first performance (which Beethoven himself conducted), Beethoven remarked that it was one of his best works and the second movement, marked Allegretto, was so popular at the time that it was immediately encored (ahh the days of people applauding between movements of a piece!) and was often performed on its own even though it begins and ends on an entirely unstable cadence.

Richard Wagner described the work as the "apotheosis of the dance."

I have a special affinity for Beethoven, as many folks here know. I've always loved his works but somehow losing my hearing, quite possibly from the same malady that afflicted Beethoven, has drawn me even more into his music. I've spoken of my love for Beethoven's music here many times before (check my Beethoven tag) and so it should come as no surprise to find something by him high on my list of great works that everyone should know.

My favourite performance of the work is the one done by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which is no doubt blasphemy in some Beethoven circles. The 2nd movement is technically marked "Allegretto" (moderately fast), while Bernstein takes it closer to Andante ("walking tempo"). But I admit to liking it slower better. Somehow it draws out the beauty of it even more for me.

You can listen to each movement on youtube if you would like to.

I. Poco sostenuto – Vivace This movement begins with a very long slow introduction before launching into the faster part of the movement...Vivace means "lively and fast." One contemporary thought that the chromatic bass line at the end of this movement meant Beethoven was "ripe for the madhouse."

II. Allegretto (Though played more Andante here!) Listen for the awesome buildup starting around 6 minutes in -- the syncopation, those off the beat notes, used to build up tension is just sublime.

III. Presto – Assai meno presto (Presto means "very fast") Thomas Beecham, a 20th century conductor said of this movement: "What can you do with it? It's like a lot of yaks jumping about."

IV. Allegro con brio ("Fast with vigor and spirit")

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Stabat Mater by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594)

I'm going to kick off this off with one of my absolute favourite pieces of music.

Palestrina was born in a small town near Rome (called Palestrina) sometime around 1525 or 1526. Like many composers of his time, his exact birth date is still somewhat of a mystery. He was an Italian composer of the late Renaissance and is sometimes credited with saving polyphonic music (polyphonic means "many voiced") from being banned from the Catholic Church by the Council of Trent. It's a romantic notion, but alas no solid evidence of this has been shown.

Suffice it to say, the beauty and clarity of his polyphony has survived the ages. Johann Fux, an Austrian composer and contemporary of Bach, codified and created the "rules" of such polyphony and for many centuries, students have studied the works of Palestrina to gain a better understanding of that perfectly serene, perfectly clear music he wrote.

The Stabat Mater Dolorosa ("The sorrowful mother stood") is a hymn about the sorrows of Mary.

I was introduced to it (which was my first exposure to Palestrina) when I was a freshman in college. The choir I was in was singing a piece from the Renaissance and the conductor played it as an example of Renaissance-style singing (the beauty of no vibrato!). I was instantly in love with the work and asked the conductor to make me a copy of the recording (on cassette tape back in the early 1990s!). I listened to it a lot throughout my college years.

Many years later, I was determined to find it on CD. I knew who the work was by. I knew the name of the work. But I couldn't find THE recording. I found many other ones, but none had the spark this particular recording did. What was so different? Ornamentation. Most performances of Palestrina's works are entirely without ornamentation, but some musicologists believe that, like other music of the era, not everything sung was written into the music. Andrew Parrott and Tarverner Choir put out a recording that included ornamentation.

It is, by far, my favourite recording of the work. Lucky for all of you, someone has uploaded this fantastic version to youtube!