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!)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872-1958)

For some reason, I just really wanted to hear this work today so you, too, get to hear about this one! I can't remember the first time I heard this work. It's always just "been there" somewhere in the back of my mind.

Vaughan-Williams, a British composer, wrote the work in 1910 and it was premiered in the same year. It's probably Vaughan-Williams's most famous work, but that doesn't make it a lesser work by any means. It is, to sum it up succinctly, amazingly gorgeous.

The theme the title references was a melody written in 1567 by Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585). It was originally a contribution to a Psalter (a collection of psalms for liturgical use) for the Archbishop of Canterbury. The original words to the hymn tune are:

Why fum'th in fight the Gentiles spite, in fury raging stout?
Why tak'th in hand the people fond, vain things to bring about?
The Kings arise, the Lords devise, in counsels met thereto,
against the Lord with false accord, against His Christ they go.

Somehow those words aren't quite what I expect when I hear this lovely tune.

You can hear the original sung here, if you'd like to.

I have to say I like this tune because it's in a somewhat unusual mode: Phrygian. *puts on theory hat* For those who don't know what the heck I mean by that, Phrygian is a modal scale (not major or minor) that begins on the 3rd scale degree, so on white keys it would run from E to E. Go ahead and play it on a piano. It has a distinctly odd sound due to the half step between the first two notes of the scale. You might also notice right away that it is a minor-related mode. But the truly fun thing is that the Phrygian cadence (the ending of a Phrygian tune) tends to end on a major chord despite this. It's a fun mode and one of my favourite of the more unusual modes.

So Vaughan-Williams is editing the English Hymnal of 1906 and comes across this tune. The result was a Fantasia (or a fantasy) on the theme. Vaughan-Williams wrote his piece for a string orchestra that he divided into three sections:

(1) The full orchestra
(2) A single desk from each section(a "desk" in an orchestra is the pair of musicians who read off the same music in this case you would have two each of Violin I, Violin II, Viola, Cello and Bass for a total of 10 musicians)
(3) String Quartet (Violin I, Violin II, Viola and Cello)

So you have three groups of varying size from the small (4) to the large (full orchestra).

The score specifics that each group should be SEPARATE (if possible) and so the performing forces are fairly large. His goal here was to imitate the sound of an organ.

It is an amazingly intricate and gorgeous piece and despite its length (around 15 minutes long) the beauty of the work should enthrall you so that time passes without your even realizing it.

Here's a great version you can listen to by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Missa pro Defunctis by Michael Haydn (1737-1806)

Today I'm going to introduce you to a piece that I only just recently discovered. I've heard a lot of classical music in my life, obviously, but on Monday evening I was introduced to a work I'd never heard before by a composer I don't know much about. That's pretty rare these days.

The composer in question is Michael Haydn, the younger brother of the somewhat more famous Joseph Haydn. It seems that Michael might have had the problem that younger siblings tend to: he followed someone who was great at his craft and while being great himself, was a bit overshadowed by his brother.

Joseph and Michael attended the same singing school when young and it appears that the teachers admired Michael's singing more and found him the brighter student of the two, though it was really Joseph's abilities that paved the way for Michael to be able to pursue music as his career.

Michael Hayden ultimately ended up the music master in Salzburg, a position he held for 43 years (must have been a family thing to have these long-standing positions...Joseph held a position with the Esterhazy family for nearly 30 years).

One of my students actually introduced me to this work. The Missa pro Defunctis, written in 1771, is a Requiem Mass (one of the few I don't know! Shame on me!). In listening to it, the first thing I was struck by was that it had some similarities to Mozart's Requiem, which was written in the 1791. Mozart knew Michael Haydn and was present at the first three performances of the Missa pro Defunctis. It is considered to be an "important model" for Mozart's work.

The work was written for the death of Count Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach. However Michael Haydn had recently lost his infant daughter and many historians believe the real motivation for writing the work was his own personal bereavement.

You can find this work on Youtube. Here are some links to listen to!

I. Requiem aeternam
II. Dies irae (My favourite movement of all Requiems -- here I think Haydn actually gets the right feel for it!)
III. Domine Jesu Christe, IV. Hostias et preces and V. Sanctus
VI. Benedictus and VII. Agnus Dei

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Garrit Gallus... by Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361)

I'm reaching WAY back here for one to showcase for you today. I know this won't be everyone's cup of tea but perhaps you'll give it a chance.

Most people know this, but if you don't, I have an absolute love for Medieval and Renaissance era music. It was why, when I had a chance to go to a Renaissance Faire back in high school I was SO EXCITED. I mean, I was going to hear people sing motets! And play recorder consort music! And hear CRUMHORNS!!! And, as anyone who goes to a Renaissance Faire knows, I got none of that. Even though I've gone since and even played at the Faire one summer, I still feel oddly disappointed at the lack of real Renaissance music.

Anyway...moving on...

I was introduced to Philippe de Vitry's music in a music theory class in which we analyzed music of all eras. This Ars Nova ("New Art") music of the 14th century acquired much more polyphonic (many-voiced) sophistication than earlier music, thanks in part to advances in notation. Composers could move beyond simple rhythmic modes that had followed the monophony of plainchant. Now, composers during this time got a little carried away with this new-found freedom, sometimes so completely obliterating the text that folks who listened probably had no idea what the songs were about. Some had each singer singing a different, related text. And some even had them singing in different languages! Craziness, I tell you!

Ok in all seriousness, as soon as I learned about them, I fell totally in love with the whole concept of the isorhythmic motet.

What the hell is that? you ask. Sure no problem. Let me try to explain this!

The heart of isorhythm lies in the tenor, that slow-moving voice you'll hear in the midst of the piece I'll link you to shortly. Isorhythm is made up of two parts:

(1) A repeating pattern of rhythms (called the talae)
(2) A repeating pattern of pitches (called the color)

Often the rhythm would be one amount of notes and the pitches would be a different amount of notes, thus causing them to overlap until finally coming back together. In general, the work would take longer to cycle through the pitches than to cycle through the rhythms (for instance, the color might be 28 notes long while the talae only 4 notes; that means it would take 7 repetitions of the talae before the color is completed!).

Fun, right?

Ok maybe only for theory nerds.

At any rate, above the tenor were often 2 (sometimes more) voices that moved in free-form against them, creating that polyphony I was talking about earlier. These voices are called the motetus and triplum. Because we have to name EVERYTHING in music theory.

The tenor voice, by the way, is sometimes played on instruments and sometimes sung. People nowadays are unclear as to which is historically accurate (both may have been).

Here's a recording of this work. The full name, which is "Garrit Gallus flendo dolorose / In nova fert animus" is drawn from opening lines in the two top voices. Here is the translation of the text.

The rooster (Gaul) chatters with bitter weeping;
indeed the whole flock mourns,
for it is stealthily being betrayed
by the satrap even as it keeps watch.
And the fox, like a grave-robber,
flourishing with the cunning of Belial,
reigns with the full consent of the lion himself.
Alas, what anguish!
Behold how the family of Jacob
once again flees from another Pharoah:
no longer able, as before, to follow
the path of the Jews, it weeps.
In the desert it is tortured by hunger,
its arms and armour lack a helper.
If it cries out it will be despoiled;
the voice of the wretched exiles,
near death, is harsh.
O sad chattering of roosters!
Since the blindness of the lion is subject
to the shadowy deceit of the treacherous fox,
whose arrogance encourages sin,
you must rise up:
otherwise what is left of your honour
slips away and will continue to slip away:
with only late avengers it will soon turn into villainy.

My mind is bent to tell of bodies changed anew:
that evil dragon
whom glorious Michael once conquered thoroughly
with the miraculous power of the cross,
again is living, now fortified
with the grace of Absalom,
gloating with the eloquence of Ulysses,
armed with the teeth of a wolf
as a soldier in the army of Tersitis -
in fact changed into a fox.
Deprived of his sight by deceit,
the lion is subject to this ruling fox,
who sucks the blood of lambs,
sates himself with chickens, and never stops;
rather he thirsts on.
He comes to weddings with his hunting dogs.
Woe to chickens and woe to the blind lion;
but in the end, woe to the dragon when he must face Christ!

At least both texts were in Latin? Anyway...

You can listen to the work on youtube here.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Bright Blue Music by Michael Torke (b.1961)

How about a little light fun music for a Friday afternoon?

I was introduced to this piece during a class session my 20th century analysis professor taught on music by composers who are still alive. He wanted us to get to experience some of where music was NOW instead of just 50 years earlier. I think the idea was that we spent SO MUCH TIME studying music of "dead white guys" that he wanted us to realize that people were still writing this music.

I was honestly expecting some crazy stuff that was entirely unlistenable and instead heard some music that I immediately ran out to buy. This was one of the works he played that day.

Michael Torke is a fairly young composer. He was born only in 1961 (making him only 2 years older than David!) and when he wrote this piece he was all of 24 years old. This composition is one of a series of "Color" music that he wrote (also included are Ash, Ecstatic Orange, Purple and Green).  Torke apparently has Synesthesia, a neurological condition which for him means that music and color are closely intertwined. One key or combination of sounds will appear as a color to him.

The work is uplifting, happy. Nothing you'll usually see me recommend! One reviewer said of it: In Bright Blue Music, we find Torke revelling in the sheer pleasure of creating music for pure enjoyment, at once immediate and appealing.

I find that an apt description.

You can download and listen to the work here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Der Leiermann by Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Der Leiermann which is alternately translated either as "The Organ Grinder" or as "The Hurdy-Gurdy Man" is the final song in a 24-song cycle called Winterreise (Winter Journey). Though one might consider the song cycle more "atmospheric" there is a fairly loose plot: A young man (more of an anti-hero, than hero) travels to an idyllic town during the month of May. There he is invited to live with a family and falls in love with their daughter, who he believes returns his love. However, in true Romantic era fashion, one cannot remain happy! She ditches him to marry a wealthy guy who is approved of by her family. In despair and in the dead of winter, our young anti-hero departs and begins a painful journey full of longing for his previous happiness, forshadowings of death (a raven), and finally arrives at another town. The song cycle ends on a bleak note.

Over there beyond the village
Stands an organ-grinder,
And with numb fingers
He plays as best he can.

Barefoot on the ice,
He totters here and there,
And his little plate
Is always empty.

No one listens to him,
No one notices him,
And the dogs growl
Around the old man.

And he just lets it happen,
As it will,
Plays, and his hurdy-gurdy
Is never still.

Strange old man,
Shall I go with you ?
Will you play your organ
To my songs

I was introduced to the song cycle through this final song in an analysis class I took while working on my doctorate. The music is as bleak as the words and fits it perfectly. It follows a strict strophic form (same music for each stanza), which one would expect when you envision an organ grinder playing the same music over and over again.

Here's a beautiful version done by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake. They've done the WHOLE song cycle this way and they're all amazing to watch.