Felix Mendelssohn: “Hebrides” Overture, also known as “Fingal’s Cave” Overture
As a young man, Mendelssohn traveled to Scotland, and found it tremendously inspiring. He visited a place called “Fingal’s Cave,” which I also got to see a few years ago, so I’ve included some pictures of it. (We also saw some dolphins on the boat ride back, maybe he saw them too!) The piece is titled “overture” but is not an introduction to anything; it belongs to the genre of “tone poem,” which pretty much means what you’d imagine. Specifically, you can hear the darkness of the cave, the swelling and receding of the waves (apparently Mendelssohn got pretty seasick, maybe he was trying to capture that in the music too!), and maybe the cries of seabirds?
He was a spectacular prodigy, but also one who found everything difficult, and he was constantly dissatisfied with his work—this piece took about three years to finish, and he even renamed it several times. I find it somewhat comforting to look at early drafts of his work and see that, frankly, sometimes they’re not very good! Music didn’t just spring, fully-formed from his mind; he had to work at it.
And, if you’ll humor me, a few thoughts about all this listening... You probably think I’m crazy to create all this extra work for myself, and you’re probably right! And I know I am not going to change the world by sending out some YouTube clips. But if I can change even slightly anyone’s mentality about why we study music, then maybe it will be worth it.
I imagine most parents sign their children up for music lessons for some combination of these reasons, and they’re not necessarily “wrong” or bad--
-They think it might be “fun.”
-They want their kids to be “well-rounded.”
-They heard that it improves grades and test scores, and think it’ll make their kids smarter. (Maybe true for some, but I can tell you that sadly it did NOT do any these things for me! )
-They think it’ll help get their kids into a good college.
-They wish they’d had the chance when they were young.
Then, once the child involved in music, it is all about how “talented” they end up being, and who is more or less advanced than the next person, which is somehow supposed to determine if doing it is “worth it.” I get it, I was in a very intense musical environment growing up, and I realize now that I and those around me emphasized all the wrong things. I WISH someone had shown me that the real superpower you gain when you study music is the ability to truly LISTEN, but only if you decide to use it, and for me that happened way too late. I would have been a happier person, as well as a more loving and giving person (and even a more successful musician! because the reality is that a career in music is not solely about raw skill on your instrument) if I had recognized this ability sooner and, importantly, PRACTICED using it. It is now very difficult for me to listen the way I want to, but hopefully it’s not too late for my students!
If you’re still even reading, the last thing you want is ANOTHER YouTube clip from me, and you can definitely save this one for later. But I’ll share it now, though it might not be the last time, because this idea is so important. This is Evelyn Glennie, a renowned percussionist, who happens to be profoundly deaf—she lost her hearing at the age of 12—speaking about how to listen. Hint: it’s not just with your ears. Though she doesn’t do it here, she generally performs barefoot and “hears” the music through her feet. (She also gave a wonderful TED talk which is worth watching, but this is shorter!)
Congratulations on finishing the challenge!
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (Roman, 1525-1594): Sicut Cervus
Anniversary of his death on February 2 (his birth date is not known)
Palestrina is another one of those composers you should know about, even though you may never perform his music (and even if you don’t love it!). He is often considered the musical embodiment of something called the “counter-reformation.” To put it VERY simply: in 1517 Martin Luther started the Protestant reformation, a “protest” and rebellion against the Catholic Church. As often happens, a counter-reformation followed, in which Catholic leaders tried to defend and strengthen their church and its traditions. Musically, the music of the reformation was “homophonic,” which means all the voices in the texture move together. Think of “A Mighty Fortress”/“Ein Feste Burg” which we heard a couple weeks ago in Bach and Mendelssohn. In contrast, Palestrina mostly used “polyphonic” textures in his music—which means the voices are singing different words at different times. Martin Luther thought this obscured the all-important text, but Palestrina proved that one could write in polyphony and still keep the words clear.
I surveyed my early music singer friends on their favorite Palestrina work, and the one chosen by most was “Sicut Cervus.” Here’s the text:
Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,
ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.
As a hart longs for the flowing streams,
so longs my soul for thee, O God.
Florence Price (American, 1887-1953)
I’ve been involved in music for over 35 years, and it makes me sad that in all that time in youth orchestras, fancy music schools, professional orchestras, etc. I’d never even heard of Florence Price until very recently. It is definitely my personal failing, but also the failing of the musical institutions I’ve been part of. (Interestingly, Price was a close colleague of William Grant Still, whose work I first performed in high school, almost 25 years ago, so make of that what you will...) Happily there has recently been renewed interested in her work, and I’m sure even more research will be done in coming years, so we have much to learn from.
I thought I’d share this part of a documentary so you can learn about her along with me.
I admit I’m not at all familiar with her work (looking forward to getting to know it!), but I was charmed by this piece, which is clearly based on spirituals, but whose harmonies and orchestration contain hints of Schubert, Dvorak, and some early 20th century composers. It begins with a slow section, but alternates with livelier material starting around 6:47.
Up to you whether you want to watch some of the documentary, listen to some music (my selection or another), or both!
Schubert: Der Erlkönig
Violin arrangement by Heinrich Ernst (Moravian, 1812-1865)
As promised, the version of Der Erlkönig for solo violin. This is insanely complicated and difficult to play, but when done well, you can hear all the voices you heard in the song--narrator, father, son, and Erlking...PLUS the piano accompaniment!
Franz Schubert: Der Erlkönig (poem by Goethe)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore
I chose this for Schubert's birthday (which is tomorrow) precisely because it is so disturbing and terrifying. Music can do that too! This is one of Schubert’s most famous songs, because it has such a gripping story, and because the characters are so clearly represented in the music. This singer does a masterful job of changing his voice and face for each character. When I made the mistake of watching this on the Amtrak last week I had tears streaming down my face! (I get emotional about Schubert. Also, I was sleep-deprived...) Tomorrow, we will watch an amazing version of this for solo violin; you can hear the characters in that as well.
This video has subtitles but I’ll summarize: It starts with the narrator describing a father and son on a frantic nighttime horseback ride. The father asks the child why he appears frightened; the son replies that he sees the “erlkönig” and is afraid of him. (The erlkönig is some kind of demon/fairy king, which we can tell is the hallucination of a sick child.) The father tries to comfort his son, explaining that he is mistaking natural phenomena for this creature. Then the erkönig himself appears, trying to tempt the child to come with him, and we realize he represents death, which the child is trying to resist. Finally, the child cries out that the erlkönig has hurt him, the father fears the worst, and when they reach their destination, the child has indeed succumbed to death, as if he had been unable to resist this horrible creature’s advances.
Amazing piano playing in this too—it must be exhausting!
Antonio Vivaldi (Venetian, 1678-1741): Concerto in E minor “Il Favorito,” mvt. 2 Andante
For some reason Ella Fitzgerald and Monica Huggett remind me so much of each other, even though on the surface their art is quite different. They share a total mastery of their craft, complete ease onstage, love of what they do, and an ability to communicate directly and personally with an audience.
Vivaldi wrote about 500 concertos (!), of which about 200 were for violin!! For much of his life he taught violin for at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for girls in Venice, and many of his concertos for all instruments were written for the girls to perform. Judging from the difficulty of Vivaldi’s compositions (vocal and instrumental), the girls’ skill must have been extraordinary, but they had to perform from behind screens on the balcony, because it was considered inappropriate for girls to be seen playing instruments and singing.
Vivaldi was nicknamed, “The Red Priest,” because he had striking red hair and had been ordained as a priest. But shortly thereafter, he claimed he had asthma and therefore couldn’t say the entire mass. Hmmm... Seems more likely he just preferred writing and performing music!
“It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”
Stuff Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, etc.
I’m mildly obsessed with Ella Fitzgerald, so I was very happy to find this old video of the great jazz violinist Stuff Smith performing with her! I know almost nothing about jazz so I won’t try to lecture you about it. Enjoy!
Violin solo about 1:38-3:00 but I personally cannot stop watching at that point...
Mozart (born January 27, 1756): Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, mvt. 3 Rondeau--tempo di menuetto
We have already learned about cadenzas, and about rondos. You will hear both in this movement, which features a special kind of cadenza called an "eingang" (German for "entrance"). As you remember, rondos have the form "ABACADA..." The eingang happens at the end of each interlude and leads us back into the familiar "A" theme. Eingänge are usually short, with just a bit of filler material, but in this performance they are much more elaborate than they probably would have been back then! (During Mozart’s time, cadenzas were generally not written down by the composer, and they were often improvised. Here, the soloist has written the cadenzas, but is not improvising for the most part.)
This concerto has been nicknamed the "Turkish" concerto, because of the dramatically contrasting middle section, which switches from a major to a minor key, and from triple to duple meter--i.e. it is counted in two, unlike the rest of the movement which is counted in three. It is thought to have an exotic, Turkish flavor to it.
(Turkish section at about 3:18)
Arcangelo Corelli (Italian, 1653-1713): Sonata in F Major, Opus 5 no. 10
Corelli is a composer all violinists should know about, whether or not you end up playing much of his music. He deserves credit not only for developing violin techniques and genres (such as the sonata and the concerto grosso), but also, because he traveled so widely throughout his life, for disseminating his contributions. Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel, among others, were all influenced by Corelli.
I happened to stumble across this video while searching for my favorite harpsichordist, Pierre Hantaï, and was pleased to find him performing with this wonderful violinist I had never heard! One cool thing to listen for in the harpsichord: in the third movement of this sonata (about 4:25-6:40), you might notice that the sound changes noticeably (it is even more noticeable when it changes back in the following movement). You are hearing something called a "lute stop." Some harpsichords have this feature, which is created by a piece of leather pressing against the strings, muting them and making the harpsichord sound a bit like a lute. I always get excited in rehearsals when harpsichordists use the lute stop--and sometimes I even request it!--because I love the effect so much.
(Corelli from 0:00-9:22, five short movements)
Samuel Barber (American, 1910-1981): Violin Concerto--listen to at least parts of mvts. 1 and 3
It's worth returning to Barber, to hear his famous Violin Concerto. It has the same singular Barber sound as "Knoxville," which I will not clumsily try to describe again. But the last movement is a complete contrast--fast and exciting!
The young people in this orchestra do a beautiful job accompanying this concerto--I have heard professional orchestras not do as well--and the soloist is fantastic...but I confess that I hesitated to show you this video because his thumb is giving me a heart attack! Let's just say that if you play this well with your thumb like that I won't give you a hard time; otherwise, listen to me! :) (At least his wrist is straight.)
Last movement starts at about 18:11