Franz Schubert (Austrian, 1797-1828): Rondo Brillant in B Minor
Sergiu Luca and Joseph Kalichstein
Schubert is another composer whose birth we will celebrate during this challenge, but who merits more than one day. He lived a very short time--he passed away at the age of 31--but managed to write an inhuman amount of music (about 1500 pieces). He is known for very short pieces, like his myriad "lieder," or songs, and VERY long pieces, such as symphonies and piano sonatas that go on for as long as an hour! Be glad I'm not having you listen to one of those, but this Rondo definitely falls into the same category--the proportions are huge for what it is. (It's about 15 minutes.)
"Rondo" comes from the same root as "round"--the basic form is ABACADA...etc. In other words, the same theme ("A") comes "around" again and again with different interludes in between ("B", "C", etc.). This rondo is a little more complicated than most because there are a number of themes that recur, but also change a little bit with each iteration. There is also a slow introduction, which establishes the grandeur of the work. The actual rondo theme is kind of folksy and fun, and there's lots of contrast throughout the piece.
This file was made from a record my teacher recorded in 1980. I think it's the best recording, of course but if you have trouble opening it I've included one from youtube that's pretty good too.
Samuel Barber (American, 1910-1981): Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Anniversary of his death on 1/23
You probably have heard Barber's "Adagio for Strings," which is an adaptation of a movement from his string quartet. But Barber was an extraordinarily versatile musician, the only person ever to have completed a triple major at the renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia--in piano, composition, and voice. Besides the "Adagio," he is probably best known for his operas and other vocal works. He wrote beautiful melodies, and his style is (I think) personal and immediate; to me, a lot of his music has a distinctive warm, almost “generous” sound. (Describing music with words can be very difficult!)
Anyway, this is one of Barber’s better known works. It’s based on a text by James Agee, an experiment in improvisatory writing which, he claimed, he wrote in 90 minutes. There is a LOT of “word painting” in this, so keep your ears open. This is a version by Leontyne Price, for whom Barber wrote many of his soprano parts. She said that Agee’s prose-poem was “like painting a picture of my hometown, and that’s the way I sang it.” The recording was made shortly after the death of her father, and that too affects this performance. She was a famous opera singer but at times sings very intimately here, like she is speaking.
(I went through a phase when I listened to this piece almost every day on repeat...actually, it was a cassette tape so not really on repeat, I had to rewind it each time. Yes, I’m old. )
It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt; a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber
A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter, fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten. Now is the night one blue dew
Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose
Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes....
Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces
The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums
On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there....They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine,...with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away
After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am
Mindaugas Piečaitis: CATcerto
Nora The Piano Cat
It was a long night of travel and a long day of rehearsal. So the best thing to do, obviously, is watch cat videos (most of you know that I love cats). As far as I can remember, Nora the Piano Cat was one of the first youtube videos to go "viral" (if that was even the term then), back in 2007. Eventually, a conductor/composer saw these videos and decided to write an entire piece featuring Nora as the soloist. It's pretty silly, but so creative and so very clever. (My favorite part is the key change at about 1:46.) Enjoy!
We will get back to serious business tomorrow...
William Grant Still (American, 1895-1978): Summerland
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I thought we could listen to some music by William Grant Still, a prominent American composer and one of the first African-American musicians to reach the elite classical music circuit--he was, for instance, the first African-American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera, the first to conduct a major orchestra, and the first to have his work performed by a leading symphony orchestra. (He has known as the "Dean of Afro-American Composers," but as we will see, there may be some women who deserve to share that title!) As part of the Harlem Renaissance movement, he also felt closely tied to African-American culture and is probably best known today for his "Afro-American Symphony," which incorporates elements of blues, jazz, and spirituals into standard classical forms.
We are going to listen to "Summerland," which was originally the second movement of "Three Visions," a work for solo piano. (I can't figure out if Still arranged all three movements for violin and piano, but I know at least this arrangement of "Summerland" is his.) It is intended to evoke the promised beauty of the afterlife. This young violinist plays it extremely skillfully and elegantly.
Franz Joseph Haydn (Austrian, 1732-1809): The Creation, Bass recitative "And God said..."
As you might know, "oratorio" is similar to opera, but unstaged. Oratorios were originally created to be performed during Lent, when the spectacle of opera was considered inappropriate, and they often have religious subjects, such as this one about the biblical creation story. Haydn was inspired to write oratorios after visiting London and hearing performances of Handel's "Messiah" and "Israel in Egypt." There's a complicated story behind the libretto, but the upshot is that Haydn ended up writing an English version and a German version more or less simultaneously.
This selection incorporates two musical devices: "recitative" and "word painting." "Recitative" is when a singer "recites," or speaks, text, rather than singing it more traditionally. The rhythm is free and not counted as strictly as other music. "Recitative" can be accompanied by one instrument such as a keyboard or a plucked instrument, or by the whole orchestra. The accompaniment is usually just short interjections between the singer's lines.
"Word painting" is pretty much what it sounds like--when the music "paints" the text it is describing. In this case it is a little confusing because the text usually comes after the music that describes it. So I'll go through it in a little detail:
Accompanied by piano:
And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind; cattle and creeping thing, and beasts of the earth after their kind.
Strait opening her fertile womb, the earth obey'd the word, and teem'd creatures numberless, in perfect forms and fully grown.
Orchestra roars like a lion
Cheerful roaring stands the tawny lion.
In sudden leaps the flexible tyger appears.
Orchestra plays dance-like music
The nimble stag bears up his branching head.
Dance music continues, but heavier
With flying mane and fiery look, impatient neighs the sprightly steed.
Innocent pastoral music
The cattle in herds already seeks his food on fields and meadows green.
Bassoon starts playing
And o'er the ground, as plants, are spread the fleecy meek and bleating flock.
Buzzing sound in orchestra
Unnumbered as the sands in swarms arose the host of insects.
Low, slithering music (this is the best part! He sings sooo low!)
In long dimensions creeps with sinuous trace the worm.
Béla Bartók (Hungarian, 1881-1945), arranged by Joseph Szigeti (Hungarian, 1892-1973): "For Children," aka "Hungarian Folk Tunes”
Bartók was one of the most important composers of the 20th century, not only in his own right, but because he is considered to be one of the founders of ethnomusicology. He was tremendously interested in the folk music of his native Hungary and other eastern European countries, and he wanted to share this music more widely. He traveled deep into the peasant communities of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Serbia, and even Turkey and Arabic countries. At first, he asked musicians to play songs and wrote down the music by ear, but later he took advantage of the earliest recording technology: the wax cylinder phonograph. I've included a picture of one of these visits, with his phonograph. How strange it must have seemed to these country dwellers!
Joseph Szigeti was an accomplished violinist who admired Bartók's work and wanted to meet him. To get his attention, he created violin and piano arrangements of some of the tunes Bartók had collected and published. Bartók was so impressed with these that it initiated a lifelong collaboration between the two musicians. Bartók would dedicate many of his works for violin to Szigeti (including many of my favorites). But I thought it was pretty cool to hear how it all started, with this work, performed by the two of them.
There are seven tunes, each about a minute, give or take. (You should know ALL of these VERY common Italian words! You will see them for the rest of your life.)
Andante con moto
Johann Sebastian Bach (German, 1685-1750): Cantata BWV 80, “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott”, mvt. 5 (and 8)
After Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony yesterday, the obvious choice today is Bach’s cantata based on exactly the same hymn. (“Ein Feste Burg...” is the original German name.) A “cantata” is a multi-movement work with a (usually) religious text, for chorus, soloists, and orchestra. In certain periods of Bach’s life he wrote and performed a cantata every week, which is an amazing feat, considering that the music had to be hand-copied and the ensemble had to rehearse! Three movements of this cantata (1, 2, and 5) contain the hymn melody in various degrees of disguise; the final movement is simply the chorale in its pure form. In the 5th movement all four voices sing the tune together while the orchestra decorates around it. I suggest starting by listening to the last movement to get the tune in your head again, and then returning to the 5th. Even though Bach and Mendelssohn use the same original material, these two pieces could hardly sound more different!
14:28-18:22 (mvt. 5)
Hymn at 23:55-25:08
We will be celebrating the birthday of Felix Mendelssohn at the end of this challenge, on February 3rd. But like Mozart, one day is not enough for Mendelssohn...especially if your teacher happens to be me! (I'm having trouble narrowing it down as it is.) Since yesterday's listening was pretty dark, I chose something joyful and optimistic for today: the conclusion of his "Reformation" symphony. Mendelssohn was born Jewish but converted to protestantism, and some of his music sounds a bit like hymns. This movement, however, is not only hymn-like, it is based on an actual hymn, called "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." Here's a bit of that (you only need to listen to the first verse to get the idea):
First, the flute plays that tune alone and gradually the whole orchestra joins in. I suggest listening to the last minute or so of the preceding movement, starting at about 21:50 in this video. As in the lead-up to the cadenza in the Shostakovich, fewer and fewer people play more and more quietly, until one person is left, in this case the flute. It's a similar compositional technique, with a very different outcome!
The tune recurs throughout the movement, so keep your ears open!
Dimitri Shostakovich (Russian, 1906-1975): Violin Concerto no. 1, cadenza
A “cadenza” in a concerto is an interlude in which the soloist plays alone without the orchestra. Usually, it is an opportunity for the soloist to “show off” their virtuosity, and has little musical weight. But this cadenza is a crucial part of the structure of this piece, almost a movement in itself. I first heard Oistrakh’s (for whom the piece was written) performance of this cadenza on a PBS special about the violin. His pacing is masterful, starting almost static, and then building gradually, terrifyingly, to the entrance of the orchestra. I was completely sucked in. This is not music to be enjoyed lightly; one could not describe it as “pleasant,” in the traditional sense.
Much of the music of Shostakovich can be understood in terms of his relationship with his country and its government. He lived a lot of his life in terror of Stalin, who killed many friends and family members. Stalin’s disapproval of Shostakovich’s compositions could well have been a death sentence. The violin concerto was written during a period of strict censorship, and so it wasn’t premiered until after Stalin died.
(Parents: I am leaving it to your judgement how much of these “blurbs” you share with your children, and what is age-appropriate for them, especially with a difficult subject like Shostakovich. But everyone can listen to all music and understand it at their own level.)
The cadenza happens from about 28:13-32:38 (I recommend giving yourself at least a minute lead in so you can hear how the cadenza is set up. Of course you can watch as much as you want!)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Austrian, 1756-1791): Overture to "The Marriage of Figaro"
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
From a tent in Scotland, we go today to the opera. Mozart's birthday is Jan. 27th, and we will celebrate it when the time comes, but one day is not enough for him! Mozart's favorite genre, and arguably the one that informs all the others he wrote in, was opera. He loved the drama and the characters, and the complicated, often very silly, plotlines--which definitely describes "The Marriage of Figaro." Sometimes overtures incorporate tunes that come later in an opera, but this overture is completely unrelated to later themes; it merely serves to set an energetic, fast-paced, and good natured mood. Enjoy!