I have some troubling news for you. It appears we’ve been beseiged by our long-time nemesis “That Random Guy.”
Those of you who have been around for a while may remember his unfavorable credentials. Critics have compared his musical endeavors to the honking of a shorted horn in a 1971 pink-laminate Model T, the braying of a seizure-prone yearling donkey, the croaking of an aged pond toad, and the intestinal noises supposedly made by hungry Martians. He has been cut from multiple low-ranking orchestral engagements, including the Bottom-Notch Symphony, the Last Resort Philharmonic, and the No-Hope-on-Earth Ensemble. His professional collaborations have been a consistent disaster, as he has only landed one performance – the one you are about to hear – and the audience members were paid (otherwise known as bribed) to attend. In sum, we can expect a rough road ahead. All I can do is wish you luck.
In all seriousness, this week’s music is Carmen Fantasy by Pablo de Sarasate, performed by yours truly with the New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Princiotti. This May 2009 performance was the result of my success in a concerto competition the year before, and it was one of the highlights of my musical life.
Sarasate was a 19th century Spanish virtuoso who wrote a number of showpieces for violin and orchestra. Carmen Fantasy is one of his most popular works because it overlaid themes from the opera Carmen with dazzling violin pyrotechnics. You will hear five movements, each of which is built on a theme from the opera, and each of which showcases different virtuosic aspects of the violin – left-hand pizzicato, flying 16th-note passages, complex chords at high speed, fingered harmonics, and more.
This week’s music is a piece that routinely features in the conversation of “most beautiful music of all time”: the Overture to Act I of Richard Wagner’s opera “Parsifal.”
Parsifal was written in 1882. The storyline is the search for the Holy Grail and the adventures that arise along the way. Parsifal, who doesn’t arrive until later in the story, confronts numerous curses, betrayals, and other challenges on his journey to uncover the Holy Grail. He is eventually crowned king. The story, which has equivalents across the literature of multiple ancient civilizations, is timeless, but I think the music is the best part.
This overture is a trumpet player’s dream. The trumpet is featured as the primary melodic instrument, and it has multiple moments in the spotlight. Listen at 2:15 for the trumpet’s first presentation of the melody – one of the most beautiful and well-known melodies in all of music. You’ll hear another presentation of the melody, this time with more harmonic support from the strings, at 4:30. I appreciate the way this video focuses on the trumpet player and gives you a close-up view of his performance.
This week’s music is the Overture on a Hebrew Theme by Sergei Prokofiev.
Overture on a Hebrew Theme was written in 1919 while Prokofiev was visiting friends in the United States. It was written for a very rare combination of instruments – clarinet, piano, and a string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello). Prokofiev apparently wrote the work in response to a commission from the Zimro Ensemble, a Russian group with the combination of instruments noted above. He grudgingly agreed to write them a composition and disapproved of the work for the rest of his life. His dislike of the piece is surprising given the positive response it elicited from the public.
The work carries a distinctively Russian flavor, due largely to the efforts of the clarinetist. The clarinet features melancholy lines that are meditative and reflective in nature, interspersed with sections of lively transition. The most memorable and beautiful theme comes in at 2:37. This melody is one of those rare gems that feels like you’ve always known it.
It’s a few days late, but I thought we could use this week’s music to celebrate American music in honor of July 4th. Today, we will hear Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra.
Aaron Copland, often referred to as the “Dean of American Music,” did more to capture the essence of the American spirit in music than any other composer. His works include the ballet Appalachian Spring (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945), the ballet Billy the Kid, the orchestral work Lincoln Portrait, and the score for the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men.
Copland wrote Fanfare for the Common Man in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. “I sort of remember how I got the idea of writing Fanfare for the Common Man,” he wrote. “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.” Although the work is only three minutes long, Fanfare for the Common Man packs a serious punch. It starts with percussive drums, then features the trumpets, the French horns, trombones, and tuba in a stirring melody resembling a call to arms. You can also hear a version of the Fanfare for the Common Man in the opening bars of Copland’s famous Third Symphony (1946).
This week’s music is the Sonata in C Minor for violin and piano by Edvard Grieg, performed by violinist Julia Fischer and pianist Milana Chernyavska.
Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg is probably most famous for his Peer Gynt Suite, but he didn’t see it that way. In his view, his three violin sonatas were his best works because they represented the three stages he went through in his development as a composer. “They represent periods in my development,” he wrote, “the first naïve, rich in ideas; the second national; and the third with a wider horizon.” Of the three sonatas, the third sonata remains the most widely performed.
As a Romantic-era composer, Grieg wrote music that practically bursts with lyricism and drama. The third sonata is no exception. The first movement, for instance, opens with a dark C-minor theme but eventually gives way to two motifs that seem to outdo each other in their tranquility, tenderness, and beauty. Another lyrical theme opens the second movement (although be sure to listen for the dance section Grieg inserts as a surprise). Again, the third movement features a sweet, songful melody that is juxtaposed with a muscular recapitulation of the first movement’s theme. The finale features many of the Norwegian folk tunes Grieg was known to adore.
To finish our series on music for the organ, we will be listening to the second movement of Aaron Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. My apologies for the lack of a live performance in today’s video.
Widely considered the greatest American composer of all time, Aaron Copland wrote music that defined the ethos of the United States of America. His famous Third Symphony, his ultra-famous “Appalachian Spring,” and his mega-famous “Fanfare for the Common Man” are featured every July 4th by orchestras around the country. Yet Copland did not write only orchestral music; he was also open to experimenting with unique orchestrations and uncommon instrument selections, as evidenced by his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra.
Copland wrote this symphony in 1924 while studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who many consider to be the greatest composition teacher to have ever lived. The legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Sergei Koussevitsky asked Copland to write an organ symphony in which Boulanger herself would solo as the organist. Though not a fan of the organ, Copland agreed to write the symphony.
The second movement, which you will hear today, is a broad, burly Scherzo that seems to have been inspired by Copland’s classmate in Paris, the great Igor Stravinsky. Listen for the irregular note groupings and uneven accents that Copland sprinkles throughout the movement to give it a jolting, punchy style. In his words: “The Scherzo was my idea of what could be done to adapt the raw material of jazz.”
This week’s music is the Sonata in C Major for organ by J.S. Bach, performed by organist Ton Koopman on a Danish organ built in 1746.
We could not do a series on organ music without featuring Bach’s music. As kapelmeister (music director) for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen, Bach wrote weekly organ compositions and performed daily as the court organist. Most historians agree that Bach’s instrumental mastery of the organ was greater than any other instrument. Bach wrote so much organ music that one organist’s attempt to perform all of it took fourteen recitals over five years!
In the late 1720s, Bach wrote six sonatas for organ. (The “six sonatas” thing seems to have been a theme for Bach – he wrote six sonatas for organ, six sonatas for solo cello, and six sonatas for solo violin). The C Major sonata, which you will hear today, is built on a slow-paced theme from one of Bach’s earlier compositions. Bach added fast outer movements to the sonata, effectively sandwiching the recycled theme within two movements of complex and invigorating material.
This week’s music is the start of a short series on music for the organ. We will be hearing the Tocatta from Charles-Marie Widow’s Organ Symphony No. 5, performed by Dr. Frederick Hohman.
The organ has fallen from the height it once commanded at the top of the music world to a place of relative obscurity. Now relegated to “old-school” churches, the organ tends to be reserved for holiday services and an occasional romp through The Star-Spangled Banner. Yet some of the greatest music in history has been written for the organ, most notably by the father of music himself, J.S. Bach, who was an organist by trade. I thought it might be worthwhile to listen to some of the greatest organ works for the next few weeks and (re)gain an appreciation for this amazing and complex instrument.
Early twentieth century French composer and organist Charles-Marie Widow wrote a number of works for the organ, but the Symphony No. 5 is by far the most popular. (He also wrote chamber music, piano etudes, four operas, and a ballet. One could say he was an underachiever). The fifth movement of the Symphony No. 5, Toccata, has become a favorite for festive occasions such as weddings and holiday services. It perfectly captures the spine-tingling power and endless breadth of the organ. The Toccata is based on a series of rapid arpeggios (essentially broken chords, one note at a time) that move, over the course of the piece, through all twelve keys. Underneath these arpeggios is a substructure of syncopated (off-beat) chords that create a fantastic jabbing sensation. The ending of the Toccata has been referred to as “glass-shattering,” and I’m sure you’ll see why 🙂
Keeping with the theme of springtime music, this week’s music is the “Spring” Sonata No. 5 in F Major by Ludwig van Beethoven, performed by Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos and Italian pianist Enrico Pace. If you’re interested in hearing more Beethoven from this duo, Kavakos and Pace recently released a recording of all ten Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano with Decca Classics (which I highly recommend).
This four-movement sonata was not originally nicknamed “Spring”—that name was given to it later, by audiences who thought the opening bars of the first movement were reminiscent of a blossoming spring-time meadow—but it was designed to be light-hearted and lyrical. None of the movements feature the dark, powerful motifs so often associated with Beethoven. On the contrary, they are all remarkable cheerful, perhaps even Mozartian.
In the first movement, listen for the way the violin and piano trade the opening line and recycle it through multiple tonalities. Beethoven is a genius at fragmenting a melody, then bringing it back in unexpected ways. The second movement is written in song form, leading some scholars to wonder if it was originally a lullaby. You’ll hear a dance-like trio in the third movement, evidence of Beethoven’s tutelage under the great Franz Joseph Haydn, and the characteristic Rondo that finishes so many sonatas of the Classical era.
Given the season of the year we are in, I thought it might be nice to share some music about springtime. Our music for this week is Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. This is arguably the most well-known and widely-loved piece of music ever written by an American composer.
Two years after the premier of his amazingly popular Rodeo, Appalachian Spring was written in 1944 as a ballet titled “Ballet for Martha.” Dancer Martha Graham had been commissioned to choreograph the ballet, and Copland wasn’t sure what he was going to call it. A year later, after the ballet was met with widespread success (including winning a Pulitzer Prize for the musical score), Copland created the orchestral suite that you will hear.
Appalachian Spring evokes images of rolling Blue Ridge mountains, open prairie-lands, soaring northern peaks, and youthful exploration. It captures much of the adventurousness inherent in the American ideal. Ironically, Copland wasn’t even thinking about the Appalachians when he wrote the piece. As he said, “I gave voice to that region without knowing I was giving voice to it.”
While all of the melodies in Appalachian Spring are memorable and evocative, the highlight is the unmistakable “Simple Gifts” theme that begins at 23:27. Based on the Shaker hymn by the same name, this melody was Copland’s attempt to pay homage to the Shaker influence on American culture. Since they were writing for a ballet, Copland and Graham initially chose “Simple Gifts” because of its references to dancing:
When true simplicity is gained To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d To turn, turn will be our delight ’Till by turning, turning we come round right.