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.
This week’s music is the “Lacrimosa” movement from Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor.
Mozart’s Requiem, one of the masterpieces of the choral repertoire, is shrouded in mystery. It was commissioned anonymously by what Mozart called “an unknown, gray stranger” who appeared one day on his doorstep. Mozart, against his family’s advice, accepted the commission. In a strange twist of irony, Mozart was dying while he wrote it. As he wrote in his journal, he was essentially writing his own Requiem. He died before it was finished at age 35; his students finished it.
We will be listening to one of the movements of the Requiem called “Lacrimosa.” The word lacrimosa (Latin for “weeping” or “tearful”) comes from the Roman Catholic Dies Irae Requiem Mass that was popular during Mozart’s youth. The Lacrimosa movement is the last part of the Requiem that Mozart wrote before he died. The orchestra begins with a soft, rocking rhythm before the sopranos and altos introduce the mournful melody. This melody is then repeated throughout the movement, each time with one more voice added.
To wrap up our series on the music of ballet, we will be listening to the second suite from Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloe.
While he is most popular for his large-scale orchestral works like Bolero, Ravel was an accomplished and versatile composer whose compositions spanned the breadth of the ballet, opera, solo, and chamber music repertoire. Daphnis et Chloe, the story of the romance between goatherd Daphnis and shepherdess Chloe, contains some of the most beautiful music ever written by Ravel. It is unique among the ballet repertoire because it is less than an hour long and contains only one act. Most commentators refer to it has a choreographed symphony rather than a full-scale ballet.
Ravel was a master of tonal harmony and meter, but he was unafraid to stretch their bounds as well. The opening of Daphnis et Chloe is a perfect example of this combination: a tonal center filled with luscious melodies, juxtaposed with a jarring, unpredictable rhythmic structure.
There are three parts to the ballet. Today, we will listen to the second part. It opens with an a capella choir of wordless voices singing a translucent, somewhat sinister line representing the pirates who have kidnapped Chloe. This is followed by the staccato brilliance of the trumpets, who introduce the second main theme of the ballet.
This week’s music is the “Infernal Dance” from Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
The Firebird is a musical rendition of a Russian folk tale about a magical creature called a firebird, whose favorite food is golden apples. Prince Ivan, in an effort to overcome the evil wizard Kashchei’s rule over the kingdom, goes into Kashchei’s garden looking for a tree that grows golden apples. Ivan captures the firebird, but lets it go in return for one of its feathers. He is then captured by Kashchei, escaping only by waving the firebird’s feather and summoning the firebird to his rescue. The firebird leads Kashchei and his monsters in a dance that is so exhausting that Kashchei and his monsters fall asleep. This is known as the “Infernal Dance,” which you will hear today. Prince Ivan then, with the help of the firebird, kills Kashchei and frees the kingdom. The firebird flies away, never to be seen again.
Stravinsky wrote the score for The Firebird in 1910 as part of a collaboration with the famous choreographer Sergei Diaghilev, and the music began his rise to international stardom. Soon after its premiere, Stravinsky created The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, and his violin concerto, all of which were met with critical acclaim. The music of The Firebird is considered to be a prime example of Stravinsky’s style, but I find this claim to be misleading. Stravinsky’s style is hard to pin down due, I believe, to his astounding versatility. For instance, he wrote entire symphonies in the Baroque style, yet his violin concerto sounds more like a late Romantic composition. He wrote very modern-sounding pieces like The Rite of Spring while also crafting orchestral suites in the style of Mozart. In short, Stravinsky was a consummate master of composition who did not have a single style. The genius of The Firebird is yet another example of his brilliance. The music is glittering, dissonant, and sometimes even unnerving, yet Stravinsky finds unique ways to surprise the listener with flashes of harmonic resolution.
This week’s music is the Dance of the Matadors from the ballet Don Quixote.
Inspired by the Miguel de Cervantes novel by the same name, Don Quixote was composed by Ludwig Minkus and first choreographed by Marius Petipa for its 1869 premiere in Moscow. It tells the story of Don Quixote, a bumbling, romantic dreamer who decides to escape from reality by living in a fantasy world of his own creation. In this world, Don Quixote is a brave knight searching for his beloved Dulcinea. To assist him in his quest he enlists the ever-faithful Sancho Panza, and the two of them set off in search of glory.
Different groups of dancers are featured throughout the ballet. The Dance of the Matadors is one such instance. Notice how Minkus’ music mirrors the energy and bravado of the matadors, and how it changes to incorporate new characteristics when the lead matador dances with his love interest. This is a skill that ballet composers are especially adept in: creating music that aesthetically imitates certain physical movements.
This week’s music, as part of our series on ballet music, is the Balcony Pas de Deux from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. First performed in 1940 by the renowned Mariinsky Ballet, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is the definitive musical expression of one of the greatest love stories of all time.
Prokofiev wrote the music for Romeo and Juliet at a time in his life in which he was under significant public pressure. European audiences had not liked his violin concerti, American audiences had dismissed his ballets, and Russian audiences had rejected his chamber music. On top of these pressures, Prokofiev was under close scrutiny by the Soviet government. Therefore, when Russian, European, and American audiences alike received Romeo and Juliet with adoration, a great weight was lifted off of Prokofiev’s shoulders.
The scene you will watch today, the Balcony Pas de Deux, depicts Romeo and Juliet falling in love. Notice how Prokofiev uses soaring lines in the violins to create a sense of rapture. Listen as well for the oboe solo that ushers in one of the main themes of the entire ballet.
This week’s music, the final scene from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, is part of a new series on ballet music. Over the next few weeks, we will be listening to (and watching 🙂 some of the greatest ballet music ever composed.
Ballet music is an interesting and unique sub-genre of classical music, primarily because it was not written to be performed on stage. Unlike most classical music, ballet music was meant to be heard and not seen. The musicians in a ballet sit in what is called “the pit,” a lowered enclosure that sits below the front of the stage. The conductor stands at the head of the orchestra on an elevated platform, where he can watch the ballet while also conducting the orchestra.
Ballet music is also unique because it involves physical movement in a way other classical music does not (with the rare exception of extremely athletic performers like Joshua Bell and Yuja Wang). It requires coordination between a choreographer and an orchestra, as well as constant vigilance on the part of the conductor to ensure the music and dance are fitting together properly.
Swan Lake is the tragic love story of Prince Siegfried and the swan Princess Odette, whose love must face sorcery, magic spells, evil magicians, betrayal, and more. Despite its fame, the ballet was not originally well received when it was premiered in 1877. It was not until the world-renowned Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg decided to showcase the ballet that it gained the kind of fame it enjoys today. Since then, it has been choreographed by ballet maestros like Lev Ivanov and performed by legendary dancers including Rudolf Nureyev.