Bernstein #5 – Chichester Psalms

Hello all,

As we continue our series on the music of Leonard Bernstein, our music for this week is the Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein. The composer conducts the Boys and Men’s Choir of the Poznan Philharmonic.

Chichester Psalms was written in 1965 for boy soprano, solo quartet, choir, and orchestra. It is essentially a musical setting of Psalms 2, 23, 100, 108, 131, and 133 that was commissioned by the Revered Walter Hussey of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England.

As with many of his other compsitions, Bernstein wrote extensively about his motivation for composing the Psalms.

“For hours on end I brooded and mused
On materiae musicae, used and abused;
On aspects of unconventionality,
Over the death in our time of tonality…
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos
Played with the forearms, the fists and the palms —
And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.
… My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.”

Unlike most of Bernstein’s compositions during this time period, the Psalms are not atonal. In his own words, the piece is “the most accessible, B-flat majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written.” Bernstein was also adamant that the Psalms be sung in the original Hebrew and with the rhythmic style of the Hebrew musical tradition. Some have observed that by writing a Christian mass for a Christian church in the Hebrew language and Hebrew style, Bernstein was implicitly advocating for a peaceful reconciliation between the two faiths.

Here’s a quick rundown of things to listen for:

  • First movement: This movement is based on Psalm 108 and opens with a victorious “Awake, psaltery and harp!” Interestingly, this movement is 7/4 meter, which, if you are a musician, you will know is an almost unheard-of meter.
  • Second movement: listen for the boy soprano solo that is based on Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) and is accompanied by the harp (perhaps symbolic of the shepherd-psalmist King David?) Later in the movement, you’ll hear a quick snippet of a West Side Story melody that Bernstein threw in just for fun.
  • Third movement: notice how Bernstein ends the piece with less and less orchestral involvement, eventually giving way to a subdued chorus without instrumentation.

Enjoy!

T

Bernstein #4 – Serenade

Hello all,

We spent the first few weeks of our series on the music of Leonard Bernstein exploring his more popular and public compositions, such as West Side Story and the educational performances he gave to children around the world. For the remaining weeks of the series, we are going to take a look at some of his more obscure compositions, starting with the Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion. The violinist in the video is Vadim Gluzman.

Plato wrote Symposium as a dialogue between several speakers on the topic of love. It was originally a play that contained five parts, and Bernstein named the movements of the Serenade after those parts: Pausanias, Aristophanes, Eryximachus, Agathon, & Alcibiades. Accordingly, the music introduces a new voice or viewpoint in each movement. You will notice that Bernstein recycles certain themes in each of the movements, building upon his earlier work to create a comprehensive whole. Listen for the repeated re-emergence of the opening solo violin theme throughout the latter movements.

Bernstein must have known that we would be learning about his music via these Music Emails because he wrote a description of each movement for his listeners.

Pausanias (Lento; Allegro marcato). Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros, the god of love. (Fugato, begun by the solo violin.) Pausanias continues by describing the duality of the lover as compared with the beloved. This is expressed in a classical sonata-allegro, based on the material of the opening fugato.
II. Aristophanes (Allegretto). Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but instead that of the bedtime-storyteller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love. The atmosphere is one of quiet charm.
[Aristophanes sees love as satisfying a basic human need. Much of the musical material derives from the grace-note theme of the first movement. The middle section of this movement incorporates a melody for the lower strings (marked “singing”) played in close canon.]
III. Eryximachus (Presto). The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love-patterns. This is an extremely short fugato-scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor.
[This section contains music that corresponds thematically to the canon of the previous movement, Aristophanes]
IV. Agathon (Adagio). Perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms and functions. This movement is a simple three-part song.
V. Alcibiades (Molto tenuto; Allegro molto vivace). Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love. Love as a daemon is Socrates’ image for the profundity of love; and his seniority adds to the feeling of didactic soberness in an otherwise pleasant and convivial after-dinner discussion. This is a slow introduction of greater weight than any of the preceding movements, and serves as a highly developed reprise of the middle section of the Agathon movement, thus suggesting a hidden sonata-form. The famous interruption by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revelers ushers in the Allegro, which is an extended rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jig-like dance music to joyful celebration. If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party-music, but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party. [Speaking through the voice of Diotima, Socrates proposes the notion that the most virtuous form of love is the love for wisdom (philosophy).]”

Enjoy!

T

Bernstein #3 – Young People’s Concerts

“Stories are not what music means. Music is never about things. Music just is. It’s a lot of beautiful notes and sounds put together so well that we get pleasure out of hearing them. So when we ask, ‘What does it mean; what does this piece of music mean?’ we’re asking a hard question. Let’s do our best to answer it.”

Leonard Bernstein, 1958

While Leonard Bernstein’s legacy was cemented by West Side Story and his other great compositions, his influence extended far beyond Broadway. In many ways, he inspired and educated a generation of youth through his Young People’s Concerts. He performed these concerts all around the country and on television to thousands of young people, inspiring them to learn more about the greatest music in the world.

The video you will watch today was originally aired on January 18, 1958. It was titled “What Does Music Mean?” Bernstein uses the various instruments of the orchestra to show the audience what makes the music of William Tell Overture and other famous pieces so special. I find it informative and am sure that, despite its orientation for children, it will be beneficial to you as well. Bernstein is a talented teacher and a gifted communicator, and his excitement about music is contagious.

Enjoy!

T  

Bernstein #2 – West Side Story

Hello all,

Today we will be listening to the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, who conducts the NY Philharmonic in a 1976 live performance of his own composition.

West Side Story is arguably the most notable landmark in all of American theater. It took Broadway by storm in 1957, then conquered the silver screen with ease. West Side Story fused the American musical tradition in all of its variety with European theater forms and a Shakespearean love-story theme. It was original, relatable, and lovable.

In 1960, Bernstein decided to capitalize on the popularity of West Side Story and wrote the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. As conductor of world-famous NY Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernstein was in the perfect position to further publicize his famous musical.

The set of dances is essentially a condensed version of the full musical. The Prologue describes the rivalry between the Jet gang and the Shark gang. It is followed by Somewhere, which describes a dream in which the two gangs develop a friendship. Third is a Scherzo in which the dream continues and takes the gangs out of the city and into a sunlit field. The Mambo showcases the dancing competition between the gangs. Cha-cha is when Tony and Maria – the Romeo and Juliet of the story – see each other for the first time. In Meeting Scene, the lovers speak their first words to one another. The Cool Fugue is an elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets show off their moves. In Rumble, the two gang leaders are killed. The work finishes with a Finale love song sung by Maria.

Enjoy!

T

New Series: Bernstein

Hello all,

Welcome a new series on the music of the great American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein! We’ll explore his greatest hits, his movie scores, his Broadway songs, and some of his more obscure works that (I believe) deserve more attention than they get.

Leonard Bernstein is one of the most important figures in American music. He was a composer, conductor, educator, and humanitarian. After training with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s legendary conductor Serge Koussevitsky, Bernstein embarked on an incredible career at the helm of the world-renowned New York Philharmonic.

While Bernstein is probably most famous for his score to West Side Story, he wrote many other compositions that were just as spectacular. One of these is the 1949 film On the Town (adapted from the 1944 Broadway play by the same name), which starred Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jules Munshin on a 24-hour exploration of New York City. The lyrics tell us that New York is “a wonderful town” and “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.” While the lyrics and the upbeat tune are the deserving focus, the music itself is not as basic as it may seem. Bernstein actually composed the entire film score for On the Town based on a single theme. In other words, every song is a variation on the same set of tonalities. Even within this tune, Bernstein creates a variation on the opening theme by adding sixteenth (faster) notes to the last iteration of the theme.

Enjoy!

T

Glenn Gould plays Bach

Hello all,

We’ve listened to the Goldberg Variations here before (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2018/07/31/j-s-bach-goldberg-variations/), but I thought a repeat was necessary in order to introduce you to one of the most intriguing figures in the history of classical music.

Glen Gould was one of the most important pianists of the 20th century. Born in Toronto in 1932, Gould is regarded by most as one of the best in the world at interpreting the music of J.S. Bach. He was drawn from a young age to the intricate textures and complex polyphony of Bach’s music and – unlike every one of his contemporaries – had no interest in the standard Romantic repertoire. His vivid imagination enabled him to take his audience with him on fascinating journeys into Bach’s harmonic genius.

Gould was incredibly eccentric. For instance, he would not record unless the recording studio was heated to an almost unbearably high temperature. He would never play – in practice, recording, or a concert – with any other stool than the one his father had made for him in his childhood. He would never go outside, regardless of the season, without a hat and mittens on. Perhaps the most controversial of his eccentricities was his habit of humming or singing under his breath while he played. The habit was so unbreakable that he did it even while performing in concerts or recording sessions (he attributed this to his mother’s teaching him to “sing everything he played”). Many criticized his early recordings because they claimed that they could hear him humming in the background.

To me, the most amazing thing about Glen Gould is that he almost never practiced the piano. He studied his repertoire by reading it and mentally practicing it. In his view, physically playing the piano was one of the last steps in preparing a performance. As a musician who has practiced regularly for the past twenty years (and who is still nowhere near the level of Glen Gould), I find this concept of mental preparation fascinating. I’m sure his photographic memory helped him in this endeavor, but it is nonetheless interesting to think about the possible benefits of adopting his approach in our personal pursuits.

Enjoy!

T

Appalachian Spring

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

12 Cellos

Hello all,

Our music for this week is a performance of Libertango, composed by Argentine composer Astor Piazolla. The performers are the twelve cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Astor Piazolla is one of the most important musical voices of the twentieth century. He was driving force behind the development of the tango as a popular musical form, and many have called him the “Duke Ellington of tango.” Much like his European counterparts Bartok and Kodaly, Piazolla was fascinated by folk music and sought to expose it to a wider audience. To do so, he blended Argentine folk tunes with elements of classical, jazz, and rock-and-roll. This combination of influences is a large part of what made his music appealing to such a wide audience. In fact, Libertango is often referred to as part of the pseudo-genre “nuevo tango,” which combined tango form with other styles of music to create a Latin fusion of sorts.

This week’s music also serves to point out an important but often overlooked fact about orchestras. It is easy to forget the individual musicians in an orchestra because of the collective nature of the performance, but we should remember that each of those musicians is an incredible talent in his or her own right. Most if not all of them could probably get up in front of the orchestra at any moment and perform a full solo concerto. To get their position in the orchestra, each one of them had to go through multiple rounds of ridiculously competitive auditions that included massive amounts of music. As displayed by this performance by the cellists of the Berlin Phil, we should be careful not to overlook the individual talents of orchestral musicians.

Enjoy!

T

Brahms Symphony #4

Hello all,

For the final installment in our series on Brahms’ symphonies, we will hear his Fourth Symphony (my personal favorite), played by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the baton of Bernard Haitink.

The Fourth Symphony is the capstone. It is structurally perfect, emotionally overwhelming, and arrestingly personal. It is Brahms’ worldview in a piece of music, saturated with sadness, joy, hopelessness, and an occasional burst of inspiration.

This was the first full symphony I ever performed. It was in 2008, I was 15, and the conductor of the Chicago Lyric Opera was conducting the NH All-State Orchestra. During the first evening of rehearsals, he mercilessly drilled us on the technical elements of the symphony. On the second day, he stretched our expressive capacity to its limit. In the concert the following day, he found a way to let the orchestra loose. It was magical.

Here’s what to listen for in each movement:

  • The opening melody is timeless. It returns over and over again, each time sweeping into the spotlight with an overwhelming and graceful swell. Listen for the melancholy sighs of the violins that ride on the rolling notes of the cellos.
  • The fanfare at the opening is just a introduction; the real melody starts at 13:18 (with the secondary theme starting at 15:27) and seems to calm the agitated atmosphere of the dark first movement. In my humble opinion, this theme may just be Brahms’ loveliest.
  • In homage to Beethoven, the third movement is a dance. It was so popular at the premiere that the audience ask that it be repeated as the encore. It is the lone moment of cheerfulness in the entire symphony.
  • The fourth movement is a Ciaconna (a form of Baroque dance). The opening theme is built on a simple ascending scale that Brahms then proceeded to write 34 variations for. This movement returns to the darkness of the first movement, then descends to even darker depths.

Enjoy!

T

Mendelssohn Octet

While we commonly think of the Octet as the pinnacle of the chamber music repertoire, Mendelssohn (who composed it at the ripe old age of 16) did not view it as a chamber composition. In fact, he viewed it as a condensed symphony. This is reflected in both the structure of the piece and the inscription that Mendelssohn placed at the beginning of the manuscript: The Octet must be played in the style of a symphony in all parts; the pianos and fortes must be precisely differentiated and be more sharply accentuated than is ordinarily done in pieces of this type. These words clearly place the Octet within a symphonic framework, which is helpful when thinking about how to listen to it.

For instance, the structure of the Octet unfolds like a symphony. You will hear a brilliant first movement allegro leading to a lush andante. The third movement, a scherzo, frolics through chamber-music-like textures before the presto finale explodes into a fully symphonic finale. You’ll also hear Mendelssohn utilizing the full range of expressive qualities available to this combination of instruments, much like a symphony might do. You can also sense Mendelssohn’s movement away from the Classical traditions of his predecessors (Mozart, Haydn, etc.) an into the Romantic style of his contemporaries. This can be heard in the dreamy, enchanted quality in the second movement and the frenetic restlessness of the third movement (of which he wrote that it “is to be played staccato and pianissimo… the trills passing away with the quickness of lightning”).

Enjoy!

T

P.S. Check out the new Archives feature at the bottom of every page! It lists all of the past posts in a condensed and chronological order.