Appalachian Spring

Hello all,

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 RodeoAppalachian 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

The Music of Ballet – Daphnis et Chloe

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

The Music of Ballet – Firebird

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

The Music of Ballet – Don Quixote

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

The Music of Ballet – Romeo and Juliet

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

The Music of Ballet – A New Series

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

Sugar Plum

Hello all,

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Written as a two-act ballet in 1892, the story is based on T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 short story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Tchaikovsky’s evocative and colorful music, combined with the brilliant choreography of Lev Ivanov and others, have created a timeless Christmas classic.

Today we will hear (and watch) the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This dance was somewhat revolutionary in its time, for it introduced a new instrument to the world: the celeste. Since then, the celeste has been used by Frank Sinatra, Gustav Mahler, John Williams, Bela Bartok, and dozens of other famous musicians. The celeste operates like most of the other keyboard instruments: keys trigger hammers that strike metal plates suspended over wooden resonating blocks. Tchaikovsky used it to create a delicate, sparkling atmosphere that feels magical and childish at the same time.

Enjoy!

T

Danzón

Hello all,

This week’s music will be Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2. It is based on the “danzon” dance form, which originated in Cuba but is also prevalent in many areas of Mexico. You will hear the lilting tango-like themes throughout the piece, but you’ll also hear elements of Marquez’ other passion – jazz. This dance was Marquez’ expression of the melodies and memories of his childhood, but it was also his way of expressing his love for Mexico.

Marquez was born in Sonora, Mexico in 1950 to a family of musicians. He wrote this piece during January 1994 during a period of time known as the Zapatista Uprising. This uprising was essentially the indigenous peoples’ rebellion against the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Enjoy!

T

Ravel’s La Valse

Hello all,

Our music for this week is La Valse by Maurice Ravel, performed by the Orchestre Nationale de France with the legendary Leonard Bernstein conducting.

Ravel initially composed La Valse as a piano duet for his friend Arnold Schoenberg (whose music we’ve heard a couple times before here at TWM). He had often thought of turning it into an orchestral work, but World War I interrupted those efforts. After serving as a driver in the French motor transport corps in the war, Ravel returned to composing in the 1920s. In 1928, he collaborated with ballet choreographer Ida Rubenstein to transpose it for orchestra and create a ballet set in “an imperial court, about 1855.”

One can hear the nostalgic grandeur of the mid-19th century Viennese waltz era combined with the “movie music” modernity of Ravel’s contemporary context. However, the ending of the piece is particularly un-Viennese. Ominous timpani, Brahms-like slides in the strings and brass, and frenetic trumpet lines combine to form an intense and shocking finale. One wonders if this is a result of Ravel’s experiences in World War I and his misgivings about the upper-class “waltz culture” that had contributed to World War I.

Enjoy!

T

Top 25 #25 – An American Legend

Hello all,

We are at the end of our countdown! And what a journey it’s been! We’ve covered over four centuries of music in these 25 posts, ranging from J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos to Samuel Barber’s Adagio and everything in between. I thought it only fitting that we end with one of the most famous compositions ever written by an American composer – the “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo.

Copland composed Rodeo in 1942. He had previously written a western-style ballet called Billy the Kid that had been met with only moderate success, so he was wary of writing another. However, he was convinced when the Hollywood choreographer Agnes de Mille told him that Rodeo would essentially be “the Taming of the Shrew – with cowboys!” “Hoedown” has since become such a core piece of American musical heritage that it was recently inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

The ballet consists of five sections. First, there is “Buckaroo Holiday,” which introduces the Wild West context of the ballet and the main character, known as Cowgirl. Second is “Corral Nocturne,” in which a lovesick Cowgirl wanders an empty corral at night. Third, there is “Ranch House Party,” which contrasts a rollicking dance theme with a more pensive clarinet line in order to portray the loneliness felt by Cowgirl despite her many friends. Fourth is “Saturday Night Waltz,” in which Cowgirl falls in love with a cowboy named Roper. Finally, there is the “Hoedown,” which is what we will hear today. This section of the ballet is meant to portray the happiness and exuberance of love as well as the boundless energy of the Wild West legend surrounding the ballet as a whole.

I hope you enjoy this final installment in our Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music series, but more importantly, I hope you’ve benefited from this series. Perhaps it has helped you grasp the unbelievable breadth of music that is included within the small phrase “classical music.” Perhaps it has introduced you to new music that hadn’t heard before, or maybe it was a stroll down the memory lane of “greatest hits” that you hadn’t dug up in a while. Or perhaps it has helped you narrow your tastes a bit and given you a more nuanced understanding of what it is about classical music that appeals to you. Either way, I hope you have benefited from this series and have had some fun along the way.

See you next week, and – as always – enjoy!

T