Organ Symphony

Hello all,

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.”

Enjoy!

T

Toccata

Hello all,

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 🙂

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

Quotable Quotations

Hello all,

This week’s music is the Allegro second movement (starting at 6:06) from Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2.

A Mount Rushmore of American composers could include several names, but two composers in particular would have, in my view, a permanent place on the monument: Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. These two composers have arguably done more than any other figures (with the possible exception of George Gershwin) to define American classical music.

Charles Ives was an eccentric New Englander who forged a unique and powerful path into American modernism. Like the poet T.S. Eliot, Ives worked an office job (insurance salesman) for most of his life in order to support his family, composing in the early mornings and late evenings. He left us with dozens of sonatas, chamber music of all kinds, six incredible symphonies, and several immensely popular short orchestral works like “The Unanswered Question,” “Central Park in the Dark,” and “Three New England Sketches.”

Ives’ second symphony is a masterclass in quoting other musical material, from Wagner operas to American fiddle tunes. In the first movement, he quotes the tune “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.” The second movement quotes “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Strains of “America the Beautiful” can be heard in the third movement, and the fifth movement showcases quotations of both “Camptown Races” and “Turkey in the Straw.” Other quotations include Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Beethoven’s fifth symphony (in the second and third movements), Brahms’ first symphony (in both the first and last movements), and even an F Minor fugue in the finale that imitates one of J.S. Bach’s three-part inventions.

Enjoy!

T

American Composers #3 – Samuel Barber

Hello all,

We are continuing our series on American composers with Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber.

Samuel Barber wrote this piece in 1936 as part of a string quartet. The legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, upon hearing it, begged Barber to arrange it for full string orchestra. Toscanini later premiered the work with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and it became an overnight sensation. It has become renowned as one of the most moving pieces of music in the world. It was played at the memorial services for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy, and Albert Einstein.

This piece is powerful because of its simplicity. It is a study in the bare essentials of music. Notice how the melody is only in one instrument at a time. The rest of the instruments provide a held-out chordal background over which the melody floats. It is also powerful because of the tension that it creates. Notice how the harmony and melody never change at the same time; this tug-of-war creates rising tension as the tonal exchange escalates. For those of you who are musically trained, you’ll hear a constant tug-of-war between the tonic, the sub-dominant, and the diminished seventh (or really any form of seventh), which, as I’m sure many of you know, is a perfect formula for increasing musical tension.

As you listen, keep in mind the words from Virgil’s Aeneid that inspired this piece:

A breast-shaped curve of wave begins to whiten

And rise above the surface, then rolling on

Gathers and gathers until it reaches land

Huge as a mountain and crashes among the rocks

With a prodigious roar, and what was deep

Comes churning up from the bottom in mighty swirls.

Enjoy!

T

Sascha

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Symphony No. 15 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by Michael Sanderling and the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra.

Along with 15 masterful string quartets, Shostakovich also wrote 15 symphonies. Symphony No. 15 was premiered in 1972, which Shostakovich’s son Maxim conducting. Dmitri, nearing the end of his life, was too weak to lead to the orchestra himself.

Shostakovich once said of this symphony that it was a summation of his life in one work. He scatters little hints of this throughout the piece. For instance, the harmonic progression of the opening motif of the first movement, when written out in its German phonetic spelling, is “es-as-c-h-a,” a barely disguised representation of Shostakovich’s own nickname: “Sascha.” The second movement, which is based on a Russian funeral march, represents Shostakovich’s thoughts as he comes to the end of his life.

This symphony also quotes other great musical works quite often. It is probably safe to assume that, if this symphony is indeed Shostakovich’s life in one work, these musical references point us to pieces of music that were important to Shostakovich’s own musical development. Listen for the momentary imitation of Rossini’s William Tell Overture in the first movement (some of you may recognize it from the TV series “The Lone Ranger”). The most experienced listeners among you may recognize the quote from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde in the fourth movement. Shostakovich specifically references the famous “Ring of Nibelung” motif from the opera.

Enjoy!

T

Mozart #40

Hello all,

This week’s music is Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, performed by the London Mozart Players.

Mozart wrote his final three symphonies in the summer of 1788. His untimely death was drawing near, and he had already begun reducing the number of performances he gave. This symphony, in addition to being one of his final musical statements, forecasts the stylistic changes that would soon arrive on the world stage with the birth of Romantic-era music. It hints at a lyricism that is often absent in earlier Classical-era works and begins to expand the orchestral role of previously-ignored instruments like the clarinet, bassoon, and timpani.  

The first movement’s hushed, urgent melody and its luscious accompaniment texture are a favorite of listeners around the world. Listen for the ways that Mozart brings this opening theme back throughout the first movement. For instance, in the development (middle) section of the first movement, he suddenly drops into the seemingly random key of F-sharp minor while toying with variations on the original melody.  

The third movement is also of interest. At the time of this piece’s composition, the oboe and clarinet were rarely featured in orchestral music. Mozart, however, gives both instruments a prominent role in this part of the symphony. Listen for the oboe solo that recurs throughout the third movement.

Enjoy!

T

Mahler Power

Hello all,

Our music this week is the opening movement of Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony, conducted by Mariss Jansons.

This music can only be described by one word: power. Mahler wrote this symphony for full 100-person orchestra, piano, harmonium, glockenspiel, bells, steel drums, organ, harp, 2 boys’ choirs, 2 full-sized mixed choirs, 3 soprano soloists, 2 alto soloists, 1 tenor soloist, 1 baritone soloist, and 1 bass soloist. At its first performance, Mahler included 858 singers in the choir, prompting a prominent critic to give the symphony its memorable nickname: “The Symphony of a Thousand.”

As evidenced by the opening bars, the power in such a massive ensemble is staggering. And Mahler knew it:

I have never written anything like it; it is . . . certainly the biggest thing that I have ever done. Nor do I think that I have ever worked under such a feeling of compulsion; it was like a lightning vision – I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes and only needed to write it down, as though it were being dictated to me.

Mahler also recognized the novelty and ingenuity of having the entire symphony sung as well as played. Never before had a composer embarked on such an ambitious project.

[I]t is something quite novel – can you imagine a symphony that is, from beginning to end, sung? Here, . . . voices are also used as instruments: the first movement is strictly symphonic in form but all of it is sung. Strange, in fact, that this has never occurred to any other composer – it really is Columbus’ egg, a ‘pure’ symphony in which the most beautiful instrument in the world is given its true place – and not simply as one sonority among others, for in my symphony the human voice is after all the bearer of the whole poetic idea.

The 8th Symphony was constructed from two very different sources: a Latin hymn titled “Veni Creator Spiritus” and a theme from the final scene of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragic opera Faust. Mahler combined these two seemingly random elements into one of the most beautiful melodies of his career. It soars to unimaginable heights, combining the intimacy of the human voice with the drama of operatic emotion. This is perhaps reflective of Mahler’s goal for the symphony (as stated in his diary): to link the Christian belief in forgiveness through divine grace and Goethe’s depiction of redemption through an unexplainable love.

Enjoy!

T

Scottish Symphony

Hello all,

This week’s music is the fourth movement of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, nicknamed the “Scottish” Symphony.

Over the course of his life, Mendelssohn developed a deep attachment to Scotland. He would spend the academic year in Leipzig then escape to Scotland for the summers. Many of his greatest compositions were inspired by his adventures Scotland, including both the “Fingal’s Cave” Overture and the “Hebrides” Overture. During the summer of 1829, Mendelssohn departed on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Karl Klingemann. He was inspired by a visit to historic Holyrood Chapel in northern Scotland to write what we now know as the Scottish Symphony.

You will hear the fourth and final movement of the symphony. (Those of you who have been with us for a while will remember that symphonies almost always have four movements). Listen for the elements of Scottish folk music – almost bagpipe-like – that Mendelssohn incorporates into this movement. (A good example is at 7:28).

On a completely unrelated note, I wanted to take this opportunity to explain the layout of the orchestra for those of you who may be joining us for the first time. When you see the orchestra from afar (for instance, at 7:30), you’ll see the violins on the left and the cellos on the right (with the double basses standing up behind them). That’s the easy part. The harder part is what’s behind the violins and cellos. Here’s how to think about it. There are two overall pieces to the orchestra’s structure – front and back. The front – which consists of the strings – is laid out in a half-moon shape. The back – which consists of the winds, brass, timpani, and percussion – is laid out in a rectangular shape. The half-moon includes the violins on the left, the violas in the middle, and the cellos and basses on the right. Notice how many more violins there are than cellos and violas – that’s because the violins tend to play more of the melody line. The rectangle includes the winds in front (flute, oboe, clarinet, piccolo, etc.), brass in the back (trumpets, trombones, etc.), and the timpani and percussion in the back left. If the composition calls for a chorus, the singers go behind the timpani. If a piano or harp is required, they are usually placed behind the violins. Hope that helps!

Enjoy!

T