long overdue & upcoming

So, it has been around a year and a half since I have written anything of interest here. Life has been busy. Between grad school and an average of thirty-five hours a week of part time retail work, I seem to live in a perpetual state of exhaustion. That's not to say nothing good has happened, it most certainly has! I am in the last semester of my Masters degree work, and I have sent out PhD applications with reasonable hope that I will be accepted somewhere. I have finished some incredible courses, read some very insightful books, and completed some very interesting, and hopefully original, research. I have finally solidified my mélange of interests into a condensed description, should I ever run into any of my academic role-models in an elevator at future conferences:

Language of mortality in music: representations of death, dying, and mourning the dead in music, with specific interest in settings of the Requiem mass. Chamber music of the late 18th, and 19th centuries, particularly those works composed by Dvořák and Brahms. Musical aesthetics and cognitive theory of musical meaning.

Cheerful stuff, no? The kind of thing when you bring it up in conversations with non-music specialists usually gets them desperately searching the room for someone else they can talk to. My Masters thesis will be about the early polyphonic Missa pro defunctus (proto-Requiems, if you will, since the precise style and form had yet to be codified), though I haven't decided whether to focus on one in depth or contrast several. I should have a better idea of that by this time next week, but for now, why I'm writing again...

One of my friends and colleagues, curator of the Tumblr Classic Music, is beginning a year long project #composersmonthly, exploring different aspects of one composer a month for the whole of 2015. Berlioz was on the docket for January, and he asked if I would be interested in writing something about his 1837 Grande messe des morts. I rather foolishly agreed, perpetuating my habit of biting off more than I can chew at one time, and have been putting it off since early January (read: playing Dragon Age: Inquisition). Now there are only two weeks left in the month, but I will try none the less. Since I have never spent any real time with the work previously aside from listening to it once or twice, it is unclear how this will shape up, but we shall see what happens. Maybe this will be the jump-start I need to resume this full time. Maybe...

Charles Rosen, on whether composers know best

"This raises the question--does the composer know how his piece is to sound?

       The problem is a delicate one, and it lies at the heart of our conception of music. If music is not a mere notation on paper, then its realization in sound is crucial. We assume generally that the ideal performance is the real piece, and that this imagined ideal performance is the real piece, not the notes on paper or the wrong notes of an actual performance. But this assumption is flimsy and fails to stand up under examination. And none of these--not the imagined or the actual performance or the schematic representation on paper--can be simply equated with a work of music.

       Let us put this in the simplest possible terms. When a conductor in 1790 conducted from the keyboard, we know from contemporary testimony that he often stopped playing to raise his hands. There is no way of knowing when he did this, but he did not play throughout. When Haydn imagined the sound of one of his symphonies, he must indeed have expected a certain amount of piano or harpsichord sonority as being likely here or there, but there is no place in the music where he implied this as necessary or even desirable except for the little joke in the Symphony no. 98.

       This means that a composer's idea of his work is both precise and slightly fuzzy: this is as it should be. There is nothing more exactly defined than a Haydn symphony, its contours well outlined, its details clear and all audible. Yet when Haydn wrote a note for the clarinet, that does not indicate a specific sound--there are lots of clarinets and clarinetists, and they all sound very different--but a large range of sound within very well-defined limits. The act of composing is the act of fixing those limits within which the performer may move freely. But the performer's freedom is bound--or should be--in another way. The limits set by the composer belong to a system which is in many respects like a language: it has an order, a syntax, and a meaning. The performer brings out that meaning, makes its significance not only clear but almost palpable. And there is no reason to assume that the composer or his contemporaries always knew with any certainty how best to make the listener aware of that significance.

       New ways of composing precede new ways of playing and singing, and it often takes as long as ten to twenty years for performers to learn how to change their own styles and to adapt themselves. The use of the continuo in the piano concerto was, by 1775, a vestige of the past that was to be completely abolished by the music itself, and we have every reason to believe that the figured bass was already nothing more than a conventional notation which provided the soloists and the conductor with a substitute for a score during performance, or, at most, a way of keeping an orchestra together which had no longer any musical significance. The occasional indignation about its omission either from performance or edition is historically unwarranted and musically unjustifiable.

       In 1767, Rousseau complained that the conductor at the Paris opera made so much noise beating a rolled-up sheet of music paper on the desk to keep the orchestra in time that one's pleasure in the music was spoilt. The audible use of a keyboard instrument during a symphony or the orchestral section of a concerto written after 1775 is no doubt less irritating, but its authenticity and its musical value are the same.

-after a discussion of continuo's role in Mozart's piano concerti. From Rosen's 1997 Expanded Edition of The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, p. 195-6.

Beethoven's big "F-U" to Haydn

 

Beethoven's first set of works he published in Vienna were the three piano trios that make up his Op. 1 (No. 1 in E-flat major, No. 2 in G major and No. 3 in C minor). While he had published several small pieces prior to this, his Op. 1 was intended to be a big event and a premiere party of sorts was thrown by Prince Lichnowsky, whom the Opus was dedicated to.

Beethoven was a 'student' of Haydn at the time, though the term student is used rather loosely because Beethoven himself felt that Haydn was a poor teacher* and wasn't giving him the best musical education, even hiring other teachers he studied with in secret when Haydn traveled back and forth to London.

As the story goes, Haydn was present at the premiere party and advised Beethoven against publishing the third trio in C minor, believing the public wouldn't understand him and it would be poorly received. While looking back on the dates it is more likely Haydn first heard them AFTER returning from London (at which point they were already published), Haydn did make it clear he thought publishing the C minor trio was a mistake.

With his frustrations towards Haydn in mind, Beethoven decided to ignore his advice and the C minor trio ultimately became the most successful of the Op. 1 trios. Beethoven suspected some degree of sabotage from Haydn for trying to get him to pull what became the most successful of the three, and many techniques that debuted in the work would later become hallmark of Beethoven's "C-minor mood." In fact, he included rather sophisticated C minor works in almost every opus set he published in his early Vienna years. Discounting his Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, WoO 87, his was his first C minor work that set up the long string of famous works as listed below (all in C minor) :

Piano Trio, Op. 1/3

String Trio, Op. 9/3

Piano Sonata Op. 10/1

Piano Sonata 'Pathétique', Op. 13

Piano Concerto No. 3

String Quartet, Op. 18/4

Violin Sonata Op. 30/2

Symphony No. 3 'Eroica' in E-flat major, Op. 55 (movement two, the groundbreaking funeral march, is in C minor)

32 Variations on an Original Theme for piano, WoO 80

Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

Symphony No. 5, Op. 67 (likely the most famous of all of them)

Choral Fantasy, for piano, choir and orchestra, Op. 80

Piano Sonata Op. 111 (his last piano sonata)

Likely all the aspects of this C minor piano trio Haydn objected to were eventually the very things that continued to evolve into central aspects of his compositional style. So listen to the trio and imagine Beethoven thumbing his nose at Haydn, because he certainly was.

*In fact, while Beethoven's Op. 2 (a set of three piano sonatas) are dedicated to Haydn, Beethoven refused to add the phrase 'pupil of Haydn' after his name on the cover of the publication (as was customary at the time), saying that although he had taken several lessons with Haydn, he never learned a thing from him. Ouch.

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Below is both the recording from the video in this post as well as another by Beaux Arts Trio, which is the one I have in my library.

classical christmas #1 - tchaikovsky's nutcracker ballet

santa-nutcracker-ulbricht.jpg

    Everyone has a different idea of when its appropriate to start playing their Christmas music. Some people start the day after Thanksgiving, others wait until December 1st...and then there are those who can't wait and jump the gun as soon as they see the red cups appear at Starbucks. Regardless of when we start, we all have our favorite Christmas albums that we can't wait to dust off (or re-appropriate onto playlists, for those who are fully digital) for the holiday season every year. What does seem to get overlooked every year as we rush to pull out the carols, the classic crooners and the modern day remakes of our favorites are the many pieces composers focused about Christmas. Sure, we have the standards like the Nutcracker and the Messiah, but there are many others that get ignored (when was the last time someone played Poulenc or Messiaen's holiday works...?). So, since I have finished my graduate school applications and need a break from Mahler/Strauss/Gershwin...I thought it would be fun to explore the classical works composed about Christmas. I figure its best to start with the most well known and work our way to the depths of the largely forgotten as we move closer to the big day. What better to start with than the Nutcracker?

    Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker (1892) is probably the most widely known of all the compositions about Christmas (for little known trivia and facts about the piece, check last year's post). It has sort of become the resented juggernaut of the ballet industry and all the famous melodies from the suite have been co-opted by advertising agencies to sell everything from airplane tickets to panty hose. However, if you ask someone to sing a song from outside the numbers used in the Nutcracker Suite, most people draw a blank. There are many great melodies that reside elsewhere in the ballet and shouldn't be ignored. A great example is the Intrada from the Pas De Deux that takes place between the "Waltz of the Flowers" and the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies." Another wonderful one is "Christmas Tree", which takes place after "Miniature Overture" when all the guests are arriving for the party. However, this year I've grown most attached to "Into the Christmas Tree," which immediately follows the death of the Rat King when the Nutcracker transforms into human and he and Clara dance together for the first time. This is sometimes also referred to as "A Pine Forest in Winter - aka. Journey through the Snow." Its powerful and strong and stands out as unique against most of the other numbers in the ballet.

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one down, one more to go

Yesterday I finally finished my 15 page research paper on Bernstein's relationship with Rhapsody in Blue to submit with my graduate applications. After spending the last 6 weeks working on it, I'm pretty sure I never want to hear that piece again. This will be my last goodbye to it...and hopefully I don't hear any of those melodies again for at least a year....though ideally it would be longer. I stumbled upon this while researching...hope you like it.

Duke Ellington's lost 1932 arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue

Ryan Raul Bañagale (research and piano) with Harvard Dudley House Big Band

December 12 2009

when life gives you a good soundtrack...

     Today I was waiting at a stoplight in LA, listening to KUSC which had just started to play the main theme from Superman (1978) when I got a notification on my phone. Like the rule-abiding citizen I am, I instantly reach down to check my phone and see an e-mail from the person who is writing my second letter of recommendation. Its a yes. The melody blazes and I do a little dance in the seat and then proceed onward. I had an insanely big smile on my face the next two hours and the cashier at Trader Joe's definitely though I was either having a stroke on coming onto them. Oh well. I have great relationships with both people I have writing letters for me, know they will be able to say great things...and I'm sure it also doesn't hurt one went to Harvard and the other went to New England Conservatory. Now that the letters are out of the way...now to tackle the cover letter, finish revising my essays and suffer through the GRE.

    Back in July, a Boston University undergrad who had read my blog contacted me and we've been e-mailing ever since (mostly over our shared love of Mahler). Last night, they e-mailed me and asked for advice on an essay...and I was immensely flattered. The internet can be such a great thing at times...you can share something you're passionate about with the great wide unknown and find someone on the other side of the continent (or even the world) that shares that understanding. It has such a power to bring people together...and I hope to make many more connections with people in the future.

    Here's the opening credits from Superman. Skip to 1:30 if you want to hear the main theme. Its been stuck in my head all day. One of John William's most memorable melodies.

Mahler's Love...On Piano

    Yesterday, I was driving to the mall to pick up some Pumpkin/Pecan Butter from Williams-Sonoma when I heard the most AWFUL thing on the radio. I was listening to KUSC (Los Angeles' only remaining public classical radio station) and while there are moments I wish it had a skip button like Pandora (since there are certainly some songs that are not enjoyable to listen to in LA traffic) I tend to enjoy most of their programming. When I turned the radio on it was mid-song and I knew instantly I had to change it because there was an accordion and cello playing together..two textures that did not blend in the slightest unless the goal was to make the audience's hair stand on end. Unfortunately, a fragment of the melody sounded familiar and then it became the struggle to try to remember what the piece was. I managed to figure out by the recap of the primary theme that it was Dvorak's Silent Woods...except that the piano had been dropped in favor of an accordion. It was cringeworthy. I do my best to keep an open mind, especially since there would be so many great pieces of music I never would have grown to like had I not, but this felt terribly wrong...like if you were served a slice of toasted nut topped rum cake, only to find out they used fish sauce instead of rum. *Shudder* Needless to say, when I got home I needed to cleanse my ears with the original four-hand piano version (which you can hear in a post I wrote about it a while ago) but this post isn't about Dvorak...its about Mahler.

     In the spirit of the Mahler quote I posted last, I've been listening to a lot of pieces played on instruments they weren't originally written for. Hell, every time you listen to an orchestra play Pictures at an Exhibition, you are listening to a re-orchestration, since Mussorgsky wrote it for solo piano. Many great orchestra works started as piano works...and so I've been listening to orchestra works that were then condensed down for piano. My current favorite is performed by Cyprien Katsaris*, who has a full CD willed with orchestral transcriptions for piano...many of which are premiered for the first time on that recording. His performance of the Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 is beautiful, delicate, thoughtful, and with just the right amount of momentum which helps it feel like its just dragging on forever (yes, I'm looking at you Bernstein). If you like it, certainly check out the rest of the album. Its excellent. Either way, download this and put it on your playlist of solo piano music you study to (be honest, most people have one).

*Note: The transcription is by Karol A. Penson...who actually isn't primarily a musician. He's a Professor in Theoretical Physics at the University of Paris VI, France who specializes in Quantum Mechanics and Combinatorics. How cool is that?

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Pno Rarities: Vol.1 Transc
By Cyprien Katsaris

why i haven't been around

As evidenced by this stack of books on my nightstand...you can see i've been rather pre-occupied...hence the lack of posts. This is all the research i have for my two essays I'm submitting with my graduate school applications. The only things left to read are the three Mahler books on the bottom of the stack...but I'm back...and things are going to get good.*

*in case you're wondering...the thin blue book is a miniature score of Rhapsody in Blue, since you can't get a full score easily without going completely bankrupt.

Transient

the "other" mendelssohn violin concerto


If a survey of classical music lovers was taken and the question was asked "what key is Mendelssohn's violin concerto written in?", odds are you would get a resounding response of "E minor!" Very few people would respond with "which one?"

Confused? Mendelssohn actually did write two violin concertos, one in D minor when he was around 13 years old and the second in E minor, which was completed when he was 35. While the E minor concerto has gone onto fame and glory in the concert hall (for good reason, it is an amazing achievement), his earlier one has fallen into obscurity like most of his early works (especially the twelve string symphonies). Partially, this is because after Mendelssohn's death (1847) the manuscript was passed down through the family for almost a century without being played and fell from knowledge. It wasn't performed again until 1952 when Yehudi Menuhin "re-premiered' it at Carnegie Hall. Another reason for this, seems to be a lack of knowledge the piece even exists…which leads to the screenshot of the Hollywood Bowl's website above.

When advertising for this concert, the program shown says "Mendelssohn : Violin Concerto". It doesn't say "Mendelssohn : Violin Concerto No. 2 in E minor", it makes the assumption that either the person buying tickets will infer its this one (since it is the famous one) or that this one is the only one that matters and thus doesn't need to specify which it is because who would want to hear the other one? In their defense, in the program notes written by Herbert Glass he does discuss the first violin concerto, referencing it as both evidence of Mendelssohn's child-prodigy status as well as his conservative compositional style, since much of Mendelssohn's music was written within the confines of structure/theory that already existed (one of the features that likely helped the second concerto become famous is it looks forward as much as backward, making it stand out). However, the concert program also lists "Meyer : Double Concerto", that would imply the one for violin and double bass performed that evening was the only one, even though Edgar Meyer has a pre-existing double concerto already for cello and double bass.

This is where I tend to get a little bitter, as I feel assumptions like this seem to becoming more and more common. If someone told me they heard Tchaikovsky's piano concerto on the radio yesterday, I know without asking that 99.99% of the time they will mean his first piano concerto in B-flat minor. They never mean "a" Tchaikovsky piano concerto, they always mean "THE" Tchaikovsky piano concerto, since that is the only one they have been lead to believe exists and/or matters. Same with the Saint-Saëns cello concerti...almost nobody knows there is one in D minor for most of the same reasons. Audiences will find their favorites and then only pay to see those performed and as a result orchestras will not program the others. Then because they only program the public favorite, its all anyone who isn't a music student/professional will know exists and the cycle continues.

With all that being said, I encourage you to embrace music you haven't heard before and use that open mind to listen to Mendelssohn's first violin concerto…who knows, you may even like it!

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor, WoO : I : Allegro

Kyoto Takezawa (violin), Peter Flor and Bamberger Symphoniker

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This recording is part of the box set seen on the right, unless you are able to find it on this CD which is much harder to find, though much less expensive.

Mendelssohn: The Masterworks
Brilliant Classics

joseph kerman's rock and the splash it made

Transient

Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology (1985)

Joseph Kerman. Harvard University Press. 255p (with notes, citations and index)

Note: It is also known in the U.K. as "Musicology", published by Fontana Press/Collins…which is the version I have. There are exactly the same number of pages, so hopefully my page citations are the same, but keep that in mind if you buy the book and can't find the quotes on those pages.

Joseph Kerman's historic work levels much criticism towards the field of musicology at the time. During the 80s, musicology was dominated by positivism, a near-exclusive focus on scientific/document based study that discourages critical analysis and interpretation. Kerman felt that nearly all musicological research was devoid of criticism (the study of the meaning and value of art, in his own words) and was a "call to arms, so to speak, for the academic community to get its act together and embrace art criticism as practiced by most other art forms (painting, sculpture, etc)(p16). As a reading in 2012 looking back, it certainly made me realize how much of our music history textbook I took for granted and would have not existed in the same form back then. Kerman lays out his case over the course of the book, dividing the book up into sections to tackle different aspects which are outlined below.

Overall, I loved reading this book. Highly informative, very well researched and plenty of bite. Keeping in mind this book was written 25 years ago, you can look back and see how Kerman's book sent ripples through the community, even contributing to the reactionary movement of "New Musicology". If you're interested in musicology or planning on majoring in it, this should definitely be on your bookshelf.


Notes on what's inside:

Introduction and Postwar Positivism:

Kerman discusses the gradual birth of musicology, which contrary to what is assumed, was not until long after music began being written down. The idea of music as having enduring value and being of aesthetic interest didn't really begin until the early 1800s when composers were granted a place in the preeminent canon, rather than being forgotten after they died (33). Up until WWII musicology was primarily exclusive to Germany, but many scholars fled German to the United States and England during the war, resulting in the discipline (and the centers of research) shifting to other countries. The advent of recording technologies, allowing music to shift from sound to something tangible that could be browsed and owned (like books) is also mentioned as helping the eruption of musicology after the war(25).

Kerman observes that musicology (though I also believe this applies to music in general) is a highly conservative field and that musicologists after the turn of the century almost always came from the middle class, since "classical" music had gradually become the property of the middle class and they had to protect it and their values(36). He critiques the musicology publications of the early 60s, which he believed ignored music and its relationship to culture, instead viewed it in a vacuum to form a chronological guide(43, 54). 

Analysis, Theory and New Music

Kerman discusses the unique changes of early 20th century music, when "avant-garde" theory was used to aid (even be a part of) the compositional process, while tonal theory from the earlier century was used as a form of criticism which he cites as the reason that caused musicologists to ignore new works and retreat into the past. He presents a multi-pronged critique of Schenkerian analysis and why a vacuum isn't a valid method for addressing music (70-85). He also closes the section by bringing to light important music scholarship done by Schoenberg, Edward Cone and Perle.

Musicology and Criticism

The initial rebellion against positivism in musicology was lead by Leo Treitler and Joseph Kerman (yes, the book's author). Treitler was a big proponent of hermeneutics (comprehensive interpretation of a work of art in all possible contexts), feeling frustrated with how musicology of the time assumed a very "evolutionary" view of music (basic leading to sophisticated, implying the later always being the better of the two) (130-132). For this very reason, Kerman points out how the deck is stacked against medieval music, especially since there is far fewer source materials to call on.

He then leads into the new advances done with sketches and score autographs, which first began with Beethoven and then fanned out into other composers, praising this research because it almost always leads to the criticism he wishes there was more of (136-142). He also comments on the birth of the 19th Century Music journal from UC Berkeley in the late 70s, signaling a great shift in musicology towards scholarship closer to the present(145). Finally, he spends a whole chapter praising Charles Rosen's The Classical Style.

Ethnomusicology and 'Cultural Musicology'

Mostly, this section just explores the history of ethnomusicology. Kerman's ending point of the section is that he believes musicology should bring ideas over into the study of Western art music, to view music within the context of culture instead of just an isolated occurrence.

The Historical Performance Movement

Here is where Kerman really pulls out the punches and lets historical performance have a piece of his mind. He views historical performance as a three step process (1. establish critical text, 2. establish features conventional notation left out of music, 3. research the instruments on which music was originally played) that is governed by a sort of "cost-worth" analysis (how feasible is it, is there value in doing it, how does interpretation factor into equation) (187-190).

Kerman's main beef with historical performance is the cult status it had achieved in the 80s and people were more concerned with whether a work was played under historical conditions as opposed to whether the performance was actually good. He poses the question of while "authentic" performances may not always be good, is it possible to have a good "inauthentic" performance (192). He even goes as far as to say "not all musicians are good critics or interpreters"(202). He also comments on the slow progress being made in historical performance since its similar to learning a language nobody speaks anymore in that you have nobody to teach it to you (212-213). Personally, this was my favorite chapter to read and its worth reading the book just for this section.

Coda

Kerman ends with discussing the merits of New Grove's Encyclopedia (he thought it was sort of a double edged sword) and questioning whether critical scores in the future will be as helpful as good historically informed recordings (227). 

Notable Quotes:

"Analysts want to look more and more at less and less music"

-Joseph Kerman, in describing the change it attitude of musicologists at the rise of avant-garde music in the early 1900s (71)

"Authenticity is no guarantee of a good performance, certainly. But does the reverse hold: can there be such a thing as a good one under conditions of, say, gross inauthenticity?"

-Joseph Kerman, questioning the value of historical performance (192)

"One lesson taught by history - though not, it seems, easily learned - is all music is expressive but that music is not all expressive in the same way"

-Joseph Kerman (211)

"The act of composing is the act of fixing those limits within which the performer may move freely. But the performer’s freedom is - or should be - bound in another way. The limits the composer sets belong to a system which in may respects is like a language: it has an order, a syntax and a meaning. The performer brings out that meaning, makes its significance not only clear but almost palpable. And there is no reason to assume that the composer and his contemporaries always knew with certainty how best to make the listener aware of that significance.” 

–Charles Rosen (216)

“I have often heard it stated by scholars and others interested in performance on early instruments that they would rather hear a great artist on the wrong instrument than a mediocre player on the right one. I am no longer willing to accept that statement….For a mediocre performance it does not matter what kind of instrument is used. This is not merely a platitude; the choice of instrument only becomes meaningful when the artist has something very specific to express….Musicians who do not are in no way better served by authentic instruments than standard modern ones….I would like to hope that it is not the sound of the instrument that pushes the [historical performance] movement forward, but rather the searching for an even-better interpretation of the music….”

-Malcom Bilson (216-7)

a personal introduction to mahler

When "Gustav Mahler" is mentioned, its near impossible not to think of one of his massive orchestral works. With last year being the centennial of his death (and the year prior being his 150th birthday), Gustav's musical legacy has been getting its fair share of time in the concert hall. Even better, many orchestras across the country (and world) programmed the full cycle of Mahler's work in celebration. Over the course of a year, you could hear all nine symphonies (as well as the Tenth to varying degrees of completion) and see his musical journey over the course of his life much clearer than if you only heard one on a semi-annual basis. Tons of recordings (especially big boxed sets) erupted out of the woodwork and universities capitalized on this by scheduling classes that focused on Mahler. I was a senior at the time and my music department scheduled a special topics history class that delved into all ten of Mahler's symphonies as well as Das Lied von der Erde.

I was so thankful that the rotating topic wasn't opera that year (which it had been for the three previous ones) that I didn't stop to think about how much material that actually covers. When you think about how many songs Schubert wrote (600+) or all the symphonies Haydn composed (104), a class covering just nine and a half symphonies plus song cycle can't be that demanding, right? I obviously had no idea what I had gotten myself into and then the five-month marathon began. Replaying the melodies until I could sing all the different themes from memory, exploring all the thematic unity and transformations between movements, observing all the musical borrowing from his other works as well as other composers, probing his personal life and highlighting my scores until they looked like flags at Pride. One of the most over-cited of Mahler's quotes is "A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything," and while it makes me want to pull out my own hair to incorporate it into my own writing…those words are one of the best ways (if not THE best) to describe what he filled his symphonies with. Apart from their planetary size, they contain so many varied melodies, sounds, unique percussive instruments (cowbells, bundles of sticks, etc), haunting musical effects and a vast array of dynamic and emotional states.

To run with the outer-space metaphor, Mahler's music is a black hole, but I mean that in the most affectionate of ways. Yes, it will rip you apart as they pull you into its unknowable abyss and there is no escape once you are caught in its grasp, but at the same time, you are almost grateful that you were caught because you don't want to return to a point where his music was not a part of your human experience. You give in and let yourself to succumb to its magnificent power, lush romanticism and at times its soul-chilling beauty. Maybe if you're lucky you can sit though a symphony without being brought to tears by the end…and that's ONLY if you're lucky.

As I'm sure it is apparent by now, I have been forever changed by that course about Mahler…and this dedication to his music in the "Mahler Symphonic Guide" section is a hope to share that joy with others. Maybe you're a person who's boy/girlfriend is dragging you to a symphony concert and you learn a few interesting facts to impress them with before you go. Maybe you are a music student who is in a class where you have to learn all the different themes for a test and the audio guide helps you out. Maybe you are just a person who heard a Mahler symphony this past year and want to know more. Whatever your reason for ending up here, I hope you get something out of it and grow to love it like I have. I'd be lying if I said I loved everything he wrote (I'm still not sold on the first movement of Symphony 3 or any of Symphony 8) but I'll try to provide as fair and balanced a coverage as I can. It will not be super in-depth either (my blog will not be a substitute for reading any of those great books in the Book List) and I will cite where appropriate so you can know where to look to find out more.

Happy listening (and playing), fellow music lovers.

-Jack

Mahler in audio : a sampling of what's out there

This is the point where many musicians/listeners start getting snobby. A quick look on Amazon or any Youtube video of a performance of Mahler will be filled with people voicing their opinions on what they thought was bad or how a live performance isn't as good "as their CD"…or insult other people who have different opinions (no matter how ignorant some of the banter in those comments sections may be). Ever notice how few the number of people in those comments sections are who say good things? What do any of those people likely know about music anyway?

Mahler (and all classical music, for that matter) isn't supposed to be stagnant…its not like Coka-Cola where you can get it in every country and it still tastes the same. Music is personal and every performance (even by the same artist/conductor/ensemble on back to back nights) won't be exactly the same. As amazing and revolutionary as recordings have been to the world of classical music, they also remain destructive as they allow people to become sedentary in their tastes…even to the point where some may become upset in live performances with a few mistakes because they are spoiled by touched-up studio work. You should go see as many live performances as you can (financially willing) because there really isn't anything like it.

That being said, when finding recordings…I urge you to get several if you can. I'm not saying every recording is worth listening to, because there is a lot of garbage out there, but it does mean two performances of the same piece can be very different and yet both be incredible and worthwhile. You don't have to buy complete cycles either…you can pick and chose if you prefer…because sometimes you'll find a recording you really connect with and want to listen to over and over.

Below are the complete Mahler cycles I have listened to. If I have something interesting to say about them, I will.

Bernstein/Mahler : The Complete Symphonies & Orchestral Songs (1998)

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Label : Deutsche Grammophon

Who's Conducting: Leonard Bernstein, obviously.

What Ensembles: Various - NY Phil, Royal Concertgebouw, Vienna Phil

What's not included : Das Klagende Lied. Movements 2-5 from Cooke's realization of Mahler's 10th Symphony.

Special notes : When I was learning the symphonies in my first go-around with them, this was my go-to recording. This is Bernstein's second audio recording of them; his first was with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s (which, it is worth noting, was the FIRST EVER complete cycle of Mahler ever recorded). Having some age/maturity between him and the first cycle, several of the symphonies are, in general, at slower tempos than his more youthful cycle. Is this bad? Not necessarily…though recent Mahler scholarship would frown on how long his Adagietto from Symphony 5 is. Bernstein is an emotional powerhouse…so his Symphony 3 + 6 are titanic. He also refuses to conduct (possibly on principle) Deryck Cooke's "completion" of Mahler's 10th…so don't expect to find anything past movement 1. My favorite work of the set is his collaboration with legendary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on Das Lied von der Erde. Amazing.

10 Symphonies (1995)

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Label : Deutsche Grammophon

Who's Conducting : Claudio Abbado

Which Ensemble: Various - Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony

What's not included : All the song cycles, including Das Lied von der Erde. Movements 2-5 of Mahler's 10th.

Special notes : Abbado was the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic who succeeded Herbert von Karajan and this isn't his first Mahler cycle. There's a lifetime of experience behind this. He's well known for his performance of the Sixth Symphony…and his return performance of it in 2004 that went on to win Gramophone Magazine's Recording of the Year and Best Orchestral Recording awards in 2006. That one is found here

LSO Live : Mahler (2008-2011)

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Label : Independent

Who's Conducting : Valery Gergiev

What Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra

What's not included : Any of the song cycles, as well as Symphony 10.

Special notes: LSO teamed up with British audio giant Bowers&Wilkins to make these recordings, so all are available in SACD-DSD format and can also be downloaded as lossless audio directly from B&W. Audiophiles will rejoice about the sound quality. Symphony 5 in this cycle is highly acclaimed.

Gustav Mahler : Complete Edition (2010)

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Label : Deutsche Grammophon

Who's Conducting : Various - Kubelik, Mehta, Haitink, Boulez, Bernstein, Abbado, Sinopoli, Solti, Karajan, Chailly, Ozawa, Juilini, Berio and Pletnev

Which Ensembles : Too many to list - Vienna Phil, Berlin Phil, Chicago Symphony and Boston Symphony…to name a few.

What's not included : Nothing. This box is labeled complete for a reason.

Special notes: To celebrate the Mahler's 150th birthday DG complied this box of superstar performances. You can find recordings of every piece Mahler wrote here (including the elusive Piano Quartet Movement in A minor!) and all the different conductor/ensemble pairings here have mostly good reviews. If you HAVE to have everything, this one is for you.

Mahler : Symphonies 1-10 + Songs (2007)

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Label : EMI

Who's Conducting : Sir Simon Rattle

What Ensembles : City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

What's Missing : Kindertotenlieder, Rückert Lieder, a few of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.

Special notes : This is currently the set I'm working my way through. Admittedly, when I first saw this set I thought "what is Simon Rattle doing in Alabama?" but I quickly learned it was from Birmingham, England. (Note : They are an incredible orchestra and very sensitive…especially with concerti. Check out Akiko Suwanai's Sibelius concerto with them and you'll understand).  That's good old American ignorance for you, huh? Not going to lie…this cycle is a bit of the oddball of the list so far…in that it deviates most from what listeners expect "standard" Mahler benchmarks to be. Odds are this will not agree with most people…but it is adventurous and provides alternate interpretation ideas than you'd hear in most recordings. Sonically, the first thing that strikes you is that the balance between winds as strings is much different than other recordings. They are much thinner and balanced with the winds than you normally hear. Rattle also makes interesting choices with tempo and the use of silences. Symphony 2 is worth a listen (he conducted it back in college and has a close relationship with it) followed by his version of the Seventh. I wouldn't recommend this for someone to buy if they wanted to hear them all for the first time, but if you are looking for a different take on the master, this would be it.

Mahler Feest - The World Listened (2006)

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Label : Radio Netherlands Worldwide

Who's Conducting : Various. Haitink, Chailly, Abbado, Rattle, Muti

Which Ensembles: Various. Berlin Phil, Vienna Phil, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Gustav Mahler Jugend Orchester

What's not included : nothing, its all there (except the Piano Trio mvt)

Special notes : In 1995, 4 great European powerhouse orchestras met in Amsterdam along with 5 great conductors to play all of Mahler's musical output in a week and a half. This is the recording made at that festival…a tribute to Willem Mengleberg, the famous dutch conductor of the Concertgebouw who held a similar festival in the '20s. It was a monumental undertaking and if you want a piece of Mahler history…this one's for you.

The Mahler Broadcasts 1948-82 (1998)

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Label : The Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York

Who's Conducting : Various. Barbirolli, Mehta, Boulez, Solti, Tennstedt, Mitropoulos, Kubelik, Stokowski, Walter, Steinberg

Which Ensemble : New York Philharmonic

What's not included: Kindertotenlieder, Das Knaben Wunderhorn, Rückert Lieder

Special notes: Collectors/mega-Mahlerites only. This collection is rare and hard to come by…but any serious Mahler scholar will want to take a listen. The last CD and a half include interviews with Walter, Stokowski, Barbirolli and William Malloch on Mahler that you'd be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Furthermore, many of these recordings were from before Bernstein released the first complete Mahler cycle recording in the '60s, so all of these before then would be free of his influence. Worth a listen for those of you who are really Mahler aficionados.

Sachs : The Ninth - Beethoven and the World in 1824

I recently finished Harvey Sachs' The Ninth : Beethoven and the World in 1824 and here is what you will find inside. The book is divided into 4 big sections.

      The first section describes Beethoven's life and Vienna leading up to, during and immediately following the premiere of the 9th Symphony. The second section covers the "World in 1824" premise of the title, connecting the thematic (cultural themes, not musical) elements of Beethoven's work as well as personal characteristics to other leading creative minds of the day (e.g. Lord Byron, Hilde, Pushkin, Delacroix, Stendhal). The third section houses Sachs' look at the 9th Symphony itself, providing a section by section breakdown of the symphony (in mostly laymen's terminology so its accessable to non-musicians) as well as Beethoven's views on composition and what his likely intentions were with his music. Finally, the fourth section addresses Beethoven's significant influence on both subsequent composers and the general public (though missing Brahms...?).

      The books is brimming with quotes from Beethoven, about Beethoven, and about society at the time, all with the purpose of helping center the audience in the mindset of that year. The vast amount of historical context surrounding the years Beethoven constructed was very much appreciated.

      If you plan to read this book, keep a few things in mind. Sachs mentions himself heavily at certain points of the book (most significantly during the prelude, analysis section and postlude) and for me this was rather disruptive to the reading experience. It drags you out of the "1824 Vienna" setting he works very hard to help you visualize and I believe the book would have been better off without the extensive personalized sections. Also, while his analysis of the symphony is easy to read and helps one (read : non-musicians) see the "narrative" Sachs finds in the work, I would have appreciated spending more time here. He only spends 27 pages on this section (our of a total 200, in a book focusing on the 9th Symphony) and much of that space contains quotes and anecdotes. This section was very underwhelming and a big let down.  I will also be posting a followup to this post once I have read Lewis Lockwood's review from Ninteenth-Century Music Review.

 

Interesting facts/perspective presented in the book:

-Symphony 9 with always have more impact on a modern audience over one in Beethoven's time due to the fact orchestras today have a higher standard of playing and that there are generations of emotion that have been placed on the work since its premiere

-The night of the premiere was a musical success but a financial disaster. Beethoven barely made enough money to pay for a few months of rent

-Beethoven's contempt for the state of humanity always at conflict with his hopes for humanity's potential

-No surprise Berlioz's creative output exploded in adventure after his first intense study of the score for Beethoven's 9th

One had the tragic impression that he was incapable of following the [sound of the] music. Although he appeared to be reading along, he would continue to turn pages when the movement in question had already come to an end.

-Helene Grebner, a soprano from the choir telling conductor Felix Weingartner about Beethoven during rehearsals for the 9th Symphony. Beethoven spent rehearsals sitting in the middle of the choir since the sound was loudest there...he had the best chance of hearing something.

musicology...or how i learned to stop worrying and change my life

Most people are familiar with the clichéd expression “when life gives you lemons…make lemonade.” Apart with my lack of understanding why it was always lemonade and never a pie/salad dressing/marinade (which i personally would much prefer)…I have never understood why “if” is always used and not “when,” because in all honesty…everyone will get their “lemons.” Sure, some are worse than others (like herpes/marrying into the Kardashian family/tornados) but everyone at one at some point or another looks at their hand and realizes they were dealt one or two cards they would rather not have.

Maybe its because it causes pain…or because its utterly inconvenient or it makes you realize a truth you would much rather keep avoiding. Like that the career you have planned for yourself is a mistake…and that you have to go back to your family (who financially supported you when you got a cello that is worth more than all the family cars put together) and tell them that your heart is no longer in it and hasn’t been for a while.

No…I am not abandoning music. My soul would die if that happened…I am just abandoning performance. I will still play and practice…but my lemon was a mixed blessing. “When life gives you a crazy hard class on Mahler, you become a hermit.” Then i discovered i was good at score analysis and biographic work…and scarier yet that i loved it. And so here we are.

I will still keep talking about cello…of course…and have decided to write a comprehensive encyclopedia of all cello literature (a listing of all music written for cello…with relevant composer biographical data/structural analysis/thematic index and lasting role in the literature) which i do fully understand is batshit insane…i really do.

But interspersed in the future will be a serialized Mahler listening guide. I cant tell you how many people have asked me for suggestions on which symphonies to listen to or why Das Lied is so sad or was Alma really a sleep-around sue (check out her actual obituary if you need the proof). So as a nod of appreciation to my Mahler class for changing my life and in hopes of never having to explain what is going on in symphony 7 again…consider it my gift to you.

Now i curl up in bed with Taruskin’s “The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol. 1” and read myself to sleep…and all feels at peace in the world. Happy listening, internet.

demystifying digital audio : an aural guide to what different bit rates sound like

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The Naxos label has a blog and recently they discussed how to find the right bit rate for you when purchasing or ripping classical music to digital for your iPod/streaming needs. The main point of their article was that you should find the bit rate that sounds the best to you on the main device you “consume” your audio on. For example, there is a limit to how well you can tell apart different bit rate qualities on your iPod headphones vs. your laptop vs. your TV vs. your hi-fi system. Is it practical to carry around a ton of 320kbps or higher music if you can’t really tell the difference? Probably not…unless you have awesome headphones or plug your mobile device into your car’s stereo.

A fun way to test whether you can really hear the difference is in this blog…where it shows the difference between a high bit-rate section of Debussy’s “La Mer” with a low one…so you get the big contrast. Then, it takes another excerpt and plays it at increasing bitrates (16kbps, 32, 64, 128, 256 and 320) and you get to find out at what rate you stop hearing a real difference. The main point is, you don’t need a ton of lossless audio that take up tons of space if the 256kbps version sounds the same on the speakers you’re using.

Enjoy testing out your speakers, and have fun!

happy valentine's day, internet

Der Kuß ("The Kiss") - Gustav Klimt, 1907

 So, I’m alone again on Valentine’s Day…and while I did whip up a batch of dark chocolate mousse for comfort and avoided restaurants with sappy couples…I have a music gift for today.

28 minutes of the most romantic testament to pure love ever composed.

Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night”

   Yes, I’m crazy about the piece. and the poem its based on. A couple walks through the night together and the woman confesses to the man she is carrying the child of a man from before she met him…afraid this news will be the end of their relationship. The man basically replies that their love is so strong and warm that it will transfigure “her” child into “theirs” and they happily walk off into the night together (for the full german text with english translation, click here).

   If you separate out the fact a lot has changed in relationships and woman’s rights since 1896, the core thought about true, unconditional love touched on in this work is quite powerful. Two people in love can overcome any “sin” between them and can still find happiness together. no resentment, no anger, no domestic violence…just love. the above painting was also inspired by this poem (Gustav Klimt’s Der Kuß “The Kiss” 1907). 

   The below recording is the Juilliard String Quartet with Yo-Yo Ma…though the Schoenberg Quartet’s version is my personal favorite. if you don’t have a full 28 minutes to spare…it would be ok to skip the first link and start with the second (where the sheer romantic beauty begins) but i highly encourage you to hear the piece in its entirety. i cry every time.

happy valentine’s day.

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proof exercise kills : ernest chausson and the fatal bike ride

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   Lisa Lampanelli, the stand-up/insult comic affectionately dubbed “The Queen of Mean”, had a joke in her 2005 “Take it Like a Man” routine where she tells the women in the audience that they need to be happy with who they are and stop trying to exercise to be “skinny bitches”. Here’s the quote (watch the scene here) :

You women gotta like yourself this way! Quit tryin’ to change yourself…cause did you hear last week? Another woman was attacked and raped in Central Park while jogging. *Sadly shakes her head* See? Exercise is no good. I tell ya, you never hear about about a fat bitch getting raped in her house while she’s eating Doritos and watching “One Life to Live”…alright?

    Apart from her crude joke (admittedly, I may have a soft spot for her "i make fun of everyone, no exceptions" policy…and recommend listening to this routine if you are a fan of blunt, vastly inappropriate humor), she makes a valid point. People can get hurt when they are out exercising. If only she’d been around to advise Ernest Chausson, the French composer of one of my favorite chamber pieces of all time (read and listen in my earlier entry), maybe he would have lived past 44.

   On June 10 1989, he decided he was going to go bike riding while he was in the middle of sketching his second symphony (which, as you can guess, was never finished). On the way down a hill…he lost control of his bike and rode right into a brick wall. Dead on impact. I know it sound selfish…but I feel like good composers owe it to society to keep living and not take risks. Look at Beethoven. He almost killed himself when he went deaf but chose to remain alive because he had more music in him and he believed he owed it to the world to share it. That was in 1802…if he had ended there “Eroica” (1803) and all subsequent works never would have happened and his monumental impact on every composer since would have never existed.

    So if you are a composer…especially in today’s era…the world needs your music. Don’t have unprotected sex (I’m looking at you, Schubert…if you did have syphilis, it didn’t magically appear…) or ride a bike without a helmet (Chausson) or smoke a cigar outside after curfew when a foreign army is occupying your city (Webern...seems smoking really DOES kill). I’m not saying live in a bubble or never go outside…just be safe…because the world (and history) will thank you for it.

classical 101 : a guide to numbers in composition titles

When at a concert reading a program or scanning through classical works on iTunes, you will always see abbreviations followed by numbers. But these abbreviations can (and will) vary with each composer…or sometimes there are multiple abbreviations in the name of a work. Without training in music…its probably easier to just ignore these…but if you ever wondered what they all mean, here’s a basic run down.

Op. (or the plural “Opp.”)

Opus Number : Started in the 1600s, the opus number basically serves as a label for composers to note what order they composed their works in. If I composed a work now, i would label it “Op. 1”, and my next composition would be “Op. 2” and so on. Ideally, you would be able to line up all the works by opus number and have a chronological catalog of all the works in a composer’s output, whether the works were published or not. Opus numbers are the standard…but sometimes there are exceptions that have to be dealt with differently…which leads us to the other notations.

ex. Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33

WoO.

Works without opus number : Most commonly seen with Beethoven, “WoO” is listed whenever a work was completed/published but not given an opus number by the composer. The why is typically up for debate : maybe they forgot, maybe they didn’t intend to finish it or maybe it wasn’t meant to be published with their other works. Sometimes it is a lost work that is rediscovered and it can’t be placed in their output. However, “WoO“‘s can also be numbered (usually chronologically), as shown in the example below.

ex. Rondo for piano and orchestra in B-flat major, WoO 6

Op. Posth.

Posthumous opus number : The composer died without providing an opus number (usually on unfinished or unpublished works) and they are published after his death by his next of kin. Sometimes they are not numbered…as where with other composers, like Mendelssohn, they can be given actual opus numbers (eg. Symphonies No. 4 + 5).

ex. Waltz in E major, Op. posth.

Why this system doesn’t always work :

Apart from composers inconsistently labeling their works, other issues have come up. A composer may start a piece with one opus number, put it on the shelf for a while, and when they return to it years later, give it a new opus number to their revised version…resulting in numbers for the same piece. It was also common practice to have a group of pieces under the same opus number; Beethoven’s three “Rasumovsky” string quartets are all labeled as “Op. 59”. This is where musicologists get frustrated and re-catalog a composer’s works chronologically under a new system, which is where the other abbreviations come from…making it possible to see both an opus number and the number of a separate library system, showing both how the composer and subsequent historians have cataloged it. Here are some of the most common symbols you’ll run into by composer. The names of the systems are typically the last names of the person who created it.

J.S. Bach : BWV (Bach Work Catalogue)

Mozart : K (Kochel number, probably the most successful catalogue, since Mozart’s original opus numbers are now almost never referred to)

Haydn : Hob (Hoboken numbers) <—who doesn’t enjoy saying hoboken?

Schubert : D (Deutsch numbers)

Hope this helps out the next time you’re wondering what all the numbers mean. Happy listening!

did you know Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker...

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- was originally based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”? Published in 1816, Hoffmann’s story takes place over several days, with a much darker story, involving Marie (aka. Clara in the ballet) breaking her arm and getting blackmailed by the King of the Mice as well as selfish princesses, astrologers, a backstory into why the prince is trapped in the Nutcracker’s body. Why is none of this in the ballet? Alexander Dumas (author of Count of Monte Cristo/Three Musketeers) published a watered down version of Hoffmann’s tale in 1844, which was further diluted in the ballet to make the story easier to tell with no words.

-was Tchaikovsky’s least favorite of his ballets? The main choreographer (Marius Petipa) gave Tchaikovsky super detailed instructions for each dance (i.e. tempo and number of bars) and he resented having to compose under such circumstances, almost abandoning work on the ballet all together. Ironically, it is hailed for its surprisingly advanced harmonies and melodic invention that many feel is unsurpassed in ballet music…and has not only become one of the most popular ballets in history but also one of his most popular compositions. Speaking of which…

-was not a success when it premiered in 1892? Many people hated how the story wasn’t faithful to the Hoffman tale, the dancing was “sub-par” (though some dancers were referred to by critics as being “completely insipid”, “corpulent”, “pudgy” and “amateurish”) and that the story was lopsided. The Suite from the Nutcracker Tchaikovsky arranged however became instantly popular and carried all the attention until Balanchine’s very successful staging in New York City during 1954. Now, the complete ballet is staged all over the United States and across Europe every year.

-it is Clara’s act of protecting the Nutcracker from the mouse-king that returns him to human form? In the original story Marie (Clara’s basis) only transformed the Nutcracker after she promised if he was a real person she would love him no matter what he looked like. This is because in the original story, Nutcracker form (large head, wide smile and cottony beard) was considered ugly and a result of a curse which caused the Princess he had freed from the curse to reject him (talk about shallow…he had saved her, after all). As a matter of fact, Tchaikovsky’s ballet does not in any way suggest that Clara and the Prince are in love or get married…just that they become the rulers of Confiturembourg (i.e. Russian Candyland sans Plumpy or Molasses Swamp from the highly popular board game).

- has a song that was rumored to be written on a bet? While most familiar with the Suite believe the Waltz of the Flowers is the finale of the Nutcracker, there are actually two more important sections afterwards, the Pas de deux (a duet dance that includes the Dance of the Sugar Plum fairies) and the actual finale. According to the story, Tchaikovsky was bet that he couldn’t write a melody based on the notes of an octave scale in order. The Pas de deux opens with an Adagio section in which he does just this. Also, according to the story, the recent death of Tchaikovsky’s sister influenced it, resulting in the mournful, descending scale melody that alternates between major and minor.

Pas de deux : Intrada

- is the composition that made the celesta famous? Known as the magical sound in the Dance of the Sugar Plum fairies, Tchaikovsky first heard the celesta while visiting France and immediately set out to use it. He incorporated it into the tone poem “Voyevoda” which he wanted to premiere the instrument in, but on opening night is said to have hated the work so much he ordered the music to be burned by the time of intermission. Still wanting to not be “scooped” and have his “celesta thunder” stolen by either Rimsky-Korsokov or Glazunov, he created the “Nutcracker Suite”, which premiered 9 months before the ballet…which is famous today. The celesta is also used in another dance of act II of the ballet. Can you figure out which one?

-has been heard in a variety of non-holiday places? Surely you know it from holiday commercials and holiday specials…but it has also appeared in video games. In the original Lemmings, you can hear the “Dance of the Reed Pipes.” In Yoshi’s Story, you can hear a variation of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies in Baby Bowser’s castle. For the most interesting juxtaposition, look no farther than Bioshock.

When killing off Sander Cohen’s ex-disciples and placing their photographs on the Shrine in Fort Frolic, Sander unleashes a small army of splicers on you while playing “Waltz of the Flowers” in the background. Having played the game myself, I can attest to it being “quite the unexpected experience.”

-is HATED by dance critic Sarah Kaufman, who blames the Nutcracker’s sheer domination of the ballet scene since its premiere for severely limiting the creative evolution of ballet in the US? In 2009 she went on the offensive and published a series of stories in the Washington Post in which she refers to the Nutcracker as the ballet equivalent of “meatloaf” since many of the productions never stray far from its artistic roots. It has a strangle hold on every dance company because it is one of the few that can turn quite a successful profit and fund the rest of their artistic year. Basically, if you don’t perform the Nutcracker in the winter for the massive profit, you have no money to do anything else…which even i can understand makes it more of a chore for most artists than a joy.

Anyway, keep these things in mind as you hear snippets of it this holiday season. I do encourage you to hear the whole thing…hearing just the Suite for a month is like an “all-sugarplum” diet, eventually you’re bound to want to vomit. If you want a good recording of the complete ballet, i highly reccomend Semyon Bychkov and the Berlin Phil’s recording with Phillips. The strings are very crisp and clean…with just the right amount of starry-eyed childhood dreaminess when its needed. You might be surprised at how catchy the melodies are in the rest of the work if you’ve never heard it. I am particularly fond of “The Christmas Tree”, “Chocolate” (i.e. Spanish Dance), “Presents of Drosselmeyer” and “Pas de deux : Intrada”.

Hope you learned something new…even if only to make interesting small talk at holiday parties. Happy listening my fellow music lovers!

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introductions and counterpoint - Star Trek, Mahler and the commercialization of classical music

When it comes to science fiction, I seem to notice that many people come down as either pro-Star Wars or pro-Star Trek. You will find some that like neither and some who like both…but very usually I seem to find that people prefer one and not the other. My house growing up was a Star Trek house. I would in no way say my dad is a Trekkie (yes, he did drag me to a Convention in Pasadena once when I was younger, but no, there was no dress up involved) but he did love the series. He used to watch it as a boy when it first came out and having a son, I know he was excited to get me loving it.

By the time I finally took an interest in it, it was during the last years of DS9 and probably the second or third season of Voyager. It isn’t everyone’s favorite series from the Star Trek universe, but its what I grew up watching so I’ve always been rather fond of it. One of the better episodes in the series was “Counterpoint” from season 5 where the crew has to smuggle telepaths through a region of space controlled by a species who believes telepaths can’t be trusted and rounds them up into camps (WWII anybody?). The episode is centered around the psychological “chess game” played between Captain Janeway and the alien inspector, each one struggling to outsmart the other. However, this was the episode that introduced me to two great pieces of music.

I didn’t know what the pieces were at the time and it was many years before I heard them again. It wasn’t until I was at the LA Phil listening to Tchaikovsky’s 4th when the second movement came around and I immediately thought of this episode. then it wasn’t until my Mahler symphony study class senior year that I recognized the Scherzo of the first symphony from this episode as well.

This brings me to something I appreciate but at the same time worry about. Sometimes the appropriation of music in a movie or a TV show can be a wonderful thing. I personally thought the use of Tchaikovsky and Mahler here was relevant to the issues discussed in the episode. Anytime someone hears “Clair de Lune” now, most people associate that with the ending of Ocean’s 11 or Twilight (gag). “Aquarium” from Saint-Saen’s Carnival of the Animals makes one think of the Benjamin Button movie. To a degree, I’m ok with this. Music to capture a mood or a moment in a cinematic experience is something I appreciate.

What I don’t like is playing Copland’s “Rodeo” and all someone thinking is “OMG…IT’S THE BEEF SONG! GIMME STEAK”. Or hearing Mozart’s 40th and thinking “oh…i thought that was just a ringtone”. Or everyone who thinks “Russian Dance” from the Nutcracker is just the Ross commercial around Christmas. Leonard Bernstein said “The joy of music should never be interrupted by a commercial”…though now music seems to BE the commercial. As much as this bothers me, what I find more troublesome is that were it not for introductions to music like this, most people would never encounter classical music in their lives. With the major orchestras consolidating concert series…musical arts programs in elementary schools getting cut due to lack of funding…I wonder how long it will be until commercials provide the only classical music some people ever hear. Which brings me to this quote:

An intellectual snob is someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of The Lone Ranger.

-Dan Rather

While the content is a little dated for the current generation, the implied comment seems to hold true. While the accessibility of great classical recordings is much greater than it was 50 years ago, so is the amount of people who don’t care. Many people I knew in high school asked what kind of music I liked, expecting rap and pop and when I said I listened to classical music, I would get blank stares and the question “why would you want to?” Does loving classical music and its history in today’s society instantly make one a snob? I certainly hope it hasn’t come down to that.