What would it be like to delve into the peerless interplay between articulating patterns and melodic instruments – such as the nāy (flute) or the ʿūd (short-necked lute) – in Middle Eastern music, right amidst the triangle of the Arabic-, Turkish-, and Persian-speaking worlds? Or the fascinating journey that both Hindustani and Carnatic music have made during the history of Indian classical music? Or a shona mbira performance in Zimbabwe as part of the musical traditions in Sub-Saharan Africa?
Music is a cultural phenomenon which, if one tries to break it down just into its major parts, has at least ten areas or blocks: The music of India, the Middle East, China, Japan, Indonesia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, Latin America, Native American music and the music of ethnic North America. This gives us a diversity and uniqueness which is a research area, but at the same time is an assignment for an insatiable willingness to constantly present something new – even if it’s music that is hundreds of years old. Arts organizations are, without any doubt, positioned to be places of introduction, engagement and first and foremost the celebration of diverse cultures.
At this year’s APAP (Association of Performing Arts Professionals) conference in New York City, a session was solely dedicated to this purpose: The Why and How of Presenting Diverse Cultures. Imagining culture as the center of a triangle, the talk brought together speakers from all three angles: Tanya Gertz, College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, talking from the perspective of a university professor; Martha Redbone, singer-songwriter and community activist, talking from the perspective of an artist; and Jill Sternheimer, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, talking from the perspective of a programming director.
“I’m excited about these times, culturally. Theater is a great way of presenting various aspects. Tell stories – share individual stories. My mission, my hope is to share cultural pieces which are particular for Native American music”, says Redbone in her opening statement. “I have this great sense,” says Gertz. “When people have a sense that they want more – the joviality of culture. […] I should do that instead of I can’t do that. The opportunity of awareness. Our cultures are more multi-dimensional than we think when we create things by believing in the possibility of them.” Sternheimer then states, “My own philosophy is: Instead of pigeonholing, be mindful. Once, we had a Patti Smith concert (Editor’s note: Lincoln Center Out of Doors, A Night of Words and Music on July 20, 2016) and so we were thinking, ‘Who can we pair her up with?’ And because of her Mexican influence, she was introduced by a Mexican group: It made no sense and it made total sense.”
Bringing in unknown music and topics is risk-taking, there is no question about it. But in order to reflect the world’s musical diversity, one has to see all pieces of the puzzle: “Find something that connects – a flame or just a spark,” Redbone suggests, “the more you do it, you will start paying attention to your community differently. Try different things to raise people’s awareness and take people to experiences they never had before. Raise comfort by setting knowledge.” Speaking about how various musical cultures relate to each other, just think about the contact between the Arab world and Western Europe during the Middle Ages, in the Crusader States, the Iberian Peninsula, or Sicily. And this is only one reason why we should listen to music not only as a sensation on its own, but also with one question in the back of our heads: ‘What explains the nature of this musical piece?’
Whether you are an arts presenter yourself or a music enthusiast wanting to breathe in the cultural zeitgeist in all its aspects, “practice your own openness,” Gertz says, “no one really knows everything about everyone – it’s learning for everybody. (...) So, see as much as you can and do something out of your comfort zone.” At the end of the session, Sternheimer holds the last piece of the puzzle in her hands when saying, “it’s all up to us.”
How about starting right now, with this Iraqi maqam performance, featuring a lead vocalist (qari), a four-string fiddle (jawzah), a low-pitched hand-drum (dumbak) and a small tambourine (daff).
By Isabella Andries, Exploring Music Intern and student at Lawrence Conservatory
This lesson plan will provide an approach to the study of Bartok’s works from the early twentieth century. It includes background on these pieces’ historical context and reception in the music industry. It also describes Bartok’s intention and inspiration for these works. I will explain suggested approaches to learning the pieces and my approach to practicing and performing them as a piano student.
Late nineteenth-century Hungary was a time when class divisions were prominent. While the upper classes were enamored by works of composers to the west, from Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, those in the middle and working classes were exposed to the music of local gypsy bands and “popular art songs.” These were the tunes that Bartok grew up enjoying. Before he could speak, he could recognize the folk songs he heard in his hometown, and often requested that his mother play them on the piano. By the time he was four years of age, he could play forty of them from memory with one finger on the piano. This early love for the native music of Hungary set the stage for a voyage he would take in his twenties that shaped his career as a composer.
In the early twentieth century, many of the traditional folksongs were in danger of cultural extinction. “Pseudofolksongs” made popular by traveling theatre groups and gypsy bands cross-pollinated, so to speak, with those that had been passed down through generations, those that Bartok intended to preserve. He and fellow composer Zoltan Kodaly appealed to the public and the government for support of their plans to travel and collect the traditional songs. They did not receive this support. However, undeterred, they set out on their mission. They traveled through Transylvania, Romania, and later to Africa. They asked locals to sing or play into a phonograph and then transcribed these tunes in their notebooks. Bartok is quoted as having said, “I shall pursue one objective all my life, in every sphere and in every way: the good of Hungary and the Hungarian nation” (Erdely 27).
In 1911 Bartok wrote an original piano work that, while adopting certain elements characteristic of these folksongs, was also inspired by the structures of classical music. Here, I’ll be examining the first of the Two Rumanian Dances, Op. 8a, and explain how a piano student could approach these pieces, with special regard for Bartok’s intentions.
The structure of the first of the Two Rumanian Dances can best be compared to the Magyar ballroom dance, in a sequence along with the Allemandes, Francaises, Polonaises, and Anglaises
dances of the early 1800s. The Magyar is “a slow dance with a gradual increase of tempo without ever changing its serious, stately nature, thus fitting the dignity of the noble men who danced it” (Erdely 24). The beginning section of the first Rumanian Dance, while not explicitly slow, has a dark and serious tone. Over the course of the piece, the crescendos build until it reaches a booming climax and reflects its tempo markings of “allegro vivace,” or “quick and lively.” There is no evident key signature, implying that the focus of the work lies in other musical elements. Bartok himself said that the piano’s percussive nature should be recognized in musical expression. Emo Balogh, one of his former piano students, recalled that “he was most meticulous about rhythmical proportion, accent and the variety of touch”. (Fischer 93).
Below is a chart included in Bartok’s 1916 edition of the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, with notes on articulation markings:
In observing the score for Rumanian Dance Op. 8a No. 1, one can find that Bartok notates weaker accentuations for softer sections of the piece and stronger ones for more bombastic ones. The shifts of energy in this piece, whether sharp or subtle, can be expressed by careful thought, but it is far easier to come up with imagery or narrative to illuminate the character of the work.
The story that I envisioned for Op. 8a No. 1 is that of a mythical witch burning in the colonial town of Salem, Massachusetts. Contrary to popular belief, stoning and drowning were the more common practices of the time, so this scenario has little historical basis. The foreboding nature of the first thirty-four measures paints the landscape of Salem, a town of serious character and muted hues. A gradual crescendo suggests a rise in tension-- something is amiss in the village. It could also portray something approaching from over a hill, coming closer to the listener. Measures 35-44 are swift and light, the pianist’s fingers leaping nimbly across the keys, marked as “leggiero”. It sounds like morning bustle, children playing around a well, tiny feet weaving around the white feathers of squawking chickens, the clickety-clack of wagon wheels against cobblestone roads. In these sections, the performer should keep her fingers loose, rotating the wrist in the direction of the three-note slurs. In early practice, one should be allowed to take breaths between each three-note slur to ensure accuracy. Measures 45-50 fall in a downward motion, perhaps a child’s pigskin ball falling from the top of a hill down to a muddy bank. It hits the murky water, and briefly, the mood shifts-- Bartok writes “poco pesante” at measure 51, or “a little heavier.” A sequential repetition of measures 45-50 follow, and this same downward motion could be attributed to a single black feather of a crow falling from a windowsill. At the repeated “pesante” section, the soft feather falls into the despotic hands of the magistrate. His icy blue eye shoots daggers into the window-glass. He recognizes it as the chamber of the village witch.
A downpour suddenly drenches the thatched roofs in salty rainwater, the drops like tiny bullets falling through the air. The melody at measures 64-67 is the howl of the wind, the rumble of thunder, various voices shouting to be heard through the sonic storm. One can imagine the whir of left-hand notes as the sound the rain makes when it strikes the piano. The performer should feel it hit her skin, shower her forehead, soak her clothes, and bask in its glory. Gradually, the storm weakens and the sun peeks through the clouds, creating a rainbow at measures 67-71. This is the first sprinkle of color anyone in the Puritan town has seen in years. All faces lift toward the heavens.
Then comes the calm after the storm, measures 71-75. The warm air wraps around your arms like a blanket, the green moss dense on the trees, the sun a hazy glow across the dewy grass. The sparse melody and the thick, blocked chords create a peaceful atmosphere.
The staccato theme returns at measure 76, and the magistrate is ready to secure the witch’s fate. Various flourishes in the next section illustrate the villagers as they prepare for the burning-- the tenuto notes at measures 80-83 ring like church bells and the town criers call out in grace notes at measures 87 and 88. A grand crescendo leads to the climax of the piece at measures 97-109: the witch burning. In a lively folk chant characterized by repeated motifs, common among many of the songs Bartok collected, the townspeople shout insults and bang against metal pots and pans, dancing violently around the poor “demonic” maiden.
The sheer number of sudden leaps in this work makes it necessary to devise an efficient practice method. One method is to group phrases in rhythmic chunks, grouping certain notes together and then stringing measures together. The phrases below are marked by vertical lines.
This technique can be applied to almost anywhere between measures 85 and and 109, the section requiring the most stamina. Another way to think about this technique is to imagine taking breaths between phrases. Starting with longer phrases and gradually shortening them will reduce arm strain. At measures 97-109, the summit of the piece, where the melody is played in octaves,“fingers separate” practice is useful. For those with smaller hands, the thumb and pinkie should be practiced separately in order to ensure these octaves sound clean and the melody is brought forth.
Bartok is an idiosyncratic personality in the classical music world. He was unafraid to blend the melodies of common people and those from other cultures into his concert works. He revolutionized the use of the piano, harnessing its strengths as a percussive instrument. Beyond that, his pieces have a raw yet meticulously expressed intensity that draws me in as contemporary listener. For instrumentalists, seeking out works by composers whose music speaks to them is vital in study. Not only does this spur the student’s creative interpretation, it allows her to build her artistic voice, by finding what appeals to her. As an aspiring composer, I find deep value in examining works I enjoy to understand why I enjoy them, and hope to apply some of their principles in my own compositions. Studying Bartok is one step in my journey, and I hope that my perspective sheds light on some of his piano pieces for other students as well.
The Exploring Music Bela Bartok program will be free for the next several weeks.
Bartók, Béla. Piano music of Bela Bartok: series I. Dover Pub., 1981.
Bónis, Ferenc. Béla Bartók, his life in pictures and documents. Corvina Kiadó, 1982.
Chalmers, Kenneth. Béla Bartók. Phaidon, 2008.
Erdely, Stephen, and Victoria Fischer. The Cambridge Companion to Bartok. Edited by Amanda
Bayley, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Bartok performing Two Rumanian Dances Op. 8a No. 1
Performance by Janos Palojtay
https://exploringmusic.wfmt.com/listen-to-the-show/71/bartok-bela/ 1:03:59 to 1:07:54
Exploring Music is interested in how you pursue your musical education. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the emails we receive, we know that a lot of teachers are already using Exploring Music in their classrooms. The questions we still ask ourselves are: How is Exploring Music being used in the classroom? What are the resources that are most useful for students, and how can we help in connecting Exploring Music to the school curriculum?
These are questions we cannot answer all by ourselves. So, four weeks ago, we invited music teachers from all around Chicago to our ‘Exploring Music Event’, a casual gathering on the set of our sister station WTTW’s show Chicago Tonight – joined by Exploring Music host Bill McGlaughlin who just flew in from New York.
We had a group of around twenty people. After a welcome from Tony Macaluso, Director of WFMT Radio Network Marketing & Syndication, Bill showcased the weeks on “Portraits in Black, Brown, & Beige” in person. Exploring Music Live – definitely something we don’t get every day!
Then we opened the discussion to the educators. All ideas of how Exploring Music can serve as a resource, how the shows might need to be reshaped in order to tie them into lessons, and especially, how the website needs to be improved and adjusted – these suggestions gave us a much better understanding about the integration of Exploring Music into education – and something to work toward.
Images: 1. Tony Macaluso | Bill McGlaughlin, 2. Dr. Greta Pope | Jim A. Konsbruck (Both: Chicago High School for the Arts) —Photography: Devvora Papatheodorou Schreier
142 years ago, the op. 21 by Edouard Lalo entered the stage for the first time. At the age of 52, the composer hadn’t had a real success with one of his pieces yet. That would change very suddenly when the audience in Paris heard his new piece: Crisp, sparkling melodies along with a tragic, emotional passacaglia — all framed by a Spanish timbre.
The most obvious question might be: Why did the audience in France react so enthusiastically when they heard a piece which contains national traits even in its title, Symphonie espagnole? Well, Spanish culture was fashionable in France at that time. In the same year when Lalo’s op. 21 premiered, Bizet’s Carmen also had its first performance.
The Symphonie espagnole became a continuing success, as a showpiece for the violinists that performed it. Considering its title, why of all things is it a showpiece for the violin? For a start, Lalo dedicated his piece to a great violin virtuoso of his time, which undoubtedly has its reflection in the complex violin part in the score. Vadim Repin once said: “It’s emotional music, sometimes it might even be entertaining — but it demands enormous preparation from the violinist. In view of the amount of notes, the piece surely is in first place.”
The question we are facing at this point is the one our listener was asking: Is the Symphonie espagnole by Edouard Lalo a symphony, or is it a concerto for the violin?
Here is how our Exploring Music host Bill McGlaughlin answered it:
Good question. To begin with, I love the piece which is filled with color and life and seems a particularly good vehicle for younger violinists for whom the Beethoven and Brahms concerti may present challenges better taken on in maturity. I have a fond memory of hearing Joshua Bell making his Carnegie Hall debut with the Lalo. Even further back I can recall Perlman’s mastery of the piece at an early age.
Coming back to your question, is it a symphony or a concerto, I’m inclined to say both. To begin with, Lalo must have thought it was a symphony, giving the piece its title. But few symphonies have five movements and concerti mostly have three. I think the piece is definitely a symphony in at least a metaphorical sense. In certain ways, Symphonie espagnole recalls Berlioz’s Harold en Italie, which was written as a commission for Paganini. Paganini didn’t think the piece was a concerto and turned down the chance to give the premiere performance. “Not enough solo writing for the viola,” he told Berlioz. “But I like the piece very much.” He must have, as he let Berlioz keep the commissioning fee.
From all accounts Lalo was a brilliant violinist, and his Symphonie espagnole is a wonderful display piece for the solo violinist, so that might argue for thinking of it as a concerto. When Tchaikovsky heard the piece, he loved it and said it was Lalo who inspired him to write his own concerto. Tchaikovsky wrote of his enthusiasm for the Symphonie espagnole: “It has a lot of freshness, lightness of piquant rhythms, of beautiful and excellently harmonized melodies. [...] He [Lalo], in the same way as Léo Delibes and Bizet, does not strive after profundity, but he carefully avoids routine, seeks out new forms, and thinks more about musical beauty than about observing established traditions, as do the Germans.”
I have decided to think of the piece as a blend of concerto and tone poem invoking Spain. There is no debate about the Spanish influence: Lalo is an old Spanish name, even if his ancestors had come to Flanders and northern France in the 16th century. The piece is filled with Spanish rhythms and turns of phrase — no wonder: Lalo composed it for Pablo de Sarasate, who gave the premiere.
So, if Lalo wanted to title his piece ‘Symphonie’, I say bravo, Maestro, you’re the boss. Thanks for listening, Alan, and thanks for taking the time to write.
Here is the Symphonie espagnole, op. 21, by Edouard Lalo. Our performers are Joshua Bell and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, conducted by Charles Dutoit.
Steve Robinson, Bill McGlaughlin (Photo: Charles Osgood)
As an Exploring Music Intern, I’ve learned just how much research goes into the production of each Exploring Music theme, and it’s a lot. Our host, Bill McGlaughlin, has even been known to max-out the checkout limit at the New York City Library. In Chicago, producer Cydne Gillard helps with Bill’s research and conducts research of her own in the WFMT music library. One of the EM team’s go-to resources is The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Not familiar with the Grove Dictionary? You’re not alone (I had to go to Wikipedia to look it up.)
Check out this exchange between Bill McGlaughlin and his old boss Steve Robinson.
Steve: In general, how does Grove compare with Wikipedia?
Bill: No denying the tremendous value that devoted amateurs have brought to Wikipedia, but Grove Dictionary is in an entirely different league as far as depth, breadth and authority. To me it’s the difference between a highly skilled amateur orchestra and the Chicago Symphony. The amateurs are often highly informed and some of them are in fact authorities on their subjects, but I miss the uniformly high standard imposed by professional editors who are paying for their content and determined to produce the most reliable and informed source of specialized information.
Not that Grove is without the occasional problem. I recall when Charles Rosen delighted in taking apart Andrew Porter’s errors (gross in Charles’ estimation) in analyzing the harmonic language in his article on Verdi. Charles included this diatribe as part of his major New York Review of Books review of the New Grove. When Grove's formidable editor Stanley Saide complained to Charles and threatened to reply, Charles archly advised him to find another medium. “Stanley, send your complaint to the Times of London or the New York Times. If you put your complaint in the NYRB, I shall be forced to reply.” ‘Why that’s blackmail!” screamed Mr. Saide. “Do stop shouting, Stanley,” said Charles. “You know, I gave you the perfect paragraph stating that Grove Dictionary is the greatest musical encyclopedia ever produced. You know you will use that in your advertising.”
And so they do — to the present day. If you look on the back cover of the paperback edition.
" The heart of Groves's Dictionary was always in the long biographical entries on composers... a magnificent achievement." - Charles Rosen, New York Review of Books
Ah me. Intellectual sky-fighting. We mortals look up and see the tracers piercing the sky but we can’t even hear the gunfire.
But to answer the question, there’s no authority like Groves. - Bill
Abbey: Want to read more intellectual sky-fighting? Here’s the link to the Rosen/ Saide exchange in the New York Review of Books.
Bill: Here’s a quick Wiki word.
Stanley John Sadie, CBE (/ˈseɪdi/; 30 October 1930, Wembley – 21 March 2005, Cossington, Somerset) was an influential and prolific British musicologist, music critic, and editor. He was editor of the sixth edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980), which was published as the first edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians
Have a luvely weekend, y’all. -Bill
Steve: My two cents.
As for Grove vs Wikipedia, I agree 100% with Bill. Wikipedia is a good resource, of course, and I use it several times a day (and I actually contribute money every year. That's quite a concept: paying for a free service. Where have I heard about that before?) but it's no substitute for the in-depth, scholarly articles one finds in Groves. (Then again, that's what Encyclopedia Britannica said. Remember them?)
Anyway, I hope you get in the Grove groove.
Retired Archaeologist Peter Bullock may not be excavating ancient remains anymore, but he says his voyage of discovery continues through music.
"As an archaeologist, I was interested in exploring and discovery," he says. "I think if you're exposed to different kinds of music, it makes you appreciate quite a range [of music] than maybe you normally would."
Peter Bullock attributes his appreciation for European classical music to his grandfather, William Bullock. William was an apprenticed music engraver and World War I veteran from Gloucester, England.
William was unable to find work as a music engraver after World War I, so he emigrated to the United States. He found work with McKinney Music, Inc. in Chicago, where he settled down and had a family.
According to Peter's father, William Bullock fell in love with French music while serving in World War I. He was particularly fond of Bizet's opera, "The Pearl Fishers."
Peter says music was his voyage of discovery from a young age, and encourages others to stay open-minded about their own musical journeys.
"I'm not bound by convention, or limited by locale or upbringing," he says. "Both of my parents were poor, but you didn't have to be limited by being poor. You could still accept more of the world that was out there, and part of that is through music."
WTTW producer Dan Andries may have won six Emmys and six Lisagor Awards, but he's also pretty good on the piano. His mother, Chicago metropolitan journalist Dorothy Andries, drove him to piano lessons at the former Music Center of the North Shore (The Music Institute of Chicago) in Winnetka, IL, every Saturday morning. Her commitment to enriching Dan's life with music led to his lifelong appreciation for Chicago's arts scene.
As a journalist specializing in coverage of the performing arts, Dorothy's professional work provided opportunities for Dan to engage with local ensembles. He fondly recalls skipping school to go with his mother to a parade honoring the Chicago Symphony’s return from its 1971 European tour.
“This was the moment in life when I was there; when I was witnessing something that I understood to be at a pinnacle,” he says.
While he was a student at Columbia College Chicago, Dan saw performances by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Ed Wilkerson that introduced him to the avant-garde capabilities of music.
“I had never seen anything like it [Ed Wilkerson],” Dan says. “It was the first time I saw musicians who were given the freedom to go wild.”
Dan says Chicago supports the things that grow here and are about here.
“The best thing about Chicago, musically, theatrically, in the literature, in the teaching, in the institution, is a kind of self-driven willingness to explore something that nobody else thinks matters, even though it does,” he says. “And to not be locked into trying to find where the new trend is.”
Many of Dan’s favorite works, by Shostakovitch, Steve Reich and Miles Davis, reflect his enthusiasm for independent artistry.
“I like any art where the artist is allowed to happily wreck things. I don’t like the word ‘deconstruction,’ I like wreck,” he says. “I like to wreck the room.”
Listen to the music from the interview:
Three more things to do while you're here:
1) Listen to the first story from our first Artists in Exile series.
2) Check out our Soundcloud.
2) Listen to a show!
Stravinsky was comfortable traveling all around the world, even on a boat!
Courtesy of Eddie Arruza
Chicago Tonight correspondent Eddie Arruza, from our partner public television station WTTW, has a vintage LP of his mother, Olga Arruza, playing piano. The album, titled, “Olga Arruza: Plays The Ethnic Music of Cuba” pays homage to the music from the Arruzas’ native Cuba.
Olga Arruza was an accomplished classical pianist in Cuba before she moved her family to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1966.
“She [Olga] always referred to us as refugees and I guess that we were, because we left a country that we didn’t want to leave, but had to leave,” Eddie says.
People in Cincinnati welcomed the Arruza family with furniture, a place to live, and even an upright piano.
“From then on, it [the piano] really just played a role in my life and it cultivated what would later become my love of classical music,” Eddie explains.
In Cincinnati, Olga taught Spanish and piano at a high school. As a mom, she frequently took Eddie to Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concerts. Eddie fondly remembers going to see Vladimir Horowitz perform, and getting to meet him backstage after the concert.
“We spent about an hour with Vladimir Horowitz, just chit-chatting and laughing, and it was a wonderful time,” he says. “This was the kind of influence I had growing up, and it shaped the person that I am these days as far as my love for music.”
When Eddie moved to Chicago, he took advantage of Chicago’s vibrant arts scene.
“Chicago was Cincinnati on steroids when it came to music because of all of the great big and little groups that perform here,” he says. “And, of course, I instantly had to start going to the CSO [Chicago Symphony Orchestra] and Lyric Opera.”
One of Eddie's last memories with his mother was attending a concert performance of “Otello” by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, starring Luciano Pavarotti.
“She [Olga] was just dazzled by the sound that came from that stage, from the orchestra, from the stage, from Pavarotti,” he says. “I just remember looking at her and seeing this sense of delight and awe on her face. That’s one of the last memories I have of going to a concert with her [Olga], and I’ll cherish that forever.”
Courtesy of Eddie Arruza
Listen to the music from the interview:
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Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin has produced over 200 weeks of shows since its syndication in 2003. The new show this week is Music in 19th Century Paris: Waterloo to Bismarck. We interviewed Bill McGlaughlin to give you the inside scoop on how he formulated this week’s show. Enjoy the interview below and let us know your thoughts on this week’s theme in the comments!
How did you select the theme for this week’s programs: Music in 19th Century Paris: Waterloo to Bismarck?
You know, it was one of those ideas I found in my sock drawer. You don’t really know where these ideas come from; you kind of have all of this stuff rolling around in your head for a long time.
With Music in 19th Century Paris: Waterloo to Bismarck, I had just listened to a volume of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization and I finished the story with the history of Napoleon. I listen to these enormous, 1200 page audio books while I walk around the streets of New York. So, I had been thinking about Napoleon and this book gave me a different perspective on him. I didn’t realize some of the positive things he did. I knew he was a great conqueror, but I don’t particularly admire people who start wars and kill people. But, everywhere he went, he instituted the Napoleonic code, which threw out the old feudal system, took away a lot of the properties of the church, and set up a constitution.
Also, all the way from 1815 until the demise of Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, there was a new great nation state on the rise – Prussia – which was led by Otto von Bismarck. Pretty soon all of Germany was even bigger, more populated, wealthier, and finally unified after hundreds of years of being these little states.
So that’s the set-up. Of course, all the while, I have music in my head as I’m listening to these books. I’m thinking about the composers around during the time and the music that they wrote. But, Napoleon and Bismarck are fence posts on which to hang a string which I was going to put my laundry on.
Do you think Napoleon was a music lover and did he commission any music?
Napoleon did commission a number of pieces, but they were ceremonial. Sort of like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, his taste in music didn’t run to the most advance. He would go to performances, but he knew poets, philosophers, and scientists better.
How did you decide what music to include in this week?
I chose this music because if you were lucky, or maybe unlucky, enough to live in Paris at that time, this is the music you would hear every day. These were the composers who were there. It was such a tremendous cast of characters. A lot of Italians were in Paris during this time. Cherubini, who came to France in 1785, managed to get through the French Revolution and keep his head on his shoulders despite the fact that he was a close associate to Louis the 16th and Marie Antoinette. Then there was Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Paganini. It’s just an interesting period. You can really hear the almost infinite variety in the music.
What other composers will you feature in this week?
Two of the composers we’re doing this week are rarely played nowadays, Cherubini and Meyerbeer. They were so popular in their time; in fact Beethoven first thought that Cherubini was the greatest opera composer. Then, by 1818 he said, “Forget it, Cherubini is the greatest composer alive” (and this was by a man who had written 8 of his 9 symphonies and all of his piano concertos at this point). I mean think of the work that Beethoven had made and he thought Cherubini was the greatest composer alive. I wanted to try to get some sense of the importance of that music and why we should still care about it if a composer like Beethoven loved it as much as he did.
It’s the same thing with Meyerbeer. His works are rarely performed nowadays intact. I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a couple of days ago and saw some paintings. One was by Courbet depicting a tenor who is playing the part of Robert le diable from the opera by Meyerbeer in 1831. I looked at this incredibly vivid and wonderful painting and thought, “that painting was done 30 years after Meyerbeer created his opera.” Then I found another painting that day by Degas of the same opera, painted about another 15 years later. Just think about the effect these people had, and not just for a year or two on Broadway. They colored French culture throughout the 19th century and yet, we barely know their names today.
How do you create a narrative around the music that you choose for a week of programs?
I’m a big walker. It started some years ago when I had some back problems and I found out that they went away when I started walking. So, I’ve got a lot of time to think and I listen to books on tape. I usually just try to imagine what it would be like to be in Paris during some of those years. I try to imagine the clothing they wore or what they ate. Rossini for example, when he turned thirty-eight, he had already written 38 operas. At that point, he said, “That’s it. I’m going to sit by and invent some nice dishes like Tournedos Rossini; maybe I’ll put a little foie gras on my steak.” He’s such a playful character and I love imagining the world around him. Like the salons with all of these poets, painters, philosophers, economists, and generals. I like to imagine the individual composers and how they struggle against people not understanding their works and challenges.
Has your process changed over the years?
When I first started doing this show, I used to spend a lot of time in the Lincoln Center library. It’s changed over the past 12-13 years because so much music is now available online. But there are a couple of great libraries where you can go and look at a Cherubini Requiem and actually see the full orchestral score. I spent thirty years mostly as a conductor, so I can read a score in the way a lot of other people can just read a novel or a poem. I actually learn faster from reading a score than I do from listening. Then I go to the piano, I’m not really an advanced pianist at all, but I play it so that people can hear what I’m thinking or talking about.
Why do you demonstrate what you heard in the music on the piano?
When Steve Robinson and I started talking about Exploring Music back in 2002, I was initially reluctant because I was doing a chamber music show for Minnesota Public Radio called “St. Paul Sunday Morning” and I thought that maybe that was enough. But Steve came up with a whole plan and he told me I could do it in New York City in a studio. I thought about it for a little while and I told him that I would need a piano because without one, without some way to play music, nobody would know what I was talking about. If I say that Brahms’s Second Symphony opens with a minor third in the horn, people might think “what the heck is a minor third?! Is it a third that didn’t quite grow up yet? What is it?” If I sing it, people kind of get the idea. But if I play it, and then put it in context and play it again, then they can start to get an idea of what I’m talking about. For someone who isn’t trained in music, they’ve just absorbed a tool to help them understand more music.
What is your favorite show that you have done so far?
My favorite show is the one that I’m most absorbed in at the moment. I think we’ve done 200-300 of these 5 hour weeks so I can’t really remember. From the beginning when I spoke with Steve Robinson, I told him I wanted one week a month to be a 5-part musical biography of a composer, because in 5 hours we can really get inside what makes a composer tick. So I like the composer shows a lot.
We often get blizzards of emails and have found so many ideas in those that have turned into radio shows. I’m so grateful for people writing in and suggesting themes. Thank you! Keep them coming!
How do you decide how much you’ll explain about a piece of music?
For me, it always starts and ends with the music. I’ve been doing this for a really long time. When I was 18 years old, I had a high school band in Philadelphia. I was put in front of them and they couldn’t sing or play and I couldn’t conduct very well. But, I was put in front of this bunch of high school kids, and I was barely older than they were, and we would give concerts in school. We would play in front of their classmates, who were kind of a tough audience to play for because they were a little cynical and sullen sometimes, and I would try to break them up a little by trying to relate directly to the music. I would ask them what they heard or I would make goofy jokes about the music. But, the point is that it starts with something I hear in the music and that’s almost always true in Exploring Music.
Top Picks from the British Isles
We asked and you delivered! These are the choice picks from our Facebook page, thanks to our well-versed listeners. Special thanks to Michael Rosin for compiling this blog post.
Best British Symphony:
Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony 5 is the Best British Symphony -
Friends, what an honor it is to finally write about this symphony. One
of my favorites since high school, there was a point in my life when I
became obsessed with this symphony, especially the third movement -
listening to it every night before I went to bed. This piece
represents the zenith of Ralph Vaughan Williams' pastoral music.
Written during the entire duration of World War II, the piece is a war
symphony, meant to evoke the landscape of England, at one of the most
threatening and terrifying times in Great Britain's history. Themes
throughout the symphony are derived from an opera Vaughan Williams
composed earlier, entitled "The Pilgrim's Progress."
I've decided to share the life-changing third movement. This
British composer wrote his most beautiful piece during the worst
bombing of the UK. This piece does not appear on any soundtrack, nor
in any commercial. Please listen to the whole thing - I promise it's
nothing like anything you've ever heard before.
Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (arguably the
most authentic recording, being that Boult and Vaughan Williams were
Best British Opera:
Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" is the Best British Opera -
"Peter Grimes" is a staple in Great Britain's operatic canon. The
opera was inspired by a poem of the same title. The poem was written
by George Crabbe and inspired Britten deeply, since both men were
natives of Suffolk. It premiered in London on June 7, 1945.
Britten's partner, Peter Pears, played the title role for it's first
performance - he was also a key figure throughout the opera's creation
and production. There was an orchestral suite published separately
entitled "Four Sea Interludes" which captures many of the important
themes and moments of the opera. I've decided to post the opening of
the second act (also the second movement of the "Four Sea
Interludes") subtitled "A Summer Sunday Morning." This section in
particular has such incredible orchestration and a deep lively mood,
both of which Britten was so masterful at capturing.
Sir Colin Davis conducting.
Best British Concerto:
Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto and Ralph Vaughan Williams' Tuba
Concerto are the Best British Concerto - The Elgar Cello concerto
really speaks for itself. Written in 1919, it was one of Elgar's last
pieces. Initially, it had been poorly received. It was only after some
time that it became a popular work, receiving much attention. It is
now a standard cello concerto and even part of orchestral repertoire.
Like Vaughan Williams' Fifth, it too was inspired by a world war, this
one instead being WWI - the "Great War."
A famous recording - Jacqueline Du Pre, under the baton of Daniel
Barenboim. London Philharmonic.
- Ralph Vaughan Williams' Tuba Concerto is a good partner to the Elgar
Cello Concerto. It too was written towards the end of the composer's
life and was not received well at it's premiere. Composed in 1954,
the piece was written for the principal tuba player of the London
Symphony Orchestra, Philip Catelinet. The composition is relatively
short for a three-movement concerto, lasting barely thirteen minutes.
Although it's orchestration initially confused the public, it is now
one of a few standard tuba concertos.
Patrick Harrild on tuba, and the London Symphony Orchestra under the
direction of Bryden Thomson.
Best British Song:
The classic Greensleeves wins by a mile! Most likely England's most
popular folk song, references to it's existence date back as far as
the late sixteenth century. Although the text and music have been
attributed to King Henry VIII, it is not proven that he is the actual
composer. Throughout the centuries, it has been arranged and
transcribed for almost every conceivable instrumentation. The tune is
even a famous Christmas carol, "What Child is this?"
Since Ralph Vaughan Williams features prominently in this blog, I will
share his famous orchestral arrangement of the tune - "Fantasia on
Greensleeves." Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.
Our Summer Classical Music Playlist
In light of our theme this week, The Four Seasons, we wanted to make a short playlist of some of our favorite summer music. Follow the links to hear the pieces and comment with your suggestions!
1. The movement "June," from a large, 12-movement work for piano entitled "The Seasons" is the most tender and sentimental of the bunch. Written in 1876, it was commissioned by the famous publisher, Nikolay Bernard, who also selected a Russian poem for each month/movement.
The poem for "June" reads:
"Out on the beach the waves
Will lick our feet.
High up in the skies the stars
Will shine mysteriously on us."
- Alexei Koltsov
In 1942, the Russian composer and conductor Alexander Gauk made a beautiful orchestral arrangement of "June" (both are attached below).
2. "Der Sommer" is one of four large sections in Haydn's Oratorio "Jahrezeiten" ("The Seasons"). The piece was written between 1799-1800. Haydn uses orchestral tone and color to depict certain pastoral scenes (As Bill states in the 'Four Seasons' episode), suchas an oboe to represent the morning rooster, or an ascending scale to represent a sunrise.
3. "Am leuchtenden Sommer Morgen" is an art song from RobertSchumann's most famous song cycle "Dichterliebe." The text is taken from a book of poems by Heinrich Heine, entitled "Lyrisches Intermezzo". The sixty-six poems tell the story of a woeful knight, who has lost his lover. Schumann chose sixteen of them to tell his version of the story, and no. 45 is the poem for this song. The text
is as follows:
"On a sunny summer morning I went out into the garden: the flowers
were talking and whispering, but I was silent. They looked at me with
pity, and said, 'Don't be cruel to our sister, you sad, death-pale
-Suggested by Exploring Music Social Media Coordinator: Sophia Feddersen.
4. This song is a perfect choice to cool down with. Known for its smooth texture and iconic text, the aria "Summertime" from George Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess" is the most appropriate choice for this list.
Jascha Heifetz also has a wonderful arrangement for violin and piano, that really depicts the 'laziness' of the song. We have
added both, so you can really hear the inimitable style and élan of Heifetz, as well as the 'Summertime' text in the original.
Suggested by Exploring Music producer Jesse McQuarters.
5. In the middle of your playlist, is music for the middle of the summer! The overture to Overture to 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' by Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn wrote this impressive piece at the astonishingly young age of 16. He grew up watching and reenacting Shakespeare plays with his siblings, and was deeply inspired by this for his overture. Almost 20 years later, Mendelssohn composed incidental music for a local production of the play, to which he included his overture.
6. "Vltava" (better known by it's German title "Die Moldau"), is a symphonic tone poem by Bedrich Smetana. It is from a collection of six tone poems known as "Má vlast" ("My Motherland"). This is by far the most famous piece of the collection, and is usually programmed independently. 'Vltava' is one of Europe's longest rivers, stretching from just outside Germany all the way to Prague. Smetana brilliantly evokes the feeling of a flowing river, and the warmth of the famous melody feels like a summer wind. The melody, in fact, was based off an ancient folk tune, and eventually became the Israeli national anthem.
7. Brahms started composing his first Violin Sonata in the summer of 1878. He resumed work and completed it a year later, in the summer of 1879. The sonata is sometimes called the 'Regen-Sonate' ('Rain Sonata'), because the musical material that holds the piece together is based off of two previously written art songs by Brahms - "Nachklang" and "Regenlied" ("Tears/Echo" and "Rain song,"
respectively). Throughout the piece, you can hear the gorgeous sound of summer rain in Pörtschach am Wörthersee, where this piece was written.
Suggested by Exploring Music producer Cydne Gillard.
8. The opening of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings is one of the most engaging and luscious in musical history. The thick chords and the key of C major brings to mind none other than a bright sunny day, flying like a bird through a clear blue sky. It was written in 1880, and remains high in the ranking of standard repertoire for string orchestra.
9. The most edgy piece on your playlist (which is also in our 'Four Seasons' episode), is Ástor Piazzolla's "Verano Porteño" ("Buenos Aires Summer") from "Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas" ("The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires"). Written in 1965, this piece is a sweltering dance on the shores of Buenos Aires! One of the most striking moments of the piece, as Bill points out, is a quotation from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." We would expect an excerpt from the "Summer" concerto, but he in fact quotes the "Winter"
10. The final piece on this summer list is the only piece written by a living composer. "The End of Summer" is a chamber piece written in 1985 by the American composer Ned Rorem. The "Fantasy" movement is the middle movement of this work, and it is poignant and introspective. The conversation among the clarinet, violin, and piano seems to portray memories - reminiscing on times long ago. Fitting for the end of the summer.
Thanks to our intern, Micheal Rosin, for help compiling this list!
Five Fun Sites about J.S. Bach
This week Exploring Music is all about Johann Sebastian Bach and his tenure with Prince Leopold. We found five different websites that celebrate the great composer. Leave us a comment if you find any interesting tidbits, or if you have a favorite site dedicated to Bach.
Did you know that Bach's old basement was paved over, but many of the rooms still exist? Those rooms have been placed under heritage protection, but are closed off to the public and above them is a parking lot. If you want to help the citizens of Weimar convert this parking lot into a Bach House, sign their petition or leave a message of support.
4. The Practical and Personal of Bach
If you’re looking for more detailed information on Bach, this article delves into his personal letters and documents to get a better understanding of the composer’s life. This is a dense academic paper but its depth is perfect for anyone wishing to expand their knowledge of Bach.
3. Bach's Life in Pictures
This straight forward website uses photos and paintings to lead the way through Bach’s life and history. The site provides a brief overview of Bach's life and the pictures provide an interesting backdrop.
2. A Delightful First-Person Blog of Bach's Life
This imaginative blog takes on the perspective of different people in Bach’s life in order to paint a picture of the composer’s life. Beginning with Bach’s mother Elisabeth Bach at the time of her son’s birth, the posts include history, anecdotes and pictures.
1. Free Books Available To Read Via Google Books
We decided to poke around Google Books and see what we could find. We searched “Bach Brandenburg” and came up with more than 200,000 results! Play around with Google Books and see what you discover about J.S. Bach.
This week on Exploring Music we're going on an adventure in search of the best works you've never heard. With the help of the WFMT staff, we've found a veritable collection of lost masterpieces including works by Rochberg, Haydn, Piston, Thompson and more! However, we know that there's plenty more musical plunder to be had, and we want your help in finding it. Leave a comment on this page with your favorite "lost masterpiece", and the next time we make a "Hidden Gold" episode your suggestion might be featured!
His memoir, Musical Memories, is full of sentences like this: "Oceans of ink have been spilled in discussing the question of whether the subjects of operas should be taken from history or mythology, and the question is still a mooted one." But beneath his clever turns of phrases is a first hand account of music and non musical history spanning from just after Beethoven's death to the 1920s. Think of it. Camille Saint-Saens lived long enough that he knew both Rossini and Stravinsky, experienced Napoleon and World War I, the hey-day of Opera and the beginning of movie music.
You can read his whole memoir for free here, but if you don't have time, we submit our top five favorite snippets for your approval.
5. Saint-Saëns on Rossini
To Saint-Saëns Rossini was a dying god, only half-content to be worshipped for his past accomplishments and very much aware that his reign had ended. Yet even in his latter days Rossini remained focused on the future of music, and comitted to helping new composers grow. Saint-Saëns was one of them. He writes,
He [Rossini] said to me one day,
“You have written a duet for a flute and clarinet for Dorus and Leroy. Won’t you ask them to play it at one of my evenings?”
The two great artists did not have to be urged. Then an unheard of thing happened. As he never had a written programme on such occasions, Rossini managed so that they believed that the duet was his own. It is easy to imagine the success of the piece under these conditions. When the encore was over, Rossini took me to the dining-room and made me sit near him, holding me by the hand so that I could not get away. A procession of fawning admirers passed in front of him. Ah! Master! What a masterpiece! Marvellous!
And when the victim had exhausted the resources of the language in praise, Rossini replied, quietly:
“I agree with you. But the duet wasn’t mine; it was written by this gentleman.”
Such kindness combined with such ingenuity tells more about the great man than many volumes of commentaries. For Rossini was a great man. The young people of to-day are in no position to judge his works, which were written, as he said himself, for singers and a public who no longer exist."
4. Saint-Saëns On Royalty
Saint-Saëns didn't just fraternize with musical royalty, but with actual heads of state. Often they were of the fairer sex and many of Saint-Saëns anecdotes paint him as a sort of queen-whisperer. A cynic might wonder how many of these tales are embellished, but that doesn't make them any less entertaining. As Camille-Saëns said himself, "History is made up of what probably happened; mythology of what probably did not happen. There are myths in history and history in myth."On Queen Christine of Spain:
Queen Christine expressed a desire to hear me play the organ, and they chose for this an excellent instrument made by Cavaillé-Coll in a church whose name I have forgotten. [..] Some great ladies lectured the indiscreet queen for daring to resort to a sacred place for any purpose besides taking part in divine services. The queen [...] responded by coming to the church not only not incognito, but in great state. [...] I was a little flustered when she asked me to play the too familiar melody from Samson et Dalila which begins Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix. [..] During the performance the Queen leaned her elbow on the keyboard of the organ, her chin resting on one hand and her eyes upturned. She seemed rapt in exstasy which, as may be imagined, was not precisely displeasing to the author.
3. Saint-Saëns on Victor Hugo
Saint-Saëns idolized Victor Hugo, but that didn't stop him from recognizing when his hero had some odd ideas.
"He believed in the most incredible things, as the “Man in the Iron Mask,” the twin brother of Louis XIV; in the octopus that has no mouth and feeds itself through its arms; and in the reality of the Japanese sirens which the Japanese were said to make out of an ape and a fish. He had some excuse for the sirens as the Académie des Sciences believed in them for a short time. "
2. Saint-Saëns on A-Tonality
Despite bearing witness to more modern music, Saint-Saëns was no fan. He held Debussy in disdain and after hearing the Rite of Spring, questioned Stravinsky's sanity. Here's what he had to say about the post-Wagner musical breakdown.
He did not foresee the a-tonic system, but that is what we have come to. There is no longer any question of adding to the old rules new principles which are the natural expression of time and experience, but simply of casting aside all rules and every restraint.
“Everyone ought to make his own rules. Music is free and unlimited in its liberty of expression. There are no perfect chords, dissonant chords or false chords. All aggregations of notes are legitimate.”
That is called, and they believe it, the development of taste.
He whose taste is developed by this system is not like the man who by tasting a wine can tell you its age and its vineyard, but he is rather like the fellow who with perfect indifference gulps down good or bad wine, brandy or whiskey, and prefers that which burns his gullet the most.
1. Saint-Saëns on the Bassoon
It is not entirely fair to say that Saint-Saëns detested the Rite of Spring for its tonality alone. A large part of his loathing stemmed from Stravinsky's extreme use of the Bassoon. In fact Saint-Saëns had his own small vendetta against the instrument, as if writing too exciting a bassoon part was some vice, like eating too much chocolate or drinking before noon.
"I need not speak of his [Meyerbeer] immoderate love for the bassoon, an admirable instrument, but one which it is hardly prudent to abuse."
Exploring Music's Top Five Spookiest Selections
Darkness has descended on Exploring Music as we investigate composers’ fascination with ghosts, goblins, Mephistopheles and other phantasmagoria. Here are the top five spookiest pieces we played this week in order from least to most terrifying. Disagree, think we missed something, or want to suggest your own scary selection? Post in the comments below.
More mysterious than menacing, this piece for orchestra and mezzo-soprano by Manuel de Falla follows the journey of one woman as she tries to exorcise the spirit of her dead husband. Anyone familiar with Falla's Siete Canciones Populares may be reminded of his song, "Polo", both pieces have a mezzo-soprano singing "Ay!" over active accompaniment !
Join dancing skeletons, Death, spooks and more with Camille Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre. Evocative use of the tritone might have pushed this selection higher on our list, but the work ends with a happy ending -- the break of day.
Listeners might remember Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain from it's use in the Walt Disney classic, Fantasia, but even without animation this work still frightens. Although, much like Danse Macabre the work ends happily.
Next Berlioz's La Damnation de Faustioz plunges us into deep darkness. The Ride to the Abyss is particularly chilling with real screams and a triplet figure that mimics galloping horses dragging Faust into Hell.
For all of Berlioz's bluster, Schubert is the one who understands true terror. In no song is this clearer than Erlkönig. From the seductive major tonality of Death, to the child's frenzied cries, to the father's denial, to the narration of the inevitable conclusion, it's hard to think of a more chilling piece of music.
There's no composer that says "opera" like Verdi. Join us for the second part of our two week series as we hear Verdi's take on Shakespeare, Egyptian princesses, and perhaps the grandest requiem ever written. Post your thoughts on the show here and your comment might be read on air. Plus keep reading for a special note from Bill on how he researched the show.
A Note From Bill
A towering presence in Italian art and perhaps the greatest composer of 19th century opera, Giuseppe Verdi is one of the most venerated figures in classical music. This week we begin a ten-part series investigating his life and music. Airing this week on a radio station near you! Join us here, on our Exploring Music blog, for previews and supplemental content for the coming week, read the post, listen to the show, and then tell us what you think! If you're curious what's playing you can click to listen and find playlists, or you can sign up to have playlists and show summaries delivered to your inbox every Monday!
On Monday we briefly surveyed the operatic tradition that was Verdi's springboard, and began to brush away the cobwebs of myth and mystery of Verdi's early life. Oh, and as always we listen to his music. His beautiful, beautiful, music.
As Bill would say, "Man that boy wrote a lot of music!" On Tuesday we explore all the obscure nooks and crannies of Verdi's repertoire, including a trip to Medieval Spain, Shakespeare's Scotland, and even France!
Rumor has it that a hundred thousand voices rose in song at Verdi's funeral, but don't worry, we haven't finished our week on Verdi just yet, but on Wednesday we do investigate some of Verdi's most stirring opera choruses. Click here to see a cute animated version of the Gypsy Chorus from La Traviata!
Could it get any better than Verdi's Rigoletto and La Traviata? Bill sure doesn't think so. Listen to Thursday's program and enjoy some of the most popular classical music on earth.
Despite Verdi being known for his work in an art form intimately connected with language, his music transcends words. To end our first week on Verdi, we explore some of his greatest overtures.
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