The Sunken Cathedral

Claude Monet - Rouen Cathedral, Facade (Morning effect)Last week Google celebrated the 151st birthday of French impressionist composer Claude Debussy with one of its clever Google Doodle logo animations. If you’re like me and you happened to see it, you probably clicked on the link expecting to linger for a few seconds and ended up watching all the way through, fascinated with its cinematic beauty. Accompanying the animation’s magical nighttime Parisian river scene is an excerpt of one of Debussy’s most popular pieces for piano, Clair de lune, or “Moonlight.” Google’s tribute received widespread media attention from The Huffington Post to The Washington Post.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Clair de lune[/typography]

As a composer, Debussy broke long-established rules. Germanic music from Beethoven to Wagner had been intensely goal oriented, driving towards an ultimate and often heroic resolution. By contrast, the music of Asia, like the philosophies of Buddhism, were more circular. Influenced by the Javanese gamelan music he heard at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Debussy became drawn to the pentatonic scale (the black keys of the piano), the whole tone scale and Asian sounds. The results were shocking new harmonies and music which had a different relationship with time, often seeming to float in a dream-like haze. You could say that Debussy wrote the first New Age or Ambient music. His music is about color and atmosphere, embracing the soft sensuality of a Monet painting.

With this in mind, let’s start off by listening to Clair de Lune, performed by pianist Claudio Arrau:

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Did you notice how often the music passionately builds, only to avoid resolution and move somewhere completely unexpected at the last moment? Listen to the way the tension at 3:12 dissolves into contentment at 3:34. Then after heightening our expectation, Debussy again avoids the resolution we might be expecting at 4:10. Finally, at 4:33 we quietly slip back into the “A” section. This is music which says, “Enjoy the moment. Enjoy where you are, even if it’s not where you expected to end up. Goals don’t really matter. Just float along…”

Clair de Lune is part of Debussy’s four movement Suite Bergamasque, written between 1890 and 1905. Listen to the entire suite here.

[quote style=”boxed”]In 1890 Debussy’s professor at the Paris Conservatory commented on Debussy’s use of parallel chords in the following way: “I am not saying that what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd.” Debussy simply replied: “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.”[/quote] –Kamien Listening Outline

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]La cathédrale engloutie[/typography]

Debussy wrote La cathédrale engloutie, or “The Sunken Cathedral” in 1910 as part of a set of twelve Preludes for piano. Let’s listen to the piece once to get a sense of its harmony and tonal colors. What mood does the music create? What images are painted in your mind? As the music unfolds, can you perceive a large scale structure or musical shape? Here is a performance by François-Joël Thiollier:

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This piece was inspired by an ancient Breton legend about a cathedral submerged off the coast of the mythical island, Ys, near Brittany. On clear mornings the cathedral rises out of the ocean. Bells, chanting and the sound of a mighty organ can be heard. Then, it slowly sinks back into the water and disappears. Only distant bells are faintly audible as a memory. Was it real or only a dream?

Listen to the piece again. Can you hear the bells? Can you identify the moment in the music when the enormous cathedral begins to emerge? Notice the imitative canon between low and high voices as the music crescendos at 3:40. What elements in the music create tension and a sense of anticipation at this moment? Are you surprised by what happens at the climax of the crescendo? (4:02) Is there anything in the music which suggests the feeling of deep, dark, murky, cold ocean water? Consider the significance of the legend as a psychological metaphor.

Here is a quick analysis of La cathédrale engloutie. You can listen to more of Debussy’s Preludes here. I’ve shared a few of my ideas about what makes this music so interesting. Now, leave a comment in the thread below and tell us what you hear.

"Spheres" by Daniel Hope

SpheresMusica universalis, or the “music of the spheres” is the ancient philosophical concept that the movements of the sun, moon and planets generate celestial vibrations. Pythagoras accidentally discovered that a musical pitch sounds in direct proportion to the length of the string which produces it. He was interested in the concept of universal harmony rooted in mathematical ratios-a unifying cosmic “music.”

Violinist Daniel Hope’s new CD, Spheres finds inspiration in these big ideas. Spheres puts music of J.S Bach and Johann Paul von Westhoff side by side with works by modern composers including Philip Glass, Lera Aurbach, Michael Nyman and Arvo Pärt. The result is a collection of short pieces which seem to transcend style and time period:

[quote style=”boxed”]In this album my idea was to bring together music and time, including works by composers from different centuries who might perhaps not always be found in the same “galaxy” but yet are united by the age-old question: is there anything out there? -Daniel Hope[/quote]

The CD opens with Imitazione delle campane by Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656-1705), music which may have inspired Bach to write the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. This music could easily be mistaken for the modern minimalism of Arvo Pärt. Hope has some interesting things to say about this piece and the historical significance of Westhoff as a composer and violinist.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYF1IDSCEtk

Another excerpt from the CD is Musica Universalis by Alex Baranowski, a piece that was commissioned for the album by Daniel Hope:

Spheres also includes I Giorni (2001) by film composer Ludovico Einaudi:

Hope offers a track by track listener’s guide to the CD. For more information on Spheres watch this interview and this clip with composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev). If you’re interested in hearing etherial and expressive new violin music as well as rediscovering a forgotten gem like the Westhoff, you’ll enjoy this recording.

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Cheapening Broadway

Times Square 1-2

Ticket prices and the profits generated by Broadway shows continue to soar but how does the experience compare with what audiences were getting fifty years ago? This question came to mind after a recent conversation I had with a student, following her attendance of Troika Entertainment’s touring production of West Side Story.

Initially excited to see a live performance of one of her favorite shows, my student was quickly distracted and disheartened by the empty, thin sound of the production’s greatly reduced pit orchestra which consisted of one violin, one cello, two reeds, trumpet, trombone, bass, percussion, drums and two ADM/piano players. The production’s playbill credits Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal with the orchestrations, even though the majority of their lush, intricately layered string and wind parts ended up on the cutting room floor.

West Side Story begins and ends with the orchestra, from the Prologue which immediately gives us a sense of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks on the rough and tumble streets of New York, to the emotionally conflicted final notes. The score is symphonic, with motivic threads (like the use of the tritone) running throughout. In West Side Story we are constantly pulled between two opposing realities: the ugliest, darkest impulses of humanity and the transcendent nature of love. Most of the time it’s the music coming out of the pit which brings the drama of this duality to life. Would The Rumble be quite as terrifying without Bernstein’s orchestra music? Listen to a few excerpts from the original Broadway cast recording and notice how often the orchestra tells us exactly what the characters are feeling: Tonight, Somewhere, Something’s Coming.

In 2010 Paul Woodiel, a violinist and friend of Leonard Bernstein wrote an excellent Op-Ed in the New York Times called Gee Officer Krupke, I Need Those Violins, which lamented the unprecedented reduction of live musicians on Broadway and the resulting degradation of the product. Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Arts wrote another thought-provoking piece called Why We Use the Full Orchestra. This article sheds additional light on the replacement of live musicians with synthesizers in the theater pit.

Does Broadway deliver the same exciting musical experience it did in the past? Some might correctly argue that the influence of rock music necessitated a more electronic and less acoustic sound on Broadway. Orchestrations should fit the character of the show. A huge pit orchestra isn’t needed for every show. In the 1980’s when orchestras were beginning to shrink, Jonathan Tunick gave Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods a chamber orchestra sound not unlike the witty, dry, neoclassical music of Stravinsky.

But imagine what it was like to buy a ticket in the late 1950’s, walk into the theater and hear the lush, full string sound of the My Fair Lady Overture. The sound of a full orchestra is as relevant today as it was back then. We hear it at the movies, in video games and in the concert hall…just not on Broadway:

Or listen to the spectacular lead trumpet playing in Jule Styne’s Funny Girl Overture. The Virtual Pit Orchestra can’t do this. This overture explodes with an energy and jazzy virtuosity (don’t miss Don’t Rain on My Parade at 2:43) that can only come from real, live professional musicians…in this case, some of the world’s finest. Does today’s Broadway offer anything this exciting, before the curtain even goes up?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxIf7DZ_S64

Next time you open up your wallet to buy a ticket for a Broadway show ask yourself if you’re getting a full, honest product or a downsized, Disneyfied shadow of what used to be. Ironically, at a time when its profits are up, Broadway may be going artistically bankrupt.

La Folia

Suzuki violin students learn Arcangelo Corelli’s La Folia in Book 6. La Folia was a popular chord progression which many Renaissance and Baroque composers used as the foundation for variations and improvisation. It originated in the dance music of Portugal. Corelli’s ability to develop new music from this existing harmony might remind you of the way jazz musicians freely borrow today. It’s easy to see why composers found La Folia an endless source of musical inspiration. Listen to the drama of these eight chords as they move from minor to major (flat iii chord) and back.

Here is Henryk Szeryng performing La Folia by Corelli (1653-1713):

For another excellent performance, listen to this recording by Nathan Milstein.

Now, let’s compare what we just heard to this exhilarating and virtuosic version with authentic Baroque instruments. As you listen, consider the unique mood of each variation. Listen to the musical conversation between voices and the intricate way the parts fit together. Notice that the instruments are tuned slightly lower than what we’re used to in modern performances. Corelli expanded the technical possibilities of the violin and his music often revels in flashiness akin to a daredevil circus act. Audiences must have been awestruck by the first performances of this music:

If you’re interested in hearing how other composers approached La Folia, listen to these excerpts by Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Handel. Also enjoy Oscar Shumsky’s golden toned recording of Fritz Kreisler’s La Folia (part 1 and part 2). In contrast to the other versions, Kreisler’s harmonies are unabashedly Romantic. Sergei Rachmaninov wrote his own Variations on a Theme of Corelli for piano. Finally, check out this rock video by the Dueling Fiddlers.

La Folia is an example of an ostinato, or repeated bass line. To learn more about this type of music, visit my previous posts, The Art of the Ostinato and The Chaconne Across 300 YearsShare your thoughts in the thread below. Tell us what you heard in the music. Do you have a personal favorite among all the versions we heard?