As Winter Turns to Spring…

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, winter is slowly beginning to loosen its grip.  As we look forward to warmer temperatures and longer days, let’s enjoy music from Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

Written in 1723, The Four Seasons is a collection of violin concertos, each depicting a different season of the year.  A concerto is a composition, usually in three movements (Fast, Slow, Fast) written for a solo instrument (or instruments) and orchestra.

Vivaldi was one of the greatest violinists of his time.  He was influential in both the development of the violin and the establishment of the concerto as a musical genre. Vivaldi, Corelli, Veracini, Tartini and others in Italy around the beginning of the eighteenth century wrote music that extended the range and technical possibilities of the violin and incorporated “cantabile melodies, brilliant figuration, expression and dramatic effects [which] strongly influenced the course of music in other countries.”*

As you listen to these performances, consider how Vivaldi musically captures the atmosphere of winter and spring.  To help performers interpret the music, Vivaldi wrote sonnets in the score before each concerto.  Listen to the icy sounds in Winter and notice how the bows are used to create these sounds.  In Spring you’ll hear the violins depicting bird songs.  Pay attention to the back and forth dialogue between the orchestra and the solo violin.  This is part of what gives a concerto so much drama.

I have included two great performances.  The first features violinist Julia Fischer and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.  She gives a beautiful, twenty-first century performance of the piece.

You might have fun comparing Fischer’s interpretation with the second set of clips, featuring a really exciting performance by Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra.  Although no one knows exactly how this music was played in Vivaldi’s time, this performance attempts to be more historically accurate.  You will notice that the bows are shaped differently than the modern bow and the sound produced is quite different.  You will also hear ornamental notes added, especially in the slow movement of Winter.  In Vivaldi’s time this kind of freedom and sense of improvisation was common.

After listening to these clips, I think you’ll be amazed that the same music can sound so different depending on the concept of the performer.  This is an aspect of music that we should celebrate.

In my next post, in the middle of the month, we’ll listen to an amazing piece written in the twentieth century that was inspired by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Antonio Vivaldi

The Four Seasons…Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op. 8, RV 297, “L’inverno” (Winter)

Allegro non molto
Largo
Allegro 

Concerto No. 1 in E major, Op. 8, RV 269, “La primavera” (Spring)

Allegro
Largo
Allegro Pastorale 

Julia Fischer and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields:

(*Violin Technique and Performance Practice in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries, Robin Stowell, pg.1)

Wagner’s Musical Kaleidoscope

Unknown-6Javelin…Michael Torke (b. 1961)

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In my last post we explored a fun, eight minute piece called Javelin by contemporary American composer, Michael Torke.  I asked you to pay attention to the rich orchestral colors in the music.

Now go back and listen a few more times to pick up some new details.  Do you hear bright, shimmering colors?  Do you feel swept along by the music’s motion?  Maybe the leaps and falls of the woodwind and string lines suggest flowing, rippling water or crashing waves?  In the comment thread, one listener heard “a fast moving movie,” constant surprises, and allusions to the music of John Williams (who also wrote music for the Olympics).

In this piece (and other music of Torke) fleeting, momentary cartoon-like references to John Williams, Beethoven, Ravel and other music pop up and then disappear back into a great musical melting pot.  These moments function as musical signifiers.

In his program notes, here is what Michael Torke wrote about the piece:

“I had three goals in mind when I began this piece for the Atlanta Symphony’s anniversary: I wanted to use the orchestra as a virtuosic instrument, I wanted to use triads (three-note tonal chords), and I wanted the music to be thematic. I knew I would welcome swifter changes of mood than what is found in my earlier music. What came out (somewhat unexpectantly) was a sense of valor among short flashes and sweeps that remined me of something in flight: a light spear thrown, perhaps, but not in the sense of a weapon, more in the spirit of a competition. When the word javelin suddenly suggested itself, I couldn’t help but recall the 1970s model of sports car my Dad owned, identified by that name, but I concluded, why not? Even that association isn’t so far off from the general feeling of the piece. Its fast tempo calls for 591 measures to evoke the generally uplifting, sometimes courageous, yet playful spirit.”

Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin…Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

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This music opens Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin.  One of the most influential composers of the Romantic period, Wagner was innovative in the way he used (and enlarged) the orchestra.

The Prelude grows out of (and at the end returns to) a single A Major chord.  Listen to the way the chord changes in color as sections of the orchestra (strings, woodwinds, and brass) merge in and out, like a musical kaleidoscope.  In these moments, it is the pure sound you want to enjoy.

As the music unfolds, what kind of motion do you sense?  How is it similar or different to Torke’s Javelin? Pay attention to the instruments in the opening of the piece.  Do you hear mostly high or low pitches?  As the music progresses, do you notice any gradual change?  Is there a large-scale shape unfolding in the music?  If there is, how is Wagner achieving this?

Hearing Colors in the Music of Michael Torke

Colouring pencils

 

Javelin…Michael Torke (b. 1961)

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When you listen to music do you hear colors?  The idea of musical color may seem like a strange mixing of the senses, but color is an important element of music, along with motion, energy, flow and fabric.*

For violinists, color is synonymous with timbre.  We often choose between playing the same pitch in a lower position on a higher string (creating a bright tone) and playing in a higher position on a lower string (creating a darker, thicker and sometimes more veiled and velvety sound).  It all depends on what color the music calls for.

This month I’m excited to introduce you to a piece called Javelin by contemporary American composer Michael Torke.  In my own listening, I find myself drawn to Torke’s music.  It unfolds in a deeply satisfying way and captures the rich, sonic color pallet possibilities of a full symphony orchestra.

Most of us perceive musical color as a metaphor, but Michael Torke experiences it literally and involuntarily.  He has a neurological condition known as synesthesia. Dr. Oliver Sachs, author of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, defines synesthesia as “an immediate, physiological coupling of two sorts of sensation.” Michael Torke experiences each musical key as a different color.  Here are some interesting interviews where Sachs and Torke discuss synesthesia.

Javelin was commissioned in 1994 to celebrate the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as well as the 50th anniversary of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Listen to Javelin and enjoy any musical colors you may hear.  Is the music bright or dark? What feelings does it give you?  Does any particular moment in the music conjure up feelings that are real but hard to put into words?  What kind of energy does the music have? Notice the way it flows, evolves and unfolds. Does any visual image beyond color come to mind?

Take a moment and leave a comment with your perceptions.  Feel free to site specific moments in the music with the track time.  If you have the involuntary sensual associations of synesthesia, please describe your experience. Also, continue to listen to the other music we have explored so far.  The more times you listen, the more you will hear.  In the middle of the month we’ll get together again with additional thoughts about Javelin and I’ll share another piece that highlights musical color.

(*The Musical Elements: Who Said They’re Right?, Robert A. Cutietta, Music Educators Journal, May, 1993, pg. 48)

Great Violinists on Video

Here are some inspiring violin videos from Youtube.  As a violinist, I always enjoy soaking up the musicianship of a variety of players, as well as analyzing the way each player uniquely approaches the instrument.

We’ll start with Humoresque in G-Flat Major by the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904).  This is a piece that Suzuki students know from Book 3.  Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma are accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa.  This performance can be found on a recording that features a sampling of Dvorak’s music.

The Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano by French composer Cesar Franck (1822-1890) has become a staple of the violin repertoire.  Here is the final Movement, performed by Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk.  It was included on their newly released recordingFrench Impressions.  Bell and Denk discuss the CD here. I also recommend Oleh Krysa’s recording of this piece.

No one had a greater impact on the development of the violin than Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840).  Paganini toured Europe, achieving rock star status at a time when the public concert hall increasingly made concerts available to the masses and not just aristocracy.

Violinist Julia Fischer has some interesting things to say about Paganini and the 24 Caprices (short pieces that employ dazzling technical effects).

Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye (1858-1931) contributed six solo violin sonatas to the repertoire, each dedicated to one of his fellow violinists.

Here, the legendary David Oistrakh performs the third sonata, dedicated to George Enescu.

Join The Listeners’ Club, Part 2

Last month I invited you to Join The Listeners’ Club and explore some of my favorite music.  Now, in Part 2, we’ll examine these pieces more closely.  Here are some of my thoughts about what makes this music so great.  Enjoy the discussion and then go back and listen again.  Use the comment thread below to tell me what you hear. What inspires you?  What are your favorite parts and why?

 

Music for the Royal Fireworks (HWV 351)…George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Overture
La Rejouissance
Minuet

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What words come to mind as you listen to this music?  Noble, majestic, joyous, triumphant…maybe even euphoric?

In 1749 George II of England commissioned Handel to write this piece to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession.  A public rehearsal held a week before the performance attracted 12,000 people but the performance became a minor disaster when a pavilion in London’s Green Park caught fire.*  You can learn more about the background of the piece here.  Even more extraordinary than its history is the way this music continues to speak to us almost 300 years later, long after the political currents of its day have been forgotten.

Handel’s use of trumpets and drums evokes images of the battlefield.  Did you hear the heroic trumpet fanfares in the Overture, starting at 2:29?  Listen to the back and forth dialogue between groups of instruments.  First, the trumpets and drums make a statement and then the horns and reed instruments (oboes, bassoons and contrabassoons) answer.

Can you feel the excitement build as the music unfolds?  At 3:31 listen to the way the trumpets soar to their highest and most heroic statements and pay attention to the fast, vigorous running notes in the reeds (starting at 3:47).  Keep in mind that trumpets in Handel’s time had no valves.  Only certain pitches could be played.  In order to change pitch the player had to make small lip adjustments.

Listen to this exhilarating music again.  What new details do you hear?

 

Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra (K. 364)…Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Andante

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Much of Mozart’s music is deeply tied to his operas which include The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.  Did you hear a conversation between the solo violin and viola that reminded you of a duet between two characters in an opera?  There are no words to be sung here, but you probably still had some idea of what was being said.  Maybe you would describe the music as beautiful, passionate, eerie, mysterious and even hinting at the supernatural?

Still, if you honestly evaluate your experience you’ll probably realize that the feelings the music evokes cannot easily be put into words.  These feelings are often complicated, ambiguous and go beyond literal description.  This is key to understanding the unique power of music.

In addition to the excellent Perlman-Zuckerman recording I recommended last month, I’ll add a 2005 recording featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, violist Yuri Bashmet and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

 

William Tell Overture (Finale)…Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

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Why do you think William Tell is so much fun to listen to?  One dramatic trick up Rossini’s sleeve is the long, gradual crescendo.  He is able to create a breathless sense of anticipation by starting out softly and gradually letting the music build.  We know what’s coming, but the journey is still always exciting.

Here is a live performance by Sir Mark Elder and Britain’s Halle Orchestra:

Overture to Candide…Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

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Kathryn commented on Laurel and Hardy style humor in this overture, written in 1956 for the Broadway operetta, Candide.   Indeed, this exciting four minute romp is packed with comedy and witty musical jokes.  Bernstein even adds a Rossini style crescendo in the coda (3:20).

Timing and surprise are essential elements of comedy.  Notice how the rhythm in this piece is constantly keeping you off balance, setting up your expectations and at the last minute giving you something completely unexpected, the musical equivalent of a sight gag.  Listen closely to the complex two against three rhythm starting at 3:39.

While Candide was initially a flop on Broadway, this overture has become one of the most beloved pieces of American twentieth century music.

 

Flying Theme from “E.T”…John Williams (b. 1932)

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Do you remember the iconic moment in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie, E.T., when the bicycle begins to soar into the air?  Can you imagine this scene without John Williams’s score?  More than anything else, it’s the music that gives us the feeling of flying.

Unlike the other composers on our list, Williams is almost exclusively concerned with creating music that serves and enhances what is happening on the screen.  But even if we took this music out of the movie most of us would still agree that it feels expansive.

To understand why the music gives us this feeling, listen again from the beginning, and pay attention to the melody in the strings which begins 13 seconds in.  Do you notice how each phrase of the melody includes a wider jump between notes?  The melody climbs, each time ending in a slightly higher place.  Bird chirps from the woodwinds, and splashes of color from the harp and bells add a magical shimmer and sparkle to the sound.  Just when we think we can’t climb any higher, the music modulates up a key to C Major (1:58) and then climaxes at 2:17 when the horns soar above the entire orchestra.

(*Handel and Occasional Music by Roger Hamilton, pg. 4)

 

Join The Listeners' Club

Welcome to The Listeners’ Club!  This month I’m excited to launch the first installment of what will become a regular feature of this blog.  My goal is to help you develop a fun, meaningful, life long relationship with some great music that you might not otherwise get to know.  We’ll explore music that people of all ages will enjoy.  Along the way I’ll share some of my thoughts on what makes this music so inspiring.  I’ll also ask you to tell me what you heard in the form of a comment in the thread below.

Listen to these short selections a few times.  If you’re like me, a certain piece will grab you and you’ll want to keep hearing it.  If you are interested, I encourage you to find more information about the composers.  Also, for an even more powerful and authentic experience, never pass up an opportunity to hear a live performance.

Next month, after we’ve all had a chance to listen, I’ll follow up with a slightly more detailed discussion.  At that point we’ll listen again one final time with a broadened perspective.  For now we will allow the music to stand on its own.

So join the club, invite your friends to join, listen, and don’t forget to leave a comment!

"Music for the Royal Fireworks"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music for the Royal Fireworks (HWV 351)…George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Overture
La Rejouissance
Minuet

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We’ll start off with a bang.  This music was written for a celebration.  The recording I recommend features period instruments to give us an idea of what this would have sounded like in Handel’s time.  The instruments have evolved over time, so you may hear some unusual sounds.  Let’s start with the first, fourth and fifth movements. What words would you use to describe this music?  What gives the music its character?  Pay attention to how combinations of instruments are grouped together to achieve certain sounds.  Why do you think Handel did this?

 

Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra (K. 364)…Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Andante

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Listen to the second of the three movements.  Can you hear a musical conversation between the solo violin and solo viola?  What do you think they are saying?

 

William Tell Overture (Finale)…Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

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Rossini was an Italian opera composer.  His operas would have been considered popular entertainment in their time.  You may know this as the theme to the old TV show, The Lone Ranger.  What words come to mind as you listen to this music?

 

Overture to Candide…Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

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Can you hear any “characters” in this music?  Are they serious or comic characters? Are there any jokes in the music?  Did Bernstein make any references to Rossini’s William Tell Overture?

 

Flying Theme from “E.T”…John Williams (b. 1932)

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What mood does this music evoke?  If you’ve seen the movie, how does the music correspond with what is happening on the screen?  Imagine the same scene without any music…just picture and dialogue.  How would the overall effect be different?