“America” in Simple and Compound Time

Chita Rivera in West Side Story
Chita Rivera in West Side Story

Conductor, composer, pianist, educator, music philosopher…Leonard Bernstein’s whirlwind career was a complex mix of these versatile roles. Perhaps as a result, when it came to Bernstein’s Broadway music, outside influences were constantly creeping in, from West Side Story’s Copland-like Somewhere Ballet sequence and the dueling-keys of the Finale (a reference to the final bars of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustrato a hint of Puccini in the soaring and harmonically searching Lonely Town from On the Town. 

Bernstein couldn’t resist writing a 12-tone fugue for West Side Story’s Cool, a sly tip of the hat to the atonal concert music of composers such as Schoenberg and Berg, and the last thing you would expect on the popular Broadway stage. The Cool Fugue’s disguised tone row may be a great metaphor for what was arguably Bernstein’s greatest accomplishment: the ability to break down barriers for a whole generation, demystify “difficult” music, and show a wide audience that classical music is really just “cool.”

Bernstein most obviously broke the traditional Broadway mold in the area of rhythm and meter. The songs of West Side Story are far removed from the traditional “boom-chick” 32-bar Tin Pan Alley style. While reflecting on writing the lyrics for West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim has said, “one of the things I learned from him was not always necessarily to think in terms of 2-, 4- and 8-bar phrases.”

For an example, listen to the complex Latin cross-rhythms in the opening of America. There are four distinct rhythmic layers. By the time the bass pizzicato enters, our sense of downbeat and upbeat is delightfully unstable. But keep listening, and you’ll hear America’s real rhythmic innovation: alternating measures of 6/8 time, a compound meter based on a feeling of three (three eighth notes filling out two beats) and 3/4 time, a simple meter based on a feeling of two (two eighth notes for each of the three quarter notes). The two rhythmic “feels” fight each other, suggesting a musical melting pot akin to the ethnic melting pot at the heart of the song:

Alternating time signatures2.gif

Looking back on West Side Story’s earth shattering opening night on Broadway in September, 1957, Sondheim remembers that the audience sat through the first half of Act 1 with disturbing reverence, as if they had forgotten they were at a musical. It was Chita Rivera (Anita) and America which brought the audience to life, and provided the right emotional release at a crucial moment in the story.

In celebration of the lead up to Independence Day on Friday, let’s listen to the original Broadway cast recording of America. Keep an ear out for the irregular rhythm outlined in the bass line and pay attention to the way it fits with the other voices. Notice little details like the flute line, suggesting “tropical breezes” (0:27) and later an exotic bird song from the jungle (0:48). At times, you may be reminded of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México:

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Musical Beginnings

Unknown-30Think about the way your favorite piece begins. From the ferocious opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which form the DNA for the entire symphony that follows, to the quiet, mysterious tremolos of Bruckner’s symphonies, to the attention grabbing (and audience quieting) opening fanfares of Rossini’s opera overtures, the way a piece starts tells us a lot about what will follow. As you jump, grudgingly tip toe or stride boldly into 2014, listen to three pieces with uniquely interesting openings:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4[/typography]

It’s hard to imagine a more powerful or majestic opening than the beginning of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069. The first movement is a popular Baroque musical form known as a French overture in which slow, stately music is contrasted with a faster section. This is an opening which demands that you listen. It emphatically celebrates D major, building tension and expectation as it develops. The other movements are rooted in Baroque dances. As you listen enjoy the way the music flows. This would have been popular music in Bach’s time-joyful, sparkling and fun:

  1. Ouverture 0:00
  2. Bourree 8:45
  3. Gavotte 11:29
  4. Menuet I/II 13:31
  5. Réjouissance 17:15

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Symphony that Starts With a Question[/typography]

You may hear the influence of Beethoven’s teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn in Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21. At the same time, the young Beethoven’s individual voice is evident. This symphony begins with a question. Listen to the first chord. It seems to be saying, “Where am I?” Can you tell where the music is going next? The chord resolves, but we still feel lost. When and how does the music confidently move forward?

Beethoven starts the last movement with a similar musical joke up his sleeve. After a dramatic opening octave played by the entire orchestra, the music seems as if it isn’t sure what to do next. Beethoven gives us a tentative series of notes…then tries again, adding another…then another…a scale is forming…Then he says, “Oh yes, now I know!” What follows is one of the most enjoyable musical romps ever conceived:

  1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio 0:00
  2. Andante cantabile con moto 8:26
  3. Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace 14:50
  4. Finale: Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace 16:15

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Also sprach Zarathustra’s Unresolved Ending[/typography]

Our final “musical beginning” may be the most famous of all. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zarathustra) in 1896. The tone poem was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical treatise. The opening depicts a musical sunrise. We not only hear but feel the pitch C, first as a deep, quietly ominous rumble in organ, basses, and contrabassoon and then expanding to other pitches built on the harmonic series (natural overtones). C, the purest key, with no sharps or flats is fixed in our ears, representing nature throughout Zarathustra. B with its five sharps (as far away from C as you can get, in terms of key relationships) represents the aspirations of man. The rest of the piece is a battle between C and B. Listen carefully at the end. Can you tell which key triumphs?

Here is a great recording by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony:

Did you hear the conflict at the end between B major in the highest instruments and C in the lowest? Nature has the last word, but in the end there is no satisfying resolution. In fact with Zarathustra, Strauss wrote a piece which ends in two keys at the same time. It’s a shocking and almost frightening ending, especially at a time (the late nineteenth century) when tonal relationships were beginning to slip away. In the twentieth century, after being pushed to the breaking point by composers such as Wagner, Strauss and Mahler, tonality would dissolve into the twelve tone rows of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and others. In twelve tone music there would be no hierarchical relationship between pitches.

Leonard Bernstein made a reference to the end of Zarathustra in the final chords of West Side Story. In contrast to Zarathustra, in West Side Story light wins out over darkness in the form of a major triad.

Conductor Marin Alsop offers additional thoughts about Zarathustra’s powerful opening here. Program notes for the entire piece are here.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What’s Your Favorite Musical Beginning?[/typography]

Now it’s your turn. Do you have a favorite “musical beginning?” Tell us about it in the comment thread below.

[quote]Life without music would be a mistake. -Friedrich Nietzsche[/quote]

Waltzing into a New Year

The Vienna Philharmonic began its tradition of performing an annual New Year’s Concert in 1939. Ever since, New Year’s Day and Strauss waltzes have become intertwined in popular imagination. In celebration of a new year, here is Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube from last year’s concert, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. Austrian conductor Welser-Möst is currently the Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra. You may notice that in the Viennese style of playing waltzes the second beat comes slightly early and is stretched (One,TWO-three):

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Shaping a Film to Its Score[/typography]

If you’re a film fan, The Blue Danube probably brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a work he described as “a mythological documentary” and “a controlled dream.” The film delves into issues of technology and human evolution. In one scene a tribe of early hominids discovers that an animal bone can be used as a weapon as well as a tool. It’s a crucial moment of uniquely human ingenuity. An ape-man throws the bone into the air and it suddenly turns into a Pan-Am spaceplane, cruising to a space station which is orbiting earth millions of years later. Both the bone and the spaceplane represent technology. Have we really come so far?

Typically, composers write film scores after a movie has been made. 2001: A Space Odyssey may be a rare example of a film which was influenced by its music. Kubrick began working on the film with a “temporary track” of existing classical music. Meanwhile, the respected Hollywood composer Alex North began working on the score. It wasn’t until late in the process that North realized, to his disappointment and frustration, that Kubrick had abandoned the entire original score in favor of existing music, which included Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and music by twentieth century composer György Ligeti. You can get a sense of what the movie would have been like with North’s unused score here and here.

In Kubrick’s film the grace and elegance of Strauss’s waltz accompanies spinning satellites:

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Like other aspects of 2001, there are many contrasting interpretations regarding how the music is functioning in the film. Clearly, Kubrick was looking for something more than background music. In many scenes dialogue takes a back seat to music and image. For a complete analysis of the role of music in the film, read David W. Patterson’s Music, Structure and Metaphor in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

[quote]Music in Kubrick’s films is used inventively and narratively and flamboyantly, causing the viewer to listen so that he can see. -Vivian Sobchak[/quote]