Music and the Heartbeat

Brun-nurse-stethoscope-sm-200x300Repetition is based on body rhythms, so we identify with the heartbeat, or with walking, or with breathing.

-Karlheinz Stockhausen

In 2008, researchers at the University of Illinois medical school discovered that the 103 beat-per-minute pulse of the Bee Gees’ 1977 disco hit Stayin’ Alive provided the perfect tempo for resuscitating the heart through CPR. From the satisfying groove of a disco or techno beat to a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, musical rhythm has long been tied to our internal rhythm. Pulse is what makes music come alive.

In Renaissance and Baroque music, tempo often grew out of divisions of the heartbeat. Listen to Handel’s Water Music and see if you can feel this sense of heartbeat. Then, listen to a few more pieces which are directly tied to the heartbeat:

Beethoven’s Fourth

Hector Berlioz described the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 this way:

 As for the adagio, it defies analysis… So pure are the forms, so angelic the expression of the melody and so irresistibly tender, that the prodigious skill of the craftsmanship is completely hidden from view. From the very first bars one is gripped by emotion which by the end has reached an unbearable pitch of intensity. It is only among one of the giants of poetry that it is possible to find something to compare to this sublime movement from the giant of music. Nothing resembles more the impression made by this adagio than the feelings one experiences when reading the touching episode of Francesca di Rimini in the Divina Commedia, the narrative of which Virgil cannot hear without bursting into tears, and which at the last verse causes Dante to fall, just as a dead body collapses. This movement seems to have been breathed by the archangel Michael when, seized with a fit of melancholy, he contemplated the universe, standing on the threshold of the empyrean.

The persistent musical heartbeat which runs throughout the movement begins quietly in second violins. As the first violins enter with their singing melody (0:20), notice that this underlying heartbeat motive remains. We might be tempted to write it off as insignificant rhythmic filler, but it’s too relentlessly insistent. Then, suddenly, this motive explodes into the foreground, played by the entire orchestra (1:03) in a powerful unison.

As the movement progresses, listen to the way the heartbeat moves around the orchestra from the double bass and cello (3:38) to the solo bassoon (6:16) to the tympani (10:37):

Schumann’s Liederkreis

In the fourth song of Robert Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 24, published in 1840, the repetitive sound of the heartbeat is compared to the sound of nails being hammered into a coffin. Here is a translation of the dark text by Heinrich Heine.

Fauré’s First Violin Sonata

The second movement of Gabriel Fauré’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 1 opens with a heartbeat rhythm. A similar rhythm can be heard in the opening of his Nocturne No. 7 in C-sharp major, Op. 74.

Here is a live 2013 performance at New York’s Merkin Concert Hall by violinist Giora Schmidt and pianist Rohan De Silva. This is such a great performance that I couldn’t resist including the entire piece. The second movement begins at 9:56:

Mahler’s Irregular Heartbeat

Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”) depict failing heartbeats and the inevitable approach of death. Leonard Bernstein heard a similar failing heartbeat in the opening of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Mahler was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in 1907, four years before his death. The Ninth Symphony, written between 1908 and 1909, was the last symphony Mahler completed. At moments, it veers sharply towards the world of atonality. While the opening movement is centered in D major, the final movement ends a half step lower in D-flat. The heartbeat motive, heard at the opening of the first movement, returns later in the development section in an ominous fortissimo:

Zoltán Pongrácz’s Mariphonia

Let’s finish up in the late twentieth century world of electronic music. Hungarian composer Zoltán Pongrácz’s 1972 tape piece, Mariphonia manipulates recorded sound, including the human heartbeat (5:39). The progressive rock band Pink Floyd used a similar recorded heartbeat on the album, The Dark Side of the Moon, released in 1973.

The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe to match your nature with Nature.

-Joseph Campbell

Bach Cello Suites

Sometimes great creative ideas flow from constraints. J.S. Bach (1685-1750) wrote six unaccompanied cello suites and six solo sonatas and partitas for violin. This music delivers seemingly limitless musical expression with the simplest and most economic means. Bach’s ability to create complex and inventive counterpoint and harmony using a single solo instrument is amazing. The suites are a collection of Baroque dances which were popular in Bach’s time. Gavottes, bourrées, allemandes and courantes are now long forgotten dance forms, but the music remains timeless.

Here is Yo-Yo Ma playing all six cello suites:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Bourrées from Suite No. 3[/typography]

Dr. Suzuki included violin and viola transcriptions of these Bourrées in Book 3. You can read about the history of the bourrée here. Here is Rostropovich playing the original version for cello. Consider how the second bourrée (starting around 1:57) contrasts in character with the first:

James and the Giant Peach

Last week, one of my students pointed out that there is a violin playing grasshopper in James and the Giant Peach, the 1996 film based on the book by Roald Dahl. Here is a scene from the movie. If you’re familiar with this scene and you’ve always wondered what the grasshopper is playing, it’s the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3. Here is a great performance by violinist Ilya Kaler:

Remembering Janos Starker

Janos Starker

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cellist Janos Starker died yesterday in Bloomington, Indiana at the age of 88. You can read about his extraordinary career as a performer and teacher here and here. You may also be interested in this documentary.

Here is his recording of the opening movement of Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello, No. 1 in G Major:

This 1956 recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Walter Susskind is also remarkable:

Here are the Second and Third Movements of the Dvorak. Find other Starker recordings on iTunes.

Five Great CDs for Your Holiday Gift Bag

Whether you’re looking for the perfect gift or you want to expand your CD collection for the new year, here are five recordings which I highly recommend:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Offering Alexandra Adkins, violin

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Alexandra Adkins is a member of the Houston Symphony violin section.  Last December she released this CD which includes sonatas by Handel, Leclair, Corelli and two movements from Bach’s Partita in d minor.  For the Handel and Corelli she is accompanied by guitar, providing a unique twist.  Also included are three contemporary tracks featuring hymn tunes and a song written by Adkins. Listen to this interview to learn more about Offering.  This is a fun and diverse CD that celebrates the idea that great music transcends categories.

 

 

 

 

Brahms: The Violin Sonatas Oleh Krysa, violin and Tatiana Tchekina, piano

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This is my former teacher’s rare and inspiring recording of the three Brahms Violin Sonatas.  While there are many recordings of this music, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect interpretation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mahler Symphony No. 1 Eugene Ormandy, conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra

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If you’re not familiar with the dramatic and deeply psychological music of the late Romantic composer Gustav Mahler, this recording will be a great introduction.  If you’re already a Mahler fan you will enjoy hearing the original second movement Blumine (flower piece) which Mahler later cut from the Symphony.

This recording was first released in 1969.  You will notice the legendary, lush and perfectly blended string sound that the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for at that time.  One of the most striking examples of this occurs in the dreamy middle section of the Fourth Movement where the strings emerge with a velvety, veiled sound.

Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer are included on the disk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Boheme The Metropolitan Opera with Teresa Stratas, Renata Scotto, Jose Carreras, Richard Stilwell, Allan Monk, James Morris, James Levine, conductor, Franco Zeffirelli, producer

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If you’re new to opera this DVD is a great place to start.  Puccini’s La Boheme has a great story and features one beautiful melody after another.  English subtitles are provided.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”, Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto Elmar Oliveira, violin Leonard Slatkin, conductor with the Saint Louis Symphony

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This 1990 Grammy nominated CD features music by two twentieth century American composers.  There have been many recordings of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto since this came out, but Elmar Oliveira’s interpretation still endures.  Some violinists overly schmalz this already Romantic music.  Oliveira goes for something deeper and more profound and captures the true essence of the piece.

Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 might remind you of a lush movie score and the wide open plains.  There is another good recording of this piece by Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony.  I prefer the slightly slower and more thoughtful tempos that Slatkin takes in this recording, especially in the Second Movement.

"Air: The Bach Album" by Anne Akiko Meyers

On Valentine’s Day this past February, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers released her newest CD, “Air” The Bach Album, featuring Bach’s A minor and E major Concertos, as well as the “Double” Concerto, accompanied by Steven Mercurio and the English Chamber Orchestra.  This recording, which I highly recommend, debuted at #1 on the Billboard Charts and has been a best seller on iTunes and Amazon.  It follows on the heels of other excellent Bach violin concerto discs by Hilary HahnJulia Fischer and Elmar Oliveira that have come out over the last ten years.

This CD will be especially enjoyable for Suzuki violin students of all levels and their parents.  Dr. Suzuki returns to the music of Bach throughout his repertoire, starting with the three Minuets in Book 1.  Suzuki includes the first movement of the Concerto for Two Violins, Strings and Continuo in D minor (BWV 1043), known as the “Bach Double” in Book 4. The rhythm of the first “Twinkle” Variation is actually identical to the opening rhythm of the “Double” Concerto.  Later, the entire Concerto No. 1 in A minor (BWV 1041) is found in Suzuki Book 7. Even the youngest child who is not close to studying these pieces will benefit from hearing this recording regularly.

Meyers recorded both parts of the “Double” Concerto in two different locations using two different Stradivarius violins.  While this isn’t the first time a violinist has recorded both parts, as you can hear in this clip of Jascha Heifetz, it may be the first time different violins have been used by the same player.  Meyers talks about the two violins, Bach’s music, and the process of making the recording in an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, in this interview from Violinist.com and here:

Three smaller works round out the CD.  They are transcriptions of the “Air” from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major (BWV 1068), the “Largo” from Concerto for Harpsichord in F minor (BWV 1056) and the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria which is based on Prelude No. 1 from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier.  Here is a clip of Meyers playing the “Air” in a recital performance:

Anne Akiko Meyers dedicates the CD to her 96 year old grandmother and to the legendary luthier, Rene Morel who died late last year.  I was lucky enough to have Morel adjust my own violin, and I couldn’t help but think of his special gifts as I listened to the richness of the two Strads featured on the CD.

Next month I’ll post some older performances of this music, as well as some background.  For now, enjoy the wildly exhilarating last movement of the A minor concerto from Meyers’s CD:

The Chaconne Across 300 Years

My last post featured music constructed around a repeating bass line, or ostinato. We listened to Johann Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D as well as passacaglias by Handel and Bach.  Now, let’s return to the ostinato  with another type of musical composition that was popular in the Baroque period, the chaconne.

Like the passacaglia, the repeating bass line of the chaconne gave Baroque composers a great opportunity to write endlessly inventive variations.  Most chaconnes are built on a four note scale that descends from the tonic (the home pitch of any key) to the dominant (the fifth scale degree).  This simple four note pattern creates its own satisfying drama.  Listen to the chaconne bass line.  Can you feel the pull of the lowest note (the dominant) back to the first note (the tonic)? With each repetition of this bass line, the music moves away from “home” and then returns.

Chaconne in G Minor…Tomaso Antonio Vitali (1663-1745)

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This piece was ascribed to Vitali by the nineteenth century violinist Ferdinand David, but it is unclear who actually wrote it.  Here is a performance by the great David Oistrakh:

Chaconne from “Roland”…Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

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Suzuki violin students know Jean Baptiste Lully because of his Gavotte in Book 2. Lully was one of the most important French Baroque composers and was especially influential in developing French opera.  This chaconne comes from the Third Act of his opera, Roland.  If you like this music, you might also enjoy another chaconne Lully wrote for the opera, Phaeton.

Partita in D Minor for Solo Violin BWV 1004…Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Ciaccona

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Bach wrote six unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin.  A partita is a suite, or collection of pieces.  This monumental chaconne comes at the end of the Partita in D Minor.   In a Washington Post interview, violinist Joshua Bell called this chaconne “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.”

In a letter to Clara Schumann, the composer Johannes Brahms wrote: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

There are many great recordings of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Recordings I recommend include performances by Henryk Szeryng, Hilary Hahn, Julia Fischer, Ilya Kaler, Gidon Kremer, Arthur Grumiaux and Mela Tenenbaum. Tenenbaum’s recording features a separate CD with her thoughts on the music and is worth exploring for any musician who is studying solo Bach.

Here is a performance by the legendary Russian violinist, Nathan Milstein.

Violin Concerto…John Adams (b. 1947)

II. Chaconne: Body through which the dream flows

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In 1993 American composer John Adams wrote a chaconne for the second movement of his Violin Concerto.  It’s easy to hear echoes of the past in this haunting and atmospheric music.  In what ways is this chaconne similar to its Baroque predecessors?  In what ways is it different?  What feelings does the music evoke?

Pearls (from the album, Love Deluxe)…Sade (Released in 1992)

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Interestingly, this song from the British band, Sade is built on the same descending chaconne bass line that Vitali, Lully and other Baroque composers used.

The Art of the Ostinato

An ostinato is a musical motif or phrase that is persistently repeated.  Here are three pieces from the Baroque period that are constructed around a repeating bass line known as a basso ostinato, or ground bass.  In each case, the bass line provides the framework for a set of increasingly complex and thrilling variations.  It’s as if the composer is saying, “Listen to how clever and inventive I can be!”

Canon in D…Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)

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The performance below by the San Francisco Early Music Ensemble uses period instruments and attempts to authentically capture Baroque style.  Notice that the bows differ slightly from our modern bows and hardly any vibrato is used.

The cello provides the ground bass.  Listen to the contour of this bass line as it moves stepwise downward and then gets pulled back again.  A Baroque organ and theorbo (a plucked string instrument similar to a lute) fill in the harmony, providing what is known as a continuo.  The solo violins perform a three part canon.  A canon is “a contrapuntal composition that employs a melody with one or more imitations of the melody played after a given duration.”  In Pachelbel’s canon the voices are two measures apart.  Pay attention to the way the three identical solo parts fit together.

Passacaglia…George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)  Arranged for violin and viola by Johan Halvorsen

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Similar to a chacconne, a passacaglia is a Baroque dance form that features a series of variations over an ostinato bass.   Handel wrote this music for a harpsichord suite that was published in 1720.  The Norwegian violinist and composer Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) made this spectacular arrangement, re-scoring Handel’s variations for violin and viola.  Here, violinist Itzhak Perlman and violist Pinchas Zukerman perform this dazzling virtuoso showpiece as an encore.

Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582…Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

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You will hear amazing new details each time you listen to this piece.  Bach was a master of counterpoint, which is “the technique of combining two or more melodic ideas in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality.”  Listen to the way Bach weaves new musical lines over the repeating passacaglia theme.  Also, listen to the exciting ways Bach chooses to harmonize these lines.  Like Pachelbel, Bach was an organist and, starting out with a pre-existing melody (often a choral tune, but in this case a passacaglia), he improvised this complex music for church services.  Only later were these improvisations written down.

The second part of the piece is a Fugue (starting at 8:06) which is “a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (known as the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others.”  Bach uses the first eight notes of the passacaglia theme as his subject.  See if you can pick out the subject each time in enters.  Sometimes it will be higher in register, other times lower, and it will usually be surrounded by other musical lines.  The music becomes increasingly complex, modulating to different keys before triumphantly returning to the home key of C (this time Major replacing minor).

Enjoy the music and if you feel inspired, leave a comment below.  Your insights greatly enrich the conversation!