From Bawdy to Sacred: A Lassus Kyrie

Orlande de
Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594)

“Why should the devil have all the good music?” It’s a quote that has been incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther, among others. But Franco-Flemish composer Orlande de Lassus, Palestrina, and other composers in the late Renaissance actually put this idea into practice in the form of the Parody Mass. The Parody Mass borrowed from pre-existing music, often motets and secular chanson. Composers at the time commonly stole and adapted melodies the way jazz musicians do today.

In Missa Entre vous filles (1581), Lassus based his Kyrie on a raunchy, lustful, and sexually explicit French chanson by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (c. 1510-1556?) called Entre vous filles de quinze ans (listen to the song here). Listening to Lassus’ liturgical adaptation, you would never guess the melody’s origin. Dusted off and dressed in church clothes, it becomes completely new music. Lassus was able to develop this existing seed into a profound musical statement.

Notice the imitative counterpoint between voices, present from the beginning, and the rich, sensuous harmony. This gradually unfolding music is more about the moment than a far off goal. It’s interesting to consider the similarities between Lassus’ music, written over 400 years ago, and the music of contemporary composers like Ēriks Ešenvalds and Arvo Pärt.

  • Find this recording of Orlande de Lassus’ Missa Entre vous filles on iTunes, Amazon
  • Find music by Jacobus Clemens non Papa on iTunes, Amazon

Lonely Broadway, Circa 1946

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Here’s an interesting historical coincidence from the golden age of American musical theater: At one fleeting moment in the late 1940s, there were three shows running on (or near) Broadway containing songs with strikingly similar titles. The shows had little in common in terms of style or substance. But the three songs, Lonely RoomLonely Town, and Lonely House share an obvious, if superficial bond.

Lonely Room

Lonely Room is a dark soliloquy, occurring near the end of the first act of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the transformative, plot-driven musical which opened on Broadway in 1943 and ran for a record-breaking 2,212 performances. The song offers a brief glimpse into the troubled, isolated world of Jud Fry. Fry, who lives in a smokehouse, is the show’s main villain and outcast. He is an anti-hero, the polar opposite of cowboy Curly McLain. Curly and Jud are embroiled in a romantic rivalry for the affections of Laurey Williams, a farm girl.

Lonely Room gives us empathy for Jud as a character, even though we don’t want to see him triumph over Curly. We are forced to enter the painful desolation of his inner turmoil and to acknowledge his humanity. He becomes a developed character rather than a stick figure “villain.” Our encounter is simultaneously disturbing and life-affirming.

Lonely Room opens with a grating dissonance. Its melody steps up chromatically, mirroring the rising heat of Jud’s emotions. It veers unpredictably into major before being pulled back into a stormy minor. Lonely Room unfolds as a stream of consciousness with its own dramatic arc. In The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies (pg. 42), Dominic Symonds points out the song’s unconventional “A, B, B, C, A, A-extended” structure, noting that at the song’s conclusion, the “A” section is developed and extended “to reveal Jud’s dramatic journey through the song.” Rodgers and Hammerstein would develop this form further in Carousel (1945) with Soliloquy

Lonely Town

The jazzy, escapist musical comedy On the Town opened on Broadway in 1944. The music was written by a young Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The show’s plot follows three American sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City during the Second World War. Lonely Town is Gabey’s lament at not being able to find romance in the big city.

Harmonically, Lonely Town is restless, constantly unfolding, and never quite going where we expect. Bernstein seems to give a sly nod to Puccini in the final bars of the song. Lonely Town melts into the solitary blues of the Pas de deux dance sequence.

Lonely House

Kurt Weill’s 1946 opera, Street Scene, with a libretto by Langston Hughes, premiered in Philadelphia and moved to Broadway in 1947. It is set on the doorstep of a tenement on the East Side of Manhattan over two scorching summer days. (The curtain opens on a song called Ain’t it Aweful, the Heat?). Street Scene was based on Elmer Rice’s 1929 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play of the same name. Weill offered this description of the story:

It was a simple story of everyday life in a big city, a story of love and passion and greed and death. I saw great musical possibilities in its theatrical device – life in a tenement house between one evening and the next afternoon. And it seemed like a great challenge to me to find the inherent poetry in these people and to blend my music with the stark realism of the play.

Lonely House is sung by Sam Kaplan, a teenager who is in love with Rose Maurrant. The song expresses the sensation of loneliness in a large crowd. Here is a performance by Lotte Lenya, an Austrian singer and actress who was Kurt Weill’s wife:

Washington’s Birthday

Charles Ives
Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Washington’s Birthday, the first movement of Charles Ives’ Holiday Symphony, emerges out of the desolate, snowy gloom of a midwinter night in rural New England. The music feels strangely amorphous, as if we’ve suddenly slipped into a dream.

As we enter this sonic dreamscape, it’s easy to get the sense that we’re joining music already in progress. Who knows where or when it began? Drifting from one hazy moment to the next, we gradually become aware of a growing hubbub of voices. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the middle of a spirited barn dance. Fragments of old American folk melodies float in and out of our consciousness and begin to blend into a growing, joyful cacophony. With one shocking, climactic chord, our strange dream shows signs of turning into a nightmare. But then, just as suddenly, the night begins to wind down. Amid the final echoes of a fragment of Goodnight, Ladies, our ephemeral vision evaporates…

Here are the opening lines of Charles Ives’ description of Washington’s Birthday:

Cold and Solitude,” says Thoreau, “are friends of mine. Now is the time before the wind rises to go forth to seek the snow on the trees.”

And there is at times a bleakness without stir but penetrating, in a New England midwinter, which settles down grimly when the day closes over the broken-hills. In such a scene it is as though nature would but could not easily trace a certain beauty in the sombre landscape!–in the quiet but restless monotony! Would nature reflect the sternness of the Puritan’s fibre or the self-sacrificing part of his ideals?

Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic:

Visit Listeners’ Club posts featuring other movements from Ives’ Holiday Symphony, Thanksgiving Dayand Decoration Day.

Written in 1909

Composed in 1909 and revised and published four years later, Washington’s Birthday is an adventurous journey into atonality. Similar music was pushing the boundaries in Europe. 1909 was the year Anton Webern wrote the groundbreaking Five Movements, Op. 5.  The same year, Claude Debussy began writing his twenty four Préludes for solo piano. Listen to the hazy impressionism of the second Prélude from Book 1, Voiles. This music is constructed on the same whole tone scale Ives uses in the opening of Washington’s Birthday.  

In 1909 Mahler finished Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). Ravel began work on the ballet Daphnis et Chloé and Stravinsky was a year away from completing The Firebird.

La Folia’s Endless Possibilities

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Good composers borrow. Great ones steal.

-Igor Stravinsky

La Folia, the ancient theme/chord progression which originated in Portuguese dance music as early as 1577, was borrowed (and stolen) by composers throughout the Baroque era. VivaldiScarlattiHandel, and Jean-Baptiste Lully were among the composers who took advantage of the theme’s endlessly rich musical possibilities. Later composers also paid homage to La Folia. It surfaces briefly at this moment in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Franz Liszt included it in his La Rhapsodie espagnole. Even contemporary Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (of “diamond commercial” fame) has written his own La Folia variations for marimba and strings.

One of the most famous Baroque versions of La Folia was Arcangelo Corelli’s. In a 2013 Listeners’ Club post we explored a few contrasting performances of this music. Shinichi Suzuki’s La Folia in the opening of Suzuki Violin Book 6 is based loosely on Corelli’s piece.

Recently, I ran across another great La Folia performed by Spanish viola da gamba player Jordi Savall. No one is sure who wrote this piece. It is part of a collection of now anonymous music called Flores de Música (“Musical Flowers”), compiled by Spanish organist and composer Antonio Martín y Coll (died c. 1734). The viola da gamba is a stringed instrument which first appeared in Spain in the mid to late fifteenth century. You’ll notice a distinctly Spanish flavor in the instrumentation (castanets and the wood of the bow hitting the strings) and rhythm (1:04, for example). Listen closely to the way the guitar’s dance-like rhythm livens things up at 5:17.

At their best, theme and variations are about fun-loving virtuosity and a wide range of expression and drama. These aspects are on full display here:

Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli

Now, let’s hear Sergei Rachmaninov’s 1931 Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. Throughout twenty ferocious variations and a coda, the La Folia theme enters bold and adventurous new territory. Following the opening statement of the theme, the music begins quickly to move far afield harmonically. There’s a spirit of the “trickster” here as we’re thrown sudden curveballs (1:08). At the same time, it’s easy to sense something ominous and slightly gloomy under the surface. At moments we get the faintest glimpse of the outlines of the Dies Irae (the Latin “Day of Wrath” chant) which shows up in so much of Rachmaninov’s music. Listen for the ghoulish low notes around the 4:44 mark. As the final, solemn chord dies away, ghosts evaporate.

This work is dedicated to the violinist Fritz Kreisler, with whom Rachmaninov performed occasionally. Rachmaninov never recorded this piece. In a letter dated December 21, 1931 he lamented:

I’ve played the Variations about fifteen times, but of these fifteen performances only one was good. The others were sloppy. I can’t play my own compositions! And it’s so boring! Not once have I played these all in continuity. I was guided by the coughing of the audience. Whenever the coughing would increase, I would skip the next variation. Whenever there was no coughing, I would play them in proper order. In one concert, I don’t remember where – some small town – the coughing was so violent that I played only ten variations (out of 20). My best record was set in New York, where I played 18 variations. However, I hope that you will play all of them, and won’t “cough”.

You won’t hear any coughing or miss any skipped variations in Hélène Grimaud’s excellent 2001 recording:

Pass the (Deflated) Football

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The Listeners’ Club isn’t a sports blog, so I have no insight into this weekend’s Super Bowl matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. I’ll also leave it to the Columbia University physics department to investigate allegations that the Patriots gained an unfair advantage by using purposely deflated balls.

But, in honor of Super Bowl 49, here is Pass the Football from Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical, Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. In any other songwriter’s hands this would have been a fairly straight forward comic song. Bernstein seems to have been incapable of passing up an opportunity to have fun with witty musical details. The song opens with Coplandesque voice leading. A reoccurring chromatic scale which jumps wildly between octaves accentuates the humor: