In celebration of the official start of the holiday season, let’s swing by the grand old former Wanamaker’s department store (now Macy’s) in the heart of Philadelphia. The store is home to the largest fully functioning pipe organ in the world, with 28,604 pipes, 463 ranks, and six manuals. Originally built for the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair, the instrument found a home in Wanamaker’s seven-story Grand Court in 1909. It took thirteen railroad cars to transport the organ to Philadelphia.
You can hear this spectacular organ in action in this clip of a transcription of the Funeral March from Gotterdammerung, the fourth opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It’s a piece which gradually unfolds in long waves of sound, amid a series of far-reaching modulations. At times, you might be reminded of John Williams’ Star Wars film scores.
In 2010, midday shoppers suddenly found themselves in the middle of a flashmob performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The over 650 singers were from the Opera Company of Philadelphia. The event was part of the Knight Foundation’s “Random Acts of Culture.”
To learn more about the history of Wanamaker’s department store, read Wanamaker’s: Meet me at the Eagleby Michael Lisicky. A nationally recognized expert on the history of America’s department stores, Michael is a former colleague of mine who is currently an oboist in the Baltimore Symphony.
British choral conductor, organist and composer Sir David Willcocks passed away yesterday. He was 95. Between 1957 and 1974, Willcocks directed the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. His numerous recordings with that ensemble showcase its distinct sound, which relies on the lightness and purity of boy sopranos. Between 1974 and 1984, Willcocks served as administrative director of the Royal College of Music in London. As a young man, he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in the Battle of Normandy during the Second World War.
Here is Sir David Willcocks’ 1963 recording of Handel’s Coronation Anthems with the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Based on texts from the King James Bible, these anthems were first performed for the coronation of George II at Westminster Abbey on October 11, 1727. It’s hard to imagine any music more celebratory, regal, or majestic.
Imagine that you could travel back in time to observe key moments in music history. Maybe you would drop in on Handel as he was preparing the Music for the Royal Fireworks, hear a handful of lost works by J.S. Bach, or attend the first performance of The Marriage of Figaro.
Anton Bruckner’s legendary organ improvisations would rate high on my personal “musical time machine” top ten list. Bruckner spent many years as organist at the monastic Abbey of Saint Florian in Upper Austria. Additionally, he performed virtuoso and mostly improvisatory organ recitals throughout Europe. Subjects of Bruckner’s expansive improvisations often included the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, the Austrian National Anthem, music of J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn, themes from Wagner’s operas, and themes from Bruckner’s own symphonies. This February 1937 Musical Times article describes these memorable musical events.
A Viennese review described a Bruckner organ recital this way:
Has no church been built for him and is there no chair vacant for him? We have experienced many times how he mastered the organ. Yesterday, again he sat down at the organ and freely developed a theme. Oh for the vigor and the abundance that flowed through the chapel! There‘s scarcely one around to challenge Mr. Bruckner in his virtuoso treatment of the pedal; he has really gained some dexterity with the feet. And this corresponds admirably with his agility on the manuals, an agility which is hardly ever confined by difficulties.
It’s ironic that Bruckner, a composer who endlessly revised the music he wrote down and occasionally fell victim to paralyzing self-doubt, simultaneously embraced the ultimate “in the moment” music making. We’ll never know exactly how Bruckner’s organ improvisations sounded. But here is his short Prelude in C Major, written in 1884. Augustinus Franz Kropfreiter is performing on the organ Bruckner played at Saint Florian. The composer is buried in the Abbey’s crypt, just below the organ.
The Prelude is technically in C major, but its dizzying chromatic harmony is constantly pulling us away from the home key to unexpected places:
Bruckner’s symphonies often turn the orchestra into a virtual pipe organ. There’s a sense of effortless modulation and orchestration that often doesn’t mix the woodwinds, strings, and brass, but instead celebrates the purity of their unique voices. Organist Erwin Horn writes,
He was accustomed in his improvisations to using themes drawn from the symphonies on which he was working. […] As soon as he would realise the same idea both on the organ and in the orchestra, there would be an interaction between the improvised fantasies and the symphonies with their systematic layout. The sounds of Bruckner‘s symphonies, structurally, were foreshadowed by those of the organ.
The Finale of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is built on a chorale which becomes interwoven with a complex double fugue, the sort of contrapuntal fireworks we would expect in organ improvisation. In the movement’s coda, the chorale theme soars to exhilarating new heights as the first movement’s first theme returns.
Here is the the final coda of Bruckner’s Fifth from a live 1986 performance by Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by the noted Bruckner interpreter Eugen Jochum. Jochum, who was in ill health and passed away the following year, reportedly conducted the symphony seated, but stood for this final coda, a climax which suggests the majestic power of a large pipe organ:
Alan Curtis, American harpsichordist, musicologist, and conductor of baroque opera, passed away suddenly on Wednesday in Florence, Italy. He was 80.
Curtis leaves behind many groundbreaking recordings, including harpsichord music by J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, and French keyboard masters like Rameau and Louis Couperin. Curtis founded the European period orchestra Il Complesso Barocco. With that ensemble he recorded numerous works, including an extensive catalogue of Handel operas.
Let’s listen to Alan Curtis perform Prelude, Courante, and Passacaille in G minor by Louis Couperin (c. 1626-1661). Notice the way the Passacaille (beginning at 5:25), constructed on a repeating, descending four-note bass line, gradually becomes increasingly complex and far-reaching after its relatively simple opening. As the intensity builds, fasten your seat belt for some extraordinarily wild dissonances around the 8:18 mark. Also, listen closely to the luscious pandiatonicchord at 8:50, a sound that would be at home in a contemporary pop song.
A pop song about the prominent violinists of the day? It seems hard to imagine now. But around 1921 George and Ira Gershwin wrote Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha, a lighthearted ditty about four great Jewish Russian violinists who were well known at the time: Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Toscha Seidel, and Sascha Jacobsen. The lyric also refers to “Fritz” (Kreisler) and the legendary teacher Leopold Auer. According to biographer Charles Schwartz, George Gershwin enjoyed playing the song at parties whenever one of the violinists who inspired the title was present.
Heifetz needs no introduction, but who are the others? Born in 1891, Mischa Elman is remembered for his rich, golden tone, expressive portamento, and tendency towards Romantic phrasing which occasionally bent the rhythm. Here is his recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony. Here is a 1954 recording of Elman performing Dvořák’s Humoresque.
Toscha Seidel’s solo career was, perhaps unfairly, overshadowed by Heifetz. But we can hear the passionate intensity of his playing on recordings like this 1945 live performance of Ernest Chausson’s Poème with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Seidel eventually settled in California and became a studio soloist for Hollywood films. Listen to this music from the 1939 film Intermezzo which starred Leslie Howard and Ingrid Bergman.
Sascha Jacobsen is another violinist whose career was overshadowed by Heifetz. In his book Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz claims that Jacobsen was born in New York in 1897 and that his manager tried to turn him into a “Russian fiddler” for publicity purposes. In the 1940s he served as concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was the teacher of Zvi Zeitlin. Here is a 1913 recording of Jacobsen performing Handel.
And now here is the Gershwins’ humorous snapshot of early twentieth century violin history:
On Easter Sunday, 1939, African-American contralto Marian Anderson gave a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is remembered as a significant event which provided a glimpse of the powerful American civil rights movement to come. Twenty four years later, in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. would stand on the same steps to deliver his iconic “I have a dream” address. As Marian Anderson performed for a multiracial crowd of over 75,000 and millions of radio listeners across the country, the foundation of a long-established segregated society was beginning to crumble.
Marian Anderson’s legendary outdoor concert was born out of adversity. Although she would come to be regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest singers, segregation barred her from many venues throughout the United States. When she attempted to schedule a concert in Washington, D.C, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall. A firestorm of controversy ensued and thousands of DAR members resigned in protest, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote,
I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist … You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.
The District of Columbia Board of Education would not allow the concert to be moved to the auditorium of an all white high school. It was Eleanor Roosevelt, with the help of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who organized the now legendary outdoor concert.
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here is Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee at the Lincoln Memorial:
Watch this documentary to learn more about Marian Anderson’s extraordinary life and groundbreaking career.
Repetition is based on body rhythms, so we identify with the heartbeat, or with walking, or with breathing.
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’ Aliveprovided 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:
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):
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.
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:
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:
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.
With Christmas just a few days away, here is a short collection of music guaranteed to get you in the holiday spirit. Take a break from the rush of last minute shopping, light the tree, pour some eggnog and explore the playlist:
Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes
Let’s start off with music from the late 12th century. Pérotin was part of a group of composers at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral who were influential in early polyphony (more than one voice occurring at one time). Viderunt omnes is built on Gregorian chant, which was probably used in Paris for the Christmas Day liturgy. Here is a translation of the text:
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Rejoice in the Lord, all lands.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
in the sight of the heathen
he has revealed his righteousness.
The long, sustained pitches of the original chant, known as a Cantus firmus, form the foundation for the musical lines above. Consider the way the music is flowing. Does it feel linear or circular? Listen to the way the voices fit together, sometimes in canon, and the way the music alternates between pure open fifths and octaves and occasional dense, crunching dissonances.
The music of Pérotin influenced modern minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt. In Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, repeating musical patterns gradually develop over long, sustained pitches.
The Christmas season isn’t complete without a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Here is a 1987 performance by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with soprano Sylvia McNair, mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, tenor Jon Humphrey, and Baritone William Stone:
Christmas texts have been set to the folk song melody, Greensleeves since at least 1686.Here is Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves:
Now listen to the way another English composer, Gustav Holst combines the Greensleeves melody with dance music in the final movement of his Second Suite in F for Military Band. In 1912 Holst adapted the same music for strings in the St. Paul Suite.
Christmas with the Pittsburgh Symphony Brass
The Pittsburgh Symphony Brass has released at least three Christmas recordings since the ensemble was formed in 1994. The group has the sound of a brass choir rather than a quintet, with both bass trombone and tuba. Listen to the rich, powerful harmonic overtones in their playing.
Here is Ding Dong Merrily on High and I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day: