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]

Pop Meets Classical

Recently, I ran across an interesting post by Kathryn Judd, a member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s marketing team, called Rachmaninoff Goes Pop. It showcases famous Rachmaninoff melodies which were turned into pop songs.This got me thinking about how many other melodies from classical music have found their way into pop music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Stranger in Paradise[/typography]

The first music to come to mind was the Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor by the Russian Romanticist, Alexander Borodin (1833-1887). First listen to this beautiful melody as Borodin wrote it:

The 1953 musical Kismet adapted Borodin’s music. Here is how it sounds as Stranger in Paradise:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]A Groovy Kind of Love[/typography]

You wouldn’t think that the Rondo from Sonata No. 5 by Clementi (1752-1832) would be ripe pop song material…

…But it became A Groovy Kind of Love, released in 1965 by Diane and Annita, and later covered by Phil Collins in the 1980’s:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Apocalyptica’s Hall of the Mountain King[/typography]

Here is In The Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907):

The Finnish progressive metal band Apocalyptica created its own version of the Grieg. The descending chromatic intervals in the melody and the chord progression seem at home in the rock genre:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What Do You Think?[/typography]

In the Baroque era and earlier it was common to “steal” melodies. Handel used popular melodies, as well as recycling his own. Later, composers paid tribute to existing music and sometimes influences subconsciously crept into their writing. Leonard Bernstein made a clear reference to the end of Stravinsky’s Firebird in Make Our Garden Grow in Candide.

This kind of musical adaption can work as long as the new creation brings its own unique slant and as long as it’s done with musical integrity. When classical music is dumbed down and sanitized (a melody stripped of its original rich harmony), it is a true desecration. What do you think? Are the examples above musically successful? Should pop musicians look to classical music for ideas? What other pop songs do you know which draw inspiration from classical music?

Beethoven’s "Eroica", Part 2

Monday’s post featured the first movement of Beethoven’s revolutionary Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major (“Eroica”) Op. 55. This music, which helped plant the seeds of Romanticism, introduced shocking new sounds and an expansive, heroic form. Let’s continue and listen to the other three movements:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Marcia funebre. Adagio assai[/typography]

Beethoven’s second movement is a solemn funeral march. Paying attention to the rhythm, consider what aspects of the music suggest a dirge. Why do you think Beethoven chose to put this type of movement in the middle of the “Eroica”? Does the atmosphere remain the same throughout the movement or does the character of the music develop into something new? Can you hear the sounds of the funeral procession fading into the distance at the end?

From the opening of the movement you probably heard the basses creating the rhythmic foundation of the funeral march. Beethoven creates a ponderous, weighty feeling by marking the downbeats with the lowest instrument in the orchestra.

At 5:11 the music tip toes almost hesitantly into a new theme in C major from C minor. It quickly crescendos to a sudden heroic statement or proclamation in G major (5:40). Isn’t it amazing how this heroic music can emerge so quickly from the depths of despair and then evaporate (7:32)?

But Beethoven soon has a new surprise in store for us, perhaps the most significant so far. At 8:16, the second violins suddenly launch into the subject of a fugue. A fugue 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.” Like the development section of the“Eroica’s” first movement, the music gets increasingly worked up, almost seeming to transcend everything we’ve heard up to this point (10:04). As you were listening the first time through, you may have been shocked by what happens next. At 10:42 we think we are returning to the quiet, predictable opening…but listen to what happens…

It’s no exaggeration to say that this is music which changed the course of music history from Brahms and Wagner through Mahler and beyond. This collection of pitches still speaks to us today as powerfully as it did in 1804. In fact, we often turn to great music like the “Eroica” when we need to try to make sense of tragedy. The Boston Symphony played this movement when President Kennedy’s assassination was announced to concert goers at Symphony Hall in 1963.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Scherzo and Finale[/typography]

The word “Scherzo” translates as “joke.” What comes to mind as you listen to the opening of the Scherzo? Maybe it’s breathless anticipation? Do you feel like the lid is about to blow off and the music is set to explode, no longer able to contain its excitement?

The final movement begins at 6:16. Are you surprised by the music which follows the dramatic opening of the movement? It’s only a harmony line without melody…a seemingly insignificant fragment of music. But this is the seed from which the last movement blossoms. What follows is a set of variations which cover exciting and far reaching musical territory. Notice how many different ways this theme can be developed and the contrasting emotions which result. What is each variation saying?

Beethoven’s music conjures up a complex sea of emotions. We often overlook humor in Beethoven, but listen carefully to the passage starting around 15:30. We know that the end of the piece is just around the corner, but listen to the way Beethoven plays with our expectations. I’m not sure if the music beginning at 16:28 is funny or frightening or maybe a mixture of both. How does this music set up the coda? What emotions do you feel as you listen to the end of the piece?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Interesting Links[/typography]

Now that you’ve heard the whole piece, you may want to go deeper with some analysis by Leonard Bernstein. Here  is Michael Tilson Thomas introducing the piece and then giving a performance with the London Symphony. Also, check out this episode of the San Francisco Symphony’s Keeping Score this link from NPR.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The “Eroica” Through Time[/typography]

Over time, interpretations have changed. This fun clip documents the opening chords of the first movement from the earliest recordings up to the present. You’ll hear a variety of tempos as well as tunings. Remarkably it seems fairly easy to guess the style of each performance, based on the opening chords (quite a time saver).

If you want to choose one contrasting performance, I recommend John Eliot Gardiner’s performance with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. This performance attempts to recreate the instruments of Beethoven’s time. You’ll notice that the tempos are significantly faster and the tuning is lower. Also notice the limited use of vibrato in the strings and the valveless trumpets and horns. Brass instruments at that time could play a limited set of pitches controlled by the lip:

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Keep listening to this powerful, revolutionary music. You’ll continue to hear new, exciting things. Share your thoughts in the thread below. If you have a favorite recording of the piece, let us know about it.

Beethoven’s "Eroica", Part 1

Beethoven's manuscript with the dedication to Napoleon crossed out.
Beethoven’s manuscript with the dedication to Napoleon crossed out.

Revolutionary, exhilarating, ferocious, heroic…these are all words which could describe Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major (“Eroica”) Op. 55. The “Eroica” stretches the elegant Classicism of Mozart and Haydn to its breaking point and plants the seeds of Romanticism. This is music of Revolution (the French and American) and the ideals of the common man.

The dawn of Romanticism brought profound changes. The stately private palace gave way to the public concert hall. Orchestras became bigger and louder. Symphonic structures expanded. The heroic struggles of man and the poetry of nature were elevated.

Beethoven originally dedicated this symphony, written in 1804, to Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoleon declared himself Emperor, betraying the ideals of the French Revolution, Beethoven angrily crossed out the dedication on the title page and replaced it with a dedication to heroes (“Eroica”).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Allegro con brio[/typography]

Let’s start by listening to the first movement, performed by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. The piece begins with a surprise…two thunderous musical “hammer blows.” Pay attention to the underlying pulse as the music develops, growing like a living organism from these opening chords. Can you hear moments where a competing rhythmic groove fights against this established pulse? Do you hear anything which suggests conflict or struggle?

This movement is built on sonata form. You can learn more about this type of musical structure here. As the piece unfolds, pay attention to this overall structure as we move from the exposition (which gets repeated at 3:40) to the development (around 6:49) and back home to the recapitulation.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]A Few Details…[/typography]

Can you imagine how shocking those opening “hammer blow”chords would have been for the first audiences in 1805? Beethoven makes the orchestra growl with a ferocious intensity which had never before been heard. When I play orchestral music by Beethoven, I always get the sense that the classical orchestra is being pushed to its limits. The musical vision almost seems too big and powerful to be contained. Beethoven’s compositional style also reflected the monumentality of the work. His sketches suggest that he struggled relentlessly over each motive. The most minute detail separated the pedestrian from the sublime.

Now that you have an idea of the piece, let’s go back and listen again. From the beginning, you probably felt the music flowing in groups of three (3/4 time). Quickly, however this clear pulse becomes infected with a competing groove, first with jarring accents on the “wrong” beat (around 1:00), then with more overt “hammer blows” (3:00-3:32). The music always makes us feel a little off balance. Go back and listen to the exposition again, paying attention to this rhythmic conflict.

Towards the end of the exposition, the music tells us that something new is about to happen (3:26-3:40). Beethoven heightens our anticipation, but listen to what happens…We abruptly return to the beginning of the exposition. Classical symphonies commonly repeated the exposition, but Beethoven goes out of his way to make this transition as sudden and jarring as possible. Listen to what happens the second time we come to this musical “fork in the road” (6:42-7:09). This time we move further  away from “home” into completely new musical territory. This is the development, the mid section of sonata form where the motives (the DNA of the piece) go through all kinds of exciting and far reaching embellishments and transformations. Listen to the way the opening motive is obsessively repeated in different guises (and keys) throughout this section, simultaneously spinning off new, but related musical material. This is the most unstable part of the piece, where anything can happen. Can you hear the music getting increasingly wound up throughout this section as it searches for a distant and elusive goal?

Listen to the intense passage beginning around 8:44 one more time. This is the moment where the rhythmic conflict we heard in the exposition explodes with a new insistence and completely takes over. This passage ends with a shockingly dissonant chord at 9:26. This harsh new sound is something we might expect to hear in twentieth century music by Stravinsky. It’s the furthest you can get from the elegant, refined sound world of Mozart and Haydn.

Another innovative moment comes with the “false” horn entrance around 11:36. During the first performances, even Beethoven’s most devoted students assumed that this had to be a misprint in the score. It was just too weird. Listen to the way the horn emerges from the eerie tremolo in the strings. A few moments later, after a modulation, a new horn solo appears in the “right” key.

One of the most fundamental aspects of a symphony is the sense that the music is always going somewhere. It’s constantly developing, evolving and searching. From the opening chords on, one musical motive and phrase spins into the next in this unfolding process. Consider the musical “fork in the road” we heard at the end of the exposition. Listen to what happens when we come to this critical junction again in the recapitulation, after 15:04. For the first time the music suddenly seems lost…out of ideas…unsure which direction to take. The motion almost stops. Can you tell how the music finds its way again? Listen to the second violins for a clue.

In the climactic coda, listen to Beethoven’s use of the trumpets and horns and consider the heroic connotations of these instruments. Notice that the rhythmic conflict we’ve heard throughout the movement is there, right to the final notes (17:52).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Listen Again[/typography]

Now that we’ve focused on some of the details in the music, go back and listen again. Listen freely with an open mind. Have fun and enjoy the ride. You may hear completely new things in the music that you missed the first time. Share your own ideas in the thread below. What does this music mean to you? What emotional impact does it create? Be sure to come back Wednesday for Part 2, where we’ll explore the other three movements.

Cheapening Broadway

Times Square 1-2

Ticket prices and the profits generated by Broadway shows continue to soar but how does the experience compare with what audiences were getting fifty years ago? This question came to mind after a recent conversation I had with a student, following her attendance of Troika Entertainment’s touring production of West Side Story.

Initially excited to see a live performance of one of her favorite shows, my student was quickly distracted and disheartened by the empty, thin sound of the production’s greatly reduced pit orchestra which consisted of one violin, one cello, two reeds, trumpet, trombone, bass, percussion, drums and two ADM/piano players. The production’s playbill credits Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal with the orchestrations, even though the majority of their lush, intricately layered string and wind parts ended up on the cutting room floor.

West Side Story begins and ends with the orchestra, from the Prologue which immediately gives us a sense of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks on the rough and tumble streets of New York, to the emotionally conflicted final notes. The score is symphonic, with motivic threads (like the use of the tritone) running throughout. In West Side Story we are constantly pulled between two opposing realities: the ugliest, darkest impulses of humanity and the transcendent nature of love. Most of the time it’s the music coming out of the pit which brings the drama of this duality to life. Would The Rumble be quite as terrifying without Bernstein’s orchestra music? Listen to a few excerpts from the original Broadway cast recording and notice how often the orchestra tells us exactly what the characters are feeling: Tonight, Somewhere, Something’s Coming.

In 2010 Paul Woodiel, a violinist and friend of Leonard Bernstein wrote an excellent Op-Ed in the New York Times called Gee Officer Krupke, I Need Those Violins, which lamented the unprecedented reduction of live musicians on Broadway and the resulting degradation of the product. Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Arts wrote another thought-provoking piece called Why We Use the Full Orchestra. This article sheds additional light on the replacement of live musicians with synthesizers in the theater pit.

Does Broadway deliver the same exciting musical experience it did in the past? Some might correctly argue that the influence of rock music necessitated a more electronic and less acoustic sound on Broadway. Orchestrations should fit the character of the show. A huge pit orchestra isn’t needed for every show. In the 1980’s when orchestras were beginning to shrink, Jonathan Tunick gave Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods a chamber orchestra sound not unlike the witty, dry, neoclassical music of Stravinsky.

But imagine what it was like to buy a ticket in the late 1950’s, walk into the theater and hear the lush, full string sound of the My Fair Lady Overture. The sound of a full orchestra is as relevant today as it was back then. We hear it at the movies, in video games and in the concert hall…just not on Broadway:

Or listen to the spectacular lead trumpet playing in Jule Styne’s Funny Girl Overture. The Virtual Pit Orchestra can’t do this. This overture explodes with an energy and jazzy virtuosity (don’t miss Don’t Rain on My Parade at 2:43) that can only come from real, live professional musicians…in this case, some of the world’s finest. Does today’s Broadway offer anything this exciting, before the curtain even goes up?

Next time you open up your wallet to buy a ticket for a Broadway show ask yourself if you’re getting a full, honest product or a downsized, Disneyfied shadow of what used to be. Ironically, at a time when its profits are up, Broadway may be going artistically bankrupt.