Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimm’d; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d; But thy eternal summer shall not fade Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou growest: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Summer
Let’s begin with violinist Janine Jansen’s exciting approach to Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. This performance features an unusual edge-of-your seat passion and fire. The dramatic effects of Vivaldi’s music come to life in a way that makes the music feel fresh, as if it was just written:
Next, let’s listen to an excerpt from Alexander Glazunov’s lushly romantic 1899 ballet score, The Seasons. At the beginning of the clip, we hear the triumphant moment when spring turns to summer. It’s soaring music that deserves to be heard more often. This recording features the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy:
The free-spirited Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say (b. 1970) is an artist who refreshingly resists easy category. As a concert pianist, Say performs all of the standard repertoire with emotional warmth and effortless technique (here he plays Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G). As a composer, he has written symphonies, piano music, which draws on the prepared piano sounds popularized by John Cage and Henry Cowell (listen to the ethereal and sensuous Black Earth), a Sonata for Piano and Violin, and a Violin Concertoamong other works.
Say’s native Turkey (formerly the Ottoman Empire) has long been a vibrant crossroads between East and West. Appropriately, Say’s music turns on a dime between Western classical influence, jazz and Middle Eastern sounds…a rich stew of influences reflecting an increasingly shrinking, global, twenty-first century world. It is also deeply rooted in improvisation (listen here and here). Throughout the twentieth century, a gulf grew between composers and performers. Music veered away from melody, tonality and popular influence. Composers like Fazil Say seem to be mending this gulf.
Composing is always a form of improvisation: with ideas, with musical particles, with imaginary shapes. And it is in this sense that the artistic itinerary and the world-view of the Turkish composer and pianist Fazıl Say should be understood. For it was from the free forms with which he became familiar in the course of his piano lessons with the Cortot pupil Mithat Fenmen that he developed an aesthetic outlook that constitutes the core of his self-conception as a composer. Fazıl Say has been touching audiences and critics alike for more than twenty-five years in a way that has become rare in the increasingly materialistic and elaborately organised classical music world. Concerts with this artist are something else. They are more direct, more open, more exciting; in short, they go straight to the heart. And the same may be said of his compositions.
In future posts I’ll have more thoughts on Fazil Say’s compositions. In the meantime, as we enter the dog days of summer, here are Say’s variations on George Gershwin’s Summertime, written in 2005:
The lazy days of summer are here in the Northern Hemisphere. For many of us this is a time to rest and recharge, whether in the cool shade of a back yard hammock or the sun and sand of the beach. What music could be more appropriately relaxing and soothing than a lullaby, with its gentle rocking rhythm and simple repetitive melody?
Barely out of his teenage years, George Gershwin wrote Lullaby in 1919 as a harmony exercise for his composition teacher. Even in this homework assignment, Gershwin’s distinct musical vocabulary seems fully formed. As you listen, consider what characteristics make the music sound distinctly “Gershwin.” Listen closely to the thick, shimmering inner voices under the melody. Notice that they often move in parallel motion. Do you hear anything that sounds like jazz or the French Impressionism of Debussy or Ravel? Pay attention to the harmony around 3:47-4:10 and 6:35-6:41. What kinds of emotions do you feel as you listen to the opening melody and the section beginning at 5:16?
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Now let’s listen to a piece that Gershwin described as “a sort of blues lullaby.” This is Prelude No. 2 for piano, performed by Arthur Rubinstein:
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Did you notice how Prelude No. 2, constructed on the blues scale, veers unexpectedly between minor and major? As the melody almost restlessly searches, there is something constant and unrelenting about the undulating chromatic harmony in the left hand. The tension between these two simultaneous musical personalities (one dreaming and striving, the other accepting reality) is resolved, only at the end of the phrase, as the impetuous top voice falls back in resignation. Despite its far flung adventures, the melody ends where it began (0:26). Notice that Gershwin never gives us a straightforward minor chord for these resolutions. It’s always a murky, crunching dissonance (1:10). Consider the overall mood of the music. Can you hear the deep sadness and yearning that characterizes the blues style? Did the last chord surprise you? Considering what came before, what is the significance of Gershwin’s choice to end this way?
Finally, let’s listen to the most famous of the three lullabies, Summertime from Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess. Rob Kapilow provides a fascinating analysis in his What Makes It Great series. Can you feel the sultry, oppressive heat and humidity of the fictional Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina at the height of summer? How does the music create this atmosphere? Here is a clip from the opera:
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As a fun bonus, let’s finish up with the bigger than life swing of Gershwin’s Broadway side. Here is the Girl Crazy Overture. Please share your thoughts in the thread below. Tell us what you hear in the music of George Gershwin.