Sibelius at 150

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

 

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius. Commemorative events are under way this week, from Sibelius’ native Finland to Minnesota.

Appropriately, the 11th International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition just wrapped up in Helsinki. The competition, open to violinists under the age of 30, has been held every five years since 1965. Listen to this year’s first prize winner, American violinist Christel Lee, here.

Recently, here at the Listeners’ Club, we’ve explored Sibelius’ Second Symphony and the tone poem, The OceanidesBoth posts featured conductor Osmo Vänskä’s landmark recordings with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s. In 2012, Vänskä began re-recording the Sibelius symphonies with Minnesota Orchestra. Briefly delayed by that orchestra’s 15-month-long lockout, the project is again in full swing.

Later in the week, we’ll hear Vänskä’s Lahti recording of Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony. In the meantime, here is a great live performance of the Fifth Symphony with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. I provided some background on the Fifth Symphony in this past Listeners’ Club post.

Do you have a favorite Sibelius recording? Is there one conductor who, in your opinion, really “gets” Sibelius? Please share your recommendations in the thread below. And don’t forget to explore the Listeners’ Club archive for other Sibelius posts.

Josef Gingold: A Rare 1944 Profile

Earlier in the week, a Listeners’ Club reader sent me a fascinating and rare slice of American violin history. Below is music critic Russell McLauchlin’s profile of a 35-year-old Joseph Gingold which appeared in the Detroit Jewish News on December 8, 1940. Gingold had just left Toscanini’s NBC Symphony in New York to become concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony. Within a few years, he would go on to hold the same title with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. Later, Gingold would join the faculty of Indiana University, building a reputation as one of the most influential violin teachers of the twentieth century. (Hear a sample of Gingold’s recordings in past Listeners’ Club posts).

McLauchlin’s profile gives us a sense of Gingold’s humanity and the warm, respectful and collegial atmosphere he fostered within the Detroit Symphony violin section. Most notably, we see his generosity and passion for teaching: he opened his home to weekly coaching sessions for younger and less experienced members of the section. A true leader brings the team together to accomplish a common goal, allowing everyone to produce their best work. In this regard, Josef Gingold provides a fine example.

Thank you to photographer Herman Krieger, who took the story’s photo of Gingold and his son, for sharing this old news clip. Click on the image and click again in the top right corner to make it larger:

DJN_Gingold

Here are a few of Josef Gingold’s recordings:

Remembering Sir David Willcocks

Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015)
Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015)

 

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.

  1. Zadok the Priest (HWV 258) 0:00
  2. My Heart is Inditing (HWV 261) 5:52
  3. Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened (HWV 259) 18:38
  4. The King Shall Rejoice (HWV 260) 28:00

  • Find this recording at iTunes.
  • Find Sir David Willcocks’ recordings at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Hear Willcocks’ arrangement of Angelus ad Virginem (English, 14th century).

Pass the (Deflated) Football

Deflated-NFL-Football

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:

Join The Listeners’ Club, Part 2

Last month I invited you to Join The Listeners’ Club and explore some of my favorite music.  Now, in Part 2, we’ll examine these pieces more closely.  Here are some of my thoughts about what makes this music so great.  Enjoy the discussion and then go back and listen again.  Use the comment thread below to tell me what you hear. What inspires you?  What are your favorite parts and why?

 

Music for the Royal Fireworks (HWV 351)…George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Overture
La Rejouissance
Minuet

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What words come to mind as you listen to this music?  Noble, majestic, joyous, triumphant…maybe even euphoric?

In 1749 George II of England commissioned Handel to write this piece to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession.  A public rehearsal held a week before the performance attracted 12,000 people but the performance became a minor disaster when a pavilion in London’s Green Park caught fire.*  You can learn more about the background of the piece here.  Even more extraordinary than its history is the way this music continues to speak to us almost 300 years later, long after the political currents of its day have been forgotten.

Handel’s use of trumpets and drums evokes images of the battlefield.  Did you hear the heroic trumpet fanfares in the Overture, starting at 2:29?  Listen to the back and forth dialogue between groups of instruments.  First, the trumpets and drums make a statement and then the horns and reed instruments (oboes, bassoons and contrabassoons) answer.

Can you feel the excitement build as the music unfolds?  At 3:31 listen to the way the trumpets soar to their highest and most heroic statements and pay attention to the fast, vigorous running notes in the reeds (starting at 3:47).  Keep in mind that trumpets in Handel’s time had no valves.  Only certain pitches could be played.  In order to change pitch the player had to make small lip adjustments.

Listen to this exhilarating music again.  What new details do you hear?

 

Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra (K. 364)…Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Andante

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Much of Mozart’s music is deeply tied to his operas which include The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.  Did you hear a conversation between the solo violin and viola that reminded you of a duet between two characters in an opera?  There are no words to be sung here, but you probably still had some idea of what was being said.  Maybe you would describe the music as beautiful, passionate, eerie, mysterious and even hinting at the supernatural?

Still, if you honestly evaluate your experience you’ll probably realize that the feelings the music evokes cannot easily be put into words.  These feelings are often complicated, ambiguous and go beyond literal description.  This is key to understanding the unique power of music.

In addition to the excellent Perlman-Zuckerman recording I recommended last month, I’ll add a 2005 recording featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, violist Yuri Bashmet and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

 

William Tell Overture (Finale)…Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

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Why do you think William Tell is so much fun to listen to?  One dramatic trick up Rossini’s sleeve is the long, gradual crescendo.  He is able to create a breathless sense of anticipation by starting out softly and gradually letting the music build.  We know what’s coming, but the journey is still always exciting.

Here is a live performance by Sir Mark Elder and Britain’s Halle Orchestra:

Overture to Candide…Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

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Kathryn commented on Laurel and Hardy style humor in this overture, written in 1956 for the Broadway operetta, Candide.   Indeed, this exciting four minute romp is packed with comedy and witty musical jokes.  Bernstein even adds a Rossini style crescendo in the coda (3:20).

Timing and surprise are essential elements of comedy.  Notice how the rhythm in this piece is constantly keeping you off balance, setting up your expectations and at the last minute giving you something completely unexpected, the musical equivalent of a sight gag.  Listen closely to the complex two against three rhythm starting at 3:39.

While Candide was initially a flop on Broadway, this overture has become one of the most beloved pieces of American twentieth century music.

 

Flying Theme from “E.T”…John Williams (b. 1932)

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Do you remember the iconic moment in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie, E.T., when the bicycle begins to soar into the air?  Can you imagine this scene without John Williams’s score?  More than anything else, it’s the music that gives us the feeling of flying.

Unlike the other composers on our list, Williams is almost exclusively concerned with creating music that serves and enhances what is happening on the screen.  But even if we took this music out of the movie most of us would still agree that it feels expansive.

To understand why the music gives us this feeling, listen again from the beginning, and pay attention to the melody in the strings which begins 13 seconds in.  Do you notice how each phrase of the melody includes a wider jump between notes?  The melody climbs, each time ending in a slightly higher place.  Bird chirps from the woodwinds, and splashes of color from the harp and bells add a magical shimmer and sparkle to the sound.  Just when we think we can’t climb any higher, the music modulates up a key to C Major (1:58) and then climaxes at 2:17 when the horns soar above the entire orchestra.

(*Handel and Occasional Music by Roger Hamilton, pg. 4)

 

Join The Listeners' Club

Welcome to The Listeners’ Club!  This month I’m excited to launch the first installment of what will become a regular feature of this blog.  My goal is to help you develop a fun, meaningful, life long relationship with some great music that you might not otherwise get to know.  We’ll explore music that people of all ages will enjoy.  Along the way I’ll share some of my thoughts on what makes this music so inspiring.  I’ll also ask you to tell me what you heard in the form of a comment in the thread below.

Listen to these short selections a few times.  If you’re like me, a certain piece will grab you and you’ll want to keep hearing it.  If you are interested, I encourage you to find more information about the composers.  Also, for an even more powerful and authentic experience, never pass up an opportunity to hear a live performance.

Next month, after we’ve all had a chance to listen, I’ll follow up with a slightly more detailed discussion.  At that point we’ll listen again one final time with a broadened perspective.  For now we will allow the music to stand on its own.

So join the club, invite your friends to join, listen, and don’t forget to leave a comment!

"Music for the Royal Fireworks"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music for the Royal Fireworks (HWV 351)…George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Overture
La Rejouissance
Minuet

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We’ll start off with a bang.  This music was written for a celebration.  The recording I recommend features period instruments to give us an idea of what this would have sounded like in Handel’s time.  The instruments have evolved over time, so you may hear some unusual sounds.  Let’s start with the first, fourth and fifth movements. What words would you use to describe this music?  What gives the music its character?  Pay attention to how combinations of instruments are grouped together to achieve certain sounds.  Why do you think Handel did this?

 

Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra (K. 364)…Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Andante

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Listen to the second of the three movements.  Can you hear a musical conversation between the solo violin and solo viola?  What do you think they are saying?

 

William Tell Overture (Finale)…Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

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Rossini was an Italian opera composer.  His operas would have been considered popular entertainment in their time.  You may know this as the theme to the old TV show, The Lone Ranger.  What words come to mind as you listen to this music?

 

Overture to Candide…Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

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Can you hear any “characters” in this music?  Are they serious or comic characters? Are there any jokes in the music?  Did Bernstein make any references to Rossini’s William Tell Overture?

 

Flying Theme from “E.T”…John Williams (b. 1932)

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What mood does this music evoke?  If you’ve seen the movie, how does the music correspond with what is happening on the screen?  Imagine the same scene without any music…just picture and dialogue.  How would the overall effect be different?