Sibelius 5’s Evaporating Tonal Center

A part of the Sibelius monument in Helsinki.
A part of the Sibelius monument in Helsinki.

 

In Monday’s post, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ birth, we listened to Leonard Bernstein’s live concert performance of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. Returning to this music, I was reminded of that chilling moment in the first movement when the tonal center completely evaporates.

Virtually all music from J.S. Bach through Late Romanticism was tonal, built on relationships between a tonic (the key’s home base) and dominant. We naturally sense these relationships and the pull of a dominant (V) chord back home. For example, imagine how unfulfilled you would feel if the final resolution was missing from the end of Gee, Officer Krupke! from Bernstein’s West Side Story.  The music would be left hanging in midair.

As the twentieth century unfolded, this tonal center sometimes began to fray and disappear altogether. We hear tonality slipping away in the last Mahler symphonies (listen to the haunting Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony), and in Debussy’s floating Eastern harmonies (listen to the dreamy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). When tonality completely disappears, it sounds like Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31In this music, all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale are treated equally and all sense of hierarchy is gone.

But let’s return to that frightening moment in the first movement of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, written in 1915, when tonality briefly disappears. As the bassoon wanders through a desolate landscape, we hear wispy, ghostly spinning motives in the strings. It almost sounds like a distant howling wind. Moments later, the tonal center abruptly returns, but the shock of this passage (beginning around 6:43) remains with us for the rest of the piece:

Ten Tips for Youth Orchestra Students

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the 2007 BBC Proms
Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the 2007 BBC Proms

At its best, orchestra playing is a unique combination of artistry and technical craft. It’s a skill which develops over time. As musicians play together, they develop increasing sensitivity and cohesiveness. With the help of a visionary conductor, a disparate group of highly skilled individuals is forged into a team.

Whether you’re a member of a student ensemble or an amateur performing in a community orchestra, here are a few orchestra playing tips to consider:

  1. Know how your part fits. Preparation goes beyond learning the notes. Be sure to listen to recordings of the piece you’re playing. Understand how your part fits into the whole. Pay attention to sections where the tempo or dynamics change.
  2. Feel the rhythm. Practice with a metronome and pay attention to the subdivisions within larger beats. When playing in the orchestra, feel a sense of collective rhythm. Be careful not to rush, especially in difficult fast passages. Even when it’s fast, you often have more time than you think you have, so fill out every beat. Anchor on important beats. Organize and group notes in ways which allow them to flow naturally. Carefully place pizzicatos so they don’t speak early. For soft pizzicatos consider just touching the string with the tip of your finger and release. Don’t forget to breathe.
  3. Use multiple senses. Imagine how you want the music to sound as you see the notes on the page. Listen to what’s happening around you. If you’re a string player, use peripheral vision to keep track of the section leader’s bow, and other bows around you. Make sure you’re in the same part of the bow as the leader and try to match bow speed. And, of course, watch the conductor.
  4. Bring a pencil, eraser and mute. 
  5. Pay attention to balance. Many students would be surprised to hear how softly professional string players can play. A soft dynamic in orchestra repertoire is generally much softer than the same dynamic in solo repertoire. It also requires a different tone color. If someone else in the orchestra has a solo line (usually in the woodwinds or brass), get out of the way and make sure the soloist doesn’t have to force to be heard.
  6. Play for the team. Always be mindful that you’re part of a collective sound. Never try to stick out. Listen to the players around you and blend in terms of sound and intonation.
  7. “Music Police” kill the music. If you hear a mistake, don’t point it out to your colleague. They probably also heard it and will try their best to not repeat it. “Music police” can create a debilitating and backstabbing atmosphere which kills real music making. Never react to a mistake, especially in a performance. Just stay in the “zone” of the piece.
  8. Be ready when the conductor is ready. It’s okay to drop out to mark an occasional bowing change, but never make the conductor wait for you. Use direct eye contact with conductors whenever possible.
  9. Where you sit isn’t important. Every part is essential. If you’re playing second violin, you often have rich inner voices and supporting lines which need to be brought out. Because it’s harder to hear, the people in the back of a section have the hardest job in terms of precision.
  10. Enjoy the sound around you. 

“Mam-bo!”

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela gave a memorable performance of the Mambo from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the 2007 BBC Proms at London’s Royal Albert HallYou can hear them play the full Symphonic Dances from West Side Story here.

The Mambo has transcended West Side Story to become a cultural icon. It’s almost like a twentieth century Ode to Joy.

“America” in Simple and Compound Time

Chita Rivera in West Side Story
Chita Rivera in West Side Story

Conductor, composer, pianist, educator, music philosopher…Leonard Bernstein’s whirlwind career was a complex mix of these versatile roles. Perhaps as a result, when it came to Bernstein’s Broadway music, outside influences were constantly creeping in, from West Side Story’s Copland-like Somewhere Ballet sequence and the dueling-keys of the Finale (a reference to the final bars of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustrato a hint of Puccini in the soaring and harmonically searching Lonely Town from On the Town. 

Bernstein couldn’t resist writing a 12-tone fugue for West Side Story’s Cool, a sly tip of the hat to the atonal concert music of composers such as Schoenberg and Berg, and the last thing you would expect on the popular Broadway stage. The Cool Fugue’s disguised tone row may be a great metaphor for what was arguably Bernstein’s greatest accomplishment: the ability to break down barriers for a whole generation, demystify “difficult” music, and show a wide audience that classical music is really just “cool.”

Bernstein most obviously broke the traditional Broadway mold in the area of rhythm and meter. The songs of West Side Story are far removed from the traditional “boom-chick” 32-bar Tin Pan Alley style. While reflecting on writing the lyrics for West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim has said, “one of the things I learned from him was not always necessarily to think in terms of 2-, 4- and 8-bar phrases.”

For an example, listen to the complex Latin cross-rhythms in the opening of America. There are four distinct rhythmic layers. By the time the bass pizzicato enters, our sense of downbeat and upbeat is delightfully unstable. But keep listening, and you’ll hear America’s real rhythmic innovation: alternating measures of 6/8 time, a compound meter based on a feeling of three (three eighth notes filling out two beats) and 3/4 time, a simple meter based on a feeling of two (two eighth notes for each of the three quarter notes). The two rhythmic “feels” fight each other, suggesting a musical melting pot akin to the ethnic melting pot at the heart of the song:

Alternating time signatures2.gif

Looking back on West Side Story’s earth shattering opening night on Broadway in September, 1957, Sondheim remembers that the audience sat through the first half of Act 1 with disturbing reverence, as if they had forgotten they were at a musical. It was Chita Rivera (Anita) and America which brought the audience to life, and provided the right emotional release at a crucial moment in the story.

In celebration of the lead up to Independence Day on Friday, let’s listen to the original Broadway cast recording of America. Keep an ear out for the irregular rhythm outlined in the bass line and pay attention to the way it fits with the other voices. Notice little details like the flute line, suggesting “tropical breezes” (0:27) and later an exotic bird song from the jungle (0:48). At times, you may be reminded of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México:

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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]

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.