Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Music You Can Understand: Part 4
(I use this title not condescendingly, but to suggest that the featured piece is not one obscured by highbrow classical ideas or too difficult to grasp. It is easy to understand and enjoy.)

performed by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic, Thomas Hampson, baritone

After quite a hefty series of five piano concertos in commemoration of the first anniversary of FFT, it's time to change it up, and we'll be doing a long string of increasingly heavy symphonies that also all have a storyline to them, sort of. Well, perhaps less an actual storyline than some unifying ideas, at least in my head. 
Before we get to that, though, I'd like to take a two-week interlude. Articles for this week and next week will be two quite disparate pieces that kind of have a mental association for me. They couldn't be more different, but they are linked in their opposite nature. 
Today's is a fantastic piece for a number of reasons.... It serves a few purposes as I've been thinking about it. To state the obvious, it’s just damn good music. 
For one, it has lyrics, which makes it immediately more accessible, less so I suppose if you have to look at a translation of said lyrics. 
Two, it's a really nice primer (I think) into Mahler's music. It's one of his earliest works, and there's a lot to learn from it about who he is and where he goes as he progresses. Or maybe more where he comes from. 
Three, I feel it's super relatable. It's like... breakup music. 
It also begs a few questions about the human experience, at least to me. 
We'll talk about all of these in more detail shortly. Let's talk a bit about the history of the piece first. 
This piece is a song cycle, albeit a short one of only four songs (actual songs; it's correct to use that term here). The cycle's compositional history is blurry, but it seems it was started in December of 1884 and potentially first performed in March of 1896, but published in 1897. It is marked for low voice, but the majority of the recordings I have run across are female voices. They, too, are beautiful, but for reasons I’ll discuss presently, I prefer a male performer. 
The name of the piece itself deserves some attention. The piece is known in English as Songs of a Wayfarer, but as has been pointed out before, the German ‘Geselle” isn’t Wayfarer (or wanderer

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Thoughts on Babbitt's "Who Cares if You Listen"

or The Composer as Specialist from Hi Fidelity, February 1958

Bach, Beethoven, Brahms.... Jump ahead, jump ahead and there's Babbitt. But there's also obviously a lot in between.
Last week's post was a simple, straightforward one explaining some of the basics of sonority and consonance vs. dissonance, using a famous example, a sonata of Beethoven. We're coming off a pretty big series of piano concertos in celebration of the first year of FFT, and we're jumping back to symphonic works. As the antithesis to last week's post on Beethoven and consonance, we have this.
Why Babbitt? To be honest, it was more the fascination with the compositional process of serialism, the twelve-tone row, atonality, and all of that that got me reading up on all this to begin with. 
For someone with only a tenuous grasp of harmony and melodic progression and the nuts and bolts of diatonic music, I must say the allure of "atonality" is strong. That's not to say it's an excuse to write music that doesn't exhibit harmonies. I would like to say I feel like I understand the concepts of sonata form and diatonic harmony and cadences and voice leading and all that, but it's still a far cry from putting that knowledge to use practically and creatively to make interesting music. 
I am awful at math for the same reasons. I understand the general idea, the concepts and the relations between the elements, but when it comes down to getting elbow deep in calculations, I am quickly out of my depth. 
It is perhaps surprising then that I am interested in a form of composition that is based entirely (or at least in part on, depending on who it is) math. It’s nothing complicated, but it’s still called a matrix,

Monday, October 27, 2014

On this day: week of October 27, 2014

October 27
1827 – Bellini's third opera Il pirata is premiered at Teatro alla Scala di Milano
1703 – Johann Gottlieb Graun, German violinist and composer (d. 1771)
1782 – Niccolò Paganini, Italian violinist and composer (d. 1840)
1927 – Dominick Argento, American composer
1958 – Felix Wurman, American cellist and composer (d. 2009) Student of Jacqueline du Pre
1949 – Ginette Neveu, French violinist (b. 1919)
2012 – Hans Werner Henze, German composer (b. 1926)

October 28
1893 – Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Pathétique, receives its première performance in St. Petersburg, only nine days before the composer's death.
1915 – Richard Strauss conducts the first performance of his tone poem Eine Alpensinfonie in Berlin.
1733 – Franz Ignaz von Beecke, German composer (d. 1803)
1896 – Howard Hanson, American composer, conductor, and educator (d. 1981)
1936 – Carl Davis, American-English conductor and composer
1755 – Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, French composer (b. 1689)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tchaikovsky piano concerto no. 1 in Bb minor, op. 23

performed by the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande under Charles Dutoit, Martha Argerich, piano
(I have her recording of the piece with Leningrad under Kondrashin that I also quite like)

Also, watch this too....

If you read nothing else, watch the videos, and read the very last paragraph... 
For such an oddball kind of piece, this concerto is still undeniably one of the most famous in the repertoire, perhaps the most famous. Or should I say for such an enduring piece, it's kind of an oddball. I don't know which should come first; for most audiences I suppose, it's the latter, because a lot of the oddball stuff about this piece probably wouldn't be as obvious to a passive listener as it would be to musicologists, professionals or listeners of Tchaikovsky's day. What's odd about it? 
It's in a minor key, but that theme that everyone knows, that glorious beautiful wings-spread out soaring melody, is not in the home key, it's in the relative major. That same theme, as enduring and trademark-y as it is, never comes back, not even anything like it. One would think you could really get a lot of mileage out of something so beautiful, but we will see that Tchaikovsky can do lots of beautiful things with lots of other material. The traditional inner continuity of the movement is not really there. There are some key changes and stuff, but in general, it's just an odd piece, with lots of storm and drama and emotion and romance that finally culminates in a Bb major triumph. That all being said, with seemingly unrelated subjects and themes (we'll get there soon) aside, nearly

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Music and Math: The Genius of Beethoven

The title of this video really struck my interest. I was envisioning it as something exciting and revelatory, a heretofore undiscovered secret of the music of this great artist. 
It's also a TED talk, which means it will be fun and entertaining. It also means I shouldn't have expected it to be on such a level of detail as I'd anticipated.
So there was at least some disappointment on that level, but it was balanced by an excitement to share what was here with other people, namely a friend of mine to whom I'd tried to explain Schoenberg's twelve-tone idea (in Chinese). While I did explain the idea of consonant and dissonant chords as sounds that "work together" because of their relation to one another on the keyboard (really just a visual expression of that relationship), I did NOT express it in terms of their actual frequencies, which is what's shown here. 
Having played a bit of this first page of this piece (poorly and slowly), I was familiar with the