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Thread: Musical Musings

  1. #121
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    Well, with the two latest DDO updates concerning devils and with Halloween this week, it's appropriate to have a listen to some devil-themed music, no? Specifically, Giuseppe Tartini's "Devil's Trill" violin sonata.

    For whatever reason, there seems to be a strong association with the idea of devils and fiddles; similarly, angels are often associated with trumpets or harps. In Tartini's case, the story goes, he had a dream where the devil played the violin with astonishing skill. Tartini tried to copy the music from his dream, but always felt it was missing something. Nevertheless, he thought this sonata was his best work (an opinion that seems to be shared by critics--while Tartini was a virtuoso fiddler himself and composed over a hundred violin works, the "Devil's Trill" dwarfs any other composition of his in terms of fame).

    The sonata starts simply enough, but even a distracted listener will soon detect the incredible skill it must take to perform the violin part. There are many instances where the fiddler must project two separate musical lines, many instances with rapid and extended trill passages (alternating two notes). In comparison, the pianist playing the accompaniment must be bored out of her mind.

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  2. #122
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    So, I heard there was a big sporting event going on last week? Something about baseball?
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  3. #123
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    I posted a short example of Richard Strauss' (no relation to the waltz king Johann Strauss) work last year, and frankly, I feel bad about posting something so short to represent his body of work. So today, I'll talk a bit about one of my favourite Strauss pieces, his collection of Four Last Songs... which are not quite so "last" because he did manage to compose one last standalone song before he shuffled off this mortal coil.

    Strauss adored the soprano voice throughout his composing life (in fact, he married a soprano), so it's no surprise these pieces were for soprano and orchestra. The songs are mostly German poems with a theme of death, fitting both for the time in Strauss' life and in history--World War Two had ended scant years earlier. Yet, despite the subject matter, the music is incredibly peaceful.

    By most accounts, Strauss, a lifelong German, deplored the Nazis, ignoring their bans on music associated with Jewish artists. It's amazing that Strauss, after witnessing the destruction during the war of all the concert halls he must have known so well, could write such music.
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  4. #124
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    Louis Moreau Gottschalk was a Creole composer. Born in slavery-era New Orleans, he later travelled widely, especially in Central America. The influence of all these cultures is obvious in his music, especially the two more popular pieces of his I'll post.

    I'm familiar with "Souvenir de Porto Rico" in two arrangements; an orchestral version and the original solo piano version here. I believe this is the first piece of Gottschalk's I ever heard and I was immediately drawn to it.


    Another fun piece by Gottschalk is "The Banjo"--which is actually a piano piece, but so named because the composer was trying to imitate a banjo. Admirers of the piece say he succeeded; I myself can't deny there are passages which are very banjo-like. The forums won't let me post multiple videos in the same post, so exercise your finger here.
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  5. #125
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    And now for something a little different...

    The Penguin Cafe Orchestra was a British group in the 70s through the 90s which music critics struggled to classify (their Wikipedia article lists chamber jazz, folk, and new age). Their late founder, Simon Jeffes, became dissatisfied with art music as well as pop. The idea to form the PCO apparently came to him in a dream caused by a meal of bad fish...

    I find their music has a charming simplicity to it, filled with good-natured exuberance. I'll select here two of my favourite pieces of theirs. I can imagine "Scherzo and Trio" being a sort of a dance number.


    One of their most famous pieces is "Music for a Found Harmonium," apparently inspired by finding one of the kinda-like-an-organ instruments discarded in a street in Japan. It's been used in a number of film soundtracks.
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  6. #126
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    For no particular reason, I'll be taking the month of December to argue the case for J.S. Bach being the best composer of all time.

    Many art music works are arranged for musical forces other than their composer intended. For example, Liszt arranged Beethoven's symphonies for solo piano. While I appreciate the incredible skill it takes to perform a solo reduction of a symphony, I can't help but feel something's missing. The second thing I ever posted in this thread was Brahms' first violin sonata; one of my favourite works and a piece loved by instrumentalists who aren't violinists--who of course want to arrange it for their own instrument. I've heard the Brahms sonata recorded on cello (it works OK) and double bass (less so). Bach, though, works on most anything, and works well. He is pure music.

    I think Bach's Goldberg Variations illustrate this point best. They were (allegedly) originally composed as a set of lullabies for a noble who couldn't get to sleep; performed by his personal harpsichordist. Of course, a piece for the harpsichord would be expected to work well on the modern piano (though there are challenges; some of the variations were composed with two keyboards in mind, and pianos only have one). I've heard live performances of both. I've additionally heard live renditions for string trio and string orchestra (which is the version I bought for my personal library). They all please the ear, magnificently.

    Not only do the Goldbergs work on unintended instrumental groupings; the work itself is one of "theme and variations." The first couple of minutes is the theme, then Bach plays around with it 30 times, transforming it into something completely different each time. The work in its entirely runs the gamut of moods; cheery to depressed; fleet to slothful; intellectual to muscular. With so many parts, it's impossible not to favour some bits over others... but the genius of Bach is such that I cannot ever hope to pick a single favourite.

    Here's a good performance of the Goldbergs on a modern piano.



    Because everyone likes free stuff, and everyone should have a little Bach in their libraries: pianist Kimiko Ishizaka has put together a completely gratis studio performance of her Goldbergs in common portable formats.
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  7. #127
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    Why's Bach so great? Sheer variety. Solo keyboard works (and for other instruments!), massive religious choral works (and even a choral work based on, of all things, coffee), chamber music, and concertos. He could do it all, and do it excellently. Nothing illustrates his breadth as well his Brandenburg Concertos, so called because Bach presented them as a gift to a noble of that land--though it appears he composed them earlier for other purposes.

    The six pieces are fantastically diverse. They all, of course, include some string instruments to play the orchestral part. But:
    • #1 splits the solo parts between some horns and woodwinds and a piccolo violin
    • #2 features a trumpet and three other soloists
    • #3 has no soloists; the melody is cleverly passed among each of the string sections
    • #4 has two recorders (often flutes in modern performances) and a violin doing solo duty
    • #5 is special in that its soloist group, flute, violin, and harpsichord, perform the middle movement as if it's a chamber work (the orchestra lies silent), and the harsichord has an extended solo part in the first movement (scholars believe this was the first time a keyboard instrument ever had a solo part in a concerto)
    • #6 is a string-only concerto--but with no fiddles... the much-maligned viola gets to lead


    I have a difficult time picking out a favourite. If I haven't given them a good listen in a while, I tend to hit #3 and #5, but when I listen to the others, there's always something to like. I'll post here #3 since it was the first one I learned to enjoy.



    Some more freebies: the Czech Radio Orchestra made a recording of the Brandenburgs some years ago and released it for free. I've heard these concertos live a couple of times, and can't even count the recordings I've heard. The CRO recordings have replaced the commercial ones I bought years ago... they are hands-down the best interpretations of the concertos I've ever heard.
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  8. #128
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    Why's Bach so great? His music, for a lack of a better term, is self-sufficient. I mean this in at least two ways. The first is that he was fascinated by the canon, a musical construct. I don't want to get overly technical because I'm not a musician and I'll probably screw it up, but the general idea is that he'll write a line of music, and two instruments will perform it a few beats out of sync. The magic is that this doesn't sound like a total mess. In fact, I started off by posting the Goldberg Variations, and every third variation in the piece is in fact a canon. So, a lot of Bach's music doesn't need someone doing a different accompaniment part; the melody ends up accompanying itself!

    The second way? I've mentioned his cello suites before. It's counterintuitive to have a bowed instrument playing by itself. A piano or a harp, say, can easily play both melody and harmony; harder on a cello. But for Bach, hard is not impossible; these suites are full of life and dance (with the exception of the fifth suite, which people believe he composed for the death of one of his children). Bach was also a great recycler--some of the music of the cello suites were originally for lute.

    The recording of the suites I own features Jean-Guihen Queyras. I couldn't be happier with his phrasing and his tone performing these suites. My one quibble with the recording is that the mics were set up really close, so in some places his breathing is really noticeable and the clicking of the bow against the strings is a little distracting. Here's a video of him performing the third suite.



    Moar free stuff. Christopher Costanza, the cellist of touring quartet I get to see once in a while, has released his interpretation of the suites for free. I've only listed to them superficially, but it's fascinating how different performers, playing the same music, can sound so different.
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  9. #129
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    I would be remiss if I ignored Bach's vocal works--a huge portion of his output does involve choral music. For me, the issue is that, as a reportedly devout person, Bach's texts had a sacred flavour to them, and any hint of religion tends to turn my brain off.

    So my final reason for Bach being to so great: he crosses boundaries and can speak to anyone. His music is universal; been sampled by modern musicians in many genres. David Bowie, Nina Simone, The Beatles, Eminem... all have documented instances of quoting Bach, and they are just a fraction of the commercial musicians who have.

    One of my current mini-obsessions is Bach's St Matthew Passion, one of his settings of the crucifixion story. The whole work is just under three hours, so I'll just post here one of the juicy bass numbers.



    As a final "freebie," in my searches for this month, I came across the Netherlands Bach Society's ambitious project to film and release all of Bach's works, called, appropriately enough, allofbach. The clip above is in fact from their performance of the St Matthew Passion. I won't say that every moment left me in ecstasy, but I downloaded it for listening while puttering around on a computer, and it's an excellent performance. I will personally be visiting the site regularly to have a listen as they post new stuff.
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  10. #130
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    I thought I'd talk a little bit about film composers for January. I've mentioned a number of times I don't really watch movies, yet I know a bit about movie music. This is mostly due to film music being similar enough to "classical" stuff that radio shows will program it. But in recent years, orchestras in North America have been doing something unique... they've been showing movies on a big screen in their concert halls, with the soundtrack cut out, while the orchestra plays the score live. I've been to a number of these events, including a couple of Chaplin films and Singin' in the Rain (who knew Debbie Reynolds was young once?).

    I'll begin this series by cheating a little... Leonard Bernstein, noted conductor and pianist, was also a composer of some skill. I know him best for a couple of his musicals, especially West Side Story, his setting of Romeo and Juliet as a sort of gang/immigrant/poverty story in New York. The musical was later turned into a film in which--I find this odd--the two leads didn't actually sing their parts; they were overdubbed with professional singers. The lyrics for the songs were by none other than Stephen Sondheim, but aren't on display in this video--the music was eventually adapted into an instrumental suite, which highlights many of the numbers in the score.

    I've featured the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela before; here they are performing the suite.
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  11. #131
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    I mentioned Charlie Chaplin in passing last week. Everyone knows him as a star of the silent film era, but many don't know that he was a bit of a musician too. He was self-taught on various instruments (Wikipedia says piano, fiddle, and cello) and actually came up with the music (he was not a trained musician, so other people orchestrated his tunes) for many of his films. Music for silent films? That may sound a little odd, but in the silent era, movies would sometimes have live musicians performing a score as the movie played.

    I've seen a couple of Chaplin films, among them the critics' darling City Lights. This was a film produced when "talkies" were in theatres, yet Chaplin insisted on keeping it a silent film, except for some humourous sound effects. It's an amazing movie... all the more amazing when you think about the advantages modern cinema has. Digital cameras, computer editing, special effects, improved construction techniques, and, of course, sound. Yet I can think of no modern film whose story was as engaging and entertaining as City Lights; no modern film has ever left me about to fall out of my chair laughing; no modern film with an ending as clever yet universally and immediately understandable by any human being, and incredibly touching. It is said Albert Einstein cried on seeing the final scene.

    Here is a medley of the music in City Lights.

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  12. #132
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    Well, the 2016 Oscar nominees were announced recently, and "Newman"--a name strongly associated with film scores--is in the running. "Newman" is special in that its association is not limited to a single person, but an entire family of people who ended up composing for film.

    Alfred Newman composed scores at the beginning of the talkie era, but most anyone who goes to movies knows at least a snippet of his work--the short brassy tune for the 20th Century Fox logo is his. Brothers Emil and Lionel were also film composers; all three of them additionally worked as conductors. That's the first generation... the second generation includes Thomas (Skyfall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (and then the Second Best), American Beauy, and many, many others), David (the Bill & Ted and Scooby-Doo movies), and sister Maria (who doesn't typically do film scores, but more "serious" music, in her spare time from working as a professional violinist, violist, and pianist...). Their cousin Randy Newman is a frequent Oscar nominee in the category of best song (Toy Stories, Monsters, Inc, and Babe, among others) as well as a pop music performer.

    There are very few movie/TV soundtracks in my personal library, but Thomas Newman's work from Road to Perdition, the Tom Hanks Irish mobster film, is one of them. One of my favourite tracks from it is "Road to Chicago," which illustrates how film music can enhance the viewing experience. Notice how the music starts with a lonely piano as the car travels through the sparse countryside and the orchestra swells as the camera pans into a view of the crowded city... for me, it's a shiver-inducing moment.
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  13. #133
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    Ennio Morricone is another film composer who's been nominated for an Oscar this year (Hateful Eight). I wrote a bit about John Williams' (Star Wars; another nominee this year) ubiquity at the beginning of this thread, but it seems Morricone, for whatever reason, doesn't get as much recognition as Williams. It's a pity.

    There're pages and pages of Italian TV and film which probably no one here will know (with the exception of Cinema Paradiso--the music Oscar that year went to... The Little Mermaid???), but then, the English-language stuff... The distinctive theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? Morricone's work, among many westerns. The Untouchables, Bugsy, The Mission. Song credits for Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained.

    I had a difficult time making a selection to represent Morricone's work, so I've chosen here a rather offbeat performance featuring the theramin--an electric instrument which is played with no contact with the musician. It must be a beast to learn to play, with no physical feedback.

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  14. #134
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    I've noted quite a few art music works that have been used in movie soundtracks; in contrast to the stuff I've been posting this month, where the music is custom-made for the movie. Ludovico Einaudi is a fairly new name to me--he's a composer-pianist active today. Some of his tunes have been used in film... a cursory search turned up his excellent track, "Fly," in the French movie Intouchables (not to be confused with the gangster film The Untouchables). However, what documentation I found on Einaudi's film work is a little thin.

    Nevertheless, the things I've heard from him certainly do have a cinematic quality to them. In fact, one of his music compositions was turned into a short clip as a sort of promo for his album of original compositions. I've seen lots of examples of music inspiring dance choreography, but this is probably the first time I've run into music inspiring a video scene!

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  15. #135
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    Throughout this thread, I have highlighted several composers whose music, in general--but not universally--I don't like. The 20th-century Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók, is another such. I think I've sat through, live, his Conceto for Orchestra (so called because there is no one soloist; each part of the orchestra has flashy writing) and a violin concerto; both left me scratching my head.

    However, I am very fond of his Roumanian Folk Dances, inspired by tunes from Transylvania. Not being Romanian, I have no idea how much of these are traditional and how much is from Bartók's pen. Regardless, the only bad thing about these dances is that they're so short, leaving me wanting more... though I guess that's better than making me wish it'd... just... end!

    The pieces were originally for piano, though I believe they are most popularly performed by small string orchestra today. Here's a version for piano and fiddle.
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