Monday, March 31, 2014

Music at the Movies

This month I’d like to explore a fun, modern topic in musicology: music and cinema. Everyone watches movies and thus, everyone has encountered the soundtrack to a film. While some film directors use pre-existing music to underlie their cinematic project, others will use a film composer to write a new score to fit the images and plot they aim to create.

Before diving into a variety of films and discussing the types of music (new or existing) used as the soundtrack, I wanted to introduce you to several impressive musical terms you can use when discussing movie music with your friends: diegetic and non-diegetic.

Diegetic music is the type of music that is not only heard by the viewer, but also by the on-screen characters in the film. Here's an example. As in this example, typically the viewer can see the source of the music on screen to help determine whether or not it is diegetic. In this case, you can see Alex put the tape into the cassette player with intent to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We will discuss A Clockwork Orange in more detail later this month.

The opposite of diegetic music would be non-diegetic. This type of music serves as a background to the film and can only be heard by the viewer, not the characters on screen. An example would be this clip found in Hook. Here, the music enhances the plot for the viewer as Peter Pan has just remembered how to fly. The characters, however, cannot hear it themselves. We will discuss this film’s composer, John Williams, later this month.

Can you think of any examples of diegetic or non-diegetic music from your favorite films?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Interviews with Artists

What is music? This week we’ve had a chance to look at Webster’s official definition along with several 20th-century composers who stretched the way people had always perceived music. Going along with this topic, I thought it would be fun to see how several classical music celebrities would define the word “music.”

When Paavo Järvi was in town last month conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, I asked him “what is music?” He proceeded to tell me that “music communicates without the necessity of words” and that “talk takes away from music.” While  emphasizing that opera and songs are not inferior art forms in comparison to instrumental music, he explained that “instrumental music gets inside” you like no other type of music. A slow movement of a Mahler symphony or a Mozart piano concerto or Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise: these are examples he provided of music that really move your soul. In relation to modern times, he pointed out that “music videos take all imagination away [not allowing people] to think for themselves.”

We often times play performances by violinist Anne Akiko Meyers on air. The day following my chat with Paavo, I also had the privilege to see how Ms. Meyer’s defines “music.”

“Music is everything. It’s life, it’s heart, it’s soul, it’s beauty, it’s why we live.” What a beautiful definition! When asked what modern composer stretches her perception of music, Ms. Meyers responded “Arvo Pärt.” Recently, she has devoted much time to his Passacaglias that appear on her new album.

Ms. Meyers went on to say that her favorite living composer to perform would be Mason Bates, specifically his Violin Concerto.

You’ve had a week to ponder music. So what is music to you? Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky? Or the sound of thunder, a gentle breeze, or a familiar laugh? There is no wrong answer...I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Music Redefined

This week we’re taking a step away from our monthly themes and exploring the question “what is music?” by focusing in on several compositional theories introduced in 20th-century music. On Monday we looked at the early 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg and his twelve-tone method which stretched the concept of music based in tonality. Today, let’s look at a major musical movement that occurred in the last century known as aleotoricism.

Aleotoric is a term used to describe the use of chance to create something. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, composer John Cage often used aleotoric methods in his work, believing music with structure that creates a sense of emotion or imagery for a listener was old news. His approach opened up opportunities for audiences to hear sounds as they are, leaving it up to chance to determine the performance outcome. One example of this method can be found in his Music of Changes, a piano work that uses the Chinese I-Ching method of tossing coins to determine the outcome.

Another aspect of aleotoric music is indeterminacy. Indeterminacy leaves certain aspects of a piece unspecified so that the outcome is up to the performer’s interpretation. The composer may provide various graphics or instructions in the score but the performance will vary each time it is played. Cage’s infamous 4’33’’ discussed in one of my January blog posts is a great example of this.

Here is an excerpt from Cage’s Music of Changes. So what do you think? Music? There's no wrong answer, I'm curious to hear all opinions!


Monday, March 24, 2014

What is music?

What is music? In his original 1826 dictionary, Webster defined music as “melody or harmony; any succession of sounds so modulated as to please the ear, or any combination of simultaneous sounds in accordance or harmony. Music is vocal or instrumental.” A secondary definition describes it as “the art of combining sounds in a manner to please the ear. This is practical music or composition.”

Is Webster’s definition one that stands the tests of time? Or is it possible that methods of composition or manners of listening could change in generations following Webster that could stretch and even alter the true sense of what actually defines music?

This week we’ll hit on a few 20th-century composers and musical theories that stretched Webster’s perception of what constitutes music. After exploring these composers and their works, I’ll be curious whether or not you hold true to music as defined by Webster or whether your beliefs gravitate toward a more modern approach.

Early 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg is one example of a composer who began to redefine what some may consider music. An advocate of atonality, a term used to describe music that avoids a tonal center, and the twelve-tone method, a form of atonality based on various orderings of the twelve notes in the chromatic scale, Schoenberg was rejected by many while others found his theoretical approach fascinating.

Schoenberg’s Piano Suite is an example of his twelve-tone method. Give it a listen and let me know…do you still consider this music? Is it on an equal plain with Beethoven, Berlioz, or Brahms? Or do you consider it an interesting concept but not something you desire to listen to? Webster says music “please[s] the ear.” Do you agree?

Schoenberg's Self Portrait
Courtesy of

Friday, March 21, 2014

Happy Birthday J.S. Bach!

Happy birthday Bach!! As we wrap up our Twenty-one Days of Bach discussing various genres of his work, I’m curious: what is your favorite Bach composition? I personally love his famous Toccata and Fugue. I asked Suzanne Bona, host of Sunday Baroque her opinion and she said the Double Violin Concerto.

For an extra treat to conclude our birthday celebration, tune into 90.9 WGUC tonight at 7:00pm to hear Bach’s Mass in b minor!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bach's Passions

You may be familiar with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or St. John Passion. These are still often performed in churches today around Good Friday because they tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion through music. Our celebration of Bach this month is not complete without mentioning these moving works!

Setting the appropriate Gospel texts from Matthew and John, these passions include a narrator who tells the Biblical story in recitative (style of singing that resembles speech) while various soloists play different character roles in the story. All the while, the choir acts as the commenting disciples/crowd in the background. The choir and soloists are accompanied by a small ensemble.

Here is a video of Bach’s St. John Passion conducted by John Eliot Gardiner at the BBC Proms. Notice the size of the orchestra and choir. This most likely is a more modern interpretation of the work, as Bach would have likely used a small group of vocalists and instrumentalists.

Bach had a close relationship with God and I think this is apparent listening to works such as these. His worship and devotion to his creator is written in a way that moves the worshiper in the audience.

Have you ever seen a live performance of either the St. Matthew Passion or St. John Passion? If so, what did you think?



Monday, March 17, 2014

58 Cantatas Each Year?

We have spent the month thus far focusing on Bach’s instrumental repertoire. This week, let’s turn to some of his works that incorporate vocals.

While working at his church post in Leipzig, Bach wrote many cantatas. Wondering what defines a cantata? This type of musical work is a piece written for voice (soloists and/or choir) and an accompanying ensemble. The work set sacred texts associated with the day’s Gospel reading and used arias (expressive solo sections), recitatives (style of singing that resembles speech), duets, and choruses throughout.

The Lutheran church typically used cantatas in their church services. Therefore, Bach found himself composing quite a few while serving as the music director for four churches in Leipzig. Theses churches required fifty-eight cantatas per year so Bach certainly kept busy!

 Still not sure about what exactly constitutes a cantata? Listen here to Bach’s famous Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62. Bach wrote this cantata for the first Sunday in Advent in 1724.

What do you think? Does this move you more or less than Bach’s instrumental music?



Friday, March 14, 2014

Multiple Marriages

Around the same time Bach dedicated his Brandenburg Concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg, as mentioned in Wednesday’s post, he married his second wife.

While working as a church organist in Mülhausen in 1707, Bach married his first wife and second cousin, Maria Barbara. They had seven children prior to her premature death in 1720. Stories say that Bach was out of town and unaware of his wife’s passing and returned home to find her already buried!

In 1721 Bach married his second wife and fellow musician, Anna Magdalena. She bore him 13 children.

Bach has quite a few children who also become predominant composers. We often play them on WGUC. Can you name any of Bach’s sons?


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos

On Monday we introduced Bach’s orchestral output by discussing his circumstances surrounding their composition. During his time in Cöthen, Bach dedicated the previously-composed Brandenburg Concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg at his request for music. Are you familiar with this work?
By going to this link, you can hear a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos in their entirety played by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.
Of this set of six concertos, all but the first contain the standard three movement structure of the time. Listen for a fast movement followed by a slow movement, and ending with a second fast movement in the final five concertos. Bach also varies the type of concerto in each, some containing solo instruments, while others strictly remaining orchestral without the use of a soloist. When using a soloist, listen as Bach creates a sort of dialogue between the soloist and ensemble, almost as if they are carrying on a conversation.
Do you enjoy Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos? What is your favorite of his orchestral pieces?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bach Held Prisoner?

Last week we talked about the fugue and several examples found in Bach’s keyboard works. Before moving on to talk about his orchestral music, let’s take a step back and look at how Bach’s employment played a role in his compositions.

Between 1717 and 1723, Bach worked as a court musician in Cöthen. His primary output while in this position was music for soloists or ensembles that would perform in the court. Before arriving at this post, however, the composer was held as a prisoner at his former position in Weimer. When he originally signed on to work in Weimer, Bach had agreed to remain there unless granted permission from the mayor to depart. When word got out that Bach intended to leave, they quickly restrained him for a month before he could move on to his new post.

Can you believe these conditions? Do you think musicians are suppressed in their own way today? If so, how?

Later on in the 1730s, Bach worked in Leipzig. One of his multiple posts involved directing the collegium musicum, a group of mostly university students who would often give public concerts. This post also encouraged the composer to expand his orchestral repertoire.

Coming up on Wednesday we’ll explore one of Bach’s famous orchestral compositions, the Brandenburg Concertos.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Famous Fugal Finales

On Wednesday we discussed the fugue. Though famously used by Bach and other composers throughout the Baroque period, composers of later generations picked up on this genius technique and used it in combination with modern forms of their time.

One example of this can be found in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter.” In the finale of this work, Mozart combines the classical era’s symphonic style with Baroque characteristics by beginning with a theme taken from a famous book, Gradus ad Parnassum written by the famous Baroque music theorist Fux. He then follows this with his own themes that climax at the very end of the movement in a 5-voice fugue.

The complexity of this feat is overwhelming. Weaving this number of independent musical themes together to simultaneously create music that actually “works” and sounds incredible is simply phenomenal.

Tonight’s 6 o’clock symphony features Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter.” When it arrives at the finale, listen carefully to hear these various themes come back in the conclusion, working together as a fugue.

What do you think of this work? Do you enjoy the technique of combining modern forms in music with features from the past?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Little about a Little Fugue

If we are going to spend the next 21 days talking about Bach, I feel there’s no better way to begin than to mention the fugue. What is a fugue? It’s a fascinating musical form commonly used during the Baroque period of music during which Bach lived and composed (c. 1600–1750). Bach was famous for using this form in his keyboard works.

How does the fugue work? A musical subject begins the piece. After stating its opening theme, a second line of music enters, answering the subject by imitating the same theme at a different pitch level. The fugue can contain any number of independent lines of music, imitating the main subject and all working together musically. Between entries of the subject in the composition, you may hear musical “episodes” that elaborate the main theme and add interest for the listener.

For a visual representation of the fugue, go here to check out Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor. This great video visually shows each individual line of music. The subject begins in the green line followed by an answer in orange. You can then watch as the pink and purple lines of music enter at different pitches and while independent, work together as a team to create a beautiful piece of music.

What is an example of a fugue within Bach’s musical output? The Well-Tempered Clavier is a famous work that consists of two books that each contain twenty-four fugues matched with a prelude that take the keyboardist through every major and minor key.

How did Bach’s fugal writing influence composers of later generations? Join me Friday as we talk about one famous composer who famously used fugues in his finales.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Kicking Off 21 Days of Bach!

This month WGUC launches “Twenty-one Days of Bach” in conjunction with Collegium Cincinnati’s Bach Festival, celebrating J. S. Bach’s birthday on March 21. Collegium Cincinnati will be hosting a variety of performances of Bach works throughout the month. For a list of upcoming concerts, go to

As part of the celebration, Clef Notes will discuss everything related to Bach for the next 21 days, exploring aspects of the composer’s biography and looking at some of his most famous works.

Though today he is regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time, Bach was thought of simply as a church organist and composer during his day, and little of his work was actually published. Bach tended to compose music to fulfill the desires of his employers: when a church organist, he wrote organ works; when church music director, he wrote cantatas; when a court music director, he wrote music to be used as court entertainment.  

The rest of this week, we will begin our discussion by focusing on the fugue, one of the main forms used in Bach’s keyboard works. One of Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, stated that his father tended to compose away from the keyboard and then once finished, he would play through the work to make sure it worked. He tended to begin by creating a musical subject that he would then develop throughout the composition. Not sure what a fugue is or how it works? Join me next time as I discuss the theory behind the fugue.