Wednesday, May 27, 2015

American Folk Found in Classical Music: Virgil Thomson

Music critic and composer Virgil Thomson (1896–1989) is another example of a twentieth-century composer who used American folk in his music. While Thomson didn’t use this nationalistic approach in his entire output, there are some great examples where he uses hymnody, marches, cowboy songs, and spirituals to convey that folk-American element. His wide harmonies that evoke the open plains are later seen in American works of Aaron Copland.

In 1936, film director Pare Lorentz approached Thomson about writing a score for a documentary film about the Dust Bowl—The Plow that Broke the Plains. Lorentz originally asked both Roy Harris and Aaron Copland to consider writing the score but, after personality clashes, he turned to Thomson who accepted his $500 compensation to finish the 25-minute work in less than a week!

The Plow that Broke the Plains was originally conceived silent and then the voice-over narrative and musical score were added prior to its completion. Thomson used various familiar American tunes throughout the score that audiences would likely have recognized at that time including “Laredo” and “Git Along, Little Dogies.” He also humorously used “Mademoiselle from Armentières,”a marching song during WWI, as tractors come over the hill, similar to approaching tanks on the battlefield.  Below you can watch the short documentary film with accompanying score by Virgil Thomson. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

American Folk Found in Classical Music: Charles Ives

The last few weeks we have been looking at how folk music has found its way into the classical genre. This week, let’s look at two American composers who found great success in using this approach.

Charles Ives (1874–1954) was first exposed to music by his father, George E. Ives, whose performance, teaching, direction of various musical ensembles, and involvement with traveling shows left a lasting impression on the burgeoning composer.  From a young age, Ives was surrounded by European classical music, Protestant church music, and American vernacular music, saturating his musical world with a cultural vocabulary to incorporate in his later American works.

How does European classical music, Protestant church music, and American vernacular music find their way into Ives’ compositions? Ives is known for his musical borrowing and quotation. In his compositions, he often borrowed from the European classical music with which he was quite familiar with while also quoting from American vernacular songs and hymns. This approach essentially synthesized a unique type of American classical music. One example of this is his General William Booth Enters into Heaven, a setting of a poem by Vachel Lindsay that depicts the founder of the Salvation Army leading the impoverished into heaven.

General William Booth Enters into Heaven is written in the style of an art song however Ives pulls from American vernacular and church music in his musical quotations. The vocal line is drawn from the hymn “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”. Ives also uses various other tunes including the minstrel tune “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” in the piano line. Listen here: 

Next time we’ll look at the music of American composer Virgil Thomson!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

English Folk Found in Classical Music: Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) is another name we can connect with this national music movement in England at the turn of the twentieth century. He was good friends with Gustav Holst, whom we talked about last time, and perhaps even considered more nationalistic in his output.

Vaughan Williams began his musical studies early with an aunt. Like Holst, Vaughan Williams endured criticism early on, his elders not confident in his musical potential. Once he decided to seek success through building on England’s musical past, his career began to fall into place. Early on in the century, Vaughan Williams worked as the musical editor for the new English Hymnal. During this time, he learned about hymnody and some of the successful English composers several centuries before his time. This sparked his interest in composing his own hymn tunes, arranging folk songs as hymns, and finding old hymns that he could add to the new hymnal.

Vaughan Williams essentially revitalized English composition by reaching back to those English composers who came before him. A perfect example of this is his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which he based on a Tallis hymn found while working on the English Hymnal. He chose to maintain the hymn’s Phrygian mode and used a fantasia form known for its thematic development, which was quite popular with early English composers. This helped establish that folk element, pulling from England’s native past. You can listen to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis below. What other of his works do you enjoy?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

English Folk Found in Classical Music: Gustav Holst

Last week we explored the use of folk music in the work of two Norwegian composers, Edvard Grieg and Johan Svendsen. This week, let’s go to England where, during the late nineteenth century, it had been several centuries since they produced a prominent composer. While several significant names emerged during this time period, this week we will look at two friends, Gustav Holst (1874–1934) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958).

Gustav Holst began his musical studies at an early age studying piano. While his father hoped he would pursue a career in performance, his struggles with neuritis in his right arm quickly ended any hope of pursuing that avenue. While he attended the Royal College of Music to study composition, Holst worked hard but his teachers didn’t find him to be amazing. Little did they know what he would become! While at the Royal College of Music, Holst met Vaughan Williams with whom he would become lifelong friends. Vaughan Williams introduced his new friend to the idea of using folk tunes as inspiration for his work and it transformed Holst’s compositional approach.

While many of you may know Holst from The Planets, today I want to look more closely at how he used folk in A Somerset Rhapsody. This lovely piece is based on traditional songs gathered in Somerset by Cecil Sharp, for whom the work is dedicated. It was first performed in Queen’s Hall in 1910. Holst was quite pleased with how it turned out. Below you can listen to this work. Can you think of any of Holst’s other works that use folk elements? 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Norwegian Folk Found in Classical Music: Johan Svendsen

Last time we looked at how folk music influenced Edvard Grieg’s output. What about lesser-known composer Johan Svendsen (1840–1911)? He lived and composed during the same era as Grieg and, though not as nationalistic as Grieg, still found influence from his native land.

Svendsen grew up surrounded by music as his father was a military musician. He played violin for the first part of his career but ended up having to give it up when a nervous disorder in his hand prohibited his ability to perform.

During his time in Norway, Svendsen organized his own orchestra, the Norwegian Music Society, and became the second conductor for the Euterpe concerts. The time spent working alongside Grieg was one that both composers enjoyed and found fruitful.

Below are a few examples of Svendsen’s folk-inspired music. First, listen to the Norwegian Artists’ Carnival that depicts a Norwegian carnival in Rome. The artists are represented by Norwegian folk music while Rome is represented by an Italian folk theme. 

Of Svendsen’s folk-inspired output, the Norwegian Rhapsodies, Op. 17, 19, 21, and 22 are perhaps the most popular. They borrow many themes from Ludvig Mathias Lindeman’s Old and New Norwegian Mountain Melodies. Grieg used the same melodies as inspiration when writing his own Norwegian Dances. 

Join me next time as we travel to England and look at how Holst used folk in his compositions! 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Norwegian Folk Found in Classical Music: Edvard Grieg

Countless composers throughout time have found influence in folk music. During the 19th century in particular, a rise in nationalism played a large role in many composers’ musical output. Seeking to display a sense of national pride, composers often used the folk music of their homeland as inspiration for creating national themes in their work. Over the next few weeks, let’s look at several countries where folk has played a significant role in the classical music world.

Let’s begin with Norway and Edvard Grieg (1843–1907). Known for his Peer Gynt Suite, Grieg also has many other works that contain folk influences. Though brought up in a middle-class Norwegian family, Grieg was not exposed to folk until he was in his twenties! At that time, Danish influences dominated society traditions, speech, and even music.

When Grieg met Rikard Nordraak in 1864, he gained exposure to this idea of nationalism and decided to become a nationalist composer for his homeland. Nordraak is another famous Norwegian composer, primarily known for composing the country’s national anthem. Grieg’s first attempt to use folk in his own music can be heard below in his Humoresque, Op. 6: 

Striving to promote Scandinavian music, Grieg helped found a society named Euterpe. He also helped begin the Norwegian Academy of Music, all the while finding ways to incorporate folk or nationalist qualities in his work. The Lyric Pieces, Op. 12, for instance, contain nationalist titles includes “Norwegian,” “Folktune,” and “National Song.” Many of his works contain folk-like qualities including modal melodies and harmonies, folk dance rhythms, and the use of drones reflecting drone strings found on Norwegian folk instruments.

 Below you can listen to Grieg’s Slatter, Op. 72. This work is a collection of peasant dances arranged for the piano from transcripts of country fiddle playing. It uses folk dance rhythms and the way Grieg uses dissonance resembles the double-stopping technique of the folk Hardanger fiddle. Not sure what I mean by double stop? This is a technique used by bowed string instruments in which the musician plays two notes at the same time. 

Want to hear more Norwegian music? Join me next time as we discuss Johan Svendsen, the man for whom Grieg dedicated his Second Violin Sonata. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Friday Flicks

What movies do you plan to watch this weekend? Write to me and let me know your impression of the music.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

WGUC Staff Favorites

Many of us were exposed to classical music through cartoons as a kid. There are countless examples of humorous classical arrangements that accompany Bug Bunny, Mickey, and others. I happened to mention to our staff here at WGUC that I was exploring music in cartoons this week on Clef Notes and they wanted to throw in a few of their favorites. Here are a few popular choices:


Can you name the classical pieces that appear in each of these videos? Do you have a favorite cartoon that uses classical music?

Monday, May 4, 2015

Classical Music in Cartoons

Last year we spent a week looking at classical music in cartoons. Many of you may recall your first exposure to classical music from a favorite cartoon you watched as a child. The old Merrie Melodies cartoons in particular always seem to use a classical favorite! I thought it might be fun to pull up a few additional cartoons that incorporate classical music.

One of my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons is The Rabbit of Seville and is a play on Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Watch as Bugs massages Elmer’s head in perfect time to the music:

In this next video you can watch a Loony Tunes depiction of the classic tale of The Three Little Pigs accompanied by a selection of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. The best part is that they credit Brahms at the beginning, further educating viewers. Note that, similar to The Rabbit of Seville, the animation in this cartoon coordinates quite well with the music, adding to its humor.

Join me next time for an inside look at the WGUC staff’s favorite classical music cartoons!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Friday Flicks

What movies do you plan to watch this weekend? Write to me and let me know your impression of the music. I plan to watch one of Desplat’s more recent works in The Grand Budapest Hotel, for which he won an Academy Award.