Thursday, September 21, 2017

Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata

This month, Clef Notes looks at women composers. This week, we’re focusing on composer and violist Rebecca Clarke, an English musician from the early twentieth century.

Though her gender made a career in music difficult, Rebecca did not lose her drive to compose and perform. She was known primarily for her songs, choral works, chamber music, and solo piano pieces. She wrote around 100 pieces, however only a handful were published during her lifetime and later forgotten about.

Today, let’s listen to Rebecca’s Viola Sonata. This work tied for first prize in a competition in 1919, but the prize ended up going to Ernest Bloch. Sadly, following the competition, a reporter commented that it was impossible for a piece like the Viola Sonata to be written by a woman! Her knowledge of the viola is evident as this is a beautiful addition to its repertoire. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Rebecca Clarke

Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979) was an English composer and performer who lived during the early twentieth century, and our next woman to spotlight this month in Clef Notes. She began her music studies early, being forced along with her siblings to perform on demand for their father. She received her first formal education from the Royal Academy of Music, but her father forced her to withdraw after he received word that one of her teachers proposed marriage.

After withdrawing from the Royal Academy of Music, Rebecca went on to become Charles Stanford’s first female student at the Royal College of Music. He encouraged her to switch her instrument from violin to viola, which she would later go on and tour internationally.

Though Rebecca was thrown out of her home in her twenties, she did not despair. Instead, she used the opportunity to focus more on her musical studies and performance schedule. Some of her notable accomplishments include becoming the first female to play with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra as well as founding her own female ensemble – the English Ensemble piano quartet.

Next time, let’s look closer at one of Rebecca’s compositions – the Viola Sonata!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Wreckers

This month, Clef Notes is looking at music by women composers and this week, we explore the life and work of English composer Ethel Smyth. Known for her chamber music, orchestral works, vocal scores, and opera, Ethel Smyth was a strong woman who advocated for women’s rights and pursued a career in music during a time when such a task wasn’t so easy for a woman. Today, let’s look at one of her most successful operas, The Wreckers.

Known as Strandrecht at the time of its premiere in Leipzig in 1906, The Wreckers contained a libretto originally written in French and later translated for its German premiere. The production was well-received but after the conductor refused to compromise on the cuts he made to Ethel’s score, she took her score and left Leipzig. The opera was later performed in London. It is said that Smyth used Wagner and Sullivan as inspiration for her work. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ethel Smyth

It’s possible that you have not heard the name Ethel Smyth (1858–1944), although she was a respected English composer of her time known for her chamber music, orchestral works, vocal scores, and opera.

Ethel was born into a successful family who didn’t understand why she sought to follow her ambitions to become a composer. At that time, it was uncommon for women to pursue a career in this way. She studied for a period at the Leipzig Conservatory and then left to study privately. Her work met the approval of big-name composers of her time including Brahms, Clara Schumann, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. An advocate for women’s rights, Ethel sometimes would allow her political views to seep into her work. She lost her hearing later in life, and at that point devoted herself to writing prose.

Though Ethel Smyth is respected as a woman who fought to obtain her desired career, some scholars admit that she never really found her own personal voice in her composition. Her powerful Mass in D of 1893, for instance, is said to be reminiscent of Beethoven. Her opera The Wreckers of 1906 is said to find inspiration from Wagner and Sullivan. What do you think? Join me next time as we dig a little deeper into Ethel’s successful opera. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Amy Beach's Gaelic Symphony

Last time we discussed Amy Beach and her impact on women composers to follow her lead. Living during a time when women were thought to be incapable of creating large-scale works, Amy sought to prove the theory wrong by writing many large-scale works including one we will look at today, her Gaelic Symphony (1896).

Finding inspiration in Dvorak’s New World Symphony which used plantation songs and Native American melodies, Amy decided to write something drawing from her Celtic heritage. The Gaelic Symphony contains four traditional Irish tunes as themes. Can you hear them?

In total, Amy Beach wrote over 300 works, also including many songs and piano works. Do you have a favorite? 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Happy Birthday Amy Beach!

This month, Clef Notes looks at important women composers throughout history. Let’s get started with Amy Beach (1867–1944), who celebrates her 150th birthday today! Amy grew up in Boston during an era when women were just starting to gain a few rights including the right to attend college and hold a public job. That being said, it was still quite difficult for her to break through in the music world, despite her incredible talents. 

Amy Beach was a child prodigy who studied privately early on and taught herself how to compose. By the time she turned 18, Amy was appearing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and publishing her early compositions. After marrying a wealthy doctor, however, she gave up her concert appearances due to his view that it was not respectable for a woman to hold such a position. He did encourage her to focus her efforts on composition, which led to a period of many outstanding works. Following his death in 1910, Amy took up touring again, performing her own works.

At the time when Amy lived, women were thought to be incapable of composing larger works (such as symphonies or concertos). Amy decided to prove this theory wrong by writing quite a few major works including her Mass in E-flat, Gaelic Symphony, Piano Concerto, and Piano Quintet. She ended up being an inspiration for many women to follow in her footsteps. Next time, we’ll look at one of her major works, the Gaelic Symphony. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

What is your favorite era for the symphony?

Now that we’ve spent the last month watching the symphony progress over time, what would you say is your favorite era for the symphony? Do you have a favorite symphonic composer or piece?

My favorite era has to be the Romantic period (roughly the 19th-century). As far as a favorite piece, I always say you cannot go wrong with Beethoven! However to avoid sounding cliché, I will go with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.” I enjoy Dvorak’s ability to create nationalistic music and, though not from America, I believe he creates an outstanding American idiom in this piece.  

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony

The 20th-century brought more changes to the symphony. One major movement that developed is known as neoclassicism. This term refers to the attempt to reach back to older musical forms from the Baroque and Classical periods as a reaction to the dramatic, emotional compositions created during the Romantic period. Many composers used chamber ensembles to perform their symphonies (similar in size to those used during the early classical period) rather than orchestras of 200 musicians. Some used elements including counterpoint and fugue in their work, combining it with modern ideas of tonality. Stravinsky and Hindemith are examples of neo-classical composers.

Still other composers expanded on symphonic ideas by adding quotations from other popular tunes (Ives), simplifying and repeating rhythms through minimalism (Glass), using newly-invented electronic instruments (Messiaen) amongst many other new techniques.

Today I would like to take a closer look at one 20th-century symphony written by William Grant Still: his Afro-American Symphony. Living during a time when African-Americans were excluded from the classical music world, Still made great strides by becoming the first African-American to conduct a symphony orchestra in the U.S. as well as the first to have an opera produced by a major opera company. His symphonic writing incorporated many American idioms within the European symphonic design (four-movements). Several of the uniquely American characteristics Still incorporates include jazz elements and plantation spiritual references.

Listen here to Still’s Afro-American Symphony. Can you hear these distinctly American elements? 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Romantic Era Symphony

Following Beethoven’s expansion of the symphonic model, composers of the Romantic period (roughly 19th-century) sought to create longer and larger symphonies with heightened passion. The number of composers and symphonies from this period seems endless so we’ll focus on just a few major names in today’s discussion.

At this point in history, it was not uncommon to see an orchestra of over 200 people! Composers began to expand movement lengths and some even added one or even two movements to the standard four-movement model. Some composers used vocalists in their symphonies (Mahler) while some attempted to create national idioms (Borodin, Sibelius, Dvorak). Some created programmatic music that told audiences a story (R. Strauss, Berlioz), while some created what is known as absolute music, sticking to the standard symphonic tradition of music for music’s sake (Brahms, Schumann, Schubert). Some composers even added non-orchestral instruments to their works such as Saint-Saens in his Symphony No. 3 “Organ.”

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 is a great example of a symphony from the Romantic period. The symphony is dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s best friend and patron, Mrs. Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow with whom he passed many letters but never met. It contains a program that assists audiences in following the symphony’s message.

Tchaikovsky describes the first movement of the Symphony No. 4 as having an introductory theme that represents fate. This main theme returns throughout the work. During this movement, Tchaikovsky depicts his desire to escape into daydreams rather than facing the reality of life. The “fate” theme returns, however, reminding him of the truth of his gloomy circumstances that may have included his failed marriage to Antonina Miliukov or even his questions regarding his sexual orientation.

The second movement depicts feelings of melancholy, nostalgia, pain, longing, and reflection on distant memories. The solo oboe at the beginning is meant to portray a lonely person. A march in the middle of the movement takes the listener away from the feelings of isolation exhibited thus far. The longing, lonely melody always returns in various instrumentations.

The third movement contains a series of arabesques that represent strange, unrealistic, unconnected dreams. Many of the themes show-off a particular instrument’s technique (example: piccolo solo).

The fourth movement reflects the joy that comes from surrounding yourself with other people when you are depressed (opening melody).             To help depict the sense of community, Tchaikovsky uses the Russian folksong “In the Field a Birch Tree Stood.” The reminder of fate (main theme from first movement) always returns, however, bringing you back to reality and discontentment.

Tchaikovsky considered this his best symphonic work saying, "It seems to me that this is my best work…What lies in store for this symphony? Will it survive long after its author has disappeared from the face of the earth, or straight away plunge into the depths of oblivion? I only know that at this moment I... am blind to any shortcomings in my new offspring. Yet I am sure that, as regards texture and form, it represents a step forward in my development..."

You can listen to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 here. How do you think Tchaikovsky expanded upon the symphonic model built a century earlier?


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Beethoven's Pivotal Ninth Symphony

Ludwig van Beethoven: a pivotal figure in music history. But why? We cannot properly discuss the historical development of the symphony without mentioning Beethoven and his contributions to the music world.

Beethoven lived during a period of change and struggle. The French Revolution, Industrial Revolution, and the Age of Enlightenment are all things that may have influenced the composer and his work. With various changes in society came changes in music. Beethoven’s personal life exhibited its own sense of struggle as he fought deafness. Fighting to overcome this trial, Beethoven reflects this will to overcome in his Symphony No. 3, known as the “Heroic Symphony.”

Beethoven’s symphonic output expanded the length of the symphony as well as the size of the orchestra. His scores often called for piccolo, trombone, and extra percussion and strings in comparison with composers of the classical period.

His most triumphant and influential work is the Symphony No. 9. Using a chorus in the final movement, Beethoven used Schiller’s Ode to Joy as the text. The grandeur, emotional complexity, and innovativeness of this piece are what make it memorable. Nothing like the Symphony No. 9 had ever been created and, in my opinion, nothing like it has been created since. Beethoven raised the bar high for symphonic composers who followed him, making it difficult to expand on his accomplishment.

You can listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 here. It’s a long one so hang tight! After you finish listening, let me know your thoughts. Can you see how this piece is known as a pivotal point in music history?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Symphony by Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was another prominent composer working during the latter part of the 18th-century. Though younger than Haydn, people became accustomed to his name earlier because he toured as a child prodigy along with his father and sister.

While Mozart’s early symphonies followed the early-classical model containing a three-movement structure, his later symphonies fell into the four-movement format. Mozart’s compositional style stretched performers by creating ambitious parts for (now common) wind sections. Sometimes, he would even tag on a slow introduction to the opening fast movement. These introductions are typically written in the style of a French overture and may create suspense for audiences who have no idea what Mozart intends next. Mozart’s orchestra size was similar to that of Haydn, much smaller in number than what we are used to seeing in concert halls today.

Mozart was also known to combine his classical-era style with idioms from the Baroque period. His Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter,” for instance, draws on the Baroque fugue in its final movement.

Listen to Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony here. Written for a concert in that city, it is certainly one of Mozart’s great works that exhibits the symphonic style of the late classical era. How does it compare with the Haydn symphony you heard last time?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Haydn and his Surprises!

This month, we are exploring the development of the symphony throughout history. Entering the latter half of the 18th-century, we have prominent composers such as Haydn and Mozart who added their own individual marks to this ever-evolving orchestral genre.

Known as the “father of the symphony,” Joseph Haydn spent the greater portion of his life working for the royal Hungarian Esterházy family. This explains Haydn’s extensive output as he was expected to compose a variety of works at any given moment for court entertainment.

Following Stamitz’s model, Haydn typically employed the four-movement structure in his symphonies. He was known to create various themes that he would then develop and vary throughout the rest of the work. He also sought to create tuneful, expressive compositions. His orchestra, though perhaps a bit larger than those earlier in the century, still had no more than twenty-five to thirty-five members compared to up to one hundred found on stages today.

Haydn was known as a jokester, this quality exhibiting itself throughout many of his works. His Symphony No. 45 “Farewell” was written as a hint to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy to allow his orchestra members to return home to see their families after an extended stay at the prince’s summer home. During the final part of the symphony, members of the orchestra gradually begin to put their instrument down and walk off the stage, leaving only two violins at the end!

Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 is known as the “Surprise” symphony. Do you know why? Listen here and let me know what you think! 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Stamitz and the Mannheim Orchestra

We cannot discuss the early development of the symphony without mentioning Mannheim. The Mannheim court was known to have an excellent music scene, the orchestra led by composer Johann Stamitz. The orchestra at Mannheim was known for its excellent dynamic control, particularly the sudden crescendos (growth from soft to loud). As a composer, Stamitz was known to use this “Mannheim Crescendo” in his work.

Significant to the development of the symphony, Stamitz was the first composer to consistently use a four-movement structure when composing rather than the three-movement plan that was standard at the time. Adding a minuet and trio movement between the slow movement and the final fast movement became standard with many prominent composers to follow later in the era.

Another significant change to the symphony within the Mannheim court was the addition of wind instruments including oboe, horn, and even an occasional clarinet!

Listen to Stamitz’s Sinfonia in E-flat major here

What new features do you notice about this symphony in comparison with the Sammartini symphony we looked at last time? 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Symphony by Sammartini

Giovanni Battista Sammartini was one of the early classical composers who worked on writing symphonies. As mentioned last time, I often find it easy to mistake an early symphony score for a string quartet.

Scored for four-part strings with a possible harpsichord, Sammartini’s Symphony No. 32 in F major has the standard three-movement structure of that time. Unlike standard symphonies of today, this work takes less than ten minutes to perform with a much smaller orchestra than what we’re used to seeing on stages today.

Here is a recording of Sammartini’s symphony. 

What are your initial impressions based on your modern-day experience with symphonies?

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Early Symphony

Listening to WGUC each day, you may notice the ample amount of symphonies played. You may also notice the extensive variety among the various symphonies, many differing from one another based on the time period during which they were composed. This month, let’s explore the history of the symphony, mapping out a timeline that will show just how the symphony developed throughout history.

The symphony is a large orchestral work that developed in the mid-eighteenth century. Divided into a specified number of movements, we will soon see that the standard number of movements changed over time. The early symphony was thought to have its roots in the Italian opera overture (known as sinfonia), which typically used a three-movement format:

Movement 1: Fast tempo
Movement 2: Slow tempo
Movement 3: Fast tempo

The symphony also was thought to resemble a classical sonata, only written for an entire orchestra rather than a solo instrument with possible accompaniment.

Looking at a musical score, I find that often it’s easy to mistake a string quartet for an early classical symphony. Why? Most early symphonies were scored for four-part strings, just like a string quartet. It wasn’t until a bit later that various wind instruments began to enter the orchestral scene.

Join me next time as I explore one of the earliest symphonic composers, Giovanni Battista Sammartini. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Music by Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman (1953) is the final American composer we’ll look at this month on Clef Notes. Known for his film scores, Elfman got a late start in composition. It wasn’t until the 1970s when he was in Paris with his older brother that the two formed a music group known as “Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo.” Elfman’s work with this group made him realize that he not only had an interest in writing music, but was rather good at it.

Film director Tim Burton happened to be a fan of Oingo Boingo, and eventually became acquainted with Elfman and asked him to collaborate on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). This was the start of a lasting relationship between Elfman and Burton, the composer writing music for hits such as Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), and Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

But does Elfman compose anything besides scores for monster and superhero films? Check out his score to Good Will Hunting (1997), one of my personal favorites.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

William Schuman's New England Triptych

Over the past month, Clef Notes has been looking at American music and composers. To kick off our final week, let’s talk about William Schuman (1910–1992) – not to be confused with Robert Schumann!

William Schuman was first introduced to music at a young age, however he was only acquainted with jazz and popular music. It wasn’t until he heard Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic that he realized his true passion was classical music and began to devote his time to composition. He studied at both Juilliard and Columbia, one of his teachers being the prominent American composer Roy Harris.

One of my favorite Schuman works happens to take inspiration from the 18th-century American composer William Billings. The piece is called New England Triptych (1956) and certainly has an American flavor. 

Schuman is known for being the first to win a Pulitzer Prize in music in 1943 for his A Free Song. Besides composing, he also had many additional career accomplishments including serving as the director of publications at G. Schirmer, Inc., serving as the president of Juilliard where he created the famous Juilliard Quartet, and serving as the president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. He even received the National Medal of the Arts in 1987!

Next time, we’ll talk about a composer you’ve heard if you’re a fan of Spider Man! Check back!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Music of Elmer Bernstein

Last time we looked at famous American composer, conductor, and educator Leonard Bernstein. Many believe he was related to composer Elmer Bernstein (1922–2004) but in fact, the two were good friends, but no relation. 

Elmer Bernstein was a child prodigy, first coming to music through the piano. He studied at Juilliard where he pursued both piano and composition studies. Though he hoped to develop a career as a concert pianist, his dreams were interrupted with the onset of WWII. During the war, he was able to keep himself in the music world by assisting in the arrangement of American songs for Glenn Miller and the Air Force Band. He also did work for the Armed Forces Radio programs, which developed his passion for composition.

Following the war, Bernstein received an invitation to go to Hollywood and write for film. Some of the films you may know him for are The Ten Commandments (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and The Great Escape (1963). He even won an Oscar for his work as music director for Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).

What’s your favorite Elmer Bernstein score?

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) is perhaps one of the most beloved American composers, conductors, and educators of the twentieth century. He studied with Walter Piston as Harvard University. He is remembered most for his time as music director of the New York Philharmonic, for his televised Young People’s Concerts, and of course, for his musical theatre work, West Side Story. Let’s spend the rest of today looking at this famous and much-loved modern telling of Romeo and Juliet.

During the mid-20th century, New York City existed in a state of unrest as Puerto Ricans migrated to the U.S. Juvenile delinquency became a popular topic in the press as street gangs formed and rivalries developed between Caucasians and Puerto Ricans. Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and the team that worked behind the making of West Side Story decided to use this contemporary and real problem in society as the basis for their new musical, a show based in the Upper West Side of New York City and involving two gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Caucasian Jets.

When writing the music for West Side Story, Bernstein traveled to Puerto Rico for inspiration. The musical indeed draws on Hispanic elements in both music and dance. In her book West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical, Elizabeth A. Wells states “the adoption of a specific ethnic style in a serious and self-consciously ‘American’ work has ultimately, and perhaps unexpectedly, earned for the Hispanic style a level of recognition in American culture it had never before achieved.”

Two popular Latin American dance forms are found in the gymnasium dance scene: the mambo and the cha-cha. During the mambo, Bernstein chose to use bongos, cowbells, and trumpets in order to resemble a Latin jazz band. The performers yell “Mambo!” from the sidelines of the dance floor, directly referencing the flamenco tradition in which dancers are urged on by onlookers. The choreography during this scene is also based on conventions of Latin social dancing.

You can watch the “Mambo” clip from the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Eric Whitacre and Goodnight Moon

Eric Whitacre is a Grammy-winning composer and conductor based out of Los Angeles, California where he is current Artist-in-Residence with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. He came to his passion for classical music relatively late, after singing Mozart’s Requiem while a student at the University of Nevada. He went on to study with John Corigliano and David Diamond at the prestigious Julliard School of Music. Whitacre writes orchestral works but is most known for his music composed for vocal ensemble. He has received commissions from some of the world’s top ensembles including the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Chanticleer, and The King’s Singers.

What is your favorite of Whitacre’s works? I’d have to say mine is “Goodnight Moon” – a song Whitacre wrote based on the popular children’s book of the same name by Margaret Wise Brown. After reading the book to his son countless times before bed, Whitacre decided to set the song to music for his wife, soprano Hila Plitmann, to sing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Music of Samuel Barber

This month Clef Notes is looking at a few composers known for their work in American music history. Samuel Barber (1910–1981) is the perfect example of a composer who played a significant role in American music during the mid-twentieth century. He wrote in just about every genre and was known to create a style similar to that of the Romantic period rather than that of the modernists who surrounded him. Besides composing, he was also known as a singer and a pianist.

Barber first came to prominence in the late 1930s after Toscanini performed the second movement of his string quartet with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. That movement today is known as his Adagio for Strings and is often heard in film or settings where grief is the prominent mood.

In 1958, Barber won his first Pulitzer Prize for the opera Vanessa. Later, in 1962, he won a second Pulitzer Prize for his Piano Concerto. Do you know this work? Listen here.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag

If you enjoy ragtime music, then you’ve most certainly heard of Scott Joplin (1867–1917). Joplin was a African American composer and pianist who was the leading ragtime composer of his day. Ragtime was a popular style in music at the turn of the nineteenth century that was known for its syncopated rhythms played against a regular bass. While it contains European aspects in its form and harmony, its rhythms are rooted in African music history.

Joplin grew up with musical parents and taught himself to play piano as a boy. He went on to organize a touring vocal group and later, a band. His first major publication and perhaps his most popular work was Maple Leaf Rag, a piano rag that most Americans have heard, whether or not they know who to attribute it to.

What’s your favorite piano rag?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Music of Erich Korngold

Even though Erich Korngold (1897–1957) was born in Europe, he can be considered a great American composer who impacted the history of the film industry in Hollywood. Korngold was a child prodigy, composing from a very young age and known among the world’s leading composers. After a successful career in Austria, film director Max Reinhardt brought the young man to Hollywood to help with the music for the film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). Warner Brothers was so impressed by his work that they hired him to write the score for Captain Blood (1935) followed by Anthony Adverse (1936) for which he won his first Oscar. Korngold was a key composer who helped turn film music into the art form we know it as today. Besides film music, he also is known for his work with opera, symphonies, chamber works, concertos, and more. Listen here to his lovely Oscar-winning score to Robin Hood (1938).

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever"

John Philip Sousa is the perfect composer to talk about during the week we celebrate Independence Day in America. Born in Washington DC in 1854, Sousa was raised surrounded by band music. His father played trombone in the U.S. Marine Band and young Sousa began learning band instruments, as well as the violin, by the age of six! When he tried to run away and join a circus band as a teenager, his father found him and put him in the Marine Band.

At age 21, Sousa left the Marine Band and went on to perform violin and conduct theater orchestras. After marrying his wife several years later, he returned to DC to become the Marine Band leader. He conducted the band for twelve years before starting up his own band, The Sousa Band. With this band, Sousa traveled the world, spreading patriotism wherever he performed. While he did write several operettas, Sousa is mainly remembered for his band music.

“The Stars and Stripes Forever” is perhaps his most famous march and has become symbolic of America and the flag. He wrote the march while feeling homesick on a voyage home from Europe. The piece was such a hit that most people expected to hear it at every Sousa Band concert. It’s ironic that “The Stars and Stripes Forever” ended up being the last piece Sousa conducted before passing away in 1932.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Peter Schickele and James Thurber

Peter Schickele is a composer, musician, and author who began his musical journey at a young age, composing and conducting four orchestral works and many chamber pieces and songs all before he finished his schooling! He then went on to study with Roy Harris, Darius Milhaud, and Vincent Persichetti at the Juilliard School of Music. Known for his works for orchestra, chorus, chamber groups, and movies and television, Schickele has received commissions from top ensembles including the National Symphony, the Minnesota Opera, and the Saint Louis Symphony. Perhaps you’ve heard his score to Where the Wild Things Are (2009)?

A fan of James Thurber’s drawings, Peter Schickele was commissioned to write a piece to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of Thurber’s birth. Have you heard Thurber’s Dogs? This fun work finds inspiration in six of Thurber’s dog sketches. Listen to one of the movements, “Dog Asleep” and view Thurber’s sketch here.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Carter Pann's "The Cheese Grater"

You may be familiar with the composer Carter Pann if you’ve heard his piece “The Cheese Grater” on 90.9. This piece is a fun two-step for piano, inspired by the frequent accidents Carter has experienced with this utensil in the kitchen!

Pann is a composer and pianist based out of the University of Colorado Boulder. His many awards and recognitions include two Grammy nominations and a 2016 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Music. He has worked with musicians around the world and major ensembles including the London Symphony, the City of Birmingham Symphony, and the Seattle Symphony. His work includes music for voice, chamber groups, orchestra, and wind ensembles.

Let’s wrap up our look at modern-day composers this month with Peter Schickele. Join me next time!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A World Premiere from Ellen Taafe Zwilich

Does the name Ellen Taafe Zwilich sound familiar? This month Clef Notes is exploring the music of modern-day composers and today, we will look at this woman who was the first female to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music!

Ellen Taafe Zwilich has written many impressive works, commissioned and performed by the world’s top ensembles. She received her education from Juilliard and currently holds a professorship at Florida State University. Did you know that she received the Keys to the City from the Cincinnati mayor in 2000 after her Millennium Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra was premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Jesus Lopez-Cobos?

Perhaps you also heard a recent world premiere of one of her works, dedicated to and performed by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio for their 40th anniversary. Pas de Trois was premiered as part of the Linton Chamber Music Series during this past season. When you tune to 90.9 WGUC this Sunday, June 25 at 8pm, you’ll have the opportunity to hear this world premiere performance as part of our Music Cincinnati Series! 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Bryce Dessner's Aheym

Today, let’s look at a composer who comes from Cincinnati and frequently returns for collaborations with the CSO. Who might I be referring to? Bryce Dessner – the founder of the MusicNOW Festival.

Though primarily known as a guitarist with The National, Dessner also has made quite the career for himself as a composer! He has had a good number of commissions from major ensembles including the LA Philharmonic, the Kronos Quartet, and the New York City Ballet. He has also written works for artists including Jennifer Koh and Katia and Marielle Labeque.

Growing up in Cincinnati, Dessner began his music studies on the flute, but quickly moved to classical guitar. He also had a band with his brother and often wondered how he might fuse the two musical paths. This task turned into a successful and creative career.

What works by Dessner are you familiar with? Today, let’s look at a piece commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 2009. Aheym (homeward in Yiddish) is dedicated his grandmother, who often told Bryce and his brother as children certain details of how she made it to America (the family includes Jewish immigrants). 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Kevin Puts and the Marimba

Last time we looked at David Lang, a modern-day composer that Cincinnati audiences may be familiar with due to his CSO commission in 2014. But what about Kevin Puts? Does that name sound familiar? If you saw the Cincinnati Opera’s performance of the new opera Silent Night in 2014 then you know Kevin Puts, who just so happened to win the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for this work!

Kevin Puts is known around the world as a talented composer. His operas, symphonies, and concertos have been performed by leading ensembles including the New York Philharmonic and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, as well as top-tier soloists including Yo-Yo Ma and Evelyn Glennie. He received his education from the Eastman School of Music and Yale and currently teaches composition at the Peabody Institute and holds the Director position at the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer’s Institute.

Today, let’s look at a fun work Puts wrote out of his love for Mozart piano concertos. Surprisingly, it’s not a piano concerto! It’s his Marimba Concerto, which is written so that the soloist interacts with the orchestra in a similar manner as what we find in Mozart’s piano concertos. Puts also used Mozart’s favored three-movement structure. One interesting fact about this piece is that each movement contains a subtitle that Puts took from his aunt’s poetry (Fleda Brown).

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

David Lang's the little match girl passion

This month, Clef Notes is looking at modern-day composers and new music. Many of you are likely familiar with the composer who takes the spotlight today. David Lang’s mountain was commissioned and performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra during their MusicNOW concert in 2014. It also appears on their Hallowed Ground album.

David Lang is one of the most-performed American composers today. His music has been heard globally, with performances by the BBC Symphony, eighth blackbird, the Santa Fe Opera, and more. Besides composing, Lang is also the co-founder and co-artistic director for Bang on a Can – a performing arts group in New York City that supports new, experimental music. He also teaches composition at Yale and is the artist-in-residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His many awards include a Pulitzer Prize, which he won for the little match girl passion. This creative work is based on the tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Lang weaves the story into his own re-writing of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. What do you think?

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Philip Lasser

Known to blend Impressionism with characteristics of American music, Philip Lasser is a New York City-based composer who is on faculty at Juilliard. He boasts an impressive education, including studies with composer David Diamond and work with Narcis Bonet and Gaby Casadesus – both colleagues of Nadia Boulanger. He’s currently director of the European American Music Alliance, a school that trains composers, musicians, and conductors in the tradition of Boulanger. He’s also artistic director of Gaspard, a performing group based in New York City who focuses on performing French salon-type concerts.

Lasser’s works have been performed by the Atlanta Symphony, Seattle Symphony, New York Chamber Symphony, and others, by artists including Kristjan Jarvi, Zuill Bailey, and Simone Dinnerstein. You perhaps are familiar with one of his works, The Circle and the Child, a piano concerto written for Dinnerstein and sometimes heard on 90.9. Lasser used the Bach chorale Ihr Gestirn’, ihr hohen Lüfte as inspiration for this piece. Listen to him explain more about its conception here

And here’s a performance of The Circle andthe Child for your listening pleasure.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Peter Boyer

Peter Boyer is a name you’ve probably heard. A contemporary American composer, Boyer’s works are frequently performed by major orchestras across the globe, and often heard on classical radio stations, including WGUC! It’s likely you’ve heard his “Silver Fanfare” on 90.9 – this popular work comes from Boyer’s larger piece On Music’s Wings that he wrote for the Pacific Symphony. The “Silver Fanfare” movement can stand alone, and was later chosen to open the 2015 and 2016 Hollywood Bowl.

Boyer began work as a composer at the young age of 15. His first major work was a Requiem Mass written in memory of his grandma. Since then, he’s studied with many renowned composers including John Corigliano and Elmer Bernstein. It certainly makes sense that he spent time under learning from Bernstein since Boyer is also now quite active in the film and TV music industry. He has contributed orchestrations for about 30 Hollywood films including work done for Michael Giacchino, Thomas Newman, James Newton Howard, James Horner, Alan Menken, and more. In addition to his work as a composer, Boyer conducts in his spare time! He’s been seen leading the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Hartford Symphony, and the Pasadena Symphony – just to name a few!

One of Boyer’s more major works that you perhaps might not be as familiar with is his Ellis Island: The Dream of America. This piece is for actors and orchestra and celebrates the American immigrant experience. Part of the performance includes projections of historical images from Ellis Island archives. The spoken portions come from real interviews with immigrants. Boyer worked to create monologues surrounded by complementary music. This piece was so successful that it was nominated for a Grammy award in 2006!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Daniel Dorff's Tweet

Daniel Dorff is a contemporary composer known especially for his flute and piccolo music, having even worked on arrangements for Sir James Galway! He first came on the scene at the age of 18 after winning first prize in the Aspen Music Festival’s annual composer’s competition. One of his teachers was the famous George Crumb, and over time his work has grown to be considered part of the standard repertoire. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Minnesota Orchestra are just a few of the world-renown orchestras who have performed his work. Listen here to a fun little work written for unaccompanied piccolo.

Tweet was inspired by robins that woke Dorff up every morning during springtime.

Next time, we look at a composer you’ve likely heard often on 90.9 – Peter Boyer. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Paul Schoenfield's Cafe Music

So often we look at music and composers who walked the earth hundreds of years ago. These men and women were quite talented and certainly worth being remembered. But did you know that we also have talented composers alive and working in the world today? This month, Clef Notes looks at a few of these composers and their music. Today, we kick things off with Paul Schoenfield.

If you frequently tune to 90.9, you’ve likely heard Schoenfield’s Four Parables or perhaps his Café Music. But did you know that Café Music was inspired by a Minneapolis restaurant’s house trio? That’s right – Schoenfield is not only a composer but a pianist, and after stepping in for the pianist in this house trio, it dawned on him that it would be neat to write classy dinner music that could also be performed in a concert hall! He took the Broadway, gypsy, and light classical sounds he heard the trio perform and created his own work. 

Schoenfield began his music studies as a child on piano and quickly realized he had a passion for composing. His teachers include famous names such as Rudolf Serkin and Julius Chajes. His works have been performed by major orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and the Seattle Symphony. His music finds inspiration in folk and popular styles as well as traditional classical models.

Join me next time as we look at a composer known for writing flute and piccolo music!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Puccini's La Boheme

This summer, the Cincinnati Opera performs Puccini’s La Bohème. Let’s wrap up our opera conversation this month by mentioning this lovely Italian opera dating from late 19th century.

Giacomo Puccini was known to create his own unique style, combining elements of the great opera composers who came before him: Verdi’s gorgeous vocal melodies and Wagner’s leitmotifs. Puccini used arias, choruses, duets, etc. and often blurred the distinction between recitatives and arias used in operas in the prior century.

La Bohème is perhaps Puccini’s most famous opera. Set in Paris around 1830, the tale revolves around the love between Parisian artists. The score is emotional and lyrical, depicting the good and sad times of life – from a first meeting to a last farewell. The melodies are memorable, and carefully used to depict the mood and setting of each scene. One example of how Puccini brilliantly used melody in this opera is in his slight alterations to a theme – first foreshadowing the plan to go to Café Momus in town during Act I, then developing the theme once the friends arrive in town during Act II, and finally turning this same theme into a distant memory during Act III.  

There’s good reason why La Bohème has remained one of the most popular operas of all time. But please do not take my word for it! Go watch the Cincinnati Opera perform it this summer and in the meantime, enjoy Musetta’s Waltz from Act II sung here by Anna Netrebko.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk

Today let’s talk about a highly influential German opera composer: Richard Wagner. Wagner believed in the synthesis of music and drama into one “total artwork.” Detailing the staging, lighting, costuming, music, acting, etc. in his scores/librettos (yes he wrote the text and music to his operas!), Wagner coined the term “Gesamtkunstwerk” (total artwork) to describe his creations.

Another important musical term used in reference to Wagner’s operas is “leitmotif” (leading motive). This word is used to describe main themes throughout the opera that typically represent a specific person, object, etc. This theme occurs in various contexts throughout the opera, and though recognizable, it is varied or transformed in different ways to best depict the current point in the drama. Certain instruments, keys, or harmonies may also be used in connection with various leitmotifs in order to help the listener make the connection.

Wagner’s Ring cycle is an excellent example of a work using leitmotifs to connect music and drama in this Gesamtkunstwerk idea. During these four operas, Wagner introduces various leitmotifs that reappear throughout the cycle. Constantly using this thematic material, Wagner makes these musical ideas integral to the drama on stage. Take a look at this informative video by members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra brass section in which they describe several uses of the leitmotif in the Ring cycle.  

Wagner had an incredible influence on composers to come after him. His leitmotif ideas have even found their way into film and television scores, composers using certain musical ideas to depict specific elements on screen. One great example of this is the “shark theme” found in Jaws

Do you have a favorite Wagner opera? Have you noticed the use of leitmotifs in any of your favorite movies or television shows? 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Grand Opera

During the 19th century, a new type of opera came into existence: grand opera. This type of opera focused just as much on the staging and scenery as it did the music and was meant to appeal to the middle-class audience. Grand operas included ballets, choruses, the use of stage machinery, etc. Rossini’s William Tell is a great example of this, using an on-stage lake in one of the scenes.

Giacomo Meyerbeer was one prominent composer of grand operas during the 19th century. Meyerbeer made it his goal to use whatever medium he could to help dramatize his operas. One of his well-known operas, Les Huguenots, uses a large cast, ballet elements, and special scenery and lighting effects to add to the audience’s experience. Meyerbeer’s style greatly influenced composers who came after him, among them Richard Wagner who we will talk about next time.