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. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Verdi's Rigoletto

Last time we talked about Italian opera in the first half of the 19th century. Today, let’s look at opera in Italy in the later half. Giuseppe Verdi wrote outstanding melodies that became so popular he began to hide them as he composed in fear they would be leaked prior to the premiere.

Verdi preferred to choose the opera’s subject and to pull it from a successful spoken drama from writers such as Shakespeare and Hugo. Verdi also composed with certain singers in mind, creating vocal parts that would best fit the individual’s voice. He typically would wait to complete the orchestration until after rehearsals began.

In his famous Rigoletto, Verdi uses various styles of singing to depict the main characters. The hunchback Rigoletto does not have a clear aria while the Duke of Mantua sings in a tuneful manner. Gilda alternates between both styles.  Enjoy Rigoletto here

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Rossini Opera

During the early 19th-century, several Italian opera composers went about creating a new Italian opera tradition. One such composer, Gioachino Rossini, made it his goal to depict characters on stage as real human beings. He also often combined serious and comic characters within the same opera.

Rossini was known to focus his opera composition on the voice. He believed the voice to be more important than the opera’s plot, the staging, orchestration, etc. He required a style of singing we call “bel canto” (beautiful singing). Singers were expected to use their entire range with ease, singing in a beautiful, soaring, and effortless manner.

You may notice when you hear Rossini on WGUC that many of his pieces sound fun and tuneful. He also often tended to enjoy repeating musical phrases, making it louder each time to add to audiences’ excitement. This became known as the “Rossini crescendo.” Rossini also furthered the plot by adding plot twists or changes in mood within arias or duets.

Here is an excerpt from one of Rossini’s famous operas, The Barber of Seville.

In your opinion, how does this compare to other operas we’ve looked at thus far?

Monday, May 15, 2017

Mozart's The Magic Flute

Moving along rather quickly through opera history, today let’s look at a famous late 18th-century composer whose operas are still widely performed and loved today: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The Cincinnati Opera will perform Mozart’s The Magic Flute this summer and I certainly hope you will have the opportunity to see it! Mozart wrote this opera during the last year of his life in collaboration with librettist, opera singer, and theater director Emanuel Schikaneder. Both men were personally affiliated with Freemasonry, resulting in certain masonic themes showing up throughout the work. Mozart wrote this opera as a German Singspiel – a light opera with spoken dialogue rather than recitative. He drew from multiple 18th-century styles including the splendor of the opera seria voice, the folk humor characteristic of German Singspiel, the use of choral sections, and fantastic solo arias as exhibited by the Queen of the Night here.

Mozart conducted the premiere of The Magic Flute in September 1791 and Schikaneder sang the role of Papageno. The opera was a huge success, but unfortunately Mozart did not live to see just how much of a hit it would become. He became ill that fall and died in December of the same year. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Christoph Willibald Gluck and Opera Reform

This month, we are doing a brief overview on opera throughout history. So far we have discussed opera from its origins around 1600 to the classical era. During the mid-18th-century, opera began to reform as Enlightenment thinkers felt it should exhibit more of a balance between music and drama.

To create this balance between music and drama, composers aimed to move the plot forward and make the orchestra more of an important role in accompanying the vocalists. Rather than only playing simple harmonies under the vocalists, the orchestra now expressed emotions and moods pertinent to the opera’s plot. They also added choruses to many operas, something not common in Italian opera of that day.

Christoph Willibald Gluck was a pioneer of this new opera reform style. His Orfeo ed Euridice is an example of this. In this opera, Gluck uses the music to help further along the drama. He even uses a chorus as part of the action in the Chorus of the Furies of Act II. During this section, the orchestra certainly helps to convey the mood by using harsh strings, horns, and trombones to depict the Furies as Orfeo enters the Underworld. Gluck then uses a harp and softer, plucked strings to accompany the desperate Orfeo as he begs for mercy.

You can hear a clip from Gluck’s opera here

How do you think this compares with operas earlier in the century?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Opera Outside Italy

The last few days we have focused our attention on operas sung in Italian. Did opera exist in other languages at this point in history? Certainly! Today, let’s look at a few examples of opera in neighboring nations and see how they compare to what we have seen so far.

Comic opera sung in French was known as opera comique. Early in the century, opera comique pulled selections from popular tunes of the time. After Italian opera styles began growing in prominence, however, opera comique gradually began adding newly-written arias. Unlike opera buffa, this type of comic opera uses spoken dialogue rather than recitative.

In England, the common type of opera at that time was known as ballad opera. This type of opera was sung in English and, like opera comique, used spoken dialogue in place of recitative. It also set new words to old tunes that people would recognize as folk songs or dances of that region.

Singspiel is the term used to describe opera in Germany at that time. These operas often used a comic plot and, like the other opera types we’ve looked at today, consisted of spoken dialogue alternating with musical sections. Be sure to check back later this month for a great Singspiel example from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!

Monday, May 8, 2017

An Introduction to Italian Comic Opera

Last week we discussed serious opera during the early classical period. But what about operas with comic subjects? Unlike opera seria that extended beyond borders, comic opera was a bit different depending on the nation. Today we will look at a few of these forms found in Italy.

Opera buffa was the main form of comic opera found in Italy during the classical period. Unlike other nations, the opera was sung throughout with no spoken dialogue. It typically contained around six or more characters and took place during present day rather in historical times as in many opera serias.

Another form of comic opera found in Italy is known as an intermezzo. Intermezzos are two-act comic operas performed in between the acts of an opera seria. They typically only contained two singing characters with one possible third character acting as a mute.

One example of an intermezzo is Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s La Serva padrona which sparked the Quarrel of the Comic Actors in France. Here is a clip. Notice the simplicity of the recitative and accompaniment. What do you think? How does this compare to other operas we’ve looked at so far? 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Johann Adolf Hasse and Faustina Bordoni

Last time we discussed the origins of opera and early opera composers. Now, let’s step a bit forward in time to the 18th century and discuss various types of opera that emerged on the musical scene.

One type of opera, known as opera seria, extended across borders and was found in quite a few European nations. Its name means “serious opera” and is just that: an opera in three acts, alternating between arias and recitatives and based on a serious, often historical, subject. One famous librettist of the time named Pietro Metastasio, was known for using two sets of lovers as the main characters in his various dramas.

Unlike earlier operas in which arias conveyed one specific mood, operas of this period expressed multiple emotions. One 18th-century opera seria composer, Johann Adolf Hasse, was married to star soprano Faustina Bordoni who held lead roles in many of his operas. Hasse was known to compose his arias for Faustina’s voice, accentuating her strengths. Faustina was known to add embellishments throughout the arias to “show off” her virtuosity.

One of Hasse’s operas, Cleofide, is a great example of opera seria from this period. Note the caricature of Faustina in the video! 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Early Opera: Peri and Monteverdi

Credited with composing the first opera in history, Jacopo Peri wrote Dafne in 1598. He modeled it after Greek plays by creating a drama that was sung throughout.

Two years following Dafne, Peri set the drama L’Euridice to music. The plot is based on the mythological tale of Orfeo, who uses the emotion created by music to persuade the creatures of the underworld to let his wife, Euridice, return to life. In his opera, Peri created a new technique now widely known in the opera world as recitative. This musical term refers to a type of singing meant to resemble speech. He also used what is known as arias between the recitative sections during which singers had the opportunity to show off a bit in a solo song.

Peri’s L’Euridice was performed at the wedding celebration of Maria de’Medici to King Henry IV of France. Around the same time, another early-opera composer was emerging on the scene with an opera of the same plot. Though not opera’s originator, Claudio Monteverdi is recognized in high regard by music historians for his accomplishments with his first opera, L’Orfeo (1607). Like Peri, Monteverdi used the same mythological story of Orfeo and Euridice as well as arias and recitative. He expanded the instrumental ensemble and included various duets and dances throughout to better reflect the drama.

Monteverdi does an excellent job in L’Orfeo at conveying the character’s emotions through music. For instance, when Orfeo discovers that his wife has died, the music changes from a major mode to minor and adds an organ to reflect his sad state. Listen to Orfeo’s lament here

Do you think Monteverdi effectively conveys Orfeo’s emotion following this tragedy?

This month is a significant one for Monteverdi fans – May 9 marks 450 years since his birth! 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Forerunners to Opera

This month, our topic will be opera. Because it is a broad topic that we could literally spend months discussing, I will only hit a few opera highlights throughout history this month and perhaps we can explore other additional operas in future months.

Though the first opera was not composed until the year 1600, opera characteristics existed within various Renaissance genres years before operas emerged onto the musical scene. Here are a few forerunners to opera with their descriptions:

Pastoral drama: play with songs throughout
Madrigal: poem set to music with multiple voice parts
Intermedio: musical interlude performed between acts of a play (usually the topic related to mythology)
Greek tragedy

Next time we will discuss two major early operas, dating around the turn of the 17th century. Think about how these operas may be similar or different to others you may be more familiar with. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

What are you watching?

What are you watching this weekend and how will you view it differently based on what we learned this month in Clef Notes?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Composer Cameos

Film director Alfred Hitchcock is known for making cameo appearances in his films. He’s seen leaving the pet store with two pups as Tippy Hedren enters in The Birds (1963). Or what about the man missing his bus during the title sequence of North by Northwest (1959)? But did you know that film composers sometimes make cameo appearances as well? Below is a list of a few of my favorites. Next time you watch one of these films, be on the lookout for the composer!

No Reservations (2007) – Philip Glass appears in the café run by the three lead characters at the end of the film.

The Truman Show (1998) – Philip Glass appears playing the piano during the “Truman Sleeps” segment.

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King – extended edition (2003) – Howard Shore appears sharing a drink with the group following the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

Son of the Pink Panther (1993) – Henry Mancini hands the baton to the panther in the opening scene.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – James Horner runs down a corridor as preparations are made for battle.

What other composer cameos have you seen in your favorite films?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ennio Morricone

You may be familiar with the work of Ennio Morricone (b. 1928) – a legend in film music history. Though prolific in a variety of genres, he gained fame from his work in collaboration with director Sergio Leone. This partnership resulted in well-known Spaghetti Westerns including A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in The West (1968), and A Fistful of Dynamite (1971). Morricone’s Western score influenced the way audiences expect Western films to sound. Credited with hundreds of scores, Morricone has several modern films you may be familiar with as well: The Hateful Eight (2015), Inglorious Basterds (2009), and Django Unchained (2012) are just a few.

What’s your favorite Morricone score?

Monday, April 17, 2017

Henry Mancini

It’s been a month of movie music in Clef Notes. Let’s focus our attention this week on a few pillars in film score history. We’ll talk about Ennio Morricone later in the week and today, it’s Henry Mancini (1924–1994).

Did you know that Henry Mancini was from Cleveland, Ohio? He was first introduced to music in his youth, playing the flute. Following WWII, he joined the Glenn Miller-Tex Beneke Orchestra as a pianist and arranger. He got his start at Universal in 1952 with a short assignment for an Abbott and Costello film. He ended up sticking around for several years after that, working in their music department. Over the course of his career, he won 4 Oscars, 20 Grammys, and other awards, and produced an impressive discography. Perhaps you’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Pink Panther (1963), or Peter Gunn (1958–1961)? These are just a few examples from the extensive list of cinematic projects he contributed to throughout his lifetime. 

What’s your favorite Mancini score? 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Music in Period Films

Period films often use music from the era in which they take place to create an historically accurate performance. Sometimes, however, the music we hear may be from a time following the film’s setting. Today’s let’s look a few examples – one obvious, and the second more subtle.

Have you seen the 2006 film Marie Antoinette staring Kirsten Dunst? This film is set during the 18th century and tells the story of the last queen of France before the French Revolution. Listen to the music here.

This scene shows an obvious example of music displacement. “I Want Candy” performed by Bow Wow Wow is modern music intentionally chosen for use in a period film.

But what about the 1975 Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon? This movie also takes place during the 18th century. Listen here for any displaced music.

Did you hear any? If not, that’s okay! Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-flat, Op. 100 is used non-diegetically during this scene. It fits nicely into this historic setting, and it’s meant to blend well as period music. This piece, however, was not written until the 19th century! I wonder if the creators of Barry Lyndon were aware of this discrepancy when they chose it as part of their film score?

During this month of movie music, let’s talk about a few significant film composers. Join me next time!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Opera in TV Sitcoms

We’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last few years looking at examples of music in movies. But what about TV sitcoms? The popular 1990s show Seinfeld was created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld to follow the whacky life of a stand-up comedian living in New York. I’ve always enjoyed watching re-runs of this show, but it wasn’t until recently that I stumbled across the episode titled “The Opera” and realized that classical music can show up anywhere! 

In this episode, Jerry and his friends get tickets to see Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci. Elaine initially plans to take her boyfriend, Joe Davola, until he begins calling her “Nedda,” making false claims that she’s cheating on him, and trapping her in his apartment. Later, Joe Davola dresses up as Canio the clown from Pagliacci and Kramer gives him a ticket to the opera, not realizing his identity. During the final scene of the episode, Jerry reads off the cast list, including the role of Nedda. Elaine’s face reveals her horror as she suddenly realizes Joe Davola’s plan for his own Nedda (Elaine). The ending credits then role, playing the aria “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci, instead of the usual Seinfeld theme.

How is this significant, you may wonder? In Leoncavallo’s opera, Canio the clown plays the part of Pagliacci in a performance. During the show, he stabs his wife Nedda and her lover in a fit of rage and jealously. Joe Davola relates to Canio, while he sees Elaine as the doomed Nedda.

What classical music connections have you noticed in other TV sitcoms?

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Musical Ambiguity in The Truman Show

This month, Clef Notes revisits a popular topic: music and cinema. Last time we introduced two important terms often used in reference to film music – 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 (the source of the music is on screen). Non-diegetic music serves as a background to the film and can only be heard by the viewer, not the characters on the screen. But what happens when these two concepts blur?

The 1998 Jim Carrey film The Truman Show tells the tale of an insurance salesman who discovers that his life is a popular television show. At one point in the movie before Truman realizes the truth, viewers watch Truman sleep while an appropriate Philip Glass score plays underneath. Obviously, Truman himself does not hear this music making it, in a sense, non-diegetic. The on-screen viewers of Truman’s show can hear the music. So how would we define this? Is the music diegetic since some actors on screen can hear it? Or is it non-diegetic since its purpose is background music, both for us, and for the on-screen audience? If you pay close attention during this scene, you may notice the music performed at the piano – a source. Does this make it diegetic? What do you think?

Monday, April 3, 2017

Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Film Music

This month I’d like to revisit 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.

This month, we’ll look at everything from classical music references in a 90s sitcom to composer cameos in film but today, let’s begin by looking at several impressive musical terms often used when referring to film music - 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. An example would be thisAs 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, the scene begins with George Peppard at the typewriter. The music begins and it’s not initially clear whether or not he can actually hear the music. When he walks to the window and looks out, noticing Audrey Hepburn singing, it’s then clear that this is a diegetic example. Henry Mancini wrote the music to “Moon River” from the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s. We will learn more about him 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 found in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Here, the music enhances the plot for the viewer during the final duel scene. The characters, however, cannot hear it themselves. Ennio Morricone wrote the score to this film. We’ll look at more of his work in a few weeks.

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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The 13th-century Motet

Let’s wrap up our month of Medieval music by looking at a very important genre that developed in the early 13th century – the motet.  This type of polyphony adds a newly-written Latin text to the upper voices of clausulae. Wait – what does that mean? “Clausulae” were sections of organum (see my last post!) that could be removed and replaced with a new section. Therefore, a motet contained a new text sung with a lower part that usually was taken from chant. Eventually more voices were added, singing their own individual texts. The motet developed in form over time and was performed both inside and outside of the church. One example of a leading motet composer is Guillaume de Machaut.

Guillaume de Machaut
Courtesy of
Around this time, we see more developments in notation including note duration signified by note shapes – quite similar to how we notate music today! Also, we see mensuration signs, the ancestor to modern-day time signatures.

Next month, we’re taking a leap forward in time and hitting our annual music and cinema month in Clef Notes! Join me as we look at our favorite films and how music plays a major part.

Monday, March 27, 2017

An Introduction to Polyphony

This month, Clef Notes has been looking at music from the Medieval era. It’s impossible to cover everything in just one month’s time. Hopefully, however, you have at least been given a good glance at where our Western music tradition finds its roots. This week, let’s wrap up the month by looking at polyphony – music in which multiple voices sing together on independent parts.

Polyphony first rose in significance during the 11th and 12th centuries with the purpose of adding ornamentation to liturgical music. It helped develop the ideas of counterpoint and harmony. It likely existed prior to this point in history, however the earliest written records of this type of music date from this time period. There are various genres of polyphony. We will look at organum today.

Organum consists of a melody sung against a drone or a melody doubled at a consonant interval. It includes two voice parts that follow counterpoint rules. There are various types of organum that we will briefly mention here, but I strongly encourage you to explore more on your own if you find this topic interesting. Parallel organum uses a pre-existing chant in one voice and adds an “organal” voice a fifth below, note for note. Free organum allows the “organal” voice more independence, moving in similar motion (same direction but different interval), contrary motion (opposite direction), or oblique motion (one voice stays the same while the other moves) to the chant voice. Later in the 12th century we see more ornate examples of this type of polyphony, with anywhere from one to three notes in one part to every one note in the original chant voice. Around this time, we see musicians beginning to compose rather that just improvise music, and their system of notation began to indicate duration of notes. It didn’t look quite like music notes do today. They used combinations of note groups rather than note shapes to show the desired duration.

Two important Notre Dame musicians of the time were Leonin and Perotin. These men wrote polyphony, specifically organum. Leonin was known for his collection of two-voice organum, while Perotin also wrote for three or even four voices!

I think that’s probably enough early music for one sitting. Let’s look more at another polyphonic genre next time – the motet!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Secular Music in the 12th Century

This month, Clef Notes has been looking at music from the Medieval era. So far, we’ve emphasized the importance of the church in relation to the development of music. But did music exist outside of the church? Let’s find out.

Most people outside of the church did not read music during ancient times. In fact, most people were not literate, so much of the music from that time period was never written down. That makes it quite difficult for historians to learn much about the secular music from this time period! We do know that music was seen outside of the church, most commonly as settings of poetry as a means of entertainment.

During the 12th century, we know that many secular, newly-composed works were about unattainable love. There were various types of musicians, depending on the country, who performed music for entertainment purposes. One type was known as a Jongleur. A Jongleur was a lower-class musician who traveled around performing tricks, telling stories, and playing music. A Minstrel is another type of musician seen during the 13th century. A Minstrel was employed by the court as an entertainer. We also know about Troubadours and Trouvereres – poet-composers sponsored by aristocrats in the court. These secular musicians were known by different names depending on the country, but essentially performed the same role.

Courtesy of