Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas from 90.9 WGUC and Clef Notes!

Merry Christmas from Clef Notes and 90.9 WGUC, Cincinnati’s Classical Public Radio! What will you be listening to today as you spend time with the family and take part in holiday festivities? Do you have any favorite Christmas melodies?

Don’t forget that tonight at 6:00 we are featuring an encore presentation of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on 90.9 WGUC – the perfect accompaniment to your holiday activities! 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

O magnum mysterium

In light of Christmas this next week, I thought it would be appropriate to contemplate the beauty and meaning in an ancient Christmas text, O magnum mysterium. Below you can read the English translation of this text and then I’ve followed it with five musical settings. Which is your favorite, or do you have another favorite that is not listed here?

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Happy Birthday Beethoven!

In light of it being Beethoven’s birthday, I thought it would be fun to gather a list of some of my favorite Beethoven works. This was more difficult than I anticipated, however, because really all of his works are great! Therefore, I limited myself to ten favorites. What would you add to the list?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel

Absolute music or programmatic music: do you have a preference? This week we are looking at two compositional approaches that formed during the 19th-century. Absolute music is one type defined as music for music’s sake. The other type, programmatic music, uses an outside source as its inspiration and is often times accompanied by a program to provide details to listeners on the composer’s intent and the music’s meaning. Today, let’s look at one musical example of programmatic music.

Richard Strauss was known as a programmatic composer. You can tell by the titles of many of his works that they have extra-musical sources (Don Juan, Macbeth, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote). Strauss used New German School-members Liszt and Berlioz as models of inspiration in creating transformed themes, programmatic topics, and orchestration.

One of his well-known tone poems, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, is based on the 16th-century story of a boy’s adventures and pranks. A tone poem is like a symphonic poem in that it is a one-movement programmatic work with various themes and contrasting sections that help convey a specific story or character.

Though Strauss hesitated in providing a program for his work, it is clearly programmatic in nature. Here’s what the composer had to say about his tone poem:

“It is impossible for me to furnish a program for Eulenspiegel; were I to put into words the thoughts that its several incidents suggested to me, they would seldom suffice, and might even give rise to offense. Let me leave it, therefore, to my hearers to crack the hard nut that the rogue has prepared for them. By way of helping them to a better understanding, it seems sufficient to point out the two Eulenspiegel motives, which, in the most manifold disguises, moods, and situations, pervade the whole up to the catastrophe, when, after he has been condemned to death, Till is strung up to the gibbet. For the rest, let the merry citizens of Cologne guess at the musical joke that a rogue has offered them.”

The two themes that Stratuss refers to represent Till. One is presented by the violins in the opening and one is the famous horn solo. The themes appear throughout the work, varied as Till experiences various misadventures.

Listen to Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks here. Does knowing its connection to this old tale provide greater meaning, understanding, or enjoyment for you? Or do you think you would enjoy this work equally if not more if you had no outside source and were left to determine your own thoughts and connections?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Brahms and Absolute Music

Last time we looked at the mid-19th century debate over absolute and programmatic music. Johannes Brahms advocated absolute music or, music for music’s sake. Known for introducing new elements to traditional forms, Brahms sought to put his own mark on the successes of his predecessors. Though it took him over 40 years to attempt to complete a symphony in fear of remaining in the shadow of Beethoven, he ended up completing four outstanding symphonies that are still known and loved today.

Today, let’s use the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony as our absolute music listening example. This movement is a chaconne, a Baroque form characterized by a slow, stately feel and featuring variations on a harmonic pattern or a constantly repeated bass line. The set of variations in this movement draws from Bach’s cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150. This use of a theme and variations movement as the finale of a symphony was not common but we do see it in Beethoven’s Third Symphony, which may have also been a model for Brahms.

Listen here to the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Do you feel that if Brahms had provided a program explaining his intent and the music’s meaning it would help you to more fully enjoy this work? Or do you prefer to come up with your own images, moods, and meaning when listening to this beautiful music? Let me know your opinion!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Absolute vs. Programmatic Music

During the mid to late 19th century, the revival of older music became quite popular. Publishers distributed editions of Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, and audiences became acquainted with hearing their repertoire. This revival troubled many living composers who believed it difficult to compete with the “greats” of the past. While some composers of this time decided to approach this issue by expanding upon these great historical forms, others believed that in order to create a spark to catch the public’s eye, they must create something entirely new and innovative.

This week let’s look at a 19th-century dispute over “absolute” music and “programmatic” music. Absolute music is the idea of music for music’s sake and included people such as Johannes Brahms who believed that music is a complete and beautiful work in and of itself and does not need support from outside sources. Brahms often times used these past composers as models on which he expanded with his own ideas.

As an advocate of absolute music, music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote the following in his book, On the Musically Beautiful: “What kind of beauty is the beauty of a musical composition? It is a specifically musical kind of beauty. By this we understand a beauty that is self-contained and in no need of content from outside itself, that consists simply and solely of tones and their artistic combination…”

On the opposite side of the issue, supporters of programmatic music wanted something new in their music that pointed away from the past. These composers used outside sources such as poetry, stories, visuals, etc. to enhance the meaning in their music. Often times, the composition would be accompanied with an actual program that explained the story and meaning linked to this outside source. Composers such as Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz make up this group of programmatic composers that was coined the “New German School” by music critic Franz Brendel in 1859. Though Liszt and Berlioz were not actually German by birth, Brendel considered them German in spirit due to their use of Beethoven as a model. Other composers who used this programmatic technique include Bruckner, Wolf, R. Strauss, and Mahler.

Later this week we will look at an example of both absolute music and programmatic music. Do you prefer the idea of music for music’s sake or do you enjoy an accompanying program? Let me know your thoughts…there are no wrong answers! 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Nutcracker: A Holiday Tradition

Today I’d like to wrap up our look at seasonal music on Clef Notes by looking at a piece that has become a standard in the holiday repertory – Peter Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Many families who aren’t even familiar with classical music have turned this ballet into a holiday tradition.

Composed between 1891 and 1892, Tchaikovsky’s ballet premiered less than a year before his death. Based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the story tells of a young girl who receives a nutcracker as a Christmas present. The nutcracker comes to life, turning into a prince who takes her to a land filled with sweets. Though The Nutcracker was not overwhelmingly received at its premiere, audiences came to love the orchestral suite that Tchaikovsky assembled. It ended up becoming his most popular and well-recognized score!

Be sure to tune into 90.9 WGUC this holiday season to enjoy seasonal music, and special programs for Hanukkah and Christmas. A full schedule of programming is available at

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Sleigh Ride with Delius

Thanksgiving is over and for many, thoughts are now turned to the holiday season. Be sure to make 90.9 WGUC part of your holiday festivities – we have a carefully-selected assortment of programs for the Hanukkah and Christmas seasons. We kick things off with Advent Voices on December 3 at 8pm.

What are some of your favorite holiday or winter pieces of music? One of mine happens to be Frederick Delius’ “Sleigh Ride.” Something about the sound of sleigh bells always gets me into that picturesque-winter mindset.

Delius originally wrote “Sleigh Ride” in 1887 as a piano piece that he first performed for his friend and fellow composer, Edvard Grieg. He later orchestrated it, but then set it aside. It wasn’t until years following the composer’s death that it was re-discovered and added to standard holiday repertory.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Arnold Bax's "November Woods"

This month, Clef Notes is looking at seasonal music and this week, it’s Autumn! What better title for an Autumn piece than “November Woods”? Arnold Bax’s tone poem was written in 1917 and first performed in 1920. The piece depicts the sounds of nature during late Autumn. In Bax’s mind, this meant stormy and bleak. Upon completing the work, Bax admitted to friends that he also hinted at his own inner-turmoil in this music. At the time, he was in the midst of a tumultuous affair with pianist Harriet Cohen.

As you listen to “November Woods,” see if you can hear the windy morning near the beginning, depicted by the harp, woodwinds, and muted cello. 

Bax lived under the shadow of Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. It wasn’t until later in his life that he received a bit more public recognition.

Join me next time for a special music playlist to accompany your Thanksgiving activities! 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Frank Bridge's "Summer"

Composer, conductor, and violist Frank Bridge (1879–1941) is most famous for teaching Benjamin Britten, who attempted to get the word out about his beloved teacher by writing his Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge. This work is based on the second of Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet. Bridge received an exemplary education at the Royal College of Music and even had the opportunity to study with Charles Stanford.

Why look at Frank Bridge today? Well, he wrote a piece titled Summer and “summer” just happens to be the Clef Notes theme this week! Listen to Bridge’s depiction of summer here

Can you imagine the sounds of nature and the warmth in the air on a hot, summer day as you listen to this work? The piece begins with strings that sound like the leaves stirring in the breeze. This is followed by an oboe solo, long and lazy, just like summertime. What other references to summer do you hear Bridge express in this work?  

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Mendelssohn Summer

This month, Clef Notes is traveling through the seasons of the year and this week, it’s summer!

Did you know that Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) wrote his famous Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was just 17 years old? Growing up in a well-to-do family, young Mendelssohn was exposed to music early on and given excellent musical instruction from Carl Friedrich Zelter. His parents often hosted performances in their home, inviting society’s rich and famous to attend. It was at one of these in-home performances that Mendelssohn first performed his overture, playing it as a piano duet with his sister, Fanny. Shortly thereafter, he orchestrated the work and it became quite successful.

Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was conceived as a concert overture, not originally intended to accompany the play. It is likely that Mendelssohn first encountered Shakespeare as it was read aloud or acted out at some of the performances his parents held in their home.

Over a decade after the completion of his overture, Mendelssohn was approached by the King of Prussia who desired incidental music for a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was at this time that the remaining music came to be. You can listen below. Can you hear love, adventure, fairies, and even a donkey in this setting?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Springtime with Copland

This month, Clef Notes explores seasonal music and today, it’s springtime! Let’s take a look at Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1943–1944), a piece that won him a Pulitzer Prize.

Appalachian Spring was originally written as a ballet for dancer/choreographer Martha Graham. The ensemble consisted of only thirteen musicians. It wasn’t until later on that he arranged the piece into the orchestral suite most people are familiar with today.

One famous medley in Appalachian Spring is taken from the Shaker hymn ‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple. Copland then varies this theme throughout the work. In an attempt to evoke images of rural, American life, Copland uses wide sonorities and open fifths and octaves, a trait commonly used to express American ideas in music.

Here is a performance of Copland’s Appalachian Spring by the Ulster Orchestra. Also, check out this great arrangement by John Williams that was performed at the 2008 Presidential Inauguration.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Seasonal Music

It’s November and if you live in Cincinnati like I do, you know that this means the days are growing shorter, the air is getting cooler, and the trees are getting brighter! Autumn has always been my favorite season. Perhaps it’s the pumpkins or the falling leaves, or maybe Thanksgiving. As I reflect on what this season means to me, I can’t help but think of the many classical composers who wrote lovely music based on the changing of the seasons.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is probably the most iconic “seasons” piece. Having over 500 concertos to his name, Vivaldi wrote many of his works for the young ladies at the school where he taught throughout his life. Some pieces, however, were written for his own performance purposes or for a patron. It is likely that The Four Seasons was composed for these last two reasons. They are accompanied by sonnets, likely written by the composer himself.

So you probably knew Vivaldi’s musical depiction of the seasons, but what about Glazunov’s? He wrote a magnificently orchestrated ballet in 4 scenes, one for each season.

In 1875, Tchaikovsky was asked to write his own set of character pieces for the St. Petersburg music magazine. He composed twelve short works for piano, one for each month of the year. Since their conception, there have been many different transcriptions of the various months.

Perhaps you prefer choral music? Then you likely favor Haydn’s reflections on the seasons in his oratorio, The Seasons. The libretto was adapted by Baron Gottfried van Swieten from a poem by James Thomson. The piece quickly became quite popular and was even printed in multiple translations!

What is your favorite “seasons” piece?

This month, Clef Notes will look at a few favorites for each season, including a special Thanksgiving playlist!  

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Toscanini at Music Hall

Did you know that one of the most acclaimed conductors of the past century, Arturo Toscanini, conducted a concert at Music Hall in 1943? On the program was Robert Schumann’s Manfred Overture, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony #2, music from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and more.

The Music Hall celebratory concerts wrap up next weekend with the ensemble for whom the hall was originally built – the May Festival Chorus. They will collaborate with the CSO in a program including Bach’s Magnificat, Brahms’ Triumphlied, and a world premiere by Julia Adolphe. Concerts are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

John Adams at Music Hall

Today’s star is one you very likely have seen inside Music Hall yourself, as this famous composer and conductor has appeared in Cincinnati multiple times in recent years! One recent appearance was in 2015, when Adams conducted the CSO premiere of his “Scherherazade.2” written for and performed by violin soloist Leila Josefowicz.

What’s happening this weekend at Music Hall? The Cincinnati Ballet has their opening weekend inside the newly-renovated space. They present Romeo and Juliet alongside the CSO. Performances begin tonight at 7:30pm, followed by Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 1pm and 6:30pm. More here

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Saint-Saens at Music Hall

In celebration of the re-opening of Cincinnati’s historic Music Hall after an extensive  renovation, Clef Notes is spending the month of October looking at many of the “big names” who have performed in the hall over the years. So far, we’ve mentioned Mstislav Rostropovich, Richard Strauss, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Igor Stravinsky.

Can you name another star who made an appearance in Music Hall during the early twentieth century? What about Camille Saint-Saens, who came to Cincinnati as conductor and soloist in his Second Piano Concerto in 1906?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Stravinsky at Music Hall

Another classical music sensation, Igor Stravinsky, graced the Music Hall stage multiple times during the twentieth century. At one such concert in 1965, the famous composer and conductor is remembered conducting his own composition, The Fairy’s Kiss.

What’s happening this weekend at Music Hall? The CSO and Cincinnati Opera join forces in the final installment of the Pelleas Trilogy with director James Darrah. Naomi O’Connell, Philip Addis, Russell Braun, and Nancy Maultsby are soloists. Concerts are Friday and Saturday at 8pm.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Rachmaninoff at Music Hall

This month, Clef Notes is taking a look at a few of the international stars who have performed inside Music Hall throughout its rich history. We are also highlighting the various celebratory performances that take place in the hall as part of its grand re-opening events this month.

Did you know that the great pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff performed on the Music Hall stage not once, but three times? In 1910, he performed his Second Piano Concerto alongside the CSO. He returned the following season and years later during the 1937–38 season. He even was offered the position of music director in 1918, but politely declined. He preferred to further his career as a traveling virtuoso.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Leonard Bernstein at Music Hall

Did you know that famed conductor, composer, and pianist Leonard Bernstein made his Cincinnati debut on the stage of Music Hall in 1945? He was just 26 at the time! He would appear again multiple times over the years in Cincinnati, in the 40s, and again in the 70s.

What’s happening this weekend as part of the grand re-opening events at Music Hall? John Morris Russell leads the Cincinnati Pops in music by John Williams including Star Wars! Audiences will also enjoy a world premiere of an unpublished work by Williams – the theme from Schindler’s List adapted for orchestra and solo cello. Concerts are Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm! 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Aaron Copland and Music Hall

Did you know that Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man was premiered by our very own Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra back in 1943 on the stage at Music Hall? The conductor at the time, Eugene Goossens, commissioned eighteen composers to write fanfares as a contribution to the WWII war efforts. One of these fanfares began each concert of the CSO’s 1942–1943 season. Of these fanfares, Copland’s remains the most famous today. Prior to its premiere, Copland wrestled over the title, considering Fanfare for the Spirit of Democracy, Fanfare for the Rebirth of Lidice (a town in Czechoslovakia that the Nazis had destroyed), and Fanfare for Four Freedoms (in Roosevelt’s 1941 speech he mentioned four freedoms including the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.) In the end, Copland settled on Fanfare for the Common Man, saying “it was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.” Other composers who wrote fanfares for Goossens’ project included Paul Creston, Morton Gould, Howard Hanson, Darius Milhaud, Walter Piston, Bernard Rands, William Grant Still, Deems Taylor, Virgil Thomson, and Goossens himself. The CSO also presented the world premiere of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait in 1942.

Music Hall has a rich history. Let’s explore another major composer, conductor, and pianist, who performed on Music Hall’s stage multiple times during his lifetime. Join me next time to find out who this may be!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Richard Strauss at Music Hall

In celebration of the grand re-opening of Cincinnati’s Music Hall following an extensive renovation, Clef Notes is spending the month looking at a few of the international stars who have performed on its stage since its doors first opened in 1878.

Did you know that legendary composer and conductor Richard Strauss led the CSO in a concert of his own works during the 1903–04 season? The program included Don Juan, several songs, and his tone poem Tod und Verklärung. Strauss’ wife, Pauline de Ahna Strauss, appeared as the vocal soloist.

Don’t have a ticket to the grand re-opening concerts this weekend but still interested in taking a peak at the “new” Music Hall”? ArtsWave will provide a free community open house with tours of Music Hall on October 7 from 10am to 3pm. And don’t forget to tune into 91.7 WVXU or 88.5 WMUB this Saturday at 8pm for Music Hall: Welcome Home, a special radio broadcast celebrating Music Hall’s past, present, and future. Hear commentary from Louis Langree, John Morris Russell, Paavo Jarvi, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, and more, along with plenty of music! The special will also be archived at

Join me next time as we continue looking at stars from Music Hall’s past!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Rostropovich in Cincinnati

Cincinnati’s historic Music Hall closed its doors in 2016 for an extensive and much-needed renovation. This was the first time a project like this had taken place in the hall since the mid-twentieth century. This coming weekend – October 6–7 – marks the grand re-opening of Music Hall. Music lovers will gather inside the newly-restored building for a celebratory concert featuring the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Louis Langree, and guest pianist Kit Armstrong. 90.9 WGUC featured a special radio broadcast this past weekend, informing listeners of these opening gala events, along with educating them on the hall’s past and the renovation process. If you missed this broadcast, it will repeat on 91.7 WVXU and 88.5 WMUB on Saturday, October 7 at 8pm. It will also be archived at

Part of Music Hall’s rich history includes providing a performance space for international stars. For over a century, the world’s best classical musicians have traveled through Cincinnati, performing on Music Hall’s stage. This month, I’d like to look at just a few of these stars, providing you with some fun facts about each. Feel free to comment about some of your favorites who may not be included here!

Mstislav Rostropovich was considered one of the greatest cellists during the twentieth century and Cincinnati had the great fortune to host him at Music Hall four times! This video gives a glimpse of this impressive Russian cellist.

Did you ever have the opportunity to see him perform in concert?

Who else has performed at Music Hall? Find out next time!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Music Hall: Welcome Home

As you are probably well aware, Music Hall opens its doors once again next week after an extensive renovation. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performs their season opener on October 6 and 7 with a special community open house taking place on October 7. October will be a month of celebration for the hall, with many of Cincinnati’s arts organizations celebrating their return home.

On October 1 at 8pm, WGUC will join the celebration with a special broadcast that looks back on Music Hall’s historic moments. It also will explore the renovation, why it took place, and what audiences can expect following the grand opening. The program will offer music, interviews, and memories from many special guests including Louis Langree, John Morris Russell, Paavo Jarvi, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, Carmon DeLeone, Evans Mirageas, and more! Then beginning next week, Clef Notes will spend the month of October reflecting on the many stars who have performed on the Music Hall stage throughout its history.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Missy Mazzoli

This past summer, the Cincinnati Opera presented its first opera composed by a woman. Song from the Uproar by Missy Mazzoli finds inspiration from the journals of early 20th-century explorer Isabelle Eberhardt. The chamber opera was performed in collaboration with concert:nova and you can re-live the experience on 90.9 WGUC on November 26 at 8pm.

Missy Mazzoli is a successful composer whose music has been performed by many major artists including the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, Emanuel Ax, the New York City Opera, the LA Philharmonic, and many more. She recently founded Luna Lab, a mentorship program for young female composers. You may recognize her work if you’ve seen the Amazon TV series Mozart in the Jungle - she wrote and performed some of the music for this series! That’s right, Missy is also a performer. She plays piano and often performs with Victoire, a band she founded in 2008 that focuses on performing her works.

Did you have the opportunity to see Missy’s Song from the Uproar this past summer? Did you enjoy it? 

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?