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!