Monday, April 16, 2018
On March 2 of this year, the world lost a great conductor and Cincinnati lost a friend. Maestro Jesús López Cobos served as Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 1986–2001, bringing the orchestra into the world’s view as a top-tier group of musicians. In memory of Maestro López Cobos, I’ve pulled selections from an interview he gave with WGUC back in April of 2001, just before completing his tenure as Music Director here in Cincinnati.
Segment 1: Thoughts on leaving Cincinnati and the CSO
Segment 2: How orchestra members feel about his departure
Segment 3: Memories from his 15-year tenure
Monday, April 9, 2018
One of 2018’s top classical releases thus far is Paddle to the Sea from Third Coast Percussion. Cedille released the album in February from the Grammy Award-winning, Chicago-based percussion ensemble. This dynamic quartet of Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore is one that those seeking a good “beat” must get to know. Their use of a wide array of pitched and non-pitched percussion and ability to seamlessly blend with one another is superb, not to mention they are a blast to watch perform if you ever have the opportunity!
Paddle to the Sea gets its name from the album’s centerpiece, which is based off the 1941 children’s book of the same name by Holling C. Holling. The story tells of a small wooden figure in a canoe that travels through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, highlighting its encounters along the way. Third Coast Percussion wrote a piece to perform with the 1966 film adaptation of the book. The remainder of the album shares the water theme, containing music by others who have influenced the quartet over the years.
Personally, I find the four selections from Philip Glass’s Aguas da Amazonia to be a stand out. These pieces are named after four rivers and come from a group of twelve that Glass originally wrote for piano and then was adapted for custom built instruments by the Brazilian group, Uakti. Third Coast Percussion makes the music their own by arranging it for their ensemble. The four pieces are Madeira River, Xingu River, Amazon River, and Japura River (check out the video of Third Coast Percussion performing Japura River in that last link – you can’t help but move as you watch them work those wine bottles!)
Like what you hear? You’re in luck. 90.9 WGUC is offering this incredible album as a way to thank YOU for your donation during our spring fund drive in May. Make your donation online at wguc.org and ask about how you can add this new release from Third Coast Percussion to your library.
Monday, April 2, 2018
I recently had a baby – my husband and my first – and have already begun to introduce him to the world of classical music. You can never begin your journey to discovering good music too soon, so I am sure to have 90.9 WGUC playing in our home and in the car so that Hudson can listen. I find it calms him down and helps him to relax during nap time each day. That got me thinking – what music best works to help rock a baby to sleep? Whether you are like me and trying to sooth your youngster to sleep or are trying to catch a few extra Z’s yourself, perhaps this Spotify playlist will offer some suggestions on where to begin.
Babies are unpredictable as I’ve learned in recent months. The truth is, my sweet boy prefers this when falling asleep to any of the calming music in the above playlist. That’s what makes being a parent so special – you never know just how your child will put a smile on your face.
What are some of your favorite pieces for falling asleep? Let me know and I can add them to our playlist!
Thursday, March 29, 2018
What do you think? This month we walked through ways music appears in various video games. Do you think this is an adequate area of study in musicology? Why or why not? I would love to hear your opinion whether you enjoyed this month’s topic or not!
If you are a fan of video games and the music, what is your favorite type of music usage within a particular game?
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
As I mentioned earlier this month, video game music scholarship has taken off within the last decade. Now an accepted area of research amongst musicologists, it also exists as a very accessible topic for many people. One video game music scholar, Will Cheng, has an excellent book with more information on the topics I highlighted this month. If you find this topic interesting and would like more information, you can go to the following website and check out his book.
One other area of music and gaming research worthy of note comes from scholar Karen Collins who studies music and gambling. Did you know that often times, the music used at casinos is intentionally written in such a way as to cause the player to believe they are doing better than the reality of their situation? Next time you consider gambling, you should be mindful of the music!
With the idea of video game soundtracks becoming so popular, the London Philharmonic Orchestra released a Greatest Video Game Music album in 2011 followed by a second volume in 2012.
Zelda even has a traveling symphony that many of you may have seen when they performed at Cincinnati’s Music Hall a few years ago.
Join me next time as we wrap up our month of video game music!
Thursday, March 22, 2018
Like many things in today’s modernized world, anything goes when creating a new video game. The types of music you may hear and how it’s used in newly-released games varies greatly. Today, let’s just look at a few uses of music in various modern-age games.
Today it is more common to have an actual composer write a soundtrack for a game rather than using a programmer to create background mechanical sounds. Some people relate video game scores to film scores when they are actually quite different to create. Many film composers know exactly what to expect with the film and have the clean and neat task of putting music to an already-set plotline. With video games, however, the story or progression is unpredictable since each individual player determines which direction the plot might turn. Many composers approach this difficult task by creating a score with flaps containing different ways the music may turn as well as different layers of instruments, adding more during intense moments.
Darren Korb, composer for games such as Bastion and Transistor is known for his excellent soundtracks and use of experimental music.
While some games use the old chip tunes, nostalgically choosing to pull sounds from the 80s, others use beautiful soundtracks (many people think of Halo when they want to hear a great video game soundtrack). One of my favorite soundtracks comes from Journey in which the main character is represented by a solo cello.
Do you dislike the soundtrack you hear in one of your games? Xbox players can plug their iPod into the console and create their own soundtrack!
Do you remember when we looked at diegetic and non-diegetic music during our film music months? Well, these terms also apply to video games! As a reminder, diegetic music is music that the characters onscreen can hear (there is a musical source onscreen) while non-diegetic is simply background music. Bioshock Infinite shows a record player inside a house while Grand Theft Auto allows players to choose their own radio station inside the car, both diegetic examples.
Hopefully the expansive examples touched on above show you that music can be used in many different ways within modern-day video games. Do you enjoy the range of options currently on the market or do you prefer the traditional games of the 80s and early 90s?
Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Have any of my readers ever played games such as Guitar Hero, Rock Band, or Dance Dance Revolution? Last week we looked at several examples of games in which players can control music. Today, let’s talk about games with the purpose of creating music.
During the late 1990s, Dance Dance Revolution entered the arcade scene introducing the idea of a “rhythm game.” A physically interactive game, consumers are given a “dance stage” on which they can step on various sensors as they follow a list of step patterns on the screen. Console versions were also made available for people’s use in their own living rooms.
This idea of a “rhythm game” sparked the makers of Guitar Hero to develop a similar gaming idea in 2005 in which players can “play” guitar on a guitar-shaped controller as they follow “notes” that scroll by on the screen in time to the music. An expansion of this idea came with Rock Band in 2007, which also included drums and vocals. These “rhythm games” provide a new type of video game in which the music itself is the game.
Games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band provide an avenue for players to do something that they may be incapable of in real life. These games allow people to feel like skilled rock stars even if they may be tone deaf. It’s interesting that these games have created tension amongst many “real” musicians who cannot understand why people spend their time mastering a toy-version of an instrument rather than practicing the real thing. What are your thoughts on this?
Thursday, March 15, 2018
Continuing our look at video game music this month, today let’s focus on the idea of making music in video games. Has anyone played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, released for Nintendo 64 in 1998? This particular game features an ocarina that gamers must play in order to beat the game. The ocarina is an instrument that you receive during the game and it can be played by using button presses and bending the pitch with the analogue stick. As players progress, they learn various songs they can then play on the ocarina.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is an example of a game balanced between ludo and narrative. If you are like me and unfamiliar with gaming terminology, you may be wondering what this means. Primarily, ludic games emphasize game play, like Angry Birds, Pong, and Tetris. Narrative-heavy games emphasize story elements, as Heavy Rain and The Last of Us do. Many games, like Ocarina of Time, are a balance of both elements. By making music using the ocarina, players further the plot and solve puzzles.
Ocarina of Time is one of many games that involve making music as part of the game. Other examples include Twilight Princess (players use a whistle to call a horse), Skyward Sword (players can strum a harp), and Wind Waker (players can direct patterns with a conductor’s baton).
Have you ever played a video game in which you could make music? Which one?
Join me next time as we continue looking at making music in video games by examining Guitar Hero and Rock Band!
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
It is video game music month on Clef Notes and I would love to hear any fun anecdotes from game enthusiasts out there! Last week, we touched on arcade games as well as early consoles. Today, I would like to expand our NES discussion to include the Super NES that came on the market in Japan in 1990 and the U.S. in 1991.
With the development of the new and improved NES in the early 90s came the use of a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) system in which programmers had the option to use different instrument sounds within a game. The Super NES also contained eight stereo channels (16 channels total) which was certainly a jump from its predecessor.
With the Super NES came the use of music in various roles within gaming. While games continued to contain soundtracks that served to accompany onscreen action, several also incorporated music into the game’s plot. One example of this is Final Fantasy VI during which an actual opera takes place. This opera was composed by Nobuo Uematsu for the game. Uematsu also uses leitmotifs throughout the game (a constantly recurring musical theme that usually represents an object or character). In the video clip here you can see the opera scene from the original Super NES version of Final Fantasy VI. Notice that at this point in time, technology did not allow for the usage of a human voice so we still experience chip tune music accompanying on-screen lyrics.
Join me next time as we take a look at making music in video games, specifically The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time!
Thursday, March 8, 2018
Do you enjoy video games and their soundtracks? Then join me this month as I explore a brief history of video game music. Last time, I began by discussing the first known coin-operated game with sound, invented in 1897, and went on to talk about arcade games of the 20th-century. Today, let’s move on to look at early consoles that people could actually take home and play.
Many of you first-generation gamers remember the Atari Corporation that began in the 1970s. Did you know, however, that their failed attempt to create an intriguing E.T. game following the release of the major motion picture caused consumers to second-guess whether purchasing consoles was even a good idea? This major videogame bust led to Atari burying over one million copies of the E.T. game in the desert!
Due to this video game crash, sales drastically decreased between 1983 and 1985, right around the time the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came on the market. Hoping to improve the gaming industry following the crash, NES marketed their product as entertainment rather than a video game system. They also promised to buy back their systems from any consumer or retailer who lacked satisfaction.
With the invention of the NES came a huge leap forward in gaming technology. This new system contained five sound channels, enabling it to accommodate more complex music than what we saw with Space Invaders during my last post. Below, you can watch wave visualization videos from the NES containing the theme from Super MarioBrothers and The Legend of Zelda, both by Koji Kondo.
The music you hear in the clips above became a stylistic trend that people today can immediately relate with video game music. In fact, many modern-day games purposely use what composers call “chip tune music” in order to evoke the sounds of the early 80s. It is now an artistic choice, however, rather than a technical restraint.
Wrapping up today’s post, I wanted to mention a fun video game music fact discovered by a scholar at Ohio State University, Dana Plank-Blasko. During the early video game industry, developers rarely hired composers, so oftentimes, the music you hear was actually created by a programmer rather than a musician. Because classical music is not under a copyright, many programmers pulled from historical composers to accompany their games. One such example is the Captain Comic game released by NES in 1988. Using Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, the programmer forgot to include the key signature and accidentals (sharps and flats) in the music, causing Bach’s beautiful work to sound completely butchered! You can hear a good example of this if you skip to 8:35 in the clip here.
Tuesday, March 6, 2018
Do I have any video game fanatics out there? Did you know that video game music is actually an area of musicological study that emerged within the last decade? This month I would like to step away from the highbrow topics in music history and look at something that any modern-day gamer can appreciate: video game music. We will briefly look at how the use of music in gaming has evolved from the first coin-operated games all the way to present day entertainment systems.
I must admit that I am not an expert when it comes to video games. That’s why when this topic idea came to me I immediately contacted longtime friend, musicologist, and video game music specialist, Sarah Pozderac-Chenevey. She kindly provided much of the information you will read in the coming weeks.
Did you know that the earliest known coin-operated game with sound was developed in 1897? Invented during a gambling prohibition, this game was marketed as a music machine. Though the sounds it created were more mechanical rather than musical, this new music machine allowed avid gamblers a means to satisfy their addiction while avoiding breaking the law.
Into the 20th century, arcade games became the avenue by which people could experience this early form of “gaming.” It wasn’t until the 1970s that we see the first game with continuous sound: Space Invaders. Because they were limited on space, programmers could not do much with the Space Invader soundtrack and stuck to using a lamenting tetra chord. What they did not realize when developing the game, however, was that the game sped up during gameplay as fewer items remained on the screen. As the game sped up, so did the music. Coincidentally, this added tension and suspense to the game. Watch here.
Have you ever played the Space Invader arcade game? Though an early form of music in gaming, do you find the accidental increased music tempo an effective way to build suspense in the game?
Join me next time as we look at Atari and NES!
Thursday, March 1, 2018
Last time we discussed Schubert existing in the shadow of Beethoven’s legacy. Today I would like to discuss one of Schubert’s exceptional works and get your opinion on how it holds up next to the works of Beethoven.
Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major “Great” was never performed during the composer’s lifetime. It was not until ten years following Schubert’s death that Robert Schumann uncovered the manuscripts and insisted that it make a public appearance that very year. Though many composers felt it best to avoid composing symphonies in fear of being compared to Beethoven’s symphonic repertoire, Schumann praised the “Great” Symphony saying that in it Schubert successfully created his own approach to writing a symphony.
In his Symphony No. 9, Schubert blends the Romantic lyricism found in his lieder with Beethoven’s drama. The first movement begins with a slow, chorale introduction in the horn section before moving into an allegro. Portions of this chorale come back later in the movement.
Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Continuing on with our jealousy theme, this week I would like to ponder the relationship between two great Romantic composers: Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert. Twenty-seven years Beethoven’s minor, Schubert grew up in Vienna with obvious knowledge of the elder composer’s great success and contribution to the music world. Establishing an eternal legacy in his ability to reach new heights in composition, Beethoven created somewhat of a “shadow” for those composers to follow in coming years. Like many, Schubert believed that in order to be successful, he must attempt to say something new within the forms Beethoven had already established. The young composer visited Beethoven on several occasions, requesting that this gifted man give him advice related to his work.
Though we may look at Schubert as a pillar in our musical canon, during his lifetime, he never quite saw the extent of his success that really blossomed many years following his death. Even the poet Goethe, whom Schubert held in high regard, ignored the poor composer’s settings of his poetry until after he had passed away.
On March 26, 1827, Schubert’s works were performed in a private concert. Though people seemed to enjoy his work, the great Beethoven breathed his last that very day, most likely turning many eyes away from the aspiring composer. Schubert was then asked to bear a torch at Beethoven’s funeral. Did Schubert perhaps feel tinges of jealousy toward Beethoven? Or did he simply aspire to learn from his greatness and carve his own musical path? This we do not know for certain but it does seem evident that Schubert suffered a rather unfortunate life, never living to see how great his work would become.
Schubert died only two years following Beethoven at the young age of 31. Ironically, he was laid to rest beside Beethoven in a Vienna graveyard. Does this signify Schubert as Beethoven’s equal? Or perhaps as a means of reminding him that he will forever remain in the shadows?
Thursday, February 22, 2018
The Mozart/Salieri rivalry mentioned last time and the false rumors that Salieri poisoned Mozart inspired many creative works in years to come, thus causing more people to believe the over-exaggerated story. One example includes Alexander Pushkin’s 1830 play, Mozart and Salieri. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote an opera based on this play in 1897.
The more popular influence from these historical rumors occurred in the 1984 film Amadeus. The film begins with the elderly Salieri housed in an insane asylum, confessing his sins in relation to the deceased Mozart. The story is a tale of jealousy and hatred, again over-exaggerating the rivalry for which historians do not have a strong foundation.
Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri: Two superb 18th-century composers based in Vienna. Most people know Mozart’s name, but what about Salieri? His name has been clouded over time by rumors related to his competitive relationship with Mozart. Is there truth amongst these rumors? Or has history exaggerated the story, thus harming Salieri’s reputation?
Similar to artists today, Mozart and Salieri were competitors within the music realm. Salieri worked as the Kapellmeister for Emperor Joseph II. Believing he was better qualified for the post, Mozart applied for the job following the emperor’s death. He was astounded when they turned him away. As to be expected, the two men’s paths crossed as they composed in similar mediums vying for public approval. Though Salieri admitted to close friends in confidence that he did not like his competitor or his work, he never wanted to make his sentiments known as to avoid attracting attention. Historians also note that Salieri grew bitter toward Mozart with age as his works continued to gain fame following his premature death. Despite these supposed negative reactions toward Mozart, did Salieri perhaps have a deeper respect for his rival’s talents? Following Mozart’s death, Franz Xaver Niemetschek quoted Salieri in his Mozart biography: “It is indeed sad, the loss of so great a genius; but well for us that he is dead. For had he lived longer, verily, the world would not have given us another bit of bread for our compositions!” Perhaps Salieri revered Mozart but feared his ability would soon drown out his contemporaries’ work in the public eye.
What seems a relatively harmless rivalry between Mozart and Salieri started what became a gruesome rumor that many people still believe today. Not long after Mozart’s death, people began to gossip that Salieri killed Mozart with poison due to jealousy. Historians now know that evidence proves that the great composer actually died at a young age as a result of acute rheumatic fever, an ailment he suffered multiple times throughout his life before it ultimately proved fatal. Despite the inaccuracy of the rumors, most people remember Salieri as Mozart’s enemy rather than associating him with his own work.
Do you tend to have less interest when Salieri comes on the radio because of these exaggerated stories passed through history?
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Last time we discussed Berlioz’s failed love affair with Camille Marie Moke. The young composer also had eyes for the actress Harriet Smithson, whom he first saw perform in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Again, he allowed his emotions to get the best of him, only this time his passion turned into what became a symphonic work still enjoyed by audiences today.
Despite his numerous love letters to Harriet, the actress seemed uninterested, likely due to the fact that they had never met. Desperate for attention, Berlioz poured his emotion into a new composition using Harriet as the inspiration. Symphonie fantastique contains a theme referred to as the idee fixe that represents the object of Berlioz’s love: Harriet Smithson. Throughout this five-movement work, this theme transforms in various ways in order to best express the various feelings the composer felt toward the young girl.
The first movement contains the idee fixe surrounded by musical figures that depict the beating of Berlioz’s heart as he notices his lover. The second movement transforms the idee fixe into a waltz as the composer goes to a ball and watches his love from afar. The third movement, “In the Country,” continues the story of Berlioz’s obsession as he walks through the country dreaming of the woman for whom he longs. After the composer realizes that his love is not returned, he dreams of his own execution during the fourth movement. Only the opening of the idee fixe appears before he is guillotined and the audience can hear his head drop to the ground. The final movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” distorts the idee fixe and combines it with the Dies irae theme from the Mass for the Dead as the composer dreams that his beloved appears at his funeral as a witch.
The best part of this fun piece is that it won over Berlioz’s beloved actress. Smithson joined Berlioz in marriage in 1833. Though happy at first, the marriage quickly declined and the couple eventually separated.
Listen here to Symphonie fantastique and let me know how your affections are moved after hearing this story and listening to Berlioz’s famous piece.
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Hector Berlioz: a man who loved passionately but failed miserably when it came to his choice in women. In honor of Valentine’s Day, let’s spend this week looking at the crazy love affairs of this famous, romantic composer.
One of my favorite stories from Berlioz’s life comes from his memoirs. While working as a guitar teacher at a girl’s boarding school, Berlioz met a young piano teacher named Camille Marie Moke, who worked at the same school. Miss Moke offered herself as a lovely distraction to Berlioz as he attempted to move on from a woman who refused to pay him notice. In his memoirs Berlioz describes the relationship in his usual passionate language:
“If I were to describe the whole affair and the incredible incidents of every kind that it gave rise to, the reader would no doubt be entertained in an unexpected and interesting fashion. But, as I have stated before, I am not writing confessions. Suffice it to say that Mlle M--- set my senses on fire till all the devils of hell danced in my veins.”
Not long after this, Berlioz became the distinguished winner of the Prix de Rome, requiring his presence in Italy for designated period. Berlioz requested Camille’s hand in marriage the evening before his departure and she gladly accepted.
After spending some time in Rome, Berlioz began to wonder why he never received letters from his lover. When he discovered that she married the piano maker, Camille Pleyel, he became overcome by rage and passion. Disguising himself as a female maid, he plotted to travel to Paris where he would kill the newlyweds. Prior to reaching his destination, the composer realized the impracticality of his plan, knowing that it would only be successful if he in turn took his own life following the homicide. Discouraged and heartbroken, he returned to Italy.
People do crazy things when they are in love. Our friend Berlioz felt passionate toward multiple ladies. His passion toward another woman, Harriet Smithson, would lead to the creation of one of his most sought-after works. Next time we’ll discuss the love affair behind Symphonie fantastique.
Thursday, February 8, 2018
Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann: lovers? What do you think? Though historians do not have solid evidence revealing the nature of their relationship, it seems obvious that the two nineteenth-century composers did care for each other. Countless correspondences show Brahms’ overwhelming passion for Clara, who often times gave him gifts such as a watch chain, coffee set, and her husband’s piano! Brahms was known to be zealous when writing letters, so do his words to Clara have any deeper meaning? Here are a few quotes from his surviving correspondences:
“I love you [Clara] better than myself or than anyone or anything in the world.”
“…through our letters you can make me forget for a little while that you are far away.”
“With all my love and devotion…”
“Ever lovely, lofty Lady…”
“Love me well, as I do you.”
“I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you, and give you as much kindness and goodness as I wish for you. You are so infinitely dear to me that I can’t begin to tell you. I constantly want to call you darling and all kinds of other things, without becoming tired of adoring you. If this goes on, I will eventually have to keep you under glass, or save money to have you gilded.”
“I wish I could be there. And also here. And also have my Clara here.”
Unfortunately many of Clara’s responses no longer exist, leaving a gap in the mystery.
We do have a surviving diary entry written as a letter to her children following Brahms’ departure from the German town where her family resided. In the letter she stated that Brahms meant very much to her and they all would forever be indebted to him for serving their family during Robert’s illness and following his death.
Johannes Brahms remained a bachelor his entire life, admitting that Clara was his best friend following her death in 1896. He died a year later.
Did Johannes and Clara love each other as close friends and musical companions, or did their feelings go deeper? Brahms’ intense enthusiasm cooled a bit following Robert’s death, perhaps because he felt guilty for pursuing his unfortunate friend’s beloved wife. The reality of the relationship, however, will forever remain a mystery.
How does your interest in the music of Johannes Brahms increase after hearing more of his story?
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
This month I’d like to explore the topic “Behind the Scenes: Jealousy throughout Music History.” Everyone experiences jealousy at some point in life, even our favorite composers. But how did they deal with their jealousy and how does our knowledge of their little “secrets” affect how we listen to their music?
With Valentine’s Day being right around the corner, I thought it would be fun to spend the next few weeks exploring two of my favorite romantic dramas in music history. This week, let’s look at what I like to call “The Clara Schumann Love Affair.”
Robert and Clara Schumann are probably the most well-known couple in music history, Robert known for his compositions, and Clara for her piano virtuosity. Robert studied piano with Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck, until a hand injury turned his focus to that of a music critic and composer. Though Wieck strongly resented the union of his daughter with Schumann, the two took the matter to the court to override his disapproval in 1840. Schumann composed many love songs during that same year, expressing his deep passion for the young Clara while also hoping it would be lucrative in order to help support his new family.
The couple worked together musically for a number of years before meeting Johannes Brahms in 1853. Robert and Johannes quickly became each other’s advocates, Robert publishing positive remarks regarding Brahms’ work, thus launching the young composer’s career. It is a known fact that Brahms admired Clara, who was fourteen years his senior. This explains why he quickly stepped in to assist her when Robert’s health began to fail, eventually leading to admittance into an insane asylum in 1854 following an attempt at suicide. Prone to depression, Robert’s behavior became bizarre and unstable. Two years after arriving at the asylum, Robert Schumann passed away. During this difficult time for Clara, Brahms never ceased pitching in and offering his comfort and support, many times caring for her family so that she could travel and perform. Was this the behavior of a friend or a lover? Was Brahms trying to catch Clara’s eye during a weak moment or did he respect Robert too much to attempt such actions? Historians do not know the truth about their relationship but many surviving correspondences do provide interesting details. Join me next time to read excerpts from these letters.
Wednesday, January 31, 2018
The last few weeks our discussions have centered on musical controversies within 20th-century music. This week, let’s take a step further back in time to 18th-century France and explore a dispute over Italian and French opera that lasted two years.
During the 18th century, operas with both serious and comic plots grew in popularity. While those with serious plots had similar characteristics across borders, comic operas differed depending on the country in which they originated. Librettists always wrote the texts in their native tongue and included national traits. A librettist is the author of the text of the opera, as opposed to the composer, who writes the music. Italian comic operas, for instance, contained melodic arias (expressive solo sections) alternated with recitatives (style of singing that resembles speech), while many other countries included spoken dialogue throughout.
In 1752 the performance of La serva padrona, Pergolesi’s Italian intermezzo (a short, comic opera inserted between the acts of a serious opera) sparked a pamphlet dispute amongst literary intellects in Paris. Known as the Querelle des bouffons (“Quarrel of the comic actors”), this “war” between supporters of Italian opera tradition (opera buffa) and French opera tradition (opera comique) involved well-known voices including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Melchior Grimm. While many people wanted to stand firm for their native style of opera, others noticed the way Italian composers created memorable and expressive melodies.
Did the Querelle des bouffons ever resolve? Yes, it did resolve in 1754 when the Bouffons left Paris. It may sound like a silly controversy but to the people of that time, they believed they should support national styles in music. As a result, this led to the formation of various national traditions prevalent during the following century.
Friday, January 26, 2018
Following the denunciation of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth in 1936, the composer set to work on what historians consider to be a response to the Pravda’s remarks, calling his Fifth Symphony “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” While the work followed the rules set by socialist realism using the standard four-movement format and accessible tonal structure, Symphony No. 5 also exhibits a sense of sadness possibly felt by the composer following his opera controversy. The slow movement, for example, portrays the sounds of Russian funeral music, creating sorrowful sentiments for audiences. This symphony brought Shostakovich back under good terms with the government while still allowing him to secretly display his emotions.
Listen to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 here. After hearing Shostakovich’s story, do you share his sentiments?
What ever happened to Lady Macbeth? Well, the opera remained untouched until 1956 when Shostakovich revised and renamed it Katerina Izmaylova. It is still performed in opera houses today.
Wednesday, January 24, 2018
On Monday we discussed the initial success of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth that quickly turned into a controversy. Following Stalin’s attendance of a performance in 1936, the work was denounced in an article published in Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, calling it “chaos instead of music.” The government accused the opera saying it contained modernist elements and an obscene portrayal of sexual and violent circumstances. Here is an excerpt from the article:
“From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sounds. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this ‘music’ is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.”
Following the publication of this article, Shostakovich feared for his life as the government often times banished or executed people they felt produced work not in line with socialist realism.
How did Shostakovich respond to this criticism? By writing more music, of course! Join me tomorrow as I discuss the follow-up to this denunciation.
Monday, January 22, 2018
Dmitry Shostakovich lived in the Soviet Union during a time when the state enforced socialist realism, a government-approved system demanding that artists create in a clearly-defined style that portrays an idealized lifestyle within their nation. Under this system, many artists felt restricted and unable to fully display their creativity.
During this time, Shostakovich wrote his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District that premiered on January 22, 1934 in Leningrad and on January 24, 1934 in Moscow.
At first, the opera experienced great success with performances occurring internationally. Critics considered Lady Macbeth a major achievement, one only a Soviet composer could successfully produce. Two years following its premiere, however, Shostakovich’s success took a turn for the worse. Stalin attended a performance and controversy ensued. Read more about what followed when I post on Wednesday!
Friday, January 19, 2018
Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder is filled with irony. The first song begins with the phrase “Now will the sun so brightly rise again.” Though a positive text, the soloist sings in a sad manner. You can find a performance of Matthias Goerne singing at the BBC Proms here.
How does this piece make you feel? Does it move your “affections” (or emotions) in a certain way? Do you think this piece is indeed ironic or do you think that Mahler clearly conveys the depth of emotion experienced by a parent after losing a child?
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
On Monday we began the story of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. How is this work controversial? After his marriage to Alma in 1902, Mahler took another two years to complete his orchestral song cycle. Though Alma believed it was understandable that her husband began the work as a single man in 1901, she insisted that he was tempting fate by continuing a composition related to dying children now that he was a husband and father. Three years following the completion of his song cycle, Mahler’s daughter died of diphtheria and scarlet fever. Was Alma right? Did Mahler tempt fate by insisting upon completing his Kindertotenlieder?
I had the pleasure of chatting with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Music Director Louis Langree in the WGUC studio about this piece. When asked whether or not Mahler tempted fate by completing Kindertotenlieder, the Maestro immediately responded with a fascinating story. At one point in his past, he had agreed to conduct this very piece for an orchestra several years in advance. Before the concert date arrived, however, the birth of his daughter caused him to reconsider. Though certainly not one to cancel appointments, Langree said he felt “scared” of the Mahler “curse” and felt that he would be taking a real “gamble” if he followed through with the commitment. He confirmed that he is not typically the superstitious type but still could not bring himself to conduct this fateful piece of music.
Did Mahler tempt fate? What would you have done in Maestro Langree’s situation? Let me know your thoughts!
Monday, January 15, 2018
Controversy surrounds the music of Gustav Mahler, with one great example being his Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”). Mahler first began work on this orchestral song cycle in 1901. An orchestral song cycle is a group of songs meant for performance as a unit and accompanied by an orchestra. The texts that Mahler chose for his song cycle were taken from poems by Friedrich Rueckert, who originally wrote these poems along with many others as a form of mourning the death of his children. Mahler felt a special connection to the poetry as one of Rueckert’s children (Ernst) shared a name with his deceased brother.
Not long after he began work on Kindertotenlieder, Mahler met the woman who would become his wife the following year. His marriage to Alma Mahler and the birth of two daughters fairly quickly would change the circumstances surrounding his song cycle, resulting in a strong difference in opinion between the composer and his new bride and a haunting story for the Mahler family.
Join me on Wednesday for more on the eerie tale surrounding Kindertotenlieder.
Thursday, January 11, 2018
Previously we discussed Stravinsky’s famous The Rite of Spring. We know that this piece quickly became one of the most well-known works of the early 20th century. But why so controversial? At the premiere of the ballet in 1913, a riot began amongst members of the audience. Historians believe that it was the choreography created by dancer Vaclav Nijinsky that provoked the majority of controversy rather than Stravinsky’s score. Years following this scandalous premiere, here is what Stravinsky had to say about the experience:
“That the first performance of The Rite of Spring was attended by a scandal must be known to everybody. Strange as it may seem, however, I was unprepared for the explosion myself…
Mild protests against the music could be heard from the very beginning of the performance. Then, when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down, the storm broke. Cries of “Shut up!” came from behind me. I heard Florent Schmitt shout “Be quiet, you bitches of the sixteenth”; the “bitches” of the sixteenth arrondissement were, of course, the most elegant ladies in Paris. The uproar continued, however, and a few minutes later I left the hall in a rage; I was sitting on the right near the orchestra, and I remember slamming the door. I have never again been that angry. The music was so familiar to me; I loved it, and I could not understand why people who had not yet heard it wanted to protest in advance. I arrived in a fury backstage, where I saw Diaghilev flicking the house lights in a last effort to quiet the hall. For the rest of the performance I stood in the wings behind Nijinsky holding the tails of his frac, while he stood on a chair shouting numbers to the dancers, like a coxswain.”
Listen to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring here and let me know if you can understand why it was controversial in 1913. Also, does the piece move your “affections” (emotions) in any particular way? If so, how? Did your enjoyment of the piece change now that you know the story behind the music?
Tuesday, January 9, 2018
Controversy in music? Many would be surprised at how often controversial circumstances surrounded the music and composers we enjoy most. This month, join me as I discuss four fascinating examples found in prominent works throughout history.
You may be familiar with Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. A Russian nationalist composer at the start of his career, Stravinsky had his first great success with The Firebird in 1910. The work was written as a ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario for the Ballets Russes based in Paris. Shortly after this, Stravinsky began work on The Rite of Spring, a ballet based on prehistoric Russia and primitivism. The plot revolves around a young girl who is chosen as a sacrifice and forced to dance until she dies.
Stravinsky used The Rite of Spring as a means to develop his unique voice in the classical music world. Known for its irregular meter, frequent alternations of notes and rests, and use of dissonant scales, Stravinsky’s composition is a powerful display of his avant-garde capabilities.
To those accustomed to 18th and 19th-century repertoire, this ballet may have crude subject matter and include unusual compositional techniques. But why do we consider it to be one of the controversial pieces in music history? Find out on next time when I blog about what Stravinsky had to say following the premiere of his work.
Thursday, January 4, 2018
This week we’re taking a step away from our monthly themes and exploring the question “what is music?” by focusing in on several compositional theories introduced in 20th-century music. Last time we looked at the early 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg and his twelve-tone method which stretched the concept of music based in tonality. Today, let’s look at a major musical movement that occurred in the last century known as aleotoricism.
Aleotoric is a term used to describe the use of chance to create something. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, composer John Cage often used aleotoric methods in his work, believing music with structure that creates a sense of emotion or imagery for a listener was old news. His approach opened up opportunities for audiences to hear sounds as they are, leaving it up to chance to determine the performance outcome. One example of this method can be found in his Music of Changes, a piano work that uses the Chinese I-Ching method of tossing coins to determine the outcome.
Another aspect of aleotoric music is indeterminacy. Indeterminacy leaves certain aspects of a piece unspecified so that the outcome is up to the performer’s interpretation. The composer may provide various graphics or instructions in the score but the performance will vary each time it is played. Cage’s infamous 4’33’’ discussed in one of my January blog posts is a great example of this.
Here is Cage’s Music of Changes. So what do you think? Music?
Tuesday, January 2, 2018
What is music? In his original 1826 dictionary, Webster defined music as “melody or harmony; any succession of sounds so modulated as to please the ear, or any combination of simultaneous sounds in accordance or harmony. Music is vocal or instrumental.” A secondary definition describes it as “the art of combining sounds in a manner to please the ear. This is practical music or composition.”
Is Webster’s definition one that stands the tests of time? Or is it possible that methods of composition or manners of listening could change in generations following Webster that could stretch and even alter the true sense of what actually defines music?
This week we’ll hit on a few 20th-century composers and musical theories that stretched Webster’s perception of what constitutes music. After exploring these composers and their works, I’ll be curious whether or not you hold true to music as defined by Webster or whether your beliefs gravitate toward a more modern approach.
Early 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg is one example of a composer who began to redefine what some may consider music. An advocate of atonality, a term used to describe music that avoids a tonal center, and the twelve-tone method, a form of atonality based on various orderings of the twelve notes in the chromatic scale, Schoenberg was rejected by many while others found his theoretical approach fascinating.
Schoenberg’s Piano Suite is an example of his twelve-tone method. Give it a listen and let me know…do you still consider this music? Is it on an equal plain with Beethoven, Berlioz, or Brahms? Or do you consider it an interesting concept but not something you desire to listen to? Webster says music “please[s] the ear.” Do you agree?
Monday, January 1, 2018
Happy New Year from Clef Notes and 90.9 WGUC, Cincinnati’s Classical Public Radio! If you’re looking for great music to accompany your New Year’s Day morning, join us from 11am until 1pm for the annual New Year’s Day from Vienna.
What are some of your favorite musical memories from this past year?
Have a wonderful start to your 2018!