Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Controversy Behind Kindertotenlieder

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

Mahler's Kindertotenlieder

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

What Stravinsky had to say about The Rite of Spring

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 Behind The Rite of Spring

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

John Cage and Aleotoricism

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?

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!

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!