Monday, June 30, 2014

Stephen Foster and American Popular Song

With Independence Day just around the corner, I thought it would be fun to spend July looking at various composers distinctly known for creating an “American” sound in their music. I use quotations in this instance because, at the end of the day, I believe it is up to you as the listener to decide whether a piece of music has musical qualities unique to our nation.

I find it ironic that the first American composer to make a living solely off of writing popular songs was born on the Fourth of July. In honor of Stephen Foster’s 188th birthday this week, let’s spend some time looking at his music and discussing the obvious nostalgic qualities that emanate his work.

During the Industrial Revolution (c. 1820–1870), many Americans experienced feelings of nostalgia and longed for the simple life of plow and hearth after their move to industrial centers. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, Stephen Foster immortalized his own sentiments in his songs, which struck a chord for many Americans. In Foster’s work, listeners can sense the subject of nostalgia to include the longing for a place, person, or time. The music, lyrics, and topics in many of these songs represent one of two different types of nostalgia as defined by Harvard comparative literature professor Svetlana Boyom in her book The Future of Nostalgia: restorative or reflective. This week, let’s look at each type, mapping them on to a Foster tune that exemplifies these particular sentiments. 

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

What is your favorite keyboard instrument?

Winding up our discussion on the history of the keyboard, today let’s take a look at musical examples of both the pianoforte and its more developed counterpart of the 19th century.

The piano is often times used as both a solo instrument and as an accompaniment to another melody instrument (violin, flute, etc.) Around the time the pianoforte was first created, chamber music was also quite popular in the home. Expected to be accomplished on the piano, many young girls would lead in-home musical ensembles on the instrument while the young boys (who practiced less and therefore were not as good) would accompany the piano on string instruments.

One example of a composer who wrote for the early pianoforte is J.C. Bach, the youngest son of the infamous Johann Sebastian. He received his early training from his brother, Carl Philip Emmanuel following their father’s death. During his lifetime he composed 70 sonatas for keyboard instruments of various sorts, including the pianoforte. Did you know that he was the first person in England to play a concert on the new pianoforte in 1768? One example of his keyboard works is the Keyboard Sonata Op. 17.

During the 19th century, one prominent composer for the piano was Frederic Chopin. Listen to his Mazurka Op. 6, No. 3 and compare its style and sound to that of the pianoforte. A Mazurka is a Polish dance in triple meter with the accent placed on either the second or third beat. Composers wrote them either as purely an art form or sometimes for actual use. Chopin’s Mazurkas are inspired by Polish folk music. This particular example sounds like a rustic dance with a drone bass and was composed for use. 

Now that we’ve walked through several types of keyboard instruments over the past several weeks, what do you think? Do you have a favorite?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

History of the Keyboard: The Pianoforte

The last few weeks we have been discussing the development of the keyboard instrument in honor of the World Piano Competition that is occurring this week at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. For more information on this competition, check out  their website.

After looking at several historical versions of the keyboard, this week we are closer to what you may be familiar with today: the pianoforte. Invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence in 1700, the pianoforte is like the clavichord in that it is a ‘struck’ instrument rather than a ‘plucked’ instrument. Unlike the clavichord, however, the pianoforte can sustain notes. When a key is pressed, hammers strike and drop away allowing a string to reverberate as long as the key is held. The pianoforte is also able to produce rapidly repeated notes. Another new and important feature the pianoforte brought to performance was the ability to change dynamic level and show expression through touch.

The pianoforte was slow to gain popularity at first and clavichords and harpsichords were actually still played and manufactured until the early 19th century! Around 1760, however, this newer keyboard began to grow in acceptance. You may be wondering why I am referring to this instrument as the ‘pianoforte.’ The early piano was given this name to differentiate itself from the newer version developed a century later. This early version of the piano is smaller in size and softer in sound than modern day instruments. Here is a picture:

Courtesy of 

You may have heard of two types of the early piano: the square and the grand. The square (pictured above) was built in the shape of the clavichord and meant for domestic use while the grand was shaped more like a harpsichord and, due to its high price, typically only seen in public performance arenas or in aristocratic homes.

During the Industrial Revolution, piano manufacturing drastically increased. Beforehand, about 20 pianos were made each year. By 1800, John Broadwood & Sons of London produced about 400 a year and by 1850 they did 2000 per year. Production was now less expensive because of the large quantity built so middle class families often times purchased square pianos for the home. At this point, we also see new developments to the instrument including the damper pedal which allows tones to continue after the release of the key. These new instruments also had greater volume contrasts, greater ability for legato playing, extended range, and quicker repetition of notes. This led to more virtuosic playing that we see in late 19th century with performers such as Franz Liszt.

Join me next time as we look at a few musical examples from the pianoforte and the more modern piano.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Kuhnau's "The Fight between David and Goliath"

Last time we introduced the harpsichord as an early keyboard instrument. Today, let’s listen to a piece performed on this beautiful instrument.

Composer Johann Kuhnau was a cantor of St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig just before J.S. Bach took the position. The most fascinating of his keyboard compositions is a set of six Biblical Sonatas composed in 1700. On them, Kuhnau indicated that he intended them for organ, harpsichord, or other similar instruments. These sonatas contained a programmatic element built upon Old Testament scenes in the Bible. These scenes include “The Fight between David and Goliath,” “Saul Cured through Music by David,” “Jacob’s Wedding,” “The Mortally Ill and Then Restored Hezekiah,” “The Saviour of Israel/Gideon,” and “Jacob’s Death and Burial.”

Here’s a listening example of “The Fight between David and Goliath.” This sonata begins with dotted rhythms meant to depict the big, brave and fierce giant, Goliath. He follows with a chorale-prelude meant to reflect the prayer of the Israelites. The third movement contains a dance depicting the point when David decides to trust God and approach Goliath. When the stone flies toward the giant, we hear a quick scale and when Goliath falls dead, we hear short, descending chromatic passages.

What do you think of this excerpt? Do you enjoy the sound of the harpsichord more or less than the clavichord?

Once the piano gained dominance, the harpsichord was forgotten, including the repertoire. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the music was revived for piano but it still was not performed on the original instrument. It wasn’t until the 20th century that we see a revival of ancient music/instruments.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

History of the Keyboard: The Harpsichord

The next couple weeks we are looking at a brief history of the keyboard in conjunction with the annual World Piano Competition taking place here in Cincinnati next week. For more information on this competition, check out their websiteLast week we looked at an early keyboard instrument, the clavichord. Today, let’s talk about the harpsichord, a plucked keyboard instrument that originated during the 16th century.

Derived from the psaltery, the harpsichord has plucked strings rather than struck strings like a clavichord or dulcimer. What does this mean? When the performer presses a key on the harpsichord, a quill plucks the appropriate string producing a sound. At first, the instrument was rather small like a tabletop clavichord but eventually grew in size and was given legs. The harpsichord has the same shape as a grand piano and contains several rows of strings with 2–3 keyboards. The purpose of these separate keyboards was to help in producing different timbres and dynamics that could not happen by pressing just one key. Despite this ability to produce a sense of dynamics, the harpsichord was unable to play crescendos or diminuendos, thus leaving the need for the future development of the piano.

After its development, the harpsichord gained popularity because it had a louder tone production than the clavichord and could be used for both solo or ensemble performance. Known for its ornamental style, performers were sure to play with clean and precise attacks on the keys. This style was much easier on this early keyboard instrument than on modern instruments.

Have you ever heard anyone mention a virginal, clavecin, or clavicembalo? Do not let these names confuse you. They are all a type of harpsichord named differently depending on the country. Virginals existed in England, clavecin in France, and clavicembalo in Italy.

Here is a picture of a harpsichord. Notice like the clavichord, it is beautifully decorated. This particular example has two keyboards. Have you ever seen a harpsichord similar to this one?

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Music for the Clavichord: Fischer's Musikalischer Parnassus

Last time we looked at a brief history of the clavichord. Did you know that J.S. Bach favored this instrument and his son, C.P.E. Bach, was quite accomplished at performing on it?

Are you familiar with any piece written for the clavichord? Most pieces written for harpsichord or organ can also be played on the clavichord. Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, a leading keyboardist of the early 18th century, also composed for keyboard instruments. One composition he is known for, Ariadne, is a guide through the major and minor key for young organists, similar to Bach’s later work, The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Another one of Fischer’s works, MusikalischerParnassus, is a harpsichord collection but could also be played on the clavichord. This work contains nine suites, each named for a muse. Here is an excerpt taken from this piece performed on the clavichord. Listen carefully to the sound and compare it to your experiences listening to the modern-day piano. What are your thoughts? There is no right or wrong answer, but I’d love to hear your take!



Tuesday, June 10, 2014

History of the Keyboard: The Clavichord

Cincinnati’s annual World Piano Competition is coming up June 23–28. In honor of this major musical event in our city, I want to look at a brief history of the keyboard over the next three weeks. For more information on the World Piano Competition, check out their website here.

The clavichord is one of the earlier keyboard instruments originating around the year 1484. Descending from the dulcimer, the clavichord similarly is a ‘struck’ instrument, the sound resulting from the striking of a string. It has a rectangular shape with the white keys made of boxwood along the front. The first clavichords were small instruments with no legs. They were typically placed on a table or the performer’s lap when played.

The original clavichord contained more keys than strings and thus, each string produced multiple notes. This type of clavichord is called a ‘fretted’ clavichord. The disadvantage of this type of instrument was that two notes produced by the same string could not be played simultaneously. A solution to this dilemma came in 1725 when the ‘unfretted’ clavichord came into existence, allowing one string per note. This new type of clavichord was larger and more expensive so many people chose to keep their older versions.

Unlike the piano, the length of a note and vibrato on a clavichord can be controlled by varying the pressure on the key after it’s pressed. This type of vibrato is known as Bebung. The clavichord was primarily used in domestic settings as a solo instrument as, due to its weak sound, it did not combine well in ensemble settings or larger halls.

Below you can see an example of a clavichord. Notice the beautifully ornamented lid. Often times, the keys were also veneered with ivory. This particular instrument is an example of one played on tabletop.

Courtesy of

Next time we will briefly look at examples of music written for clavichord. Have you ever heard a recording of this instrument? If so, what did you think?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Extra-musical Sources and Programmatic Music

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?





Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Music for Music's Sake: Brahms' Fourth Symphony

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!



Monday, June 2, 2014

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!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Opera 101: Puccini's Madama Butterfly

This summer, the Cincinnati Opera’s last opera of the season will be Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Let’s wrap up our opera conversation this month by mentioning this lovely Italian opera dating from the early 20th century.

Giacomo Puccini created his own unique style by combining elements of the great opera composers who came before him: Verdi’s gorgeous vocal melodies and Wagner’s leitmotifs. Puccini uses arias, choruses, duets, etc. throughout and blurs the distinction between recitatives and arias used in operas in the prior century.

In Madama Butterfly, Puccini blends elements of Western-Romantic music and exoticism by telling the magazine story by John Luther Long of a young geisha who gives up her family and religion to marry American Lieutenant Pinkerton who promises to come retrieve her from Japan. After a three-year wait, he returns with a new wife, leaving young Butterfly heartbroken. Here is a clip showing a famous aria from this opera:


Do you plan to go see the Cincinnati opera perform this in July?    

Cover of 1906 Vocal Score by Leopoldo Metlicovitz

Butterfly Waits for Pinkerton