Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Introduction to Early Musical Theater

Between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century, the rise in leisure activities in large cities resulted in the development of department stores, amusement parks, and various types of theater. Minstrelsy, vaudeville, extravaganzas, operettas, and revues are several types of theater that were popular during this era. But what are they? Let’s quickly define these types of theater that eventually contributed to what we know as musical theater today. Throughout the month, we will walk through a brief history of the development of musical theater, looking at several hits whose music will live on for generations including Oklahoma!, Hair, and Rent. I’d like to thank my friend and local music scholar Alexandre Badue for his assistance with my research on musical theater!

Minstrelsy: An early form of variety show in which white northern actors portrayed southern plantation life using burnt cork to paint their faces black. The Virginia Minstrels led by Dan Emmett, who wrote the famous tune “Dixie,” is one example of a minstrel group. Variety shows had no plots or stories and no restraints when it came to being politically correct.

Vaudeville: A type of show in which a variety of talents are displayed including singers, dancers, minstrels, gymnasts, and comedians. Vaudeville was often performed in concert saloons and associated with crime. Over time, it became more refined and acceptable.

Extravaganza: A type of show that focused on the visual spectacle including music and dance.

Operetta: An imported show from Europe and translated into English if necessary.

Revue: Light entertainment dealing with satirical themes and involving short skits, songs, and dances.

During this early era of American musical theater, teams of comic performers became known for their theatrical shows. Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart present one example who gave a comic voice to New York’s immigrant and working class of the Gilded Age. Harrigan was a dry, comic baritone while Hart was the silly falsetto who frequently impersonated females. The team was known to add narrative to the variety stage and eventually, their success resulted in the establishment of their own company with their own acts.

Joe Weber and Lew Fields were another vaudeville team during this time who, like Harrigan and Hart, presented narrative alongside variety. They often referred to their show as a burlesque—a comic show where the humor is derived from an existing model. An example of this would be setting a popular tune to a new, silly text. Weber and Fields were also known to incorporate things we now associate with musical theater into their shows including costumes, stage sets, special effects, etc.

Join me next time as we look at an early theatrical performance from 1867!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise"

Though not considered an innovative composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) had a knack for keeping the traditional in music fresh. His music combines Western influences with those of his native Russia. Though he made his primary living as a pianist, his compositional output is outstanding, ranging from works for piano, orchestra, and voice!

Rachmaninoff began his studies with piano under his mother’s tutelage. He later went on to attend the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he remained until his parents separated, causing his grades to suffer. At that point, he moved to the Moscow Conservatory where he lived and studied with Nikolay Zverev. He met Tchaikovsky during this time, who would have a great influence on the young composer. 

Though primarily known for his works incorporating the piano, Rachmaninoff also wrote art songs. Today let’s look at an example that many may be familiar with, but unaware of its origins. The 14 Songs, Op. 34 was written for specific Russian singers based on their known talents. Rachmaninoff chose poetry to set to music from popular poets including Pushkin, Tyutchev, Polonsky, Khmyakov, Maykov, Korinfsky, and Bal’mont. The songs generally contain simple vocal lines with accompaniments that emphasize certain parts of the text. His famous “Vocalise” is the last song in this opus. Many of you may know this piece from one of many instrumental arrangements that have developed since the piece’s origin. In the beginning, however, it existed as a wordless song that he wrote at Ivanovka, the family country estate. You can almost hear the calm escape from the world that Rachmaninoff enjoyed at Ivanovka in “Vocalise.” Below you can enjoy Kathleen Battle sing this beautiful song in its original form.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Russian Song: Modest Mussorgsky

This month we have been looking at popular vocal music in various countries during the 19th and 20th centuries. This week, let’s go to Russia and look at the songs of Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881).

Mussorgsky lived a relatively short and unstable life with few of his works left incomplete at the time of his death. One of his greatest achievements during his lifetime, however, was his vocal works including both operas and songs. A member of the Mighty Five, Mussorgsky was known to write for voice in a way that was lyrical but also true to Russian speech inflections. The Mighty Five was a group of Russian composers during the 19th century who aimed to find a true Russian music. In addition to Mussorgsky, the group included Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and César Cui. Mussorgsky spent part of his life studying with the group’s leader, Mily Balakirev.

Mussorgsky was likely familiar with German and French song composers but he tended to draw inspiration from Russian folk song. He also had a great selection of poetry at his disposal from prolific Russian poets including Alexander Pushkin and A.K. Tolstoy. Overall, his songs demand a high level of musicality and emotional delivery and include irregular rhythms, harmonies, and melodies. Below you will find an example of one of his songs for which he wrote the music and the text, “Svetik Savishna.” This piece is based on something Mussorgsky allegedly witnessed in a small village—a village idiot professing his love to a beautiful young girl. You can hear his desperation as he pleads with the girl in the breathless stream of notes that the singer performs without any rests! Mussorgsky emphasizes the voice over the piano in this example, the accompaniment containing simple, drone-like chords.

Radiant Savishna, my bright falcon,
Love me, witless as I am;
Come, caress this luckless fellow!
Oh, my falcon, my bright falcon,
Darling Savishna, radiant vanovna,
Do not spurn this poor destitute fellow,
Though ill-fortune be his lot!
From birth I’ve caused folk much merriment,
They get fun and amusement out of me!
They say, Savishna, I’m feeble-minded,
call me-listen-‘Holy Vanya,’
Darling Savishna, radiant vanovna,
They kick holy Vanya,
They give me food and then honour me with a clout
on the head.
But festivals when they dress in their finery,
And deck themselves in scarlet ribbons,
They give poor Vanya only a crust of bread,
So as not to forget holy Vanya.
Darling Savishna, my bright falcon,
Love me, for all my ugliness;
Come, caress this lonely fellow!
I love you more than I can say,

Darling Savishna, believe me or not, Radiant Savishna! 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Friday with Frank Johnson

This post was written by Frank Johnson.

Frank Johnson is the weekday afternoon host on 90.9 WGUC. You can hear him between noon and 6pm, Monday thru Friday. 

The Disney movie studio has been very successful with live-action feature films based on older properties like theme park attractions and earlier animated films. Pirates of the Caribbean, Tomorrowland, Maleficent, and Alice in Wonderland provide examples. Now they're working on a non-animated movie from just part of an earlier animated film. It’s been announced the studio is making a full-length movie out of Night on Bald Mountain, which was a segment in the 1940 version of Fantasia that used Modest Mussorgsky’s music. A pair of screenwriters have been attached to the project but they haven't really said where the story will come from. There wasn’t much of a plot for that part of Fantasia, but it was certainly the most disturbing part of the anthology (especially coming after Mickey Mouse and dancing hippos).

It should also be mentioned that Night on Bald Mountain made an appearance in another very famous classic film of a year earlier: The Wizard of Oz. Next time you watch the film, notice the part where Dorothy's crew (the Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man) attempt a commando style escape from the Witch’s castle.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Irving Berlin and Tin Pan Alley

Nineteenth-century America saw the emergence of a musically literate middle class and an increase in popular music that people could entertain with in their own homes. We looked at Stephen Foster, who is often considered America’s first popular songwriter to compose as a profession. Moving into the 20th-century, we see many more popular song writers emerge during the Tin Pan Alley generation. What is Tin Pan Alley? Today you will learn just that as well as the story of Irving Berlin (1888–1989) who, like Foster, became famous for capturing American sentiments in his music.

So what is Tin Pan Alley? In the 1880s, a district on West 28th Street in New York City became a popular spot for song publishers to locate their business. Many of these publishers would pay singers to perform specific pieces in a show making it popular so people would in turn come purchase the sheet music. They also hired song pluggers to perform the piece on site for arrangers who came in looking for new tunes. This is how many young musicians such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin got their start!

How did Irving Berlin, a Russian Jewish immigrant, become one of the greatest American song writers of all time? This writer of “God Bless America” got his start as a street singer and later a singing waiter to make extra money for his poverty-stricken family. He went on to publish his first work in 1907, “Marie from Sunny Italy.” A few years later, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” gave him international success. Did you know that Berlin quotes Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” in this piece? Though he published over 1000 songs during his lifetime, Berlin never learned how to read music and could only play in one key. When composing, he figured out how to play the tune on a transposing keyboard. Then he would pull its lever, allowing it to transpose to any desired key! He also used a music transcriber to write out the music into notes while he played it on his keyboard.

Berlin wrote his first ballad in 1912. “When I Lost You” was his form of grieving the loss of his young bride, who died after contracting typhoid fever on their honeymoon in Havana. Though famous for many of the tunes he contributed to revues and operettas during the early 20th-century, today I want to focus our time looking at this ballad. In a later month we will look closer at Berlin’s life and his other work, including many of his Broadway and film hits! You can listen to Bing Crosby sing Berlin’s beautiful first ballad below. This may be lesser-known to you than many of his other works. Do you have a favorite?

I lost the sunshine and roses, I lost the heavens of blue,
I lost the beautiful rainbow, I lost the morning dew.
I lost the angel who gave me summer, the whole winter too.
I lost the gladness that turned into sadness,
When I lost you.

And I lost the angel who gave me summer, the whole winter too.
I lost the gladness that turned into sadness,
When I lost you.

Monday, June 15, 2015

American Songs of Stephen Foster

The emergence of commercial popular music in the United States coincided with the rise of the literate middle class and the transition from rural to urban communities. Its success resulted from an increase in income and time for leisurely activities, which many Americans of the middle and upper classes enjoyed during the nineteenth century. In terms of musical style, English, Italian, Scottish, and Irish melodies influenced many American popular songs.

Americans began viewing musical literacy as a desirable trait during the early nineteenth century. Many women studied music at private schools or “seminaries” in order to appear accomplished. Around the same time, piano manufacturing increased, and many middle-class Americans could now afford to have one in their home. The rise of musical literacy and piano production directly benefited Stephen Foster as many of his songs became quite popular in parlor settings.

American music scholars credit Stephen Foster as being the first American composer to make a living solely from writing popular songs. Many of Foster’s songs gained popularity during his lifetime because they reflected the spirit of the age in which he lived. During the early nineteenth century, many Americans moved to the large industrial cities and left the rural farmland behind. An unintended consequence of this mass urbanization was the increased spread of disease (such as cholera), which led to the premature loss of loved ones and touched the lives of many American families. Though excitement existed for the burgeoning urban centers, some Americans longed for the simple past: a past that in their minds, could be connected with their idealized lives in rural environments. Poetry and literary sources from this period in American history reify these sentiments.

Below you can listen to a parlor song written near the end of Foster’s life. He certainly had a way of writing music that not only resonated with his contemporaries but would have a lasting effect on generations to come.

Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world heard in the day,
Lull'd by the moonlight have all pass'd a way!

Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song,
List while I woo thee with soft melody;
Gone are the cares of life's busy throng,—
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer awake unto me!

Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea
Mermaids are chaunting the wild lorelie;
Over the streamlet vapors are borne,
Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn.

Beautiful dreamer, beam on my heart,
E'en as the morn on the streamlet and sea;
Then will all clouds of sorrow depart,—
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Mélodies of Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) lived and worked in early 20th-century France, contributing a variety of compositions including French art songs or melodies. A member of Les Six, a group of composers who reacted against Impressionism in France and supported the neoclassical style, Poulenc began his music studies at a young age and found influence in the chanson tradition as well as popular styles drawn from cabarets and revues. Other members of Les Six include Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre, Georges Auric, and Louis Durey. Poulenc spent time in Paris studying with Erik Satie who grew to be a good friend and influence on the burgeoning composer’s music. He is not known to be inventive but believed it was of the utmost importance to focus his efforts on melody. Poulenc once said, “I know perfectly well that I’m not one of those composers who have made harmonic innovations like Igor [Stravinsky], Ravel or Debussy, but I think there’s room for new music which doesn’t mind using other people’s chords. Wasn’t that the case with Mozart—Schubert?”

Poulenc enjoyed poetry and spent time setting many modern French poems to music. Some of his favorite poets include Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, and Paul Éluard. Today, I’d like to look closer at one famous Poulenc song cycle that uses poetry by Paul Éluard: Tel Jour telle nuit. Poulenc composed this cycle between 1936 and 1937. It includes nine melodies that cover the course of a day, beginning in the morning, and ending at night. In total, Poulenc set thirty-four of Éluard’s poems, admitting that he enjoyed turning the poet’s images into musical settings.

You can listen and read the text to the final mélodie in Tel Jour telle nuit below. This last piece relates to the first in the cycle in that they share keys, themes, and contain piano postludes. Poulenc asked Éluard for assistance in titling this cycle and ended up choosing the poet’s second option, which when translated means “As the day, so the night,” which also shows contrast between the opening and closing songs.

We did the night I hold your hand I watch
I will uphold you with all my strength
I burn on a rock star of your strength
Deep grooves where the goodness of your body spout
I repeat your voice hidden your public voice
I laugh yet the proud
That you treat like a beggar
Crazy you respect simple where you bathe you
And in my head that starts softly agree with yours the night
I marvel at the unknown you become
A similar unknown like you at all what I like
Which is always new.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Gabriel Fauré's French Mélodie

Last week we looked at lieder: popular songs in 19th-century Germany that featured a vocal melody with piano accompaniment. These popular “art songs” as they are often referred to, took on similar form in other countries around the globe. The mélodie, for instance, is what the French called their own art song. The French mélodie used the German lied as a model and set serious poetry to music for voice with keyboard accompaniment. While many French composers took to the task of composing mélodies, this week we are going to look at just two: Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924) and Francis Poulenc (1899–1963).

Gabriel Fauré knew the human voice quite well, having worked as choirmaster at Madeleine Church in Paris for many years. He typically set poetry that could be flexible rather than restricting himself to something that already conveyed a clear image. His song cycles are known to depict French ideals. Serving as a bridge between 19th-century Romanticism and Impressionism, Fauré influenced many composers to follow him including Maurice Ravel.

Let’s look at one of Fauré’s mélodies. La bonne chanson, Op. 61 uses the literary organization he was known to follow in many cycles after the year 1891. Literary organization arranges the chosen poetry in an order that tells a story. In this case, Paul Verlaine’s poems form a story while Fauré musically organizes the piece based on recurrent themes. Like Schubert and Schumann, whom we talked about last week, Fauré gave equal importance to the keyboard accompaniment as he did the vocal line. His cycle is expressive with a free vocal part, pushing his limits to the point that following this work’s completion, Fauré turned to a simpler style for the remainder of his life.

La bonne chanson was composed between 1892 and 1894. Fauré uses nine poems by Paul Verlaine that the poet dedicated to future wife Mathilde. While working on this piece, Fauré himself dreamed of love, love with the dedicatee Emma Bardac, who later married Claude Debussy.

A Saint in Her Halo
A Saint in her halo,
A Mistress of a chateau in her tower,
Everything that human speech contains
Of grace and love;
The golden note sounded by
A horn far off in the woods,
United with the tender pride
Of noble Ladies of yesteryear!

Together with the remarkable charm
Of a fresh triumphant smile
That has opened within the whiteness of a swan
And the blushing of a child bride;
Pearly hues, white and pink,
A gentle patrician harmony:
I see, I hear all these things
In her Carolingian name.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Schumann's Year of Song

Robert Schumann (1810–1856) was the first major successor in lied composition following Franz Schubert. While Schumann wrote many types of music, he tended to focus on one genre at a time (symphonies, piano works, lieder, etc.) The year 1840 is known as Schumann’s “Year of Song” because he wrote over 120 love songs in preparation for his marriage to Clara Wieck. Part of his inspiration for this enormous project was his desire for Clara. He also felt motivation to earn enough money to support his new bride and please her father. With the demand for lieder among amateur musicians, Schumann knew that lied composition would help him financially. 


Like Schubert, Schumann wrote his vocal and accompaniment parts with equal importance in text expression. Sometimes he even gave the piano extra solo material by including preludes and interludes. Many composers who wrote lieder would group their songs together into what is known as a song cycle. The songs in a cycle usually share a common theme such as a similar subject or the same poet. Schumann set 16 poems from Heinrich Heine’s Lyrical Intermezzo and grouped them into a song cycle he called Dichterliebe. These texts show each step of a relationship. Below you can follow along with the English text translation as you listen to one of the songs, “In the Marvelous Month of May,” which refers to love blooming during springtime. Schumann does not end the piece in a definite key, hinting that the story ends in a sad and unfilled manner.

In the wonderfully fair month of May,
as all the flower-buds burst,
then in my heart
love arose.

In the wonderfully fair month of May,
as all the birds were singing,
then I confessed to her
my yearning and longing.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

German Lieder: Schubert

Have you heard the musical term “lied”? Similar to how we have popular songs in our culture today, “lied” is a word used in reference to German 19th-century popular song. Of course, popular songs were in countries besides Germany, but we’ll talk about those later this month.

During the 19th century, there was a strong public interest in amateur music making. People often held performances in their homes as forms of entertainment among friends. The lied therefore was typically simple, containing an easy-to-sing melody and a keyboard accompaniment suitable for most amateur musicians. Early on, this accompaniment was subordinate to the melody, however by mid-century, keyboard lines held equal significance as the vocal part. Composers often chose strophic poetic texts that they would then set to music, giving each syllable a note. The Romantic era focused on feelings and emotions and we can see these traits in many texts.

The 19th century saw a significant increase in lied publication. While on average one collection was published per month during the 18th century, this increased to more than one hundred per month during the 19th century! Composers sought to write lieder like never before, knowing that the result could be quite lucrative.

Now you may be wondering which German composers produced a significant lied output. Franz Schubert (1797–1828) wrote over 600 lieder, many performed in his home as part of concerts known as Schubertiads. Goethe poems seem to be a favorite for Schubert to set to music. Today we’ll look at one of these, “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” from Goethe’s Faust. Schubert sought to fully convey the text through the musical accompaniment and he successfully accomplished this as you can hear the wheel spinning along in the piano line. As Gretchen reflects on her lover’s kiss, the wheel stops. It is not long before it picks right back up again. Listen below and follow along with the English text translation. Can you hear the wheel?

My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never more.

Where I do not have him,
That is the grave,
The whole world
Is bitter to me.

My poor head
Is crazy to me,
My poor mind
Is torn apart.

For him only, I look
Out the window
Only for him do I go
Out of the house.

His tall walk,
His noble figure,
His mouth's smile,
His eyes' power,

And his mouth's
Magic flow,
His handclasp,
and ah! his kiss!

My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never more.

My bosom urges itself
toward him.
Ah, might I grasp
And hold him!

And kiss him,
As I would wish,
At his kisses

I should die!