Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween from 90.9 WGUC!

Happy Halloween from 90.9 WGUC! Don’t forget to tune in tonight at 6:00 ET for Tunes from the Crypt with Mark Perzel. If you’re looking for a few additional pieces to enhance your eerie day, I’ve compiled a “Horrifying Music of Halloween” playlist for your reference. Enjoy!

Tchaikovsky, “Swan Theme” from Swan Lake

Mussorgsky, Night on Bald Mountain

Stravinsky, Rite of Spring: Sacrificial Dance

Grieg, Peer Gynt: In the Hall of the Mountain King

Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

Bartok, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta

Mozart, Requiem

Rachmaninoff, Isle of the Dead

Dvorak, Noonday Witch

Schubert, Erlkonig

Mahler, Kindertotenleider

Wagner, Ride of the Valkyries

Saint-Saens, Danse Macabre

Orff, Carmina Burana

Bach, Toccata and Fugue in d

Bantock, Witch of Atlas

Stravinsky, Firebird: Infernal Dance

Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice: Dance of the Furies

Saint-Saens, Carnival of the Animals: Aquarium

Holst, Mars-Bringer of War

Bazzini, Round of the Goblins

Shostakovich, Symphony #10: Second Movement

Gounod, Funeral March of a Marionette

Chopin, Sonata #2: Funeral March

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Creepy Classical Music

Going along with our spooky sounds of Halloween this week, today let’s listen to a few pieces that are associated with creepy stories that you may or may not be familiar with. First up is Dvorak’s Noonday Witch. Inspired by the poem “Polednice” by Karel Jaromir Erben which was based on the noon demon “Lady Midday” found in Slavic mythology, the story behind the music relates to a mother who warns her young son to behave or she will summon the noon witch. When he continues to misbehave, the witch appears, terrifying the mother. In fear and attempts to protect her child, the mother holds the boy close, accidentally smothering him to death. You can listen to Dvorak’s musical interpretation of this terrifying tale here:

Another haunting story comes from Goethe’s poem “Erlkonig” that Schubert (along with many other composers) set to music. This piece for voice and piano tells of a father and son riding on horseback through the night. As the son cries out in fear of the approaching, yet enticing Erl King, the father hushes him to silence, not believing the boy’s story. When the horse arrives to their destination, the father finds the boy dead in his arms. Schubert does an excellent job at conveying the different characters in this poem. The Erl King who is an enticing character, sings in a major key in order to sound positive and convincing. The father too sings in a major key, ignorant of the impending doom of his child. The boy and the narrator, on the other hand, aware of the ultimate fate, sing in an eerie and sorrowful minor key. You can listen to Jessye Norman sing this magnificent piece here. Can you hear the racing of the horse’s hoofs in the piano?

Lastly, let’s listen to the famous “Sacrificial Dance” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
Do you remember what happens during this primitive ballet? A girl is chosen as a sacrifice and must dance herself to death. You can watch a scene from this opera here. Notice the irregular meter and frequent alterations of notes and rests in Stravinsky’s music that help to depict this scene:

Monday, October 26, 2015

Horrifying Music of Halloween: The Dies Irae

In light of Halloween this Saturday, let’s talk about deathly sounds and spooky tales found within the classical music world. Coming up on Halloween I’ll even provide my “Horrifying Music of Halloween” playlist to accompany your evening activities.

Have you heard of the Dies irae? This theme comes from the Mass of the Dead and has been used by composers for hundreds of years as an underlying message or symbol in their own work. Today, I want to share three famous examples of where this Dies irae can be heard in the music of Berlioz, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff. First, why not familiarize yourself with this theme with a clip taken from a film that chose to foreshadow death through its soundtrack, The Shining.

During the 19th century, composers were fascinated with anything macabre and sought to incorporate deathly sentiments in their music. One such example is the fifth movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique known as “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.” Berlioz uses what is known as the idee fixe or “fixed idea” throughout his composition. This fixed idea is a musical theme that comes back in each movement, changing each time it appears in order to match the story the composer seeks to convey through his music. 

During this finale movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” Berlioz distorts the idee fixe and combines it with the Dies irae theme in order to depict a dream of his beloved appearing at his own funeral as a witch. As you listen to the excerpt below, listen for the distorted sounds of the idee fixe in the E-flat clarinet and the Dies irae theme that Berlioz weaves throughout.

Another example of the Dies irae can be found in Liszt’s Totentanz, a work for piano and orchestra. Many musicologists believe this work was inspired by a fresco Liszt saw while visiting Pisa. Created by Orcagna, the fresco was entitled The Triumph of Death.

Courtesy of

Liszt begins this work with the Dies irae theme in the trombones. This theme, along with sudden shifts in dynamics and the use of low registers creates a creepy atmosphere for the listener. Listen here:

Lastly today, let’s listen to Rachmaninoff’s haunting Isle of the Dead. This piece is based off of the painting by Arnold Bocklin that Rachmaninoff first saw a reproduction of in Paris in 1907. The composer felt uneasy as he gazed at the boat holding a coffin as it approached the eerie island.

Courtesy of
Reflecting on this as he composed, Rachmaninoff begins his piece with the sounds of oars in water using the dark sounds of low strings accompanied by timpani and harp. The music evokes a lack of direction and a sense of urgency as it progresses, the Dies irae appearing once the boat arrives at the island. This theme seems to win out over any sounds of joy in the piece. Can you hear the Dies irae? Listen here:

Join me next time as we look at creepy stories associated with various classical pieces!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Inspiration Behind Nico Muhly's Music

You may recognize Nico Muhly’s name if you attended the CSO’s MusicNOW Festival. Born in 1981, Muhly is a rising composer writing a variety of works including chamber music, orchestral music, sacred music, opera, and ballet. Let’s wrap up our topic this month by looking at his life and work.

Nico Muhly finds a great amount of inspiration in English religious music including work by William Bryd and John Taverner. He also enjoys the repetition used by Philip Glass and Steve Reich along with the rhythms of singer-songwriter Björk. When writing music, Muhly does not think about the actual notes musicians will play but focuses on things like books, YouTube videos, etc., allowing aesthetics to influence him. He then considers the emotional journey he would like to take listeners on as they hear his work.

Below you can listen to an example of Muhly’s music. His Violin Concerto is based on Renaissance astronomy and educational videos on the solar system from the 1980s. He wrote the piece for electric violin and chamber orchestra.

You’ve had a month of modern composers. Do you feel one in particular resonates with you or do you appreciate each approach in its own way? If you have a favorite composer of today who was not mentioned this month, drop me a line! Perhaps I can talk about them in a future month!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

André Previn the Composer

Did you have the opportunity to see the world premiere of André Previn’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello last fall? Today I’d like to continue our look at living composers by exploring his life and listening to his Violin Concerto.

Previn is a world-famous conductor, composer, pianist, and Grammy-award winner who was first exposed to music by his father. Coming from a Russian-Jewish background, the family moved to the US during Nazi Germany time and young Previn began playing piano in night clubs and for silent films. He completed several jazz recordings in the 1940s and went on to study composition. Writing and conducting studio orchestras in films throughout the 50s and 60s, Previn is known for contributing music to hits including Gigi and My Fair Lady. Eventually he expanded his repertoire to include more classical pieces.

Previn prefers to compose with a specific artist in mind. He wrote his Violin Concerto for his wife at the time, Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose playing he strongly admires. The piece incorporates a German children’s song (“If I were a bird and had two wings, I’d fly to you…”) in the third movement. Growing up in Germany, he knew this song as a child.

Join me next time as we wrap up the month by discussing Nico Muhly! 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Elvis in Classical Music

How can I get away with talking about Elvis in a classical music blog? Today we are going to talk about Grammy award-winning composer Michael Daughtery’s (1954) Dead Elvis, one of his many works based on a popular American icon. While finding inspiration in composers such as Dvorak and Ives, Daughtery also enjoys writing works representing various people and places. Coming from a background in jazz and rock, Daughtery combines a modernist approach with popular music. Many of his works relate to American popular culture including Superman in his Metropolis Symphony and Jackie Onassis in Jackie O.

Dead Elvis (1993) is one of Daughtery’s works that a variety of people enjoy even outside classical music circles. Perhaps its references to popular culture make it more accessible? Dead Elvis is written for a chamber ensemble and a solo bassoonist dressed up like Elvis! It incorporates the Dies irae theme from the Mass for the Dead in varied forms reminiscent of 50s rock, Latin jazz, and Las Vegas shows—all aspects of Elvis’ career. Watch here:

What are your impressions of this piece? 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Modern Approach of Pierre Boulez

Conductor and composer Pierre Boulez (1925) has always sought to push boundaries and look into the future musically. He is opposed to traditional music and was considered a rebel at first as he used modern methods such as 12-tone composition to help him develop new approaches to sound. 

Boulez studied mathematics early on but soon switched to music at the Paris Conservatory where Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz were among his instructors. Over the course of his life he has inspired many young musicians and even won twenty-six Grammys for recordings! Continuing his mission to pursue modern music, Boulez founded a modern music series in 1954 known as Domaine musical. The group represented music from composers including John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Olivier Messiaen, and Luciano Berio.

Above I mentioned the 12-tone method. This type of compositional approach is known as serialism and is based on a pre-determined series of pitches from the chromatic scale repeatedly used throughout a work. Boulez expanded this method into total serialism—the application of serialism to items other than pitch including durations and timbres. He was also known to provide options in some of his pieces, giving the performer the opportunity to decide the order in which to play things.

Below you can listen to Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître (1953-55). It uses a singer and chamber ensemble with various percussion, alto flute, xylorimba, vibraphone, guitar, and viola. It contains nine movements and uses settings on poetry by René Char. Notice the Sprechstimme style of singing (type of singing that sounds similar to speaking).

Next time, join me as we talk about the use of Elvis in Michael Daughtery’s work!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Arvo Pärt and Tintinnabuli

The piece above can be described as representing the “tintinnabuli” style. What’s this, you may be wondering? Arvo Pärt began using this Latin term for “bells” to describe the style of music he developed in the 1970s. The “tintinnabuli” style pairs each melody note with a note from a harmonizing chord, creating a bell-like resonance. The listening example you just viewed is Pärt’s “Tabula Rasa,” the first public appearance of this new style premiered in 1977 and creating international success for the composer. Continuing with our modern-music topic this month, let’s take a look at Pärt and listen to another one of his works.

Born in Estonia in 1935, Arvo Pärt spent his early career writing atonal, dissonant music. During the 1960s, he suddenly ceased composing, admitting that he no longer believed in the modern musical forms. Upon hearing Gregorian chant, he began to study monody and ancient melodies, inspiring him to write simple, contemplative music. His new, mature style was first seen in 1976 with a piano work titled “Für Alina”.

With his music, Pärt has reached beyond classical music audiences and impacted the popular music world. Can you see why with “Für Alina”?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Morten Lauridsen's "Lux Aeterna"

If you are a lover of choral music, then you must be acquainted with Morten Lauridsen’s (1943) gorgeous, soulful work.  This month we are looking at modern-day composers and their work. Today, let’s explore the moving music of this west-coast based composer.

A recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 2007 and a long-time professor at the USC Thornton School of Music, Lauridsen worked as a Forest Service firefighter and lookout near Mt. St. Helens prior to his decision to study composition at USC. When not teaching, Lauridsen spends his summers on Waldron Island off the coast of Washington state in the San Juan Archipelago. He enjoys a simple life there in his home that is a converted general store purchased in 1975. At that time, he brought a $50 piano with him over in a boat. It was on this piano that he has written some of his masterpieces! Lauridsen loves the sea and the serenity that he gets during his time on Waldron Island. It’s these moments of quiet contemplation that provide what he needs to write the beautiful, peaceful music that so many of his listeners enjoy.

Lauridsen is quite diverse in his approach to composition. While some of his works are more traditional with references to Gregorian chant or Renaissance music, other pieces sound more contemporary and have atonal elements. He loves setting texts to music and especially enjoys writing cycles on universal themes.

Below you can listen to one of his more famous, traditional pieces, Lux Aeterna (1997). This piece was written for the LA Master Chorale and Paul Salamunovich. The texts come from different Latin sources, all referring to Light.

What are your thoughts? Does this music move you?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Jennifer Higdon and blue cathedral

Continuing our look at modern-day composers this month, today let’s talk about Pulitzer Prize and Grammy-winning composer Jennifer Higdon (1962), who currently resides in Philadelphia working at The Curtis Institute of Music.

Higdon got a late start in her music training, beginning studies at 18! She later began composing at the age of 21 and soon realized she had a knack for writing a variety of genres.

Written to commemorate The Curtis Institute’s 75th anniversary in 2000, blue cathedral was inspired by Higdon’s idea of crossing paths with various people in life and how one can grow through each encounter. Around the time she was working on this piece, Higdon’s brother died and she decided to represent him with the clarinet and herself with the flute. The flute begins the duo since she is the elder of the siblings and the clarinet ends the piece by continuing in an upward motion in a journey beyond.

Did you know that Higdon’s decision to use flute and clarinet in blue cathedral was quite intentional? She plays the flute and her brother played the clarinet.

Next week we’ll look at Morten Lauridsen and Arvo Part!