Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Happy Birthday Mozart!

Happy birthday to Wolfgang Mozart! This beloved composer was born today in 1756. In honor of his special day, I thought I’d pick my top ten Mozart pieces to share with you. What is your favorite?

Flute Concerto No. 1, K. 313

A Little Night Music, K. 525

Clarinet Concerto, K. 622

Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter,” K. 551

Violin Concerto No. 5, K. 219

Piano Concerto No. 23, K. 488

Sonata No. 11, K. 331

Symphony No. 40, K. 550

Flute Quartet No. 1, K. 285

Don Giovanni: “Night and Day I Slave Away”

Monday, January 25, 2016

Mozart and Janissary Music

This month on Clef Notes, we’ve been looking at examples of exoticism found in classical music. Many of the examples come from the late-nineteenth and early- twentieth centuries.  Let’s step back a little further in time today and look at Mozart’s use of exoticism in his Sonata No. 11 in A Major, K. 331.

Turkish music was quite popular in eighteenth-century Vienna. This explains Mozart’s decision to label the third movement of his Sonata No. 11 “Rondo alla Turca,” using march-like references to Turkish Janissary bands.

Turkish Janissary Band: Courtesy of 

Can you hear the percussive sounds of a military marching band in the “Rondo alla Turca” below?

Did you know that Mozart’s birthday is Wednesday? Join me for a “Best of Mozart” playlist!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Saint-Saens' Hypnotizing "Danse Bacchanale" from Samson and Delilah

The trend of exoticism in music reached a new height during the late nineteenth century. It was during this time that Camille Saint-Saëns wrote his Samson and Delilah (1877), a famous opera based on the story of Samson from the Old Testament. Let’s continue our exoticism theme this month by looking at the “Danse Bacchanale” from Samson and Delilah.
The famous Biblical story of Samson tells of a Nazarite man who was consecrated before God. One sign of his Nazarite vow and mighty strength was his long hair—he maintained his strength as long as he never cut his hair. When seduced by a Philistine woman named Delilah, Samson lost his strength after allowing her to cut his hair. The Philistines bound and blinded poor Samson, taking him to the temple of their god, Dagon. In the opera, the Philistines perform their pagan rites accompanied by the famous “Danse Bacchanale.”

In order to give the music a foreign flair, Saint-Saëns uses castanets, hypnotizing rhythms, augmented seconds, and an improvisatory, Middle Eastern-sounding oboe. Listen below for these exotic traits:

Next week is Mozart’s birthday, so it’s only right to talk about exoticism in his “Rondo all Turca.” Join me then! 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Exoticism in Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade

When I think about exoticism in music, I cannot help but hum the lovely violin solo from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (1888). Continuing our “exotic” theme this month, today let’s look at one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most famous orchestral works based on a collection of Arabic, Persian, and Indian stories known as The Arabian Nights.


As a child, Rimsky-Korsakov dreamed of traveling the world as a naval officer. When his time came however, the young man realized his passions had shifted. Longing to devote his time to composing rather than sailing, Rimsky-Korsakov made the decision to travel through his imagination and convey that through his music. He beautifully does this in Scheherazade, a story about the Sultan Shahriar who vowed to kill each of his wives after the first night. When Sultana Scheherazade marries him, she attempts to prevent her own death by telling the Sultan successive stories each night. Enticed, the Sultan keeps her alive in order to hear the next part of her story. The story continues for 1,001 nights after which Scheherazade wins the Sultan over.


Below you can listen to this exotic masterpiece. Note the solo violin, which represents Scheherazade.



Next time, we’ll look at exoticism in Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah: Danse Bacchanale!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Ravel and the Javanese Gamelan

Last time we looked at an example exoticism in chamber music, using Debussy’s Syrinx as an example. Exoticism is the evocation of a distant land, by use of borrowed melodies, native instruments, etc. Today, let’s look at how Ravel uses an exotic element in his String Quartet in F Major (1902–1903).

Have you heard of Javanese Gamelan music? This is a term used for an Indonesian orchestra, made up of many instruments, particularly percussion. Many gamelan instruments are specific to certain regions and may have existed there for centuries. Below, you can see an example of a gamelan. Note how expansive it is and how many people it may take to perform:

Often, Western composers would attempt to depict the sounds of Javanese Gamelan in their own compositions—an exotic technique. Ravel did this in the second movement of his String Quartet in F Major. As you listen below, note the pizzicatos and cross-rhythms Ravel incorporates in order to depict what scholars believe to be bells or a gamelan.

Join me next week as we look at exoticism in orchestral music!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Debussy's Mysterious Syrinx

This month on Clef Notes, we’re learning about exoticism and how it’s used in music. Last week, we looked at two examples of exoticism in opera. This week, let’s move our attention to examples in chamber music.

Claude Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute is an excellent example of an exotic work that doesn’t necessarily focus on a foreign region, but an ancient and mythological time period. Composed in 1913 for Gabriel Mourey’s play Psyche, Syrinx tells the story of a nymph who turns into reeds in order to escape the pursuits of the satyr Pan. When the wind blows against the reeds, they create beautiful music that attracts Pan’s attention. Turning them into panpipes, Pan kills his love without knowing it. Debussy writes in his characteristically chromatic way, creating a sense of mystery in his depiction of this Greek myth.  Listen to this lovely yet mournful piece below, performed by Emmanuel Pahud:

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Madame Butterfly and the Exotic

This month on Clef Notes, we are looking at exoticism found in music. Last time, we looked at Bizet’s famous opera, Carmen. Today, let’s travel to Japan for an opera many of you may have enjoyed during the Cincinnati Opera’s 2014 season: Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904).

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 combines 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. Pentatonic and whole-tone scales can be heard throughout Puccini’s score, a feature that Western audiences commonly associated with the East.

Here is a clip showing a famous aria from this opera—“Un bel di vedromo,” sung by Maria Callas:

Can you hear exotic elements in the “Un bel di vedremo”? 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Exoticism in Bizet's Carmen

Nationalism in music is a topic we once looked at here on Clef Notes. But what about the opposite of nationalism, or the evocation of a distant land, by use of borrowed melodies, native instruments, etc.? This idea is known as exoticism and, though used throughout history, it gained popularity during the late nineteenth century.

Exoticism is an interesting concept because, while composers were successful in creating sounds different from what their Western audiences were used to hearing, they were not always accurate in creating authentic music from these distant regions. Many of the exotic melodies that became popular during this time period depicted more of the composer’s own idea of what these foreign melodies should sound like rather than the actual music of different cultures.

This month, I’d like to look at various examples of exoticism in music, starting off with a few operatic examples this week. Today, let’s look at Bizet’s Carmen (1874), an opera set in Spain and based on a novel by Prosper Mérimée.  While to us, Spain sits in close proximity to where the opera was composed in France, audiences of Bizet’s time looked at Spanish elements as exotic and exciting.

Carmen takes place in Seville during the mid-nineteenth century and is a tale about how the soldier Don José leaves behind his morals and innocent love for the provocative gypsy-girl Carmen.

Courtesy of
Bizet conveys his own ideas about Spain in multiple ways. Above you can see an image of Carmen in bright, alluring colors. He also casts Spain in a dark sense, ending his opera with a gruesome murder. Bizet uses musical elements to give audiences a dose of Spanish flare. Several of Carmen’s arias use titles from Spanish dances such as “Habanera” and “Seguidilla.” Bizet incorporates augmented seconds associated with gypsy music and the Phrygian mode, adding to the Spanish flavor.

Just for fun, enjoy one more “Carmen” video, courtesy of The Muppets: