Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Baroque Art

Throughout history, we can observe that many movements within the music world often go hand in hand with what innovative techniques and ideas are simultaneously being explored within the visual arts. This month, let’s take a look at several of these movements found in both music and art, discussing how both composers and artists attempted to express these new ideas within their work. If you are interested in impressionism, expressionism, cubism, or minimalism, you may want to check out my Music and Art blogs from September 2014.

Today, let’s kick things off by looking at the term “Baroque” and what it means to the art world. Baroque is a French word that comes from the Portuguese “barroco” meaning a misshapen pearl. It applies to the abnormal or exaggerated and originally referred to ornate architecture in the mid-eighteenth century. Critics of the time preferred simpler styles thus, Baroque had a negative connotation. It wasn’t until the following century that people began to look upon this “Baroque” art in a positive light.

Though it is difficult to pin point exact stylistic features of Baroque art and music since it spans such a long period, it is best to loosely mention common traits of the time. Art tended to focus on the dramatic, containing deep color and focusing on light and shadow. The Renaissance period reflected things before an action takes place while the Baroque period showed the action itself. A great example is Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man Rising from His Chair. This is on display at Cincinnati’s Taft Museum of Art. Have you seen it?

Rembrandt's Portrait of a Man Rising from His Chair
Courtesy of wikimedia.org
Next time we’ll look at how some of the dramatic and ornate features found in Baroque art map themselves onto Baroque music!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Cage's Bacchanale and Prepared Piano

This month, Clef Notes has looked at a variety of music set to dance. Let’s wrap things up with something a bit different than what we’ve seen so far.

You may remember my previous blog post on John Cage (1912–1992), an avant-garde and experimental composer of the twentieth century. He was known to use sounds and ideas that had not previously been used in music. One concept he became known for was the prepared piano. A prepared piano is the insertion of objects (pennies, bolts, wood, plastic, etc.) in between piano strings. The result is a percussive effect that creates various sounds, depending on the objects inserted, when the pianist plays from the keyboard. The piano is prepared in advance of the performance with detailed instructions provided within the score for which objects should be placed between which strings.

Prepared Piano
Courtesy of wikimedia.org
Cage’s Bacchanale was his first work written for prepared piano. He created it for dancer Syvilla Fort in 1938. Originally, he wanted to accompany her dance with percussion, but opted for the prepared piano concept because he was unable to use many instruments. You can watch this modern dance and piano performance below. Do you think the piano and dancers balance each other or does one seems to hold greater importance over the other?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Philip Glass' In the Upper Room

So far this month, we’ve focused our attention on famous ballets. What happens when you combine aspects of ballet and modern dance? The result is a stunning production choreographed by Twyla Tharp to the music of Philip Glass.

In the Upper Room premiered in 1986 and breaks down the barrier that began to form between ballet and modern dance in the twentieth century. Tharp incorporates two groups of dancers—modern dancers wearing tennis shoes and ballet dancers wearing pointe shoes. She referred to her modern dancers as “stompers” and the ballet dancers as the “bomb squad.” In the Upper Room incorporates a variety of dance types including boxing, yoga, ballet, and tap, set to the minimalistic music of Philip Glass. Costumes and lighting add to the experience, dancers moving in and out of a heavenly, fog-filled stage.

Below you can watch a few excerpts from In the Upper Room. What do you think? Do you prefer this type of modern dance over some of the more traditional ballets we talked about earlier this month?

Friday, May 20, 2016

Appalachian Spring as a Ballet

Did you know that Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring began as a ballet? This Pulitzer Prize-winning work was originally written for dancer/choreographer Martha Graham. In the beginning, Copland didn’t know what to call the work so he referred to it as “Ballet for Martha.” Graham later chose the title that we know today. The ensemble at the premiere consisted of only thirteen musicians. It wasn’t until later on that Copland arranged the piece into the orchestral suite most people are now familiar with.

One famous medley in Appalachian Spring is taken from the Shaker hymn ‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple. Copland then varies this theme throughout the work. In an attempt to evoke images of rural, American life, Copland uses wide sonorities and open fifths and octaves, a trait commonly used to express American ideas in music. The music and choreography complement each other beautifully, telling the story of young newlyweds settling in the Pennsylvania frontier.

Here is a performance of Copland’s original Appalachian Spring ballet. Do you think the music fits well as a ballet accompaniment?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Nijinsky and Afternoon of a Faun

Many of you are probably quite familiar with Claude Debussy’s lovely Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, or perhaps even with the poem by Stephane Mallarme on which it is based. But did you know that this work is also a ballet? Today we’ll learn how Mallarme’s 1876 poem and Debussy’s 1894 score inspired ballet legend Vaslav Nijinsky to choreograph his first ballet in 1912.

Vaslav Nijinsky as the Faun
Courtesy of wikimedia.org
Nijinsky worked alongside Jean Cocteau in creating what became a scandalous ballet. Cocteau wrote the ballet scenario, as Nijinsky admitted to never having read the French poem by Mallarme. The ballet was created for Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russe in Paris. Like the ballets we discussed last week, this premiere also caused a scandal, Nijinsky not hesitating to incorporate the sensual side of the faun after he encounters several nymphs who leave behind a veil.

Did you know that Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring began as a ballet? Find out more next time on Clef Notes! 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Satie's Parade

This week on Clef Notes we are looking at ballets that were considered controversial at their premieres. In honor of composer Erik Satie’s 150th birthday that’s coming up on May 17, let’s look at how his Parade created conflict following its 1917 premiere.

Last year in a Music and Art blog post, I discussed Satie as a Cubist composer. But what is Cubism? In art, this style features three-dimensional objects represented on a two-dimensional plane. This is done by using geometrical shapes such as cubes (hence “Cubism”) and overlapping them in a fun, sometimes colorful, way. But how is this Cubist idea portrayed in music? Satie’s ballet Parade illustrates this idea of overlapping fragments in music by using jazz elements, a whistle, siren, and typewriter in his score. These features were unheard of at this point in history and audiences did not respond well.

Parade was written by Jean Cocteau with choreography by Léonide Massine. It is interesting to note the costumes were unconventional as well, displaying the Cubist artwork of Pablo Picasso. Here are a few excerpts from Satie’s score to Parade.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Stravinsky's Controversial Rite of Spring

This week on Clef Notes, I’d like to focus our attention on controversial ballets. When I think of this subject, the first ballet that comes to mind is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. You may be familiar with this famous ballet from the early 20th century. 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 ballets in music history?

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. You can watch a clip from the ballet below. What do you think?

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Delibes' Classic Coppelia

This month on Clef Notes we are looking at music and dance. Last time, we gave a brief background on ballet and looked at Tchaikovsky’s classic, Swan Lake. Today, let’s look at another classic that the Cincinnati Ballet will perform during their upcoming season—Delibes’ Coppélia.

Delibes’ Coppélia premiered in 1870 in Paris in collaboration with choreographer Arthur Saint-León. Based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman, the story tells of a doctor who becomes obsessed with his mechanical doll invention. Unlike Hoffman’s tale, the ballet is a comedy, providing a good laugh as audiences watch as young Franz falls in love with the doctor’s mechanical doll creation and his lover Swanhilda works to coax him back. In Saint-León’s original choreography, a woman played the part of Franz. This was changed in a later version with Coppélia undergoing many interpretations over the years.

The ballet and Delibes’ music were a success at the premiere and the ballet has remained a favorite in the repertoire ever since. Below you can watch a performance of Coppélia. Listen for the folk dances Delibes uses in Act I, including a mazurka and a czardas! This was quite revolutionary at the time Delibes composed the ballet, so much that many composers to follow used some type of national dance in their work.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Music and Ballet: Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake

Do I have any readers who enjoy attending the Cincinnati Ballet each season? My love for classical music began the first time I saw Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet on television as a child. The relationship between music and dance is a powerful and beautiful art form, and one that I would like to take a closer look at this month on Clef Notes.

Scholars believe that ballet was first developed during the late 15th century in the Italian Renaissance court as a dance form that was meant to depict the fencing sport. It was further developed in France under Louis XIV during the 17th century. Though ballet’s popularity declined during the late 19th century in France, it continued to thrive in countries such as Italy and Russia. You may have heard of the Ballets Russes. The company formed under Sergei Diaghilev and, during the early 20th century, helped to re-establish an interest in ballet in the west. Diaghilev brought Russian culture with him and his ballet company became quite popular, even giving collaborative opportunities to emerging talent of the time including Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso. We will discuss several of these collaborations further later this month.

Sergei Diaghilev: Courtesy of wikimedia.org
Let’s start off by looking at a staple that is loved by ballet experts and novices alike—Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. In 1875, Tchaikovsky received a commission from the director of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow to write what would become one of the most famous ballets of all time. He had wanted to attempt a ballet for some time and desperately needed the extra income, so he agreed. Conveniently, the composer was already quite familiar with the story line, as he had written music based on the subject to entertain his sister’s children only a few years earlier.

The famous tale begins with a Prince who discovers a woman who is under an evil spell. She exists as a swan by day and a woman by night. The spell can only be broken if a prince marries her and vows to remain faithful to her forever. The Prince falls in love and agrees to marry her. Not long after, he is tricked into proposing to the wrong woman, thus breaking the heart of his swan lover who throws herself into the lake. When he discovers his mistake, the Prince follows and they are joined in the afterlife.

Did you know that the premiere of Swan Lake was not successful? While Tchaikovsky’s music was spot-on, the staging and dance technique were lacking. It was not until after the composer’s death that the ballet received improved choreography and became the lasting success we know today.