Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Music of Elmer Bernstein

Last time we looked at famous American composer, conductor, and educator Leonard Bernstein. Many believe he was related to composer Elmer Bernstein (1922–2004) but in fact, the two were good friends, but no relation. 

Elmer Bernstein was a child prodigy, first coming to music through the piano. He studied at Juilliard where he pursued both piano and composition studies. Though he hoped to develop a career as a concert pianist, his dreams were interrupted with the onset of WWII. During the war, he was able to keep himself in the music world by assisting in the arrangement of American songs for Glenn Miller and the Air Force Band. He also did work for the Armed Forces Radio programs, which developed his passion for composition.

Following the war, Bernstein received an invitation to go to Hollywood and write for film. Some of the films you may know him for are The Ten Commandments (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and The Great Escape (1963). He even won an Oscar for his work as music director for Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).

What’s your favorite Elmer Bernstein score?

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) is perhaps one of the most beloved American composers, conductors, and educators of the twentieth century. He studied with Walter Piston as Harvard University. He is remembered most for his time as music director of the New York Philharmonic, for his televised Young People’s Concerts, and of course, for his musical theatre work, West Side Story. Let’s spend the rest of today looking at this famous and much-loved modern telling of Romeo and Juliet.

During the mid-20th century, New York City existed in a state of unrest as Puerto Ricans migrated to the U.S. Juvenile delinquency became a popular topic in the press as street gangs formed and rivalries developed between Caucasians and Puerto Ricans. Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and the team that worked behind the making of West Side Story decided to use this contemporary and real problem in society as the basis for their new musical, a show based in the Upper West Side of New York City and involving two gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Caucasian Jets.

When writing the music for West Side Story, Bernstein traveled to Puerto Rico for inspiration. The musical indeed draws on Hispanic elements in both music and dance. In her book West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical, Elizabeth A. Wells states “the adoption of a specific ethnic style in a serious and self-consciously ‘American’ work has ultimately, and perhaps unexpectedly, earned for the Hispanic style a level of recognition in American culture it had never before achieved.”

Two popular Latin American dance forms are found in the gymnasium dance scene: the mambo and the cha-cha. During the mambo, Bernstein chose to use bongos, cowbells, and trumpets in order to resemble a Latin jazz band. The performers yell “Mambo!” from the sidelines of the dance floor, directly referencing the flamenco tradition in which dancers are urged on by onlookers. The choreography during this scene is also based on conventions of Latin social dancing.

You can watch the “Mambo” clip from the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Eric Whitacre and Goodnight Moon

Eric Whitacre is a Grammy-winning composer and conductor based out of Los Angeles, California where he is current Artist-in-Residence with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. He came to his passion for classical music relatively late, after singing Mozart’s Requiem while a student at the University of Nevada. He went on to study with John Corigliano and David Diamond at the prestigious Julliard School of Music. Whitacre writes orchestral works but is most known for his music composed for vocal ensemble. He has received commissions from some of the world’s top ensembles including the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Chanticleer, and The King’s Singers.

What is your favorite of Whitacre’s works? I’d have to say mine is “Goodnight Moon” – a song Whitacre wrote based on the popular children’s book of the same name by Margaret Wise Brown. After reading the book to his son countless times before bed, Whitacre decided to set the song to music for his wife, soprano Hila Plitmann, to sing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Music of Samuel Barber

This month Clef Notes is looking at a few composers known for their work in American music history. Samuel Barber (1910–1981) is the perfect example of a composer who played a significant role in American music during the mid-twentieth century. He wrote in just about every genre and was known to create a style similar to that of the Romantic period rather than that of the modernists who surrounded him. Besides composing, he was also known as a singer and a pianist.

Barber first came to prominence in the late 1930s after Toscanini performed the second movement of his string quartet with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. That movement today is known as his Adagio for Strings and is often heard in film or settings where grief is the prominent mood.

In 1958, Barber won his first Pulitzer Prize for the opera Vanessa. Later, in 1962, he won a second Pulitzer Prize for his Piano Concerto. Do you know this work? Listen here.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag

If you enjoy ragtime music, then you’ve most certainly heard of Scott Joplin (1867–1917). Joplin was a African American composer and pianist who was the leading ragtime composer of his day. Ragtime was a popular style in music at the turn of the nineteenth century that was known for its syncopated rhythms played against a regular bass. While it contains European aspects in its form and harmony, its rhythms are rooted in African music history.

Joplin grew up with musical parents and taught himself to play piano as a boy. He went on to organize a touring vocal group and later, a band. His first major publication and perhaps his most popular work was Maple Leaf Rag, a piano rag that most Americans have heard, whether or not they know who to attribute it to.

What’s your favorite piano rag?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Music of Erich Korngold

Even though Erich Korngold (1897–1957) was born in Europe, he can be considered a great American composer who impacted the history of the film industry in Hollywood. Korngold was a child prodigy, composing from a very young age and known among the world’s leading composers. After a successful career in Austria, film director Max Reinhardt brought the young man to Hollywood to help with the music for the film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). Warner Brothers was so impressed by his work that they hired him to write the score for Captain Blood (1935) followed by Anthony Adverse (1936) for which he won his first Oscar. Korngold was a key composer who helped turn film music into the art form we know it as today. Besides film music, he also is known for his work with opera, symphonies, chamber works, concertos, and more. Listen here to his lovely Oscar-winning score to Robin Hood (1938).

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever"

John Philip Sousa is the perfect composer to talk about during the week we celebrate Independence Day in America. Born in Washington DC in 1854, Sousa was raised surrounded by band music. His father played trombone in the U.S. Marine Band and young Sousa began learning band instruments, as well as the violin, by the age of six! When he tried to run away and join a circus band as a teenager, his father found him and put him in the Marine Band.

At age 21, Sousa left the Marine Band and went on to perform violin and conduct theater orchestras. After marrying his wife several years later, he returned to DC to become the Marine Band leader. He conducted the band for twelve years before starting up his own band, The Sousa Band. With this band, Sousa traveled the world, spreading patriotism wherever he performed. While he did write several operettas, Sousa is mainly remembered for his band music.

“The Stars and Stripes Forever” is perhaps his most famous march and has become symbolic of America and the flag. He wrote the march while feeling homesick on a voyage home from Europe. The piece was such a hit that most people expected to hear it at every Sousa Band concert. It’s ironic that “The Stars and Stripes Forever” ended up being the last piece Sousa conducted before passing away in 1932.