Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Nutcracker: A Holiday Tradition

Today I’d like to wrap up our look at seasonal music on Clef Notes by looking at a piece that has become a standard in the holiday repertory – Peter Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Many families who aren’t even familiar with classical music have turned this ballet into a holiday tradition.

Composed between 1891 and 1892, Tchaikovsky’s ballet premiered less than a year before his death. Based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the story tells of a young girl who receives a nutcracker as a Christmas present. The nutcracker comes to life, turning into a prince who takes her to a land filled with sweets. Though The Nutcracker was not overwhelmingly received at its premiere, audiences came to love the orchestral suite that Tchaikovsky assembled. It ended up becoming his most popular and well-recognized score!

Be sure to tune into 90.9 WGUC this holiday season to enjoy seasonal music, and special programs for Hanukkah and Christmas. A full schedule of programming is available at

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Sleigh Ride with Delius

Thanksgiving is over and for many, thoughts are now turned to the holiday season. Be sure to make 90.9 WGUC part of your holiday festivities – we have a carefully-selected assortment of programs for the Hanukkah and Christmas seasons. We kick things off with Advent Voices on December 3 at 8pm.

What are some of your favorite holiday or winter pieces of music? One of mine happens to be Frederick Delius’ “Sleigh Ride.” Something about the sound of sleigh bells always gets me into that picturesque-winter mindset.

Delius originally wrote “Sleigh Ride” in 1887 as a piano piece that he first performed for his friend and fellow composer, Edvard Grieg. He later orchestrated it, but then set it aside. It wasn’t until years following the composer’s death that it was re-discovered and added to standard holiday repertory.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Arnold Bax's "November Woods"

This month, Clef Notes is looking at seasonal music and this week, it’s Autumn! What better title for an Autumn piece than “November Woods”? Arnold Bax’s tone poem was written in 1917 and first performed in 1920. The piece depicts the sounds of nature during late Autumn. In Bax’s mind, this meant stormy and bleak. Upon completing the work, Bax admitted to friends that he also hinted at his own inner-turmoil in this music. At the time, he was in the midst of a tumultuous affair with pianist Harriet Cohen.

As you listen to “November Woods,” see if you can hear the windy morning near the beginning, depicted by the harp, woodwinds, and muted cello. 

Bax lived under the shadow of Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. It wasn’t until later in his life that he received a bit more public recognition.

Join me next time for a special music playlist to accompany your Thanksgiving activities! 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Frank Bridge's "Summer"

Composer, conductor, and violist Frank Bridge (1879–1941) is most famous for teaching Benjamin Britten, who attempted to get the word out about his beloved teacher by writing his Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge. This work is based on the second of Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet. Bridge received an exemplary education at the Royal College of Music and even had the opportunity to study with Charles Stanford.

Why look at Frank Bridge today? Well, he wrote a piece titled Summer and “summer” just happens to be the Clef Notes theme this week! Listen to Bridge’s depiction of summer here

Can you imagine the sounds of nature and the warmth in the air on a hot, summer day as you listen to this work? The piece begins with strings that sound like the leaves stirring in the breeze. This is followed by an oboe solo, long and lazy, just like summertime. What other references to summer do you hear Bridge express in this work?  

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Mendelssohn Summer

This month, Clef Notes is traveling through the seasons of the year and this week, it’s summer!

Did you know that Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) wrote his famous Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was just 17 years old? Growing up in a well-to-do family, young Mendelssohn was exposed to music early on and given excellent musical instruction from Carl Friedrich Zelter. His parents often hosted performances in their home, inviting society’s rich and famous to attend. It was at one of these in-home performances that Mendelssohn first performed his overture, playing it as a piano duet with his sister, Fanny. Shortly thereafter, he orchestrated the work and it became quite successful.

Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was conceived as a concert overture, not originally intended to accompany the play. It is likely that Mendelssohn first encountered Shakespeare as it was read aloud or acted out at some of the performances his parents held in their home.

Over a decade after the completion of his overture, Mendelssohn was approached by the King of Prussia who desired incidental music for a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was at this time that the remaining music came to be. You can listen below. Can you hear love, adventure, fairies, and even a donkey in this setting?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Springtime with Copland

This month, Clef Notes explores seasonal music and today, it’s springtime! Let’s take a look at Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1943–1944), a piece that won him a Pulitzer Prize.

Appalachian Spring was originally written as a ballet for dancer/choreographer Martha Graham. The ensemble consisted of only thirteen musicians. It wasn’t until later on that he arranged the piece into the orchestral suite most people are familiar with today.

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.

Here is a performance of Copland’s Appalachian Spring by the Ulster Orchestra. Also, check out this great arrangement by John Williams that was performed at the 2008 Presidential Inauguration.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Seasonal Music

It’s November and if you live in Cincinnati like I do, you know that this means the days are growing shorter, the air is getting cooler, and the trees are getting brighter! Autumn has always been my favorite season. Perhaps it’s the pumpkins or the falling leaves, or maybe Thanksgiving. As I reflect on what this season means to me, I can’t help but think of the many classical composers who wrote lovely music based on the changing of the seasons.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is probably the most iconic “seasons” piece. Having over 500 concertos to his name, Vivaldi wrote many of his works for the young ladies at the school where he taught throughout his life. Some pieces, however, were written for his own performance purposes or for a patron. It is likely that The Four Seasons was composed for these last two reasons. They are accompanied by sonnets, likely written by the composer himself.

So you probably knew Vivaldi’s musical depiction of the seasons, but what about Glazunov’s? He wrote a magnificently orchestrated ballet in 4 scenes, one for each season.

In 1875, Tchaikovsky was asked to write his own set of character pieces for the St. Petersburg music magazine. He composed twelve short works for piano, one for each month of the year. Since their conception, there have been many different transcriptions of the various months.

Perhaps you prefer choral music? Then you likely favor Haydn’s reflections on the seasons in his oratorio, The Seasons. The libretto was adapted by Baron Gottfried van Swieten from a poem by James Thomson. The piece quickly became quite popular and was even printed in multiple translations!

What is your favorite “seasons” piece?

This month, Clef Notes will look at a few favorites for each season, including a special Thanksgiving playlist!