Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Response to Nick Baker's Journal on The Bewitched

When I first sat down to listen to Harry Partch’s The Bewitched, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Sure, I was vaguely familiar with some of Partch’s instruments like the spoils of war, the boo, and the cloud chamber, but I had no idea the extent to which he could create an entire drama that was over an hour in length. In Nick Baker’s journal, he describes The Bewitched as “fresh” and mentioned being hooked after only the first few notes. I can understand why Nick, as a percussionist, would be so interested in this mostly percussive work. However, I admit I am a bit more traditional and cannot say that I love this work. However, as I listened to it, I slowly began to understand the piece and Partch’s reasons for making a work in the corporeal style.

This sense of the visual is brought out greatly by the added dancers and theatrical way he places all of the musicians on stage. The story is not just in the music, but also in the facial expressions of all on stage and their movements. The “Lost Chorus of Musicians” are also actors in the story. These things combine to create an experience, one that we cannot truly get unless we were to see the entire performance, dancers and all. Nick does a wonderful job of explaining the background of the work and the pieces of the puzzle, however an equally important part of this Dance Satire is the dancers and the motion.

As Nick points out, the tuning and instrumentation is far from ordinary. While the music does seem abstract, it does not seem “out of tune” to the listener. Indeed, there are many moments of juxtaposition in Partch’s work. For example, in the scene “Exercises of Harmony and Counterpoint in a Court of Ancient Rituals,” normal sounding instruments like the clarinet and adapted viola play rather beautiful melodies in a traditional manner. The comfort of the familiar is offset by the entrance of Partch’s own instruments, presenting a tribal and primitive sound. This continues back and forth, alluding to the old way of music making and presenting the new.

The concept behind Partch’s musical instrument production is intended to imitate the simplest origins of music. “Primitive man found magical sounds in the materials around him—in a reed, a piece of bamboo, a particular piece of wood held in a certain way, or a skin stretched over a gourd or a tortoise shell—some resonating body. He then proceeded to make the object, the vehicle, the instrument, as visually beautiful as possible” (Partch). The beauty of these unique instruments is that they are made from ordinary things but produce extraordinary sounds. Nick is right when he says that the options in music making are made limitless. Partch opens up something completely new to our ears, but at the same time it was always right at our fingertips.

I could definitely see The Bewitched as a standard part of our canon, as it makes political and social statements in a new and passionate way. The reasons for its exclusion may simply be in the difficulty of producing this work. Not only are dancers and musicians needed, Partch’s instruments are important in order make this piece distinct. Because instruments like the chromelodeon and the adapted viola are not easily accessible, this piece is very hard to perform.

On the subject of letting old European traditions die, I would disagree. Nick makes a final statement that “if anything should pass, it should be the stale European derived forms of the concert hall that composers continue to write to please audiences and musicians that are scared to get out of their suits.” While I believe we should always strive for new ideas and concepts, pleasing the audience is something that cannot be overlooked. If there are no listeners, music ceases to be important. I understand that satisfying one’s musical soul is necessary, however the ultimate goal should be to bring people closer together through music, whether it be as “tradional” as Bach, or as new-fangled as Partch.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Survivor from Warsaw

When I hear the name Schönberg, I think of serialism, complicated rhythms, and atonality. Instead of memorable lyrical lines, I expect unpredictable melodies and Sprechstimme. My unfamiliarity with tone rows and the twelve-tone system has somehow translated to a disliking of his music over the years. However, amidst Schoenberg’s attempt to veer from the path of “normal” musical expression, he composed a piece that one cannot dismiss as being overly complicated. In A Survivor from Warsaw, Schönberg finds a way to use a serial system to communicate a very familiar and emotional story. While most are familiar with the events of the Holocaust, it is made real and current through Schönberg’s “Survivor,” no matter how far removed one may be. It is through this piece that I found a liking for Schönberg, or at least a sincere appreciation.

While there is quite a lot of controversy as to Schönberg’s motives for writing this piece, it is clear that his Jewish heritage and the experiences of his close friends and family during the Holocaust played a role in creating his libretto. Written in 1947, “Survivor” captures the raw emotions that many Jews experienced just a few years before it’s composition. Along with three languages (English, German, and Hebrew), Schönberg incorporates a twelve-tone system, Sprechstimme, hexachords and augmented triads. In many cases, the implementation of these techniques leads to a complex work that is often difficult to comprehend or lacking in expression. However, in A Survivor from Warsaw, the inclusion of the narrator and male chorus make it incredibly powerful.

While Schönberg’s methods are complex and seemingly “random,” it is obvious that he had decided some things prior to composing this work. For example, in the Hebrew text of the “Shema Yisroel,” ‘Elohenu Adonai’ is the Tetragrammaton, or a substitute for the most holy name of God. To pay tribute to this, Schönberg assigns the augmented triad E-C-A flat to that word so that every time it is sung, those pitches are heard. He carries this motif throughout the work at moments when either the faith or courage of the Jews was mentioned. He also used text painting in many cases. For example, on the word “reveille” a trumpet plays an ascending line, as would have been heard in the concentration camps every morning. These aspects of his music make it relatable and easier to comprehend.

It is interesting that A Survivor from Warsaw is not considered a part of the canon as it is recognized as “undoubtedly one of his most immediately powerful expressions and, in terms of public acceptance, one of the more successful of his later works.” When I glanced at the list of repertoire for this journal, I was immediately drawn to Schönberg’s piece because I was somewhat familiar with it and wished to explore it further. What I realized is that while this seven-minute piece was not typical of Schönberg, it was a testament to his faith and family and to the thousands of people who lost their lives to genocide. Further, while serialism is not a technique I am comfortable with, I realize that it is a key in creating the “powerful expression” in “Survivor” and is not meant to make the listener comfortable but to truly recreate the tragic and memorable moment in history.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Response to Ryan's blog on Malipiero's "Vivaldiana"

When I saw the title of Ryan’s blog, it was obvious that the piece he had selected was in some way related to Vivaldi. After listening to it, it also seemed clear that this piece did not fit the mold of twentieth century music. It is true that Malipiero’s Vivaldiana can more easily be compared to the Baroque works of Vivaldi and Monteverdi than to the work of his twentieth century contemporaries. This piece does not sound like the work of Stravinsky or Schoenberg, nor does it fit into the Romantic period with the likes of Schumann or Beethoven. If I were to hear this piece for the first time and be asked to identify the time period, the year 1952 would definitely not come to mind. As Ryan pointed out, Malipiero was an early musicologist well versed in Baroque music. This is clearly stated in any biography about the composer, however why was Malipiero so interested in Vivaldi’s music and what made him compose a piece outside of the realm of the twentieth century? A great influence in his music was his position as President at the Istituto Italiano Antonio Vivaldi. During his time there, he transcribed much of Vivaldi’s work and re-orchestrated excerpts from some of Vivaldi’s concerti. Malipiero himself said, “I took the poor Red Priest and masked him in my own way: in my own way up to a point, that is, because nothing has been changed in the music’s form, harmony or rhythm.” While a detailed history is not needed to study the work, a time and a place certainly provide insight and understanding.

When I read Ryan’s journal, I was under the impression that all of Malipiero’s music was in the early Italian style. I soon found out that this is not the case. If one listens to many of his other works, it becomes clear that Malipiero was indeed a twentieth century composer. After listening to Sette invenzioni for only a short time, I heard complex harmonies and rhythms, modern orchestration, and expanded instrumentation. This sounded like a completely different composer. It is noted that Malipiero was hugely influenced by works like The Rite of Spring and was not solely interested in the Baroque-style. The inclusion of information on Malipiero’s other works and background would have added to the strength of Ryan’s journal.

I agree that the main reason Vivaldiana is not included in the canon is because it is not a revolutionary work with new ideas or techniques. Though the piece is pleasant and stays true to form, it does not fit into what audiences were looking for at the time. What I find to be interesting is that Malipiero’s exploration of early Italian music happened much later in his career. His early works seem to draw more from late and post-romantic ideas. However, as a composer, it is important to be educated in the music of those in the past in order to move forward into the future and it is apparent that Malipiero was well trained.

I do not think that there is an issue of authorship as Ryan suggested. It is very common for composers to transcribe, arrange, and quote music from another time and place. However, it is clear that Malipiero was a talented composer and musicologist, who showed his abilities to write for many different time periods. There is no mistaking his strength or knowledge of music, Baroque or otherwise.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Kodaly's Psalmus Hungaricus

When I first listened to Zoltán Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus, I was immediately enraptured even though I could not understand the text. Without knowing the background of the work, I could tell that it was a story of yearning, struggle, and strength. Its unique sound was different from the usual Western European tradition. Indeed, Kodály was born in 1882 in Hungary where he attended grammar school and played in the orchestra and also sang in his church choir. As his interest in music grew, he began composing and entered the Academy of Music at Budapest. It was there that Kodály became friends with Béla Bartók and began to compile a list of folk songs that both composers would become famous for incorporating into their compositions. While Kodály’s oratorio for tenor, chorus, and orchestra does not use direct quotations of folk tunes, it is said to “exude the spirit of Hungarian folk music" (Eosze). It was his knowledge of Hungarian culture and sound that helps us to identify his music as distinctly Hungarian today.

Psalmus Hungaricus
was commissioned in 1923 for the fiftieth anniversary of the unification of Buda, Óbuda, and Pest into the capitol city of Budapest. In honor of this momentous occasion, Kodály centered his oratorio on “Psalm 55” from the Old Testament. In this psalm, the author begins by saying, “Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me” (NIV). The majority of this psalm is indeed a plea for God to punish the wicked and save the righteous. This is clearly evident in Kodály’s musical interpretation of the text.

The tenor soloist is the center of the piece and presents the main ideas of the psalm. There are moments when the solo line sounds like recitative, emphasizing the text in a prayer-like fashion. The contrasting ideas of the wicked and the righteous are stressed through the intensity or peacefulness of the chorus and instrumental sections. In moments of tension, ideas and melodies pass between voices and instruments creating a sense of confusion and fear. This is similar to the “klangfarbenmelodie” technique used by Richard Strauss at the turn of the twentieth century. In the midst of this struggle, a glimpse of light appears. The author of the psalm says, “But I call to God, and the Lord saves me” (NIV). At this point in the music, Kodály creates tranquility by incorporating the a cappella choir, followed by solo harp and violin in an ascending melody. The piece ends similarly as it began, with the chorus singing very softly in quiet prayer.

Kodály’s oratorio is excluded from the canon, however I would argue that it is a valuable piece of literature. While it does not incorporate folk tunes to the extent that he and Bartók were known for, it does have a uniquely Hungarian quality. For example, in the beginning chorus, he imitates a rhythm from a sixteenth century historical song by Sebestyén Tinódi (Stevens). While he does not use direct quotations of melody in the Psalmus, he still manages to give it Hungarian distinction. Perhaps another reason for its being excluded is that it was written earlier in his compositional career before he had clearly developed the style we know him for today. As Cross points out, Kodály’s “folk music is absorbed into a basically romantic-impressionist style.” When compared to the work of Schoenberg and Webern, it is not as revolutionary. Whether or not it is considered to be a radical composition for the twentieth century, it is indeed a classic representation of Hungarian Nationalism and is worth listening to and performing.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Response to Josh Hey's Journal on John Field

As I was listening to John Field’s Sonatas and Nocturnes, I noted the beautiful melodies and the relaxing quality the pieces offered. However, not only were they easy to listen to, they were also easy to forget. The rather uninteresting harmonic movement and lack of development in these works left me feeling disappointed. In Josh Hey’s journal, he says “the nocturne was one of the most evocative forms available to the composer of Romantic piano music.” I would not argue this, however I would point out that Field’s nocturnes are not exactly “evocative.”

John Field is considered a Romantic composer, although his dates suggest otherwise. Field was born in 1782, almost forty years before the Romantic period is considered to have begun. While we know that musical periods cannot be contained in a certain time frame, I would argue that Field was more a Classical composer than Romantic. As a child, Field studied with Muzio Clementi who was known as “father of the pianoforte sonata” (Plantinga). Field dedicated his first and only opus for piano sonata to his teacher, Clementi. Desiring to advance his career in more profitable genres, Field stopped writing Sonatas only to compose one more several years later. However, I do not think he was ever able to get away from the “classical manner” he learned from Clementi (Branson).

As Hey pointed out, every one of Field’s sonatas have only two movements, most of which are relatively upbeat. Some of the high points in these Sonatas are in his rondo sections, where he incorporates playful ornamentations (often grace notes are used) on top of dance like accompaniment. Of the four Sonatas I gravitate toward op. 1, no. 3, in part due to Field’s use of C minor. The drastic shift in mood and greater development helped to catch my attention. Of all of the selections I listened to, this was the only piece in a minor key. In my opinion, the lack of contrast in these pieces is a large reason for their exclusion from the canon. It seems that Field had a fear of both slow tempos and minor keys, which could be attributed to the gradual development of the pianoforte and his understanding of the instrument’s capabilities at the time (Piggott).

Most famous for his nocturnes, I can see that he helped initiate a more revolutionary approach to the genre. The great Romantic Liszt said, “Field did not so much play his own nocturnes but dreamed them at the piano” (Dubal). I agree that his pieces and melodies are lovely, as he imitated the “bel canto” popular in Italian singing. However, as Patrick Piggott points out “The preference for decoration rather than development, the lack of contrast and modulation, and the extremely simple formal scheme of the piece [Nocturne no. 1 in E flat major] are all typical of Field’s mature style.” Interestingly enough, Hey quotes Field as having despised Chopin’s nocturnes, for which Chopin is also most famous. In comparison, I hear the two composers as light years away. While credit is due to Field for looking at the term nocturne in a different light, I fully support Hey’s statement that Chopin was the genius who pushed the nocturne beyond its limits. On the one hand, Field’s nocturnes are pretty melodies that are fitting for evening music. However, when placed side-by-side with any one of Chopin’s nocturnes, it is obvious that Field’s music is lacking in those things that define Romantic music: chromaticism, passionate themes, and unique individuality.

In my readiness to criticize Field, I do not intend to undermine his work. While I do not feel he is as revolutionary as some may think, I do believe he made an impact on the world of music and began the groundwork for what was to become Chopin’s nocturnes.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Suite Espanola, no. 1 and no.2

When I think of Spain, an image of a dark-haired flamenco dancer in a colorful dress comes to mind. The strength in her movements and the music’s rhythm evokes a passion that is at the heart of Spanish music. I find that same passion in Isaac Albéniz’s Suite española, no. 1 and no. 2 for piano. With a heart for his country, Albéniz contributed to the nationalistic movement using sounds familiar to his heritage. In his Suites españolas he gave unique distinction to each section by utilizing various rhythms and melodies typical of Spanish music of the time.

Albéniz was a child prodigy who made his public debut at age four, initiating a childhood of recital touring throughout Europe and the Spanish Americas (Clark). Though Albéniz spent much of his time traveling, he always found his way back home to Spain, whether physically or through his music. In both of the Suites españolas, Albéniz pays tribute to nine cities in Spain by naming each movement according to the town or community it reflects. For example, one movement is named for the old town of Cadiz, where flamenco began. Furthermore, Albéniz gives a subtitle to each movement in the first suite, explaining what mood it is to convey. “Cadiz” is therefore given the subtitle “Saeda,” a flamenco-style song played for religious services. As this piece is in triple meter, it naturally feels like a dance. Albéniz emphasizes the second beat by using a turn or a trill, which suggests castanets, a wooden instrument used in Spanish music for percussive ornamentation. “Granada” is given the subtitle “Serenata,” meaning serenade, and in it Albéniz creates a guitar-like sound using a rolled chord in the right hand. This strumming chord is played repetitively on top of a lyrical melody in the left hand to imply a dreamlike serenade. Using these techniques, Albéniz contributed to the ever-growing movement toward nationalism. In a period when Italy and France defined what music should be, many composers strayed from the norm and sought to make their compositions representative of their homeland. For example, Chopin incorporated Polish melodies and dances into his polonaises and mazurkas and Rimsky-Korsakov used Russian folk melodies to give his music distinction. Albéniz also found ways to help listeners identify his work as nationalistic.

Albéniz’s place in the late Romantic period is fitting as his use of modern harmonies and chromaticism, especially in the piece “Cuba,” connect Classical style with new Romantic ideas. As a first time listener to Albéniz’s work, I naturally assumed that all of the music was original and as complete works, the Suites españolas are indeed his own. However, an article from Notes reveals that a couple of movements in Suite española no. 1 are taken directly from an earlier work, Chants d’Espagne, also written by Albéniz (Clark). Though this seems scandalous, many great composers have been caught doing the same thing in order to meet the demands of their patrons. If one were to glimpse at Bach’s outpouring of music, he would likely find a melody or chorale tune used more than once. While we do not look down on Bach for such acts, perhaps this is a reason for the Suites españolas exclusion from the canon we know today.

While the Suites españolas are not a regular part of the canon, Albéniz’s work did not go unnoticed by his contemporaries. Not only did Debussy find greatness in this Spanish composer, he encouraged others to look to Albéniz’s work so that they could learn from him as well. When discussing nationalism, Debussy remarked, “Without using actual popular tunes he is the kind of person who has them in his blood. They have become so natural a part of his music that one barely distinguishes a demarcation line” (Lesure and Howat). It is clear that Albéniz was recognized during his life, however he seems to go unheard today. While I am unsure of the reason for this, I would gladly place Albéniz Suites españolas in the canon among the works of Chopin, Bach, and Debussy.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Response to Bray's The Indian Princess

After reading various blogs by my fellow classmates, I was immediately intrigued by Victoria’s interpretation of John Bray’s The Indian Princess. Not far into her blog she describes early American opera as “hokey.” Being an opera student myself, I decided to look further into this perception to see whether or not I agreed with it.

Upon listening to the same work, I quickly found myself bouncing to the tunes and even laughing a little at the lyrics. While some of the lyrics are silly or light-hearted at times, I would not use the word “hokey” to describe it. Perhaps the art of opera was a new venture for Bray, however I can easily see links to both European opera of Bray’s time and even to modern day musical theater. I do agree that the orchestra is second to the singers and is mainly there to offer support. However, this is not unusual of opera. The goal is to get the plot and lyrics across clearly. From Victoria’s perspective, playing in the pit would not be extremely entertaining. On the other hand, there are some really beautiful moments in the vocal score that are fun to listen to and I imagine would be fun to sing and act out as well.

Another feeling Victoria expresses is her disappointment in the absence of Native American culture and music within the piece. This I agree with, however only once in the entire work does a Native American actually sing, in this case Pocahontas. I admit that I was expecting at least a hint of tribal sound in her voice or in the accompaniment and it was not there. She sounds like she could have stepped off the boat with all of the Englishmen. She does have a “Snow White” quality to her voice, in which I can imagine her singing to the birds and the flowers much like I imagine an Indian princess doing. However, the lack of true Native American influence is disappointing. Nevertheless, the story that is conveyed through the music (disregarding the dialogue that is not included on the recording) is generally from the point of view of the English men and women rather than from the perspective of the Native Americans. I believe this helps us to understand the European influence on the music. In the song “Och! Hubbaboo!Gramachree!Hone,” Larry, a young man missing his love back home, sings with a strong Irish accent while the orchestra imitates bagpipes in a type of folk ballad. If we understand that this work is centered on the visitors to the New World rather than on the natives, it makes more sense that the music is European. That is what those characters would know and Bray conveys that well.

Another point that Victoria mentions is a baroque quality to the music. The music is rather light and simple, but I would say that this fits in well with the Classical period. Not only were composers trying to simplify music in order to bring out the melodies, composers of opera and song needed a way to better convey the text, following Gluck’s opera reform. While Bray does not completely eliminate ornamentation, he does make it minimal.

I agree that The Indian Princess is not an extremely influential work today nor should it be considered a part of the canon. However, I think Bray deserves some credit as his work was widely performed during his lifetime throughout America and even in London. He obviously created something worth looking at and he knew how to reach his audience. I can easily imagine this story translating into a modern day musical and perhaps one day a composer will take that chance.