June 2008 - Posts
Once you start to collect classical CDs , and get familiar with the most famous works of classical music, you will notice that there are so many different versions of the same work available, and may get more than one version of the same work. Or you may hear a performance on a classical radio station or at a live concert of a given work by a different orchestra and conductor, or instrumentalist from the CD you own.
This is where things really get interesting. You will notice that different conductors, violinists or cellists do the same work very differently. Just as Olivier and Gielgud were very different as Hamlet, different musicians will have different ideas on how to perform a given work. Two conductors will record a Beethoven symphony, and the versions may be vastly different.
The tempos, or basic rates of speed of a performance, may be quite different. One conductor may do a long symphony, and it might last up to ten minutes longer or shorter than a different version. A composer may mark a movement with the Italian word Adagio, meaning that the tempo is rather slow, but different versions will still not seem to be at exactly the same speed. If you get the famous recordings of the nine Beethoven symphonies by the legendary Arturo Toscanini (1867- 1957 ) on RCA BMG, you will notice that the performances are very driving and impulsive , even agressive sounding. Then listen to the equally famous performances by the great German Otto Klemperer. (1885- 1973. These recordings are considerably slower; the music sounds broad, deliberate and majestic. Which conductor is right ? The answer is that both approaches are valid, although different fans and critics will often tend to prefer one over another. Decide for yourself.
Other musicians will add nuances which may be lacking in other versions. Musicians often use what is called Rubato, an Italian term meaning "Robbed". That is, they may speed up or slow down in a subtle way in places where it is not marked in the music by the composer. Playing music in a rigid, metronomic fashion is not what most composers intend. They will specifically write Accelerando or Ritardando in the music at times, meaning in Italian, speed up or slow down gradually. But the tempo can be subtly varied. Sometimes musicians overdo and exaggerate the rubato, and if the composer hears the performance, he or she may be unhappy about this. Conductors such as Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), and the great German Wilhelm Furtwangler (1886- 1954 ), tended to use much more rubato than Toscanini, who hated excessive use of it, and was sometimes accused of being too rigid and unbending.
Different conductors favor different kinds of sound from their orchestras; Stokowski was famous for a luxurious richness of sound, while Toscanini favored a lean, mean , trimmed down sound.
It would be awful if every musician played the same work exactly the same, but fortunately, that doesn't happen. Vive la Differance !
I thought these definitions might be helpful to any one out there who is new to classical music, or likes it but doesn't know much about it.
Sonata : A work for either a solo piano, or a piano and another instrument, violin, cello, Flute, clarinet, French horn or other instrument, usually three movements ( self-contained parts like chapters of a book), but sometimes in four. Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas, 10 for violin and piano, and 5 for cello and piano, plus one for French horn. Many other composers, such as Mozart, Haydn, Chopin, Brahms, Schubert, and others have written piano sonatas.
Symphony : Sometimes described as a sonata for orchestra. An orchestral work , often in four movements, but there are symphonies in three, five, two, occaisionally six, or just one movement. There are no hard and fast rules about this. A typical symphony by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven will start with a relatively fast movement, sometimes with a slow introduction. The second movement is slower, and the third is usually in 18th century , a minuet with a contrasting middle section called the trio, and then the opening section is repeated. The last movement is generally very lively. Beethoven (1770- 1827 ), changed the third movement into something called a "Scherzo", Italian for a joke or a jest. This is faster and more rugged than a minuet, but the form is the same, with a coontrasting trio, and repeated first part. The last movement in a symphony sometimes starts with a slow introduction, like the first movement. Later composers modified this form considerably.
Other notable symphonies of the 19th and 20th century have been written by such composers as Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, Cesar Franck, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Elgar, Shostakovich, Vaughn -Williams, Copland, and many other composers.
Concerto : a work featuring a solo instrument accompanied by an orchestra, usually in three movements, but occaisionally four or more. The outer movements are usually up tempo, and the middle one slower, but the are exceptions to this rule. The solo instrument may be a piano, violin, cello, viola, flute,oboe, clarinet, French horn , organ, or other instruments. There are some concertos which feature more than one instrument. Beethoven wrote one for violin, cello and piano, Brahms for violin and cello. Mozart one for two pianos. A Concerto Grosso is a concerto which may feature four or more intruments. This form has its origin in early 18th century Italy. Some concertos are designed to display the virtuosity of the solo player, and demonstrate what the instrument can do. Others may be technically difficult to play, but not showy. Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos, Beethoven 5, Brahms two, Rachmaninov 4.
Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Max Bruch, Elgar, and other composers have written notable violin concertos, and Dvorak, Schumann, Shostakovich and Prokofiev ones for cello. Mozart wrote four concertos for French horn, plus ones for flute, oboe and bassoon.
Symphonic Poem, or Tone Poem: This is usually a one movement work for orchestra with a "Program", telling a story or describing things in nature etc. The great Hungarian composer, pianist and conductor Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886 ), invented this form and wrote over a dozen of them. Some describe events in Hungarian history, etc. The Czech composer Bedrich Smetana (accent on the first syllable ), wrote a series of six of these called MY Fatherland. These evoke the history of Bohemia, and its landscape. The most famous part is the Moldau, which describes the flow of the river which flows through the Bohemian countryside, leading to the capitol Prague.
La Mer, or the sea, by the Frenchman Claude Debussy (1862- 1918 ), is in three parts, and is a wonderfully vivid portrait of the sea in all its moods.
In Germany, Richard Strauss (1864- 1949 ), no relation to waltz king Johann Strauss, wrote a brilliant series of tone poems, including Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, and used by Stanley Kubrick in his classic film 2001 . Others are Don Quixote, a portrayal of Cervantes' hero with a solo cello representing him, Till Eulenspiegel, the story of a legendary medieval rogue and his outrageous pranks, Death and Transfiguration, depiction of a dying man and his release from suffering in death, Ein Heldenleben (a heroic life), a grandiose autobiographical portrayal of himself, (actually full of tongue in cheek humor), and An Alpine Symphony, a dazzlingly vivid portrayal of a day climbing the Bavarian Alps. These works often feature huge orchestras, and show their ability to paint in the most vivid colors.
Other famous tone poems include Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, The Sorceror's Apprentice by Frenchman Paul Dukas (1865- 1935 ), made famous by Disney in Fantasia, and other works by Dvorak, Sibelius, and others.
There are countless versions of all these symphonies and concertos etc available. Check classicstoday.com for reviews and recommendations of these, and you can easily order them from Arkivmusic.com, which has a huge selection of classical Cds and DVDs.
It's called the Czech republic now, and used to be Czechoslovakia until it split with Slovakia, was often called Bohemia and was once part of the great Austro- Hungarian empire. It has a great musical tradition , having produced cuch great composers as Bedrich Smetana (1824- 1884 ), Antonin Dvorak (1841- 1904 ), Leos Janacek ( 1854- 1924 ), and Bohuslav Martinu (1890- 1959 ). Works such as Dvorak's 9th symphony (the new world ), the Moldau by Smetana ,part of his great orchestral series "My Fatherland" and others are very popular, but until recently , The Bartred Bride by Smetana , which I previously discussed , was the only well-known Czech opera outside the Czech republic. Fortunately, things have changed, and Czech operas are now often performed at opera houses internationally. Here are a few that you are certain to enjoy: Dvorak: Rusalka. This is a melancholy but beautiful story of a water sprite (Rusalka in Czech and Russian) who falls in love with a handsome prince who frequently comes to swim in the lake which Russalka and her fellow water sprites inhabit. He can't see her, but Rusalka goes to a witch who uses magic spells to make her human, but the catch is that she will not be able to speak as a human. The prince finds the gorgeous but mute ex-watersprite, takes her to his castle and marries her. Frustrated with her muteness, he abandons her for a foreign princess, and Rusalka, now cursed because of this , returns to her watery realm, neither water sprite nor human. The unhappy prince returns to her and dies in her arms. The great American soprano Renee Fleming has become famous for this role, and can be heard in CD recording on Decca records, and seen on a DVD of a performance from the Paris opera. Both are excellent.
Leos Janacek: Jenufa. (pronouced lay-osh yan- a check ) Janacek was from Moravia, the eastern half of the Czech republic, as opposed to Bohemia, the western part. He was a highly original composer who made scientific studies of Czech folk music and was fascinated by how the natural inflections of everyday speech could be transfered to opera. His music has become popular in America only fairly recently, and Jenufa (YEN-oofa ) is his best known opera. Jenufa is a pretty orphan girl in rural Moravia whose only surviving family are her stern stepmother, sextoness of the village church, and her ne'er do well cousin, who impregnates her. The stepmother, horrified at the prospect of an illegitimate child, hides her at home and tells neighbors that she is away in Vienna. Jenufa gives birth to a boy, and the irresponsible father won't take responibility. But his decent half-brother is in love with Jenufa and wants to marry her in spite of everything. Meanwhile, the stepmother cracks under the pressure from the crisis and drowns the baby in a stream while the girl is asleep, and tells her that the baby has died of natural causes. In the third act, Jenufa and Laca are being married , but the stepmother is consumed by guilt. In the middle of the festivities , the infant's body is discovered, and the wedding guests and the whole village are in turmoil. The sextoness confesses to the terrible deed and awaits punishment. Jenufa forgives her, saying that she has sinned out of love. The young couple decides to face the future together despite the tragedy. This is a sordid tale, but Janacek's powerful and moving music is irresistable. The Decca CD conducted by the renowned Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras , a specialist in Janacek , is essential. There are some DVDs available, too.
Janacek: Katya Kabanova. Janacek had a lifelong fascination with Russia, and this opera, based on a Russian play, is set in that country. Katya is a young woman in a provincial village who is married to a weak merchant husband and is tormented by her cold and tyrannical mother-in-law. She is driven by frustration into an affair with a young man while her husband is away on business. Tormented by guilt, she throws herself into the Volga river. The mother in law reacts with utter callousness. Another tragic story, but the music is magnificent. There are two recordings by Mackerras: one in the original Czech on Decca, and a later version in English on Chandos.
Russia has produced some truly great operas written by such famous composers as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Prokoviev and Shostakovich. Here is a description of several. To see them on DVD and hear them on CD, you should seek out the performances by the Kirov opera in St petersburg, Russia , led by its renowned conductor, Valery Gergiev.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Yevgeny Onegin: This is the bitter-sweet story of a bored and cynical Russian playboy in early 19th century Russia, and is based on the story by Alexander Pushkin. Eugene Onegin meets a naive young woman, Tatiana, while visiting her family home in rural Russia. She falls hopelessly in love with him, but he tells her that he just isn't cut out for marriage. Years later, after a wasted life , he meets Tatiana, now happily married to an older man. She still has feelings for him, and he realizes what a fool he was, and how happy he could have been, but she she will remain faithful to her husband. You could call this the operatic equivalent of a chick flick, but men will enjoy it too. The recent DVD of a performance from the Metropolitan opera should not be missed.
Modest Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov. This is an epic story based on Russian history. Around the early 1600s, the powerful Russian boyar Boris is crowned Tsar after having secretly instigated the murder of Dimitri, only surviving son of Ivan the Terrible, who was just a small boy. He struggles with intrigues at court, and war and strife in Russia. He is also tormented by guilt for the murder, and starts to lose his sanity. Meanwhile, a young runaway from a Russian monastary claims to be Dimitri, now grown, plots with an ambitious young Polish princess called Marina to take over the Tsardom, and foments rebellion. The tormented Tsar Boris collapses and dies.
A s Mussorgsky was a largely self-taught amateur, even though a composer of genius, his colleague and friend Nikolai Rimsky- Korsakov, famous for "Scheherezade, " and composer of 15 operas himself, revised and re- orchestrated the opera after Mussorgsky's untimely death from alcoholism in 1881 at the age of only 42. Rimsky felt that the original version was just too crude and unpolished, but most experts think that the revised version is just too slick. The revised version was popular for many years, but the original is now preferred. It's one of the most powerful operas ever written, and the role of Boris is one of the greatest roles for an operatic bass.
Alexander Borodin: Prince Igor. This too is based on ancient Russian history. Borodin, (1833- 1887) was also an amateur composer, and was actually a distinguished scientist by profession ! The opera was only sketchily composed, and Rimsky- Korsakov and others managed to complete it after Borodin died. This is the story of the medieval Russian prince Igor, who rules the city of Putivl, which is threatened by the fierce Turkic warriors called Polovetzians by the Russians. Igor and his son are taken prisoner by these Turks, whose descendants can be found in Kazakhstan today, The mighty Khan Konchak respects Igor so much for his courage that he treats him and his son more like honored guests than prisoners, but the son and the khan's daughter fall in love. This is where we get the famous "Polovetzian Dances", often performed in concert. Igor manages to escape and returns to Putivl in triumph.
Everybody knows the old saying "The opera isn't over till the fat lady sings". And it's true that many people have a stereotyped image in their heads of chubby divas and overwight heroic tenors. But the fact is that opera singers come in all sizes and shapes, ranging from decidedly ponderous to svelte, and petite to very tall.
The late, great Luciano Pavarotti had struggles with weight throughout his legendary career, but his charisma and charm captivated audiences everywhere , as well as his gorgeous tenor voice.
The late Italian tenor Franco Corelli, who died a few years ago in his early 80s, and flourished intil the 1970s, never achieved the international fame of Pavarotti, although he was very famous among opera fans, was so tall, muscular and handsome that women opera fans swooned over him as much as women do over hunky film stars. And he had a great vooice too, more powerful and heroic than Pavarotti, even if he lacked Pavarotti's elegant style and finesse.
The American soprano Deborah Voigt, one of the leading Wagner singers of the present day, let go from an opera production at London's Royal Opera a few years ago because the director thought she was too chubby. She later underwent gastric bypass surgery and recently sang the same role in the same London production.
The acclaimed Russian soprano Anna Netrebko not only has a beautiful voice but is drop-dead gorgeous.
The late Finnish bass Martti Talvela (1935- 1989 ) was an enormous man who stood six foot seven, and had a rich and powerful voice. The elegant young Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, who can be seen on the June 26 PBS broadcast of The Daughter of the Regiment, which I discussed in a recent post, has a beautiful tenor voice and has matinee idol looks.
The legendary Greek soprano Maria Callas (1923- 1977 ) was originally quite overweight but slimmed down to a glamorous appearance.
As an afterthought, I recently saw an episode of the Simpsons on TV in which Lisa Simpson starts taking ballet classes at a dancing school in Springfield. A sign on the front entrance of the school says "No Fat Chicks". Right next to the school is a school for opera singers. The sign there says "No Skinny Chicks". Very funny, but that's not a fair description of opera today.
Beethoven: Fidelio This is the great man's only opera, and went through a number of revisions before reaching its definitive form, which is the version usually performed today. There have been recordings of the earlier versions and occaisional revivals. This is the story of Leonore, wife of the political prisoner Florestan, who is being kept in solitary confinement below a prison by the corrupt and nefarious Don Pizarro, who runs the prison. Leonore, suspecting that her husband is being kept here, disguises herself as a boy and becomes assistant to the head cell keeper, and rescues her husband at the last minute before Pizarro tries to kill him. Leonore's true identity is revealed, Pizarro is revealed for the villain he is, and the couple are finally reunited. This contains some of Beethoven's most powerful and dramatic music. Many music critics consider the recording led by the great German conductor Otto Klemperer in the 1960s to be the ultimate one, but there are other excellent ones by Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Haitink, Herbert von Karajan and others.
Mozart: Don Giovanni: Some consider this to be the greatest opera of all time. It's the story of the notorious womanizer Don Juan in Spain, his bumbling servant Leporello, and the women he tries to seduce. Don Giovanni's many wrongdoings lead to him literally being thrown into hell by the ghost of the Comendatore, in the form of a statue. Early in the opera, the Don kills him when he tries to defend his daughter, Donna Anna from his wicked advances. There are a number of fine recordings conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, Sir Georg Solti, Sir Colin Davis, and other famous conductors.
Le Nozze di Figaro: English, The Marriage of Figaro. Based on a famous French play, this is the story of amorous intrigue at the castle of count Almaviva, who lusts after the soon to be bride of his servant Figaro, chambermaid to his long-suffering wife Rosina (These are the two young lovers who are in the Barber of Seville, which I mentioned.) The count is also insanely jealous of his wife, but clever intrigue by Figaro saves the day, and all ends happily. There are excellent recordings conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, Sir Colin Davis, Sir Charles Mackerras, Erich Kleiber, Karl Bohm, and others.
Jules Massenet: Manon. Massenet (1842- 1912 ) is famous for his elegant, ultra French operas, and Manon is the most famous. Manon, a beautiful but naive girl from the French provinces, is being sent by her family to a convent. On the way, she meets and falls in love with a handsome young French Chevalier, and the two run off to decadent Paris. Manon is caught between her love for the dashing but impecunious Chevalier and a wealthy older man who makes her his mistress. Manon is arrested on charges of moral turpitude and dies in exile. The classic recording is conducted by the great French maestro Pierre Monteux, but as this was recorded in the 50s, don't expect up to date sound. Other later versions by Julius Rudel, with the late Beverly Sills, and another led by Michel Plasson are also excellent.
Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier(The cavalier of the rose ) . This is the most famous opera by Strauss, and is as witty as it is romantic. The Marschallin, wife of an Austrian field marshall in 18th century Vienna, is having an affair with the 17 year old nobleman Oktavian, sung in the opera by a woman. She sends him as envoy to the wedding of young Sophie, daughter of a nouveau riche industrialist, to her boorish and lecherous cousin , the Baron Ochs(ox in German ). But Sophie is repelled by the gross and lecherous baron, and falls for Oktavian ! After intrigue and much mistaken identity, the young lovers are united, and the Marschallin graciously lets go of Oktavian. The lush, romantic music of Strauss, filled with lilting waltzes, is irresistable. Recommended recordings are by Sir Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan(his earlier version on EMI is generally considered better than the DG remake), and Erich Kleiber.
Bedrich Smetana: This is one of the best-known Czech operas. Smetana (1824- 1884 ) wrote this delightfully comic story set in a Bohemian village. Marenka, daughter of a wealthy villager, is in love with Jenik, a farm hand for her father. But she has been betrothed to a shy, awkward young man who stutters, and is not eager to get married. Jenik strikes a clever deal renouncing Marenka , with the bumbling marriage broker, saying the she is only to marry the son of the stuttering boy's father. However, it turns out that Jenik is actually the awkward young man's long lost half brother, the two lovers are free to marry ! Smetana's score is filled with lively Bohemian dances and drinking songs. For an authentic Czech performance, get the recording led by Zdenek Kosler on the Czech national record label Supraphon. There is also a fine version sung in german on EMI.
All of the operas can be seen on DVD, and there are a variety of different versions. Most come with English subtitles which can be found on the DVD menu.
On Thursday June 26, the Metropolitan opera will present another telecast, taped earlier this year. It's not one one the most famous operas, but it's a delightful one. " La Fille du Regiment", or the Daughter of the Regiment, by Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797- 1848) , is the light- hearted story of a spirited foundling girl, brought up as the mascot of a Swiss regiment who is in love with a handsome young soldier she plans to marry. But her long lost aunt, who turns out to be her birth mother, wants her to marry an aristocrat she has never met.
Fortunately, everything ends happily. Donizetti was Italian, but the opera is in French, as he wrote it for the Paris opera. There will be subtitles in English. The music is delightful, and there are plenty of comic situations.
Donizetti, a prolific composer of operas, is best known for his tragic "Lucia di Lammermoor", also heard at the Met this past season. Lucia., a young Scotswoman from a clan in political and financial trouble, is in love with a young man from a hated rival clan, and tragedy results.
Featured in the Met cast for the Daughter are the charismatic French soprano Natalie Dessay, and the young Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, who won great acclaim for his high notes in the production. Florez doesn't just have a beautiful voice, he has already become a matinee idol for his good looks. He could be a film star if he were not an opera singer. Women who see this broadcast will be in love ! Check your TV listings for the time.
In my recent post on chamber music I accidentally mentioned certain famous composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok and Shostakovich as having written many string quintets. I meant to say string quartets, which are more common than quintets for strings. My apology.
If you are new to classical music, you will probably be curious to try Cds and Dvds. The only problem is, there are so many of them . The sheer amount and variety is absolutely staggering. Hundreds of labels, music by not only the most famous composers, but obscure ones unfamiliar to even the most experienced and knowledgable professional music critics, and an unbelievable amount of duplication of recordings of the most famous works.
Take the 9 Beethoven symphonies. These are immortal and beloved masterpieces which have been recorded countless times. You can get classic recordings by the legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867- 1957 ) with their antiquated sound, or recent ones by such famous contemporary maestros as Daniel Barenboim, Riccardo Muti, Roger Norrington, and John Eliot Gardiner in up to date digital sound, and many,many other conductors. You can get recordings of individual Beethoven symphonies or sets of all 9. There are recordings which use instruments of Beethoven's time, or replicas of them, which try to recreate the music as it may have actually sounded long ago, even if not every one is sure that they actually do this, or you can get them on modern instruments, which are quite different from these.
You should try symphonies by composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Dvorak, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Camille Saint-Saens, Cesar Franck, and others. And their concertos for instruments such as violin, piano, cello, and other instruments.
And other kinds of orchestral works, such as descriptive tone poems, suites and other things by Claude Debussy, Ravel, Gustav Holst (The Planets ), Bedrich Smetana, Richard Strauss and other composers.
You can't usually go wrong if you get recordings by such great conductors as Herbert von Karajan, Sir Georg Solti, Leonard Bernstein, Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner, Ernest Ansermet, George Szell, Carlos Kleiber, Pierre Monteux, Eugen Jochum, Otto Klemperer, and others, all deceased. Recordings by such greats as Toscanini and the German Wilhelm Furtwangler etc, are great, but don't expect great recorded sound.
Eminent living conductors include Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta,, Andre Previn, Leonard Slatkin, Sir Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Lorin Maazel, James Levine, Daniel Barenboim, Charles Dutoit, Valery Gergiev, Bernard Haitink, Kent Nagano, and others. All have made many excellent recordings.
Great violinists, living and dead include Jascha Heifetz, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Isaac Stern, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Joshua Bell, Nathan Milstein, Yehudi Menuhin, and many others. For great piano performances, seek out the recordings of Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sviatoslav Richter, Emmanuel Ax, Rudolf Serkin or his son Peter, Alexis Weissenberg, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and others.
Great cellists include Mstislav Rostropovich, who passed away last year and was also a famous conductor, Pablo Casals, Yo Yo Ma, Lynn Harrell, etc. Among wood wind and brass musicians are flutist James Galway, French hornist Barry Tuckwell, and clarinettist Sabine Meyer.
There is a galaxy of great opera and concert singers, living and dead, such as Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Birgit Nilsson, Kirsten Flagstad, Renee Fleming, Leontyne Price, Angela Gheorghiu, Deborah Voigt, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti,Placido Domingo, Franco Corelli, Ben Heppner, Lauritz Melchior, the legendary Enrico Caruso, Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau, Rene Pape, and so many others.
Some of the most famous classical record labels are Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, EMI Classics, Philips, RCA BMG, Sony Classical , and CFhandos. For the budget minded, there is the invaluable Naxos records, which offers great value for your money .
There is absolutely no connection with CD price and quality. Budget Cds can be just as good, or even better than full price ones. You can get expert reviews at such magazines as Gramophone (English), The American Record Guide, and Fanfare etc, which you can see online.
Classicstoday.com and ClassicalCD review. com are excellent online sources of reviews. Good luck hunting for great recordings !
Sooner or later, if you're going to listen to classical music with any regularity, and read books and magazines etc about it, you will have to come to terms with a man who wrote some of the most magnificent and thrilling music ever written. He was also a notorious anti-semite, a megalomaniac, a notorious womanizer who thought nothing of having adulterous affairs with the wives of his friends, a spendthrift who constantly had to flee from creditors, and he was idolized by Adolf Hitler. But he was one of the greatest geniuses of all time, in any field.
He was born in Leipzig, in what used to be East Germany in 1813, and died in Venice in 1883. He revolutionized opera by writing stage works of unprecedented length and complexity , in which the orchestra was no longer a simple accompaniment to the singers, but an integral part of the action
He made the music continuous, unlike the previous tendency to make an opera as a collection of separate arias and ensembles which could be performed separately . He used a complex system of what are called "Leitmotifs", or melodic ideas which stand for characters , things or ideas in the drama. With Wagner, harmonies became more complex than ever before, and his revolutionary use of this element influenced composers everywhere, and led to the music of the 20th century.
Perhaps his most famous work is the monumental "Ring of the Nibelung", a mind-boggling creation based on German and Norse mythology. It took him over 20 years to achieve, and the work is a continuous mythological tale which consists of four music dramas, a term which he preferred to opera, which require four separate evenings to perform complete. The whole thing last about 16 hours ! The famous "Ride of the Valkyries" is just a small excerpt. Tolkien denied it, but his "Lord of the Rings" has its roots in Wagner's Ring. Wagner's work also features a magic ring . This ring is accursed, and eventually leads to the downfall of Wotan (Odin) and the Germanic gods. If you are willing to try the whole monumental thing, try the DVD of the Metropolitan opera production. It's a thrilling tale of greed, lust for power, magic, gods, goddesses, giants, dwarves, superheroes and the redemptive power of love.
He also wrote the passionate"Tristan and Isolde", based on Celtic legend, a tale of doomed love between a brave knight and a beautiful Irish princess, "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, his only comic opera, a story of the mastersingers of 16th century Germany and a contest for the hand of a fair maiden through a singing competition; this is Wagner in a lighter mood.
His earlier works are"The Flying Dutchman", story of a Dutch sea captain cursed to wander the seas eternally, and his quest for salvation,"Tannhauser", a medieval German minstrel who is caught between carnal and chaste love, and "Lohengrin", the story of a knight of the Holy Grail who defends a young noblewoman in medieval Belgium who is falsely accused of murdering her brother by a scheming pagan woman.
Wagner's final work is"Parsifal", the story of the knights in medieval Spain who guard the sacred chalice of the holy grail, and the evil magician who plots against them. The holy Fool Parsifal reddeems the knights after their leader loses a sacred spear in the conflict with the evil sorceror.
Except for the early Flying Dutchman, Wagner's works are awfully long. But if you give them the time and effort, they are anything but boring. Every Summer, great singers and conductors go to the northern Bavarian town of Bayreuth (pronounced buy-roit ), where Wagner had a special opera house built for the performance of his operas. It opened in 1876, with the first performance of the complete "Ring", and is still going strong. After Wagner's death in 1883, the festival was run by his widow, Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt, and then his son Siegfried, and after the second world war by his grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang. Wolfgang, 88, has just retired and his children are about to take over the festival.
Wagner divides people as no other composer; there are those who find it magnificent(including me), and those who can't stand it. In his day, many critics and composers thought his music was awful noise, with the most cacophonous harmonies; others recognized its greatness. Unfortunately, Hitler came under its spell as an adolescent, and made Wagner the symbol of the Nazis. But he read all sorts of things that are just not there in the operas.
Wagner disliked Jews, and felt they were incapable of creating great art, but he never advocated genocide, and as the old cliche goes, "some of his best friends were Jews." If you go through the librettos of his operas, which he wrote himself, unlike most opera composers, you won't find a single anti-semitic statement by any of the characters. You can no more blame Wagner for Nazi atrocities than you can blame Christ for the Spanish inquisition.
For starters, try recordings of the overtures and preludes to the Wagner operas; they are often heard at concerts. There are also many CDs and DVDs of his music. Getting to know Wagner takes some patience, but if you make the effort, the rewards are enormous.
So far in my posts I have primarily dealt with orchestral music and Opera, but there are other kinds of classical music that are well worth exploring.
Chamber music refers to music that is written for miscellaneous combinations of different instruments, using string and wind instruments and often a piano. The combinations may be for two to about a dozen instruments. Unlike orchestral music, there is no doubling of parts. An orchestra plays music which features violin sections with multiple players, and multiple parts for violas, cellos and double basses. But chamber music is much more intimate and is meant to be played in more intimate places, although you sometimes hear it in large concert halls. Some people don't like this, though.
A string quartet consists of two violins, a viola and a cello; the are some works which add a piano to make a quintet. Some works for string quintet add an extra viola or cello to make a string quintet. A piano trio features a violin, cello and a piano. Woodwind quintets feature a flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and a French horn. There are many possible combinations of instruments, and many famous(and not so famous ) composers have written works for them.
Among the most famous works for string quintet are the many ones by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok and Shostakovich. Schubert wrote a great quintet for two violins, viola and two cellos.
There is an enormous amount of wonderful music for solo piano, and there is also music for two of them. Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas,which are usually in three movements, sometimes four, as well as assorted smaller pieces, including the famous" Fur Elise", hardly one of his greatest works. The same is true of Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninov and many other composers.
Art songs are generally short songs set to the words of various poets, including famous ones such as Goethe. The German word is Lied (rhymes with feed) plural lieder. Franz Schubert (1797- 1928 ) wrote hundreds of them !
These songs are usually accompanied by a piano, but some , such as those Gustav Mahler(1860- 1911 ) are written with an orchestra. There are also songs by Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov set to Russian poetry, and songs by French and italian composers, set to poetry in their languages. Most CD recordings of art songs come with the words in the original language and an English translation. Many famous opera singers have also given recitals of art songs.
Classical music is an enormous field, and there's much more to it than Opera and orchestral music. There's so much great music to explore !
Unfortunately, many of our public schools have long banished music education from what they offer students, as well art programs. These things are considered non-essential. This attitude is absolutely wrong. Yes, basics such as reading, writing, math and science are necessary, but arts education has been proven to be extremely beneficial to young people.
When I was growing up on Long Island in the 60s, the public schools I attended had active music programs, K-12. I learned to play the French horn in elementary school, and continued to play it well into adulthood. We had bands, orchestras, choruses, and even a music theory course I took in High school which helped prepare me for further musical studies. There were even all school district orchestras and bands for talented students, and I was a participant.
Going over the help wanted ads in the New York times, I still see that some schools in the area still have active music programs. But many schools around the country do not. It has been shown that young people who take up musical instruments in school are far less likely to drop out and gravitate toward drugs and anti-social behavior. Their mental development is enhanced and their academic performance improves. Those who are really talented may go to conservatories and become successful musicians.
My schools also had required courses introducing students to classical music. Yes, some of the kids in junior high were apathetic or even hostile about this, but there is always the chance that some students migh be led to enjoy it. In these classes, I had already begun to be a fan of classical music, and I had started to listen to it regularly. But I was not a typical student. I discovered LPs of it in my public library , which had an extensive collection of classical LPs, and later Cds. I got hooked for life on classical music. The other kids in school though I was weird, but it didn't bother me. When there was a discussion of music in a high school English class, and I announced that I was an opera fan, the teacher looked at me as though I were from Mars ! It might be a better idea to start classes introducing students to classical music in grades 10- 12, when the kids may be more intellectually mature.
Let's face it; music and the arts are not irrelevant to education today; they should be an integral part of young people's preparation for as productive life.
Now that I've covered some of the best places in America for classical music, it's only logical to discuss some of the best places in Europe. After all, this is the birthplace of this artform. And it's hard to know where to begin !
If you're planning to visit this continent , and would like to go to concerts or operas etc, there's an embarrasment of riches to chooe from. You might start in legendary Vienna, land of Johann Strauss the waltz king, and home to such great composers as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and others. Concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the world's great orchestras, awfully difficult to obtain, but if you can they are a rare treat. The musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic spend most of their time playing as the orchestra of the Vienna State opera; that's right, they do double duty and only give sporadic concerts. They also perform at the famous Salzburg Festival , and make international tours.
Not too far from Vienna is the picturesque city of Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart. He didn't like the town at all because it was so provincial at the time and he had to do so much hackwork there. He was much happier in Vienna, where he lived the last years of his life. But today, the prestigious Salzburg festival features many of the world's greatest orchestras and conductors etc. It's very expensive, though.
Berlin has its great Philharmonic, currently led by the dynamic English conductor Sir Simon Rattle, and about 8 other orchestras and three opera companies ! Munich has its famous Bavarian State opera, and the Munich Philharmonic and the orchestra of the Bavarian Radio. Yes, in Europe, the government owned radio stations in many cities support excellent orchestras.
Other notable German cities for classical music include Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt, Dresden, Leipzig, and Stuttgart.
London has five orchestras; the London symphony, the London Philharmonic, the philharmonia (not philharmonic), the Royal Philharmonic and the BBC symphony. For opera, there are the Royal opera at Covent Garden, very expensive, and the English National opera, which is less expensive and performs in English. And there are many other classical events.
The small town of Glyndebourne has a famous opera festival in the Summer, and many of the world's top opera singers appear here. There are also excellent English orchestras in Liverpool, Birmingham , Manchester, etc, plus Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland.
Paris has its chief opera company ,named after the Bastille, plus the Orchestre de Paris, the French National orchestra etc, and much more. Italy has the world famous La Scala opera company in Milan, and Rome, Florence, Venice ,Bologna, and Naples have notable opera companies. Italy was the birthplace of opera about 400 years ago.
Prague, in the Czech republic is also one of the top destinations for Classical music, with its renowned Czech Philharmonic. Amsterdam has the world renowned Royal Concertgebouw orchestra, and St Petersburg, Russia has the famous Kirov opera.
Wherever you go in Europe, there is so much to offer musically.
Despite all the Chicken Littles predicting the imminent death of classical music, it is flourishing all over America. There are about 350 professional orchestras in the US, and many, many opera companies, and other groups, such as string quartets and other small ensembles.
Top music schools such as Juilliard, the New England conservatory in Boston, Eastman Rochester, the Curtis institute in Philadelphia and others are chock full of talented young people who may someday be famous, and who will form the future personnel of our top orchestras.
If you love classical music, there is no better place to be than New York, home of the legendary Carnegie hall, Lincoln center , the Metropolitan opera and the New York City opera. The New York Philharmonic ,founded in 1842, is the oldest symphony orchestra in America, and is actually older than many European orchestras! And that's only the tip of the iceberg. There are probably more performances of classical music here in one week than there are in a whole year in some other US cities.
Chicago is home to the world-famous Chicago symphony and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and there are plenty of other groups too. Boston has its world-famous Boston symphony, now under the direction of the great American conductor James Levine. San Francisco has a world-class orchestra and opera company, and many other groups can be heard in the San Francisco area. The Los Angeles Philharmonic will soon welcome the dynamic young Venuzuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel as music director; you may have seen him on Sixty Minutes on CBS.
Washington, Baltimore, Houston, Dallas, Pittsburgh , Cincinnati, Seattle, Minneapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and other cities have much to offer, too. So if you live in or near any of these towns, give the classical music scene a try. And if you don't live in or near a major city, and happen to be visiting one, give these a try. You won't regret it!
Classical music is seen by many as being dominated by "Dead White European Males". But it's not that simple. Certainly, a lot of the music you hear at concerts and opera is by those DWEMs. But so what? Classical music started centuries ago in Europe, and just about all the best known composers have been white males.
But women composers are nothing new. They have been around for centuries. Unfortunately, due to the unfortunate attitudes of the past, they got little chance to be performed and achieve fame. But things are very different today. Women composers such as Kaaia Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon, Judith Weir, Thea Musgrave, Ellen Taafe Zwillich, Joan Tower, Sofia Gubaidullina and many others have been widely performed, and recordings of their music are available.
Asian composers such as Tan Dun, Toru Takemitsu, and others are now performed everywhere.
Among performing musicians, women are now commonplace in symphony orchestras, and have been since the practice of holding auditions behind screens. Asians and Asian-Americans are now very common in orchestras. When the New York Philharmonic recently played a historic concert in North Korea, 8 of its musicians were South Korean. The orchestra also recently appointed a young Chinese oboist as principal oboe.
Unfortunately, there are very few blacks in orchestras. But this is not the result of discrimination. Very few African-Americans have ever gravitated toward this field. But there are some, and today there is nothing stopping talented young blacks from becoming successful in classical music.
Some of the greatest opera singers of all time have been black, such as Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Simon Estes, Denyce Graves, Willard White and others.
Criticizing symphony orchestras for playing music by Dead White European Males is like criticizing lions for hunting their prey. That's what they both do. But classical music is still more diverse than it has ever been in its long and venerable history.
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