October 2008 - Posts
Here's a wonderful early 19th century German opera that's good and spooky but ends happily. It's by the once famous German composer Carl Maria von Weber (1786 - 1826 ). Weber's music is not played a lot today, which is unfortunate. You sometimes hear the overture to the opera in qustion : Der Freischutz (The Freeshooter) at concerts, and a couple other overtures, the "Invitation to the Dance", originally for piano, orchestrated by Berlioz, etc, but things like his two symphonies, two piano concertos,etc are almost totally unknown outside of recordings, and clarinettists like to play his two attractive clarinet concertos.
Weber was a piano virtuoso and one of the first conductors in the modern sense, but unfortunately died just before he turned 40 because of chronic ill health. Incidentally, he was a cousin of Mozart's wife Constanze. Der Freischutz (two dots over the u in German), takes place in 17th century Bohemia, and is the story of a young forester and marxman Max, who is in love with the head forester's daughter Agathe. But in order to win her hand in marriage, he must win a contest of marxmanship, and despairs of losing her of he should lose.
But one of his marxman buddies is a sinister fellow called Caspar, who has sold his soul to the devil for seven magic bullets which are guaranteed to hit the mark. The catch is that the devil guides the seventh bullet, and no one knows what evil may happen. In desperation, Max goes to a sinister place called the Wolf's glen with Caspar, and the devil appears and forges the magic bullets in a hair-raising scene that is pure terror. The devil is a speaking role, and the opera, like many German operas of the time, has spoken dialogue between the musical numbers.
The shooting contest takes place the next day- but unfortunately the devil has reserved the last bullet for Agathe ! In a scene of confusion and panic, it's Caspar and not Agathe who gets shot, and in dying he reveals the sinister plot. All are horrified, and the local prince angrily banished Max forever. But a kindly hermit appears, and begs forgiveness for Max., saying that even the good in a moment of weakness can stray. The prince relents and exiles Max only for a year, after which he may marry Agathe, and the opera ends in general rejoicing.
You'll enjoy Weber's melodious score with its spooky elements, but unfortunately your chances of seeing a live performance outside of Germany, where it has been popular for almost 200 years are pretty slim. There are a number of CD recordings. The best-known and admired is the one conducted by the late Carlos Kleiber on Deutsche Grammophon with the Dresden Stae orchestra, and such well-known singers as Peter Scvhreier and Gundula Janowitz as Max and Agathe. There is at least one DVD I know of from the Hamburg State opera, but this updates the action to the present day. Try it anyway. Check arkivmusic.com. Happy Halloween !
Harmony is one of the most important elements in classical music; it's part of other kinds of music too, but nowhere else is it so important and complex.
Harmony involves simultanous tones combining to form progressions of chords. These combinations of tones can be consonant, that is pleasant and stable sounding, or dissonant, that is , clashing combinations which require resolution to consonance. Dissonance has also come to mean harsh, unpleasant harmonies, and much 20th century music has made use of pungent dissonant harmonies.
In earlier periods, dissonance did not necessarily mean harsh harmonies, but simply ones that need to resolve to consonant ones. When I studied harmony in college, I learned how to resolve chords with notes considered mildy dissonant to consonant ones. Dissoanance is to music what spice is to food, bland without it. In the 19th century, as harmonies became more complex, and great composers such as Wagner experimented with unprecedented harmonies, music was considered by conservatives to be too harsh , unstable and "dissonant". Chromaticism, or use of more complex harmonies made from notes outside the simple scales, such as c,d,e,f,g,a,b,c, but using c#,d#, f#, g# etc, became more common, leading to the ultimate abandonment of music being in any key at all, and the innovations of Arnold Schoenberg and other 20th century composers. Chromatic comes from the Greek word for color ; it adds color to music.
Before , dissonant or clashing harmonies had to be "prepared", that is starting from consonance, leading to dissonance and being resolved to consonance. Now composers would just use any combination of notes. Stravinsky's famous ballet score "The Rite Of Spring" was revolutionary in this respect. Its harmonies were considered unspeakably harsh and ugly by many when it was new, after the 1913 premiere in Paris, which caused a scandal and a near riot ! Instead of the pleasing combination of chords in Bach, Mozart or Haydn, anything goes here. Chords of clashing notes are piled up like football players.
Many composers no longer used simple chord of c, e, g etc, made up of thirds, but chords made up uf fourths, that is, c, f, b flat. Music consists of intervals, that is, the distance between one note from another on the scale. There are intervals of the second, c-d or c-c# , the third, c-e or c- e flat, fouths, c- f or c-f#, fifths, c-g, sixths, c-a or a flat, sevenths, c- b , and the octave c-c. The intervals can be analyzed on a note to note basis, melodically, or in combination,chordally. The tritone, or augmented fourth, c-f# instead of c-f, used to be known as Diabolus in Musica- the devil in music ! It's an unstable, harsh -sounding interval , and was considered the ultimate no-no in music theory for centuries. Later, it became common ,harmonically and melodically.
Some conservative concertgoers actually do find the complex, dissonant harmonies of the 20th century as unpleasant as trying to eat a lemon whole, or vinegar , and some wouuld rather have root canal surgery than listen to some contemporary music. Some years ago, I attended an orchestra concert where the suite from the ballet scoore "Fall River Legend" by American composer , pianist and conductor Morton Gould (1913 -1996 ) was played. The ballet tells the story of the notorious Lizzie Borden and her supposed ax murder of her parents, and starts with a dissonant chord. A few people in the audience sitting near me actually winced , and were startled by the chord. But this was not a very way out, avant-garde piece at all.
So dissonance isn't necessarily unpleasant or ugly ; it's an integral part of classical music.
Loudness levels are not a big issue in Rock or pop music in general. We take it for granted that a Rock concert will be really loud, and all the pop singers use microphones. But it's very different with classical music. Here, there are many different gradations of loudness and softness, and they are a very important factor in both composing, performing and listening to this kind of music.
Dynamics is the name for these many gradations of volume. The terminology used in classical music is Italian, and the name of the piano comes from the Italian. Piano means soft and quiet, and Forte means loud; there are many degrees of this. The way harpsichords are built makes them unable to vary the dynamics. So in the early 18th century, an Italian maker of keyboard instruments invented a new one "Col Pian E Forte" - with soft and loud. It took about a century for the instrument to evolve into the familiar piano of today.
If you go to an orchestral concert or an opera performance, you will notice that things are not an unvarying level of loudness and softness, and that sometimes a work may start quietly and end loudly, or vice versa. Classical music would be boringly monotonous without these contrasts.
There are variations of piano - marked p in the sheet music. mp or mezzo piano; medium soft. pp or very soft, pianissimo. and even ppp, almost inaudible. F is forte or loud. There is MF, mezzo forte, or medium loud, FF vor very loud, and occaisionally FFF.
Then there are crescendos and diminuendos, or gradually getting louder or softer, and even sudden changes from soft to loud. The symphony no 94 by Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809 ) is nicknamed the "Surprise" symphony because of what may be a joke on the composers part. The second, and slow movement opens very quietly, and after a while, there is a sudden loud thud, which apparently startled some listeners when it was new. Rossini, composer of the Barber of Seville, became famous for the crescendos in his music, and came to be known as "Signor Crescendo".
In Haydn's marvelous but not very scientifically accurate oratio "The Creation", based on Genesis, there is a description of the world being formed out of chaos. At the point where God declares "Let There Be Light!", there is a sudden and dazzling outburst by the whole orchestra and the chorus.
Most symphonies end loudly and sometimes jubilantly, but there are exceptions. The famous "Pathetique" symphony of Tchaikovsky, his last work, and premiered only days before his untimely death in mysterious circumastances, is a work of tragedy; the final movement is a despairing slow movement and ends by dying out into nothingness. The French term Pathetique does not mean pathetic as in English; it refers to unabashed emotionalism. The symphony is anything but a pathetic piece of music !
The final movement of Gustav Mahler's 9th symphony, written while the composer was suffering from a heart ailment which guaranteed that he would soon die, fades out gently, almost in relief. The opening of Beethoven's 9th symphony begins in a mysterious and enigmatic manner with tremulous strings and has been compared to a depiction of creation, and the great Austrian symphonist and organist Anton Bruckner, whom I covered previously, begins all of his nine symphonies in a somewhat similar manner, even though he has a distincive voice of his own.
An important part of a conductor's job is to see to it that dynamic markings are faithfully observed by the orchestra, and it's sometimes necessary to adjust the markings in rehearsal. If all the instruments are marked F or above, it's often necessary to have the brass section to play more softly to avoid drowning out the other instruments, for example.
Opera singers must often have voices that can project above a large orchestra in a large opera house. They don't have the luxury of microphones. Some great Wagnerian singers, such as the Scandinavians Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson and Lauritz Melchior, had voices of enormous power and had no trouble rising above the huge Wagner orchestra. One of the most important roles of an opera conductor is to make sure that the orchestra is not too loud , or the singers can easily be drowned out. This does happen sometimes.
The famous sunken orchestra pit at the Wagner festival theater in Bayreuth , northern Bavaria is designed to prevent the orchestra from overpowering the singers. The large and mighty Wagnerian brass section is 17 feet below the stage , and the strings are at the top. This makes things very difficult for the conductor to hear everything and coordinate the performance, but the acoustics are said to be miraculous. There are many recordings of performances from the festival available on CD, and some on DVD.
In some ways, dynamics are to music what spice is to food; they add so much to music.
There's an interesting interview with distinguished American composer Ned Rorem, who just turned 85, in the South Florida Classical Review on the internet.
As usual, Rorem is extremely gloomy about the state of classical music today, lamenting the overall "dumbing down" of culture today, the hackneyed programming of our symphony orchestras, the reluctance of audiences to hear new music, and the unhealthy influence on classical music of avant-garde composers who write thorny atonal or"serial" music, which alienates audiences. His name for these composers is "serial killers".
Rorem is an interesting character. He has steadfastly adhered to writing music that avoids complex atonality and has always aimed to write music that will please audiences, and is greatly admired for his extensive output of songs, many of which are available on CD. Some of today's leading American opera singers have regularly done his songs at recitals, and he has written a variety of orchestral works and operas, most recently his recentad a several productions. setting of the famous Thornton Wilder play "Our Town", which has had several productions.
He has written a number of best-selling books about his life , including his years living in trendy Paris, and his friendship with all the most fashionable people, including famous copmposers, performers and other celebrities, making him something of a musical Truman Capote.
But his comments in the recent interview and elsewhere show that he is actually rather out of touch with what is actually going on in classical music today, both in the US and Europe. He fails to realize that, despite the lasting popularity of music from the past, there is absolutely no lack of new music today. There are actually many composers who can't say that their music is being neglected, not just conservative ones. New works by many,many composers have been popping up everywhere, some with considerable success.
It's true that a fair number of concertgoers are hostile to new music, and want to hear their beloved masterpieces by Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky etc. But this stilll hasn't prevented an enormous number of new works being heard lately. And in opera, despite the lasting popularity of repertoire staples by Verdi, Puccini, Mozart and Bizet etc, a considerable number of new operas have been premiered recently.
There is actually greater diversity of repertoire being performed today than ever before in the history of classical music. We can hear ancient music by composers from 500 or more years ago, and the latest works by living composers, and a vast amount inbetween, also. Rorem points out that in the past"All music was new", implying that there is something wrong with classical music today because of the popularity of music from the past. Other composers and critics has pointed this out also.
But what they fail to realize is that condiitions were vastly different then. In the time of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven etc, the symphony orchestra as we know it was a relatively new thing. They simply did not have the vast accumulations of repertoire available today. Most operas were new, too, but some had already achieved lasting popularity.
Also, performances were far scarcer than today. There were only a tiny fraction of all the orchestras, opera companies and other groups which exist now. Only people who lived in major cities in Europe which had an active concert life could attend performances, and only if they had the means, such as in Vienna, London, and Paris. If you were just Joe Schmo in some remote, rural Austrian village, your chances in the late 18th century of ever hearing Mozart perform his music were non-existent.
But look how different things are today. You don't have to live in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna or Amsterdam etc to hear great music. We now have access to an incredible variety of classical music on CD, and ever increasingly on DVD. We can hear classical music on PBS, the internet, radio stations, opera at our local movie theaters, etc . We're spoiled for choice. It's an embarrasment of riches. We're ot limited to music by the most famous composers, but can hear vast amounts of music by obscure ones,too. What's all the complaining about? You can visit Rorem's website, nedrorem.com.
Some great composers have lived to ripe old ages, and others died tragically young, depriving the world of what could have been masterpieces. Others have left prolific outputs of music, and others produced only a handful of works. Some have composed in a wide variety of genres, orchestra, operatic, chamber music, songs, piano music etc, and others concentrated on only one or two of these.
The eminent American composer Elliott Carter will turn 100 this December, and has been composing productively up to the present day, and shows no signs of retiring. Mozart died at 35, and Schubert at only 31, and still managed compose about 1500 works between them in their tragically short lives. Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 - 1767 ) , a contemporary of Bach and Handel, not only lived a long life, but is believed to written more music than any other composer, literally thousands of works. Antonio Vivaldi. of Four Seasons fame, wrote an enormous amount of music also, including hundreds of concertos, amny for his instrument the violin. He also wrote many long neglected operas, some of which have been recorded recently.
Jean Sibelius, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Ralph Vaughan Williams of England, and others lived into their 80s or even reached 90. American composer Ned Rorem, famous for his songs, just turned 85. But the early 19th century Spanish composer Juan Crisostomo Arriaga showed great promise as a child, but died at 20, and Italian Giovanni Pergolesi (1701 - 1736) was starting to achieve fame and died at 26, and England's Henry Purcell (1659- 1695 ) also died young.
Some of these died of illnesses caused by poverty or syphillis etc; French composer Ernest Chausson (1855 -1899), was killed in an accident while riding his bycicle.
American composer Carl Rggles (1876 - 1971 ), a close friend of Charles Ives, lived past 90, but only produced a handful of works, the best known being the austere and powerful orchestral piece "Sun Treader". He was constantly revising and polishing his tiny handful of works, and was also an accomplished painter. French composer Paul Dukas (1865 - 1935 ) , famous for the Sorceror's Apprentice, allowed only a handful of his works to survive, and destroyed most of his manuscripts because he was not happy with the music. A story goes that he was going to destroy a ballet score called "La Peri", based on middle eastern legend, but was persuaded to spare. I've heard the music, and it's definitely worth hearing, so this leaves one with the distressing feeling that he might have destroyed some first-rate works ! It's not all that uncommon for composers to destroy manuscripts, buut Dukas carried this to an extreme.
Mozart wrote symphonies, concertos, serenades, piano music, operas, masses, miscellaneous church works, etc for many different instruments. Giacomo Puccini, famous for his lush melodious operas such as La Boheme, concentrated almost entirely on opera, and left a small number of other works, such as songs and choral works, and a few juvenile orchestral pieces.
Composers with prolific outputs have often been accused of writing music of uneven quality, writing some genuine masterpieces plus many uninspired ones or even hackwork. Mozart produced nearly 600 works in his short life, and even though few composers are as revered, not everything he wrote is great. His earliest works show amazing promise for a child and teenager, but lack the greatness of his mature works . His early operas are hardly equal to such great ones as Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and the Magic Flute.
You can easil;y find biographies of all the great composers, and even lesser-known ones , and just put the name of any composer on your search engine, and you can find a wealth of information on the internet.
Many, but far from all operas have overtures, which set up the mood for the action to proceed. Other have what is called a prelude, which is usually shorter than an overture and leads directly into the curtain opening without coming to a full close where the audience can applaud. Other operas, usually 20th century ones, start immediately, without any orchestral introduction.
Overtures and preludes often make use of melodies or recurring themes from the opera, and many are staples at orchestral concerts, where they are, so to speak, the appetizer before the longer works on the program, but not always. In the 18th century, what we now call the overture was called the Sinfonia, and usually consisted of thre parts; fast, slow and fast. This is how the symphony as we know it started. The operatic Sinfonia took on an independent life in the concert hall, and composers such as Mozart and Haydn wrote many. In some cases, overtures which lead without pause to the action have been given concert endings by composers for independent performance.
Probably the most famous opera overture is the one to William Tell by Gioacchino Rossini (1792 - 1868 ), famous for his Barber of Seville. This overture achieved fame, or perhaps notoriety by its use on the Lone Ranger on television. Hi Ho Silver ! But the overture is from a rarely performed and very long opera by Rossini about the medieval Swiss freedom fighter William Tell, who fought against the tyrannical occupation of Switzerland by Austria, and gained fame by supposedly shooting an apple off his young son's head, to save his life. Other popular opera overtures by Rossini are those to the Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola (Cinderella), Semiramide (Sem-ir-ah-mee-day ), The Thieving Magpie, and The Italian Woman in Algiers.
The overtures and preludes to Wagner's operas are very popular at concerts, ranging from the one to his rarely performed early opera Rienzi, and the Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Tristan and Isolde, and the prelude to his mystical final work Parsifal. Wagner's great Italian contemporary Verdi wrote popular overtures to the operas "La Forza del Destino"(The force of Destiny), I Vespri Siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers), and Luisa Miller.
Other popular opera overtures are to Der Freischutz(The Freeshooter), Oberon and Euryanthe (Oy-re-an-teh), by German composer Carl Maria von Weber, (1786 - 1826 ), whose music greatly influenced the young Wagner, The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai (1810- 1849), Ruslan and Ludmilla by Russian composer Mikhail Glinka , the father of 19th century Russian music, an opera based on ancient Russian legends, and Le Roi d'Ys, by Frenchman Edourad Lalo, based on Breton legends from northern France.
Many fanous conductors have recorded these overtures and preludes , and also on complete recordings of them. There are many fine albums of Rossini overtures by Riccardo Muti, Riccardo Chailly, Claudio Abbado and Neville Marriner, to name just a few, and Wagner orchestral excerpt CDs by such greats as Sir Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Otto Klemperer, and Daniel Barenboim etc, and all sorts of miscellaneous collections of overtures and preludes. Check arkivmusic.com
To quote Charles Dickens, these are the best of times and the worst of times for the classical recording industry, and the multitiude of different record labels currently in existence.
Whatever is going on, things have certainly changed from the past. For complex economic reasons, most of America's top orchestras are no longer going into the recording studio and turning out recordings for such major labels as Decca, EMI, RCA, Sony Classical, Deutsche Grammophon, Phillips etc., under such world famous conductors as Seiji Ozawa, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Daniel Barenboim, Riccardo Muti, Charles Dutoit, Bernard Haitink and others.
In past decades, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia orchestra, Sir Georg Solti , Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra etc had profitable recording contracts with labels such as RCA ,Decca and Columbia records (now Sony Classical) etc. But unfortunately, these days are gone. Virtually none of the top US orchestras has a recording contract with any label, though here and there, a few live recordings of certain works have been issued on other labels. For union reasons, commercial studio recordings have always been much more expensive to make than in Europe and elsewhere.
The Cincinnati and Atlanta symphonies have contracts with a label called Telarc, which has many excellent things, and the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis also records for the enterprising Swedish labe BIS, but these are rare exceptions now.
But a number of orchestras have started their own record labels recently, and have been issuing their own live recordings made at concerts. The San Francisco Symphony under its music director Michael Tilson Thomas has recorded a cycle of the Mahler symphonies and other works, and the Chicago Symphony has recently started its own record label. In Europe, the London Symphony orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw orchestra of Amsterdam have been issuing recordings of live performances. You can easily obtain these at websites such as arkivmusic.com.
Complete recordings of operas made in the recording studio and put together like edited films were once common. Every Summer, great opera singers such as Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Birgit Nilsson, Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Sherill Milnes and Nicolai Ghiaurov would record a wide variety of operas under such great conductors as Solti, Boulez, Sir Colin Davis, James Levine, and others. But now, this kind of recording is just too expensive to produce. Some have cost up to a $ million to record !
So now, many operas are recorded live, as has also been done in the past at times, and there are many live pirated recordings on smaller labels. Now, the big thing in opera is DVD; labels such as Decca, EMI and Deutsche Grammophon have been putting out a wide variety of live performances in this rapidly expanding format.
Independent labels such as Chandos and Naxos are still making some studio recordings of operas, often intriguing rarities. Naxos is now the world's most successful classical record label, because it is able to cut costs and put out a high quality product at relatively low prices. It started 21 years ago when a German entrepreneur and music lover named Klaus Heyman started producing inexpensive recordings with little-known but excellent orchestras in Poland and Slovakia etc at dirt cheap prices. The feisty little record label took off, and now records major orchestras and musicians, produces DVDs and publishes books and other things. Visit their website naxos.com for more information.
The major classical labels may not be flourishing as they used to, but there is a wealth of smaller independent labels, and classical music fans have an embarassment of riches to choose from. You can hear ancient music by composers centuries ago such as Palestrina, Monteverdi, Dufay, Machaut, Heinrich Schutz, Josquin DesPrez, and many other once famous composers of bygone eras, and you can hear music by important contemporary composers such as Carter, Boulez, Henze, Maxwell Davies, Glass, Tan Dun, Saariaho, Bolcom, and others, and countless works from inbetween periods. Classical music fans have never had it so good.
As I've pointed out before, many of the most famous composers have been active as conductors, such as Berlioz, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Richard Strauss, and others, some limiting themselves to their own music, and others with wide-ranging repertoires.
Gustav Mahler spent ten legendary and fruitful years ,from 1897 as director of the Vienna Court opera, now the Vienna State opera, and then the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan opera until his untimely death at 50 in 1911. Wagner was director of the Royal Saxon opera in Dresden during the 1840s, but had to leave Germany because he got involved in the 1848 revolution in Germany, but continued to conduct all over Europe afterwards. Richard Strauss had a long association with the Vienna Philharmonic and the State opera, and recorded his music with the orchestra.
In our time, Leonard Bernstein, as well as being a world renowned conductor, and first native-born American conductor to become music director of a major US orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, wrote such popular works as musical Candide, based on the satirical story by Voltaire, West Side Story, On The Town, and symphonies, etc, and one full fledged opera, "A Quiet Place" etc.
The French avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez (1925 -) succeeded Bernstein as music director of the New York Philharmonic and writes vastly different music that is anything but easy listening. He has also been music director of the B.B.C. symphony orchestra in London, and regularly conducts leading orchestras in Cleveland, Chicago, Vienna and Berlin, as well as opera. He is an aloof and austere inteellectual musician, a sort of Albert Einstein of classical music.
Lorin Maazel, (1930-) currently in his last season with the New York Philharmonic, has also written a variety of works, most notably his recent first opera, 1984, based on the famous novel by George Orwell, premiered not too long ago at the Royal opera in London with the composer conducting. The opera was rather controversial, and is now available on DVD.
Many other eminent conductors, such as Wilhelm Furtwangler, Otto Klemperer, Victor de Sabata, Antal Dorati, Sergiu Celibidache, Rafael Kubelik, Jean Martinon, Paul Paray, Yevgeny Svetlanov, and Felix Weingartner to name only a handful, were composers, and some of it has even been recorded. Among present day conductors, Andre Previn, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Leonard Slatkin, Nichael Tilson Thomas, Michael Gielen, and others have composed.
In the past, the professions of composer and conductor were pretty much inseparable, but conducting gradually evolved into a separate profession; many composers, conductors and experts believe that composing is important for conductors, because it gives them insight into how music is put together, and actually makes them better conductors.
Also, in recent years, many famous pianists, violinists, cellists, and other instrumentalists, and even singers have taken up conducting, with variable results. Being a great pianist or violinist does not automatically make you a great conductor, but this has happened. Pianists such as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, Philippe Entremont, violinists such as Yehudi menuhin, David Oistrakh, Itzhak Perlman, and cellists Mstislav Rostropovich and others have achieved considerable acclaim as conductors. The great Spanish tenor Placido Domingo has been a regular conductor at the Met and elsewhere, such as the Washington and L.A. Operas, as well as the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
This is actually nothing new. Sergei Rachmaninov, (1873-1943), aside from being a very popular composer and great pianist, was also a conductor, and even recorded his 3rd symphony with the Philadelphia orchestra, which I have on an R.C.A. CD. The legendary Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811 -1886), was also active in conducting, as well as the legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (1876 - 1973 ).
This might be compared to the way that famous actors today have often taken up directing movies, such as Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood. Many musicians have found it difficult to avoid being bitten by the conducting bug; there's something irresistable about it!
Throughout the history of classical music , composers have earned their livings in a variety of ways ; some were amateurs and earned a living in other fields, such as America's Charles Ives, a wealthy insurance executive, or Russia's Alexander Borodin (1833 - 1887 ), who was actually an eminent scientist !. Not to many have been able to earn a good living purely off their music.
Bach was a great organist and was director of music at the St. Thomas church in Leipzig , in what is now the former East Germany for many years. He was in charge of the chirch choir, training the choir boys, writing music for services and even had to teach Latin ! Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809 ), was for many years Kapellmeister, or music director , for a music loving Hungarian count who had his own small private orchestra, and Haydn was in charge of hiring the musicians and writing music for the count and his distinguished guests.
In the last ten years of his tragically short life, Mozart escaped the drudgery of working for the aristocracy and became a freelance composer in Vienna, playing his piano concertos and other works of his at concerts which he put n himself; it wasn't as secure a life as he had had, but he relished the freedom.
Some, such as Franz Liszt, Sergei Rachmaninov, Mozart, Bela Bartok of Hungary and others, were famous piano virtuosos. Others have been violinists, cellists, or played other instruments professionally. Others, such as Hector Berlioz and American Virgil Thomson (1896 - 1989 ) , were professional music critics, and their reviews and commentary can still be read and are very interesting. Anton Bruckner and Olivier Messiaen were great organists and teachers.
Others, such as Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein, have been famous conductors. A number of great composers have left recordings of their orchestral music, such as Bernstein, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith ; many of these recordings are still available on CD.
Many others have been active teaching composition and other musical subjects such as harmony , counterpoint and orchestration, at leading conservatories, colleges and universitites, and still are. Some did not like teaching, but had to do this to earn a living, others have been outstanding teachers and found it greatly rewarding. For example, the distinguished American composer Walter Piston (1894 - 1976 ), taught for many years at Harvard, and quite a few leading American composers, such as Bernstein and Elliott Carter studied under him and greatly admired his teaching.
John Alden Carpenter (1876 - 1951 ) , was a wealthy Chicago businessman, and wrote works such as the ballet "Skyscrapers", and "Krazy Kat", based on the cartoon, which have been recorded in recent years.
Some composers have been independently wealthy, and others lived modestly or even knew poverty at times. Giacomo Puccini (1858 - 1924 ) became so wealthy from his popular operas La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly etc, that he lived virtually the life of a playboy !
However composers earn a living, there's no guarantee of getting rich.
They don't usually get as much publicity as composers and singers in opera, but opera wouldn't exist without the librettist. In Italian, Libretto literally means "Little Book", that is the words of the opera as in a stage play.
Opera first came into existence in the last few years of the 16th century, when a group of composers, writers,poets and interested amateurs strted a group called the "Camerata" in Florence. Their aim was to revive Greek drama, which they believed may have been sung to some extent, possibly with instrumental accompaniment. So opera, or sung drama with orchestral accompaniment was born, and the first great opera composer was Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643 ), who wrote the first surviving regularly performed opera "La Favola D' Orfeo", or the legend of Orpheus and Euridice.
Once well-known but now forgotten poets and playwrights provided the liberros, which were usually based on Greek myth or ancient legends, and the history of ancient Rome , and that empire's dealing with exotic subject nations in the middle east and northern Africa etc.
The librettos were highly stylized, and written in a kind of highly formal and stilted Italian. Later, French composers of the 17th and 18th century such as Lully and Rameau wrote operas in French written by such eminent French playwrights as Racine and Corneille. These operas were often combined with elaborate ballet sequences, and were spectacular entertainments at the courts of French kings. There were operas performed in Germany written in German, but these have been almost totally forgotten , and German opera did not really take off until later.
Some important opera librettists have been Pietro Metastasio (1698 - 1782 ), whose librettos were set by many leading composers of the day. In fact, because copywright laws did not really exist, dozens of composers would use just one Metastasio text ! Lorenzo Da Ponte was a contemporary and friend of Mozart, and an Italian Jew who led a colorful and eventful life. He provided Mozart with the librettos to his three great opera Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutte. In the early 19th century he settled in America and taught Italian at Columbia University !
The well-named French librettist Eugene Scribe wrote the librettist for many once famous French operas. Some librettists have been playwrights or novelists etc or evemn amateurs, and some composers have written their own librettos such as Wagner, who did not want any one else interfering, and wrote all of his own.
Other well-known Italian text scribblers in the 19th century were Salvatore Cammarano, Francesco Maria Piave, and the composer Arrigo Boito, who provided the Shakespeare based texts of Verdi's last two masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff. Many of these were frankly hacks, and their creations are often embarassingly corny and melodrammatic, but with great composers such as Verdi, Donizetti, Rossini and Puccini, the music triumphs over poor librettos.
Composers such as Verdi and Puccini were notorious for giving their collaborators a difficult time, constantly asking for changes and even adding their own words at times. Many librettos were based on famous plays and novels, Shakespeare or the novels of Walter Scott, or the once famous French playwright Victorien Sardou. In the 20th century, Richard Strauss colaborated with the once famous Austrian poet and playwright Hugo von Hoffmanstahl (1874 - 1929) on such famous operas as Der Rosenkavalier , Ariadne Auf Naxos and Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow ).
In our time, many recent opera librettos have been provided by prominent literary figures. The San Francisco Opera has done the world premiere of "The Bponesettret's Daughter", with libretto by the famous Chinese-American novelist Any Tan, based on one of her books, with music by American composer Stewart Wallace.
Many people poke fun at the poorer opera librettos, pointing out their corny, stilted language, absurd plots etc, but the best librettos can be first rate literature and drama, and have inspired some truly great music.
For horn players, some orchestral works and operas are more rewarding to play than others. There are quite a few great horn solos in certain famous works, and the entire parts of others are quite juicy. Others are not so great, either just plain difficult and awkward to play, or just not interesting.
Every aspiring young horn player at music schools etc studies the various books of excerpts for horn which are in print and practices them assiduously. They are always on the audition lists when horn openings occur in orchestras. So did I. These books of excerpts are edited by famous horn players, past and present. There are excerpt books for various different instruments, also.
!8th century horn parts by Haydn and Mozart etc are generally less interesting, because these composers were limited by the natural horn, which could not play scales of any kind , and could only play in one key at a time, needing changes of tubing to play in different keys. They can be difficult though, in that the small orchestras make the horn parts very exposed, and it's easy to miss high notes. The horn virtuosos of the day had a technique of stopping notes by closing off the bell with the pal, enabling notes otherwise unavailable to be played. But composers used this in concertos and sonatas, and mostly used open notes in orchestral works.
An exception is Joseph Haydn's symphony no 31 , which has virtuoso parts for four horns, and is virtually a concerto for four horns. Later, Beethoven gave the horn more promises, such as in the famous 3rd symphony (Eroica), which has prominent solos, and a passage in the scherzo for the three horns which has the flavor of the hunt in it. The 6th, or "Pastoral" symphony has some fine,if exposed solos, and the 9th, the world-famous "Choral", with the Ode To Joy, features an elaborate solo for the fourth horn in the slow, and next to last movement, supposedly written to show the abilities of the then new valved horn.
"Der Freischutz" (The Freeshooter ), an opera by carl Maria von Weber (1786 - 1926 ) is the story of a young huntsman who sells his soul to the devil for magic bullets which will never miss the marks in the hope of winning his beloved's hand in a marksmanship contest. Tragedy and damnation are avoided at the last minute, and all ends happily. This contains great parts for four horns imitating the hunt.
Richard Wagner ( 1813 - 1883 ), took advantage of the valved horn and wrote very juicy but extremely difficult parts in terms of endurance. Those operas are sooo long. A teacher of mine who used to play in the Metropolitan opera orchestra told me that when you play Wagner in the opera house "You're tired before the curtain goes up!". In "Siegfried", third of the operas of the monumental "Ring", the hero Siegfried plays a long solo on his instrument, played by the first horn in the pit. You're all alone and the last note is the horn's top note. It's not for the faint-hearted.
Johannes Brahms and Tchaikovsky wrote wonderful solos for horn, such as the famous solo in the second movement of Tchaikovsky's 5th. Brahms even gave solos to the 3rd horn at times.
Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949 ), no relation to Johann Strauss, was the son of Franz Strauss of Munich, who was considered the greatest horn player of the day. He literally grew up with the sound of the horn, and wrote two concertos for the instrument. His horn parts are among the juiciest ever written, and there is a famous solo in his humorous tone poem "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks". "Ein Heldenleben" ( A Hero's Life), is a semi-autobiographical work whose heroism is actually tongue in cheek, has 8 horns in a very large orchestra, and some alternately heroic and gently lyrical solo passages, The monumental "Alpine Symphony" is written for an even larger orchestra, and is also wonderful, if very tiring to play. The operas, such as Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier and Caprriccio etc, also have great horn parts.
Gustav Mahler (1860 - !911 ) was a friend and colleague of Strauss, and like him, a renowned conductor. All of his 9 symphonies contain juicy and very difficult and tiring horn parts. The thrid mopvement of his 5th symphony contains an elaborate and difficult solo part throughout the movent.
We horn players are blessed with so many rewarding horn parts , orchestral and operatic, but playing them is a always a great challenge.
Here's an idea for some Halloween fun : spooky classical music.
Edvard Grieg : In The Hall Of The Mountain King From Peer Gynt. Grieg wrote the music for Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt, about a young Norwegian man's adventures in his homeland and abroad. In one scene Peer gets involved with the king of the Trolls, called the mountain King, in his lair, and all hell breaks loose.
Hector Berlioz : Movements 4 and 5 from Symphonie Fantastique : After having trying to kill himself with an overdoes of opium, the hero of the symphony, obsessed with a beautiful woman, merely has horrible dreams. He is led to the scaffold after having murdered her in the dream, and then witnesses hiis own funeral accompanied by witches and demons. A Witches Sabbath follows. In the next to last scene of La Damnation de Faust, Faust rides to hell accompanid by demons, and arrives in hell . The demons sing a wild , exultant chorus welcoming Faust to eternal damnation in a made up hellish language.
Modest Mussorgsky : Night On Bald Mountain : Here's another Witches Sabbath, Russian style, with the appearance of the black demon God Tchernobog, a wild orgy with witches and demons, and then dawn breaks and every one dissapears. There are two versions : The orchestration by the composer's friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and the even wilder original.
Camille Saint - Saens : Danse Macabre : This is a depiction of ghosts and witches coming out late at night at a cemetary. A solo violin strikes up , representing the devil, and then, as usual, dawn breaks.
Franz Liszt : Mephisto Waltz : I mentioned this in my last post. Faust and the devil are at a tavern where the peasants are dancing, and the devil takes a violin and makes the dancers whirl away furiously.
Have fun... but beware of nightmares !
The Metropolitan Opera will soon be doing a production of "The Damnation of Faust" by the great French composer Hector Berlioz , so I thought it would be interesting to discuss this fascinating legend, which dates back to the 16th century, and has inspired so many composers and writers.
We sometimes hear of some one making a "Faustian Bargain". This comes from a centuries old legend of a 16th century doctor Faustus (fortunate in Latin) who sold his soul to the devil, or Mephistopheles, for youth, infinite power and wisdom and riches, but who had to risk eternal damnation for this. Centuries ago, sorcery and occult philosophy were hot topics; people actually took things like alchemy seriously.
The legend of Dr. Faustus inspired the great German poet, playwright and novelist Goethe to write a vast play about an aged philosopher, who studied philosophy, medicine and occult lore all his life, and was now weary and dissapointed that he had yet to unlock the ultimate secrets and had wasted his life, missing out on wine,women and song. The devil comes to him and promises that he will make him young and handsome again, and let him savor the pleasures of the flesh and obtain infinite power and wisdom. But there's a catch; he must serve the devil for eternity in hell.
Faust takes the risk. He meets an innocent young girl, and seduces and abadons her. She goes insane and kills their child, is put to death, but she and Faust are redeemed in the end and enter heaven in triumph. But in other variants of the story, Faust is damned. In the quirky and colorful Berlioz work, not really an opera and usually done in concert, Faust goes to hell pursued by demons in some of the most hair-raising music ever written !
Other composers have been inspired by this legend. Probably the most popular is the opera Faust, by French composer Charles Gounod (1818 - 1893 ). It's been a staple of the opera repertoire for over 150 years, and is elegant and melodious, but pretty much sugar coats , prettifies and trivializes the great play on which it is based. The devil is a witty dandy. But many people love it.
The Italian Arrigo Boito ( 1842 - 1918 ), wrote Mefistofele, a somewhat different take on the story which opens with spectacular prelude in heaven, in which Mefistofele mocks God and offers to tempt Faust. Boito is best known for writing the librettos to Verdi's final two operatic masterpieces Otello and Falstaff, as well as for La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli, currently being performed by the Met.
The monumental 8th symphony by Gustav Mahler ,sometimes known as the "Symphony of a Thousand for the enormous orchestral and choral forces used, sets the final scene of the Goethe play, in which Faust is welcomed into heaven in triumph after his tormented life. The legendary pianist and composer Franz Liszt (1811- 1886 ) was fascinated by the legend , and was sometimes considered a rather Faustian and Mephistic man himself. His virtuousic piano piece "Mephisto Waltz" depicts a scene where Faust and the devil are in a village tavern where there is dancing, and Mephisto takes out his violin and makes the dancers swirl away deliriously. There is also an orchestration of this. It's very exciting in either version, and Liszt also wrote the large scale "Faust Symphony", in three movements, which portrays the mystical striving of Faust, the innocence of Marguerite, the girl he seduces, and the sardonically mocking devil. It ends with the final worrds from the play , with tenor soloist and men's chourus , saying that everything earthly is but a symbol, and that the "Eternal Feminine Leads Us Upward".
A rarely played early work for orchestra by Wagner is called the "Faust Overture". Wagner and Liszt were close friends, and Wagner married Liszt's daugher Cosima, who outlived him for many years, and who ran the famous Bayreuth festival, still going on, until her death in 1930.
The great Italian composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni (1866 - 1924 ) wrote the fascinating and enigmatic opera Doktor Faust , but died before completing the ending. A student of his completed it. Instead of using the Goethe play , Busoni used other sources to write this work, considered his Magnum Opus. In the Gounod and Boito operas, Faust is a handsome young tenor, and the devil is a booming bass, but Busoni makes Faust a baritone, and the devil a tenor. We see the wonderfully spooky scene of Faust evoking the devil with the most sinister sorcery, and Faust later literally flies away with the Duchess of Parma on her wedding day with another nobleman after doing conjuring tricks with the devil's help. Later, the dejected Faust tells philosophy students in a tavern of his futile adventures and that"Nothing is knowable, nothing proven". The devil comes to claim the magic book he had given him with the secrets of sorcery and comes to claim him, but Faust prays to God and dies. The end is uncertain. This opera will never have the popularity of the Gounod opera, but is an infinitely more interesting work.
Faust and the devil also appear in the weird and sinister Prokofiev opera "The Fiery Angel", written in the 1920s, but not performed until shortly after his death in 1953 . Renata, a crazed and demon-tormented young woman in 16th century Germany , is obsessed with finding an angel of fire which had been her imaginary friend since childhood. With the help of the wandering knight Ruprecht, who is desperately in love with her even though she does not love him, the two delve into the blackest of black magic. Finally, Renata enters a convent in the hope of finding peace from demons, but the nuns have become demon possessed themselves , and an inquisitor is called in to perform an exorcism. But it goes horribly out of control, and Renata is sentenced to be tortured and burned at the stake as a witch ! There are Cds from Deutsche grammophon and Phillips of the opera and a DVD which may be hard to find. Either way, this opera will give you the creeps ! Try it at your won risk !
Recordings and DVDs of all these works can easily be obtained at arkivmusic.com. Check the related site classicstoday.com for reviews and recommendations. Halloween is coning....
As I've pointed out before, there are essentially two kinds of classical music ; Absolute and Programmatic. That is, music which is purely sound and tells no specific story, and music which is meant to tell a story, or to describe nature, depict conceps and emotional states etc.
This is not to say that absolute music can't have expressive character, whether vivacity, calmness, restfulness or dreaminess, or sadness and tragedy etc. Music doesn't exist in a vaccum ; you can''t completely divorce it from the extra-musical.
The great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky ( 1882 - 1971 ) famously stated that music "was powerless to express anything". Yes and no. If you hear "La mer" (The Sea ), by French composer Claude Debussy without knowing that it's meant to represent the sea in all its moods, it probably would not occur to you that it's meant to do this. I'm sure you might enjoy it, but that wasn't the composer's intention. Debussy labeled the three parts of this work with these titles : The Sea From Dawn Till Noon, The Play of The Waves, and The Dialogue Of The Wind And The Sea. Doesn't that sound evocative ? The composer and wise -cracker Erik Satie, whom I covered previously, once stated that "He particularly liked the part from 10 - 11."
But the ironic thing is that Stravinsky wrote some graphically illustrative music, particularly in his three famous early ballet scores, "The Fire Bird", based on Russian fairy tales, "Petrushka", a whimsical fantasy about puppets which come to life at a Shrovetide fair in Russia, and "The Rite Of Spring", which portrays the pagan rites of the ancient Russians. They're all very colorful and vivid. In one part of Petrushka, a baritone horn portrays a dancing bear at the fair. And it really sounds like the clumsy dancing of that bear.
In the Firebird, a magical flaming bird helps a young prince lost in the forest find and rescue a beautiul young princess being held captive by an evil sorceror in an enchanted castle. The score lists the development of the story along with the written music. When you hear this music, you will almost be able to see that magical, flaming bird in your own mind.
Most symphonies are abstract; but some have specific stories or extra-musical ideas built into them. Beethoven's famous 3rs symphony, which he called the "Eroica", or heroic symphony, was written in the early 1800s, when Napoleon was making his historic conquests throuout Europe. Beethoven was intensely interested in the current events of the day; at first he admired Napoleon, but when the ambitious Corsican had himself crowned emperor, Beethoven was furious and tore out the title page of the symphony, which was dedicated to Napoleon. The second movement is a slow, sombre funeral march. Beethoven dedicated the symphony to the"Memory of a great Man.".
His 6th symphony is called the "Pastoral". Beethoven wanted to depict life in the countryside, annd the first movement describes the joyous arrival into the countryside, the second is a dreamy "Scene by the brook", complete with Coockoo and nightingale, the third is the merry dancing of the countryfolk, leading to a violent storm, and then joyous thansgiving after the storm. It's important to know this in listening.
Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869 ) wrote the wild and weird "Symphonie Fantastique", describing a lovesick young man's obsession with an unreachable beloved woman, and the horrible drerams he has after taking an opium overdose hoping to commit suicide. The opium did not kill him, but he dreams that he has murdered his beloved and is lead to the scaffold and beheaded, after which he experiences his own funeral attended by witches and demons ! Wow ! You need to know this before hearing it.
Most Cds of these and other works give you the background inforamtion about programmatic music, and also of non-programmatic works. It's also very easy to find biographies of the composers, magazine articles etc in bookstores and on the internet. It's never been easier to find information on famous or not so famous composers ; just put the name of any composer on your search engine, and no problem. Just about all the famous composers have websites devoted to them
It's almost the holiday season and everybody is looking for ideas for the right gifts for family and friends. Here's an idea ; instead of another tie or sweater or whatever for your loved ones, why not give them a classical CD or a DVD, or more than one? That is, if they aren't familiar with this kind of music. Or for birthdays and Bar Mitzvas etc ?
Surprise some one with some Beethoven symphonies on CD. Or Vivaldi's Four Seasons, La Mer (The Sea ) by Debussy, Daphis and Chloe by Ravel, The Planets by Gustav Holst, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition orchestrated by Ravel Rome and Juliet , 1812 Overture, and concertos for piano or violin bt Tchaikovsky, Scheherezade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, The New World symphony by Dvorak.
Or get some one a DVD of live opera performances of Puccini's La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot, Verdi's La Traviata, Rigoletto, Aida, Carmen by Bizet etc.
Your spouses, kids, parents etc might be surprised, but tell them they're going to love it ! And to read the liner notes. Your teenagers who are deeply into Hip - Hop just might be intrigued. Introduce your kids between 10 and 12 to classical music, or your grandkids or nieces and nephews. Be different !
You can check my post a while ago of a basic list of the most popular classical works, and visit classicstoday.com for recommended recordings and DVDs, and order anything at arkivmusic.com.
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