June 2009 - Posts
Due to a complex series of circumstances beyond my control, I will have to suspend my blog for the next two weeks, as I will not have intenet access . It's a long story, but I will be back in a couple of weeks . In the mean time, please take advantage of any opportunity you may have to listen to classical music if you're new to it, either on CDs, DVDs, radio, the internet, or live if possible. Enjoy ! You'll never regret making classical music a part of your life !
I hope you've gotten a clear idea of what tonality is from my last post, and here's more on this important area of music. The system of major and minor keys became established by around the 17th century, and has been the norm ever since, but other scales, or arrangements of the tones C to C existed before this, and were still used at times after .
These are called modes, and their names are of Greek origin. A scale is an arrrangement of notes C-C with different possible intervals between the notes; intervals are the distance between two notes. Intervals can be seconds, that is either C to C sharp or C to D, thirds, C to E or E flat, fourths, C to F or F sharp, fifths, C to G, sixths , C to A or A flat, sevenths , C to B flat or B, or octaveves, C to C.
The intervals may be major or minor , C to E is a major third, C to E flat is a minor third, perfect, C to F or C to G, diminished, C to G flat, or augmented, C to F sharp(the so-called tritone,or devil in music.)
The Greek modes use different arrangements of intervals from the major or minor modes. They are Dorian, Ionian, and Lydian etc. But for most music we know today, major and minor are the norm.
As I mentioned in my last post, in the late 19th and early 20th century, composers started writing music in which the sense of key, or tonality became vaguer and was weakened, such as Claude Debissy and the eccentric Russian Alexander Scriabin (1872 -1915). The Austrian Arnold Schoenberg (1874 -1951) took the leap into atonality, where all sense of key has disappeared, and there is no tonal center in the early 20th century, and many other composers followed him, in their own way.
In order to prevent this music from being chaotic, Schoenberg invented a new system of writing music after some years of experimentation with atonality . This is the 12 tone system . Here, a composer takes the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, C to C, and arranges them into an order, 1-12. This is the basic tone row.
Now, all 12 tones of the scale are equal ; there is no center. The system is very complex, but I'll try to explain it in a nutshell. The row can be manipulated in numerous ways ; theoretically, none of the 12 tones must be repeated before all are heard, or some sense of a key center will remain.
The row can be be put into retrograde, or reverse. It can also be put into an inversion, or a revearsal of the intervals of the original row. if a note goes up in one direction, such as C to F, it must go down in the same direction an interval. The retrograde can also be inverted, creating the retrograde inversion.
Then, the row can be transposed to any of the degrees of the scale. If the first note of the row is E, the same arrangement of intervals can be made starting with any of the notes of the chromatic scale . This is similar to the way the notes of any melody can be arranged to be in any key .
So there are an enormous number of permutations of the 12 tone row . The number of possible chords is greatly increased. Schoenberg's pupil Anton Webern (1883 - 1945 ) adapted this system but did so in his own way, creating a distinctive style of his own.
Later, other composers such as the Frenchman Pierre Boulez (1925 -) also a famous conductor, created something called "Total Serialism ". Here, not only the tones of the scale are strictly organized, but other elements such as dynamics(loudness and softness) and rhythm etc are serialized in an extremely complex way. This resulted in extremely esoteric works which still baffle many music lovers.
However, other composers, such as the German Paul Hindemith (1895 - 1963 ) rejected the whole twelve-tone system and continued to use tonality, albeit without mere slavish imitation of the past. There are also methods of writing in two keys at the same time (Bi-tonality), or several (Polytonality) which some composers used, such as Stravinsky and the Frenchman Darius Milhaud.
Today, there is absolutely no concensus on the right way to compose ; some composers such as Boulez dogmatically insist that the only valid method is his serialism, and others still reject atonality. Other composers, such as the maverick Californian Harry Partch (1901 - 1974 ), rejected the whole western system and wrote music dividing the scale beyind 12 tones.
Partch was the Guru of microtonal music, which uses more than the simple 12 tones familiar to most listeners. Partch even created his own fanciful and exotic instuments, and invented a 43 tone scale ! His music cannot be performed on the standard instruments at all. and his disciples have preserved the strange invented instruments . You can hear this strange music on CD. Classical music is a very diverse thing !
If you attend orchestral concerts or read the liner notes to classical CDs, you will probably notice that symphonies or concertos etc, are described as being"in the key of C major, or C minor, D major, D minor etc." Just what does this mean ?
Basically, in western music at least, there are exactly twelve notes from C to C. C, C sharp or D flat, the same pitches, D, D sharp or E flat , E, E sharp, the same pitch as F, F sharp, the same as G flat, G, G sharp, or A flat, A, A sharp or B flat, B , B sharp , the same as C.
Of course, there are pitches between these 12 notes, but they are not commonly used . Of course, they are not uncommon in the musics of exotic lands. A pitch halfway between C and C sharp is called a quarter tone, and even smaller intervals are possible.
But basically, any piece of music, classical or otherwise, you are familiar with, uses one of the 12 tones between C and C as its home pitch. Any melody or piece of music will tend to be in a key, and use any one of the 12 tones as the home note. And that melody, if it starts on the note C, can be transposed to any of the other 11 pitches.
In western music, we have the system of major and minor keys, C major, C minor and so forth, coming from a different arrangement of the intervals between the notes. C major uses simply the notes C,D, E, F, G, E B, C. The minor kery uses a different arrangement, or arrangement of the notes. C, D, E flat, F, G, etc. The minor keys introduce what are called Chromatic notes of the scale, that is E flat, A flat, etc. The diatonic cotes are C,D,E, F, G, A ,G, and the chromatic tones are C sharp, or D flat, E flat or D sharp, F sharp or G flat, G sharp or A flat, B flat or a sharp.
The term chromatic come from Greek Chromos and means "color" as in Chromosomes, because it's said that these notes add"color" to the music, that is making it less bland the just the diatonic scale. So we have a system of major and minor keys based on any of the notes of the scale.
Johan Sebastian Bach wrote a famous series of preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys called "The Well-Tempered Clavier", which can be played either on harpsichord or modern piano . Chords can be built on any of these tones, for example, C, E and G, making your basic C major chord with which any work in C major will begin and end with. The minor chord uses C, E flat, and G , which will typically be used to begin and end a piece in C minor.
The note C is the the home note, the most important tone in the key of C major. Of course, in just about any piece of classical music, symphony, concerto or whatever, there will be key changes, or the piece will sound awfully monoitonous. These key changes are known as Modulations .. But the piece will always return to the home key. Theoreticaslly, a piece can modultate to any other key. But you always return to the home pitches of C,E, and G. It's rather like gravity.
Certain keys are closer to the home key than others ; G major is much closer than F sharp major, for example. In the time of Mozart and Haydn, the harmonies were simpler than later eras, and the more distant keys rarely used. In a symphony or concerto, a C major opening will usually first go to G major, the nearest key.
But starting in the later 19th century , composers became much more adventurous, modulating to distant keys quickly and using much more complex chromatic harmonies, such as Franz Liszt and his son-in -law Richard Wagner. This complex chromaticism led to a kind of weakening of the music seeming to be in a key at all, and eventually led to what we call Atonality, or the absence of any sense of key at all, which began in the early 20th centuries with composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and others.
The famous prelude to the great opera "Tristan and Isolde " by Wagner, written as early as the 1850s illustrates this weakening of tonality. It's difficult to get your bearings in this piece, the sense of tonality is extremely ambiguous. Later, French composers such as Claude Debussy experimented with writing tonally ambiguous music, but the music still ended in a key eventually. But Schoenberg and his assocates broke free of tonality altogether. However, many 20th century composers never adapted atonality, even though they used very complex harmonies.
However, most of the music people hear every day, whether classical or popular, relies on the concept of tonality just as the earth relies on gravity.
If you attend a performance of many operas, usually those written before the later 19th century, you'll notice certain parts between the arias, duets, choruses and other ensemble passages in which the orchestra does not play and the singers are singing in a kind of non-melodic style which approximates ordinary speech. These passages are usually accompanied only by a harpsichord , cello or occaisionally other instruments.
This is what is called Recitative in operatic parlance, or recitativo in Italian (rechi-tat-teevo) . It's a kind a declamatory singing. In the opera, the action proceeds through recitative, and the arias, duets or other ensembles halt the action in order for the singer or singers to state their emotions. Recitative passages are also common in the oratorios and cantatas of such great composers as Handel, Bach, Haydn and Mozart etc.
Recitatives often precede an opera aria, or one in an oratorio. The kind with only harpsichord and cello is called dry recitative, or "Secco" in Italian, and the other type , in which the orchestra participates, is called recitativo accompagnato, or accompanied recitative.
The supertitles used in opera houses are very helpful because you can understand what the singers are singing about; without this aid, recitatives can be awfully boring. On CD, most operas come with an English translation along with the text in the original language so you can follow what's going on, and most DVD performances have English subtitles.
In many French and German operas, the recitatives are replaced by spoken dialogue . Mozart's German language operas"The Magic Flute" and "The Abduction From the Seraglio feature this, as well as Beethoven's Fidelio" and Weber's "Der Freischutz"(The Freeshooter). The original version of George Bizet's "Carmen" features spoken dialogue in French, but soon after the composer's untimely death shortly after the premiere, another composer replaced them with recitatives which he wrote himself.
As the 19th century progressed, dry recitative went out of fashion, but there were still recitative-like passages with the orchestra accompanying the singers. With Wagner, the technique of "through-composing " operas became the norm ; that is, the action was continuous , and the individual arias and other ensembles were no longer self-contained and easily separated from the action. Recitatives may be"dry", but if you follow the action with a translation, you can understand what is going on in the action, and experience how characters interact.
May 6th is the birthday of Aram Khatchaturian, the most famous composer of Armenia . He lived from 1903 to 1978, and was the son of Armenian parents who had settled in Tbilisi, now the capital of the republic of Georgia . Georgia and Armenia are adjacent countries, formerly part of the Soviet Union, and have ancient cultural and historical ties to each other.
Khatchaturian had grown up with the folk music of Armenia, Georgia and the Caucasus, but had virtually no formal training in music until he moved to Moscow at around the age of 20 and studied cello at the Gnesin institute in that city, and later studied composition at the Moscow consevatory with Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881 -1950), a Russian composer little-known outside of that country today, but highly respected there.
Khatchaturian( the kh is pronounced as in the Jewish word Chutzpah, gutturally), combined the techniques and traditions of western music with the colorful flavor of the traditional music of his native Caucasus, and became a highly respected teacher and conductor in the Soviet Union. He also travelled widely in Europe, Asia and America, conducting his music and visiting other famous composers such as Sibelius.
Among his most famous works are concertos for violin, piano and cello, and the colorful ballet scores Gayaneh and Spartacus. Gayaneh (guy-a- neh), is a ballet about life on collective farm in Armenia the Soviet era, and its most famous excerpt is the "Sabre Dance", which you no doubt have heard. This has been used on television, radio and films for many years, but is best heard in the several suites of excerpts the composer put together from the complete ballet.
Spartacus deals with the famous slave rebellion in Rome led by the Phrygian slave of that name, and the brutal suppression of that revolt by Rome. You may remember the famous film about this starring Kirk Douglas. The ballet score is lavish, decadent, brutal and even vulgar at times, but certainly not boring.
There are three symphonies, also highly colorful. The second was written during the second world war and attempts to convey the grimness of that great conflict but ends on a triumphantly hopeful note. The third is scored for a very large orchestra, including massed trumpets.
Khatchaturian was also a close friend of such great Russian composers as Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and wrote a good deal of official cantatas and other works to glorify the Soviet regime. But none of these minor works has survived. They are essentially hackwork; but the concertos , symphonies and other works are very much worth hearing. They are highly melodious and energetic, and the orchestration is extremely colorful.
A number of eminent violinists, cellists and pianists have recorded the concertos, and the composer recorded a number of his own works. Khatchaturian may not be a Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, but his exuberant and colorful music is always highly entertaining.
This is a controversial issue in classical music. Sometimes. conductors, or other musicians, will address the audience before conducting a particular work when they come onstage, instead of simply starting the performance.
This is not done when familiar works, such as the symphonies and concertos of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov etc are played, but sometimes when a complex new or recent work is performed, or an unfamiliar one from the past.
Some listeners and critics approve of this, but others do not. Each orchestra has an expert individual, often a musicologist , to write program notes for the concert, which are supposed to give the audience background information about the works played on the concert and the composers.
The notes will explain the circumstances behind the writing of a given work, and also describe how it is constructed, which instruments play solo passages, how the work was received by audiences and critics when it was new, and other interesting details.
But in some cases, the conductor decides to address the audience before the performance to give then some background information about the work. Both with the speeches and the program notes, much depends on how well they are done. Often, audiences complain that the notes are much too technical to understand, with words such as "modulations", "tone-rows", " exposition"," development","recapitulation", "Tonic", "Dominant", "Schenkerian analysis", etc.
And if the conductor is too long-winded, audiences can find this annoying. In addition, orchestral musicians often say that they don't like to be kept waiting before the performance. But if the conductor is an engaging speaker, audiences can gain some insight into the music. So if this happens at any concert you might attend, don't be alarmed. Give the maestro a chance.
Tchaikovsky wrote six numbered symphonies, but only the last three are played very often, which is unfortunate, as the first three are highly attractive. But he also wrote a massive unnumbered symphony with a program, or definite story, based on a poem by Lord Byron, called Manfred.
This is only occaisionally performed, but some consider it one of the composer's greatest works, and was written in the mid 1880s, between the fourth and fifth symphonies. The Manfred symphony is in the tradition started by the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz, that is, a multi-movement orchestral work which tells an elaborate story, unlike your typical abstract symphony.
Byron's poem concerns one Manfred, a tormented soul who wanders in the Alps searching in vain for happiness and fulfillment. He was tempted by the ancient goddess Astarte, and longs for her. There are four movements. The outer ones are the longest and most complex, and the two briefer inner ones are a kind of relief from the brooding and anguish of the others.
Tchaikovsky's own notes on the work begin thusly - "Manfred wanders in the Alps, tormented by fateful pangs of doubt, rent by remorse and despair, his soul the victim of nameless suffering." This is the long, brooding first movement, which opens with a mournful theme which recurs throughout the symphony at crucial times. The movement ends with a crushingly massive climax .
The brief second movement provides much-needed relief. According to the composer, the "Alpine fairy appears to Manfred in a rainbow". The music is delicate and gossamer. There is a lyrical melody which serves as the middle section, and a return to the opening, but also an ominous return of the baleful opening theme.
The third movement is a gentle intermezzo with lilting , barcarolle-like movement. Manfred seeks solace among the shepards, but there is still another ominous return of the fateful melody of the beginning.
The last movement depicts a hellish bacchanal in the underground palace of the ancient pre-islamic Persian god Arimanes . "Manfred appears in the middle of the Bacchanal". The goddess Astarte appears and predicts that he will soon die and be freed from his earthly torment. Manfred dies quietly, and the work comes to gentle conclusion.
The bacchanal contains some of the most frenzied music you'll ever hear. This is no fun get together ! The symphony reaches a heart-stopping climax complete with a resounding organ, and the work reaches its quiet conclusion.
The Manfred symphony is a difficult work, complex, intensely emotional and longer than any of the six numbered Tchaikovsky symphonies. But it's a genuine masterpiece, and deserves to be heard more often.
However, many eminent conductors have recorded it, including Arturo Toscanini, Eugene Ormandy, Igor Markevitch, Lorin Maazel, Mariss Jansons, Bernard Haitink, Andre Previn, Yevgeny Svetlanov, and others.
Yesterday I read a very interesting rant at the English classical music website Theclassicalsource.com. This is an excellent website featuring news about classical music in general along with reviews of the latest concerts and opera performances in London , and sometimes New York and elsewhere, as well as reviews of CDs.
The famous(or notorious) English film director Ken Russell is also a great classical music fan, and has made highly fictionalized fictionalized films about Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Liszt and Mahler , as well as ones on other controversial topics.
The website regularly features commentary by famous musicians , but this time, director Russell gets a chance to do a rant about the alleged state of orchestral concerts in London. He complains about the standardized programming, and the timidity of conductors appearing there in their choice of repertoire.
He's right to some extent here; the London orchestras , such as the London Symphony, the Philharmonia (not Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic do tend to offer the same old established masterpieces by Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Dvorak, Schubert, Mendelssohn etc. Living or recently deceased composers are given short shrift, unlike American orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, and those of Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, Cleveland, etc. The B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra , run by that famous English institution, is somewhat more adventurous.
But there are exceptions, such as the brilliant and imaginative young Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski, currently music director of the London Philharmonic. And the acclaimed modernist Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen , after his long stin in Los Angeles, is going to shake up the Philharmonia when he takes over.
But he starts overstating his case when he talks about the supposed lack of great conductors , or "real conductors", as he cals them. Those of today, according to Russell, are not the forceful authority figures of the past who ruled orchestras with an iron hand, such as Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, Fritz Reiner, and other legendary figures of the podium.
Those of today are just a bunch of superficial glamor boys whose careers have been more the product of slick publicity and glamorous image than real musical ability. Russell sneers at the brilliant young Venuzuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, soon to succeed Salonen in Los Angeles, saying that his meteoric career is based purely on good looks.
But he's dead wrong. Dudamel is a genuine and phenomenal talent, and would never have been appointed to lead a world-class and prestigious orchestra like the Los Angeles Philharmonic on the basis of slick promotion alone, without enormous talent. Orchestral musicians can tell whether a conductor is an outstanding talent, or a mediocrity or fake instantly. You can't fool them.
In addition, Dudamel has been conducting leading orchestras all over Eurpe, America and elsewhere as a guest, to considerable acclaim. Russel makes the ridiculous claim that none of the harsh discipliarian conductors of the past would be tolerated today in orchestral music because of "political correctness". Therefore, the conductors of today are a bunch of wimps who lack the authority to make orchestras play well, and playing standards in the London orchestras have declined badly.
Excuse me, Ken, but you're dead wrong again here. London has five world-class symphony orchestras, and all of them maintain very high standards of playing. The world's greatest conductors and instrumental soloists appear with them regularly.
And no conductor, violinist, pianist, cellist etc, or opera singer has ever made an internationally acclainmed career on the basis of slick publicity alone, without genuine and exceptional talent. Audiences aren't stupid. They can recognize talent, or the lack of it. Yes, slick publicity does exist in the classical music world, and today the good looks of certain classical musicians, particularly young and promising ones, are used for publicity. But if you don't have what it takes, you'll never make it.
Remember the old joke about how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. Yes, but if the talent isn't there, you won't even make it in Podunk. I wish Russell would stick to directing movies.
One year ago today, I started my blog The Horn with the hope of interesting more people in classical music and explaining it to those who are new to it, and to try to debunk myths about this supposedly"elitist" and rarified art form. I hope I've accomplished something with it, and I'm gratified by all the positive feedback I've received.
I hope I've shown people that far from being a stuffy affair for the rich and snobbish, classical music is something that any one can enjoy if he or she just gives it a chance, and that if you make the effort to listen carefully to it, it can be incredibly rewarding. And that it's not just about "Dead White European Males" , but a kind of music composed also by Americans, Latnin Americans, Asians, women, blacks, and others, and that there are plenty of living composers being performed today.
In addition, I hope I've made people aware about how easy it is to make classical music a part of your life, and that you don't have to be wealthy to enjoy it, despite the high prices for tickets in some locations. Classical Cds and DVDs are so easy to get at websites such as arkivmusic.com, or to download, and there is so much you can hear and see on the internet.
And that classical music is a continuum of music going back centuries to the present day, not just a distant and irrelevant thing. So if you're relatively new to it, keep listening as much as you can, get classical CDs and DVDs, keep exploring music you haven't heard before, attend live performances whnever you can, read books, magazines, and newspaper articles about it, and visit classical music websites and blogs. You'll never regret doing this !
Finland is a small but very interesting country of only about five million people, tucked away in the far north of Europe between Sweden and Russia. The Finns are somewhat isolated by their strange and difficult language, which distantly related to Hungarian, but more similar to the language of Estonia, directly to its south on the Baltic in what used to be the Soviet Union , but utterly incomprehensible to other Europeans.
The country is known for Saunas and its thousands of lakes, and its vast forests; it's a prosperous and advanced, if very expensive to live in country, but it's also an important center for classical music,too, and thanks to generous government subsuidies and its music -loving people, classical music is doing amazingly well there.
The great composer Jean Sibelius (1865 -1957) is probably the most famous Finn of all time, but he actually came from the Swedish-soeaking minority which still lives there,although he spoke Finnish. Finland was for a very long time ruled either by Sweden or Russia. To this day, Swedish is an official language of Finland along with Finnish.
Sibelius put Finland on the musical map with his brooding and highly atmospheric music, which is rooted in the ancient history and geography of the country. But Finland has produced a copnsiderable number of distinguished composers since Sibelius, including living figues such as Einojuhani Rautavaara, Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen (better-known as a conductor), Aulis Sallinen, Kalevi Aho, and no longer living ones such as Joonas Kokkonen, Yrjo Kilpinen, Unno Klami, and Leevi Madetoja, to name only a handful.
Finland has also produced distinguished conductors such as Salonen, who recently stepped down as conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Leif Segerstam, Osmo Vanska, Paavo Berglund, and Jussi Jalas, who was married to a daughter of Sibelius. And leading opera singers such as Karita Mattila, Soile Isokoski, Jorma Hynninen, Matti Salminen and Martti Talvela, to name only a few.
The Helsinki Philharmonic and Finnish Radio Symphony orchestra are world-class, as well as the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki, and there are several excellent orchestras and opera companies in other Finnish cities such as Lahti and Turku. There is an annual Summer opera Festival at the town of Savonlinna , and numerous other music festivals.
The Sibelius Academy in Helsinki is considered one of the world's top music schools, and attracts promising young classical musicians from all over the world. There are also numerous choirs and other groups.
It's been estimated that this small but prosperous nation has one opera house per 250,000 people . If the US had this many, there would be nearly 1500 opera companies here ! But none of this would be true without the generous help of the Finnish government.