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The Messiah

THURSDAY, December 12, 2019

(I wrote about this about a year ago, but it was included in a very long post, and I’ve added more.)

There are two recordings. Try to listen to a bit of each, then let me know which you prefer.

The first is a typical modern performance, but with a boy’s choir. The second I’m adding because of an objection from Louie, who insists that I have to add something that is smaller, and more likely what we would have heard long ago. I would have added this a year ago, but it’s hard to get the system to go to the right spot. The whole Messiah is over two hours long.

The Messiah, popular for 276 years…

On April 13, 1742, Handel’s oratorio received its premiere in Dublin. German-born Handel’s name drew such a crowd that there was a fear of audience members injuring each other due to overcrowding at the Messiah’s Dublin premiere – Handel was a rock star in his time.

The premiere was nearly cancelled…

A lot of people thought it was blasphemous. Handel’s note on his original manuscript read  “To God alone the glory”, but critics didn’t think any religious music should have been heard outside a church. Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, threatened to publicly forbid singers from St. Patrick’s Cathedral to participate in the premiere of “The Messiah” in Ireland. He objected to the idea of making religious music popular.

Handel was not English…

Not all people know this, since England was his adopted home. He moved to England in his middle 20s. Handel was an incredibly independent man. He also got very fat and was very stingy with food, but otherwise was very generous.

His father was 63 years old when Handel was born…

So if you think that old men having children is a recent thing, it’s been going on a long time. Donald Trump was only 59 years old when his son, Barron, was born.

The Messiah was written really really REALLY fast…

The whole composition was composed by Handel in only 24 days, and the whole oratorio is extremely long. It is estimated that he wrote 15 notes per minute, on average, which is a speed I can’t match in 2018 using Finale.

Handel may have stolen a lot of the music, from himself…

I’m looking for corroboration on this point from my friend, Louie, who knows way more about this than I do, but I believe he got a lot of ideas from other music, and this was not in the least unusual for composers. He still wrote his music very fast, but he may have used older ideas to get it done even faster.

Many people stand for the Hallelujah Chorus because they think the king stood…

In fact there is no evidence that the king, King George II, was even there, and it is unlikely the newspaper writers would have reported his presence. The first reference to this story was in letter written many years later. So another myth is busted.

There is no definitive version…

Leonard Bernstein once raised eyebrows by reordering sections of Messiah for a Carnegie Hall performance.

Mozart re-orchestrated Messiah in 1789 and gave it a more modern sound by by the standards of his time. He said that any alterations he made should not be seen as an effort at improvement.

It was not written for Christmas…

It’s probably the most famous piece of music associated with Christmas, but apparently it was written with Easter in mind.

The Hallelujah Chorus, which we think of as the climax of the whole thing, is at the end of Part II. There are three parts.

How popular is it today?

In the 2014-2015 season alone, 13 out of the 22 largest American orchestras were scheduled to perform some part of this this piece 38 times.

So without any doubt, Handel belongs at the top of any list of “greatest popular composers of all time”.

Here is a standard version:

In fact, this is not necessarily unusual, because boys are singing the high parts. In Handel’s time women sang solos, but they never sang in the choirs. Men also sang the women’s parts in falsetto, and in addition – big yuck – boys were castrated to keep their high voices for a lifetime. But the soprano parts were, as far as I know, almost always sung by young boys.

Now something perhaps more historical…

Gardiner is known for sticking to things as close to the original as possible. This is lighter, but we might argue that he is breaking the rules whenever he uses women in the chorus. I did not include this last year because it is very hard to make the recording start in the right place. Remember, the whole recording is around two hours long, and I could not find just this one selection in YouTube.

 

 

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classical music again

MONDAY, December 9, 2019

What is classical music?

It’s a simple question which turns out to have no satisfactory answer. Someone somewhere said: “If you teach it in a college course, it’s classical music.”

“The Classical period”…

To confound the problem, there is a stretch of time that is generally called the “The Classical period”, which describes Haydn, Mozart and other people of that time. Beethoven is generally classified as the bridge between that Classical and Romantic periods. So already we have a simple word that clearly means two things.

The difference is a capital letter…

If it is “Classical”, it’s mainly Hadyn and Mozart. If it is “classical”, it’s just a word that tries to separate new music from old music. The same exact word has two completely different meanings depending on whether your use a big or small “c”.

Where the word came from…

The earliest reference to “classical music” is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary to appear around 1829. To put that into perspective, Chopin was around 19 at that time and had already composed some of his most famous music, a couple of piano concertos. But what did people mean with this word? In truth it was an attempt to glorify music from the recent past, the period from Johann Sebastian Bach through to Ludwig van Beethoven, which actually was a rather long time-span. Bach was born in 1685, and Beethoven died in 1827.

Almost 150 years…

To put that into perspective, that’s 142 years. That’s like glorifying 1808-1950 as a golden age and lumping together Frédéric Chopin with Béla Bartók. In other words, within that range there are composers with such vastly different writing styles that it makes your head spin. So even in 1829 it was a pretty meaningless word.

But how did “classical music”, small “c”, turn into the “Classical Period”, big “C”?

The answer seems to be that the capital got added later to refer to a specific time period, which at least is perhaps somewhat useful, and it is pretty much accepted today that Haydn and Mozart were the center of it all. Haydn was born in 1737, but of course he was only 13 years old in 1750. Mozart was born in 1756 and died in December 1791, so it is probably safe to consider the Classical period as from around 1750 to 1800, and that turns out to be pretty handy when looking at European music.

Music before Haydn is divided into at least two additional periods…

This gets a bit tricky. The Baroque period is used mainly for composers around the age of JS Bach, and Bach was born in 1685. You will see this extended back to 1600 – which I think is far too large a time span – then is usually defined as ending around 1650, the year of JS Bach’s death. But even in Europe during that time, styles and trends overlapped.

The Galant period…

In music, galant refers to the style which was fashionable from the 1720s to the 1770s. As you can see, this overlaps the Baroque period and the Classical period. It was was a movement that attempted to return to more simplicity and featured composers who essentially called JS Bach’s music “old music”. The idea was that “old Bach” was good in his time but his music was no longer modern and of great interest to younger people, and this was fueled by, among others, his own sons.

Essentially they tried to paint JS Bach as an old fogey…

They said he was no longer relevant. They made fun of him as old-fashioned, a has-been, a relic of the past. However, the joke was on them, because every succeeding generation cherished old Bach’s music greatly, while their music was mostly forgotten. If you ask anyone who was the greater composer, JS Bach, or one of his sons, the answer will always be JS Bach. In fact, the next generation, that of Haydn and Mozart, already greatly respected JS Bach, then every succeeding generation continued to study his music. His music had a brief decline at the very end of his life but then took off again like a rocket by the mid 1800s, and there is not an intelligent musician on the planet who is not awed by Bach – old Bach, not his sons.

Mendelssohn was the tipping point…

Mendelssohn in his own time was a composer of new, popular music, and until Mendelssohn’s own music started to be looked at as old-fashioned, which essentially happened after he died, his music was looked upon as original, forward-looking and very much with the pulse of the times. Mendelssohn championed the music of JS Bach and brought his music back to fame and popularity; that popularity has remained up to this very moment.

Each generation tries to label the previous generation as old and no longer important…

What goes before is called irrelevant, stale, boring, predictable, something that we just don’t need anymore. But then wiser people in new generations rediscover what was great about that older music and bring it back into popularity, if it is deserving. This, for example, is what is happening in the music of Jacob Collier. His uploads to the Internet went viral, and his composing and arranging is wired into the very latest technology and is reaching out to people worldwide, but who is he championing? Mainly he is channeling musicians going back up to 50 years or more, and he continually talks about it.

But we are back to the same question:

What is “classical music”, small “c”? When did this term become used as it is today? The answer so far: No one seems to know. I’ve searched for answers, but I’ve had zero success. I can only repeat that each generation tends to look at the last generation and all generations before it as old, so each new generation attempts to label its music as new, original and more important that what went before. However, over time there is a reevaluation of everything that went before, and slowly things are reassessed.

What is popular right may be forgotten tomorrow, and usually is…

The music that is viral right now now may be classified as pure junk in a year or two, most certainly in another 50 years, or even in a decade, But what remains popular in another 50, 100 or 200 years ago is likely to be valued for another 500 or 1000 years. This is the test of time. Human beings are very bad at judging the worth of what is current.

Recency bias…

Recency bias distorts our perception of what is good and not so good so that we utterly lose perspective, so when judging the present we become very poor judges of what has great worth. But over time people become much better at weighing what is great and what is simple hype. The empty, hyped things are then discarded. This does not mean that something that is popular right now, this year, will not remain popular and valued in another 100 years, but the chances of this happening is very slim.

Examine how poorly people from the past predicted the future…

To understand this we need only study opinions from the past and analyze how accurate they were. When we do this we find that even the well-intentioned, so called most-knowledgeable experts were usually amazingly wrong about what was really good, and what would really last.

Finally, and hopefully back to my main point…

Apparently sometime in the 1900s a sharp divide between so-called “serious” music and “lighter” or more “popular” music was made. In an attempt to divide the two, my guess is that the “classical music label became more or less common by around 1950.

At that time so called “classical music” was also called “long-hair music”, which is rather humorous when you look at all the guys with shoulder-length hair playing rock guitar about 20 years later. But the problem is that this divide between popular music and “serious” music did not exist in the past and is a fairly new idea.

It has always been about money and fame…

In the past each new generation of musicians were struggling to make money, struggling to write popular music and struggling to be more popular than all their contemporaries. Popular music of the time was directly linked to the newest music, and these younger musicians were always criticized for taking things too far, challenging the old guard too much, changing things too radically and having too little respect for traditions of the past.

They weren’t called classical musicians. They were called rebels…

In other words, the war between past generations and the next generations were just like today, no different, with older people saying that kids had no respect for the past, and the kids saying the older people were too traditional and boring.

A word to communicate with non-musicians…

The word “classical”, as it is used today, is an invented term used by people who don’t know much about music to communicate with others who don’t know much about music. Use it if you like, and you will need it to talk to Aunt Sally, Uncle Joe and Grandpa Jones, who most likely will have no formal knowledge of music, but be aware that this word – “classical” – has been forced upon knowledgeable musicians of all genres by people who are rather clueless about how music really works. When you are among fine musicians, they just don’t think this way. They don’t divide music in this manner. They are as interested in something from 500 years ago as from last year, and they have a very different way of deciding what is great – and what is not. You also have to turn this around. If something is really great, they are as excited about something that was created today, right now, as in something that is established and has the weight of so-called experts behind it.

It’s just popular music that has been famous for one day or a few centuries…

This is why any music – labeled “classical” or with some other term silly term – has always been popular music and always will be popular if it has remained famous for a long time and continuous to attract new listeners in each new generation.

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Bruckner Symphony #4

SUNDAY, December 8, 2019

The Bruckner 4th Symphony is so full of questions…

The problem of agreeing on one and one version only will never be fully solved. In a nutshell, Bruckner was not a confident, arrogant human being but rather a quiet, strange, humble man who never stopped revising his music. I believe anyone who composes and has questions about his own work inevitably runs into a similar problem – when is it time to stop, to “put a fork in it so to speak”? If further revisions result from personal growth and greater experience then those revisions will be a good thing. However, often they come from doubt and fears, largely because of suggestions and criticism coming from others who don’t fully understand the music. In that case the results will be mixed and often anything but “improvements”.

This leads to the “Bruckner Problem”…

It’s about multiple revisions and no clear indication from the composer of what his final version was, and this is a problem in all his symphonies. Bruckner never stopped questioning himself and his music. You can spend a lifetime studying the symphonies and deciding for yourself which version is best, and no two people will fully agree.

Bruckner’s music was not understood by most of his contemporaries…

Even most of his friends did not fully comprehend what he was doing, and as is usually the case his critics were as wrong as wrong can be. Anyone who has read my thoughts knows that I have zero respect for most critics, who almost always miss the point. So often they aim to score points by making vicious comments in the most clever way possible. I really hate most of them, and I think with fairly good reason. There are also good critics who are both open-minded and forward thinking, but they are rare animals.

In Bruckner’s case even his friends were wrong…

If you go back to the time of young Bruckner and read the opinions of his contemporaries, most of what you read is so painfully off the mark. His harmonic and melodic ideas were way ahead of his time – hardly unusual for geniuses – and his choice of orchestration came largely from his immense knowledge of the organ. He was a master of that instrument.

As a child he practiced the organ as much as 12 hours a day…

I can’t conceive of working that hard, even as an adult. Apparently he was totally obsessed with music and never stopped working. This was a life-long characteristic. Not only did he endlessly revise his work, he was known for starting the next symphony just days after completing one.

There were two rival camps…

To make things worse, there were people allied with Brahms and other composers in that style, while Liszt, Wagner and Mahler went in a very different direction, and people picked sides. Liszt, always the most intelligent of all, supported composers in both camps, but he was a lone wolf in this regard, above it all and far wiser than the rest. Today we know that Liszt was right, and most everyone else was wrong. There were giants in both rival camps.

The Nazis loved Bruckner, but it was in no way his fault…

No one ever accused Bruckner of being a nasty human being, or a racist, or anything else of that nature. But just when he was getting more and more acceptance – and rightfully so – along came WWII, and for a time his name was linked to Hitler’s. Unfortunately the Nazi’s also hyped the music of Wagner. Wagner was a despicable human being and and an anti-semite, so Bruckner was in danger of being linked to Wagner.

Unlike Wager his reputation was not damaged by the Nazis or WWII after the war ended…

The world correctly considered Hitler’s support of Bruckner not to be in any way caused by Bruckner himself, so his popularity continued to rise again after WWII and is likely now at an all time high.

Modern recordings suit his music…

Perhaps today, more than ever before, his music has a greater chance of being heard and appreciated because of our freedom to listen in a state of relaxation, even doing other things to let the mind receive new ideas, and modern recordings help tremendously. There has been a steady evolution in sound throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. First came the advance in recording sound leading to fine stereo recordings in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, but even then vinyl was limited in time to well under an hour per record.

Now we can hear very long compositions without changing a record, with no interruptions…

To hear something really long in the late 1850s required at least two records, and records themselves narrowed dynamics. They also did not allow the full sound of the recordings themselves, all done on tape, to be revealed. CDs changed that, though even on a CD there is a time limit. CDs allowed sound to be presented more in the manner in which it was recording on tape, though there are some claims that analogue tapes have more information than can be presented digitally. I cannot personally hear a difference, and I don’t think most other people do either. Finally, with mp3s and other ways of sharing music we have no time constraints at all. This is a huge plus for the 21st century.

It has never been a better time to hear massive musical compositions…

In a sense the ideal environment for very long symphonies by composers such as Bruckner and Mahler have become ever better as the average attention span of the listener is becoming more constricted. In other words, in the 21st century we are conditioned to either like or not like music based on a window of three to five minutes, but we are free to start with only a few minutes, then listen to more as we become interested.

Start with one movement…

For this reason it is necessary for most of us – and this includes me – to start with part of a symphony and to discover if we like it. If we do, we may be open, over time, to listening to the rest, because a positive connection has been made, and over time we may

find out that we not only like the whole thing but actually prefer to hear it in that form.

The 3rd Movement is both famous and iconic…

There are stand-alone recordings of only this movement, but I’m choosing the complete recording here as the most interesting I’ve heard, and again I am setting the time to start this 3rd movement. If you hear a bit of Superman, Star Wars and other super-hero music in your mind, you are making the same connections that John Williams and other modern film composers made. The whole movement is still a bit too long for 21st century impatience, at least at first, but at round 10 minutes or less it’s a reasonable first step for listening.

 

 

 

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Takashi Asahina

SUNDAY, December 8, 2019

On Sundays I have the most time to listen…

I have no teaching, enough sleep and a clearer mind at the end of the weekend, and that’s when I try to explore.

I have not listened to the Brahms 1st Symphony in some time, and because there are so many excellent and famous recordings of it, I did a search of recommended recordings and stumbled upon this man:

Takashi Asahina, still conducting at age 93…

A name is nothing more than a name to me until I know something about the man or woman who goes with that name, so when I listen to a new conductor I start off with no expectations and no idea of what I am about to hear.

Reading about this man was an adventure…

There is so much mindless hype connected with music making that my hopes are not great when listening to something new, but when you hear strong praise from around the world from diverse musicians who also seem to be thinking out of the box it can sometimes lead to very interesting experiences and surprising discoveries.

It turns out that Asahina is generally not well-known outside Japan…

But his life-story sounds utterly fascinating. He taught himself to play violin in law school and then went on to fail his law exams. He worked as a sales clerk in a department store and and for a railroad company and did not conduct publicly until around the age of 35.

This is all so improbable that it sounds like fantasy…

It’s like a made-up story that could not possibly happen in real life. How a man with his initial background ends up a conductor, much less a world-renowned conductor, in Japan, conducting German music and specializing in the music of – get this – Bruckner – is one of the strangest and most unlikely stories I’ve read. Surely the connection between Germany and Japan must have had something to do with this, but even so it is one usual circumstance after another. Then imagine that he was born at the end of 1901 yet was still conducting until 1994.

He was the world’s oldest famous conductor…

He had a Stokowski-length career and apparently enjoyed amazing health until very shortly before he died. As is true of so many other conductors from earlier times, his conducting technique was elegant and simple, and he is very easy to follow visually. He appears to have stayed in excellent shape and moved very well right to the end of his life.

Now, the concept, the interpretation:

The first movement is as slow as any version I’ve heard, and nothing is rushed. The brass attacks are like knives, incredibly accurate and incisive, the strings are amazing, and in general the woodwinds are equally fine, and somehow the tympani motive that appears at the start of the first movement and reappears in the last are handled with more shape and contrast than what I’ve heard before. The recording itself is amazingly spacious and clear – again the placement of mikes is superb – and for me every detail is well presented.

If you have never heard this symphony before, try to start with the last movement...

I’m trying to set up this video so that it starts there. But if you like this, please set it back to the beginning and hear the whole thing. Many people have called this the “Beethoven 9th”. The reason? Brahms was so afraid of being compared to Beethoven that he worked on this symphony for 21 years and finally presented it to the world at the age of 43. Remember, many other famous traditional composers were dead before the age of 40.

How he conducted…

Below you can see his conducting technique in this live video. The sound is not nearly as good, but you can get a feel for his stage presence and the reverence he received in Japan.

 

 

 

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Famous arrangers and transcribers

WEDNESDAY, December 4, 2019

(Be sure to choose which you prefer at the end. There are two recordings, one for piano, the other for full orchestra. )

Arrangements and transcriptions…

We do not usually, if ever, talk about an arranger from before the 1900s. If, for instance, I were to say, “Liszt was a great arranger”, it sounds a bit strange. That’s just not the way we normally look at things. Usually we think of arranging as adding, modifying and being rather free with someone else’s ideas, whereas “transcribing” is generally used for rewriting a piece of music, either solo or ensemble, for another instrument or other instruments. (Technically the human voice is included as “an instrument”.)

However, these convenient labels are a bit fuzzy in practice. For instance, when Liszt transcribed all of Beethoven’s Symphonies for solo piano, he had to rewrite many things. Boiling down something written for a whole orchestra into a version just for two hands is an incredibly difficult and creative process. In other words, there is not necessarily a clear dividing line between what is an arrangement and what is a transcription. Here are a couple really famous transcriptions, showing how they were originally composed and how they were transcribed/arranged.

Anne Queffélec is the artist playing…

You can, of course, listen to all of this, but the most famous Gymnopédie is the first one, which lasts less than four minutes. It is one of the simplest and most elegant small pieces ever written, and in fact was used by Blood Sweat and Tears, a rock band that became famous in the late 60s. In fact, although the title of the video says “Gymnopédies”, this is what you will actually hear, and all these little pieces are charming:

  • Gymmopedie No. 1.
  • Gnossienne No. 1
  • Gnossienne No. 3
  • GnossienneNo. 4
  • Gnossienne No. 2

Satie/Debussy – Gymnopédie III and I {Orchestrated}

Now here is Debussy’s view of Satie’s music. This is not just the originals simply adding more instruments. There is more to it, so they are arrangement, but Debussy attempted to stay very close to the original. You might call them “free transcriptions”. Debussy wrote his transcriptions starting with the third, then moving to the first. Among other things you might notice a gong, his choice, and arpeggiated harp chords. This is what makes his ideas more arrangements than just transcriptions.

Now, which do you prefer? Just piano? Orchestra? Or do you like both? Please leave a short comment expressing your choice…

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Ben Hopkins

TUESDAY, December 3, 2019

We met a long time ago…

I got to know Ben for the first time when he was still in his teens. He already had an unusual relationship to the piano, starting out on a digital piano and largely without typical formal instruction, but he was very curious, already a born autodidact. No one else I’ve known has ever succeeded as a performer of traditional piano music after such an informal connection to really solid traditional teaching, but once he started “mainstreaming” he took off like a shot, and now at age 30 the evolution is obviously quite extraordinary. He presently not only plays on an astonishingly high level, he also thinks much more deeply than most about his musical goals  because of having started on the formal journey later.

Most traditional pianists today are hot-housed from age five or so, and they function more like magnificently trained idiot savants than as mature, thoughtful musicians. The result is very very impressive on a superficial level, but for me something really important is missing; the extra special inspiration that comes from a lifetime of investigation, experimentation, composing, arranging and teaching.

What Ben does in my opinion goes far beyond what is taught and comes from thinking beyond what is conventional, and searching within himself for  answers that we can never get from anyone but else ourselves.

Something that is not nearly as popular as it should be…

I think this one movement from the Brahms Third Sonata, as played by Ben here, is as well performed as any other version I’ve heard from very famous players. I don’t only want to present famous people here in this Spotlight, and sometimes those we have barely heard of, if at all, are doing amazing things that unfortunately get far too little attention.

The Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5…

Brahms wrote this in 1853 and it was published the following year. It is a is massive work in five movements, and I have some severe reservations about the whole composition. First of all, Brahms wrote for piano in an extremely awkward manner, meaning that he penned things that are nearly impossible for the best players on the planet to pull off.  As we struggle to master his music it’s easy to come off sounding just adequate even when we play the music very well. And when things do not go well we may sound like rank amateurs to the listener, who has no idea how impossible the music is. This is why I do not usually teach Brahms and have rarely played his solo piano music. It’s asking for trouble. On our best days we tend to get lukewarm applause, and when things are not perfect, we can expect a cold response from people who have no idea what we have attempted to pull off.

But this one piece, this one movement, both sounds wonderful and is very well written. If it had been written as an impromptu, or a ballade, or a fantasy, it would be programmed perhaps 50 times as often. However, most “concert pianists” are rather cowardly about breaking tradition, and tradition says: “Thou shalt not play part of a sonata.” And so generation after generation of “classical pianists” continue to follow tradition like sheep, never daring to break rules. Because of this, many gems do not get the playing time they deserve. They are permanently linked to larger works and thus are not heard enough. My argument has been that traditional performers lack common sense about programming and have no idea how to package music to draw in new listeners. This would be a great composition to hear more often, as a stand alone piece or part of a group of two or three pieces by Brahms that are very well contrasted.

Now, Ben’s performance…

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Raindrop Prelude

SUNDAY, December 1, 2019

Just one note with chords…

Chopin wrote 24 Preludes in a set, one for each major and minor, inspired by Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier.

The so called Raindrop Pelude, not Chopin’s name for this composition, has a persistent repeated note that lasts for the whole piece. It sounds like a dreadfully boring idea to me, but it somehow works – fact quite brilliantly

Popular for 180 years…

This whole set of Preludes was written between 1835 and 1839, and since they have been famous and popular ever since we can see that this popularity started a long time ago. If, by the way, you want to get an idea of just how popular something older is, simply search for in YouTube and see how many different people are shown playing it.

An unusual performance…

Horowitz in this recording played the repeated note in the middle section, at least at the beginning, with what sounds like no sustain pedal. This makes it much harder because everything in the left hand has to somehow be connected, which quite possibly necessitated redistribution of the notes.

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Schubert Gb Impromptu

THURSDAY, November 28, 2019

Popular for more than 150 years…

Franz Schubert’s wrote eight Impromptus n 1827, when he was 30 years old. He died less than two years later. Only the first two were published in his lifetime. The 3rd, the one here that is in Gb major, was printed in G major instead and was only available in that key for many years. And it was not published until 1857, 30 years later – long after he died. Once it became known to the world it was almost instantly popular and has remained so ever since.

This 3rd Impromptu from the first set of four is one of the most famous and popular things Schubert ever wrote, in fact one of the most popular pieces written by anyone, so it’s rather shocking to realize that most of his music was not published until long after he was gone.

Schubert was born January 31st, 1797. He was an Austrian composer whose short life was over shortly after he reached the age of 30 – at only 31 years old to be precise. In 2019 the idea of such a talent being dead before age 32 is both shocking and depressing.

He died November 19th, 1828, at the apartment of his brother Ferdinand in Vienna. The cause of his death was officially diagnosed as typhoid fever. So if you are older than 31 and are reading this, you are already older than Schubert was the day he died. And even if you are much younger, imagine that you and your friends may not live past the age of 30.

Life was not good for most people in the 1800s.

Here are three very different recordings. The last one is my own personal preference.

Note that this Impromptu sounds very simple, very easy. Like all music that sounds great it is ridiculously hard to make it sound this good.

First Khatia Buniatishvili…

Now Krystian Zimerman…

He looks to me like some kind of strange little man in a doll house, and for me the chandelier is an embarrassing look. Really? A freaking chandelier? REALLY????????

But the playing is very fine.

Vladimir Horowitz…

Finally perhaps the most famous performance, and the one I prefer as the most interesting, with the greatest contrasts. In addition to the masterful playing, there are no grimaces, painful looks and grandstanding. All the lesser talents have to act out the music. If you turn down the sound he just looks like a feeble old man, and you think it would be totally boring. Then you turn up the sound and sort of drop your jaw.

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Two mid-season pieces

 

TUESDAY, November 26, 2019

Popular for 193 years – and almost three years…

By now people should know a good deal about Felix Mendelssohn, so let’s compare two compositions, one written by him and one by Jacob Collier. One is about mid-summer, the other about mid-winter. One is inspired by a play by Shakespeare. The other,  In The Bleak Midwinter, is based on a very unusual Christmas carol.

Jacob was born August 2nd, 1994. Felix was born February 3rd, 1809. There is a difference in time of almost two centuries – 185 years.

Mendelssohn wrote “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” when he was only 17 years old.  Jacob’s arrangement was written when he was a bit older at age 22. Although it is not his original composition, the result is so far from the simple carol that you really have to think of it as something almost entirely original.

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Fingal’s Cave

SATURDAY, November 9, 2019

Mendelssohn was also visual artist…

Spotlight is not about visual art, but this is of interest to me because it shows the depth of his genius it shows how versatile geniuses are:

Felix was in all ways a fascinating person.

There have been very few human beings with the raw brain power of Mozart, but Felix is one.

  • As I mentioned, he was also a visual artist.
  • He was also known to be charming and polite as well as astonishingly intelligent, but personal friends reported that he was far more moody – and introverted – than his public persona indicated.
  • Due to a family genetic weakness he was dead by age 38 from massive strokes. His older sister died shortly before that from the same malady. He died at the end of 1847. His wife died in 1853
  • He was born into a prominent Jewish family, but he was brought up without religion until the age of seven, when he was baptised as a Reformed Christian (Lutheran.) His parents were baptized even later. We don’t know how much of this was religious belief vs. a practical decision to stop anti-Semitism.
  • Felix was a musical prodigy, but his parents were cautious and protected him from being exploited.
  • His older sister, Fanny, may have been equally talented and was brilliant, but she was discouraged from becoming a professional musician because – get this – she was a girl. To be female in the early 1800s was to be discouraged from anything other than making babies.
  • He revived interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, notably with his performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829.He was only 20 at the time.
  • He was linked to Jenny Lind and may have had a love affair with her.
  • He and his wife had five children in seven years, between 1838 and 1845.  Felix was dead in 1848, and is wife died in 1853. So the oldest son was an orphan by around age 13. The youngest daughter lost her father at around age 2 and her mother just a few years later. Living in the 1800s was not a pleasant experience for most people.

Mendelssohn was essentially conservative in musical style, and later his reputation as a great composer suffered in comparison to his more experimental contemporaries. That opinion has been completely reversed over time. Today the whole world loves his music, so as usual critics were wrong. They always are wrong.

Fingal’s Cave…

This is also know as the Hebrides Overture

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