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Daphnis et Chloé

THURSDAY, September 19, 2019

Famous for 107 years…

There are two phenomenally famous French Impressionist composers from the late 1800s and early 1900s – Debussy and Ravel. Impressionism refers to a style of music that came of age at that time. Both composers rejected the term, but the rest of the world adopted it, and it has stuck.

Debussy August 22, 1862 to March 25, 1918) was perhaps more revolutionary because he was born earlier than Ravel (March 7, 1875 to December 18, 1937) and had to fight against a very conservative, stuffy musical establishment that continually tried to tell him he literally was not allowed to write music the way he did, with new chords, new sounds, new ideas. Debussy challenged authority from early in his life, and his music was not fully accepted until close to the end of his life, tragically cut short from cancer.

It’s hard to believe today, when the whole world uses the sounds Debussy used, that he had to fight against the world to be accepted as a master composer.

Ravel was born about 13 years later and so his path was easier. Debussy had already opened things up a bit for him, so he gained acceptance more easily. There is a reason why his music often sounds similar to Debussy’s, because he was not born in an entirely different time, and of course he was born in the same country. But Ravel  also lived 19 years longer, which gave him a lot more time to be accepted as a composer with ideas that by that time were accepted. So in a way you could consider Ravel’s path in life a bit easier, and his musical language had more time to be comfortably developed and exploited.

If Debussy was arguably more revolutionary, Ravel’s was just as original in other ways, and his orchestrations remain the gold standard among composers who write programmatic music, and most of all film scores. So those who love big, epic movies with super heroes and a ton of action will already be familiar with a lot of Ravel’s sounds. If it sounds at times as though John Williams (Star Wars) is channeling Ravel, it’s because he has studied his music carefully and uses many of his sounds and techniques. All the great film composers study the music of Ravel. They have to.

Daphnis et Chloé is a ballet, but most of the time you will hear this as pure music. There are two main versions, the original, complete ballet music, and shorter “suites”. There are two suites, and for obvious reasons they are easier to listen to at first because they are much shorter than the full version for ballet. The Suite No. 2 is the most famous and most popular, and this is what I heard many years ago when I heard this music for the first time. The Suites are performed with and without choruses but sound best with choruses, which add a whole extra dimension to the music.

Here is a brief description of the ballet:

Daphnis et Chloé

Now the Suite No. 2, one of the best versions around, and it is with chorus:

Now, Suite No. 1, not heard as often but still very interesting.

And finally the complete ballet music, almost an hour long. This is the most interesting to me because nothing is cut, and there are things that are not in either Suite One or Suite Two. I’m not love with the chorus at the beginning, which at times is a bit flat, but the rest of the performance is superb, and it’s fun to watch all the players.

 

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Boléro

TUESDAY, September 17, 2019

Popular for 91 years…

This composition by Maurice Ravel remains one of the most famous pieces of music ever written. It consists of just one complex idea that is repeated over and over again, always with different instrumentation. Ravel late in life suffered from something very much Alzhiemer’s, not quite the same thing but similar in that he gradually lost his mental sharpness.

Many people have suggested that this mental decline had already started when he wrote Bolero, because of the way the music does the same thing over and over and over. They speculated that his increasing preoccupation with simple, repetitive ideas was linked to his decreasing faculties.

I find that idea unlikely. He composed other very fine music after Bolero, with all of the variety and mastery of his earlier music.

This is yet another astounding group of young musicians playing on an astonishingly high level of mastery. I am trying to pick videos that can be watched, because for developing musicians it is terribly important to see the instruments, the conductor and how it is all put together. These young musicians play Bolero a bit faster than we usually hear it, which the great conductor Toscanini also was famous for, so much so that Ravel got into an argument with him over the “too fast” tempo. Ravel wanted it slower. Toscanini told him that it wouldn’t work that way, and my vote is for the opinion of the the famous Italian conductor and not that of Ravel – who had a serious case of composer-tunnel-vision re interpretation.

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Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

(TUESDAY, September 17, 2019)

Famous for 296 years…

Pianist after pianist has played this this piece by Bach. It is from one of his Cantatas.

I have never taught it because it is difficult even to play the notes, and making it all flow is terribly hard. So no student of mine has ever had the skills to tackle it.

Dinu Lipatti suffered a tragic early death. He was born in 1917, coincidentally just about at the end of WWI. He died from cancer at age 33 and so his career ended tragically at a very young age. But his name and his sound remain legendary. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to be recorded in stereo, so the sound is rather primitive

This transcription was written by Myra Hess, another legendary pianist. She was born much earlier, in 1890, but she lived a much longer life and so was able to record when sound was much as it is today.

And now the same thing, done by Hess herself.

I have no preference here. Both these recordings are beyond my understanding in terms of touch, sensitivity and absolute mastery. If you do not play the piano you could easily think that two pianists are playing. That’s part of the magic. More magical to me is is that it sounds so easy and so natural that you could easily think that anyone could play this.

Finally the choral version, what Bach actually wrote:

 

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The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

(Sept 16, 2019)

Famous for 109 years.

In French: (…La fille aux cheveux de Lin)

Debussy wrote two books of Preludes. He did not want people to worry about his titles or his images, so to bring this point home he put the title at the end of the Preludes, using only a Roman numeral for the title. So what you see is: VIII, meaning Prelude 8. His titles were always in parentheses, following three dots.

This piece was immediately popular, and you can find transcriptions for trumpet, cello, full orchestra and so on. It is literally one of the most popular tunes ever written, with absolutely no doubt.

For reference:

This is a piano roll, so the sound of the piano is not the best, but most interesting of all to me is that he does not follow his own markings much at all. From that I know to take his dynamic markings with a huge grain of salt. He either chose not to play as softly as he indicated, or he was unable to. (It’s the latter, because he dynamic markings are absurd, as are many other things in his notation.)

There are even a couple of very important notes towards the end that Debussy either muffed or left out, and it’s not a good effect.

This version is in many ways much better, which is not an unusual thing. Composers are seldom the best performers of their own music.

And for a better recording, try this, but you have to either listen to all the Preludes or go to around 25:30 for Prelude 8.

The reason that often it is better to listen to great interpreters than composers is that they spend a lifetime studying the music and thinking about it deeply. Nothing that they do is without great thought. Even so, there are things about Debussy’s own playing that I like, and I would always keep in mind his own ideas. Michaelangeli is known as one of the great interpreters of Debussy.

Finally Stokowski’s transcription, which is amazing.

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Sorcerer’s Apprentice

(Sept 4, 2019)

Famous for 122 years…

This was already popular from the time it was composed, but the Disney film, “Fantasia”, made it wildly popular, and it remains so. Again you can hear how modern this sounds, because it sounds like it’s right out of Harry Potter, and the music for that was again written by John Williams.

Once again, the augmented chord is front and center, the most important chord in the piece. There is also a great use of the whole tone scale, which is simply like two augmented chords combined. There are countless great recordings of this piece, but for students this one may be most interesting because the players are so very young. It’s unbelievable to me that people this age play so well and with so much energy.

If you are interested for comparison, try one of the recordings with famous orchestras with famous conductors.

About Sorcerer’s Apprentice

This is the original.Be sure to listen to this, if you like the music, because this is far and away the best performance you will ever hear:

Today the sound is dated, but Disney and Stokowski teamed together to make Fantasia, and it was the first time most people anywhere in the world heard stereo. I first heard this in a theatre when I was a small boy, and I was mesmerized by the sound. We had never head anything like this. Ever. The first stereo recordings on records did not appear until the late 50s, and even then there were very few.

Sound was moving from one side to the other, and Stokowski did all sorts of unusual things with the music, which the animators had to sync to. Finally there is this, and to me this sound is pretty bad – I don’t know why – but you can see the animation. Try to imagine how people were amazed by this in 1940, the year Fantasia was first seen.

 

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Uranus, The Magician

(Sept 4, 2019)

Famous for 103 years…

I linked to another “planet” by Holst sometime in the last 12 months, but there are 8 planets in his suite. This also continues into Neptune, the last “planet”.

How strange that Pluto, which was not included at the time because it had not yet been discovered, is not longer considered a planet now. It got demoted to a planetoid, a word so new that my spell-checker does not recognize “planetoid” as a word. I chose this video because you get to see the players, and that is always interesting.

Here is the important thing for students learning about chords. Front and center is the augmented chord, the first chord you hear. No one used this chord more effectively than Holst.

About “The Planets

Here is the complete suite, all movements, and again I chose something for everyone to see.

This music, to my ears remains so fresh and altogether amazing that I’d wager no one hearing it for the first time would not know that it was not something composed by John Williams for Star Wars. Holst was one of the miracle orchestrators who inspired every top of film composer of the 20th and 21st centuries. Holst and Strauss are two composers who wrote film music, before there were even films.

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Comedian’s Galop

(Sept 4, 2019)

Famous for 80 years…

This is, in fact the most famous thing Kabalevsky ever wrote, and in addition to being used as the theme music for a game show, it has also been used many times in magic acts, particularly juggling.

About “The Comedians”

And here is the complete Suite, all movements, note that not one person commented on the site I linked to, taking only a moment to thank the person who posted it. Please note that a few people do all the work, and others can’t even be bothered to say thank you.

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Major Chords

Major Chords

Start with a perfect 5th then fill in a note in the middle but closer to the top key than the bottom, for ex.: C E G, F# A# C#. Get comfortable with that chord, then copy it to the other hand. Now play that chord with both hands. When you can do 12 of them, each with a different key on the bottom, you have root position major chords in their simplest form, also closed. Finally, learn the inversions.

View or Download Major Chords

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La Campanella

(Sept 2, 2019)

Famous for 168 years…

La Campanella means “The Bell”. It is named for the continuously repeated upper notes and is one of the most famous pieces of music ever written for piano, by Liszt. This pianist, Youri Egorov, is someone I’ve never heard of. I was looking for an exceptionally musical performance, and this one struck me as most interesting.

In contrast, here is a typical virtuoso performance that is all about playing faster than anyone else. I LOATHE this performance. It is a perfect example of everything I hate in playing today, making speed the only goal and completely masking anything interesting in the music.

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