On Performing The Star-Spangled Banner

January 8, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Posted in History, Repertoire/Programming | 6 Comments
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Please note: The opinions presented here are those of the author only.
In 2005, the MENC launched The National Anthem Project. Their website has this to say about it:

In response to a 2004 Harris Interactive survey that showed two out of three Americans didn’t know the words to our national anthem, MENC: The National Association for Music Education created the “National Anthem Project: Restoring America’s Voice” campaign in March 2005 to re-teach the anthem while raising awareness of the importance of school music.

I wish I could say that I was surprised by the statistic that two-thirds of Americans don’t know the words. (We’ve all heard some of the anthem-performance-flop controversies of the recent past.) But forgetting the words is only part of the problem.

Here are four of the most common performance problems with the national anthem and how I think they should be “fixed”: Continue Reading On Performing The Star-Spangled Banner…

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Les Six & the Sixth

March 23, 2011 at 10:04 am | Posted in Composers, Concerts, History | Leave a comment

This Sunday afternoon, the IWS will present a concert titled “Les Six & the Sixth” that features France’s “Les Six” (or Groupe des six) composers. Perhaps you’ve heard of “The Five,” a group of five Russian composers who met in St. Petersburg to try to create a specific form of Russian art music. (Can you name The Five without looking? Answers at the end.) Les Six was so named in 1920 as a comparison to The Five by music critic Henri Collet.

Though these six composers had disparate musical backgrounds, tastes, and expectations, they were joined by a reaction against German Romanticism, at least in the beginning. They were also friends and frequent collaborators. All six officially collaborated on only one project, a collection of solo piano music called L’album des six, published in 1920.

Here, then, is some brief background information for each of Les Six composers, whose music you can hear this Sunday at 3:00 at the Palladium in Carmel, Indiana. You’ll also hear what we believe will be the Indiana premiere of James’ Barnes Sixth Symphony, written in 2008.

Georges Auric 1899–1983

Georges Auric was a child prodigy whose compositions were first being published when he was only 15 years old. By the time he was 20, he had established himself as a composer and arranger of stage music, especially ballets and incidental music for other stage productions. When Jean Cocteau, Auric’s friend and one of the major influences of Les Six, started making movies in the early 1930s, Auric went with him and started writing movie scores. His success in French and British films led him to writing movie scores for Hollywood. Some of his more well-known successes were Beauty and the Beast (1946), Moulin Rouge (1952), Roman Holiday (1953), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956).

In 1962, he became director of the Opéra National de Paris and gave up writing for motion pictures. He continued to produce new chamber works, especially for winds, until his death in 1983.

Louis Durey 1888–1979

Louis Durey was a late bloomer, musically speaking. He didn’t decide to pursue a career in music until he was 19, when he was inspired by a performance of a piece by Claude Debussy. He was mostly self-taught, but his music caught the attention of Maurice Ravel, who introduced him to his publisher. Durey’s extreme left-wing views ultimately held him back from what might otherwise have been a more successful career. After the Nazi occupation of World War II, during which he was an active member of the French Resistance, Durey joined a group of other hard-line communist composers who wrote in accordance with communist doctrines of art, which required their music to be of mass appeal. His uncompromising adherence to these political tenets ultimately hindered his career. Though he composed throughout his life, nothing he wrote after World War II met with either popular or critical success.

Arthur Honegger 1892–1955

Born in Le Havre to Swiss parents, Arthur Honegger’s first foray into music was with the violin. He eventually studied in Paris, joining Les Six in 1920 and shooting into the limelight with his dramatic choral work Le Roi David. Honegger had some eccentric traits about him. A consummate lover of trains, Honegger’s 1923 Pacific 231 was a musical depiction of a locomotive, and it won him even more fame. In 1926, he married pianist Andrée Vaurabourg on condition that they maintain separate apartments; except for one failed attempt at living together and during the last year of Honegger’s life, when he could no longer live alone, this arrangement remained in effect.

Unlike his fellow Les Six friends’, Honegger’s work — especially his later works — showed the influence of German Romanticism, as well as Bachian counterpoint. Honegger was the first of Les Six to die, in 1955; Darius Milhaud dedicated his Fourth String Quartet and Francis Poulenc dedicated his Clarinet Sonata to the memory of Arthur Honegger. Honegger also always maintained his Swiss nationality, and he was honored at the end of the century by being featured on the Swiss 20-franc note.

Darius Milhaud 1892–1974

When Darius Milhaud joined Les Six in 1920, he was still looking for his musical voice. He found to during a trip to Harlem in 1922, when he heard “authentic” jazz for the first time. From that moment on, his music showed the influence of both jazz and polytonality, the simultaneous use of more than one key.

One of the twentieth century’s most prolific composers (his opus listing ends at 443), Milhaud wrote all genres of music, including ballets, operas, symphonies, vocal and choral music, film scores, and chamber music. He was also a well-known and well-respected teacher. The only Jewish composer of Les Six, Milhaud fled the coming Nazi occupation in 1939; he and his wife emigrated to America in 1940, and he took up a teaching position at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he mentored such musical greats as Dave Brubeck, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Burt Bacharach.

Francis Poulenc 1899–1963

Francis Poulenc’s mastery of music was largely self-taught. Though his earlier works during the 1910s gained the attention of Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Bartok, and others, he didn’t get his first taste of formal musical training until 1921, the year after Les Six was created. Throughout the 20s, his early work was marked by a musical irreverence common among Les Six. During the mid-30s, following the unexpected deaths of some close friends, he rediscovered his Roman Catholic faith, his compositions in turn became more austere, and he began writing more sacred works.

Poulenc had a lifelong fondness for wind instruments. He had intended to write a sonata for each of them but, alas, had finished only four — for flute, oboe, clarinet, and horn — when he died of a heart attack in 1963.

Germaine Tailleferre 1892–1983

The only woman in Les Six, Germaine Tailleferre was born Marcelle Taillefesse but changed her name when she was young to spite her father, who refused to support her musical aspirations. Tailleferre was a prolific composer, though just how prolific we may never know. Many of her works are considered lost, but some — like her dramatic ode “Sous les Rempart d’Athànes” and her ballet “La Nouvelle Cythère” — have been discovered in partial or condensed score and are currently being reorchestrated and revived, mostly through the work of Tailleferre scholar Paul Wehage.

Though her turbulent personal life — which included two failed marriages and taking guardianship of her granddaughter — hampered her success as a composer, she did continue composing right up until her death on November 7, 1983.

Which of Les Six composers do you enjoy playing or listening to most?

Answer: The Russian Five were Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and Cui.
Posted by Andy Hollandbeck

A Book for Every Musician’s Shelf: The Lexicon of Musical Invective

November 1, 2010 at 9:00 am | Posted in Books, History | 1 Comment
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Every musician, and especially every striving composer of any level of success, should have a copy of Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time as both a source of mirth and of commiseration.

Nicolas Slonimsky

Although Slonimsky was a composer, conductor, and pianist, he is more well-known and successful as a musical critic and historian — a meta-musician of a sort. He was the lead editor of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians for 34 years, from 1958 to 1992, was a keen music critic, and published numerous reference works that many musicians and especially music historians rely on today. Music Since 1900 catalogues almost every important musical event in the 20th century, and the Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns was a great influence on many 20th-century musicians and composers, from John Adams to Frank Zappa.

Slonimsky was well-known for his sense of humor. (The next time you get Baker’s in your hands, look up Slonimsky to see what he says about himself.) This humorous bent, added to his overarching musical knowledge, his mental stockpile of anecdotes, and the respect he had earned in the musical community, landed him on The Tonight Show sofa next to Johnny Carson a number of times.

Slonimsky was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 27, 1894, and died over 101 years later, on Christmas Day, 1995.

The Lexicon of Musical Invective

lexicon: The vocabulary of a subject
invective: Insulting or abusive language

Originally published in 1953, The Lexicon of Musical Invective, then, is a collection of abusive writings about the works of the world’s greatest composers. It begins with a 30-page explanatory essay called “Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar,” followed by a one-page explanation of “How the Lexicon Was Put Together and Who Helped.” The bulk of the book, then, consists of excerpts of abusive musical critiques pulled from diaries, letters, newspapers, and magazines, arranged alphabetically by the abused composers’ names.

Struggling composers can find here a place to commiserate and to be reminded that even the best composers couldn’t please everyone all the time. With a book like this, you can flip anywhere and just start reading, and you’ll find little insulting “gems” like this:

Berlioz is fantastic in the structure of his movements—unmeaningly so—and this (to say nothing of his crude and baseless method of harmonization, and his defiance of rule and common sense in part writing), renders his music necessarily tiresome and unattractive to a polite ear.
(Musical Examiner, London, June 1, 1844) [p. 58]

or

We believe that Shakespeare means Debussy’s ocean when he speaks of taking up arms against a sea of troubles. It may be possible, however, that in the transit to America, the title of this work has been changed. It is possible that Debussy did not intend to call it La Mer, but Le Mal de Mer, which would at once make the tone-picture as clear as day. It is a series of symphonic pictures of sea-sickness. . . .
(Louis Elson, Boston Daily Advertiser, April 22, 1907) [p. 94–95]

Depending on your own musical opinions, you might even find some agreement in the pages of this book. The works of Schoenberg, for example, still grate on the ears of some who may agree with an assessment like this:

The case of Arnold Schoenberg vs. the people (or vice versa, as the situation may be) is one of the most singular things in the history of music. For here is a composer—the only one with the possible exception of Charles Ives—who operates on the theory that if you know how to put a bunch of notes on a piece of score paper you are, presto, a composer. . . .
(Rudolph Elie, Boston Herald, November 11, 1950) [p. 165]

Regardless, The Lexicon of Musical Invective will leave you wondering what some of these critics were thinking, and what gall they had to put pen to paper to record their thoughts for posterity.

At the end of the book, you’ll find two indexes. The second is a standard index, but the first is by itself a joy to read. Called “The Invecticon,” and certainly couched in Slonimsky’s wry humor, it indexes specific insults hurled at the world’s composers, so that we find interest-piquing entries like this:

TONAL ANTICHRIST
Bruckner, 82
Wagner, 242

and

YOWL OF PAIN
Strauss, 194

Later editions might also include a supplement after the second index, offering more snarkiness aimed at Beethoven, Debussy, Puccini, Ravel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Webern.

ISBN10: 039332009X ISBN13: 978-0393320091
This most recent edition (August 2000, WW Norton & Co.) includes a foreword by Slonimsky’s intellectual and comedic heir, Peter Schikele
Call Number: ML3785 .S5 2000

How to Listen to Baroque Music

October 25, 2010 at 9:00 am | Posted in History | 2 Comments
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Not all “classical” music is created equal. I can enjoy just about any orchestral piece written after the mid-19th century, but go back farther than that — to the infancy and childhood of classical music — and I start to get fidgety. Baroque music in particular is difficult for me to enjoy. So when I landed an opportunity to write a classical music column for an upstart magazine, listening to baroque music seemed like the perfect topic, right?

The following article was first published in a magazine in the Boston area back in the early 2000s. It was the the first piece of writing I ever got paid for. Enjoy:


How to Listen to Baroque Music

Music lovers the world over attend millions of orchestra concerts every year to hear their favorite classical music. Or do they?

Classical music has come to mean any type of orchestral or chamber music, from Josquin Desprez’s sixteenth-century motets to Philip Glass’s twenty-first-century minimalism. Classical used in this sense means “traditional” and “established.”

But the specific (capital-C) Classical era in music was actually quite brief. It lasted approximately seventy-five years, from Bach’s death in 1750 to near Beethoven’s death in 1827. Before Classical music came the music of the Baroque era, perhaps the least understood and least appreciated of any Western musical style. Many music lovers find it difficult to interpret Baroque pieces, to understand the deeper meaning behind the music, and to find the joy in music that comes so readily from music of later periods.

If you don’t understand Baroque music, or find that you just don’t like it, you’re not alone. The upscale musical crowd of the Classical era looked down its collective nose at what it considered the old-fashioned, unemotional style of Baroque music. Even the word baroque was originally a pejorative term. Baroque comes from a Portuguese word for an imperfect and not particularly beautiful pearl. The term was picked up by critics of seventeenth-century art and architecture who found the style overly ornamental and decadent. The term eventually found its way into musicological circles, but not until the late eighteenth century, after the Baroque period in music had ended.

To speak of a musical era is not to speak of absolutes, of course. A musical era, such as the Classical or Romantic era, only approximates a certain time period in which a certain style of composition was predominant. And the Baroque era was no different. Musicologists disagree about the exact starting point of the Baroque era of music, but they generally agree that it began sometime in the early seventeenth century.

Before that time, during the Renaissance, music was only an extension of text, and instrumental music was almost exclusively a backdrop for vocalization. But as new musical instruments were developed, as a more universal system of tuning was created, and as the Church lost control of the fashions and sensibilities of the populace, styles changed. Instrumental music became less of a backdrop and found its own place in the musical world. Solo instruments came to the fore, supported by the harmonies of the basso continuo, comprising a harpsichord or organ and a low melodic instrument like the cello. As solo performances became popular, the cream naturally rose to the top: The Baroque era saw the first truly virtuosic musicians.

Unlike in later eras, the creation of music during the Baroque era centered on the performer (although the composer often was the performer), who was called upon to add trills, grace notes, vibrato — all sorts of ornaments that later musicologists, in a composer-centered music world, disdained.

During the Classical period, “old-fashioned” music from just a few decades previous was regarded as cold, unemotional, and overly decorative. And by Classical standards, it was. A principle of Baroque composition was that each piece, or each movement of a piece, should depict only a single emotion. Classical music thrived on juxtaposing opposing emotional tones using simple melodies, a technique taken to extremes during the Romantic era.

Also during the Classical era, music publishing houses began to pop up, which meant that a composer’s music could be played hundreds of miles away. Composers, then, took more control over their music, adding the ornaments that they believed would enhance their pieces. By Classical standards, Baroque music, which left so much in the hands of an improvising performer, was undercomposed. The center of music had shifted from the performers to the composers.

Because of this shift in fashion, the Baroque legacy was nearly lost (inasmuch as a musical style could ever be completely lost). Not until 1829, thirty-eight years after Mozart’s death and well into the Romantic era, did Baroque music make a comeback. In that year, Felix Mendelssohn reorchestrated Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion for the more modern instruments available in his time. The music was such a hit with the musicians that, with each rehearsal, the choir’s numbers grew, eventually expanding to three or four hundred voices. Much to Mendelssohn’s relief, the performance of this piece was so well-received that two more performances were scheduled almost immediately.

Mendelssohn’s success sparked a revival in the works of Bach, leading to a renewed interest in Baroque music as a whole, an interest which has continued to this day.

So the next time you’re faced with a night of music from Bach, Vivaldi, Rameau, or Telemann, instead of trying to decipher the differences between a fugue, a round, and a passacaglia, you may find more enjoyment trying to pick out the Baroque nuances and how they differ from the more common Classical and Romantic pieces that symphony orchestras play. Your program notes may help.

Remember that each Baroque piece, or each movement of a multi-movement piece, is intended to convey a single emotion. What emotion does a particular piece move within you? Also note the instrumentation that is used. With the exception of the violin, every instrument in the orchestra has seen improvements since the Baroque era. Did the musicians tote out “period instruments,” usually identifiable by a noticeably smaller number of keys, or was the piece reorchestrated to make use of more modern instruments’ ranges and tonal colors?

Finally, keep in mind that if the musicians use reproductions of the original written music — which you would expect from some of the top-notch orchestras — then a large amount of improvisation is going on. All those twitters and trills are merely hinted at by the composer, and the bulk of artistic expression rests on the performers themselves, much like jazz music today.

And if you still find your mind drifting away as the piece moves on, well, you always have Mendelssohn to blame.

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