Thursday, August 18, 2011

One Hit Wonders

This is a common phenomenon in both classical and popular music, worth some looking into. The composer of the earliest printed music for guitar--the four-course Renaissance guitar--was a fellow named Alonso Mudarra who died on April Fool's Day, 1580. His main instrument was the vihuela, an instrument similar to the guitar, but with six courses or pairs of strings. Much of his music is typical of the day: songs and fantasias. But he wrote one piece "imitating the harp in the manner of Ludovico" that is a real stunner. It is a free kind of toccata in a style that didn't become common until much later, in the Baroque. There are also some remarkable cross-relations combined with rhythmic syncopations towards the end. Nothing else by Mudarra is half as interesting. Here is a rather ferocious performance, on vihuela, by Julian Bream:
Henry Purcell was an English composer who lived from 1659 to 1695 and actually wrote quite a lot of good music, much of it for voices. He wrote sacred music as well as quite a lot of very bawdy catches. Pete Townshend of The Who cites Purcell as an influence on his writing. Purcell is known most of all for one chamber opera, Dido and Aeneas and particularly for one section from that opera, "Dido's Lament". The aria is preceded by a short recitative. The aria itself uses a chromatic descending bass line, repeated eleven times--a passacaglia. The idea of a varied melodic line over a repeated bass pattern was used frequently in the Baroque, by Bach especially. It also was a device used many times by Shostakovich in the 20th century. Here is the recitative and aria "Dido's Lament":
Purcell isn't quite a "one-hit wonder" as his other music is also performed, but two other Baroque composers pretty much are. Who could forget the famous Adagio by Tomaso Albinoni, noted Venetian composer of over fifty operas? Well, actually, that famous piece was not written by Albinoni, but by a 20th century musicologist and Albinoni biographer, Remo Giazotto in the 1950s. It may however, have been based on a fragmentary manuscript by Albinoni. Whoever really composed it, it is certainly a hit, finding its way into countless film and television soundtracks:
Then there is the case of Johann Pachelbel who lived from 1653 to 1706. He taught Johann Sebastian Bach's older brother, Johann Christof Bach, who in turn taught the young Sebastian. Pachelbel wrote an enormous amount of music, most of it connected with his duties as court organist and chamber musician. His Canon and Gigue in D major was first published only in 1919 and didn't become a 'hit' until the 1970s. Now it is ubiquitous at weddings. The piece is a canon at the unison for three violins over a repeated bass line:
This repeating harmonic pattern, suggested by the bass line:
...has been used many, many times in both classical and popular contexts. Handel, Haydn, Mozart and others have used it and it is even found in places like the piano solo George Martin composed for the song "In My Life" on Rubber Soul. The solo, only fifteen seconds long, starts at the 1:30 mark:
In fact, the harmonic progression has become so over-used in pop music that one comedian created a rant on the piece:
Heh, heh, heh! Since nothing can beat that great rant, I'll save more one-hit wonders for another post.

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