Friday, November 30, 2012

One Composer's Thoughts

I think that I studied with a student of Robert Beaser, a composer named Robert F. Jones, from whom I commissioned a guitar duet in the late 1970s. I believe the cost of the commission was a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label. In any case, here is an interesting essay by Robert Beaser on the odd vocation of being a composer at this point in history:

I used to play his Mountain Songs for flute and guitar:

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54

Two years after the success of his 5th Symphony, which restored his credentials with the authorities and launched a new level of popularity with audiences, Shostakovich composed a new symphony. The Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54 was written in 1939 and premiered in November of that year in Leningrad. With the exception of the first symphony, a student effort, though a very successful one, and the 5th symphony, all of Shostakovich's symphonies to date have been experimental in one way or the other. The second and fourth are particularly so. Though keeping to his new more tonal or neo-classic style, the 6th symphony continues to experiment with form. It is a bit shorter than the 5th, at only thirty minutes, and is only three movements, in an unusual configuration.

  1. Largo
  2. Allegro
  3. Presto
It begins with a long slow movement featuring a somewhat twisted theme, ending with a pseudo-baroque trill. The second movement is a scherzo and the third a wild galop that almost reminds one of Rossini.

Some of the tension of the first movement of this symphony can be explained by the fact that while Shostakovich may have achieved a reprieve with his 5th symphony, the purges of Soviet society continued without letup. Prominent writers and other figures were brought to trial on trumped-up charges. The great poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested and sentenced to five years hard labor--conditions were so harsh he perished after a few months, in December 1938. The friend of Shostakovich, Vsevolod Meyerhold, an important actor, director and producer, was tried in one day and shot the next. Despite all this, Shostakovich was eager to get to work on his next symphony. A number of different plans were conceived and rejected, including a monumental work for chorus and soloists on the theme of Lenin. By the end of August enough was completed for him to play excerpts for some colleagues on piano and the instrumental version we know was coming to life. The music was finished in October and Shostakovich said he was particularly pleased with the last movement and its themes of "spring, joy, youth, lyricism." The first performance was a success and the finale was encored. Some critics were troubled by the lop-sided layout and it did not entirely fulfill their expectations. Mind you, the 5th symphony was a tough act to follow and at this point Shostakovich may well have felt that any symphony premiere that did not result in being sent to a labor camp was success enough!

Russian theorists have often looked at Shostakovich's music from a modal point of view and the main theme from the first movement of this symphony has been described as "lowered Phyrgian mode". Others have noted the presence of the octatonic mode, which alternates whole and half steps. These and other Russian modes often have a Phyrgian feel to them because they typically work by lowering several notes of the scale below where we normally expect. The great bulk of the theoretical work on Shostakovich has yet to be done and most of what has been done is in Russian only! But I expect, that, given the continued interest in Shostakovich, we will continue to work out some of how he constructed his music. For now, let's listen to the whole symphony:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Where's that Post?

I try to put up something everyday, but sometimes I just don't have time, like yesterday, and today. This looks like a post, I know, but it's going to be more of a teaser. I just finished writing over 3000 words of program notes for a three-concert guitar festival we are putting on in January. Some of my songs are going to be premiered in one of those concerts. But it took me days to write the notes. You see, I know too much about the guitar repertoire and it is hard for me to keep the notes within reason. It's like asking Dante to jot down a few notes about sin, or Hugh Hefner to just briefly reminisce about his girlfriends. It won't be brief!!

So I'm not going to give you a real post today, no energy left, but I will sketch out what I plan to be doing in the next few days or weeks. First of all, I'm going to finish my set of posts on the Shostakovich symphonies. I've done the first five here, here, here, here and here. Next I'm going to tackle the middle five symphonies from No. 6 to No. 10. These are some of the biggest and most challenging, so will take a bit of work. I'm also going to put up my performance of one of Léo Brouwer's most successful larger works for guitar, his El decameron negro in three movements.

And of course, as opportunity presents, I will offer some aesthetic observations on the good and bad music of the day.

So, keep an eye out. Let's end with a little Bach for fiber and substance! The St. John Passion is less well-known than Bach's St. Matthew Passion or his Mass in B minor. But that's an excellent reason to listen to it! This is just part 1, about 35 minutes.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Which Instruments are Hard to Play?

Sometimes you get asked how hard is such-and-such an instrument to play? How hard is it to play guitar? Or how hard is it to learn piano? Such questions are, without specifying a bit, impossible to answer. I don't play the piano, except I had a few lessons forty years ago. But I haven't practiced since. But I am perfectly capable of sitting down and sight-reading through the first prelude to the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach. Fairly slowly and with a few slips, I'm sure. And the fugue would be impossible. Why is this? Well, I know how to read music and I know where the notes are on the piano. The rest is just taking your time. I don't play the violin either, but if you asked me to play the first couple of measures of the Alban Berg violin concerto, no problem! Here they are:

UPDATE: Oops, I tried a shortcut that didn't work. Here is the opening of the violin part. All open strings:

Berg famously opens with just the open strings of the violin. I guess I should take a lesson in how to hold the bow first. If you asked me to play the rest of the concerto, though, not in a million years!

You see, it is not instruments that are hard or easy to play, it is the music written for them. There are a very few instruments that have proven to be so useful and so expressive and so capable that composers have chosen them over and over again, to use for the most challenging and expressive music. There are a zillion great violin concertos because the violin is an astonishingly capable instrument. What this means is that if you want to be a violinist, capable of playing this virtuosic repertoire, you need to start quite young (seven at the very latest), you need to have loads of musical potential, you need a wonderful teacher, you need a wonderful violin and you need to work very, very hard for a decade or two. And at the end of that time you might be able to do a good job playing the Berg violin concerto or the Tchaikovsky, or the Beethoven.

Instruments like the violin, the piano, the cello, even the guitar, are very difficult to master, not because of any characteristics of the instruments themselves, but because of the kind of music that has been written for them. Mind you, to play any orchestral instrument up to the standards of a professional orchestra is also pretty tough--just not quite as demanding as being a soloist.

Things in the pop world work a bit differently. Not to say that instrumental virtuosity isn't also part of the scene, but it does not dominate in the way it does in the classical world. A great pop vocalist is probably as much a great vocalist as is an opera singer, but the technical demands are quite different. A great guitar virtuoso like Eric Clapton is probably playing on a level of mastery that is the equal of nearly any classical musician. But you can't say the same of the rhythm guitarist in a reggae band who is destined to play pretty much the same rhythms his whole career.

Some instruments you might think are nothing to play, like the blues harp. But in the hands of a true master, you start to see that if you want to do what he can do, it will take a lot of work. But just about anyone can get some kind of tune out of a blues harp! Some instruments are easy to pick up and fool around on. I learned how to play the African thumb piano (mbira) well enough to play my part in a contemporary piece--but the part was simple.

Let's end by listening to the first movement of that violin concerto by Alban Berg:

Miscellanea: Choral Music

I've always loved the sound of a good choir. What a perfect medium! It is one that requires no expensive instruments, just a good director and some training. And what a repertoire! A thousand years of great music by all the best composers. Makes me want to rush off and write a choral piece right now.
There are even some pieces for choir and guitar--one by Castelnuovo-Tedesco as I recall. In any case, here is a touching piece for choir, a cover of a song by Tears for Fears. The idea of having the performers disappear bit by bit originated with Joseph Haydn in his "Farewell" Symphony. This is the Wuppertal Boys Choir from Germany:

Another wonderful choir video came from a few years ago when a Canadian choir suddenly appeared in a shopping mall. This one is worth putting up again:

You see, it works both ways, from many to one or from one to many.

While we are doing choral music, let's end with a piece by a composer who really is like none other. Arvo Pärt was born in Estonia in 1935 and writes music that seems truly timeless. Steve Reich commented once that "His music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion". Here is a piece for mixed choir from 1989: Magnificat.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Moorish Cloth

Just as a follow-up to my post yesterday about going over some of my songs with Roberto Limón, I thought you might like to hear a little of him and soprano Chérie Hughes. He gave me a small sample CD which I hope he won't mind me sharing with you.

Two of the songs on the CD are by Manuel de Falla, prehaps the greatest Spanish composer, though not without a great deal of competition. He was born in 1876 in Cádiz, the heart of Andalucia, but died in exile in Argentina in 1946, one of the many artists who fled Spain after the civil war of 1936-39. Though deeply imbued with the music of Andalucia, Falla drew on many influences, especially that of French music, following his studies in Paris in the years just before the First World War. He is perhaps most famous for two fine ballets, El Amor Brujo (of which there is also a brilliant film version) and El Sombrero de tres picos. He wrote just one piece for guitar, a Homenaje on the death of Debussy, but it is an extremely well-crafted work. He is also renowned for a brilliant set of songs for voice and piano in the style of Spanish popular song. The accompaniments are so evocative of the guitar that they are often heard in that transcription. Unfortunately, thought they sound just like guitar music, they are not written so comfortably, so it takes a very fine guitarist to bring them off--oh, and singer too, of course!

Here are Chérie Hughes and Roberto Limón with El paño moruno, the Moorish cloth.

Al paño fino, en la tienda,
una mancha le cayó;
Por menos precio se vende,
Porque perdió su valor.
 On the fine cloth in the store
 a stain has fallen;
 It sells at a lesser price,
 because it has lost its value.


You might imagine how much I'm looking forward to their performance
of my Songs from the Poets!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Working on Music

I had an excellent and productive day today. I spent the morning meeting with Roberto Limón, an excellent guitarist--possibly the best in Mexico and certainly the leading performer of new music. He told me that he has had eighty-five pieces written for him: concertos, chamber music and solo works. I just made a contribution myself: obviously he needs more music!

We met because he and soprano Cherie Hughes are going to be premiering six songs from my Songs from the Poets series here in San Miguel de Allende in January as part of the Pro Musica concert series. He wanted to go over some things in the songs that were novel, such as my use of a paper clip attached to a bass string in the song "Listening to a Monk from Shu Playing the Lute" on a poem by Li Po, the famous Tang dynasty poet and drunk. I used the paper-clip effect, which is quite wonderful, to imitate the sound of a distant Chinese bell. There is a trick to it, which I was happy to reveal to Roberto. Other questions about the songs had to do with tempo, where a sudden change in sonority fell and places where Roberto felt he really needed to depart from the way I had organized the slurs and accents. This was in the last-written song, on a poem by John Donne called "Song: Goe and Catch a Falling Starre". The song has a strongly rhythmic vocal line with lots of hemiola and an unrelenting guitar obbligato underneath. Roberto said it reminded him of that ferocious gigue to the 2nd English Suite by Bach, which had never occurred to me. The whole thing just popped into my head in the shower one day. But I realized that he really understood it, so was happy to give him full freedom to work out those slurs and accents as he thought best. People rarely realize that the composer is often not the best interpreter of their music. Listening to Léo Brouwer, normally a spectacular performer, play his own Elogio de la Danza in concert convinced me of that. So I am eager to hear how Roberto is going to work out that obbligato. I do notice one thing: in his copy of the score is about the most meticulous right and left hand fingering I have ever seen. Oh, here is that Bach Gigue:

I used to play that suite quite a lot with a flute-player who apparently had no need to breathe, so some of its DNA must have crept into my song.

I also gave Roberto copies of my two completed suites for guitar and fumbled my way through bits of most of the movements to give him an idea. He was quite taken with the Suite No. 2 and promises to premiere it in the second half of next year. Sounds like a great idea to me! Roberto is that rare musician who loves and understands new music. Of course, my music is very much related to music of the past; so much so that out of the nine movements of the two suites, I only made the claim that two were absolutely original and unique to the guitar: one because it is based on a kind of synthesis of 6th century chant and Chopin's fioratura and the other because it comes out of the experience of wandering around outside at dawn in a Canadian winter when the temperature is around 50º below zero--and I'm pretty sure that hasn't been depicted on guitar before.

I'll try and put together some clips of Roberto so you can hear his playing and, after January, I hope to have some of my songs in the can, performed by him and Cherie Hugues.

Wonderful stuff, music...

Saturday, November 24, 2012

New Forbes Music Blog

I've been very under the radar the last few days, in recovery mode. Yes, I had a (fairly mild) heart attack a couple of weeks ago and it will take a while to get my energy back. But I just ran into one thing that was so 'stimulating' that I have to write about it. Forbes has a new music blog. Forbes, magazine of millionaires, billionaires and lists of millionaires and billionaires. These folks should be, if anyone is, the patrons of the serious music of our time. Let's have a look at that blog to see what it reveals. Hello to Michele Catalano who has a thin resumé as a writer. She's not just out of high school as she has a son--she just writes as if she were. Here's the blog. Here is an extended quote; please hold on to something in case you lose your balance:
I write about music because I write about life. The two things are intrinsically meshed with each other and I hope it will be evident in each piece I write that my relationship with music is a very personal one. I welcome you into this part of my world, into the space where I hope I can share my sacred relationship with music and all the musical things I believe with you.
What do I believe?
I believe Queens of the Stone Age are the best rock band around. I believe in 80s west coast punk. I believe 80s east coast hardcore is better than 80s east coast straight edge, but not by much. I believe Incubus was a better band before Make Yourself, that John Darnielle is the greatest storyteller in music and that people just don’t understand My Chemical Romance. I believe in remembering my roots and dragging out my Who, Doors and Zeppelin albums every once in a while. I believe in old, scratchy vinyl and the passion of a cassette mix tape. I believe music critics should be more honest which is why I will tell you how much I love boy bands and pop music. I believe that everyone has a skeleton in their musical closet that looks like Korn and they should let that closet door hang open once in while. I believe “Mmmbop” is the single greatest pop song ever made.
This kind of stuff is ok, sure. It's what used to appear in the teen-pop mags like RAVE or TOP-BOYS or Creem or Teen-Beat or Crawdaddy and hundreds of others. It was all about the cool of naming the new names who were cool because they were new. The quote above, by the way, goes on for much longer than you would think in exactly the same vein. For the life of me all I can visualize is Michele, writhing around on her bed, listening to her iPod on shuffle, giggling and touching herself. That's the kind of activity that produces this kind of prose.

Now Forbes is a magazine presumably read by business people, the affluent or would-be affluent, movers and possibly shakers. My question is, what could these people possibly derive from reading one sentence of this half-baked recitation of names with whom they associate no known musical sound?

I've been a musician for over forty years and except for the Who, Doors and Zeppelin, have heard of not one single one of these names. Wait, I think I heard the name Korn once. Now presumably all these names are deliciously meaningful to the right demographic which has got to be fourteen year old girls, of whom ol' Michele Catalano is trying her best to be a facsimile. But why, in the name of all that's holy, would any reader of Forbes have the slightest interest in any of this? Why!?!

Does an editor need to be fired somewhere? Or, shudder, is it the case that this is the music suitable to the attention of the wealthy and powerful? If that's the case then that would go some way towards explaining why the world's economy is going down the crapper. If the people who read Forbes are spending their time reading that "Mmmbop" is the single greatest pop song ever made, then we are in most desperate need of a new aristocracy. STAT!

The leaders of the economic system of the world are listening to: "Mmmbop"?

Back in the days when the aristocracy ran things with an iron hand, at least people like Frederick the Great  listened to stuff like this:

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Townsend: Granadinas

After several symphonies by Shostakovich, I thought something rather lighter might be in order! The various flamenco genres, called palos, are akin to the ragas of India in that they comprise a rhythmic pattern as well as a particular mode and characteristic motifs. The Granadinas belong to the fandango family of palos. It was originally danceable, but now is much slower, freer and nearly always heard as a guitar solo.

My version of the Granadinas, I have accompanied with several photos of the city of Granada.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, op 47

If Shostakovich had halted his work as a composer after the condemnation of 1936, or simply pulled back and tried to do no more than write in the approved socialist realist style, we would probably hardly know his name today. As a composer he had not quite found his mature style yet and the works up to this point are uneven and tend to the turgid.

The situation in the Soviet Union was dire indeed: apart from the ever-increasing control of the arts by organs of the state, this was the time of the Great Terror when thousands were executed and millions sent to labor camps in Siberia. Several people close to Shostakovich were among them: his brother-in-law was arrested and his mother-in-law sent to a labor camp. He knew a high-ranking member of the NKVD, Vyacheslav Dombrowsky, who was a violinist and music-lover, and hoped that he might afford some protection, but he was shot and his wife sent to a labor camp.

But it was not Stalin's intention to simply destroy Shostakovich, who was, after all, the Soviet Union's greatest composer, but rather to bring him to heel. To this end Shostakovich was either forced to write (or had written for him) an article in a Moscow newspaper in which he describes his upcoming Symphony No. 5 as "a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism." From now on his music would at least purport to be socialist realist in style. The Composer's Union gave this description:
The main attention of the Soviet composer must be directed towards the victorious progressive principles of reality, towards all that is heroic, bright and beautiful. This distinguishes the spiritual world of Soviet man and must be embodied in musical images of beauty and strength. Socialist realism demands an implacable struggle against the folk-negating modernist directions that are typical of the decay of contemporary bourgeois art, against subservience and servility towards modern bourgeois culture.
The thing to understand here is that, despite claims in a famous book by Volkov, Shostakovich was in no sense a dissident. He described himself as "Stalin's monkey". By Stalin's time there were no more dissidents; they were long since shot or sent off to labor camp. They were not indulged. No-one, no matter how talented an artist, spoke truth to power in Stalin's Russia. So when, a few months after withdrawing his Symphony No. 4, Shostakovich began composition of a new symphony, his aim was to survive, to be accepted back into the good graces of the regime.

The Symphony No. 5 was begun in April 1937 and completed in July. The premiere was in November and it is this work that is the first of Shostakovich's great, mature masterpieces. The symphony was a huge success with the audience and, after some initial hesitation, accepted by the critics and arts bureaucrats as a successful example of socialist realism. What did Shostakovich do? This symphony is shorter and more tonal than the previous one. It has much clearer and therefore expressive formal structure and the themes are more expressive. Where the 4th Symphony is still an experimental work, the 5th is not. The challenge he faced caused him to upend and reconstruct his musical style. The style of the symphony is sometimes described as a kind of "doubleness". On the one hand, it captures the suffering and oppression of the Soviet people, especially in the lament of the slow movement, but on the other hand, with the stirring and brilliant use of the brass and percussion, it projects the heroic classicism that the regime was looking for. Here is an excellent Wikipedia article on the work and here is an excellent website courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony that displays the main themes of each movement.

There are four movements:

  1. Moderato opening with a fierce dotted figure in close imitation followed by a haunting, descending melody on a Phyrgian/whole tone scale built on D. The whole movement will use these two themes.
  2. Allegretto, a walz-like scherzo using variations on the first movement themes.
  3. Largo, a dark slow movement using no brass that recalls Russian funeral music
  4. Allegro non troppo in sonata allegro form with the finale in D major

Now let's listen. UPDATE: Replaced Jansons and the Bayerischen Rundfunks with Valery Gergiev and the BBCSO:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, op 43

The Symphony No. 4 in C minor is an enormous advance over the first three symphonies, which are, frankly, rather slight works. One indication of the difference is that the 4th symphony is nearly equal in length to the first three symphonies put together. Before going on to talk about the symphony, I want to backtrack a bit and give some of the context. One of the most important elements is the political reaction to his first really successful opera.

We think of Shostakovich as being an outstanding composer of symphonies, string quartets and concertos. But he might also have become known as a great opera composer as well. After the early absurdist opera The Nose, in 1930 he embarked on a new project with no commission in hand. The text he chose was a short story from 1864 by Nikolai Leskov: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a lurid tale of a bored, frustrated and sexually unfulfilled wife of a provincial merchant. She takes a lover and in order to maintain the liaison, commits a series of murders with her lover. The opera was complete by August 1932 and was immediately accepted for performance in both Moscow and Leningrad. Here is Act 1, scene 1, just to give you an idea.

I think there is no doubt that Shostakovich had great gifts for musical drama: he wrote a number of very successful ballets and innumerable film scores. But this, only his second opera, would also be his last. Initially it was an enormous success with theater people, critics and the public. It was regarded as a huge milestone in Soviet music. Within two years it saw productions worldwide.

In December 1935 a new production of Lady Macbeth was unveiled at the Bolshoy in Moscow and at the same time a work by a young composer, Ivan Dzerzhinsky's The Quiet Don, was also being performed. On the 17th of January Joseph Stalin, Vyascheslav Molotov and other high-ranking officials decided to attend Dzerzhinsky's opera. The composer and director were summoned to Stalin's box to receive a few criticisms of the production, but also Stalin's blessing. A few days later Stalin and his entourage attended a performance of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth, but this time, Stalin and his associates left before the end and Shostakovich was not summoned to meet with Stalin personally. Instead, two days later an unsigned editorial (indicating that it was official policy) appeared in Pravda, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The piece was entitled "Muddle Instead of Music" and was a vicious attack on Lady Macbeth.
From the very first moment of the opera the listener is flabbergasted by the deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds. Snatches of melody, embryos of a musical phrase drown, struggle free and disappear again in the din, the grinding, the squealing.
This kind of music was condemned as 'coarse naturalism' or 'formalism' whereas the Soviet masses were assumed to demand a genuine, simple, accessible musical language: what became known as socialist realism. This editorial was followed by another, condemning Shostakovich's ballet The Limpid Stream. For Shostakovich, until this moment the golden child of Soviet music, things would never be the same. Now he was cast as a pernicious purveyor of cultural depravity.

Sometime in 1935, Shostakovich had begun work on his monumental Symphony No. 4, therefore it was planned out before the Lady Macbeth scandal. By April or May 1936 the work was complete. It was a huge symphony, only the 7th would be longer, and it required the largest forces to perform, on the order of 125 musicians. It was the fruit of long study of Mahler's symphonies. There are three movements, two large framing movements, a half hour long each, and a short, central movement.

The premiere of the symphony by the Leningrad Philharmonic was scheduled for December 1936. An emissary of the Union of Composers was sent to pressure Shostakovich to withdraw the symphony. There are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened, but there was no performance and the premiere did not take place until 1961, years after the death of Stalin. It was undoubtedly the case that allowing the performance to go forward might have been very dangerous indeed for Shostakovich, who for years after his condemnation, kept a suitcase always packed in case he was arrested in the middle of the night and sent off to who knows where.

Before saying anything more, let's listen to the symphony. Here is Mariss Jansons with the Bayerischen Rundfunks:

The form of the symphony is famously problematic. Composers such as Shostakovich were trained in the basic classical forms such as the song form, rondo form and sonata allegro. In the first movement of the 4th Symphony, Shostakovich goes to great lengths to obscure the sonata form so much so that to a casual listener the movement seems like a free fantasia. Some things to note: the frenetic string fugato at the 15' mark is actually a development of the first theme. The second movement is a Mahler-like intermezzo in rondo form. Rondo, by the way, is a form where a theme keeps returning, interspersed with variations and developments: ABACADA. The third movement begins with a funeral march that again recalls Mahler. After that there are a number of waltz-like episodes, some quite whimsical, before the ending, a seven minute coda of great intensity in which the brass and percussion play a leading role.

Shostakovich's own intention, as shared with friends, was to write a work without following any known models; that freely sought to pursue the musical ideas themselves. This was perhaps the last symphony in which he felt free to do that: from the 5th Symphony on, there were always political dangers to be kept in mind...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Electronic Dance Music, which seems to be wiping out all other forms of musical discourse at the moment, honestly makes one long for the profundity of the early work of Britney Spears. Here is an article about a recent gathering. One of the superstars of the genre is Hardwell and here is one of his live shows:

This is big, money-making stuff as you can tell just from the set. Well, and the size of the crowd. His method is to create a basic rhythmic texture which builds into fierce climaxes by simple doubling and re-doubling the speed of the subdivisions--the same method used in Psy's recent "Gangnam Style". But this is a long form; it goes on for over an hour with lots of contrasts and cuts. About six minutes in you will notice a one-verse quote from Gotye's recent hit "Somebody that I used to know". Other songs are also quoted. As the show goes on, Satyr-like figures appear to perform acrobatic stunts. This is almost purely somatic music, appealing to the body. Amazing how vacuous it is! It makes Metallica, N.W.A or Jay-Z seem like Bob Dylan--or Franz Schubert for that matter. The underlying tempo, despite the contrasts, seems to be right around the ubiquitous 120 beats per minute that I noticed before with this and other electronic-based music.

What it oddly reminds me of is the Roman descendent of the Greek Satyr plays, but that is probably because of the version shown in the television series Roma, plus the satyr costumes. Everyone is having a remarkably fine time. So what's wrong with it? Apart from the vacuity and vulgar gaity? Nada...

As Greg House once said, "If you're happy, I'm ... " [long pause and then he just walks away]

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, op 20 "The First of May"

Shostakovich was blessed with great productivity as a composer. Not for him those long, dry spells common to some other composers. After the Second Symphony, he became involved in both film scores and intermezzo music for the theater. In early 1929 he was commissioned to write the score for the film The New Babylon, the story of the Paris Commune of 1871. After viewing and studying the film and making detailed notes on the timing of each scene, two weeks later he delivered the completed piano score! At around the same time he wrote incidental music for Vladimir Mayakovsky's new play The Bedbug. In the summer of 1929, Shostakovich took a leisurely cruise along the Black Sea coast and started work on a new symphony, the Third. Over the same six-week 'vacation', he also worked on a ballet, Dinamiada.

There is not a lot of background information available about the Third Symphony. Its composition and structure mirrors that of the Second Symphony. It is in one uninterrupted movement, in four sections, the last of which is a choral setting. The Third was intended to be a more peaceful account of construction as opposed to the struggle depicted in the Second. Shostakovich even acknowledged the influence of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. But for all this, there are still real experimental elements in the symphony. There are lots of themes, for example, but as Shostakovich pointed out, none are repeated. Not surprisingly, there are elements that also reflect the film and theater music he was also composing. The symphony was premiered on 21 January 1930, to coincide with the anniversary of Lenin's death. It was repeated the next day and the reception was positive on both occasions. Here is the opening of the text of the choral setting by Semyon Kirsanov:

On the very first May Day
a torch was thrown into the past
a spark, growing into a fire,
and a flame enveloped the forest.
With the drooping fir tree's ears
the forest listened to the voices and noises
of the new May Day parade

And here is a performance of the whole symphony:

The choral finale certainly seems to have served its purpose, though it does not sound so impressive to us today. But those instrumental sections leading up to it contain some very interesting hints to Shostakovich's future symphonic music. The handling of the winds and brass is particularly impressive and the percussion plays a large part. But how do you hold a piece together if you aren't going to repeat themes? The leading Russian musicologist and critic of the time Boris Asafyev (1884 - 1949) offers some interesting ideas. He described this symphony as "practically the only attempt to produce a symphony from the oratory of revolution, from the atmosphere and intonations of the orators." That word, 'intonation' refers to a particularly Russian theory of musical expression about which there is very little written in English. The general idea is that in musical melodies you can give a suggestion of the rising and falling expression found in spoken language. This idea, by the way, was very important in the music of both the Czech Leoš Janáček and the Russian Modest Mussorgsky. Perhaps you can hear something of this in the symphony?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Here's an interesting story from NPR about what parts of the brain are involved in musical memory. Once you read through the whole thing it is not quite as interesting as it seemed at first. It looks as if the brain science people have finally noticed what music teachers have long been calling 'motor memory'. This is the kind of memory that keeps your fingers moving to the right place even if your mind wanders. We didn't actually need to have it confirmed since we have been using all along, but thanks anyway brain science people.


It is extremely rare to read any original writing about harmony these days. There are several reasons for this:

  1. There are more drones than interesting harmonies being written
  2. Composers that do have a new take on harmony keep it a trade secret
  3. This is more the age of rhythm than the age of harmony
But  I did just run across a quite original essay on harmony called European Polyphony and Low Tech Brain Hacking. Bear in mind that the essay doesn't seem to have much to do with European polyphony and never quite makes clear what "brain hacking" is and seems confused about much else. But, original, yep.


Let's hear a couple of African musical stars. But I promise you, no monkeys and no bananas here--these are serious musicians. On the left in the video is the Malian guitarist and singer Boubacar “KarKar” Traoré and on the right is Ali Farke Touré, also from Mali. The song is called "Diarabi".

It is amazing how much dignity and expression even very simple music can have.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Canadian Requiem

A fascinating story in the Globe and Mail reveals that serious music can still be written for serious purpose. Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation was commissioned by the Calgary Symphony and performed last Saturday. The article focuses on the Canadian poet who wrote the libretto, Suzanne Steele. Out of a fourteen paragraph story the composer, Jeffrey Ryan, isn't even mentioned until the tenth paragraph. Isn't this terribly odd? I know classical music is in rough shape these days, with plummeting sales, orchestras locked-out or on strike and other signs of an art form just disappearing off the culture's radar screen. But isn't the composer the key creative element in a requiem? Of course, in the setting of the traditional text to the Catholic Mass, such as Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, one expects no special mention of the libretto because it is liturgical.

The closest relative to this new requiem is probably Benjamin Britten's War Requiem of 1962. It uses the traditional Latin texts interspersed with poems by Wilfred Owen. However, we do not refer to it as the Wilfred Owen War Requiem with music by Benjamin Britten. Here is an excerpt:

One of our Percussionist Colleagues

From New Scientist comes this article about an update to the Roland programmable drum machine of the 80s.

It's worth it just to hear the demonstration.

Sorry for the Break

I haven't put up a post for a few days and the reason was, I taken by surprise by a medical crisis and found myself in intensive care for a few days. I'm on the mend now and feeling much better, but I won't be posting much for a few more days. For some odd reason, my doctor thinks I need to take it easy.

When I do pick up where I left off, I will continue with my series on the Shostakovich symphonies and we are very soon going to get to the really interesting ones. I also have some more of my recordings to put up including a three-movement piece by Leo Brouwer and some Bach.

And I trust there will be more wry glimpses at our less serious colleagues from time to time. So check back in a few days.

Best wishes to all my readers,

Bryan Townsend

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 2

Shostakovich's first symphony, despite its high quality, is still the work of a young person absorbing the tradition, though in an individual fashion, to be sure. His second symphony is quite a different kind of music. At the time, 1927, the Soviet Union was young and this piece was written to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It was a time of transition, of experiment, and the one moment in cultural history when the Soviet Union was very open to the Western avant-garde. It was a kind of "zero hour" when everything seemed possible and artists approached their work as a blank slate. This kind of experimentation was rife in all the arts. Around the time of the composition of the second symphony Shostakovich began his first opera, an absurdist piece called The Nose based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol.

The Symphony No. 2 in B major, op 14, subtitled To October, was Shostakovich's first official commission. It was offered by the Propaganda Division of the State Publisher Music Section so it is the first example in his work of the intersection between music and politics that so plagued him in later years. He did not have a great deal of enthusiasm for the work while he was composing it and he was particularly disappointed in the poor quality of the text by Alexander Bezïmensky. Here is the first verse:

We marched, we asked for work and bread.
Our hearts were gripped in a vice of anguish.
Factory chimneys towered up towards the sky
Like hands, powerless to clench a fist.
Terrible were the names of our shackles:
Silence, suffering, oppression.

This is, like Beethoven's 9th Symphony, a hybrid--an instrumental work that ends with a choral setting. It is in one large movement about twenty minutes long, in four sections. The mysterious beginning, seeming to coalesce out of primordial nothingness, after about five minutes turns from a Largo into a frenzied Allegro molto, where solo violin, clarinet and bassoon execute a kind of madcap fugue that becomes thirteen independent lines of counterpoint. This is the kind of texture-music that in a much more dissonant form became prominent with a number of composers in Europe after the Second World War. The final choral section comes as a bit of a shock as it re-enacts the feeling of revolutionary mass spectacles.

It is probably safe to say that this, along with the similarly conceived third symphony of two years later, is the least often performed of his symphonies. Though it is fascinating to hear the genesis of some ideas he will later hone and perfect in their raw form, the symphony is too much of a melange of styles and textures to be really satisfying. Well worth hearing a couple of times, though!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1

A commentor mentioned the other day that he didn't know the Shostakovich symphonies nearly as well as the string quartets. My experience was different as I did a graduate seminar in the symphonies and only much later got to know the string quartets. I did a series of posts on the quartets, starting here. But I haven't paid the same attention to the symphonies apart from this brief post. So I propose to do a post on each of the fifteen symphonies.

Shostakovich, age 19

We sometimes forget that Shostakovich was close to being a child prodigy. His Symphony No. 1 was written when he was merely nineteen years old and is very much part of the standard symphonic repertoire. There are very few symphonies written by someone so young of which this could be said. Beethoven's first symphony, for example, dates from when he was thirty years old. Mind you, Mozart's first symphony, K. 16 in E flat major, dates from 1764 when he was all of eight years old. However, it is certainly not standard orchestral repertoire, only appearing in integral recordings of all Mozart's symphonies.

Young Shostakovich, "Mitya" as he was called, attended the Petrograd Conservatory beginning in 1919. First, something about names: Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, went to the conservatory in Petrograd and spent much of his career in Leningrad. But these are all the same place! In 1914 the name was changed to Petrograd and in 1924, around the time of the composition of Shostakovich's first symphony, changed again to Leningrad. In 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was changed back to St. Petersburg.

At the conservatory he was both a piano major, giving many performances of virtuoso repertoire, and a composition major. At fifteen, Shostakovich performed the "Hammerklavier" sonata of Beethoven, an extremely challenging work. At the time Alexander Glazunov, the composer, was head of the conservatory and a great supporter of Mitya. His composition teacher was Maximilian Steinberg, son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, who gave him a thorough grounding in harmony and a sense of aesthetic taste. In January of 1924 he began an assignment for Steinberg's class: the composition of a symphony. On seeing the first sketches for the scherzo, Steinberg was very critical, calling it 'grotesque'. After some starts and stops, the finale giving him particular trouble, the symphony was completed in April of 1925 and given its premiere a little over a year later by the Leningrad Philharmonic. There are four movements, the scherzo coming second:

  1. Allegretto - Allegro non troppo
  2. Allegro - meno mosso - Allegro - meno mosso
  3. Lento - Largo - Lento (attaca)
  4. Allegro molto - Lento - Allegro molto - Meno mosso - Allegro molto - Molto meno mosso - Adagio
Though the first movement is in conventional sonata form, it has a bit of the air of the vaudeville and theatre music that Shostakovich was playing to accompany silent films--something he was driven to to contribute to family after the death of his father a few years before. The second movement is the scherzo, possibly based on the one he was previously criticized for. The slow third movement begins with a solo for oboe and features a quote from Wagner's Sigfried. The last movement, written in one furious week, features a tympani solo and may show some influence of Stravinsky's Petrushka in the fact that the symphony has a piano part and also in its sometimes satirical tone.

The premiere of the symphony, in May 1926, was a huge success and a great beginning to his career. This premiere was followed a year later by a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic and a year after that by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Let me hasten to say that both of these highly-esteemed orchestras were not in the habit of performing music written by conservatory students from the Soviet Union! Shostakovich, in this precocious work, had captured some of the spirit of the times. The first and second themes of the first movement are a cheeky march and a teasing waltz and the finale mocks the pathos of the slow movement. Perhaps his experience as a silent-film accompanist shows in the quick 'cuts' between sections and in the tendency to expressive extremes. Now let's listen to the piece:

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Carter, Henze, Barzun

Elliot Carter

I learn this morning that Elliot Carter just passed away. Here is the obituary in the Guardian. Carter, along with composers like Pierre Boulez and Brian Ferneyhough, was a pinnacle in the long trend in music towards maximalization of complexity. A major breakthrough for Carter was the premiere of his Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras in 1961. Here is the first part:

At the time fierce battles were being waged for and against music like this. Benjamin Britten, who wrote more traditionally, had talked about the role of the composer:
I do not write for posterity--in any case, the outlook for that is somewhat uncertain. I write music, now, in Aldeburgh, for people living there, and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it. But my music now has its roots in where I live and work.
On the other side, attacking Britten and praising Carter, was Stravinsky (or his ghost-writer, Robert Craft) who sneered at Britten, saying "nothing fails like success". Carter's music, on the other hand, was guaranteed to be historically important because it was revolutionary. Almost impossible to play, with a new metronome mark every measure, harmonically inscrutable and so complex that only a small circle of the enlightened could even hope to understand it, it was music whose role was the very opposite of Britten's: nothing succeeds like failure (to communicate)!

UPPERDATE: Stravinsky and a young Elliot Carter in conversation:

Hans Werner Henze

Just over a week ago, on October 27, Hans Werner Henze passed away. His sense of the role of the composer was quite similar to Britten's and he was, like Britten, an important opera composer. Early on he was part of the post-WWII avant-garde in Germany, sitting alongside Boulez and Bruno Maderna teaching the composition class at Darmstadt in 1955. But Henze became an apostate of the church of the avant-garde, later writing that:
Thanks to the initiative of Boulez and Stockhausen [Webern's aesthetic] had become institutionalized as official musical thinking whose maxims the body of lesser mortals now had to put into practice with religious devotion, esprit de corps and slavish obedience...
 Henze lived most of his life in Italy, where he found the climate, especially politically, more to his taste. He was a radical egalitarian in some ways, both appreciating the music of the Rolling Stones and writing in an unashamedly tonal style. He was also sympathetic to leftist causes and had attitudes towards the composer's role that foreshadow post-modernism.

Henze wrote quite a bit for guitar, some early Tientos and a later, larger set of pieces based on Shakespeare characters. He also wrote a kind of chamber opera called El Cimmaron for baritone, flute, guitar and percussion based on the autobiography of a Cuban slave. I got to know this piece quite well as I participated in the Montréal premiere and the West Coast premiere in both Vancouver and Victoria. Here is a photo of one of those rehearsals:

Alas, I no longer have recordings of my performances, but here is the beginning of the second half in a performance in Florence in 1990:

As you can see and hear, all the musicians play percussion instruments. The flute also plays mouth organ and the guitarist mbira or thumb piano.

UPDATE: Henze's Symphony No. 8, might be more representative of his style (or styles):

Jacques Barzun

On October 25, just two days before Henze, Jacques Barzun passed away. Here is his obituary. He was an astonishingly learnéd man, writing nearly forty books on history and culture. He had a particular attraction to music and wrote an excellent book on Berlioz, Berlioz and the Romantic Century. Unlike most writers on music who are not themselves professional musicians or musicologists, Barzun had a specialist's understanding of music, but could write for the lay reader. If you wanted to get a better understanding of the civilization of the West and where it is at present, you could do no better than to read his remarkable book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. Heck, if you are only going to read one book this year, make it that one! It was published in 2000 when Barzun was ninety-four years old. In honor of him, let's listen to some of his favorite composer, Hector Berlioz. Here is Berlioz' eccentric 'concerto' for viola and orchestra, Harold en Italie:

Monday, November 5, 2012

Musical Form, Part 2

Yesterday I put up a post about musical form that mostly talked about how melody can be used to structure a piece. This merely scratched the surface, of course as there are many, many ways that I didn't mention such as the way a melody can be transformed in the course of a piece so that it not only provides a unifying element, but also helps to push the piece forward. The 19th century particularly explored this idea.

But I'm not going to talk about melody today, instead, I'm going to merely scratch the surface of how harmony is used in musical form. Everyone knows what you mean when you use the word melody but harmony is a word with complex meanings. Like 'melody', it comes from the ancient Greek: ἁρμονία (harmonía) which meant joining or fitting together. We use it in a very general way to mean the vertical aspect of music: everything relating to notes sounding together. But there are more specific meanings as well. If you take a course in university in the music department called "harmony" it is going to be about the system of tonal 'grammar' that was used in Western music between 1600 and 1900. This system looked at different chords as being functional, i.e. they were part of a web of tension and release that was used to structure the flow of music. For example, a lot of recent music is based on drones, long-held notes and chords, and for that reason is not 'harmony' in the strict sense as there is no harmonic function. Here is a recent song by Paul Simon that is almost completely without harmonic function. The verses are all one unchanging riff and, therefore, harmony. The contrasting chorus mainly contrasts by dropping the riff and there is a hint, no more, of a harmonic change. But it is minimal. A theorist would say that moving to neighboring harmonies and then back is actually just extending the tonic.

To see how harmony works you could do no better than to look at some music by J. S. Bach who is admired as being probably the greatest master of harmony. Here is a very simple piece by him, the first minuet from the Partita No. 3 for solo violin. Just click to enlarge.

This piece is in E major, which means, in terms of functional harmony, that it is going to begin with an E major harmony and end with one. Later on Beethoven created quite a stir when he began pieces with something other than the tonic--usually the dominant. Ah yes, 'tonic'. The tonic chord or harmony is the one built on the key note, in this case E. By "built on" I am referring to how chords are constructed. You build a chord by taking every other note in the scale. For example, the E major scale goes E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D# and E. A tonic harmony, starting with E, would be E, G# and B. Every other note. Simple. Here is the E major scale and three important harmonies derived from it: the tonic, on the keynote, the subdominant, on the 4th note, A, and the dominant, on the 5th note, B:
The basic layout of this minuet and virtually every other dance movement from the Baroque era is Tonic -- Dominant -- Tonic. But there are thousands of ways of going from tonic to dominant and back! One more thing before we go to the piece: as you will realize if you look back at that scale, you can build a chord on every note of the scale. The three chords I picked out and labelled, tonic, subdominant and dominant, are the main members of little families of chords. I say that because every chord has related chords that it shares notes with. The closest relationship is when two notes are shared. For example, the tonic, E, G# and B, shares two notes with the mediant: G#, B and D#. These two chords are related. Similarly, the subdominant, A, C# and E, shares two notes with the submediant, C#, E and G#. Mediant and submediant are labels for other notes of the scale. You want the whole list? OK:

  1. tonic
  2. supertonic
  3. mediant
  4. subdominant
  5. dominant
  6. submediant
  7. leading tone
All right, now let's look at the beginning of the minuet. Click to enlarge:

The first two measures are just as Bach wrote them. The next two are my simplification of the first two showing just the harmonies. It starts with the tonic, of course, and the next chord is the dominant. Actually, just part of the dominant, without the lowest note. Then we get that lowest note, B, but over it is a G# so what that harmony actually is, is the mediant. Then the next measure is the submediant. Yes, lots of stuff in just a couple of measures. I won't go through every measure because I just want to give you a taste of how harmony works. But to round things off, let's look at the ending. Click to enlarge:
The supertonic is part of the subdominant 'family' as it shares two notes and the mediant is part of the tonic 'family'. So the basic harmony of the last two measures is subdominant, tonic, dominant, tonic. Bach uses other family members to make it more interesting and smooth the movement of the voices. Now let's listen to the whole piece. Here is Arthur Grumiaux playing both minuets (they usually come in pairs).

The minuet we have been looking at is less than a minute of music without the repeats! But in that minute Bach has a wide range of harmonies, all carefully calibrated to move us toward the dominant, which is where the first half ends, and then move us back to the tonic. This is one way of using harmony to structure musical form. From about 1600 to 1900, this was the predominant way of putting a piece of music together.