To many people, the initials SAS are synonymous with the Scandinavian air carrier. Musicians, however, tend to view those letters as a shorthand for “synthesis, analysis, synthesis.” It’s one of many learning styles used in the pedagogy of music. With this approach, a performer follows a logical progression of study that will ultimately lead to mastery and musical independence.
The first stage – synthesis – describes a performer’s initial exposure to a new work. Often referred to as sight-reading, this process provides an overview of a new composition, with clues about its musical period, style and complexity. This stage may also involve a comparison of the musical score with a recording, which allows the performer to grasp the work’s scope and architectural design. The novice may be tempted to make a determination about the work’s value at this point but it’s far too premature to make such claims.
From there, the real work begins: analysis. Details about melody, harmony, rhythm, form, style and mood are subject to scrutiny at this stage. Depending on the work’s complexity and length, as well as the performer’s degree of musicianship, this process can take weeks, months or even years to realize. One often hears tales of professional musicians who put off performing a work for a period of years because of the overwhelming responsibility involved.
Young concert violinists rarely program the Beethoven violin concerto, for example. Their concerns rarely have to do with technique but rather the ability to convey a compelling performance of a beloved masterwork. Knowing their performance will be judged against the high standards set by celebrated musicians of the past makes their task even more daunting.
The cycle finally ends much as it began. After a significant period devoted to study, this final stage of synthesis results in a much greater understanding of the work’s technical and musical demands. And though the final stage brings the process full circle, the study of music is ongoing. It’s not uncommon for musicians to devote entire careers to the exploration of challenging repertoire: the contrapuntal works of Bach, the late sonatas of Beethoven or the intricate works of Berg and Webern.
Like actors who return to a favorite role throughout their careers, musicians know they will be asked to perform the repertoire’s great masterworks again and again. Yet, each time a performer revisits such a work, there exists an opportunity to further illuminate its beauties and probe its mysteries. When that happens, performer and listener benefit equally from the process.
The orchestral repertoire is filled with works that made their debuts as solo keyboard compositions. Think of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” or Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” Yet while the basic musical structure remains the same, the process of transcribing a keyboard work for orchestra often allows for greater depth, texture and, especially, color.
When Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky’s “Pictures,” he, in essence, created an entirely new work. Though still recognizable to those who knew the original, Ravel’s version featured some novel orchestrational touches: the use of saxophone in “The Old Castle” or a tenor tuba in “Bydlo.” Of course, Ravel was a remarkable colorist, whether working with someone else’s scores or his own. The French impressionist transformed his own “Alborada del Gracioso” and “Valses nobles et sentimentales” with equal deftness.
Both Dvorak and Brahms experimented with a larger color palette in their “Slavonic Dances” and “Hungarian Dances,” respectively. With some, I prefer the four-hand piano originals; others seem conceived orchestrally. Alexander Gauk took Tchaikovsky’s piano suite known as “The Seasons” and handily arranged it for orchestra. The results frequently sound as if Tchaikovsky had done his own orchestrations.
Another noted example is Howard Hanson’s “For the First Time.” If we view the piano suite as being two-dimensional, these brief movements emerge anew when “colorized” with Hanson’s vivid orchestral palette. Percy Grainger qualifies as one of music’s most prolific meddlers, typically arranging his own works for multiple combinations of instruments. He even invented the term “elastic scoring” to describe his approach.
Grainger’s “The Immovable Do,” for example, has found its way into multiple published versions, including arrangements for band or mixed chorus (with or without organ); full orchestra; string orchestra or wind choir; pipe, electronic or reed organ; clarinet choir (saxophones at will) and woodwind choir. In cases such as these, keyboard works illustrate their versatility and adaptability to many different treatments; think of them as variations on an original theme. The result is a musical transformation whose myriad colors often cast the original in a flattering new light.
You rarely see them anymore, those music enthusiasts who file into the concert hall with scores carefully tucked under their arms. They often sit near the stage, flipping pages of their score in unison with the conductor. I last observed this practice in April during an open rehearsal by the New York Philharmonic. Sitting in front of me was a woman with a score of the “Symphony No. 4″ by Charles Ives. I never figured out if she was an Ives scholar (the Fourth Symphony is rarely programmed these days) or just wanted to follow along as Alan Gilbert conducted this curious piece.
This type of exercise is encouraged in most music schools, as students are expected to become reasonably proficient at score reading. Those planning to become band, orchestra or choral directors need to become adept at reading multiple lines simultaneously. The ears are capable of processing an infinite variety of sounds, pitches and timbres, a phenomenon that leads many to believe a concert experience should be purely auditory. Others prefer to link sounds with a visual image, thereby bringing two of our five senses into play.
I, too, enjoy listening to a composition unfold as I follow along in my score, but I don’t often make a practice of doing so in the concert hall. It can be an unnecessary distraction. I have also discovered that with some works, I actually end up hearing differently when I listen with score in hand. Pianist Van Cliburn once told me that whenever he played in Japan, he’d see hordes of students following every musical nuance in their printed scores. That led him to ponder just exactly what they were hearing. Was the performance providing them with an emotional response or an intellectual one? Was the eye tricking the ear into hearing something that wasn’t actually happening? Or did the visual aid of having a score in front of them somehow enhance the listening experience?
Low lighting in concert halls also makes score reading impractical, so, when one considers the potential for distracting other listeners, the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. Score reading can be invaluable during rehearsals, however, particularly when the work in question is new or simply unfamiliar. That’s extremely beneficial when we as critics are asked to assess a performance.
Under those circumstances, one can better grasp the work’s structure, musical language and orchestrational devices. I did appreciate having the score to Jennifer Higdon’s “Percussion Concerto” when Colin Currie gave the work its Oklahoma premiere with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic in February. Being able to watch this complex work unfold on the page was immensely rewarding.
Ultimately, it brings to mind a familiar adage heard in music schools everywhere: “You should have the score in your head, not your head in the score.”
You wonder what recording executives were thinking when they suggested album titles such as ”Classical Music For People Who Hate Classical Music,” “Power Classics! Classical Music for Active Lifestyles” or ”Top Ten Reasons to Listen to Classical Music.” They seem to have lost faith in their product’s ability to generate revenue based on the music’s own merit. Today, the market is flooded with repackaged releases that advertise music appropriate for dining, romance, exercise, relaxation and a host of other activities.
Whatever happened to listening to music for music’s sake? I shudder to think that so many of the classical repertoire’s great masterpieces have been relegated to the world of Muzak. Today, people hear rather than listen. You also wonder who decided which works were deemed appropriate for a specific activity. Sony’s “Dinner Classics – Just Desserts” gives us an all-Mozart program, while the same label’s “Dinner Classics – A Cocktail Party” compiles music by Claude Bolling. “Dinner Classics – American Picnic” rightly features music by Gershwin, Copland and Scott Joplin, but for some unknown reason also includes a selection by the Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps.
The Eclipse label wins the most ludicrous prize with its “Classical Music for Women.” One might suspect this to be a collection of music by the likes of Ccile Chaminade, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich or Cindy McTee. Instead, it’s an operatic compilation featuring arias by Puccini, Bizet and Donizetti.
Such discs drive home the point that recording companies are no longer run by musicians but rather by businessmen who presumably have little interest in the product they’re hawking. Pity the poor CEO who assumes Elgar’s “Cockaigne Overture” is about an illicit drug or mistakes Haydn’s “Seasons” for Tchaikovsky’s. These marketing geniuses seem content to disguise the music to suit the public rather than trying to reach listeners based on the music’s own merits.
For the Oklahoma City Philharmonic’s 2012-13 season finale on May 11, the program will feature Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” an elegiac work that rises to a huge climax before fading away in hushed string tones. It’s one of just a handful of orchestral works that have quiet endings.
With overtures, concertos and, especially, symphonies, most composers seem to go for a dramatic finish. They accomplish this in a variety of ways, from the steady, incessant crescendo (Ravel’s “Bolero”), majestic brass chorales (Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler”), the sustained final chord (Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”) or with music’s equivalent of the exclamation point, the accented final chord (Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 7″).
But the repertoire also boasts its share of quiet endings, leaving the listener with a sense of repose, wonder, serenity or questioning. It’s not unlike watching an old Western in which the cowboys ride off into the sunset.
At first glance – perhaps listen would be the more appropriate term – many might assume hushed endings to be less effective when compared to the grandeur of a Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” or the flourish of a Brahms “Symphony No. 2.” But good composers have an uncanny way of keeping a listener engaged, regardless of the dynamics they choose.
In “Appalachian Spring,” Copland achieved cohesion by ending the work as he began it, with the now-familiar open chords. Mendelssohn took a similar approach with his overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” its opening chord progression restated by the woodwinds in the final measures.
Some works seem destined to end quietly, among them, Howard Hanson’s “Fourth Symphony,” written as a requiem for his father; Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” with the fading sounds of its choral recessional; or “Neptune the Mystic” from Holst’s “The Planets,” whose score indicates that the final measure is to be repeated until “the sound is lost in the distance.”
Other marvelously effective conclusions include Brahms’ “Third Symphony,” which winds down to a final chord in the winds; Respighi’s “The Fountains of Rome” with its tolling of a distant bell; Shostakovich’s “Fifteenth Symphony,” whose use of triangle, woodblock, bells, snare drum, xylophone and tympani creates a curious effect; and Liadov’s “The Enchanted Lake,” whose sound evaporates into the dense mists.
Like Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” where two roads diverged in a wood, composers are presumably sorry they cannot travel both paths as they write the final measures of a work. Yet, every now and then, listeners are undoubtedly glad composers “took the one less traveled,” thereby giving us a chance to admire their skill at handling music’s more subtle moments.
The late 19th century had its “Mighty Five” (composers from Russia) while the 20th century celebrated the accomplishments of “Les Six” (France), the “Second Viennese School” (Austria) and the New England School (America). It’s all part of a trend that satisfies people’s desire to categorize, quantify or pigeonhole artists. Yet these conveniences rarely do their membership full justice, often blurring the lines that separate their individuality or, worse yet, applying a set of principles to a group whose members don’t always fully embrace them.
But ours is a society that thrives on classifications, whether it be David Letterman’s Top Ten lists, the 100 greatest films of the century or the most important people of the millennium. Composers rarely adhere to any kind of predisposed classification, though, often producing music that varies considerably in popularity and quality over time.
Prolific composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms (the Three Bs) all made lasting impressions on the repertoire, with the bulk of their music considered of extremely high quality. That said, their musical styles are as unique as a fingerprint. But others haven’t always adhered to one musical style.
Schoenberg is remembered as an advocate of the 12-tone system of composition, but his early “Transfigured Night” is solidly tonal; Copland is often equated with his “American-sounding” “Appalachian Spring” or “Rodeo,” but late works such as “Connotations” or “Inscapes” explore far more adventurous musical realms. Others, such as Hanson, Hindemith, Holst and Hovhaness, had compositional styles that made their music instantly recognizable.
One can find the occasional chameleon in the compositional firmament, however, a composer who periodically breaks with tradition to create a work that belies his usual sound. Think of Stravinsky and his “Pulcinella” or Piston and “The Incredible Flutist.” Finally, there are musicians who defy classification because their work is so stylistically varied – people such as Leonard Bernstein with his forays into symphonic music, the musical theater and jazz, along with any number of composers from the past two decades.
Aside from the recent Minimalist craze, one wonders how late 20th-century composers will someday be grouped. It’s difficult to imagine people such as Michael Torke, John Corigliano, Frederic Rzewski, Thomas Ades, John Adams and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich being easily classified. One also wonders to what extent music enthusiasts of our century will be able to readily identify their styles. As Bob Dylan once wrote, “the times, they are a-changin’.” No doubt they’ll continue to do so.
“Are you familiar with a piece of music known as bourree?” someone asked me not long ago. I tried to explain that the term (a type of French dance) is generic. Any number of composers have written them: Bach, Handel, Chabrier, Poulenc, Britten. We never determined which melody he was trying to match with the title bourree, but it did get me thinking about the unusual, often arcane system by which musical compositions are titled.
With popular music, it’s easy. Few will confuse “Stardust” with “When You Wish Upon a Star” or “Satin Doll” with “Nights in White Satin.” Classical music, itself a misnomer given that it primarily describes a type of music written between 1750 and 1825, often clouds the issue. There are easily distinguishable titles such as “The Planets,” “The Carnival of the Animals” and “Swan Lake.” But then you run into things such as “Verklarte Nacht,” “Ma Vlast” or “Le Boeuf sur le Toit.” The situation is further complicated when discussions turn to so-and-so’s Fifth Symphony. Beethoven’s, Prokofiev’s, Tchaikovsky’s, Mahler’s, Shostakovich’s, Bruckner’s? You get the idea.
Popular music may have its Top 40, but classical music – at least that which we consider Western (as opposed to Oriental) – encompasses well over four centuries. Works from the “standard” repertoire alone would require a Top 400 or 4,000. There’s no denying, however, that music titles, like book and film titles, do intrigue listeners. If your curiosity is piqued by the likes of “Wellington’s Victory,” “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear,” “Quiet City,” “Rugby,” “The Wasps” or “Central Park in the Dark,” spend a few bucks and indulge your ears.
Unfortunately, less descriptive titles such as “Adagio for Strings,” “Scherzo Capriccioso” or “Symphonic Dances” can’t begin to persuade as convincingly, even though their musical arguments are enormously compelling. Granted, the classical repertoire contains more than its share of clunkers as well as works that should have long since faded into oblivion. But the truly marvelous examples more than even the score. With some patience and a concentrated period of acute listening, you’ll soon be able to differentiate between a bourree and an allemande or a sarabande and a gigue.
Composers have long been considered some of the most respected people of their day, but few have become wealthy from their musical efforts. The majority, in fact, have had to supplement their income by teaching, conducting or taking on other musical pursuits. Johann Sebastian Bach was one of music’s most prolific composers, but he couldn’t rely solely on income from his compositions to pay his bills. For much of his adult life, Bach served as a music teacher at St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, Germany.
Countless others have found themselves in similar circumstances. Felix Mendelssohn established the Leipzig Conservatory in 1842. A half-century later, Vincent d’Indy founded the Schola Cantorum, a school for the study and restoration of old church music and French folk song. Many 19th century composers accepted prestigious administrative or teaching positions with the great music conservatories. In France, Gabriel Faure, Paul Dukas, Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen all taught composition at the venerable Paris Conservatoire.
In Russia, Reinhold Gliere, Alexander Scriabin and Aram Khachaturian were professors of music at the Moscow Conservatory. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov held a similar post at the conservatory in St. Petersburg. France produced a number of composers who doubled as organists. A Belgian by birth, Cesar Franck became organist at Ste. Clotilde in Paris beginning in 1858, and Olivier Messiaen was associated with Paris’ La Trinite for 60 years.
If most European composers established careers in the country of their birth, a few accepted teaching positions in America. Between 1892-95, the Czech Antonin Dvorak headed New York’s National Conservatory of Music. The British-born Frederick Delius enjoyed a long career in France but briefly taught music in Jacksonville, Fla. Delius had moved to Florida in 1884 in hopes of making his fortune as an orange grower. When that venture failed, he returned to Europe in 1886.
Gustav Mahler, composer of nine symphonies and numerous works for chorus and orchestra, devoted many years of his life to conducting. After holding posts with the Royal Opera in Budapest and the Vienna Opera in Austria, Mahler conducted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera from 1907-09. He then spent two seasons as music director of the New York Philharmonic Society.
The outbreak of World War II forced many Western European composers to leave their homelands, and many found refuge in the United States. Germany’s Paul Hindemith headed the composition department at Yale University until 1946; Hungary’s Bela Bartok briefly taught at Columbia University; and Austria’s Arnold Schoenberg was a member of the University of California, Los Angeles, composition faculty from 1936 to 1944.
A few composers became noted music critics. Hector Berlioz wrote for France’s Journal des Debats; Robert Schumann contributed reviews to Germany’s Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung; and the American Virgil Thomson wrote for the New York Herald Tribune between 1940 and 1954. Finally, there are those who established careers outside music while continuing to compose. The Russian Alexander Borodin graduated from the Academy of Medicine in St. Petersburg and later became a chemist there.
The American iconoclast Charles Ives established a highly successful insurance business in New England, while the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis served as assistant to architect Le Corbusier from 1947 to 1959. Throughout much of the 20th century, many notable American composers became associated with one or more prestigious music schools. Howard Hanson spent 40 years as director of the Eastman School of Music; William Schuman and Peter Mennin both served as president of The Juilliard School.
Even today, few composers can make a living solely from their music. Though widely performed, Christopher Rouse, John Corigliano, Richard Danielpour and William Bolcom have all supplemented their income through teaching. Under such circumstances, you might think composers would view teaching as a necessary evil. But without the guidance and encouragement of their mentors, who’s to say if their careers would have taken off? Thankfully, this practice has become a self- perpetuating cycle that should ensure the continued presence of serious music for decades to come.
Are you familiar with the names William Sidney Porter, H.H. Munro, Ethel Zimmerman or Richard Jenkins? You probably know them better by their pen or stage names: O. Henry, Saki, Ethel Merman and Richard Burton. Classical music is similarly overrun with nicknames, including Winter Daydreams, Babi Yar, Rhenish and Reformation. Those designations are far easier to remember than Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, Shostakovich’s Thirteenth, Schumann’s Third and Mendelssohn’s Fifth.
What’s not commonly known is that most composers generally had nothing to do with “naming” their compositions. In many instances, such nicknames were appended by a performer or publisher. Some musical nicknames are logical. Mozart’s “Paris” symphony (No. 31 in D) was written for a performance in that city in 1778. Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata (No. 21 in C) was dedicated to Count Waldstein.
Felix Mendelssohn’s visits to Scotland and Italy inspired his Third and Fourth symphonies, better known today as the “Scottish” and “Italian.” Antonin Dvorak’s visit to the United States prompted the composition of his Ninth Symphony, better known as “From the New World.” Other nicknames have resulted from a particular instrument being prominently featured. Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony is usually referred to as the “Organ” symphony because of its prominent use of that instrument.
Liszt’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat” in turn became known as the “Triangle” concerto because of the instrument’s prominent, some say unrelenting, part. Chopin’s Op. 28 “Prelude in D-Flat” took the name “Raindrop Prelude.” It’s not clear whether the patter of raindrops was the inspiration for Chopin, but the sound is unmistakable. Other works that borrow sounds from nature include Haydn’s Symphony No. 83, known as “The Hen” because of a clucking sound in the first movement; Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is called “The Pastoral” because of its depictions of everything from bird calls to a thunderstorm.
Two other symphonies by Haydn (No. 45 in F-Sharp Minor, No. 94 in G) took on the nicknames “Farewell” and “Surprise.” To convince his employer that his musicians needed a vacation, Haydn devised the ploy of having his players leave the stage a few at a time until only two were left to play the final measures. Prince Esterhazy got the idea. The Symphony No. 94 earned its title because of an unexpected fortissimo chord in the slow movement. Rumor had it that the loud chord was inserted to wake audience members who nodded off. Haydn always denied the claim.
The slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 was featured prominently in the Swedish film “Elvira Madigan.” This work has since become known as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto. In 1944, Aaron Copland collaborated with choreographer Martha Graham on a piece he called simply “Ballet for Martha.” It would later be dubbed “Appalachian Spring.” Copland often told of listeners relating how they could hear the sounds of Appalachia in his music, something he never considered. But the name stuck.
There are at least two cases in which works by different composers feature the same nickname: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 both go by the name “Pathetique.” Similarly, Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and Howard Hanson’s Second are known as the “Romantic.”
With so many generic titles floating about in the world of classical music (Symphony in D, Piano Concerto in E-Flat, Sonata in C), these mnemonic devices are often a big help in differentiating one well-known composition from another.
People who have a curiosity about classical music often ask what to explore after they tire of the repertoire’s familiar favorites. It’s a common predicament given the enormous size of the repertoire. Identifying one’s “musical comfort zone” is a good place to start. A person with a fondness for Grieg’s “Peer Gynt,” for example, would likely be overwhelmed by a Mahler symphony. But he or she might find Grieg’s “Lyric Pieces” enjoyable. They’re short, tuneful and accessible.
Intrigued by Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto?” Try Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto in B-Flat Minor” or Rachmaninoff’s “Concerto No. 2 in C Minor.” Both wear their lush romanticism on the sleeve. Many young listeners were introduced to opera by way of the orchestral suites from Bizet’s “Carmen.” If Spanish music brings out the gypsy in you, consider Chabrier’s “Espana,” de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” or Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol.”
Perhaps folk tunes hold a certain appeal. Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves” might be a good place to begin. You might also explore Grainger’s “Irish Tune from County Derry” or Alfven’s “Swedish Rhapsody No. 1.” Those with a penchant for the unusual should definitely track down Ives’ “Symphony No. 2,” the finale, in particular. It’s a musical free for all.
Through television, baby boomers were introduced to countless classical works during the 1960s. For those who may wish to revisit those bygone days, try the overture to Rossini’s opera “William Tell” or Gounod’s “Funeral March for a Marionette.” Hollywood has frequently raided the classical repertoire for its sound tracks, although rarely are works heard in their entirety. The slow movements from Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 (From the New World)” and Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21 (Elvira Madigan)” are widely recognized. Try listening to the complete work for even greater appreciation.
Other works that are frequently excerpted include Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” (The Swan), Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” (18th Variation) and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (Simple Gifts). While each can stand alone, these snippets take on greater significance when heard in context. If you have adventuresome ears, try following Debussy’s “La Mer” with Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.” You’ll come away with very different views of music inspired by water.
Jazz enthusiasts should explore Milhaud’s “The Creation of the World” or Copland’s “Music for the Theatre.” Those intrigued by model trains might compare Villa Lobos’ “The Little Train of the Caipira” with Honegger’s “Pacific 231.” Finally, a few guilty pleasures: Khachaturian’s “Suite from Spartacus,” Weinberger’s “Polka and Fugue from Schwanda,” Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” Respighi’s “Feste Romane” and Walton’s “Crown Imperial.”
So, whether you’re in search of little-known masterpieces or obscure musical gems, know that curiosity, patience and perseverance are the keys that will unlock music’s timeless mysteries.