Irish Tune from County Derry – Percy Grainger

I know St. Patty’s Day has come and gone, but I wanted to talk about this piece anyway. Most people know this tune as “Danny Boy” (or even “Londonderry Air”). While there are certainly some wretched versions out there that make people swear they never want to hear this song again, give this one a chance. I believe it is far and away the most gorgeous rendition of the tune.

Percy Grainger (1882-1961), an Australian composer and pianist, was quite an odd duck – he actually made a list that ranked composers, and put himself at number 9. He had some… interesting… tastes in his personal life, and tried out many new musical ideas. But behind the eccentricity was some great music. He had a love for folk music and traveled around with a phonograph in order to record ordinary people singing the music of their heritage. He focused on English folk songs.

One quirk of Grainger’s that entertains me is that he didn’t bother with using traditional Italian terminology in his music. So instead of crescendo, he used “louden” (or even “louden hugely”). My husband, the French horn player, gets to play “as violently and roughly as possible” in one piece we’re playing for band! (Children’s March: Over the Hills and Far Away)

Enough chatter – let’s listen to some music!

The piece begins in the low brass and woodwinds, with the melody in the baritone, trombone, French horn 4 (there are usually four separate-but-related horn parts in band music) and alto clarinet.  What’s interesting is that the melody is not the highest voice you hear. Grainger puts the melody in the middle and has harmonic material above it (which happens to sound quite melodic). That’s part of what makes this piece challenging to play – you have to make sure those middle voices don’t get buried during this first section. The cornets join in at 0:23 with more harmonic material, but the melody is still down in the lower voices. I do love the rising line at 0:43.

At 0:51, the melody is still in the middle, but we’ve given it to the entire horn section and most of the trombones. Listen for some juicy harmony from 1:12 to 1:15. We arrive at the climax of this first section at 1:18, then begin to quiet down through the end of the first time through the theme.

We begin the second time through with a flute solo, backed by the clarinets. The oboe joins in at 1:56, another make-it-or-break-it part, as that has a tendency to come out way too powerfully in this delicate section. The oboe in this recording has a nice, smooth entrance. The top clarinet part gets its own tricky line at 2:08-2:09. It’s a soft, but big, leap into the upper register of the instrument – it takes practice to do that without blaring the top note (I’ve spent some time on that myself recently as I’m playing that part for an upcoming concert). The French horn takes over the melody as a solo at 2:11, giving the piece a bit of a woodwind quintet feel. Grainger keeps adding more instruments into the mix as we near 2:36.

Everyone enters again for the final quarter of the piece. Here we’re treated to some wonderfully lush harmonies and a full, rich sound from the band. Listen for the French horns (and maybe even trombone at 2:59) throughout this last section, as they have beautiful countermelodic material. Like that rising line back at 0:43, I absolutely love the high horn line that starts at 3:25. It’s only a few notes, but it helps give the piece a satisfying ending.

Grainger uses close harmonies and suspensions liberally in this piece. I think that’s part of what makes it so gorgeous. When the piece is played well, it gives me goosebumps. The notes generally aren’t all that hard and there’s nothing tricky about the rhythm. Grainger doesn’t even change the key during the piece. But the piece is difficult to play well. Sometimes the “easy” pieces are actually the hardest ones to play.

That’s it for this installment. There won’t be a “bonus features” post for this tune; I plan to go right to the next piece I want to discuss. Those folks who have played Irish Tune in band may be able to guess which piece that is!

Learning about fugues through Lady Gaga

When hearing the phrase “classical music”, most folks wouldn’t immediately think of Lady Gaga. But sometimes neat things happen when you throw together two seemingly disparate items. As a way to demonstrate classical musical ideas, someone wrote a fugue based on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”. I think it’s brilliant.

Most everyone is familiar with a “canon” (or “round”). Who hasn’t sung “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” where one person or groups starts, then the next person or group starts once the first group gets to a certain point in the music? That is a canon. The melody is kept intact and in the same key for every group, and you can just keep singing it over and over again until someone (usually a parent) threatens to thwack you with a wet noodle.

Think of a fugue as a more complicated canon. You hear the initial theme, which is often quite short, and it eventually ventures off into other directions. Meanwhile, another voice begins the melody, but off by a fifth (most commonly – other intervals can be used). So in the above example, the first statement of the theme begins on D.  When the next voice enters at 0:13, it begins on A, which is five steps above D (a fifth). The next voice returns on D at 0:38. This is a three-part fugue, meaning that there are three voices.

So where do you hear the entrances? This is my list – I think I caught them all:

0:58 – starts on C in the top voice
1:03 – starts on C in the middle voice
1:19 – starts on E-flat in the middle voice
1:29 – starts on B-flat in the top voice
2:12 – starts on G in the bottom voice
2:19 – starts on D in the bottom voice

There are other quotes of the theme, but these are the ones I consider to be full statements (even though the full statement in this case is only two measures long). The arranger manipulates the theme, uses even shorter snippets, and also does things like turn the theme upside-down. Listen to the top voice at 2:02 – instead of having the theme go up, he has it go down. Cool, isn’t it?

So that’s the quick and dirty intro to the world of the fugue. J.S. Bach was a master of this form, and I imagine sometime I’ll talk about one (or more!) of his fugues here on the blog.

Bonus Features – Overture to Candide

This will be a fun bonus post for me!  I get to share more fantastic music from Candide.  One type of musical theater and opera overtures includes snippets of music from the full songs you’ll hear later in the show.  Bernstein employed this technique in the overture to Candide, although he also adds a theme that, to my knowledge, does not appear again in the show. That theme is the initial rippling string and woodwind melody.

It may be beneficial to read a synopsis of the plot of Candide.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  I have popcorn.

1) Here is “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, from the Chicago production I saw a couple years back.  Can you hear what made it into the overture?  It’s very brief, but it’s there.  This song is at the beginning of the show.  It sets up the optimistic philosophical views of Pangloss the tutor.

2) Next up is the music from the “Battle Scene”.  You won’t hear the familiar part right away, but keep listening.  At 1:23, you’ll hear a theme that does double duty in the show.  Pay attention to that horn melody!

3) After that is “Oh, Happy We”.  This one should be fairly obvious, as Bernstein kept this theme intact and it’s featured prominently in the overture.  Remember the horn melody I told to you pay attention to? That’s the first part of this theme, although that setting sounds much harsher due to it being a battle scene. This song entertains me – the disparity between Candide and Cunegonde’s thoughts of what marriage will be like is just too funny!

4)  This might be my favorite song in the whole show (it’s hard to choose!) – “Glitter and Be Gay”.  Cunegonde has agreed to marry Don Fernando, the governor of Buenos Aires.  Of course, this is after she’s been violated by two other men earlier in the show, who then were slain by Candide.  So Cunegonde decides to marry this other dude, and is trying to reconcile her actions with how she had been raised.  Which leads to my favorite line of the song: “If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are!”  Listen for the laughter I hinted at in my previous post.

I’m giving you two versions for this song.  First up is by Kristin Chenoweth.  I feel she really embodies the essence of Cunegonde in this performance – remember Cunegonde’s lyrics during “Oh, Happy We”?  If you like this performance, there’s a DVD available of the entire show.

I’m so glad I stumbled upon this next one, and I would love to see the visuals of this performance.  Alas, all we get it audio, but I’m sure it will still entertain.  So how many of you knew that Madeline Kahn could sing?  I also wanted to add this one as her cause of death, ovarian cancer, is very personal to me, having lost both my mother and grandmother to it.  So here’s to all those wonderful ladies!

Before I close, I wanted to share this cool chart I found as I was researching this post.  It provides a nice visual of the themes of the overture and where they appear.  My only quibble is that the Fanfare is also part of “The Best of All Possible Worlds”.

Here’s one more piece from Candide, even though its melody is not present in the overture.  But it’s such a gorgeous piece that I had to include it.  Besides, it’s the last song of the show so it seemed fitting to put it here.  Enjoy “Make Our Garden Grow”:

Overture to Candide – Leonard Bernstein

I couldn’t wait too long before talking about Candide.  Leonard Bernstein is probably known best for his music for the musical West Side Story (which is awesome as well), but I can’t get enough of one of his other musicals: Candide.  The show is based on the book of the same name, a satirical work from 1759 written by Voltaire.  The musical version has a long and complicated history, beginning with the first production from the 1950s.  The link in the previous sentence has a good summary of the ups and downs of the show, and does a much better job describing it than I would.  I had the good fortune to see Candide on stage in Chicago a few years ago.  There were even more changes, but I enjoyed the production immensely and am glad I finally got to see it.

I love this piece so much I had the opening and closing bits as my Windows startup/shutdown music for years.  Until Windows 7 took away the option to customize that *grumblegrumble*  Maybe I could use it as a ringtone instead…

I love that this video was on YouTube, because I think it’s great to see Lenny himself conducting the piece.

Bernstein immediately grabs your attention with a huge timpani hit and a brass fanfare.  Then away we go with a fast, rippling melody in the strings over a slightly shifted oom-pah support (the strong bass beats are actually on count 4 instead of the naturally dominant 1).  The melody finishes and the fanfare repeats itself.  While the melody starts off the same for the second time, it veers into raucous new territory at 0:28.  Well, not really new.  Go back to 0:15 and listen to the trombones (the camera even focuses on them).  Sound familiar?  Nice foreshadowing by the bones there.

(Cute dance at 0:28, Mr. Bernstein!)

This new theme is presented in full force with a emphatic echo by the low voices.  The second time through, however, is a little lighter, using trumpet, xylophone, possibly some upper woodwinds.  The strings have a pizzicato accompaniment on the offbeats instead of the heavier trumpet/trombone offbeats from the first time around.

Next we have a dialogue between the forceful brass, basses and percussion and the chirpy winds and strings.  I don’t know exactly why, but I love playing that loud bass part (0:40).  For some reason, I find that part quite satisfying on my bass clarinet (at least in the band arrangement; I’ve never played the orchestral part).  Maybe it’s because I get to pretend I’m a timpani.

Bernstein takes us through a development section, manipulating the original fast melody and giving it to various soloists – flute, clarinet, and bassoon.  After a few neat blips from a clarinet, the piccolo grabs the melody, then takes it on a path down through the winds into the “slow” section.  I love that descending line, how it passes between piccolo and clarinet with some pizzicato strings for accents.

The “slow” section (1:22) is reminiscent of Festive Overture (aha – another overture!) in that the underlying tempo of the piece does not change.  The note values are longer, which give it the effect of feeling slower.  Try singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with each syllable getting one beat.  Now keep that beat going, but have each syllable last for two beats.  Hear how that changes the mood of the melody?

Anyway, back to the piece.  This is another one of those gorgeous melodies that gives me goosebumps.  The first time through, the melody is so lush coming from the violas.  Violas don’t always get a lot of love – they’re not the flashy violins, nor the big, cool basses.  But Bernstein gives them a chance to shine here.  The upper strings join in on the second time through, and this time you can hear a neat countermelody joining in (1:34).  I get jealous of the folks who get to play it!  At 1:46 we get into the B section of this theme, mostly the same rhythm as before but a different melodic line.

From there we have a bit of an interjection by the woodwinds that brings us back to the A section of the theme.  Now the horns get that beautiful countermelody (along with the piccolo, but honestly, I’m all about the French horns at that point).  After drinking in that rich sound, Bernstein wakes us up with an abrupt return to the fanfare from the beginning of the piece.

This time, though, we hear the theme in a quieter manner, with a flute solo on the melody (2:21), joined by some wicked sawing by the first violin at 2:28.  Bernstein reprises his dance moves at 2:33.

We return to the forceful brass/chirpy strings theme at 2:38.  We don’t stay here long, though, and move back into the slow theme.  But notice how he takes the chirps in the strings and carries them over the slow melody (a duet between oboe and horn).  I love the descending line in the chirps at 3:01.

And the horns return in all their glory at 3:05.

At 3:18 we start to transition into the final section of the piece.  We have more dialogue between winds and strings, with a quick pause before diving into completely new territory. The bassoon gets a quick oom-pah going, with a fun little melody in the flute.  Does it sound like laughing to you?  It should.  Stay tuned for the bonus features for this piece and you’ll get to hear the full effect of the laughing theme.  But until then, listen to how the theme gets echoed in the strings (3:32), then in the horns (3:38).  It builds for a bit before charging off in yet another direction, this time with the trumpets playing a new melody (3:34).

I love how Bernstein gets this to all work out at 3:34, as he has the melody and accompaniment at odds with each other.  It’s kind of hard to explain without resorting to drawing, but the melody is in a fast two with an odd measure of 3 thrown in, while the accompaniment is in a faster 3 throughout.  It’s one of those parts where you have to trust yourself and not listen too much to what others are doing.  Usually, I feel a musician needs to listen to everyone else in the group just as much as she listens to herself, but there are certain times when you really have to focus on your line only and watch the conductor for “beat landmarks”.  (Tangent: I played the piece Tempered Steel in community band, and I was the only one in this one part of the music who had a rhythm that was continually at odds with everyone else. I had to be aware of the rest of the group, but I couldn’t focus my ears on them too much or else I would start playing with them instead of against them).

So the trumpet melody gets repeated and grows in intensity until 4:03, where we hear the fanfare again. But this time it doesn’t stick around for long before we hear modulations of the original fast theme.  Those don’t last for long, either, and we’re back to the trumpet theme one more time.  The horns really show off at 4:21 with their bold statement of the slow theme, punctuated by the timpani.  We get one last flourish from the winds and strings, a soft, short chord, then a final boom!

Stay tuned for the bonus features post – I have some fun things to share!

Tonal Diversions Playlist

I realized that although I’ve kept a public playlist on YouTube for the videos I analyze for the blog, I’ve never posted the link.  So here it is!

I believe you can subscribe to it via YouTube, or just bookmark the link/this page for access.  The playlist provides a shortcut to all the music I discuss here so you don’t have to search out each individual post in order to find that great piece you want to hear again.

I know which piece I’ll discuss next and hope to get some writing done this week.  *Spoiler alert* I’ve already added the next piece to the playlist  🙂

Marches Madness: Off With His Head! : Deceptive Cadence : NPR

I hadn’t planned on posting again so soon, but NPR gave me a reason:

Marches Madness: Off With His Head! : Deceptive Cadence : NPR.

I love how they annotated the actual video.  They talk about some of the same things I do: theme, which instruments are highlighted, etc.

So enjoy a different sort of “bonus feature” than what I usually post.  I love Symphonie Fantastique – there are some wicked clarinet parts in the last movement 🙂  I know somewhere I have a funny quote copied down about this piece, but darned if I know where it is (and Google hasn’t helped).  If I find it, I’ll make sure to update this post.

Salvation Is Created – Pavel Tschesnokoff

We’re back visiting the Russians, this time with Pavel Tschesnokoff (or Chesnokov).  He was a bit older than Shostakovich, living from 1877 to 1944.  You may remember from my post on Festive Overture that there were restrictions on what artists and musicians could do during that time in Russia.  Tschesnokoff also faced those limitations. Sadly, he never heard Salvation Is Created (Spaseniye Sodelal) performed, but it lives on as a staple of the choral (and band) repertoire.  Kansas State University has a teaching unit on this piece that has more information.

The lyrics are simple and short.  The English translation is as follows: “Salvation is created, in midst of the earth, O God, O our God. Alleluia.” (source: CPDL.org).

For this piece, I want you to just close your eyes and listen. Don’t even think.  Absorb the sound.  We can talk about theory after you’ve listened to it once.

This piece is not complicated.  But it illustrates that simple can be amazingly beautiful.  There are no “weird” chords, no crazy clashes like in Three Shanties, no funky time signatures.  It was written for a six-part choir, with four male parts and two female parts (soprano, alto, tenor 1, tenor 2, bass 1, bass 2, commonly referred to as SATTBB).

The form of the piece is also straightforward.  A song’s form is like a blueprint or road map.  We map out those sections using letters (A,B,C, etc.) and additional symbols (A’, B”, C’ etc.)  The symbols give information as to whether something has changed.  Salvation Is Created is A-B-coda-A-B-coda’ (a coda is basically a musical “tag” at the end of a piece or section).  Here are the landmarks:

A: Beginning
B: 0:55
coda: 1:34
A: 1:53
B: 2:32
coda’: 3:11

Tschesnokoff has the A sections in B minor, with the B sections in D major.  The first coda ends in B minor, leading us easily back to the A section.  The second coda finishes on a satisfying D major chord.  These two keys are relative keys, meaning that they share a key signature – in this case, two sharps (F sharp and C sharp).

What makes this piece so beautiful?  It’s hard to say.  The long melodic lines certainly play a part, as do the chord progressions.  The change between the end of the A section and the beginning of the B section gives me chills.  When good sopranos sing that D up to the high A, it just soars.

My first introduction to this piece was in band – college, I think.  There are a few minor changes for the band version (i.e. key is in C minor and E-flat major).  However, it’s just as effective with instruments as it is with voices.

Can we learn to hear?

Thanks to NPR reporting about this study, I came across this article:

Study: Hearing Music as Beautiful Is a Learned Trait – Lindsay Abrams – The Atlantic.

I found it fascinating, and quite apropos for this blog.  I know my musical tastes have certainly evolved over time, there are certain composers whose work I “get” more now.  Like Debussy.  It took me a while to warm up to his tonalities (I certainly didn’t seek out his music in high school).  I don’t think it was until I played an arrangement of his Sarabande from Pour le Piano in a clarinet choir after I graduated college that I felt more comfortable with him.  A few years later I played a band arrangement of his Engulfed Cathedral, which helped me even more to understand and like his music.  Heck, I went so far as to do my own transcription of Sarabande for my current clarinet choir.  I hope my fellow musicians can enjoy the piece as I have.

For me, rehearsing and performing the piece lead to understanding it better.  Having someone else (the director) choose the piece forced me into studying it; I probably would have just seen “Debussy” and tossed it aside thanks to my preconceived notions about and limited exposure to his work.  Studying music theory for my undergraduate degree helped as well.  I know of a few people who, once they know theory, get distracted too much by identifying all the chords and such as they listen.  Not me.  And I’d wager that, for most of us, learning about something helps us to understand and enjoy something more, not less.  I can still be swept away by the music, even if I happen to know the chord progression underneath it.

I’ll admit I still have trouble with some of the ultra-modern music out there.  I do need some sort of melodic hook, although my definition of melody is quite loose.  And maybe I just need to listen to and study more of it for it to make sense to me.  There will still be music of all genres and ages that I just won’t like.  There’s one band piece in particular that I’ve played several times now and I would be perfectly happy never to play (or hear!) that piece again, although my dislike doesn’t necessarily have to do my familiarity with the chords in it.  There’s another piece that I don’t hate quite as much due to playing it a few times, but I’m certain I will never feel the need to talk about it on this blog.

Part of my motivation behind this blog is to give you a starting point to make some musical discoveries, regardless of your musical knowledge.  Perhaps I can help ease you into some of the “weirder” stuff and show you that dissonance can be delicious.  When I decided to talk about Arnold’s Three Shanties I did ask myself if I was going to quickly into the “ugly” notes.  But I decided that’s the piece I really wanted to discuss, weird notes or not.  I don’t expect everyone to develop the same love as I have for any of the pieces I discuss, but I do hope you’ll at least give them a chance.  Maybe even revisit some of the ones you didn’t like initially in a few months or a year to see if anything’s changed.  If you still don’t like it, that’s okay – there’s certainly no shortage of music in this world!

I believe I know which piece I’ll discuss next.  I might not get to it right away, as my calendar has gotten quite full thanks to some extra rehearsals and performances, plus my students’ solo and ensemble competitions and a dear friend’s wedding.  I’ll try to be back soon!

Bonus Features – Three Shanties

Time for another set of bonus features!

For “Drunken Sailor“, you can’t go wrong with the Irish Rovers.

Boney Was a Warrior

Here’s a traditional-sounding version of good old Boney.  I love their outfits!

And this one rocks!

Johnny Come Down to Hilo
This is a good place to note that there are some variations in the lyrics, as is common with folk music.  One version in particular was no big deal in its day, but certainly would not be acceptable today (“N” word).  Don’t worry, I haven’t linked that one here 🙂

I love the lead singer’s voice!

Maybe not the prettiest version, but they sure are having fun!  And isn’t that the point of music?