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”:

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.

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?

Happy New Year from Tonal Diversions!

I hope everyone had a safe ending to 2012 and that we’ll all have a great start to 2013!  I’m deciding which piece to discuss next here on the blog.  There are so many great pieces to choose from!

So to keep everyone entertained until then, here are some fun YouTube videos I’ve stumbled across:

Silent Monks Singing Alleluia – so clever!

Some more high school kids with the Super Mario Bros. Theme, performed by a clarinet quartet (3 B-flat clarinets, which are the standard instruments found in bands, and one bass clarinet)

And in honor of our Christmas trip to Walt Disney World (which was lots of fun!), here’s one of my favorite Disney medleys as performed by the Breaking Winds Bassoon Quartet.  I love their creativity and humor!  They’ve even tackled Lady Gaga 🙂 Here’s a good chance to see what a bassoon is and hear how it sounds.

(BTW, Aladdin is playing a contra-bassoon.  It’s awesome. Its range is one octave lower than the bassoon.)

I hope you liked these quick treats.  I’ll be back soon to discuss another great piece of music!

So what’s this blog about?

Welcome to “Tonal Diversions”, a classical music appreciation blog.  Through these articles I hope not only to bring your attention to specific musical works, but also to open the door to exploration within the world of classical music.  While I will use music theory terms when talking about a piece, I will try not to overwhelm (or at least I’ll give a warning!).  For those new to music theory, you may find the following sites helpful: Ricci Adams’ Musictheory.net  and Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary.  I’ve also added a music theory cheat sheet page.  It’s a permanent link immediately under my header picture.  I’ll also link to it now and then from within posts.

Music appreciation is not limited to those who have formal training in music.  Even classical music, which I think seems intimidating to many people, can be accessible to anyone.  You may not know the technical terms as to why you like something, but that doesn’t negate the fact that you like it.  For me, I feel knowing the technical terms and music theory enhances the reasons I like the piece, though  I would still like the piece even if I didn’t know exactly why!  I loved music long before I had any training in it beyond my childhood piano lessons (which did eventually lead me to a Bachelor of Music degree). And thanks to cartoons such as Bugs Bunny and Disney’s Fantasia, we probably all know more classical music than we realize.

The pieces I discuss will be, simply put, pieces I like.  There are plenty of books and blogs that cover “must-listen” classical pieces, or historically important ones, or pieces that you “should” like as a Proper Classical Music Enthusiast.  I may cover some of those works, but it’s because I enjoy them.  So I suppose I should post a disclaimer that this will skew heavily toward the Romantic era and later (Beethoven and Brahms onward) and that I have a particular fondness for wind music (concert band pieces, works for clarinet, etc.).  But I’m sure some other pieces will sneak their way into the blog!

For some pieces I might highlight themes, moods, and the like**.  Other times I might delve more into the music theory side of things, talking about keys, chords, and more.  I will include time marks now and then to indicate when to listen for something I’ve pointed out (i.e. listen for the main theme beginning at 0:15).

So sit back, grab your speakers or headphones, and enjoy the ride!

**Theme: A melody or rhythmic phrase upon which the piece is built.
Mood: Does the piece sound happy or sad?  Solemn or frantic?
Key: The series of notes (usually a scale) that form the main tonality of the piece.
Chord: Two or more notes played simultaneously.