Thursday, April 3, 2008

Listening Journal

Kevin Sweet
Music History

Listening Journal

Heitor Villa Lobos was born March 5, 1887 in Rio de Janeiro Brazil. He had little formal training as a child but learned to play cello, guitar and clarinet with his father as his teacher. Villa Lobos became one the most well known classical composers from South America, fusing together Brazilian elements with a modernist approach. Between 1930 and 1945, he composed nine works entitled Bachianas Brasileiras (Brazilian Bach pieces,) and they contain some of his most popular work. The works combine influences from Brazilian folk music and stylistic elements of the European classical tradition.

Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 is written for cello ensemble and exemplifies the composer’s love for the tonal qualities of the cello. It consists of three movements, an introduction, preludio and fugue, and it is around twenty minutes long. Embolada, incorporates cellos playing a light, percussive ostinato pattern followed by moments of counterpoint. The use of dissonance within the movement, are slight, and it utilizes thematic material and sequences as the main compositional devices.
Modinha, is a lyrical, slow moving middle section that paints an intense landscape of moods by introducing sweet melodies that slowly melt into darker harmonies. Villa Lobos is possibly utilizing elements of the German empfindsam style, featuring surprising turns of harmony, chromaticism and speech-like melodies. Villa Lobos skillfully incorporates Brazilian harmonic composition into a German sentimental style. The third movement is a fugue and uses a subject that contains dotted rhythms and swung eighth notes that are undeniably aspects of the Brazilian musical vocabulary.

Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6 is a duet between the flute and bassoon and it consists of two movements, an Aria and a Fantasia. The Aria is a choro, a Brazilian form that Villa Lobos helped popularize, composing dozens of works with this title for various instruments. The second movement is pulling inspiration from the Italian process of instrumental composition by not sticking to a strict form and writing subjects that more resemble improvisation.

This was my first introduction to the Bachianas Brasileiras or any Villa Lobos that was not composed for the guitar. I have played several Villa Lobos compositions for the guitar, and I never felt connected to the pieces emotionally. Even though that Villa Lobos has composed works for the guitar that are among the most well known pieces in the repertoire, I felt they were mediocre. His guitar pieces address crucial technical and mechanical elements of classical guitar playing but the harmonic structure and melodic content of his preludes and etudes sound too much like exercises, leaving the listener unfulfilled.

My opinion of Villa Lobos was tainted simply because I was not familiar with how versatile of a composer he was. The Bachianas Brasileiras showcases his craftsmanship and skill for writing moving harmony and beautiful melodies. Villa Lobos should be associated with the standard repertoire of the time because he provided a unique voice that has one foot rooted in Brazilian tradition and another in past European traditions.

Listening Journal

Kevin Sweet
Music History

Listening Journal

For my sixth entry, I chose Vivaldiana by Gian Francesco Malipiero. When I saw the title, I did not think much of it. Within the first few moments of listening, I thought to myself, “Wow...I should have known.” Vivaldiana is a group of works for small orchestra, similar to the core group of instruments that Vivaldi composed many of his concertos, which consist of strings, flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns.

Gian Francesco Malipiero was born in Venice, also the birthplace of Antonio Vivaldi, on March 18, 1882. Early in Malipiero’s musical training, he would copy the scores of composers like Claudio Monteverdi and Girolamo Frescobaldi, providing the musical blueprint for his career.

Vivaldiana is constructed of three movements in fast-slow-fast plan which was taken from the Italian opera overture. This format became the standard pattern for concertos, introduced by the Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni. Vivaldiana’s first movement has a slow introduction, utilizing imitation and harmonic movement of going up a fourth, down a fifth. This harmonic progression is similar to approaches to harmony throughout the eighteenth century. The opening ritornello is composed of fast small units, establishing the key to which the music will later modulate. A great deal of imitation is utilized throughout the movement.

The slow movement entitled Adante piu lento un poco, is my favorite movement of the three because it has expressive, long breathed melodies. Similar to Vivaldi, Malipiero is made the slow movement equally as important to the fast movements. The movement modulates to the relative minor strengthening the return to the tonic.

The last movement is playful and has the strings using coloristic effects like pizzicato and muted strings. The ritornello contains segments of two or four measures that are varied by repeating in different instruments with altered dynamic levels. Malipiero makes use of short motives that are stretched by taking them through strong chord progressions, linking them together with sequences.

The works utilize rhythmic vibrancy, clear formal structure and skillful use of variation by grouping different sets of orchestral instruments. This recording of Vivaldiana is performed by the Veneto Philharmonic Orchestra and the movements come to a little under fifteen minutes long.

Vivaldiana by Gian Francesco Malipiero is rightfully not a part of the standard canon because it does not reflect the attitude of the twentieth-century. Composers of the time reacted to Romanticism, trying to develop to new ways and concepts of expression. Malipiero does represent a school of thinking that grasps on to past traditions and nationalistic claims which could be viewed as against the grain, but the clear formal structures and assured harmonies are more representative of the eighteenth century rather than the early twentieth.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Romantic Entry

Kevin Sweet
Music History

Listening Journal

I chose a number of works from the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor for my third entry. The works include The Hiawatha overture, Petite suite de concert, Four characteristic waltzes, Gipsy suite, Romance of the prairie lilies and Othello suite. The Hiawatha overture begins with a beautifully quiet, legato theme played by the string section, accompanied by harp that, in my mind, produces a surreal image of a lake surrounded by blurred flowers as in paintings by Monet. A great deal of musical momentum and drama is created by thematic introductions and development within the overture. At moments when there is quiet counterpoint between the strings and horns, I associate it with a light hearted character or landscape and then once the brass and percussion are introduced, the peace is disrupted with the rampaging of a darker element like a fumbling drunk thief or a terrible storm. The Hiawatha overture comes to a little over eleven minutes long.

The Petite suite de concert, constructed of four short movements, quickly grabbed my attention with a loud theme seemingly played by every member of the orchestra, with weight added by the brass and percussion. The first movement reminds me of music from the Lawrence of Arabia. The second movement is more subtle, with strings and woodwinds playing soft, legato melodies that would provide the perfect backdrop for a love story. The third movement is more playful, with short melodies being exchanged between the strings and woodwinds. Each melody is like a kid playing outside for the first time since a long winter or me telling a silly joke and looking over to my girl and she has a small smile, shaking her head side to side nonverbally telling me it was not too funny, but she forgives me. What can I say the music is pretty darn romantic. The final movement is fun with bouncy rhythms and loud cymbal crashes announcing that we have come full circle. The Petite suite de concert is petite coming in around fifteen minutes long.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is definitely impressing me with his ability to create beautiful melodies. The Four characteristic waltzes are no exception. While the rhythm provides a great opportunity to dance, the cinematic qualities of the music would be ideal for many other scenarios. For example the first waltz, Valse Bohemienne, has a light theme played by the strings, woodwinds and triangle, calling to mind the idea of a man and a woman caught up in a forbidden love affair and when the theme is repeated with a loud, heavy, stomping feel from the tympani and horns, that would be the disapproving father or scorned lover chasing after them.

Next on the list is the Gipsy suite. Consisting of four movements, it introduces new instruments from the percussion world. The first movement, “Lament and Tambourine,” uses castanets and tambourines which spices things up in the head nodding department. The third movement, a Gipsy song, has a beautiful trumpet solo amidst a woodwind landscape and it calls to my mind the idea of being homesick because the lonely trumpet is of the only brass instrument around, and the striking of the bells is the sounds of the new town. When I saw the title, the Gipsy suite, I thought the music was going to be more up tempo but the sweet melodies did not let me down. The Gipsy suite comes to about fourteen minutes long.

The Romance of the prairie lilies is a fitting title for the music. The main melody is played with a grand swooping gesture and with each dip, the flutes act like little birds, picking us up with their beaks bringing us back to an upright position. With each repeat of the theme, instruments that once acted as counterpoint to the melody play in unison, creating a grand statement. I enjoyed the Romance of the prairie lilies and at a little over six minutes, left refreshed.

The Othello suite has four movements and the first movement titled Dance, is quite different than the other works because it is less romantic and more chugging and hustling, incorporating pounding tympani and cymbal crashes creating a sense of urgency. The Willow song begins quietly with a somber melody, strings playing pizzicato, but the tonality brightens up along with an increase in dynamic level changing the overall mood. The Military march has galloping melodies played by the brass and strings and is truly heightened by the inclusion of the snare drum and the triangle. The Othello suite weighs in at about ten minutes long.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor epitomizes the concepts utilized within the Romantic period. Thematic material being the main focal point for the compositions was standard practice then and Coleridge-Taylor, has strong melodic skills.

Romantic Entry

Kevin Sweet
Music History

Listening Journal

For my fourth entry, I chose Suite Espanola, no.1 and no. 2 by Isaac Albeniz. Guillermo Gonzalez is the name of the performer, and while I have never heard the music of Albeniz played on a piano before, I do know of his music. The first time I ever heard the music of Albeniz, it was the fall of 1998 and I was living in Lawrence Kansas. I was walking down Massachusetts street, headed towards a coffee shop to meet with a group of friends. The sun had just set and the weather was getting wet and windy. My casual walk slowly turned into a power walk and, finally, evolved into a marathon run.

I entered the doors of the coffee shop, to escape being hit by thousands of drops of water, only to be bombarded by thousands of musical notes by a live classical guitar player named John Jervis. He had just begun playing Asturias, and I quickly forgot about how drenched I was and I greeted my friends with a winded and dumbfounded hello. Here was this older gentlemen with long, white, Einstein-looking hair, playing some of the most beautiful music I had ever heard on a solo guitar. As a guitar player, all I knew how to play at that time was essentially rock music and just looking at the mechanics of his hands astonished me.

As long as I live, I will not forget that night. Little did I know that close to ten years later, I would be getting a degree in classical guitar performance. The transcriptions of Albeniz’s Suite Espanola are among the most famous and widely played music for the classical guitar. Andres Segovia, Julian Bream, John Williams and Pepe Romero are some of the superstar performers who have helped spread the music of Albeniz to an evolving audience.

Albeniz utilizes great skill when crafting and developing his themes and melodies by shifting into surprising tonalities, creating momentum and tension. I know I would quickly paint myself into a corner if I had the responsibility of composing music that was remotely close to the Suite Espanola. After straying away from main ideas, Albeniz does a remarkable job of using chromatic sequences and slight changes in dynamics to create a bridge, leading back to familiar territory.

Isaac Albeniz is a great example of a Romantic era composer who uses thematic material as the basis of composition. Albeniz is a master of developing ideas and building large amounts of tension, taking a melody through jagged pathways and submerging them into unstable waters. The Suite Espanola no.1 is around forty minutes long and consists of eight movements. A serenata, corranda, sevillanas, saeta, leyenda, fantasia, seguidillas and a capricho. Suite Espanola no. 2 is a little over ten minutes long and consists of a Zaragoza and Sevilla.

It is difficult for me to imagine where the classical guitar would be today, if it were not for the help of someone like Isaac Albeniz. His compositions are rightfully apart of the guitar canon and will forever have its place in history and in the musical landscape.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Listening Journal

For my second entry, I chose the works for Harpsichord by Antonio Soler. Rafael Puyana is the name of the performer and within the first few minutes of listening, I knew I was going to enjoy this listening session. I was pretty convinced that I had never heard any music from Antonio Soler but the further I made it through the recording, I caught myself thinking “oh yeahh.” The track that especially hit me as being familiar was Sonata en re mayor. I am pretty sure that I have heard a guitar duet play this piece but I cannot clearly recall where I heard it, but that is a really nice piece.

This is some of the most enjoyable solo harpsichord music I have ever heard. I suppose the works are not a part of the standard Canon, which I must admit, I am trying to become familiar with that term because it has taken me long enough to spell repertoire correctly. But all jokes aside, all of these pieces are spectacular. I am in awe of the virtuosic ability of both performer and composer. Most of the pieces are at a fast tempo and incorporate quite a lot of ornamentation, but not nearly as ornate as a Francois Couperin piece from the Baroque era.

Even though there is quite a bit of ornamentation I never felt that it got in the way of the music, specifically the melody. Most of the harpsichord music that I have heard, which I admit is not much, was too heavy in ornamentation, sometimes obscuring the melody rather than carving a memorable tune. With the harpsichord works of Antonio Soler, I get just the right temperature of my porridge to feel satisfied.

The main thing that impressed and surprised me, was the illusion of dynamic variations within the pieces. One of the things I do know about the harpsichord is that it does not have much dynamic range. The illusion of dynamics is created within the pieces by the switching back and forth between heavy texture and lighter texture. Many of the segments go from notes that are close together, within the same range and little higher in register, to segments that have notes distributed all over the full range of the keyboard.

Most of the works feature a large amount of arpeggios, with one hand playing in a mid to low register the other hand joins in the higher register creating a thick texture. While listening, I began to hear that on some of the passages the notes, especially in the lower register, seemed to be muted with the melody or higher notes ringing clearly. At first, I was curious if the performer was putting his hand on the strings to mute them but I quickly removed that thought because just by listening to all the counterpoint and range that would literally demand a third or fourth limb. I began to recall that throughout the centuries different pedals have been added to the harpsichord, so I wonder if that is what I am hearing. The muted segments reminded me of the sounds of a nylon string guitar played pizzicato and with me being a guitar player, I naturally enjoyed what I heard.

I must say that Antonio Soler is now in my mental rolodex of great composers for the keyboard. These works for harpsichord are truly for the keyboard virtuoso and I cannot imagine them being played in salons or home concerts by part-time musicians. The pieces are very demanding and would definitely take the work ethic of a professional or a Shaolin monk.

The recording is comprised of Sonatas, Fandangos and a Concerto and it is around fifty minutes long and it is an enjoyable listen. Whether or not Soler was a composer that had works that were a part of the standard Canon, I feel that these works for harpsichord should be a prime candidate.

Listening Journal 1

Listening Journal

For my first entry, I chose The Indian Princess by John Bray. The Indian Princess is an opera written on the romance of John Smith and Pocahontas. The work premiered in April, of 1808, and had a successful run in major theaters of the United States. It was also one of the first American operas to be produced in London after its American premiere. The orchestra mainly consists of woodwinds, brass and strings with little percussion in the mix but the occasional timpani, makes a cameo. The opera is a little under thirty minutes and includes an overture, solo and ensemble numbers, choruses and finales. There are a few segments that contain spoken dialogue as well.

Bray does a good job of heightening the dramatic action within the piece by using specific instruments or dynamics to either accompany or follow the vocals. For example with sections that incorporate a soloist, only a tiny portion of the orchestra is used for the accompaniment, then once another soloist is introduced or once the chorus comes in the instrumentation either changes from strings to brass or a combination of both.

I did enjoy how for certain characters like Larry the Irish adventurer, Bray gave them distinct musical style almost acting as a theme for that character. The song “Och! Hubbaboo! Gramachree! Hone!” sounds very Irish. I do not know how to dance an Irish Jig, but there are parts that made it tempting to try with a tear in my eye because their is also a somber quality to song. Larry is discussing his feelings about the girl Katy Maclure back in Ireland with the character Robin.

Then I also feel like there were segments where the music did not heighten or add anything to the overall dramatic effect; especially within the play where John Smith was surrounded by Indian warriors and taken hostage. The music did not create any tension with change of mood, dynamics or instrumentation. It did not stray away from the major tonality established from previous measures and could be easily confused as a joyful scene. It is soon thereafter redeemed, in my opinion, by the change of mood in “Incidental Music to Act Two.” This track contains segments of the opera that are my favorite. With John Smith now a prisoner, the tonality changes to minor harmony with beautiful melodies being played by the strings and flutes, creating a nice contrast to what came before.

I personally feel, that, overall the opera is too fluffy and light in musical content. Even though it is quite enjoyable and nicely orchestrated and simply well thought out, I prefer more contrast and tension within the music to help create a deeper and more meaningful story. I will definitely say that John Bray does a great job with melodic and rhythmic phrasing to aid in the development of the dialogue or to inflect the spaces between vocal phrases.

I can definitely see how this piece fits within the confines of the classical style. The music possesses sophistication, simplicity and does not utilize an excess amount of ornamentation and frills. The piece had frequent resting points, breaking the melodic flow into two, three and four measure phrases creating periodicity.
This opera, I imagine, would have been a great opera to see because it is very upbeat, simple, catchy, and deals with romance.

But my modern ears might be making me too harsh of a critic, but I felt like I was listening to a soundtrack from a Disney movie. Even though it may have been a great “Disney movie,” I glad that this work is not a representative of the standard canon.