By Jacob Stockinger
Here is a special posting, a record review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.
A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.
Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.
Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).
It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”
It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.
Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)
Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.
The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.
Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.
Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.
I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.
They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.
While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.
One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.
This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.
ALERT: One more subscriber and The Ear breaks 1,000. Who wants to be the one?
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has received the following word about a very timely performance of a very timely work:
On this Sunday, March 20, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. the Society Choir of First Unitarian Society of Madison will present the powerful anti-war cantata, “Dona Nobis Pacem” or Grant Us Peace, by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (below). Vaughan Williams used texts from the Bible and from the Civil War poems by the American poet Walt Whitman.
You can hear a section of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.
Guest soloists are soprano Heather Thorpe (below top) and UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe (below bottom).
Violinist and retired UW-Madison violin professor and Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Tyrone Greive (below top, in a photo by Katherine Esposito) will lead the string section, which will be joined by organ, piano, harp and timpani. First Unitarian Society Music Director Dan Broner (below bottom) will conduct.
The performances will take place in the Society’s modern Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams), 900 University Bay Drive.
Admission is FREE. Donations will be accepted.
In conjunction with the performance there will be a small exhibit of German art in the Commons. It will feature anti-war artwork from the period after World War I.
Several prints of lithographs, drawings and sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz, Ernst Barlach and Otto Dix from the years 1921-1929 will be included. The images by Kollwitz are from her “Krieg Cycle.” Her son had been killed in the war; Barlach and Dix both had fought in the war. The two sculptures by Barlach were actually commissioned as war memorials, but instead of glorifying war they express his stark protest and grief.
ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features flutist Ivano Ugrcic and percussionist David Alcorn in music by Gareth Farr, Marius Constant, Christos Hatzis and Nebojsa Macura.
By Jacob Stockinger
Today is Veterans Day.
It has become a day to honor all members, living and dead, of the U.S. armed forces and their service.
That’s just fine with The Ear.
But the holiday started as Armistice Day to honor the end of World War I, which occurred at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.
And since the modern world we know is in large effect the result of the outcomes of World War I, The Ear likes going back to the origins.
If you accept that premise -– and of course you don’t have to — it allows us to listen to what is probably the best piece of classical music ever written to honor fallen soldiers. That piece is Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.”
The title refers to the formal structures that harken back to the underperformed and under-appreciated French Baroque composer Francois Couperin.
Each of the six movements takes a special form and each one is dedicated to a friend of Ravel who was killed in World War I. (Ravel, below, tried to enlist to fight, but was too old.)
Funny, the more I listen, the more the two 20th-century composers who matter most to me are not Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, but Maurice Ravel and Bela Bartok.
But elaborating on why is another topic for another post.
Anyway, Ravel, who was one of the greatest orchestrators of all time, orchestrated “Le Tombeau de Couperin” (literally, the tomb of Couperin – “le tombeau” being the word used for an homage to honor the dead that was also used by the French poets to honor other writers or members of the royal family, including Francois Villon, Joachim du Bellay, Pierre de Ronsard Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé.)
But The Ear prefers the original piano version, which is very difficult to play. It has color but also a certain clarity and austerity that fit the purpose of the music. He thinks you hear the distinctive dance rhythms better and more sharply, and the sections with tolling bells sounds much more, well, bell-like.
Here, dedicated to all veterans but especially to World War I and what that history-changing meat-grinder of a conflict brought us, is a YouTube video of Canadian pianist Louis Lortie playing Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin”:
By Jacob Stockinger
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849, below in a photo from 1849) remains one of the greatest and most popular of all classical composers, both for amateurs or students and for professional performers.
As they say, he was “the poet of the piano,” and he composed almost exclusively for that instrument, even revolutionizing and modernizing piano technique through his two books of etudes.
Chopin, who was one of the greatest melody writers in the history of Western music, is also known for his fusing of the clarity and counterpoint of the Baroque and Classical-era styles with the emotion or passion of the Romantic style. Chopin loved the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he did NOT like, admire or play most of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven.
But Chopin was also a famed dandy who wore a new pair of lavender kid leather gloves every day and who was known for his love affairs. That is probably why some images of Chopin (like the one below from Getty Images) tend to glorify him or idealize him, and to make his as handsome, as beautiful, as his music.
But most people probably do not know much about his quirkier side.
And nothing in Chopin’s life seems more quirky than his death and The Tale of Chopin’s Heart.
It all stems, as I recall, from his terrifying fear of being buried alive. But then the story gets complicated and involves France and Poland, World War I, the Roman Catholic Church and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany during World War II.
Here are two links to fill you in.
The first comes from NPR (National Public Radio):
The second comes from The Huffington Post:
There is also research that questions whether Chopin actually died from tuberculosis or from some other malady.
But that is another story from another time.
And here is a YouTube video of the last piece that Chopin composed: His Mazurka in F Minor Op, 68, No. 4, as played by Chopin master Arthur Rubinstein. The mood of the piece seems to fit the sad story.
ALERT: On this Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Guitar Ensemble, under the direction of UW-Madison professor Javier Calderon, will give a FREE concert of music by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Gilbert Bibarian and others.
By Jacob Stockinger
He may be wrong, but The Ear does not think that Veterans Day — and Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth nations of the former British Empire — is just about war. And there is plenty of music one could play that aims to depict war and conflict.
But Veterans Day -– which was originally Armistice Day and was intended to mark the end of that vicious meat-grinder World War I that started 100 years ago this year and officially ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 –- is more about people and loss. So is Remembrance Day.
Given the way “total war” has evolved and been waged since World War I — just look at the Middle East and ISIS these days — one has to wonder: Shouldn’t civilians, including women and children, also be honored? When war is waged, usually all suffer and all sacrifice.
Not that the armed forces don’t come at the head of the line and hold a special place in our thoughts.
But these days a Requiem for All seems fit and appropriate.
That is probably why the prize-winning and popular documentary filmmaker Ken Burns also used the same music, arranged for solo piano, in his 2007 epic film about World War II called, simply, ‘The War.”
ALERT: The Youth Orchestra (below), under the baton of University of Wisconsin-Madison conductor James Smith and part of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), is into the final day of its 10-day tour to Argentina. Here is a link to the live blog:
By Jacob Stockinger
When did World War I start?
Some might argue it started with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. And the media had many features on that day a little over one month ago.
Then on July 28, 1914, the first shots were fired. That too received media coverage last week.
But the best I can find out, the actual and formal beginning of the “War To End All Wars” was Aug. 1, 1914 -– with the 100th anniversary falling yesterday.
See for yourself:
Quite a number of media stories -– on-line, in print, on TV and radio –- have focused on World War I. They usually take the tack of how it changed the world and its cultural politics and economics for many years after, and so directly set up the circumstances that led to World War II.
But NPR also ran a series of stories on what would have happened if World War I had never taken place. The consequences ranged from a much later discovery of antibiotics, technology and space travel to a completely different map of the Middle East that might have allowed us to escape some of the current turmoil.
And what was the effect of World War I on music?
You can Google the question and find a lot of entries.
Here are some of the more interesting ones that The Ear found:
The outstanding “Deceptive Cadence” blog on NPR (National Public Radio) by Tom Huizenga used audio samples to explore how the composers Maurice Ravel (below) and Gustav Holst responded to the war, as did the famed tenor Enrico Caruso:
From the BBC, here is a list of poets and composers. It asks the question: Why do we remember the poets more than the composers? When he wrote his “War” Requiem, British composer Benjamin Britten (below) used great texts from World War I poets to commemorate World Wart II and dedicate the reconstruction of the Coventry Cathedral. (You can hear the opening in a YouTube video at the bottom. Be sure to read the lyrics.)
Here is another British website that discusses British music, perhaps because that country’s composers responded more than other nations’ composers did, certainly more than American but also French, German and Russian composers:
Here is a story from The Wall Street Journal:
And here is a list of some important music composed during World War I:
What classic music and composers do you identify with World War I?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Today is June 6, 2014 –- the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when the Allies invaded the northwest coast of France on the beaches at Normandy and started the beginning of the end of Nazi domination in Western Europe by Adolf Hitler.
A lot of music commemorates war and the troops who fell in battle.
I offer two that may not be the best choices but that move me.
First, I offer the ninth variation, “Nimrod,” from British composer Sir Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. American documentary filmmaker Ken Burns used it very effectively in a solo piano version in his epic film about World War II called simply “The War.”
But I cannot find that version. So here is the a haunting and deeply moving orchestral performance in a popular YouTube video played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under its former music director and conductor Daniel Barenboim:
And here is the “Pavane for a Dead Princess” by French composer Maurice Ravel. He actually wrote “Le Tombeau de Couperin” and dedicated each movement to a different friend of his who died in World War I. But there is something quietly eloquent about the way Ravel uses the stately and processional dance step of the Pavane to express understated sorrow.
Ravel usually composed on the piano, and then orchestrated his own work. So here are two versions, the first orchestral and the second done on the piano and played by the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who captures just the right bittersweetness and poignancy.
You can decide which one best expresses your sentiments about today’s historic commemoration. Despite the coughing in the background, I tend to favor the simpler and more austere piano version. But both are deeply moving to me.
I am sure that many other works, from two famous funeral marches by Ludwig van Beethoven (in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” and the Piano Sonata in A-Flat Major, Op. 26) to the famous Funeral March by Frederic Chopin, would be appropriate.
Classical music –- instrumental, vocal and choral as well as operatic – offers so many appropriate choices. My guess is that NPR and Wisconsin Public Radio, like radio stations and even TV stations around the country and the world, will feature many such works in their programming for today. I would especially love to hear Requiems by Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gabriel Faure.
If you have a favorite, please leave a reply with a YouTube link if possible, plus the reasons why you like the work so much.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Today is Memorial Day, 2014
My Mom always referred to it as Decoration Day
I liked that name. It seemed to fit the occasion better.
To be honest, The Ear has always liked the idea of honoring military service, but is much less inclined to celebrate unabashed militarism with parades and flag-waving (below is a photo of a Memorial Day parade in Chicago).
I think of Memorial Day as a sadder, more introspective and memory-driven holiday, as well as the traditional start of summer -– which, especially after a Wisconsin winter like the last one, is nothing to apologize for.
In any case, here is a link to an informative but very accessible history of the holiday that also highlights the important difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day:
But putting history aside for a moment, how would you celebrate the holiday artistically, especially musically?
That is what The Ear wants to know.
But over the past years, The Well-Tempered Ear has also offered previous blog posts – some offering suggested listening, others seeking it — that still seem relevant and still invite readers to participate.
Here is one from last year:
And here is a link to memorable 2011 posting, which made a lot of suggestions for composers and specific works, then asked for reader feedback and also featured the moving version of Sir Edward Elgar’s beautifully poignant “Nimrod” Variation from the “Enigma” Variations (heard in the original orchestration at the bottom in a YouTube video that has almost 2,5 million hits and features Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and Norah Jones in her “Hymn to America,” both used convincingly and touchingly in Ken Burns’ mammoth documentary film “The War”:
Finally, here is a stirring story, much of it previously unknown to me, about the history of “Taps” that appeared on NPR:
What music comes to your mind and heart when you think of Memorial Day?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Is the novel dead yet?
Well, some say yes and some say no. I suppose it depends on what you are looking for.
Lots and lots of novels continue to be written and published, and to sell big.
But then again, one can argue, the novel just doesn’t seem to have the cultural power or sway, or the same serious reader appeal, that it once held in the 19th and 20th centuries.
So can one ask the same thing about the symphony?
Why should one compose today in a musical form or genre that can seem so outdated, according to some who critics who point out that it dates back to at least Franz Joseph Haydn in the 18th century with roots going back even further back than that.
The American composer Kevin Puts (below, in a photo by Andrew Shapter), defends writing symphonies, even as he is doing so. Puts, you may recall, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his opera “Silent Night,” about the Christmas Truce on the front lines and in the trenches during World War I.
By the way, Kevin Puts’ own 2001 postmodern orchestral piece “Inspiring Beethoven,” which is based on the famous Allegretto movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 (below, in a YouTube video with intriguing schematic graphics and over 5 million hits) was performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra two seasons ago. (You can hear “Inspiring Beethoven” performed in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
The Ear finds his case compelling and shares his defense of the symphony. Maybe you will too.
Here is a link to Puts’ essay, which has a lot of specific modern composer names and examples of modern symphonies as well as links:
What do you think? Is the symphony or concerto outdated or dead?
Do you have a favorite modern or contemporary symphony?
What is your favorite symphony of all time?
The Ear wants to hear.
But in the mean time, please excuse me.
I have to get back to working on the pre-deceased novel I am writing.
Maybe I’ll listen to a symphony while I am writing it.
By Jacob Stockinger
This weekend once again brings graduation and commencement ceremonies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Other universities, colleges and all kinds of schools all around the country will follow soon.
And many proud graduates, parents, family members and friends will hear the familiar strains of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D Major – which is still a stirring and appropriate choice of music for a processional. It may be a cliché, but it works.
There is also more, much more, than the “Enigma” Variations and the Cello Concerto, his other two most popular works performed in concert halls.
For example, there is the “Salut d’amour” which the The Ear thinks is one of the most lovely pieces of violin salon music ever composed. It is at the bottom; take a listen and see if you agree.
But there are also bigger pieces by the relatively untrained Elgar (below) that we should know better and hear more often. Like Brahms, Elgar struggled to write symphonies and composed them later in life – as almost everyone after Beethoven did.
But Marin Alsop takes NPR’s Scott Simon and listeners through a crash course it Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, which I heard conducted here by Kenneth Woods (below), a Madison native and graduate of West High School and the UW who is now the conductor of the Orchestra of the Swan in Cardiff, Wales. Several years ago, Wood returned to Madison to conductor the UW Symphony Orchestra in Symphony No. 1 (below). It proved to be an exciting and enlightening performance by a great Elgar advocate.
I thought the discussion between Alsop and Simon, complete with musical snippets from each movement of the Symphony No. 1, which was premiered in 1908, proved terrific and illuminating. See it and hear it for yourself:
But I was puzzled by one thing: They see Elgar as a great representative of the kind of noble majesty of Edwardian England – and he is. They are 100 percent right on that score.
But neither of them remarked on the devastating effect of World War I, which decimated English society and left a lasting effect on the arts and so much more. World War I changed everything. That’s a major reason why Elgar’s music summons up a different world, a more reassuring and kinder, gentler world, a more stable world based on a strictly stratified and classist society. Think “Downton Abbey.”
Anyway, listen to the discussion and musical excerpts on this NPR broadcast and then let The Ear know what you think and which pieces by Sir Edward Elgar you love best and in what performances.
Maybe we should even make Graduation Weekend each year also Sir Edward Elgar Weekend, and use it as a time to reconsider his work, which in many ways still remains underestimated and underperformed more than a century later.