I finally got around to posting this video of my performance with the Denver Pops Orchestra last October. It is better than I remembered. Not a technically perfect performance, but I think it has enough character and flash to compensate for any minor errors. To quote the great Ludwig van Beethoven, “To play a wrong note is insignificant, to play with out passion is inexcusable.”
I’ve stayed pretty busy the last several months. I worked with a local high school marching band last fall that made finals in the state marching band competition, I launched a new website for the Denver Pops Orchestra (visit it here), and I became an affiliate faculty clarinet teacher at a private Christian college, also nearby.
I’m feeling inspired to write again but I’m not sure where I will find the time. I have so many unrealized ideas to explore on this publication and I am tempted to stay up late a couple evenings per week to flesh them out. Wish me luck. And feel free to post your feedback on the video, too.
Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) was a French composer who wrote in a modern, yet Romantic style. Romanticism appeals to wider audiences because of its tangible, often extreme emotions, lyricism, and memorable melodies. It is often programmic, meaning that it characterizes a specific story. As Allan McMurray (now retired from CU-Boulder after 35 years as Director of Bands) would say, “All music is doing one of two things. It’s either singing or it’s dancing.” Trois Pièces Brèves (Three Short Pieces) for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn by Jacques Ibert has examples of both.
Movement one is a fun, carefree country dance. While there is an oboe solo in the middle that seems to call into question the carefree atmosphere, the dance resumes and works itself into a frenzy by the end of the movement. Though the form is not technically the same, the melody of this dance sounds like an Irish Gigue to which Ibert would have had some exposure. A gigue is characterized by a strong backbeat which can inspire toe-tapping, even knee-slapping. Please keep the knee-slapping to a dull roar during the performance.
Movement two is a ballad (love song) featuring the flute and clarinet. It is a conversation between the two, sometimes in close harmony, sometimes fairly independent of one another. It contains some rubato which is defined as the pushing forward and pulling back of tempo (speed), where the performer is allowed to be more expressive and free than in other music. It is the performer’s objective to imitate the human voice in these passages. The horn player in this movement is made to count dozens of measures of rest and then play one long, low, muted note. Brass players often find themselves doing this in orchestral music, but it is rare to rest that long in a woodwind quintet setting.
Movement three opens tentatively with solos in horn and bassoon that are reminiscent of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris. The two dances in this movement are a quick dance in 4 and a waltz in 3. The exuberant clarinet and flute solos pass to oboe who again represents the more serious voice. In general, this movement could be characterized as “episodic” meaning that it passes from one event to the next quickly, with little transitional material, similar to a TV series episode.
The title of this piece, Le Calme de la Mer, is French for “The Calm of the Sea.” It is a work of French Impressionism, though its composer, Tony Aubin (1907-1981) lived and composed much later than other Impressionist composers. This piece was published in 1965 while most impressionist works were published before 1920. Aubin was influenced by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Paul Dukas, who was one of Aubin’s teachers.
To the right is a photograph of Tony Aubin coaching a trio with the same instrumentation as this piece: flute, clarinet, and piano. This is a rare instrumentation because all of the instruments sound in a generally higher pitch than other groups who have low-sounding instruments as well as high. A trio with just three performers has the advantage of being small enough for each instrument to get a chance to perform the melody, accompany it, and play in close harmony.
Hommage à M. De Falla is an exciting, visceral piece that was composed in the style of a traditional Spanish dance known as flamenco. Manuel De Falla (1876-1946) was arguably the most famous composer in Spanish history and lived in Madrid, Paris, and finally Argentina after the Spanish civil war in 1939. This work is especially well-written for unaccompanied clarinet because Kovács made the clarinet sound like several different instruments, often at the same time. For example, in the beginning, the clarinet sounds like trumpets playing a fanfare or horns at the start of a hunt. During the fast section, the clarinet sounds much like Spanish guitar strumming major and minor chords and finger picking between two strings.
An hommage is a piece of music written to pay tribute to something or someone. In this case, the tribute is being paid by Hungarian clarinet professor Béla Kovács to French composer Claude Debussy. Béla Kovács (b. 1937) is Professor of Clarinet at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music and performs in orchestras in Budapest, Hungary. Here is what Professor Kovacs had to say about these pieces:
My pedagogical activities inspired me to compose the Hommages. The pieces were intended to be etudes or studies which students may use as supplementary material to the usual dry and mechanical – although indispensable – exercises. They contain various challenges. If performed with impressive dexterity, proper tone production and sufficient knowledge of styles, coupled with a sense of humor and a certain amount of fantasy, they could, hopefully, find success even on the concert stage. I recommend the Hommages to all my former, present, and future students, and also to those, who, recognizing their value, may wish to devote more concentrated attention to them.
Béla Kovács is an excellent replicator of various composers’ styles, such as that of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The bulk of Debussy’s works fall under the category of French Impressionism, which was a movement in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century that departed from the more obvious, overt style of Romanticism. Impressionist music is much like impressionist art: it depicts the figurative meaning of a person, object, or scene rather than the literal portrait. The emotions are more subtle and covert. Also, the melodies are more difficult to identify because they weave together an atmosphere rather than a song or dance. Kovács directly quotes at least two of Debussy’s works in this piece for unaccompanied clarinet including his Premiere Rhapsody and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which is perhaps Debussy’s most famous work.
If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t written in a couple months, here’s why! I gave a solo clarinet recital and played introduction videos to each piece I performed. I’ll explain more about my vision behind this kind of performance later. Enjoy!
Here are the program notes I wrote for this piece:
Introduction, Theme & Variations by Gioachino Rossini
Have you heard the theme from the 1960s television series Bonanza? What about the famous tenor, Pavarotti, singing “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro?” Those famous tunes come from Gioachino Rossini’s (1792- 1868) operas, William Tell and The Barber of Seville. When most people think of Italian Classical music, they think of Rossini. His style is graceful yet dramatic, comical yet powerful. It is generally believed that Rossini composed Introduction, Theme & Variations as a student project at the Bologna Conservatory of Music when he was very young. Indeed, theme and variations is a great form to practice for composers because it helps them think creatively about a melody and how it can morph to take on different shapes, characters and emotions. In this piece you will hear a broad, sweet-sounding introduction, a playful theme, five variations on the original theme that become more and more exciting, showing off the full range and velocity of the clarinet, including a slow, semi-serious variation in a minor key, and a dramatic cadenza.
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) is one of my favorite composers because of the intriguing tonality, unique instrument combinations (scoring), and mostly because of the passionate emotion that is packed into every piece. His piano concertos are especially worth exploring because of their accessibility to audiences and the incredible virtuosity in the piano parts. Because Rachmaninov had such incredibly large hands, he was well suited to the piano and produced some of the most well-known music in piano repertoire.
To continue with my exploration of emotion in Classical music, today’s clips come from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Mvt 2: Adagio Sostenuto. The title of this movement simply means slow, smooth, and sustained. Not very descriptive. But the music is incredibly descriptive of one emotion in particular: longing. Longing for deep satisfaction. For intimate love. To know and to be known deeply. To be near a loved one and see their smile, even if for a moment. The kind of longing that takes away breath and causes deep sighing. When I listen to this music, I get a sense of longing so intense that it makes my heart hurt. And yet it is worth listening to every minute because of how beautiful and inspiring it is.
Ending scene from the movie “Love Actually”
The simple melody first appears in the clarinet, which produces a sweet, innocent tone quality that could soften even the most callous listener. The quiet, warmth of the strings playing major chords in the background and the piano accompanying the clarinet brings about a supported, safe feeling.
But as they say, “love hurts.” There are few pieces that characterize romantic love that do not also display a dissonant longing, hurting, or yearning for something that once was that may never be again. Or a longing for something that can never be, except fantasy. This next clip captures this with great accuracy. The key switches from major to minor as Rachmaninov alters the melody to sound sad. It sounds sad because the middle note in the 3-note chord is one half-step lower and because the melody goes down instead of staying up. It speaks to how being in love can be disappointing when there is distance, hurt feelings, or because it just doesn’t satisfy the feeling of deep longing.
Rachmaninov then takes us on a whole emotional journey (or some might call it a roller coaster) only to return to the original melody, much stronger and more certain than before. This clip starts with the last note of the melody in the strings, but instead of ending the movement, the melody turns around and goes up. The feeling here is a flower blossoming in the sun, opening to reveal its radiance. To me it feels like one big, orchestral embrace. It’s like the music holds me, grips me, and refuses to let go. It feels like divine love.
You’ll have to excuse my extreme sentimentality in this post. To some, this music is too romantic and sentimental, like overly-rich fudge. It is easy to write off Classical music of this kind because cynicism is so prevalent. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” But my hope is that you’ll let your guard down and listen to the whole concerto (32:30) and allow yourself to be swept away by the music. I hope it will leave you feeling loved and satisfied, and perhaps longing for more the way it does for me.
This post is dedicated to my wife who is my encouragement, my inspiration, and whose love I long for more than ever after seven years of marriage. I love you, Dawn! This piece reminds me so much of you.
Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) is one of the most popular composers, conductors, and clinicians today. He is very charismatic, tech-savvy, and has just received his first Grammy award. Be sure to check out his website where there are many amazing projects, such as his virtual choirs which are explained in his Ted Talk. While principally a composer of choral works, my favorite piece of his was written for band, or wind symphony as those in the profession call it.
October by Eric Whitacre is today’s piece of Classical music that expresses sadness. Here is what the composer has to say about the piece:
October is my favorite month. Something about the crisp autumn air and the subtle change in light always makes me a little sentimental, and as I started to sketch I felt that same quiet beauty in the writing. The simple, pastoral melodies and subsequent harmonies are inspired by the great English Romantics (Vaughn Williams, Elgar) as I felt that this style was also perfectly suited to capture the natural and pastoral soul of the season.
I share Whitacre’s sentiments, but I would add that to me, the piece expresses a sad, emptiness. Listen to the couple of clarinets accompanying the oboe soloist.
It seems as though the oboe is calling out for comfort, a kind word, love or acceptance. As I hear this part, I do imagine a pastoral scene where I am in the middle of a field of wheat, completely alone without a soul in sight. The scene has a chilling beauty to it, as though it would make me happy if only I had someone to share it with.
Soloists often express human emotion the most tangibly. There are two oboe solos in this piece and a rare euphonium solo as well. If you are not familiar, a euphonium is a low brass instrument with roughly the same range as a trombone. However, it has valves like a tuba and has a bell that faces up instead of forward. It tends to have a sweeter, more muted sound than the trombone. The University of North Texas, where I received my masters degree, has the only full-time euphonium professor, Brian Bowman. I gained a new appreciation for the instrument during my time there, being surrounded by so many great euphonium players.
I confess that it is difficult to listen to this piece without shedding tears. Even when I heard it for the first time in high school, I cried. And high school-age boys are not supposed to cry. I suppose I couldn’t help it, as there are some sections that express the heaving kind of crying, weeping, or sobbing. It seems that waves of emotion come over the listener during some sections, such as this one:
While the piece does end on a strong major chord, it is only after a long emotional journey. The feeling the listener is left with by Whitacre is one of a greater appreciation and greater affection for that which is important in life. This is perhaps the chief utility of negative emotions like sadness and sorrow: to give us a better perspective on the good. Thanks, Eric.
Pain. Sorrow. Sadness. Grief. These are sentiments that are expressed most poignantly by almost every musical genre. I think people turn to music because sorrow is such an intense emotion, it is difficult to process. Sometimes it isn’t enough to cry, sob, lay in bed for hours, or explain the feeling of sorrow in words. We must listen to, write, or perform a piece of music to reflect our deepest feelings. For me, music can bring about a certain clarity and can help me ride the waves of emotion instead of let them crash over me.
There is a lot of very sad Classical music. In his Ted Talk, Benjamin Zander discussed how Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 in E minor helped an unlikely audience member mourn the death of his brother for the first time. Until then, he was unable to cry for his brother. It is on this emotion that Classical music probably speaks to the most number of people.
Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is one of the saddest, most beautiful, cathartic pieces I know. Composed in 1938, Adagio for Strings has appeared in at least 10 movies, many TV shows, and even video games. Its very simple form, harmony, and instrumentation (just violin, viola, cello and bass) make it a piece that is very easy to connect with. It is a great meditation piece because it is the same melody repeated over and over, just with changing texture and dynamics. In musical terms, texture is how many instruments are playing at once. In this piece, sometimes it is just the first violins, or just the violas that are playing at a time. The first note, for example, features just a few violin players.
This brings about a sense of vulnerability and anticipation. The listener may subconsciously think, “if there is only one note and no harmony, how will I know if the piece is happy or sad, or how it will end?” The form of the piece is an arch, with the dynamic getting louder to the point of climax, then dying down to a sleepy resignation. It is perhaps reflective of the last two stages of grief cycle, from depression to acceptance. There may be some anger and bargaining in there as well, especially during the climax section. As the emotions get more intense, the music becomes louder, the strings change the direction of their bows more abruptly, and there is clearly a feeling of anger and asking “why?”
I’ve always been struck that this piece ends on a major chord, but it is not the one we expect. But aren’t major chords supposed to make us feel happy? Well this one doesn’t!
The musical term for this is half cadence. Here’s a simple harmony lesson: every chord in a chord progression is numbered, from 1 to 7, depending on which notes it has in it. Many chord progressions will use a one chord, then a four chord, then a five chord, and then go back to the one chord. The five chord has notes in it that make us want to hear the one chord again. If we don’t hear the one chord again, it can be a little disturbing. Well that is just what Samuel Barber did to us on this last chord. It signifies something very important: that even though we can express and process through our sorrow, it may never fully go away.
I am so happy to be writing again after moving my family to another state over the last couple months. After sadness/sorrow, there are two more emotions I’d like to discuss and then I’ll move on. I’m glad you’re here reading and (hopefully) leaving comments.
Today’s clip goes beyond elation or joy. The most fitting word is
euphoria |yo͞oˈfôrēə| – noun – a feeling or state of intense excitement and happiness
The exuberance in Overture from Ruslan and Lyudmila by Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) is very contagious. It is hard for me to listen to this music and think anything but positive thoughts. This piece is all about seizing the day, the thrill of the chase, zeal for life, and gusto. Listening to this piece makes me feel like I could do anything. It reminds me of how much life is an adventure just waiting to happen.
A not-so-euphoric Glinka
It is hard to imagine the man from this portrait writing such euphoric music, but of course his music displays a wide variety of emotions. Glinka is often referred to as the “Russian father of Classical music.” He came before most of the major Russian composers you may have heard of like Borodin, Rimsky-Korsokov, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky.
The Russian style of Classical music has always been one of great intensity, grandeur, and virtuosity. It is the opposite of subtle and can be over-stated. The Russian style is like the William Shatner of Classical music. It’s the greatest music you’ve ever heard but sometimes it’s a bit much.
Anyway, this overture is no exception. According to my Apple dictionary, an overture is simply “an introduction to something more substantial.” This definition is quite ironic considering overtures can be quite substantial themselves. Overture from Ruslan and Lyudmila begins with a bang with the whole orchestra playing at once: drums, strings, woodwinds and brass. This acts as a spring board to launch the string section high into the air with their sixteenth-note runs.
This happens a second time before sending the strings into a frenzy of notes reaching up into the highest parts of their range. Though they may sound incredibly virtuosic, these kinds of sixteenth-note runs can be quite easy to play. Classical musicians spend much of their time practicing scales, which is all these runs consist of. As long as the runs do not skip a note or two or are in a difficult key, the average professional Classical musician should have no problems with them. Here is a recording from one of my clarinet recitals playing the finale from Sonata for Clarinet by Camille Saint-Saens. Enjoy!