Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Tone Poem Tuesday

It's well known that Beethoven write only a single opera, Fidelio. A bit less well known is that Beethoven also wrote a single ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. In Beethoven's time, ballet was seen mainly as a dance art, and the music was just a framework for the dance. This being the case, it was generally the job of lesser composers to write ballet numbers, while the finer, more serious composers stuck with opera and symphonies and concertos and all the rest. Beethoven was approached in 1801 by Salvatore Vigano, a composer and dancer who was preparing a new ballet based on the legend of Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from the heavens and gave it to humanity. Vigano apparently felt strongly enough about the project to want better music for it than he could himself provide, so he asked his friend Ludwig van Beethoven to compose it for him. Beethoven agreed, perhaps because by this point he hadn't really composed anything for the Vienna stage yet and wanted to establish his name in that arena (Fidelio was still in the future). His resulting ballet is full of Beethovenian classicism and drama, with good cheer and wit throughout. If you're looking for the brooding Beethoven of, say, the Pathetique Sonata or the storm of the Third Symphony (which was still three years away from revolutionizing the symphony as a form), you won't find it here. This is as close as Beethoven probably came to the verve and energy of, say, Rossini.

Here is a suite drawn from Beethoven's music for The Creatures of Prometheus. The work proper starts about a minute in; what's heard at first over the gathering of concertgoers in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is a brief snippet of the larger work that you'll hear in full later on. I'd never heard this piece before I gave it several listens this weekend past, and it's an utter delight. It's always worth remembering that Beethoven could be delightful!

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Something for Thursday: Thanks, Kenny

Kenny Rogers died this past weekend. He had a long and productive life of music-making, and I won't try to offer a major retrospective here. I will note that Rogers was just...always there, wasn't he? And he was always there in a good way. Never once did I hear Kenny's rough voice and think, "Uh, no, I'm not in the mood right now, Kenny." He was always good, always reliable, and in his best songs he always knew how to sell the emotion of the tune.

This song, I believe, was a favorite of my father's back in the day. Thanks for the music, Kenny Rogers!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Tone Poem Tuesday

Not so much a tone poem, but rather a concerto with tone poem-like qualities...and a concerto that is a multi-movement work and a collaboration between multiple composers. Whew! It's the Yellow River Piano Concerto, arranged into a concerto from themes by composer Xian Xinghai for a work called Yellow River Cantata. The work's history is interestingly messy and problematic, as it was none other than Chairman Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, who ordered a collection of musicians to adapt the Cantata into the Concerto. The work was extremely popular in China initially, but then disappeared from concert halls in that country for many years until it started being heard again in the 1980s. The piece is in four movements, titled as follows: Prelude: The Song of the Yellow River Boatman, Ode to the Yellow River, The Wrath of the Yellow River, and Defend the Yellow River.

The work is brash and very eager to please, and it feels almost like a guided tour of cliches in East Asian music. But there's something unquestioningly compelling about the piece, and it always makes for a vibrant and exciting listen, mostly because its melodies are so gorgeous, its orchestral writing is so good, and (this is key) it's only twenty minutes or so long, so it never overstays its welcome. Here is the Yellow River Concerto.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Beethoven: Two early works

As I noted a while back (before The Virus took hold of our collective imaginations), I'm spending a lot of 2020 digging into the world of Ludwig van Beethoven. I'm currently reading a "life and works" book about him, and I plan to read a few more books about him before this year is out. One thing I learned that I didn't know is that while most of Beethoven's works carry opus numbers, not all of them did. Some of these are works that only survived in fragmentary form, while others are youthful works that an adult Beethoven--whose main source of income was the publishing and printing of his works--kept out of the public eye, likely because he considered them his 'student' works. These were gathered and numbered in the 20th century under the designation Werke ohne Opuszahl, or "Works without opus number", abbreviated as "WoO". As I've been listening to more Beethoven of late, I've listened to a number of these WoO works, and I present two here.

First is a piece of chamber music: the Piano Quartet No.3 in C Major (WoO 36, no. 3). A piano quartet is basically a string quartet with the second violin removed and a piano substituted. Piano quartets are generally uncommon, and the three Quartets in the WoO 36 group are the only ones he composed. In fact, they were never published until after his death, and Beethoven wrote the three Piano Quartets when he was only 15. They show a heavy influence of Mozart, and according to my reading, they even use some of Mozart's thematic material, although I couldn't tell you where. The work is charming and, well, pleasant in the most wonderfully Classical way. And he wrote this when he was fifteen. Yikes!

And if Beethoven at 15 was impressive, let's turn back the clock to when he was just 12. This is, by all accounts, the first published piece Beethoven ever wrote, when he had undertaken lessons with Christian Neefe, one of the most prominent musicians in his hometown of Bonn, Germany. As an exercise, Neefe had assigned his young student to write a series of variations on a march by a composer named Ernst Dressler, and this seven-minute work is the result. It's not particularly profound, but one can definitely tell that this was a twelve-year-old with a keen ear and a strong sense for thematic possibilities.

More Beethoven to come! We're only just getting started.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Something for Thursday

Here's a bit of film music, by the underheard (at least by me) composer Basil Poledouris. This, from the movie The Hunt for Red October, is "The Hymn To Red October". This cue opens the film as we get our first glimpse of the giant Russian submarine that will dominate the story. Poledouris gives the cue, with the Russian hymn, a certain soaring naval quality that works wonderfully.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Checking In....

Well, on the day the world "went viral" in the worst way possible, my hard drive died, remember? So into Best Buy and the Geek Squad the thing went. Now the computer is home and has a spiffy new solid-state hard drive, which I'm told is better for speed because there are no moving parts. The tradeoff is less storage capacity, but I'm fine with that as I have several external hard drives, two cloud-storage accounts, and a bunch of flash-drives. I'm good.

Of more concern, obviously, is the unfolding disaster of the Coronavirus. We're doing fine thus far at Casa Jaquandor. I'm still working, which is good because my workplace (grocery store, for those who don't remember) is exceedingly unlikely to be forced to close because of this event. The Daughter is working at her fast-food job, which is going fine, because they're takeout-only, and The Wife is now working at home for her banking job. So far, so good. Short of me being able to work from home too, I think we're in as good a position to ride this out safely (whilst still pulling in our incomes) as is likely to exist. Of course, that this state of affairs constitutes a really good position for riding this crisis out is a statement in itself, but that's a thought for another time. For now, we're doing well, thought I must admit to being a bit on the ragged side right now, because the flip side of having a pretty safe job in a pandemic is that we've been getting our asses kicked for...about a week now. Ouch!

So, more to come soon. For now, since I missed both Tone Poem Tuesday and St. Patrick's Day, here's the United States Marine Band playing "Irish Tune from County Derry," arranged by the great Percy Grainger.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Nothing for Thursday....

In the "When it rains, it pours!" department, my poor laptop has suffered the dreaded "Hard Drive Not Found" ailment. It's going to the shop later today, but for now all I got is my phone, and as much as I love my phone, I am decidedly NOT a big fan of it as a device for writing anything longer than a tweet. So, radio silence here starts now. Hopefully it'll just be a few days!

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Tone Poem Tuesday

Carl Maria von Weber is one of those composers who is better known to historians of music than to actual listeners of it, which always seems to me a pity. His work represents a crucial step in the development of German opera between the Classical era of Mozart and Beethoven and the full-blown Romanticism of Richard Wagner. Weber's final work was an opera called Oberon, for which he worked himself sick (maybe even hastening his own death) to learn English so he could most effectively set the libretto, which was in that language. Oberon has never become an operatic standard the way Weber's earlier masterpiece, Der Freischutz, did, although several excerpts from Oberon have become commonplace in the concert hall. According to David Dubal's The Essential Canon of Classical Music, Oberon's fate is due to serious deficiencies in its libretto. I honestly have no idea if that's the case or not, but I do know that plenty of operas see rare stagings because of libretto concerns: either the stories and plots are ridiculous, or the demands on the singers are too bizarre, or the staging demands are so outlandish as to be unfeasible. Quite a few operas exist in this weird nether-state, with wonderful scores written by great composers that sadly languish in obscurity because the non-musical aspects of the operas aren't up to snuff. One wonders if the current trend to concert performances of operas might help to give some of these works a fresh hearing.

In the meantime, here is the wonderful overture to Oberon. Note its dreamy opening, with that slow horn-call melody, which gradually becomes a vigorous and adventurous piece. If I heard that at the beginning of an opera, I'd certainly be intrigued to hear more!

Monday, March 09, 2020

Bring Back

Since St. Patrick's Day is approaching, I thought I'd listen to some Irish and Celtic music while at work today. A good starting point for such a mood is always The Chieftains, so I looked up one of my favorite albums of theirs, Fire in the Kitchen. This isn't exactly considered an "official" Chieftains album, as its selections were all recorded on the spur-of-the-moment as they toured in Canada and appeared with a number of that country's notable Celtic acts, but it is quite a wonderful album anyway. One of my favorite tracks is this haunting rendition of "My Bonny Lies O'er the Ocean", sung hauntingly by a woman named Laura Smith.

It suddenly occurred to me that I know nothing at all about Laura Smith, so I looked her up.

She died the day before yesterday.


Thursday, March 05, 2020

Something for Thursday

A change of pace today, I think. Over on Twitter today we were discussing the great 1980s geek comedy Real Genius, in the context of Sheila O'Malley's piece about director Martha Coolidge. Real Genius somehow wasn't a big hit when it came out in 1985 or so, but it should have been, and it is rightly seen nowadays as a classic comedy film of the era. Its story involves super-geniuses in the physics department at a California university and what they do when it turns out that their research project, a super-powered laser, is actually a stealth project for the Defense Department, and its humor is warm and witty and the movie creates a world all its own, eschewing a lot of the usual tropes and stereotypes about nerdy, awkward young people. All that is great; it's a fantastic movie! But in terms of music, it's for the most part a typical 1980s-pop song "score", but again with a lot of good choices made in terms of the songs used. It certainly nailed the song for the end credits, the cheerfully goofy "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" by Tears For Fears, which fits the film's mood and subject matter nearly perfectly. Tears For Fears was one of those quintessential 1980s bands, fronted by two odd-looking dudes who played synth-heavy pop music that was often oddly infectious.

So here is Tears For Fears, with "Everybody Wants To Rule The World".

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Tone Poem Tuesday (Beethoven at 250)

This year has all manner of potential to be...well, roughly on par with its several immediate predecessors, but let's try not to focus on that entirely, OK? Let us instead focus occasionally, for the remainder of the year, on the fact that 2020 will see the two-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the birth of one of the towering figures in all human art, Ludwig van Beethoven.

I'm planning on going down quite the Beethoven rabbit hole this year. I won't feature him every week in this space; sometimes he'll appear on Something for Thursday, sometimes he'll have a post of his own, and sometimes he might not even appear on this blog for a week or two at a time. But I plan to make old Ludwig quite the presence here for the remainder of the year, leading up to his actual birthdate on December 16.

For today, we will lead off Ten Months of Beethoven with the overture to his one and only opera, Fidelio. This opera springs from Beethoven's eternal concerns about human freedom and liberty, as well as the devotion of love to those causes. In the opera, a woman named Leonore decides to free her husband from his unjust imprisonment, and in so doing, she adopts the costume and identity of a young man named Fidelio. Beethoven's process in composing this opera was typically strained and tortured; he labored over versions of the opera for years and he eventually produced not one but four overtures for the piece, finally settling on this final version, which is shot through with lyrical excitement and light.

Aaron Copland wrote of Beethoven:

Beethoven brought three startling innovations to music: first, he altered out very conception of the art by emphasizing the psychological element implicit in the language of sounds. Secondly, his own stormy and explosive temperament was, in part, responsible for a dramatization of the whole art of music...Both of these elements--the psychological orientation and the instinct for drama--are inextricably linked in my mind with his third and possibly most original achievement: the creation of musical forms dynamically conceived on a scale never before attempted and of an inevitability that is irresistible."

Here is the Fidelio overture by Ludwig van Beethoven.