Mannheim Symphonies

Ignore the music!

We talk all the time about our American degradation of all forms of high culture. We wear jeans to the opera. We check our glowing cell phones at live theater. We bring crinkly bags of potato chips into the cinema. As we all remember, we let our cell phones ring in the middle of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the New York Philharmonic, and have to be reminded to turn them off by the frustrated conductor.

However, symphonic music as background noise is absolutely nothing new. Back in the early 18th century, one of the most popular styles and schools of symphonic composition, the Mannheim school in Germany was basically ignored by its usually-courtly audiences. Despite including some of the best musicians anywhere in its large orchestra, Mannheim composers often had to include compositional techniques that would retrieve the audience’s attention back from their other activities.


Mannheim symphonies probably were background music because the nobility often played cards during concerts. However, the idea that the symphony was completely ignored also isn’t entirely true because of the fact that the symphony’s performances were very expressive. If the audience didn’t pay any attention to the orchestra, then, it wouldn’t make sense for them to add nuances to their performances because their listeners would only hear a wash of sound anyways.


However, the orchestra often had to work to steal their listeners’ attention back to the music. Many expressive and explosive musical techniques—such as the Mannheim sigh, rocket, and roll—were created during this time. One may think these new techniques were necessary because the orchestra needed to steal their listeners’ attention away from whatever activity they were doing.


Because of the use of these techniques, musical scholars have said that the orchestra was like a group of leaders. Again, if the audience wasn’t paying attention, they wouldn’t need to have any nuances or creative new ideas. In this case, it may be preferable if no one were a leader besides the first violinist-conductor. But because people did listen to Mannheim symphonies they had a group of leaders to create new musical ideas to keep people interested and to keep their orchestra on the cutting edge of music.


Ironically, one of the biggest Christmastime noise bands, Mannheim Steamroller, is often played at malls or at suburban homes for background noise in trimming the tree and the like. Mannheim Steamroller seems to embrace their often-ignored status.


What do you think of ignoring the playing of classical music? Do you think that the Mannheim school had it right?

Johannes Brahms: Simultaneously Old and New

German composer Johannes Brahms is probably one of the most recognizable and notable composers of all time. Born in 1833 and raised in Hamburg, Brahms later moved to the musically-rich city of Vienna, Austria, where he influenced the musical scene, and became one of the movers and shakers in the Romantic movement.


Simultaneously conservative and progressive, Brahms used both traditional techniques. His music encourages intellectual listening as opposed to fellow German composer Richard Wagner, whose music he called only a wash of sound. Additionally, although he used the Baroque technique of starting a theme and then messing with, he does something new in that all things in the piece are based on this one theme—the accompaniment, the melody, everything—as opposed to sonata form which has many themes.


Brahms is in the same tradition as Beethoven in his composing because, unlike other popular composers of the time, Brahms appreciated many of the same elements as Beethoven in his works. Brahms reveres Beethoven and explicitly quotes snippets of his music in a number of his own compositions. Brahms comes very close to Beethoven in part of his symphony. Additionally, Brahms can do both light as well as dark, which Beethoven failed at later in his compositional career. Brahms has many of the wonderful qualities of Beethoven in his composition, as well as a few that Beethoven never mastered and that he is a composer of whom to be proud, but still, Brahms is no Beethoven and, as original as Brahms is, is still using some techniques which Beethoven created and perfected. 


Brahms may have incorporated both the old and the new into his work because of his ideas about inspiration, or “a gift,” from above. Brahms thought that there is “no real creating without hard work.” He also said that if he left a fragment of a composition alone for a time, when he returned to it is has taken a better shape in his mind. These statements are significant because Brahms takes into account both inspiration and perspiration into account when detailing how he composes. It is interesting that he says if he leaves a part of a composition untouched for a time, it has taken shape in his brain, both because this seems to leave out some of the hard work he discussed earlier and really solidifies his a genius of a mind, one that can work even without a conscious effort.


What do you think of Brahms’ compositions? Do you think he has mastered both the old and the new?


National music

Example A: the Kazakh national anthem blooper.

Last week, we all heard about the national anthem snafu that happened at a shooting tournament in Kuwait. If you missed the news, the organizers of the tournament mistakenly played the fake Kazakhstani national anthem created by Sacha Baron Cohen for his Kazakhstani character, Borat. The organizers said they choose the fake anthem mistakenly when searching for the real one online. The Kazakhstani team seemed to take the incident in stride—they even held their hands over their hearts as the fake anthem played—but demanded an apology and a new awards ceremony afterwards.

Certainly, this instance proves the importance of national music. While countries’ national anthems are the most obvious and well-known examples of music, national music is by no means restricted to this category.

More broadly defined, national music is a country’s music created indigenously by and for the people. National music can be discovered or created. A composer can decide to compose national music, and find already existing or create his own themes which correspond to music of his country. A type of music can become national music either if the composer intends to be or if it is appropriated to be played for a highly politically charged or nationally significant event. Other non-nationally created music, including so-called “folk music” of the masses can be republished or redistributed as national music of the land. Because the general population doesn’t know the origins of this music, it can be considered historically-based and ancient and therefore the music of their “people.”

In an age when music popular in one country is usually popular in many, many others, it’s relevant to ask whether a country’s national music is preferable to non-native music. Some musical scholars answer this question by saying that the music that is closest in character to the nation where it is from is the most preferable. Composer and musicologist Anton Dvorak once said that the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony  was his best because it is the most German and Weber’s best opera was Der Freishcuts because it addressed the most German of situations. Dvorak seems to believe that music that taps into a trueness of an aspect of a national identity that whether or not the composer is of that nationality, makes for the best and realest kind of music.

What did you think of the Kazakhstani debacle and the concept of national music? Do you think national music is still relevant in today’s world?

Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice"

Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714-1787) was a Bohemian opera composer who was born in what is now Bavaria. He is known for the fusion of Italian, French and Austrian music, as well as his early compositions for the Hapsburg court. For his time, he was something of a revolutionary, advocating a reform of opera in Austria, as well as making significant advancements in opera composition in Paris. He left Paris after the failure of his opera Echo et Narcisse, living once again in Vienna until his death.

His most well-received and famous opera was Orfeo ed Euridice, which was first performed in Vienna in 1762. The opera is based on the mythological story of Orpheus, the prophet in Greek religion. Orfeo ed Euridice is one of the first of his revolutionary operas that were created based on the idea of “noble simplicity,” or the departure from traditional opera, which included complicated plots and music, returning instead to simplicity of music and plot.


Listen to Act II, Scene One here.



This chorus is very intense and throughout the early sections, it feels like it is building up to something big. This chorus is a little bit like concerto grosso because there are two orchestras and a chorus. The sixteenth notes in the Coro section in contrast to the isorthythmic and rhythmically simple vocal part is very dramatic. The contrast between one of the orchestra and the chorus is often shocking. For example, the contrast between measure 23 and 24 is huge and abrupt from a unison orchestra with a pretty harp to an intense orchestra and a unison note in the vocal part. The orchestra part often comes in with the choral part to build intensity and accent certain words. For example in the second coro section, in starting in measure 64, the bass has four grace notes and then a quarter note in time with the isorhythmic vocal part. This highlights those words, which mean “frightened by,” and “the shrieks” and build up the intensity. At the ballo section, the repeated quarter notes in every instrumental parts, building intensity as more and more parts come together, build the anticipation of Orfeo’s plea to the Furies for Euridice. Orfeo’s beautiful, melodic lyric lines make the simple unison “No!” by the Furies that much more shocking and unexpected.


What do you think of Orfeo ed Euridice? Are you a fan of Gluck?

Bach's "Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland"

Inspired by Martin Luther.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a big fan of Martin Luther, who composed many of the chorales that we still hear in church today. One of Bach’s most famous pieces that was inspired by Luther was “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” specifically the chorus of this piece.


This movement sounds older than it is. Bach doesn’t seem to follow the modern styles in this piece. This movement has a lot going on, but it all works together well contrapuntally. At the beginning of the movement, which is in a minor key like Luther’s chorale, the oboes are moving in sixteenth notes and the strings in eighth notes, but as the opening moves on, the strings and continuo begin to play sixteenth notes in imitative counterpoint of each other and the oboes. This style is an older style which wasn’t commonly used when Bach was writing.


When the singers come in, they also participate in the imitative lines, both with each other and with the instruments. For example, the tenor line in measure 20 sings the same rhythmic motive of an eighth followed by two sixteenth notes as is in the oboe part continuously. The original chorale melody doesn’t come into the piece until measure 22 and then, according to the Burkholder, it comes in as a cantus firmus, which is an ancient device at this point. The text works with this feeling of ancientness because it was written by Luther nearly two-hundred years before. Specific examples of effective text painting include the text painting on the phrase “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” because the rhythm is much slower, and therefore much more insistent and pleading in contrast with the moving notes around it.


Another example of cool text painting is at all parts singing the word “Welt” which means “marveled.” Before this word, all of the parts had been singing mostly eighth notes, but on this note they begin to sing only in sixteenth runs. These runs evoke a sense that the singer is in awe. This piece is like a concerto grosso in that in the beginning, the strings and oboe, in their style and the way it is contrapuntally arranged, sound like a small ensemble and when the voices and the string and wind ensemble join together it sounds like a large ensemble. It is also similar to concerto grosso in that it is written, as the Burkholder says, with the chorale phrases framed by instrumental ritornellos, which also happens in concerto grosso. At measure 43 through the end of that phrase, the vocal material begins to imitate the instrumental part exactly. Then, when the vocal part comes in again at measure 45, it begins to repeat the same ideas as the vocal part at the beginning of the movement.





A Look At Mozart's Lacrimosa, Part One

The Requiem in D Minor is perhaps one of Mozart's most powerful and poignant pieces still standing today. The requiem, intended for the memorial mass of the wife of Count Franz Walsegg-Stupach, was written while Mozart himself was dying. It's been debated over the years, decades, probably even centuries, how Mozart's death came to pass; some say it was murder by poison, various other sources cite pneumonia, and yet other sources say that he died of a venerial disease. The official belief is that he died of the miliary fever which he was already afflicted with when he began to compose the Requiem. Whatever the case may be, the last Requiem written before his death stands by itself as an emotionally powerful piece. 

It has been questioned as to exactly how much of the Lacrimosa Mozart managed to write himself before his death; some say more than half was written by Mozart, other sources point to a belief that says he wrote the first eight bars of the piece before his death, afterwards stating that it was likely that one of his students, Franz Sussmayr finished the rest of the Lacrimosa, and most likely the rest of the requiem. This is most usually made as an assumption, though, and not stated as actual fact. It has, however, been proven that up until the day of his death, Mozart was able to sing the lyrics of the Lacrimosa to the students that he was still instructing at the time, usually joining with several friends or students to sing the not yet finished Requiem.

The Lacrimosa itself was said to have brought Mozart to tears upon having heard it sung by the small choir he was working with. The fact that the choir was singing the Lacrimosa, most likely in full, suggests that perhaps Mozart had finished much more of Sequenz IV than most people give him credit for. 


Bela Bartok, one of the fathers of ethnomusicology

The music of the people.

Béla Bartók was an Austro-Hungarian composer who was born in a small town in what is now Romania in 1881. Throughout his lifetime, the composer lived in many different places, but most notably recorded the folk music of native peoples. As he elevated some of their music for listening in classical music venues and the like, he also became one of the fathers of ethnomusicology, or the study of music indigenous to various groups throughout the world.


Bartók took Hungarian music he collected from the peasants and “raised” the level of the peasant music to that of art song. He also said how if Hungarian peasants could have been as educated as the old masters, Hungarian music would be on the same level as those old masters. Along being influenced by mostly Hungarian folk music,  Bartók was also influenced by composers of his day, like Claude Debussy, as well as by Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss.


This idea of “raising” folk music by putting it new “higher” forms of music raises questions about a musical hierarchy and why peasant music in its natural form isn’t as elevated or as worthwhile as the old masters. This is also paradoxical because why does Bartok use peasant music, instead of just continuing the techniques of the old masters, which he says is better? It seems paradoxical in that Bartok says the music of the old masters is better and more elevated—the kind of music he himself is trying to create—but he uses peasant music in his music just to create something new. This idea seems to imply that Bartok was satisfied with the old masters and only used his peasant music to create modern music only for the sake of creating something new.


Despite his love for the people of Hungary, he did could not continue to live there after the political situation in the country worsened after the 1940 outbreak of World War II. He moved to New York City that year. He never fell in love with the country, however, and while he became well-known as a pianist and ethnomusicologist, he had difficulties composing in his new country. His compositions were unpopular in America during  Bartók’s final years, but have since become popular in American circles. He passed away in New York City in 1945, at the age of 45.


What do you think of Bartók’s music? Are you interested in the concept of ethnomusicology?

Claude Debussy and his opera

A quest for beauty.

Claude Debussy’s music is some of the most beautiful and enduring ever created. The French composer, who lived from 1862 to 1918, composed music that everyone seems to know and many young piano students use to show off, including “Clair de Lune” and “Beau Soir”. His music is so enduring because Debussy’s sense of the beautiful was so universal and acute, translating across countries, cultures and centuries.

Debussy uses a lot of symbolism, or something that suggests a real thing in the world, but it only suggests it and is subject to the creator’s interpretation. Debussy does this in a way that is not like sound effect, but instead makes connections that could be interpreted as being symbolic if told what the particular part of the music was symbolizing, but would not necessarily be interpreted in that way without the given connotation.

For example, Debussy suggests clouds in his famous “Nuages.” He uses parallel ninth chords and undulating melodies to symbolize the moving and ominous clouds, but at listener would not necessarily know he wished to symbolize clouds without the title of the work.

Perhaps lesser known than his piano and symphonic compositions, Debussy also composed opera. His most famous, Pelléas and Mélisande, tells the story of a mythical love triangle.

When speaking about opera composition, Debussy rebuffed many of the traditional elements used in its composing, most specifically referring to the epic Wagner. He said, “I also tried to obey a law of beauty that seems notably ignored when it comes to dramatic music: the characters of this opera try to sing like real people, and not in an arbitrary language made up of worn-out clichés.” He doesn’t really bash Wagner—saying that he was truly a genius—but also says how Wagner’s operas were the end of an era.

This statement seems to follow his ideals for composition. He does things because he thinks they’re beautiful, rather than doing what is traditional or correct. So this quotation follows that idea in the same way, he doesn’t follow this “arbitrary language” of traditional opera, but instead does what he wants to do. I also found this quote interesting because Debussy seems to be a composer who gets an idea in mind and then follows that idea through in his composition—in “Nuages” his music followed his idea of clouds and in this example his music follows the idea of characterization as a primary factor.

Are you a fan of Claude Debussy?

Chopin's Birthday

March 1st is widely believed to be the birthday of one of the greatest but often looked composers known as Chopin. There are many who also accept that his birthday was on February 22nd, however March 1st tends to be the most common belief. Chopin was a unique composer for the fact that many of his works showcased a different element that had not been articulated so well within classical music before; the articulation of thoughts and emotions. Although classical music can almost always provoke emotion out of the listener, Chopin's pieces were especially well-written because they reflect the sadness, happiness, anger, and passion of a man that we still do not know much about.

Most people know very basic information about Chopin, such as the vague details of his love life or how he would eventually battle with illness. Of course, we also know a great deal about the history that is associated with his compositions and many of the locations where he actually performed. However, there is still much to learn about Chopin as a person. His compositions have always been able to strike nostalgia in even those who are generally the most unaffected by classical music, yet few people are able to explain why. While many of Chopin's compositions easily reveal his musical genius, there are also many that seem to reflect a man that was prone to private thoughts and un-interpretable emotions, more often seen in his songs which seem to switch moods two or three times. 

The Marriage Contract

Rossini's one-act hilarity.

I went to see Gioachino Rossini's one-act comedic opera La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract) yesterday. Premiered in 1810, the hilarious opera still feels surprisingly current with themes of strained European-North American relations and forbidden love. The opera premiered in Venice at the Teatro San Moisé.

If you aren't familiar with Rossini, he was an Italian opera composers who wrote mostly comedic operas. He was something of a child prodigy, composing The Marriage Contract when he was only 18. The composition took him only a few days to complete as a student at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna. He composed 37 operas during his career, retiring from composing at the age of 39.

Based on a 1791-play by Camillo Federici, the opera tells the story of an English merchant named Tobias Mill who sells his daughter Fanny to a Canadian merchant named Slook, a man Mill has only met through letter. Fanny's father doesn't know that she's already engaged to a poor accountant named Edward Milfort, but Mill's employees Clarina and Norton do.

When Slook arrives, he's entirely out of place. He brings his North American accoutrements and attitude, which is seen as uncivilized in England. Fanny and Milfort threaten Slook unless he revokes the marriage contract. Turning out to be a gentleman, Slook agrees and signs Fanny over to Milfort.

Slook tells Mill about the new arrangement, and Mill challenges the Canadian to a duel. Mill fears battling Slook in the end, and by the end of the show, all of the tensions have been resolved. Slook fancies Clarina, and Milfort and Fanny are allowed to wed.

The production I saw took quite a few liberties with the production, and while they provided more comedic relief, they weren't entirely successful. First, they updated the play to the late 1950's, and dressed all the characters as such. As funny as it was to see Slook in flannel underwear toting around a bunch of fish, it was harder to believe that a father would sell his daughter in the 20th century than in the 19th. Second, the setting of the opera seemed to have been moved from England to Italy. In it, Mill owned an Italian bistro. In this production, cultural differences would have been more extreme, but the language barrier was also an issue that it wouldn't have been in the original.

Are you a fan of Rossini's comedic operas? Have you seen The Marriage Contract?