Friday Performance Pick – 111

Sousa, The Washington Post March

I was a band guy (“geeks” hadn’t been invented yet). After doing all the usual band stuff throughout high school and into my college years, I found myself in an Army band for three years. Along the way, I played some unimaginable number of marches.

And I still like thsousaem. Not just as some kind of nostalgia for lost youth or because they appeal to my appreciation for order and form. Yes, they are formulaic, but you can say the same about many musical forms. And yes, they are crowd-pleasers, but that doesn’t mean the crowd is wrong to enjoy them.

Marches caught on in European military circles in large part from contact with the Janissary bands of the Ottoman Empire. (We mentioned this Turkish influence just two weeks ago concerning a work by Rameau.) Marches served several military purposes. They helped troops march in military formation and also boosted morale. The band frequently took to the battlefield, not just as drummers and buglers for signaling, but to keep soldiers feeling just a little better about their circumstances.

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) has a legitimate claim on the title “The March King.” You are probably familiar with many of his marches, but he was also successful at writing operettas. Our friend David Lovrien of the Dallas Wind Symphony maintains a web site devoted to Sousa that has a wealth of information.

Since we are about to celebrate Washington’s Birthday, it seems like a reasonable, if feeble, excuse to feature a march in this series. Sousa’s The Washington Post March (1889) was not written to commemorate anything about George Washington, but rather for an essay contest awards ceremony for the newspaper bearing that name.

Friday Performance Pick – 110

autoharpGow, Lament for the Death of His Second Wife

Back in elementary school, we had an itinerant music teacher who often played the autoharp. It was a practical instrument: good volume, full harmonies, and easy to carry. I remember being somewhat intrigued by it—as I was with most any musical instrument—but it didn’t seem to offer many possibilities or require much skill.

But there are things one can do on an autoharp that I hadn’t heard, and as I was looking for a good version of this Scottish lament, I came across Will Smith’s video.

Niel Gow (1727-1807) gained fame as a Scottish fiddler and enjoyed the patronage of the Duke of Atholl. He composed many dance tunes that form an important part of the Scottish country dance genre.

After the death of his first wife, with whom he had five sons and two daughters, Gow married Margaret Urquhart in 1768. Upon Margaret’s death in 1805, Gow reportedly put his fiddle away. When he picked it up again, the story goes, it was to compose this Lament.

The tune remains one of the most popular in the genre. You can find many online performances on a variety of instruments. The genre gained much popularity through “Ashokan Farewell” used in Ken Burns’ The Civil War television series. “Ashokan Farewell” became so strongly identified with Burns’ documentary that people assume it is an authentic tune of the time. In fact, it was composed by the American folk musician Jay Ungar in 1982 very much in the style of Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife.

The autoharp works on a simple principle. It has a series of bars that mute certain strings when depressed. So when you press the bar marked “A,” you eliminate all the strings that are tuned to notes not in the A major chord. Too easy, if that’s all you do. Charles Zimmerman obtained a U.S. patent on a similar device in 1882, but the autoharp we know today comes from a German design of 1883 by Karl August Gütter. Called a Volkszither, it indeed belongs to the family of zithers, a term that stretches back to the Latin cittern and the Greek cithara. It describes any instrument consisting of many strings stretched across a thin, flat body.

Friday Performance Pick – 109

Rameau, Les Sauvages

In 1725, Chief Chicagou of the Mitchigamea tribe in Illinois visited Paris and met with King Louis XV. The Company of the Indies, which controlled business with the French colonies in America, arranged the visit for Chicagou and five other chiefs. During the visit, the chiefs performed three dances representing peace, war, and victory—a performance attended by Jean-Philippe Rameau.

rameauRameau was inspired by the performance to write this short rondeau. The Air des Sauvages was included in Rameau’s Nouvelles Suites de pièces de clavecin (1728). It then was recycled as an overture to Act IV of his opera Les Indes galantes.

But how does a French Baroque composer represent Native American music to French audiences? Certainly he needed some exotic sounds and had no knowledge of authentic Native American music. We can be sure there were no ethnomusicologists in Illinois reporting back to Paris at the time.

First, remember that French music celebrated dance and grand processions. You certainly hear the dance influence in this piece. The dance is not a refined minuet or sarabande, but has a lively and somewhat angular and primitive character. And it has many of the stylistic features of what Europeans called “Turkish” music: angular melodies, square rhythms with strong downbeats, and heavy use of percussion, particularly triangles and bells. In fact, the opera Les Indes galantes celebrates the exotic with action set in Persia, Peru, North America, and an island in the Indian Ocean. Exoticism, not ethnographic authenticity, brought in audiences. This was the exotic sound of the day, whether it was intended to represent Persia or Illinois.

This performance features a Turkish Crescent containing bells mounted on a pole. It later became popular with European bands (a result of the popularity of the “Turkish” sound) and was known in British bands as a Jingling Johnny and, in Germany, a Schellenbaum.

Now compare the earlier Pièces de clavecin (harpsichord):

Friday Performance Pick – 108

Franck, Violin Sonata in A Major

cesar-franckI don’t usually remember the specific occasion when I heard a particular piece of music for the first time. I become familiar with a piece by listening to it many times, and the first hearing tends to fade from memory. But I do recall watching a television program many years ago in which Isaac Stern played the final movement of Franck’s Violin Sonata. I’m almost certain that I had not heard the work prior to that time because I found it so memorable. It is generally regarded as one of Franck’s best works.

Some time later when I was teaching music theory, I had my students analyze the sonata as a major project when they reached advanced harmony. The sonata has the same kind of chromaticism as the late 19th-century compositions of Liszt and Wagner, with all the twists and turns and ambiguities, but in a much more accessible form. (Not all my students agreed.) It has a simpler texture and structural clarity that I always find appealing. Combined with elegant and lyrical melodies, the work is quite memorable.

César Franck (1822-1890) struggled with composition most of his life. He was an accomplished pianist who made a name for himself as an organist instead. His father’s early efforts to push and promote his career achieved little, and Franck settled into teaching and holding church organist jobs. He rose to positions at the Paris Conservatoire and as organist and maître de chapelle at Sainte-Clotilde.

His fame as a composer came mostly from late works: his Symphony in D Minor, Symphonic Variations, and handful of smaller works including this violin sonata (composed in 1886). But Franck left a considerable legacy. He followed the style of Liszt and Wagner in many ways, but led the move to create a distinctly French style with his students Vincent d’Indy, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson, and Louis Vierne.

Vierne, his student and later organist at Notre-Dame, wrote that Franck showed a “constant concern for the dignity of his art, for the nobility of his mission, and for the fervent sincerity of his sermon in sound . . . Joyous or melancholy, solemn or mystic, powerful or ethereal: Franck was all those at Sainte-Clotilde.”

Friday Performance Pick – 107

Kodály, Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8 (3rd movement)

KodályFasten your seat belt. The cellist on the video that follows takes a deep breath at the beginning for a reason. It’s easy sometimes to forget about the physicality of playing an instrument (or singing at a volume that fills a concert hall without amplification). This finale of the Kodály Sonata for Solo Cello ranks as one of the most challenging virtuosic pieces for cello.

Last week we looked at one of the Bach unaccompanied suites for cello. We don’t find a steady stream of works for solo cello in the years that follow Bach. By one account, Kodály’s sonata is the “first” to appear after Bach except for those of Max Reger. (Where I come from, they call that “second.”) Reger wrote three unaccompanied cello suites in 1915, the same year that Kodály completed this work. Its premiere was delayed until 1918 due to the First World War.

In 1908, Zoltan Kodály (1882-1967) trekked through the mountains of Hungary with his friend Béla Bartók to make gramophone recordings of folksongs in remote villages. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on “The Strophic Structure of Hungarian Folk-Songs.” Both he and Bartók would incorporate much of the Hungarian folk styles into their music. The entire sonata featured here is filled with the sound and rhythms of Hungarian folk tunes. That sound is emphasized somewhat by altering the tuning of the cello, what is called scordatura (literally mistuning), to take the lowest two strings down a half step.

Kodály also played a key role in the development of music education. The “Kodály Method” for teaching music to school children is based on his principles, and it remains in widespread use today.




Friday Performance Pick – 106


J.S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009 In August last year we did several consecutive posts on the Baroque suite. The suite consisted of a collection of dances forms, usually an allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. Suites could […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 105


Charpentier, O Dieu, que n’étois-je en vie; Messe de Minuit pour Noël (Sanctus) I had planned to feature Charpentier’s La Messe de Minuit pour Noël (Midnight Mass for Christmas) last week during the Christmas season, but we decided it was important to say […] Read more.

Tribute to the Red Army Choir


It was just after 2 a.m. when I saw the news flash. A Russian military plane leaving Sochi had crashed into the Black Sea en route to Syria. Like many of you, I was still awake at this wee hour. […] Read more.

Merry Christmas


Merry Christmas to all of our readers, students, and friends. We thank all who have followed our Advent Calendar this year. It was our honor to share the journey with you. On this Christmas Day, we invite you to listen to […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 104


The Parting Glass, Irish Song (arr. Earley) A simple song well sung. Simplicity is a virtue in music too often forgotten. We have a tendency to celebrate complexity and bigness for their own sake. Just look at the Super Bowl […] Read more.