Friday Performance Pick – 115

Nestico, Songs of Erin and The Boys of Wexford

shamrock-irelandSince St. Patrick’s Day falls on Friday this year, it seems appropriate to hear some Irish music. Of course, Nestico doesn’t sound like an Irish name, but never mind that, it’s a name you should know.

Sammy Nestico (b. 1924) arranged the Irish tunes in the featured video for the United States Marine Band. He served as the arranger for the Marine Band and also for the U.S. Air Force jazz ensemble, the “Airmen of Note.” Prior to his military service, Sammy played trombone in the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, and Gene Krupa. After his military service, he went on to become one of the most sought-after composers and arrangers in Hollywood, working with more big-name entertainers than we could mention here.

I call him Sammy because Professor Carol and I spent some time visiting Sammy at his home awhile back and recording an half-hour interview with him. We traded stories over lunch and generally had a great time. It’s easy to see how Sammy’s energy and generosity have made him an outstanding educator and mentor to young musicians.

But why did he make this arrangement of The Boys of Wexford? Because as the arranger of the band known as “The President’s Own,” he did at the request of John F. Kennedy after Kennedy’s visit to his ancestral home in 1963. Sammy tells the story beginning at about the 18:00 mark:

As they say, watch the whole thing. You’ll find it a half hour very well spent hearing Sammy’s tales of working in the music business from the Big Band Era to today.

And, of course, listen to the arrangement in this video of The Marine’s Band tribute to Sammy Nestico.

Image: Shamrock Royal Badge of Ireland: Sodacan (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Friday Performance Pick – 114

Schubert, Arpeggione Sonata

arpeggioneWhat is an arpeggione, you ask? Pictured here, it seems to be a cross between a guitar and a cello. Hence its other name: “guitar violoncello.” It has six strings tuned like a guitar (in fourths rather than fifths). So it was well-suited to playing arpeggios, just as a guitar is well-suited to playing chords.

But the instrument had a very short period of popularity after its invention in 1823. The repertoire for the instrument includes a single piece by a top-tier composer: this sonata by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

While most people care very little about the arpeggione, people still care very much about Schubert’s sonata. The work was not published, however, until 1871—long after the instrument had faded from the scene. Today the work is performed on either viola or cello, although many transcriptions have been made for other instruments.

It’s hard not to repeat that Schubert was a great melodist. After repeating that statement, I’m tempted to repeat an explanation of how Schubert’s harmonies make those melodies work. The melodies themselves often seem deceptively simple. That tends to be an asset for a melody. And Schubert presents his melodies with rich chromatic harmonies that also seem to flow effortlessly. But you really can’t listen to this sonata without taking note of those things.

The Heifetz International Music Institute is a summer program for young musicians at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia. You might want to learn a little more about it.

Image: Florian Monheim (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Friday Performance Pick – 113

Sor, Variations on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 9

fernando-sorFernando Sor (1778-1839) was called “the Beethoven of the Guitar” by French composer François-Joseph Fétis. I’m not sure what Fétis meant by that. Sor was a contemporary of Beethoven who wrote in a Classical style, and he made a very important mark on the repertoire for classical guitar.

Certainly he doesn’t enjoy the widespread fame of Beethoven even though he commands the attention of guitarists. He composed for other instruments and in various genres, but he is remembered best for his compositions for guitar.

The guitar has a very long history stretching back to ancient Babylon. Many varieties of stringed instruments with a flat soundboard and fretted neck fit the general category. But Spain has a special claim to the instrument.

Sor was groomed for a military career but showed an early interest and skill in music. After the death of his father, Sor attended a monastery choir school. Later he was placed in a military academy.

Although we often talk about Beethoven and Napoleon and the ways they personified the times, Sor’s life was strongly impacted by Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. He fought with the Spanish army against the French and composed patriotic songs. After the defeat of Spain, however, his experience in military administration led him to a post with the occupying French. With the subsequent defeat of Napoleon, he was labeled afrancesado and forced to leave Spain forever. He settled in France and later England.

Variations on a Theme by Mozart ranks as one of Sor’s most famous compositions. The theme is “Das klinget so herrlich” from Act I of The Magic Flute.

Those who follow this series may recall Edson Lopes. We featured his performance of Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve back in November 2014. More than two years later, it seems like a good time a bring him back for an encore.

Friday Performance Pick – 112

Gounod, Marche funèbre d’une marionnette

alfred-hitchcockThose of a certain age will remember it as the theme music to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. From 1956 to 1965 (the show was expanded in 1962 to become The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), the popular show presented a short stand-alone drama each week—all with the plot twists you would expect from Hitchcock. But the most memorable part was seeing Hitchcock’s shadow fill the silhouette drawing as Gounod’s Marche played. Hitchcock and Gounod seem joined forever.

The French composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was living in London when the work was composed in 1871-72. He intended the march as a character piece to depict music critic Henry Chorley, who was described as having a “thin, sour, high-pitched sopranish voice” and moving like a “stuffed red-haired monkey.” It’s not a very charitable description. And not at all like Hitchcock. But Chorley died before the work was completed, and Gonoud recast it as depicting the procession for a marionette that has been killed in a duel.

Funeral marches typically involve a slow procession in a minor key. Famous examples that predate Gounod’s march include the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica), Handel’s Saul, and, perhaps the most famous, the third movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 35. But those bear little resemblance to Gounod’s march, which has the character of a jaunty humoresque.

So move over, Chorley. A humorous funeral march perfectly captures the work and persona of Hitchcock. He personally picked the work as the theme for his television show and reportedly included it on a list of 8 works that he would take to a fictional deserted island.

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


Gow, 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 […] Read more.

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 […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 108


Franck, Violin Sonata in A Major I 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 […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 107


Kodály, Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8 (3rd movement) Fasten 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 […] Read more.

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.