Friday Performance Pick – 136

Haydn, Symphony No. 45 (Farewell)

I started this series almost three years ago with a work by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). In between that first “performance pick” (No. 1) and this one (No. 136), Haydn has been missing. It confirms, I think, our tendency to take his music for granted.

Haydn’s sits astride the Enlightenment era, and his music exemplifies all the qualities that we call “classical.” His long career matches closely the dates musicians assign to the “Classical era,” spanning the time between Bach’s death and Beethoven’s breaking of the classical mold. Haydn gives us the paradigm, and we spend our energies examining the ways in which Mozart and Beethoven diverged from it.

In his lifetime he became “Papa Haydn.” Sometimes the term seems derogatory, casting him as an old fogey in contrast to the bolder Mozart. But the name arose from the musicians who worked under him, and the Farewell Symphony (composed in 1772) tells the tale. The musicians were stuck in Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s remote Esterháza palace and wanted to get back to their families in Vienna. Rather than making a direct appeal on their behalf, Haydn sent the message more diplomatically with an unusual twist in his music.

The classical symphony typically had four movements. The first and last had a fast tempo and in between were a slow movement and a dance movement (usually a minuet). The Farewell Symphony follows this pattern but has a unique ending. In what might be considered either an extra (slow) movement or a long coda, the musicians gradually leave the stage. It was anything but conventional, and it was the kind of gesture that endeared Haydn to those who worked with him. They say the prince got the point and let the musicians go home.

Haydn achieved remarkable fame, especially for someone employed at court. He had been trained as a chorister at St. Stephen’s in Vienna. But he had few prospects as he entered adulthood. Before obtaining his very secure and prominent position with the Esterházy family, he mostly taught himself composition. His compositions and entrepreneurial efforts finally brought him to the attention of major patrons around 1760.

Haydn died in May 1809 in Vienna as Napoleon bombarded and conquered the city. The convergence of those two events might mark the true end of the Classical era.

Friday Performance Pick – 135

Bartók, Out of Doors — The Night’s Music

Carol’s essay a few days ago on night music prompts this week’s performance pick. Why not follow up on her post by featuring the movement she discusses from Bartók’s Out of Doors?

bartokCoincidentally, just two weeks ago I was discussing night music and Bartók with a friend and colleague at the Circe Institute’s Annual Conference. Carol was not in on that conversation, so I found it interesting that the sounds of North Carolina prompted her to write on that topic.

Different geographic regions naturally have different sounds.But in South Louisiana where I lived for many years, insects drown out everything else. It’s hard to hear anything over the cicadas. On our North Texas ranch, the nightly contest between the coyotes and our big dogs was most impressive aural feature, although I would occasionally hear some truly astonishing sounds that were beyond my ability to identify.

Bartók uses several techniques to capture the sounds of the Hungarian night. He sets up a slow repeating pattern of dissonant tone clusters in the background. Short motives intrude at irregular intervals. His melodies are ethereal and unobtrusive. The overall soundscape takes precedence over harmonic and melodic forms.

Friday Performance Pick – 134

Ockeghem, Missa Mi Mi, Agnus Dei

ockeghemIf you begin reading about the Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (1410/25 – 1497), you may notice how much we don’t know about him. His birth date has been narrowed to a 15-year range. Historians have suggested several cities as the location where he was born and raised. They still speculate on where he received his musical training.

Records do exist that tell us about his career: as a chorister at the Cathedral in Antwerp, in the French court of Charles VII and Louis XI, and at Notre Dame in Paris. But his final years become murky again. He probably died in Tours because he left a will there.

Yet, we know the specific date of death, February 6, 1497, and are impressed by the subsequent outpouring of musical lamentations on his death written by the many composers who were influenced by his work, the most famous being Josquin des Prez’s La Déploration sur la mort de Johannes Ockeghem. People of that time knew Ockeghem well and revered his work.

If you know anything about  sacred music of the Renaissance, you probably have gained familiarity with works by Josquin and Palestrina. Their works display a seamless contrapuntal style that flows throughout the music’s distinct sections. The phrases overlap and the voices all have the same prominence. You hear these same techniques in Ockeghem’s music, written a century before Palestrina. And although there is much to be said for sacred music from all periods, this Renaissance style seems particularly well-suited to the expression of the transcendent with its continuous unfolding of vocal lines and effortless imitation.

Friday Performance Pick – 133

Glinka, Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture


Yes, that’s a little guy on a horse about to do battle with a giant’s head. Not a whole giant, just the Head. So we must be deep into some fairy tale—in this case Pushkin’s Ruslan and Ludmilla.

Ludmilla has been kidnapped during her wedding to Ruslan, and her father now intends to give her hand in marriage to anyone who rescues her. So Ruslan is kind of back at square one. The giant’s Head was separated from the rest of him awhile back by the giant’s dwarf brother using the sword that was destined to destroy them both. So the Head is no longer terribly fond of the brother who just happens to be the guy who kidnapped Ludmilla. Gosh these plots are complicated!

Of course, Ruslan kills the Head (for real this time), gets the sword, rescues Ludmilla, kills the villain, finds the magic ring, rescues Ludmilla after she is kidnapped a second time (Ludmilla seems a bit disaster-prone), and finally marries her.

Would I have done all that for Professor Carol? It might be worth it just to have that story to tell when people ask, “So how did you two meet?”

Anyway, Aleksander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837), turned some of Russia’s traditional folk tales into poetic masterpieces on his way to becoming the father of Russian literature. But I don’t need to tell you about Pushkin because Professor Carol has done that several times on this site. If that link doesn’t satisfy your curiosity, you can always sign up for her Imperial Russia course.

But we still have to say something about Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) who wrote the opera Ruslan and Ludmilla based on the Pushkin poem. The opera premiered in 1842, six years after his first operatic hit, A Life for the Tsar. Glinka is credited with being the first native-born composer to gain international prominence. Glinka’s use of folk melodies in the opera is in keeping with the subject matter and also presages the rise of nationalism and the movement away from German and Italian models toward an authentic Russian sound.

Painting: Nikolai Ge, Ruslan Confronts the Head

Friday Performance Pick – 132

Pérotin, Viderunt Omnes

perotin-alleluiaThe Gothic style of architecture pioneered by the Basilica of St. Denis (completed in 1144) sparked a wave of new construction across Europe. The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris was under construction from 1163 to about 1240. But it wasn’t just new construction and the new Gothic style of architecture on display there. Liturgical music was undergoing dramatic change as well.

Polyphonic (multi-voiced) music was not new at this time. Early forms of polyphony, known as organum, had been introduced at least as early as the 9th century. Early organum added a second voice to the monophonic Gregorian chant melody. In the early forms, the second voice was improvised. But musical styles always become more complex (until the style collapses and is replaced by a new, simpler style). Organum became more elaborate with more ornate melodies and the addition of more voices. Greater complexity created the need for composer control—a plan for coordinating multiple musical events occurring simultaneously. That required more sophisticated notation. And it required the introduction of meter. Gregorian chant was unmetered; it followed the natural rhythm of the text. But multiple voices, all singing different notes and sometimes different texts, needed to stay together. (This paragraph summarizes about five units of our Early Sacred Music course.)

Which brings us to the School of Notre Dame in the late 12th century. Here for the first time we know the names of the composers of individual works: Léonin and Pérotin. And we find prevalent, particularly with Pérotin, the use of “rhythmic modes.” A rhythmic mode is much like poetic meter. A particular arrangement of long and short beats is established and used throughout the piece. It gives the music a distinct rhythmic drive.

The Gregorian chant remains in the long sustained notes of the tenor (tenare = to hold). The bottom voice, the tenor, barely moves while the three upper voices sing similar intertwining parts in rhythm.

Imagine the aural effect of hearing this in the cavernous nave of Notre Dame.

Friday Performance Pick – 131


Monroe, Jerusalem Ridge Around the Fourth of July, I like to turn to something with American roots. “Jerusalem Ridge” was written by Bill Monroe (1911-1996), known as the father of bluegrass. The musical style, and Monroe’s band the Blue Grass […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 130


Poulenc, Margoton va t’a l’iau Margoton goes to fetch water with her little jug. The spring was in a deep hollow, and she fell in. “Oh Dear,” said Margoton to herself. French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) developed a reputation for […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 129


Lahusen, Komm Trost der Welt The composer of today’s work, Christian Lahusen (1886-1975), was born in Argentina to German parents. He attended high school in Germany and went on to study music in Leipzig. He held various posts as a pianist, […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 128


Dvorák, String Quintet in G Major, Op. 77 (Scherzo) It was described as irresistible on the one hand, and roundly criticized on the other. Dvorák’s String Quintet, Op. 77 has generated some conflicts. It is a relatively early work written in 1875. […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 127


Brahms, Scherzo Op. 4 I want to continue looking at the scherzo this week (and beyond). We are not taking them on in chronological order, since we started out two weeks ago with Chopin and then moved to Beethoven, but I […] Read more.