Sacred Choral Music from the Former Soviet Bloc

choral music concert
choral music concert

VocalEssence Chorus in concert

As an undergraduate composition student in the 1970s, I tried to like the music that my teachers thought important, including Webern, Stockhausen, Cage, et al. General audiences have never liked it, and I never did manage to like the music only an academic can love.

Inevitably a new generation of composers arose, but it was only after one of my graduate students invited me to a concert of mostly sacred choral music by Henryk Górecki in 1994 that I heard any European post-avant-garde music.

A surprising number of devoutly Christian composers lived and worked in countries of the former Soviet bloc, including Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki of Poland, and Arvo Pärt of Estonia. They all have a strained relationship with the Western European post-war avant-garde. Continue reading

How Original Band Music Marginalized the Concert Band

concert band
concert band

An unidentified concert band, 2011.

When Patrick S. Gilmore took over leadership of the New York 22nd Regiment Band, he took it on a coast-to-coast tour. The age of the professional touring band had begun.

Like all bands before or contemporaneous with the Gilmore Band, as it soon became known, it performed a mix of music for popular entertainment and serious orchestral and operatic repertoire.

Music composed originally for concert band was limited to marches, music Gilmore’s soloists wrote for themselves, and other lighter fare by Gilmore himself. Gilmore’s great successor John Philip Sousa and all their notable contemporaries constructed comparable concert programs.

Not until the 1920s, after the heyday of the professional touring band had started its decline, did anyone think the concert band should have its own serious repertoire. Original band music did nothing to enhance critical opinions of the artistic merit of wind bands. In fact, the whole concept emerged at a time when audiences were starting to reject music of many well-known orchestral composers. Continue reading

How the Trombone Cheated Death

trombone with round stays
trombone with round stays

Copper engraving by Giovanni Volpato (Rome, 1774-77) of a painting by Giovanni da Udine (Vatican, 1517-19). His engravings are generally faithful to the original, but this trombone has 18th-century round stays.

At the beginning of the 1600s, courts, towns, churches, and individual members of the nobility all over Western Europe sponsored musical organizations that included trombone.

These ensembles participated in music making from dance music to public concerts to participation in Christian worship. By the end of the century, they had practically disappeared, and the trombone along with it.

If no one had used it anywhere, the trombone would have become like the krummhorn and other obsolete instruments that early music enthusiasts resurrected in the mid 20th century. No one else would know or care anything about it. Instead, it lay hidden in a few scattered locations. Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: In the Bleak Midwinter

in the bleak midwinter

in the bleak midwinter“In the Bleak Midwinter,” text by Christina Rosetti, is just about the only well known Christmas carol that I can think of with a text by a woman. She also wrote “Love Came Down at Christmas.” No combination of keywords I could think of yielded any other titles.

Christina (1830-1894) Rosetti was part of an artistic family. One brother, poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, was among the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; another William Michael Rosetti, soon joined the movement, but mostly as editor and critic. Their sister Maria Francesca Rosetti published at least one important essay. Their father, an Italian in exile, taught Italian at King’s College. Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas day
I heard the bells on Christmas day

Church bells

The Christmas holidays are not a joyous occasion for everyone. Family tragedy can destroy enjoyment of festive occasions, as it did for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The story of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is perhaps the least joyous of any Christmas music I have ever studied.

His wife tragically died in 1861, the same year as the American Civil War started. He could not deal with Christmas at all until 1864, a year after his son was severely injured in battle. Longfellow wrote his poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Eve, 1864. He wrote it not so much because he had made peace with Christmas, but as a protest against slavery and the war. Continue reading

The reputation of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

CPE Bach portrait
CPE Bach portrait

Portrait of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach / Johann Philipp Bach ca. 1780

This year marks the 300th anniversary of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. His contemporaries held him in much higher esteem than later generations, who have regarded him as just one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons.

Yet in his lifetime, he was known as the “Great Bach.” When Mozart said, “Bach is the father. We are the children,” he had Emanuel in mind, not Sebastian.

We may see him only in the shadow of his father, but in his lifetime, his father cast hardly any shadow at all. Why isn’t C.P.E. Bach better known today? Continue reading

Marching through Georgia, by Henry Clay Work

Sherman marching through georgia
Sherman marching through georgia

Sherman’s army at work

Whenever the name of a state appears in the title of a well-know song, it usually celebrates the state. It usually lends civic pride to its citizens. Usually.

Georgia citizens do not like “Marching through Georgia.” It celebrates the success of an invading enemy. It celebrates Sherman’s march to the sea, one of the most destructive and terrorizing events in the state’s history.

But nearly 150 years later, it’s still internationally popular. Continue reading

Night on Bald Mountain, by Modest Mussorgsky

Mussorgsky night on bald mountain
St. John's eve bonfire, night on bald mountain

Traditional Cornish Hilltop bonfire. Midsummer’s eve 2009

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was a brilliant, but undisciplined composer who left many unfinished works at his death. His colleague Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov finished many of them and had them published.

Oddly enough, Mussorgsky finished Night on Bald Mountain three times. Rimsky-Korsakov finished it again, and it’s his version we most often hear. Mussorgsky’s original version was never performed until 1968.

Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain

Mussorgsky night on bald mountain

Portrait by Ilya Repin painted in 1881, just days before Mussorgsky’s death.

Mussorgsky may have considered writing an opera based on Gogol’s story “St. John’s Eve” as early as 1860. A friend of Mussorgsky’s wrote a play called “The Witch,” which included a witch’s sabbath scene on a bare mountain.

St. John’s Eve is June 23, the day before the Feast of Saint John the Baptist. Traditional celebrations involve the lighting of bonfires. According to folk tales, it was a night when evil forces and witches were especially powerful.

Whatever the ecclesiastical meaning of the bonfires, in folk culture they were often lit on high ground to keep the witches away—a summertime equivalent of Halloween. The custom of midsummer bonfires continues worldwide to this day.

True to form, Mussorgsky abandoned the project, but in 1867 he wrote an orchestral piece titled “St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain” in the span of 12 days. He couldn’t get it performed.

Mussorgsky’s original structure, as reflected in the program he wrote, is in four parts, loosely in variation form:

  1. An underground noise of inhuman voices. Appearance of the spirits of darkness, followed by an appearance of Satan
  2. Adoration of Satan
  3. A black mass
  4. Joyful dancing of the witch’s sabbath, all of which is ended by the ringing of a church bell and the appearance of dawn.

As originally written, the church bell and dawn bring the orgy of evil to an abrupt end only in the final measure.

In 1872, Mussorgsky collaborated with Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, and Cesar Cui on an opera-ballet called Mlada and drew on some of his earlier music, including Night on Bald Mountain for his portion.

He used it again in 1874 or so as a choral piece in a comic opera based on another story by Gogol, Sorochintsy Fair. He never finished the opera, despite financial inducements near the end of his life. For this version of the Night on Bald Mountain music he added a longer, calmer ending.

Here is a recording by the Berlin Philharmonic and Rundfunk Chorus, conducted by Claudio Abbado. The YouTube page incorrectly calls it the original.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Night on Bald Mountain

Little of Mussorgsky’s music was published in his lifetime. Rimsky-Korsakov assumed the task of editing much of his music posthumously. He acknowledged that Mussorgsky was talented and wrote music that was new and vital.

But he also thought the manuscripts revealed “absurd, disconnected harmony, ugly part-writing, sometimes strikingly illogical modulation, sometimes a depressing lack of it, unsuccessful scoring of the orchestral things.”

He wasn’t interested in producing an “archeologically exact edition.” He wanted to issue what he felt was worthy of public performance. But by the time he died in 1908, other musicians, both in Russia and the west had begun to become dissatisfied with his versions and wanted to know what Mussorgsky himself had composed.

Regarding Night on Bald Mountain, Rimsky-Korsakov completely rejected the 1867 orchestral version. In particular, Mussorgsky’s third section includes a parody of Russian Orthodox chant that Rimsky-Korsakov found so offensive he omitted it entirely. He also provided his own, less lurid, version of the program.

His finished work, therefore, amounts to a new piece by Rimsky-Korsakov based on Mussorgsky’s music, mostly the third version, omitting the chorus. Despite his criticisms of Mussorgsky’s orchestration, he kept at least some of the weird effects, such as the passages for stopped horn.

Night on Bald Mountain in the movies

Many people in the middle of the 20th century probably first encountered Night on Bald Mountain in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, with its nightmare-inducing animation. It was the first movie issued in stereo. Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra provided the soundtrack. Stokowsky conducted his own arrangement, not Rimsky-Korsakov’s.

Eight years earlier, however, Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker had produced a pinscreen animation. Pinscreen is an incredibly time consuming, labor-intensive procedure, but it was a specialty of this Russian-American couple based in France.

Where Fantasia presents a story similar in conception to Rimsky-Korsakov’s substitute for Mussorgsky’s original program, Alexeieff and Parker explore a deeper psychological level. Their version may be the scarier of the two.

They used a recording by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Albert Coates, for the soundtrack. It, of course, uses Rimsky-Korsakov’s version. Coates took a much faster tempo than Stokowski. His recording captures more of the color and weirdness of the orchestration, too.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980), “Musorgsky, Modest Petrovich” by Gerald Abraham.
Mussorgsky (1839-1881): Night on the Bare Mountain (orig. version) / Paul Serotsky (Music Web International)
Night on Bald Mountain: An Eery Avant-Garde Pinscreen Animation Based on Mussorgsky’s Masterpiece (1933) / Colin Marshall (Open Culture)

Images are public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

Fiddler on the Roof: Celebrating 50 Years

Fiddler on the Roof scene
Fiddler on the Roof scene

Scene from a production at Notre Dame De Namur University Theatre, April 2006

The year 1964 saw the premieres of some of our most outstanding Broadway musicals, including Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, and Fiddler on the Roof.

Fiddler on the Roof is based on eight stories about Tevye the milkman by Sholem Aleichem written between 1894 and 1914. Tevye has extended conversations with a character named Sholem Aleichem.

To what extent does this Sholem Aleichem speak with the author’s voice, and to what extent is he as fictitious as Tevye? Even his contemporaries couldn’t figure it out. Likewise, it is not clear how faithful the stories are to real historical conditions.

Aleichem’s stories have no fiddler. The show’s name came from a painting by Marc Chagall, which also inspired the original set. Continue reading

Songs of September

September, rain

September, rainSeptember sees the beginning of the harvest of nature’s abundance, but then the fields stop growing.

It displays flamboyant color, as the leaves turn from uniform green to variegated reds, oranges, and yellows. But then autumn turns a dull brown.

Relief from the heat of summer invigorates for a while, but gives way to melancholy.

September melancholy has inspired some wonderful songs. Continue reading