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.

DGG – Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bald Mountain; Ravel: Valse

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

When the trombone was almost cool

trombonist contest winner

Winning trombonist of the 1849 Paris Conservatory contest

There have been two periods in history where solo trombone captured the popular imagination. Most recently, jazz made stars of Kid Ory, Jack Teagarden, Leonard Brown, Tommy Dorsey, J. J. Johnson and too many others to mention.

Jazz no longer defines popular music in America. No living trombonist has the same standing in public esteem.

The other period began in Germany early in the 19th century and quickly spread worldwide, even to the US, then struggling to establish its own musical life. English musical life included many trombone soloists, all but one of them human.

France also produced very successful trombone soloists. And a wannabe who published an angry notice over his failure to persuade the rest of French society how cool the trombone was. Continue reading

Kingdom Coming by Henry C. Work: abolitionist minstrel song

Kingdom Coming / Henry Clay Work, 14th thousand, 1862
Kingdom Coming, by Henry Clay Work, 1863 cover

Kingdom Coming, 1863 cover

Popular songs usually don’t have a very long shelf life, but sometimes they’re more than just songs. Some of them affect the course of social and political events. Even after no one sings them or recognizes them any more, these are worth studying for their historical significance.

I thought “Kingdom Coming” by Henry Clay Work was such a song. In form it’s a minstrel song, with a text in the slave dialect. Unlike almost any other minstrel song, it conveys a strong abolitionist sentiment.

Poets who disdained the minstrel song tradition wrote abolitionist texts in dialect, which also became popular songs, but they managed to offend the many who did not share their abolitionist viewpoints. That same audience embraced “Kingdom Coming” without hesitation.

So I assumed I’d be writing about forgotten historical relic. And then when I looked it up online, I found it has its own Wikipedia page! It made sense when I picked a video and listened. Continue reading

The versatility of Lawrence Brown, Ellington’s lead trombonist

Lawrence_Brown_1943The self-deprecating Lawrence Brown is best known as one the great players in Duke Ellington’s trombone section. In fact, when Brown joined, the Ellington band became the first jazz band to have three trombones. He is, of course, more than just a number.

He became the band’s lead trombonist and a very versatile soloist. How versatile? In addition to his incredible displays of virtuosity, he is probably the first of the great jazz ballad trombonists.

But I described him as self-deprecating. He frequently spoke poorly of his own ability. It must have been an attempt to appear humble. If he believed his comments, it’s hard to see how anyone with so little self-confidence could succeed in anything! Continue reading

Before Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony Became a Cliche

Beethoven. popular music,classical music Vienna
Beethoven in 1804 when he composed the Fifth Symphony

Beethoven in 1804, the year he composed his Fifth Symphony / Detail of a portrait by W. J. Mähler

Not too long ago, when an orchestra announced it would play a piece of new music, they had to program it carefully. They performed between two very well-known and popular pieces and right before intermission.

The audience was stuck if it wanted to hear both favorites. New music was like medicine. It’s good for you, but no one expects you to like it. All of the favorites were once new. They never would have survived if audiences of their day behaved like modern audiences.

What is classical music, anyway?

Narrowly speaking “classical” music refers to the generation of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, although only Beethoven was still living by the time anyone started to call it classical in order to distinguish it from popular music.

Basically the audience for popular music valued novelty and virtuosity above all else. They expected to be able to grasp it at first hearing and had no patience with music they had to study and hear over and over. That was for classical audiences, who wanted music that revealed something new and delightful on repeated listening. Continue reading

Medieval Night Watchmen and the Modern Wind Band

medieval wall and towers
medieval wall and towers

Duke Louis II of Anjou’s entrance to Paris / Froissart chronicles, 14th century

What do a night watchman and a professional musician have in common? The first professional wind musicians were night watchmen.

Many modern wind instruments can find their ancestors being played from towers to keep the city safe at night and entertain citizens by day.

Protective walls surrounded every European town of any significance until the 18th century. Many cities had hundreds of towers. Continue reading