Revision of Opinion: Brahms


My grandmother once was talking to me about composers she liked. She brought up the three Bs. She loved Bach and Beethoven, but was not too keen on Brahms. Nor was I. I will admit that I never really tried very hard. I listened to the first two symphonies, and I wasn’t terribly impressed. I heard an orchestra play one of the serenades, and was incredibly bored. The music never really impressed me, or moved me. There weren’t any really distinctive moments that stuck with me. It felt like very little was happening, and it was taking a long time for it to happen. But then I tried again.

A couple weeks ago I undertook the daunting, task of listening to all 104 Haydn symphonies. As of writing, I have listened to 41, so getting close to half way. I think this has helped my better appreciate Brahms. Also, over this last summer, I began to listen more intently to the music of Bach. I had always approached the Romantic period through the back door you might say: in relation to the 20th century, where my love of “classical” music began. Working backwards from my favorite composer Shostakovich, there is Mahler (and his contemporaries, Strauss and Bruckner), Wagner (and Liszt), Berlioz and then back to Beethoven. I’m more interested in the more “avant-garde” romanticism, but as a composer and musician, I know it is important to have a strong historical grounding in all musical trends. I had completely neglected Brahms. I was perhaps biased by the fact in my readings on these composers, Brahms was cast as an adversary.

So why bother listening to something you “don’t like?” I only have so many hours in my life so why spend it listening to music I’m not fond of? Again, because of historical perspective and knowledge. Also I am a voracious learner, so I will take any chance to learn or broaden my knowledge (thus the 104 Haydn symphonies). I decided over this long weekend to get the scores to the Brahms symphonies and listen.

My main reaction to the music was that it was beautiful. The richness and color of the harmonies really attracted me. Having a better understanding of classical form, I was able to appreciate the formal mastery. The orchestration, though not revolutionary, or particularly colorful, was clear and very effective for the musical material. I can say that I very much enjoyed listening, and the music warrants more listenings. Brahms deserves that place next to the two giants of western music. Maybe I can try to convince my grandma.

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William Schuman: A belated birthday

William_Schuman It seems to me that in today’s new music scene, for the most part, there are very few “American” composers. There are loads of composers who are American, but very few “American” composers. There is a difference: a composer who is American (or French, or British, or from whatever land, just change the country) is from and lives in America. An “American” composer (or again, French, British, ect) is someone who takes pride in their nation’s musical heritage, and there are distinct national qualities in their work. This also goes for any art medium. There are “American” composers living now, I first think of the minimalists or post-minimalists (Reich, Glass, Adams), because minimalism was developed in America, by Americans. But for me, one of the greatest “American” composers of all time, is William (Bill) Howard Schuman, born August 4th, 1910. That makes this last Monday his 114th birthday.

As well as being a very prolific composer, Schuman was probably the most influential arts administrator of the 20th century. He taught at Sarah Lawrence college for 10 years, and then went to a school you may have heard of, Juilliard.  He completely rewrote the curriculum, and while he was there, the dance department was added, and he also founded the Juilliard String Quartet, which is a phenomenal group (I have a recording of them playing the 6 Bartok Quartets, and, damn). He then left Juilliard to go be the president of another place you may have heard of, the Lincoln Center. 

Throughout his life he earned many, many awards, including the first Pulitzer prize, but that isn’t too important to me. What is important to me is the music he wrote. He wrote 10 symphonies, but withdrew the first two, so we are left with 3 – 10. His violin concerto is a virtuoso masterpiece. The “New England Triptych” and “American Festival Overture” are probably his most performed pieces. All of his music, for me at least, defines “American” music; the orchestration is without parallel, the lines are long and wide in their range, the harmonies are punchy and gritty. There is a boldness, and an incredibly strong sense of rugged individualism. In the later works, the music becomes darker, and in the words of more than one commentator, craggy, but still, it is Schuman. I keep coming back to his music, and it just keeps getting better for me. 

Happy Birthday Bill. I will leave his 8th Symphony as the postlude to this post. It is a dark and strange work, very difficult to wrap your head around. The first few times I heard it, I couldn’t make sense of it at all, but I keep coming back to it, and it becomes more clear every time. It’s a masterpiece, one that doesn’t ever get performed, but a masterpiece none-the-less. Listen for the bizarre orchestration in the first movement (muted brass and harp!) and the skittish, jazzy finale. 


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SUNY Fredonia Chamber Orchestra

I haven’t posted on here since December. Pretty much an entire semester has gone by without me actually writing anything, so I figured I might as well fix that. 

Last night I went to the last Chamber Orchestra concert of the year, and my oh my, it was worth writing about. The program opened with the suite from The Double Dealer by Henry Purcell. The ensemble was just a double string quartet, bass, and harpsichord. The playing was very tight and unified, but there was very little striking about the piece, and I will consent that my taste played a rather large role in the statement. 

Next on the program was something that was my taste: Shostakovich Chamber Symphony, which, for those of you who don’t know, is an arrangement of the 8th String Quartet, done by Rudolph Barshai (who also has a pretty decent Shostakovich symphony cycle). The main problem with taking a string quartet piece and making it a string orchestra piece is that in the quartet, each part is very soloistic, and there is also, just by nature a tighter ensemble. The present arrangement does a pretty good job of dealing with those problems by using solo players. I mean, try to imagine that high cello solo in the fourth movement played by a cello section. That’d be rough. This performance of the score was tremendous. There was a savageness and ferocity in the playing that was really palpable. The second movement, just by nature, calls for this kind of playing, as does that knocking figure at the start of the fourth movement, but they also made the third movement scherzo sound much more savage than I’m used to. Usually this movement is treated as a bitter waltz, but last night I heard it as a angry bitter waltz. The playing was superb, and dedicated. I could’ve sworn that some of the violins were going to snap their G string. Thankfully that did not happen, and the piece got a well deserved round of applause. 

After intermission the full orchestra, now complete with winds, played Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The first two are generally thought of being the tradition of Hayden and Mozart. That’s not wholly true, at least for No. 2. The Eroica gets all the talk for breaking the symphonic mold, which is very true, but No. 2 has a much greater scope than the symphonies that came before it, and you can hear in it what was going to come in the later symphonies. I think it was in the first movement, but there was a passage that was strikingly similar to the opening theme of No. 9, dotted falling arpeggio. The playing here was also stellar. The strings were on point, and the winds blended very well, and the timpani playing added just the right punch. I really can’t get over how good the playing was. The concert was really exceptional, and at the end the orchestra got a well earned ovation, from the sizable crowd.

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William Schuman: Symphony 3

Okay, again, another random trip to the library, and this time I picked out three Third Symphonies by americans: Copland, Harris, and the present Williams Schuman. I just got finished listening to the Schuman and why in gods name isn’t this piece played everywhere, everyday?

Instead of being in the classical four movements, Schuman 3, is in two parts with four movements with Baroque forms; Part 1: Passacaglia and Fugue. Part 2: Chorale and Toccata. The first movement has some great trombone writing near the end; a big four part soli over dotted strings. The fugue is nuts. It includes, but is not limited to, jagged fugue theme, an optional two octave tuba solo, some wild trumpet writing, an extended passage for winds only (there is a lot of wind writing in the whole piece. Influence of bands? Schuman did write a band staple, “George Washington Bridge”), crazy timpani solo, and perhaps the sickest ending I have ever heard. I got chills for the last two pages, just wow!

The Chorale starts with violas and cellos in two parts in octaves, playing a gorgeous hymn, builds to a climax and ends with muted horns playing the opening hymn. To describe it in that few words does the Chorale injustice, but really, it’s great. The dope level gets turned up to about 30 then the Toccata starts. For those not in the know, a Toccata is basically a showpiece, and this my friends, is a fucking showpiece. It starts with snare drum over a B-flat drone, and continues with a monster, absolutely monster, bass clarinet solo, which stretches the full range of the instrument. More winds join the fast and wild fray. Following this opening section the cello section gets to shine with lots of double stops and four string pizzicatos. In a similar way to the opening, the rest of the strings join in as the section progresses. The low winds come in with a new “strident” theme. The last 12 pages of the score have the orchestra pushed to their limit, just going insane. Rim shots on the snare, fast wind runs, jumpy triplets, big declamatory figures, and a big E-flat major chord to bring it all home.

I bring up my opening question: Why is this piece not played everywhere, everyday? It is everything an orchestra could ever want; it is easily accessible, gripping, and shows off every section of the orchestra in the greatest way possible. Orchestras everywhere would gain from playing this! It isn’t standard rep, but is awesome and could probably draw a crowd. There is nothing not to love. It is probably one of the  best symphonies of the 20th century. I mean just listen to Lenny and the NYP kill it and tell me it isn’t.


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Beethoven 6

Today, for no good reason, I decided to listen to the Beethoven 6th symphony. My knowledge of Beethoven is sadly rather limited. This is pretty bad because Beethoven is like, the most important/one of the greatest composers ever, and I try to masquerade as someone who knows his shit about Western Art Music, and also I’m a composer. But I am young and motivated and in college, and college is all about discovery! So today was Beethoven 6 day. In listening, I was constantly reminded of Erik Klackner’s struggle with the same piece. However, I didn’t have as much a problem with it! Aside from the second movement, which was just way too long, I found the work to be engaging and interesting. The second movement did have one redeeming; there was a melody that was scored for two solo cellos, solo bassoon, and violas. This was perhaps the first really unique tone color used in orchestral music. That might be a helplessly ignorant statement, but hey, it sounds good to me!

I will try to keep remedying my Beethoven deficiency, and since soon I’ll have a lot more extra time on my hands, I can get heavy doses.

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Happy Birthday: Jean Sibelius



For no good reason, recently I started listening through all the Sibelius symphonies I have (4 through 7, Karajan/Berlin, which I got for a great deal!). I just thought one day, hey, this Sibelius guy is pretty well regarded, and there was a chapter about him in “The Rest is Noise” (which is a REALLY damn good book. If you haven’t read it, you really should!), so I should get to know his music better. So I did. That was a great call on my part, because his music is sick. From the dark, mezzo-forte ending fourth, to the swan call in the fifth, to the dorian inflections of the sixth, to the absolute mastery of the seventh, I was gripped. He definitely has a place among the great 20th century symphonists (Shostakovich, and Vaughan Williams are my big two). The bottom line here is, I’m getting more recordings of his symphonies (recommendations anyone?)

But also I noticed that his birthday was coming up, so I figured I might as well blog about it, also since I haven’t written here in a while. So Happy 148th Birthday to Mr. Sibelius, master composer and namesake to the music notation software (which plays his music at the start up)!

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Ives: They are there

This, as the video says, is an old recording of Ives both singing and playing his song “There are there.” It’s actually hysterical. Whenever it’s it’s marked in the score for the singer to shout, Ives really shouts. The text is completely new. This recording was made during World War 2, while the original had text about World War 1, so it’s been updated. He also isn’t opposed to inserting his own asides; “When we’re through this cursed war, all those dynamite-sneaking gougers, making slaves of men (God damn them).” I’m pretty sure Ives rewrote the text himself, since it includes lines like the above and “Most wars are made by small, stupid, selfish bossing groups.” It’s not very often we get to hear the composers take part in performing all the parts of a piece, but I’m not sure how “authentic” it is, since it is basically a whole new piece. Regardless, it’s fun, For comparison, here is the original version from the 114 songs.

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