Wednesday, December 23, 2015

MMerry Christmas!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fugue in Royal David's City

I've mentioned again and again that I tend to be most interested in composing when I'm building on something familiar. I need to get over this, because I think it's less about an inability to create good melodies and more about lazily taking advantage of the cachet that an existing melody carries. I don't just mean that I don't think listeners will believe in my tunes; it's more that I don't believe in them myself until I've lived with them for a while. (As I've often remarked, the world of classical music trades on this kind of cachet all the time. The famous tune of Beethoven's 9th is about as undistinguished as can be, but we don't tend to hear it that way because it carries so many strong associations from within and without.)

Perhaps getting over this hangup would make a good New Year's Resolution, but for now, I continue to find inspiration in Erica Sipes' ongoing musical advent series (see yesterday's post), in which she plays piano settings of well-known Christmas tunes. I was thinking it would be fun to try my hand at such a setting, but I'm also old-fashioned, so I decided to make it a fugue. I find the fuguing process to be fascinating because, though there are some very standard signposts to hit, the form invites the subject to find its own path - which is another way of saying, I didn't expect this to come out at all like it did.

The subject is based on the very Anglican "Once in Royal David's City," which is the traditional opener in the legendary King's College Lessons & Carols service. Honestly, I used to think of this as a pretty dull melody, but I've heard and sung to Nathan Skinner's inspiring orchestration at the Park Street Church Lessons & Carols for many years, and it has grown on me, especially the way in which Nathan harmonizes the downbeat of the final verse as a I 6/4 chord instead of the standard I, creating a wonderful sense of forward momentum. (You can hear the interlude leading into the final verse starting around 7:00 of this video from last Sunday evening. Wife of MMmusing is sitting first chair cello, Daughter of MMmusing is playing in the first violin section, and I'm standing there singing in the congregation - but I won't say where. The interlude also features a series of imitative entries, which suggest a fugal texture.)

Though my little fugue (started and finished on the same day) begins fairly properly, I do indulge in some parallel fifths and unprepared modulations along the way because...well, fugues are really about freedom, not rules. I wish my piano was better tuned here (perhaps yesterday's Beethoven banging didn't help), but I'm still pleased with the outcome:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Carol for Beethoven

Carol of the Beethoven

I was asked by pianist/blogger friend Erica Sipes the other day if I had any favorite piano arrangements of The Carol of the Bells. Curiously, the first thing that popped into mind was this fun little Kabalevsky teaching piece:

Of course, it doesn't really qualify since it's basically in major instead of ominous minor - speaking of which, while considering the Ukranian carol tune, I realized for the first time that its basic four-note motif is also the beginning of the famous Die irae chant, which has been featured by so many composers. It occurred to me briefly that Liszt's fabulous Totentanz, based on the Dies irae, could easily be converted into some sort of wild exploration of those sweet, silver bells, but I chose only to go this far:

...and that was far enough.

However, the stupid tune was dancing in my head and soon it had danced its way into Beethoven's 5th. I'm proud to say I whipped this up in just a few hours, though I wish I'd invested more time in making it easier to play. But, since Beethoven's birthday comes but once a year, I figured I'd better get it posted today, so there it is [at the top of the post].

Happy Beethoven Day!

Friday, November 20, 2015

What if the great composers wrote the music for the closing credits of '80's TV shows? Part III

So far, there are only three classical music tunes that have "appeared to me" as perfect for the closing credits of '80s TV shows, so today's feature subject will wrap up this series...for now.

I honestly haven't done much serious reflecting about what particular musical qualities have sparked these connections. In the case of the Franck, the syncopations perhaps stand out as unusual for a big, serious symphony, which is why that tune always seemed a fish out of water in the concert hall. The Dvořák and today's Beethoven theme just strike me as giddier than usual (not a bad thing!) for their contexts: high energy, some unexpected accents, simple building blocks that make them catchy, etc. I'm sure some would say that adding a "Hooked on Classics" beat to any foursquare tune would make it work as well as the themes I've chosen, but I'm skeptical. It can be hard to shake such qualities as grandiosity, elegance,* and seriousness of purpose. For better or for worse, Dvořák, Franck, and Beethoven have found the secret sauce.

The scherzo of Beethoven's silliest sonata, Op. 31, No.3, has stood out to me as unusual since I first heard it in college (in the 80's!). The first and last movements of the sonata actually have more misdirections and sleights of hand, so they're more comical in terms of syntax and surprise, but the second movement scherzo, with it's bouncing L.H. accompaniment, has the most endearingly goofy tune. I'm pretty sure I always thought it had a "pop" sensibility, with it's combination of smooth melodic contours, bouncy articulations, and a kind of natural off-beat emphasis (not so much from the sf's after beat 2, but in the way the left hand pattern naturally gives a kick on beat 2). It even looks funny to me, I suppose because of all the staccato dots:

I remember hearing Richard Goode perform this sonata live about 25 years ago, and although I suppose people weren't literally laughing out loud, it was the flat-out funniest performance I can ever remember hearing/seeing - funny on purely good-natured musical grounds, not because of lyrics, staging, or whatever. (OK, Goode is a bit of a character, and his floppy hair was a character of its own back in 1989.)

I've been disappointed in looking for a performance on YouTube that captures that unpolished spirit, though I like this one by the always interesting Lazar Berman:

Berman's approach is still more "studied" than I'd like (I'll get to that in a second), but it strikes me that the humor of this movement has to do with how all those semi-serious diversions, pauses, and hints of turmoil always end up back at the same silly, banal place: the irresistably "easy listening" tune.

To be honest, my conception of this music was changed forever when I first heart Don Dorsey's synthesized "Beethoven or Bust" album, also back in the '80's. The whole album screams "'80's," and I recommend it as a highly entertaining artifact of its time. (The "Rage Over a Lost Penny" is a great starting point.) I wouldn't say this album has "ruined" the Scherzo for me, though; rather, it's revealed its true destiny in a way that makes every well-intentioned piano performance a little disappointing.

Whereas I did the synthesizing of Dvořák and Franck on my own, I didn't really feel like I could improve on what Dorsey had already done with this Beethoven scherzo (subtitled "Western" on the album), so I've simply made my own 30-second cut to close out an episode of "Charles in Charge." Just for the record, I've never watched a single episode of "Charles in Charge," but it seems like the embodiment of '80's TV at its most '80's, and the Beethoven/Dorsey Scherzo is a perfect way to cap an episode. (Also for the record, "Charles in Charge" may have one of the worst theme songs in TV history. I'll let you do the legwork finding it.)

So, that's the end of this series for now. I've even made a little YouTube "composerTV" playlist, with a couple of bonus additions from the MMmusing archives. Hopefully all of these tunes will find their way into pop culture one way or another.

* "Elegance," for me, is where Haydn's famously light-hearted themes fail the "80's" test - that is to say, the Haydn comic tunes are too elegant.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

What if the great composers wrote the music for the closing credits of '80's TV shows? Part II.

I'll bet you thought there wasn't really going to be a Part II. But, no, the truth is, I really do have these thoughts (see subject heading) and it's an important part of my therapy to meet them head on in this way. (Part I is here.)

So today we investigate a melody which I have to admit I really don't like, although I guess other people enjoy it. I was having a Facebook discussion with a friend recently and we were both agreeing that César Franck wrote more than a few over-ripe tunes,* many of which he stuffed into his Symphony in D Minor.

I even featured one of those tunes (from the first movement) in my recent post about Sigmund Spaeth's notorious "The Great Symphonies." Spaeth also has words for the finale's theme (which Spaeth transposes from D to A so more people can sing these snappy lyrics):

And here's what I wrote about this tune in my very Franck Facebook discussion: would be a good theme song for a bad, early 80's TV show: 'This is a song / about some people who do some stuff / they're all related / it's syncopated!'

See, I really do have those thoughts.

I had not remembered Spaeth's lyrics when I also chose to salute the symphony's syncopations in verse, but surely that jaunty rhythm is one of the reasons I could hear the music working perfectly in this context:

Frankly, Franck's pervasive chromaticism might've been a bit much for TV, although perhaps it could be symbolic of all the deception roiling beneath that broad Texas sky. I went ahead and left the notes as Franck left them, but I'm sure in the proper harmonic/orchestral dress, this theme would sound EXACTLY right for this show.

I admit it's not quite as big a success musically as my "Hooked on Classics" Dvořák from my last post, but that's partly because the symphonic texture here is so dense and really needs more pruning than I care to do. Incidentally, two themes from the scherzo of Dvořák's "New World" Symphony have always struck me as perfect cowboy tunes, and if this was a "What if the great composers wrote the music for the closing credits of '50's Westerns?" post, I'm sure you'd be seeing me take these tunes to their logical conclusions. (Note that the composer's original orchestration would've worked fine then...which is boring.) Forget Copland, Ives, and Gershwin. Maybe Dvořák really is America's greatest composer!

Yes, there will be a Part III! (and here it is)

* In fairness to César, I'll concede that this is one of the most perfect tunes ever - and it's a canon!