Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Hindemirth Day

Following on my previous post, I'm now three days beyond Hindemith's actual birthday (Nov. 16) and a day past my own, but a friend's Facebook greeting inspired me to add to my slowly growing series of "Happy Birthday" settings. Just wish I'd thought to do it on Saturday.

This post will be brief because this is a very simple setting, though I'm pleased with how well it works. The accompaniment is simply the opening four measures of the exhausting and brutal piano part to Hindemith's trombone sonata. It's a work which I played a few times back in the day and which, to be honest, had a lot to do with my own negative attitudes about the composer, although I've softened a bit on that. Anyway, I simply replaced the original trombone part with the more familiar birthday tune, added a final F Major chord, and there you have it. The piano's dotted rhythms work well, there are some pitch connections that make sense, and there's something satisfying about the piano left hand arriving at m.4 as the birthday tune is held before its final phrase.

This is already more Hindemith content on the blog than I'd have ever anticipated, but maybe it will lead to more. After all, a little less than two years ago, I finished up an unexpected series of encounters with Barber.

Here are links to more re-imaginings of the famous tune. [YouTube Playlist]

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Man beHind a Myth

It's been awhile since I posted here for reasons I might get around to writing about some time. But I still find occasional inspiration in the odd Facebook conversation. And many of my Facebook conversations are odd. Also, many of my Facebook conversations involve me making fun of violas, Haydn, and Hindemith. I recently proposed that some of my friends (including a violist) who think highly of these two H-men should look to reconfigure Boston's venerable Handel and Haydn Society as the Hindemith and Haydn Society, replacing the annual Messiah performances with the crowd-pleasing tones of Das Unaufhörliche. Who would turn down a chance to see a German oratorio with a title that translates as "The Incessant?"

And the truth is, I appreciate plenty of things about Haydn, Hindemith, and even - horrible as it is to have to hear - the viola. But it's more fun to make fun, so when my violist friend tried to say his deep admiration for Hindemith is not just a function of being a violist (Hindemith was a violist who wrote significantly in alto clef), I said "Ha," and also created this useful graphic to illustrate the Hindemithian hypnosis that is likely at play:

A few days and comments down the road, friend violist offered this amusing graphic which alludes to the composer's intensely critical personality:

The idea of Virtual Hindemith judging immediately brought to mind a memorable Tom Cruise scene from one of my three favorite movies of all time. (Any chance we can get Cruise to star in a Hindemith biopic?) And thus, it wasn't long before I was doing my own video mashup of a stern Hindemith photo with Tom's hyper-focused delivery. My interest in musical mashups should be well-known to anyone who's read 0.3% of this blog, but it was fun to explore the mashup idea in the visual realm. I think it really works!

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Impossible Peace = Impossible Piece?

In my previous post, I wrote about saturating "Amazing Grace" with accidentals as a response to a colleague's call for a hymn harmonization "rife with secondary dominants." [← What a sentence!] When I posted my response (in even cruder form than here), this colleague wrote back:
"Perfect. And then they shall read Friede auf Erden and we will be done."
I'm proud to say I knew exactly what he meant because, about 20 years ago, I was the accompanist for a chorus that was rehearsing Arnold Schoenberg's Xtreme motet Friede auf Erden. The original version is approximately ten minutes of 8-part a cappella choral writing moving back and forth between rich Romantic harmony and intense chromaticism. The music was proving to be a big challenge for this chorus (as it would be for just about any group of humans) and there was a really important rehearsal which fell on a day of heavy snow.

When word went out that that evening's rehearsal was cancelled, I decided to see if I could use the free time to create some home practice aids to help choristers learn these challenging parts; so I entered all the notes into MIDI and posted those files online. (In those pre-broadband days, posting actual audio files [like mp3s] would've required more bandwidth than was practical, but standard web browsers could play back MIDI files, which basically just provide instructions about which pitches to play (using awkward, clinky sounds).) I believe the practice files proved to be helpful, and the final performance went well as best as I recall. In the performance, the director actually opted to have the choir perform the motet twice, once a cappella, and once with the orchestral accompaniment Schoenberg had created when he realized how difficult this music was for singers.

For purposes of demonstration in this post, it actually took me a while to find a recording that actually "works" for my ears, though there are several admirable live performances that have their virtues (such as this one). Then I came upon this recording by the English choir Tenebrae - a performance which strikes me as nothing less than miraculous:

Somehow this group manages to make even the thorniest sections sound logical and transparent, and the often skyscraping soprano part never sounds strained. Based on many other recordings I've sampled, I'm sure there are listeners who prefer a heavier, richer choral sound for this repertoire, but though the "British Light" sonority isn't always my cup of tea for Romantic works, it really works for me here. [By contrast, here's a wonderful "British Light" recording of an absolutely perfect German Romantic motet which just leaves me wanting that extra bit more of overwhelming sound for the final cadence at 2:59.]

It's also worth hearing this version, by Boston University student forces, with the orchestral accompaniment. The instrumental parts really help to focus the harmonies, and in this case support a full and sumptuous choral sound that might not tune so well on its own, but which pairs well with the style.

ANY....way, what brings me here today is that my colleague's comment made me remember that I've just had these Schoenberg MIDI files sitting on a hard drive for two decades. So much potential energy!

I made a stupid joke about combining the chromatic counterpoint with a samba beat - and I haven't ruled that out!* - but I decided that what really interested me the most was simply s-l-o-w-i-n-g things down so that the ear could have more time to process some of the fast moving brain-benders. Although Schoenberg is best-known for writing fully atonal music in which traditional harmony doesn't play a role, he also was able to work within a gorgeous Romantic canvas. But the extreme demands this music makes on the singer and listener can obscure that at times. Friede auf Erden is the kind of music that almost fights against itself - which is actually kind of cool, but also problematic.

So for now, mostly all I've done is "record" this with strings (synth strings, alas) at an almost impossibly slow tempo (synth string players have infinitely long bows), about three times more slowly than it would be performed. I chose to bathe the admittedly unsatisfying string sound in a lot of reverb so that what emerges is kind of a 30,000-foot view of the piece. I also made the choice, admittedly mostly for practical reasons, to remove tempo changes and dynamics, so what's left behind is just pure counterpoint swimming in reverb - which is kind of a fun contradiction.

Obviously, the result is NOT Friede auf Erden - it's missing the poetic language, the correct proportions, the highs and lows. But I do find it to be really beautiful, beyond just as an ambient haze phenomenon. More than anything, it tends to sound a lot like Mahler, though at various points it also reminds me of Wagner, the Barber Adagio (and a general American kind of string sound), certain kinds of film soundtracks; and I do think there's some value in - pardon me for saying it - smoothing out some of the edges of Schoenberg's work. I know that kind of thinking goes against a lot of aesthetic thinking, but I'm just being honest. Part of me actually enjoys listening to this more than the original, which admittedly would sound better in a live space than it does over laptop speakers.

What it doesn't remind me of so much is Minimalism, because the harmonies do change quite regularly, but it might be fair to say that what's going on is the application of a Minimalist time-scale to music that is otherwise quite dense and boundary-pushing from a tonal perspective. I love being able to settle into each harmony and let it unfold, and though this is obviously an enormous distortion of the composer's intent, I do think it makes a case for how beautiful this music is. (Not as beautiful as THIS Schoenberg, which is perfect as it is.)

I think it's possible that Schoenberg's original falls into the world of masterpieces which are impossible to realize perfectly, which is interesting given that the title translates as "Peace on Earth" - another ideal that can seem impossible to realize. Stretching it out to absurd lengths is not a true solution, but rather an interesting way to open up the soundworld and let the listener indulge more mindfully in each passing moment.

Oh, and unrelated to anything else, this is my 600th post here at MMmusing!


* I haven't tried adding a samba beat, but for fun, I did create this 100-second version with pizzicato strings. I'll offer no defense except that...I like it! [Yes, the impossibly fast pizzicato 8th notes are particularly surreal.]

Thursday, May 16, 2019

There are no accidents - just accidentals!

Again I find myself at the blog following on some Facebook-inspired digressions.*

A colleague casually mentioned, as a topical aside, that he was listening to sight-reading exams. Another colleague, gamely avoiding the topic at hand, asked:
"Can we please focus on the important issues though... how did the sightreading tests go?" 
I couldn't agree more that this qualified as the more important issue! Colleague #1 replied:
"I need more hymn harmonizations that are rife with secondary dominants. I often let [students] choose which voice to read and there aren't many with an accidental in every voice."
And we're off!

If it should turn out that I am nothing more than a robot, the first clue might be how predictably I react to this sort of stimulus. You want a hymn harmonization that's rife with secondary dominants?!? I cannot resist such a siren song. Basically, secondary dominants are chords which include accidentals as a way of strengthening the approach to the next chord. So a harmonization saturated with secondary dominants would have lots of pitches outside the given key, which of course would make sight-singing more difficult. (A harmonization with no accidentals means all the notes would fall into the "diatonic" Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti pattern, a stepladder of pitches to which our ears are conditioned to relate; adding accidentals is like hiding steps where not expected...which could certainly lead to accidents.)

I'm not sure why I chose "Amazing Grace," but I suppose I was drawn both to its familiarity and the challenge it presents as a fairly simple, pentatonic tune (which means there aren't so many different pitches to harmonize). It's easy to add one or two secondary dominants to any harmonization, but as they start to pile up, each accidental pointing to a different key, the center of gravity gets wonky. The familiarity of the "Amazing Grace" tune helps in that regard, but it was fun to work on balancing these excesses in such a way that there still seems to be some direction. I especially like the bass line from m.4-8, but I find that all of it hangs together...ish. The voice-leading has some issues, but this is where I say, "hey, this was only a rainy day diversion."

Of course, there are tons of chromatic harmonizations of Amazing Grace that use various extended jazz harmonies (see here, for example**), but those are not necessarily conceived with the idea of strict four-part harmony in mind, and anyway, my inspiration for doing this was to stick to secondary dominants, so mostly that's what I did. With the exception of m.7, there are diversionary accidentals in every measure, mostly doing secondary dominant kinds of things.

Oh, and as follow-up to my previous post, the final cadence gets lost in a Tristan haze....

AND, this harmonization sparked a comment which sparked another, very different creative concept which I will reveal...in a day or two!


* And here's a Facebook-inspired digression: I think Facebook is fantastic, and though it's certainly caused its share of problems, I tend to blame users at least as much as the company. I have wonderful interactions and conversations there and don't find it all that difficult to avoid the negativity. The secret trick is to avoid the negativity. And to seek out interesting conversations. Because of the far-flung connections it enables, there are topics I might otherwise never get to engage were it not for Facebook. (This is not a defense of its policies or motivations, just a suggestion that one doesn't have to get sucked into its darker aspects.)

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Wrong Turn on Duke Street

[As is often the case, I come here to this we(b log) to document a thing I did, sometimes (as now) with no larger purpose in sight.]

An organist friend confessed on Facebook recently that he'd realized just before playing his own re-harmonization of a hymn that he was about to play "illegal" parallel fifths. He decided the violation was worth the aesthetic reward, but amongst the comments, a mutual friend suggested he try incorporating the "Tristan" chord into a hymn some day. This chord, perhaps the most famous in Western music history, is a famously ambiguous sonority that kicks off Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. [Click excerpt below to hear.]
I couldn't but help but think about ways to tackle this challenge. Because "The Tristan" and its resolution harmonizes an upward-reaching chromatic melody (G# - A - A# - B), I thought for a bit until the final phrase of the wonderfully four-square "Duke Street" came to mind.* It's not chromatic, but it does go up by step, and I figured I could sneak one extra passing note into the tune while the parts below get all murky. The way I've incorporated this is pretty different contextually from what Wagner did, but it's all there, even if the "resolution" goes by more quickly.

Here's the original transposed into the key of D Major I used. (OK, technically, the context I chose harmonizes an ascent from 6 to 8 instead of 7 to 2. So, from a "Tristan" perspective, it's as if we're briefly in C Minor, although that's not really a logical way to hear what I've written.):
And here's what those harmonies look like under the final phrase of "Duke Street."
And here's what it all sounds like, with a few more chromatic harmonies thrown in to wrap things up.

One big difference is that Wagner's version lingers on the most unsettled pitch (the leading tone G-sharp) with an accented longer note value, and the next-to-last note (also unsettled) is stressed, with its resolution in an unstressed position. In my version, the melody comes to rest on a strong downbeat on the tonic D. This means that aside from that little passing C-natural in the melody, the tune retains its Presbyterian propriety, and Tristan's longings are suppressed a bit.

This is always the kind of thing I love most about this sort of project, the way in which two incongruent styles can meet in the middle, with some give and take. Although the "Tristan" chord moment passes quickly, it's referenced again in the downbeat of m. 15, which repeats the chord with different voicing.** Also, as the "Tristan" chord is enharmonic to a half-diminished 7th chord (the most beautiful of all 7th chords), I chose a half-diminished ii chord for the next-to-last harmony. A ii-I progression is closely related to the IV-I "Amen" cadence, so this felt just wrong enough to be right.

Here's a silly little visualization of the basic process. I like the visualization because it illustrates the idea of two separate musical entities merging.


* It's not so surprising that this tune came to mind; I wrote just a few months back about a prelude and fugue I've written on "Duke Street."

** That low A-flat in m.15 of my harmonization should really be a G-sharp, but I wanted to keep the connection to the spelling used in m.13.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Bach to the future?

Whether or not you agree with the UNDENIABLE fact that J.S. Bach is the greatest composer of all time, his music is surely the most durable and flexible of any important composer. His writing is undergirded by such beautiful logic that the ideas and structures seem to survive and even thrive in a wide variety of transcriptions. Today we'll put that to the test.

My composer friend Wesley has probably provoked more blog posts here than anyone not named Bach or Stravinsky. He sent along a video the other day in which YouTuber/composer David Bruce explores the rhythmic/metrical subtleties of the well-known Preludio from the unaccompanied violin Partita No. 3 in E Major. Bach's original is in 3/4 time with 16th notes throughout except at the very beginning and end. But the way in which those notes can be grouped is open to interpretation; the patterns often suggest accents that don't align neatly with the beats. This is explained quite well by David Bruce in this video, so I won't go into more detail about that here. (Actually, as it happens, my younger daughter has been working on this prelude for the past few months, as did her sister before her, and no matter how many times I hear it, I often find myself surprised at where a few downbeats land; Bach definitely plays with your mind here.)

A few days ago, Bruce posted a completely worked-out piano arrangement of the Bach in which the metrical groupings are shifted around quite a bit, with the left hand leading the way. You can hear a performance of Bruce's arrangement beginning at 1:18 in this video.

It's very enjoyable in a mildly mischievous sort of way and even includes a few bluesy passages. I wrote back to Wesley that though I thought the arrangement was very successful, I wasn't convinced that this was because Bach's music called out for these new metrical groupings - or that, even if that was the case, that the appeal for me was much more about hearing Bach dueling against these contrasting ideas. Remember, Bach is durable - almost bulletproof. I was almost immediately reminded of this Mozart concerto "arrangement" in which Timo Andres plays Mozart with his right hand and all manner of dissonant, modernistic things in the left hand. [Piano enters just after 2:30.] The result is wonderful - sort of like Mozart played through a Prokofiev funhouse mirror.

Earlier this afternoon, I thought I'd experiment with this theory and write my own "out there" left hand part to go with the Bach prelude. My initial goal was just to do 12 bars or so, but I found the process addictive. However, with a few exceptions, I decided to work mostly with the kind of rhythmic/metrical play Bruce had used and not indulge in much Andres-style dissonance. The main difference is that, unlike Bruce, I didn't spend much time worrying about whether Bach's patterns provide any justification for what I was adding. It was a thoroughly sequential process: I simply worked from phrase to phrase until I'd reached the end, and for now, I haven't tried to polish anything up. In some passages, my goal was explicitly to write something that pulls the ear two ways; in other cases, I was more intentional about interacting with the original.

The other main restriction I decided on was to keep the "left hand" part as a single melodic line with no chords - this was mainly because introducing the possibility of chords would've made for a lot more work! Also, I put "left hand" in scare quotes because I also wasn't really thinking about writing this for a real performer, though I'm sure there are pianists who could play what I wrote. For my purposes, I was perfectly content to let my computer's internal pianist do all the fingerwork. Remember, Bach is durable! Or not. You be the judge. (You only get to see Bach's notes - my score isn't ready to be seen.)

The most I can say for now is that it pleases me, though the recording could use a lot of finessing and the arrangement could certainly use some tweaking. It's not nearly as sophisticated as the Bruce arrangement, but it has more of the kookiness that I love. There's a giddiness about my version that amuses me every time I listen to it. (Yes, I laugh at my own jokes.) It's reminiscent of the playfulness found in the flips and reverses to which I once subjected an innocent Bach invention.

I should add that, among the many other more honorable arrangements of this piece (including Bach's own setting for organ and orchestra), the real standout is Rachmaninoff's imaginative reworking:

But he probably spent more than one afternoon on it...

[UPDATE: When I originally posted this last night, the YouTube version I'd uploaded had some buzzy audio issues, so I've replaced it with a cleaner version. The only sad thing is that I'd already gotten one dislike on the original - great art always mystifies some - so I'll have to see if I can earn some fresh dislikes!]


POSTLUDE: As I've suggested, this Bach prelude has been arranged for all sorts of different contexts. I've made a playlist here including versions for lute, guitar, Bach's own version for organ and orchestra, an arrangement of that arrangement for solo organ, arrangements for piano by Saint-Saens (based on on Bach's cantata version) and Rachmaninoff, and the version with Schumann's accompaniment with soloists on both violin and sax. If you go out into the wild, you can easily find versions on viola, cello, and who knows what else.

The ubiquity of these arrangements also reminds me that David Bruce's version (and mine, perhaps) falls into a fun category: futurized works in which a well-known classical work is given an accompaniment or reworking that intentionally adds a modernist twist on the original. I've made a very short playlist here which includes three takes on Mozart (by Grieg, the virtuoso pianist Arcadi Volodos, and the Timo Andres piece I mentioned) and Lutoslawski's 20th century variations on Paganini's famous variations. Obviously, there are many more works that could be added here, but the spirit of these pieces was on my mind while I was vandalizing Bach...

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Blogger's Dozen

Today is the 12th anniversary of this blog's debut. I'd thought about doing some sort of celebratory post like a "The 12 Best MMmusing Posts"; or "1 post each from of the last 12 years"; or "Here's a new 12-tone composition in 12 movements for 12 players."

But, the good news is I've already celebrated by writing 7 new posts in the past couple of weeks (helped along by school vacation week). There were some long breaks this past year, but since last February 24, I've completed an unusual Barber Trilogy (here, here, and here), written 11 new fugues, and made a fun little Haydn "Surprise" Player, among other things. I'm especially proud of the Haydn page because it involved: conceiving the idea, coming up with the surprises, creating all the audio mashups (some of which keep going in sync with the Haydn for a bit), and designing the webpage with specially engraved background scores that flip according to screen orientation and custom JavaScript to allow for a variety of interactions with the page.

Like this blog, the Haydn page is still a work in progress, and like the Haydn page, I suspect this blog has quite a few more surprises to come. (Note that I will be among those surprised by these yet unimagined...whatevers.)

In the meantime, as always, I'd suggest a visit to:

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Cut that out! (Viola Edition)

So, my post about cuts yesterday focused only on one particularly vexing problem - ending the first movement of the Bruch concerto - but the truth is, accompanists (and/or teachers) have to make decisions about cuts all the time with concerto accompaniments. Just this morning, I accompanied my daughter playing the 3rd movement of the Bruch for an audition and I took three cuts, all of which were easy to choose.

I have (selectively) vivid memories of once having come up with a really clever cut to cover the big central tutti section in the first movement of Dvořák's cello concerto. I'd used it a few times before I played it in a lesson for a very well-known teacher....who just laughed, basically implied that it was ridiculous and said something like, "just stop here, and then start a few bars before the cello comes back." It helps this story in my mind that I don't remember any of the details of this particular cut (which I think did involve a transition chord or two that Dvořák hadn't written), so I still choose to believe my version was brilliant. (And it's worth noting that my longstanding interest in mashing pieces together connects closely with this idea of stitching two clipped parts of a longer work together. It's not a long trip from that to this.)

There are interesting philosophical questions in play about how one balances the value of convenience against the value of fidelity to the composer's vision (in fairness, it's probably not the composers's vision to have a piano be the orchestra in the first place) and also about whether it's better, as this teacher suggested, not to pretend one is re-composing at all but simply chop out some time. "Look, there's no orchestra here, so why pretend? The pianist is just here as a practical compromise to help create some context around the violin part, but who are we kidding?" But I'm more of a dreamer than that.

However, I'm here today to unveil a set of cuts which would also improve performances of a concerto WITH orchestra. Behold, my proposed cuts for the first movement of the Walton Viola Concerto.

Even if you don't know the work (which is central to the violist's repertoire), perhaps you'll be able to hear how advantageous these particular cuts are. [I have shared this on Twitter and Facebook before, but this ruthlessly efficient arrangement is only now debuting on my blog.]

Friday, February 22, 2019

Cut that out!

Facebook and social media get lots of bad press these days, perhaps deservedly so, but I still find them invaluable means for generating interesting conversation. (TOP TIP: These interesting conversations will likely almost never involve politics, but your mileage may vary.) I have a variety of mostly Facebook-based relationships that can turn into comment threads featuring thousands of words - and none of them hateful, unless you count some of the things I say about Haydn. But, yes, they are mostly about music, with some sports thrown in for good measure. Or is music a sport anyway?

Anyway, about a year ago, a collaborative pianist colleague raised the interesting question about how a pianist should choose to "end" the first movement of Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 when that's all that is being performed. This question actually comes up a lot - I've accompanied at least four different teenage violinists on this particular movement in competitions and/or recitals in the past year. In fact, one of those violinists lives in my house. Curiously, her big sister violinist never played "the Bruch," but it's often one of the first "grown-up" concertos students play.

Anyway, the first movement ends with a cadenza-like passage that mirrors the opening of the concerto; this final section concludes with the soloist playing a frenetic, three-octave G melodic minor scale that overshoots the top G to land on an A-flat. The purpose of the A-flat, aside from providing some over-the-top excitement, is that the orchestra uses it to set up a long-ish transitional passage which slowly calms down directly into the E-flat Major second movement. You can hear all of this, starting from 5:55 in this video. The problem spot is where the violin finishes at 6:57. The music doesn't finish "settling" until the 2nd movement begins at 7:40.

Here's what the score (with piano reduction) looks like from about 6:30 until the opening of mvt. 2.

In a full performance of the concerto, this is a lovely, organic touch, recalling the way Mendelssohn also directly links the first two movements of his most famous concerto. But, in the case of the Mendelssohn, it's very logical to play the short final tutti of the opening movement, which ends with a very clear and emphatic cadence in the "correct" key of E Minor. Mendelssohn's technique is to have a single bassoon hold on to one B from the cadence to initiate a transition; Bruch doesn't give us anything so easily tidied up.

The most obvious, and probably most common, solution is simply to play four bars of what Bruch wrote, except re-writing the end of the third bar to jump right ahead to a cadence in E-flat Major. Harmonically, it works fine, but it's unsatisfying because it's so odd to finish off a dramatic minor-key movement with what sounds like an afterthought of a conclusion in major. Hear for yourself (with my computer's orchestra applying the finishing touches for Heifetz et al.):

My Facebook collaborative pianist friend mentioned that she'd once heard a pianist re-write those four bars to cadence in G Minor (which requires a little work since the violinist's climactic A-flat is not IN the key of G Minor). I've since tried this a few times, including the last time I performed it with my daughter in an informal recital - but, after hearing the recording of that, I've decided it's too jarring, even though it ends in the right key. (It's made me appreciate more why composers, like Beethoven especially, feel the need to reiterate final cadences multiple times so that the ending really feels like an ending.) But here's what that might sound like with a "real" orchestra:

So we have two possibilities that are both unsatisfactory in different ways.* Again, the real problem is that Bruch's final violin swoop just isn't a good way for a soloist to finish a piece. (I suppose the Sibelius concerto does end in a way that's rather abrupt [start at 6:27], but Bruch's context is more traditional.)

One unconventional solution would be to double down on Bruch's abruptness and just have the violinist end the scale on G, with a big G Minor piano chord to go along. No one legit would ever approve of such a thing since it changes a note in the solo part, but it would be exciting! When I proposed this option on our Facebook thread, I also came up with the idea of "using" the big G Minor chord from Berlioz's "March to the Scaffold" - the chord which signals that the Symphonie fantastique protagonist has just lost his head. Here's what that would sound like (to hear as a lone final chord, just pause before the Berlioz head-rolling effect comes in):

OR...if you really want to ramp up the drama, we could cut in the poignant clarinet memory of Berlioz's idée fixe before the final guillotine flourish.

As you can plainly see, I've now entered the territory I explored in my Haydn "Surprise" page from a few posts back (of course, I LOVE this territory), but I'll just restrict myself to a couple more "magic portal" options. The orchestral motif that introduces all of the excerpts above is also the theme Bruch uses to open the concerto, although curiously, I don't think the violinist ever plays it. It's always used by Bruch as a sort of "presentation" gesture. It can be defined as a repeating 3-note descending stepwise pattern with this rhythm:

My ears are sort of naturally conditioned to notice that this gesture appears in at least a couple of other famous places in music history. One of them I just noticed a couple of days ago when I was playing the first movement of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony for a conducting student. There's a passage early in the development where....well, take a listen:

This ending depends on the violinist ending on the G instead of A-flat. My final example would as well, except it sounds even better with the surprise transposed up a half-step to the violinist's A-flat. (Believe me, I've tried it both ways.) I think this would be the all-time best way to end the first movement of the Bruch concerto....though I'm not sure how this ending would end either.

Tomorrow, I'll share one more topic related to concerto cuts. Stay tuned!

{What's that, you want more Bruch blog content? OK, here you go.}


* Incidentally, it turns out that someone has self-published a composed "concert ending" which can be downloaded here. It basically uses more of Bruch's original transition, but then interpolates a few changes to finish up in G Minor. However, given that it would probably last about 30 seconds...and still sound like a strange way to end, it doesn't strike me as a useful solution, though I could see the benefit in going a little further than the 4-bar G Minor finish I demo'd above.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Proofreading gone wrong...

On Sunday, I had the great pleasure of hearing pianist Robert Levin give a fantastic performance of the Beethoven "Emperor" concerto with the Boston Philharmonic. I wrote a bit about it on Facebook, and a friend mentioned she'd been on a committee with the pianist when she was a student at Harvard, where Levin taught for many years. I decided I could one-up this by mentioning my own historic run-in with Levin.

I never actually met him, but many years ago, I was tasked with proofreading the program booklet for a performance of Levin's edition of Mozart's Requiem. The evening featured Levin (famous both as musicologist and pianist) as pre-concert speaker to talk about his completion of Mozart's unfinished work. So it was a pretty big deal, big audience, etc. I don't honestly have a lot of experience as a proofreader (any glance at a random blog post here should confirm that), but I thought I'd done a pretty careful job.

The day before the performance, I was talking about the work in a class and had slides up showing the text. A student raised her hand and noted that the title of Rex tremendae was amusingly misspelled in the listing of movements. I chuckled, but almost immediately went to a darker internal place as I put two and two together. I'd copied the PowerPoint text from the program draft I had "proofed."

The rest of the story is pretty much a blur. I remember making a panicked call to the print shop. I was told the programs were already being printed and it was too late to fix anything, but they did a quick check and assured me the typo wasn't there.

Nonetheless, I still showed up at the concert a bit nervous, and when I opened the big, glossy program booklet, my worst fears were immediately realized. I don't remember precisely what went through my head, but seeing the word "Tex" certainly felt like this angst-ridden music of Mozart's was pounding in my brain:

When I told my little story on Facebook, a friend mentioned that "Tex tremendae" sounded like " some sort of Texas-based superhero," and I immediately began imagining these dramatic rhythms and a large chorus sporting a Texas-sized drawl. Of course, Texas is home to lots of superior choral singing, so I'm not pretending Texas choirs would sing this way on accident - but if tasked to summon the superhero Tex Tremendae, perhaps it would sound a bit like this.

The main reason I'm posting it is because, for better or for worse, I took the time to see if I could make my virtual chorus sing with a drawl. I could still do with more vowel variety, but I also think I spent enough time on it. At least it's short.

If for some strange reason you like this, perhaps you'll enjoy my reworking of Barber as a Burger King tale...


UPDATE: If you're curious, my intent was for the "singers" to execute the text more or less like this, although that proved harder to achieve than I expected:

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Re-writing a Wrong

This blog has had its ups and downs, and there are many cool things I've created that never went as viral as I might've hoped. But, for better or for worse, two fairly straightforward animations of Bach canons (from The Musical Offering) have consistently been my "best sellers." Well, I don't actually get paid or anything, but these two videos have racked up literally hundreds of thousands of views.

So, wouldn't you know, one of them has had two wrong notes all along (in score and audio). I've known this for a long time since YouTube commenters are not shy about offering critiques. (This one happens to be a very fair critique). Unfortunately, it's not possible simply to fix the original video, with its 180,000-plus views, and as the years I've gone by, I'm a few computers and software programs away from how I did the original animation. So, this to-do project has sat on my virtual shelf for all these years - until now.

Finally, over the past couple of days (aided by a lovely school vacation week), I've righted this wrong by re-writing this song canon so that it matches what Bach actually wrote. If you're curious, the wrong note occurs first in m.4 of the lower part in this old version - that D-flat should be a D-natural. Because this canon is simply a melody heard in reverse against itself, the same mistake shows up in m.15 in the top part.

Otherwise, I've left the style pretty close to the original, though the pixel resolution is a bit better and the crabs (!) slightly more animated. We'll see how long it takes to get this up to 180,000 views.

The original March 2008 blog post is here. And the other, even more oft-viewed canonimation is here. That one has over 300,000 views, so please don't find any mistakes.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Forgotten children

A few years a back, in what was then a new church job, I thought I'd printed out a copy of my own fugue on the hymn tune "Duke Street," a sturdy old tune I've always loved since I first heard it in Chariots of Fire. I've played this fugue many times (including quite badly this morning!) - you can hear a pedestrian performance of it by a non-virtual fake organist here - and was intending to play it that morning. But I was surprised to realize what I'd printed (simply file-named as "mm_dukestreet") was a Prelude on "Duke Street" I'd had NO memory of writing. I can't remember how I problem-solved my way out of having the wrong music that morning, because this prelude for piano is COMPLETELY different from the organ fugue in just about every way except the "subject" matter.

With "Duke Street" as our opening hymn tune today, I decided to bring back both prelude and fugue for prelude and postlude this morning, and I had the idea as I was practicing early this morning that I should record the prelude. Now what's really weird, and what I've only realized after starting this post, is that I'd forgotten I'd already written about this forgotten prelude on Facebook back in 2016, complete with a video recording that mostly just shows my right arm moving inside the white cotta I wear on Sundays.

I discovered this recording because a sense of déjà vu had come over me while listening to the recording I made this morning. I went searching back in my phone video records for past Sundays on which I've played this forgotten prelude, and found yet another Sunday when I'd recorded it as well! So I keep remembering, recording, and then forgetting this prelude until....well, maybe this is just an early document in an oncoming dementia, but I now have three recordings of this quirky prelude, all on the church's quirky little Baldwin console piano. Here's the one I made today, with the phone placed further away.

The music definitely shows some influence of Ives and Messiaen, and it's generally about as out there as my church repertoire gets. It's a progressively polytonal structure in which the tune each verse adds a new canonic voice a whole step higher, so by the end, the tune is at canon with itself in C, D, and E, though that gets obscured here and there by some murky writing. I need to go in and re-work it, but I obviously like it enough to keep trying to get it on record.

Oh, and I realized in doing more research today, that I seem to have written this prelude in May of 1999, which was one month before my first real child came into the world - so that might provide a good excuse for having forgotten this child even existed.

Sunday, February 10, 2019


I've written before about my tortured relationship with Papa Haydn. I like this and that of his, and he was certainly talented and clever and highly influential and apparently counts the symphony and the string quartet among his children, so...good job by him. I just don't love his music the way some do - or as much as I love what he inspired in the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. Maybe it was from being told as a young person that Haydn was so funny and clever because he put a really big loud chord in the middle of an otherwise quiet and boring tune.

I really shouldn't hold this against him because he could hardly have imagined how overplayed this "joke" became. So, I've had the idea* for some time that it could use an updating, to keep the surprises fresh. I've tried to mix things up a little bit, though for now there are only about 20 possible outcomes,** including Haydn's original version. Step over here and give it a try! You'll see that Haydn is dutifully covering up the surprise in the score. (There's also a small surprise hidin' in the title.)

I'm probably as guilty as anyone (even before having put this together) of reducing this whole symphony to one silly moment. To be honest, even just the second movement alone is better than I'd remembered, and I particularly enjoyed stumbling on this delightful Alkan transcription for piano solo just now. I will also say that working on this project has actually made me enjoy this music even more - perhaps in part because I feel invested in it now, but also because I've appreciated how well Haydn's banal theme sets up the surprise. When his original version pops up to surprise me, it still works!

Of course, I have a longstanding interest in randonmess (see here and here and here) and in the kind of culturally embedded meanings that can make a surprise feel surprising even when we know it's coming. The whole idea of "classical music" has a lot to do with the idea that certain works are worth hearing over and over because they continue to sound fresh and engaging - if not always surprising. But in general, I think classical music culture needs a lot more genuine surprises....though I think we've got plenty of Haydn, thank you.

UPDATE: Although I love the idea that people would try this over and over, eventually landing on all 25 (as of now) surprises, the truth is that would likely take well more than 50 tries since each re-load is totally random. So, you may go to this little audio player and sample all 25 options in sequence. HINT: #1 is Haydn's original.


* I didn't want to lead with this, but the thing that brought this back to my mind was an amusing choir rehearsal misunderstanding, when the singers misheard "terraced dynamics" as "terrorist dynamics." This, of course, is a very natural and surely common mishearing, but it was new to me. In trying to think what "terrorist dynamics" might sound like (but not wanting to get too silly with actual, grim explosions), I tossed this together, and that got my mind spinning on this bit of Haydn.

** Part of me would definitely love to have 50 or more brilliant outcomes, but there are a few I like a lot, and I fear they'd never get heard if I had too many. Some of the current options are far from perfect, but who says every surprise should be a good or pleasant one?

Monday, February 4, 2019

Posting with frequency...

It's been quiet here on the blog since the summer of fugues, but as infrequently as I've been posting, I'm back for the first time in 2019 with a post about frequencies. This will not be a long post, but perhaps it will kickstart something.

One reason I haven't posted as much lately is because of a new job that involves a lot of time talking to middle school boys about music. It's satisfying work, but can leave me mentally drained, and I'm still coming to terms with how to meet certain challenges. (As it happens, this blog began when I was tasked with teaching a broad-based, freshman arts lecture course and confronting all sorts of questions about why I love what I love; this new work may well inspire more of the same - or destroy my soul.)

So it is that, having spent some time teaching these students how pitch, frequencies, octaves, consonance, and dissonance (and singing and musical meaning!) interrelate, I realized it would be nice to have a tool that quickly shows and demonstrates pitch/frequency relationships, both visually and aurally. I spent yesterday' Super Bowl pre-game time putting something together - still a work-in-progress, but it does the job.

It helped a lot that someone had already created a nice little virtual keyboard on Scratch*, so all I had to do was add some interactive features to display pitch/frequency information for each key played and to show the ratio of any two pitches, which can then be heard played together. For my students, the main point is to reinforce how octave relationships are based on 2:1 ratios, but it's also just a fun quick way to interact with pitches, and our class Smartboard makes it easy to have students come try this out on the big screen.Do they care yet about our ear's ability to distinguish between a 2:1 ratio and a 1.78:1 ratio? Stay tuned!

You can try this project out here or by clicking on the image below:


* I went through a big Scratch phase a few years back. Here are links to some of my more successful experiments: