I’m back with Schnittke – Choir Concerto

This is a beautiful piece that has taken my interest lately. Even if you’re not into 20th Century music, you may like this (as I did!). Apologies for the absence, but please let me know what you think and I’ll get a discussion going on a later post!

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Daily Prompt: Strike a Chord

Do you play an instrument? Is there a musical instrument whose sound you find particularly pleasing? Tell us a story about your experience or relationship with an instrument of your choice.

As those of you visiting won’t know, I am a music student. I play the Cello, Piano and a bit of Bass Guitar. For content purposes, I won’t go on about them, but another instrument that has captured my heart of late – the French Horn.

The French horn is a beautiful instrument. Not only can is sound brassy, and perform a number of fanfares including the brilliant off-stage fanfare in Strauss’ ‘Alpine Symphony‘, but can produce the most sweet, lulling tones which carry you away in the stuff of dreams. It can blend very well with other sections of the orchestra – a particular favourite combination of mine is horn and strings – as well as come out of the texture. I have a few horn players a friends (they’re handy to have around for non-horn-playing horn-lovers like myself), and I’ve played in orchestras with them several times.

I’m always amazed at what horn players are put through in an orchestra – we played a new piece of music in an orchestra recently where the horn section screamed at the top of their range for extensive amounts of time (the composer clearly had no idea what these poor people had to go through) – since then, we have been reissued parts where the string section now plays their parts following many complaints about exhausted lips. God damn brass players…

This is the horn solo from Brahms’ Symphony No. 3, 3rd Movement. This particular recording, done by the legendary Berlin Philharmonic, showcases the extraordinary range of tones that the horn can have.

Next is this extract of the Berlin Phil. performing Dvorak Symphony No. 8 with conductor, Claudio Abbado. This is a showcase for horns cutting through the texture of the orchestra, in this case with crazy trills that you can see as the horn players lift up their instruments!

So yes, the horn is a favourite of mine at the moment, I hope you see why.

On another matter, I am attending sixteen concerts in August as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, where I will be hearing outstanding ensembles such as The Sixteen and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra perform in the Usher Hall. Since I’m going to so many concerts it was suggested to me that I write a review on them. So that’s what I plan to do during August – and they will all be posted up here on the blog!

Other chords a-striking:

A Look Into the Life of J. S. Bach

Hello everyone. Today I thought it would be a good thing to share a piece of writing I did on the life of Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the most influencial composers of all time. Bach’s music goes beyond the Baroque Era of music from wence it came – it has influenced countless numbers of composers in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Anyways, I thought it was time for a more serious piece of writing and hopefully this post will become a useful learning resource for people studying music and Bach (complete with pictures!!).

Johann Sebastian BachJohann Sebastian Bach was born on the 31st March, 1685, in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach, and died 28th July, 1750, in Leipzig. He was one of the most influential composers of all time (especially important in the development of 19th Century Romantic music, and his counterpoint and transformations of his subjects were very influential in 20th Century serialism). He was born into an extremely musical family – it is known today that the Bach family turned out an amazing number of good musicians, and indeed several truly exceptional ones, between the late 16th and early 19th Centuries. Bach was also a devoted Christian and Lutheran, partially due to his birthplace being near to where Martin Luther first translated the Bible into German whilst in hiding. This is something that would influence him throughout his life, perhaps more than anything.

His father, Johann Ambrosius, was a town musician and singer, and was most likely the one who taught him the basics of music theory, as well as starting him out on the violin. All of Bach’s uncles were musicians, holding jobs as court musicians, church organists and composers – his uncle, Johann Ludwig, was a well-known violinist and composer of the time, and another of his uncles, Johann Christoph, was the first to introduce him to the organ.

When Bach was only nine years of age his mother died, and his father remarried. This however did not last, as Bach’s father died just ten months after his mother. After this, at the age of ten, Bach moved into his older brother, another Johann Christoph’s, house along with his younger brother, Johann Jakub. Bach’s older brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671-1721), was the organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf, Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, thirty miles from Eisenach, and played a vital role in the organisation of the music there.

This is where Bach studied, learnt and performed a range of music, including music written by his brother. He copied music out as well, though he was forbidden to do so due to the expense of manuscript paper at the time; however this proved invaluable to his musical education. His brother also instructed him on the clavichord, and instrument that his brother had been instructed on by famous keyboard players of the time himself. Johann Christoph was a good teacher, as his own five children later achieved high ranking in the music world at some point in their lives.

Bach quickly settled into the new household of his brother and his wife, and studied harpsichord and organ under his brother with enthusiasm, aptitude and great interest, something that soon became apparent to his older brother. Johann Christoph instructed his younger to copy out music, especially the works of composers such as Jakob Froberger, Johann Caspar Kerll and Pachelbel, the latter also being Johann Christoph’s former teacher. Bach also attended the Gymnasium (the grammar school) of Ohrdruf, where he excelled in Latin, Theology and Greek.

At the age of fourteen, due to his ‘uncommonly beautiful soprano voice’, Bach was awarded a choral scholarship to study at the prestigious St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, in the Principality of Lüneburg, a journey to which he most likely would have had to make by foot. This journey was no small feat – the route that he and his schoolfriend, Georg Erdmann, took was a hundred and eighty miles long (no doubt they will have been given free food on the journey by the many monasteries they will have visited along the way).

During the two years he would study there he was exposed to a wider facet of European culture. This was very important for influencing Bach’s music, as he would have come into contact with a lot of different music from Italy and France, as well as other parts of the Holy Roman Empire. When he soon lost his soprano voice, he made use of his talents as a violinist, playing in the orchestra, as well as playing the harpsichord to accompany choir rehearsals, developing his instrumental skills.

During his stay in Lüneburg, he was exposed to the rich organ culture of Hamburg, and when he was almost eighteen, enriched in his musical experiences, he decided to try and find employment as an organist back in the district of his birth: Thuringia. He thought that getting employed as an organist in Arnstadt, a small town in Thuringia, would be fairly simple, as his family had been musically active in the area for generations, and he was particularly curious of the new organ being built there. This led him to leave Lüneburg in 1702, back down South to Arnstadt.

When he became organist of the church in Arnstadt, Bach took on the challenge of organising the church’s music with enthusiasm and excitement. He was also in charge of the new, relatively large, 23-stop, two-manual organ that had been newly built. Bach took every opportunity to hear recitals given by the talented organist, Dietrich Buxtehude, after being given leave by the Church Council in Arnstadt in the October of 1705 to go and stay in Lübeck to hear Buxtehude, so much so that he overstayed his time in Lübeck.

Buxtehude was a huge influence on Bach – the two would have discussions about the arts when Bach was in Lübeck that year, and Bach attended concerts of Buxtehude’s Christmas Cantatas. After being inspired by these discussions and concerts, as well as visiting Reincken in Hamburg and Böhm in Lüneburg on the return journey to Arnstadt, he was full of enthusiasm and excitement for putting his new ideas and experiences into his playing at the church in Arnstadt. This turned out to cause a number of problems however – the congregation at Arnstadt were confused by the ornamentation and variations in the organ part of the chorales that they would sing.

The Church Council were at first irritated with Bach for the trouble he caused at first, and also interrogated him about the unauthorised extension of his leave in Lübeck. Bach, despite not justifying himself, was treated with leniency. However, these new musical ideas proved important in his compositional style, particularly of his many works for organ including the Preludes and Fugues, the Trio Sonatas, and the Chorale Preludes.

New conflicts arose due to Bach refusing to work with the ‘undisciplined’ boys’ choir he had been put in charge of, and what was a promising start became a mess of disputes; however, this period in Bach’s life was to prove one of the most influential. By the end of 1707, following the death of the organist there in 1706, Bach applied for the post as organist of St Blasius Church, a huge cathedral-like building in the town of Mühlhausen, and was accepted on a good contract. This marked the beginning of the next period of his life in Mühlhausen, one that would not last due to the town’s decay and growing puritan views of music and art. The influence of Calvinism had huge implications on church music, as Calvinists believed that personal expressions of faith were more important than public professions.

From 1708-1717, Bach became a court musician for the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar, one of the most distinguished nobles of the day. Bach’s position as both a member of the chamber orchestra and as the Organist of the Court meant that he could improve on his playing. Primarily, he was a violin – he even became leader of the orchestra – however he also played the harpsichord. He also wrote and arranged some of the music that the orchestra played. As Court Organist, he played on a new and smaller organ than the one in Arnstadt; however he later complained about it being inadequate, leading to a full reconstruction, something that the Council trusted him on designing due to his expertise. During this period of his life, Bach wrote extensively for organ, whilst also becoming widely known as one of the best organists in Germany and one of the most knowledgeable men in organ construction. Most of Bach’s best organ music was written during this period of his life.

Following the death of the old Kapellmeister of the Court, and not being given the post despite having virtually done his job for him prior to the Kapellmeister’s death, Bach was introduced to the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen, and was offered the post of Kapellmeister there, which he accepted. This infuriated the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar, so much so that upon trying to resign, Bach was arrested and detained in the local jail for a whole month before eventually leaving and being allowed to resign from his post to go to Cöthen.

The Six Suites for Solo Cello, part of the Cello standard repertoire
The Six Suites for Solo Cello, part of the Cello standard repertoire

During Bach’s stay in Cöthen, from 1717-1723, his master was the twenty-five year old Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a son of a Calvinist. Due to this, there was no church music in Cöthen; however Bach organised secular cantatas and fashionable chamber music of the day to be played for the prince, which the Prince enjoyed as he had well-developed musical taste due to his Grand Tour of Europe. Indeed, the Prince enjoyed travelling, and when the Prince went of journeys he was accompanied by his court musicians. Most of Bach secular and instrumental music was written in the Cöthen period, including his Six Suites for Solo Cello.

Bach accompanied the Prince twice to Carlsbad, once in 1718 and another time in 1720. When Bach came back from the 1720 journey, he received shocking news that his wife, Maria Barbara, had died (despite being in perfectly good health three months earlier when Bach had gone to Carlsbad), leaving four motherless children. He later married Anna Magdalena, a fine singer who Bach first met when she sang one of the cantatas he wrote in Cöthen for the Prince. She was kind to his existing children, and they soon got married. Their marriage lasted a whole twenty-eight years, and Bach had an additional thirteen children with her, although few of these children survived childhood.

Now with family on his mind, he grew concerned of his eldest sons and their education, as Cöthen had no universities. In the hunt for somewhere new to go yet again, this is where he most likely revived an invitation he received from the Margrave of Brandenburg to produce what we now know as the six Brandenburg concertos. However, there is no record that Bach actually went to the Margrave’s court in

The Opening to the 1st Movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 1
The Opening to the 1st Movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 1

Brandenburg, and the Bach family moved to Leipzig, where Bach would spend the remainder of his life.

Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723, where he lived and worked as Cantor of Thomasschule at Leipzig. Bach’s duties there were gargantuan – he had to organise music for the four main churches in Leipzig, construct choirs for each church from the pupils at the Thomasschule, and also to instruct the more senior pupils as musicians to play in the church orchestras. He cleverly devised four different choirs, each one with a different level of ability, and assigned the two better choirs to the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche.

For very Sunday in the Church year, for five consecutive years, Bach wrote a new cantata to be performed (after these first five years, he wrote cantatas less regularly). His cantatas were specially crafted to inspire the congregation, as well as to reflect upon the religious text. This is reflected in the opening choruses of the majority of his cantatas, and his cantatas were often signed with the initials ‘S.D.G’ for ‘Soli Deo Gloria’ or ‘to the glory of God alone’.

The dedication, handwritten by Bach himself, of the Brandenburg Concertos
The dedication, handwritten by Bach himself, of the Brandenburg Concertos

Leading to the end of his life, Bach had become more and more introspective, conserving his creative energies for some of the most perfect music he was to write. These works include several pieces with amazing musical form: the Goldberg Variations, the Mass in B Minor, and the Canonic Variations. His last major work, ‘Die Kunst der Fuge’ BWV 1080 (‘The Art of Fugue’), represents Bach’s mastery in fugue and counterpoint, something that no other composer in history has been able to surpass. However he knew that his life was nearing the end and his last chorale fantasia was based on the chorale ‘Before Thy Throne O Lord I Stand’. The famous unfinished fugue that he was also working on at the same time uses the subject ‘B-A-C-H’, ‘B’ being the German notation for B flat, and ‘H’ being B natural.

Bach died on 28th of July, after suffering from a severe stroke. On the same morning he had found that, after months concealed in a dark room, he could withstand bright light and see clearly, despite having lost much of his eyesight, perhaps a foreboding what was to happen later on in that day. Nevertheless, Bach remains to be one of the most iconic Baroque composers, with a vast output of both instrumental and choral music, both religious and secular. However, after his death, Bach’s music was rarely performed, and it was only in the 18th and 19th Centuries that composers such as Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn would be inspired by his music.

A Summer Book List

Hello again! Now that summer is in full swing, with unexpectedly good weather here in Edinburgh, I thought a change of theme to something more jolly would be fitting – hence the new theme! When there is a nice day – which for me tends to be a fresh, gentle breeze, partly cloudy sky and temperature around 14 degrees – I am drawn out to the bookshops (Waterstones and Blackwells are the two nearest to me; both are useful for different things). I always go to Blackwells first, since it is the closest to where I stay. For a few years now I’ve been obsessed by Japanese culture and the Japanese language, following my travels there a few years back. I have failed miserably at finding a teacher, despite having tried to do 50/50 language tuition over the internet with someone who has disappeared in a manner of speaking (I am too repulsive, even over the internet?!), so my Japanese is basic at best. The thing I feel quite good at though is, despite having no teacher, I’ve learnt all of the hiragana and katakana characters,  and am also building up a good knowledge of the kanji characters, of which there are considerably more.

Being a major anime and manga fan, I am naturally drawn to Japanese names. They catch my eye. I realised this as I was in Blackwells, and the works of Haruki Murakami, a previously unknown writer to me, stared at me from their throne on the third shelf down from the sign ‘Fiction’. Amongst his most known works are The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, 1Q84, and Norwegian Woods. I haven’t bought these books yet, however I’m slowly building up my Summer Book List:

  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (£8.99)
  • Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami (£8.99)
  • A new Japanese textbook which is much friendlier and easier to follow (£63.99)
  • The Kodansha Japanese Kanji Dictionary (£55)

Unfortunately I haven’t got £137 to spare on books. Life is tragic, especially the part about literature. Literature is tragic, especially the part about life. Dum tee-dum…

 

Summer’s Near: Let’s Get Down to Music

Hello everyone – apologies for being so late. This is my first post in around 57 days! I’ve been very busy with school work etc., however now that things have died down I can write a bit and share some more of my favourite music and talk about some things that I’ve been getting up to.

So this is Beethoven’s A Major Sonata for Cello and Piano, performed by no other than Jacqueline Du Pre and Daniel Barenboim. It’s a piece that I’m working on over the summer, along with the 1st movement of Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata. I hope you enjoy it – I’m not going to write anything on this piece yet until I’ve played it more and understand it more – and enjoy the calmness of the opening!

It’s June – nearly the end of term for us – and summer is tantalizingly close. My friends and I are feeling trapped in our claustrophobic society of musicians, and our even smaller friend group. What do we feel is the cure? *HOLIDAYS* Usually I feel like planning holidays kind of defeats the purpose – they’re supposed to be stress free and easy-going – however this time, I have pretty much booked out my holidays, promising myself that I will do certain things.

Thing number one is a family holiday to Paris. Family holidays, to me, have bad connotations; when I think of family holidays, I remember the many years where my mother, brother and I would travel around Europe and Scandinavia, and my brother would then act-up and make the holiday an absolute misery. Now, seven or eight years later, my mother and I can speak far more French than back then; however my brother, fifteen months my junior, I feel will act-up still. Maybe it’s just an association I make with my brother, and it’s unfair to expect that kind of childish behaviour from him, yet I cannot imagine family holidays going smoothly at all!

Number two thing to do is the second of two orchestral courses I’m doing with the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland (NYOS). I love orchestral courses – orchestral playing is invaluable, and you get to play some amazing music. That being said, these courses are a big commitment financially and physically, and a whole week of intense music-making takes its toll on your other work.

Thing number three is composition I must do over the summer for when I get back at school in September. Next year, we have to write several pieces that get recorded and sent away for examination. I set my marker high as I felt like my teacher expects me to produce increasingly good work. After conversing with my friend who studies composition more seriously than I, and who is a fellow cellist, he challenged my to writing a concerto-form piece for solo instrument and chamber orchestra, as he had done the year before. Of course, I had to take up the opportunity; however, we write in completely different styles – I write in a traditional, Romantic style and he writes in a contemporary, boundary-pushing style. As he suggested that I do this I thought that maybe I could combine the two and do a kind of Neo-Romantic concerto (abomination). I think that it will be a good exercise at the very least, and I look forward to doing it!

Number four thing to do is the general music making and practising I must do. During the holidays I hope to do some concerts with my friend, who is a flautist, up north near where she lives. Hopefully this will helped quench my thirst for travelling and freedom – it was the French composer Debussy who thought that inspiration could not come without travelling to different places regularly (I’m pretty sure I read that in an essay recently). In addition to this, I have new repertoire to learn over summer, including the Beethoven I shared, and my teacher is certainly keeping me busy.

I think that I’ve been in Edinburgh for too long – although it’s a bright, bubbly and interesting place I feel bored and restricted by it. Perhaps I need to travel a bit and spend time in a new place: it can only be good for me.

Ooh I do like a bit of Fauré

Hey everyone! Sorry for not blogging for absolutely weeks however I was busy in orchestral rehearsals for the last two weeks and I had little time for anything else. Recently I have listened to far too many Russian, hearty, gutsy and loud symphonies and orchestral works. I have resorted to my quieter, more conservative choral music. One of the composers I was listening to was C. V. Stanford, an extremely underated Romantic choral composer, and whose work, Bluebird, I am pretty sure I have shared on this blog already, however if not here it is again:

This is actually one of my favourite pieces of music and is certainly my favourite piece of choral music. I find it so serene and peaceful, complete with amazingly simple imagery of a lake (I always imagine it at dawn – with mist hanging over) and bluebirds. Stanford was predominantly a religous choral writer, writing for the church services and for organs, however this text that he sets is quite refreshing after hearing a lot of Christian texts that he put to music.

The second composer I was listening to again more recently was Gabriel Fauré, the 19th Century French music genius (at least I think so!). Most have heard something by Fauré in their lifetime, perhaps without knowing so, and his work Cantique de Jean Racine is a sublime masterpiece, one of his most famous:

This is very much a religious piece of music, telling of the grace of god, etc. Fauré had a strong belief in the afterlife, something recognised by his famous Requiem. This piece was written when he was just twenty years old, and is quite a masterpiece. I hope you enjoy these treats and I promise to get back into writing some bigger posts soon!

If you want to read up on Fauré then visit this Classic FM page: http://www.classicfm.com/composers/faure/

Daily Prompt: Born to Be With You

Got a soul-mate and/or a best friend? What is it about that person that you love best? Describe them in great detail — leave no important quality out.

Hello everyone! I apologise for not blogging in over a week, however I was caught up in a flurry of concerts, workshops and work – all of which are finished for the time being as term has ended now!

I know this may sound cheesy, but I was thinking a lot about music today and I realised how my cello is one of my best friends, and how music is my soul-mate. Right now, I have been going through a lot of stress for multiple reasons, and where some people have a partner/significant other, I have music to hold on to.

Having been thinking a lot (I do this well – I am over-analytical of myself and everything) about, yes, everything, I have found myself undergoing yet another process of change. In life it is important to change, despite it being utterly terrifying – I should know. That being said, everyone needs ‘a constant’ in their lives. This last week started with me feeling refreshed and awake, ready to do everything I needed to do (late night rehearsals, the biggest concert of the term, etc.), yet through the week things changed – I had restlessness nights, moments of extreme panic and worry, emotional challenges.

Going through life you must realise that changes in yourself and everything is natural, however something that I have been questioning is whether you can change back into someone you were. I was at a concert on Thursday night at the Usher Hall (that’s in Edinburgh, if you don’t know). My favourite living cellist, Steven Isserlis (amazing hair, amazing talent), was playing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, my favourite cello concerto, with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. My teacher has known him for years, however I only just met him earlier this week. I only made the second half of the concert (the Dvorak was in the second half), and sat with three friends in the Upper Circle where we had a great view and great place for hearing Isserlis and the orchestra.

It was stunning. I can say to you now that I have never been to a better concert in my life, and that I was incredibly moved by his playing. I had heard this recording on YouTube before, however even though this recording is outstanding the concert was inhuman. We all faced each other after about six minutes of the concerto and were all starstruck. His technique and musicianship are flawless and absolutely incredible. There were moments in the second movement where I wanted to cry it was so beautiful. Everything about it was perfect. The piece itself is incredible, however I never knew music could be that perfect – and that’s saying something.

I think that it’s ironic how I describe music as ‘the constant’ in my life, however so much changes within the course of, say, a piece like the Dvorak Cello Concerto. I now appreciate how much music reflects our own humanity – it changes like a person would change, yet you still feel as if you can depend on it. Like some people, music can tie together a community, a group of friends. I was in a relationship with someone at the beginning of the year whom I had grown close to very quickly. She is a clarinettist, a fabulous one at that. Music brings people together like that, yet music changes people too. What do you think of that?

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