The Thousand-Year Ears

A Musical Blog

Month: September, 2013

Handel vs. Bach

by whartje

Below is the link to a video I found interesting and quite relevant to our last lecture (9/26)

Coincidence? Did Bach copy from Handel? Some critics argue that the theme of the “falling diminished 7th interval” exhibited in both clips was prevalent in other works by composers in the Baroque period. Remembering that even during the Baroque era, music was still somewhat local since the ease of transportation that we have today was not as advanced in that time. As we learned in class, Handel was more popular while both composers were alive, however Bach’s music had a resurgence later in the 18th century. Handel’s works were easier to perform in general, aiding in its instant popularity during its time. It can be assumed that Bach was a fan of Handel, as evident by his unsuccessful twenty mile journey from Köthen to Halle to meet Handel. Also, Bach’s son attempted to coordinate a meeting between Handel and Bach’s families in later years but that also failed to come to fruition.

Personally, what I think is interesting to ponder is who was more influential on later composers like Beethoven and Mozart and music thereafter. Handel was best known for his melodies, heavy reliance on vocals, Italian influence, juxtaposition of contrasting textures, timed use of dynamics, etc.  Bach, on the other hand, is known best for his counterpoint usage, German and Latin style, heavy reliance on instruments, phrasing, complex technical pieces, etc.

What are your thoughts? The question of who is more influential should become clearer over the course of the semester as we dive into later composers’ works. Also, if Bach’s works were discovered earlier, would Bach have had more influence on works that followed?

Beethoven’s 5 Secrets

by wagnerv

Please take a few minutes and watch this video – you won’t regret it! It was done by “The Piano Guys,” who, if you don’t know, do some pretty incredible music. (Check them out on Youtube if you have a chance!)

The piece in this video is a fantastic hybrid of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and One Republic’s “Secrets” (hence the name “Beethoven’s 5 Secrets” – nice, huh?). They incorporated 5 different melodies from the four movements of Beethoven’s 5th into “Secrets.” If you know the music, you can easily recognize the mixed in melodies, but they actually blend very nicely.  Apparently the director of a youth orchestra came to the Piano Guys with the idea to mix the classic and contemporary pieces and this was their final product. Take a closer look at the musicians in the orchestra. You’d never know from the sound, but they are all between 13 and 18 years old. It’s incredible.

I think listening to this piece will help us have a greater appreciation for the “classical” orchestra music we hear in class. I know that orchestra’s make great music and I can hear the beauty in the sound, but it’s often hard (at least for me) to really connect with the piece. This video is different because it combines the dramatic sound of the orchestra with a contemporary song that I’m familiar with.  I can really FEEL the power and beauty in this piece – It’s more moving because it is music I know: music from my generation.

Perhaps listening to this piece will change the way you feel about the orchestras we hear in class. It certainly adjusted my perspective. Listening to this gives me a better understanding of how audiences of the past may have felt when listening to Beethoven’s symphonies because for them, Beethoven was a contemporary composer.  It’s not hard to see how music like this became so popular.

Antonio Stradivarius

by youyezeng

As I was reading the textbook, I noticed a name: Antonio Stradivarius. His name was mentioned when the author talks about improvements in the technology of instrument making, which has led to the rise of instrumental music in the Baroque era. In the book, the author says that “the name of Antonio Stradivarius is known to many because of auctions where prices soar into the millions for one of his violins…”. I was shocked and did a quick search and get the following results:

“On 14 October 2010, a 1697 Stradivari violin known as “The Molitor” was sold online by Tarisio Auctions for a world-record price of $3,600,000 to renowned concert violinist Anne Akiko Meyers: at the time it price was the highest for any musical instrument sold at auction.

On 21 June 2011, a 1721 Stradivari violin known as “Lady Blunt” was auctioned by Tarisio to an anonymous bidder for £9,808,000 with all proceeds going to help the victims of the Japan earthquake.”

Why are his instruments so expensive? And since it’s so expensive, who can afford playing with it?

The Answer is, no matter how expensive an item is, there is always people who are able and willing to buy. Yo-Yo Ma currently uses the Davidov Stradivarius.  Mstislav Rostropovich played on the Duport Stradivarius. Also, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra uses several Stradivari instruments, which are purchased by the Austrian National Bank.

Stradivarius’s works do not only interests musicians, they have also caught the attention of the scientists. Twelve French and Germany experts have studied carefully of the layer of the varnish on the violin for four years, only to conclude that the ingredients on the varnish are just normal red paints used a lot by Italian artists at the time. They had to admit that they were nowhere near piercing the secret of Stradivarius’ instruments.

You can find the video of those scientists talk about their research here.

Reflection on the “Hallelujah Chorus”

by bachnera

After hearing different versions of the impressive “Hallelujah Chorus” the other day in class, I decided to research this iconic chorus a little more.  I wanted explore how it fit and how it was originally presented in the context of Handel’s oratorio Messiah.  In addition, I was so fascinated with the chorus’ ability to move listeners that I wanted to uncover why, exactly this piece is just so powerful.  

From my research, I learned that in this oratorio, the characters do not actually act out scenes from the bible; the performers simply narrate the story of Christ.  Messiah, the setting for this chorus, can be broken down into 3 general acts (one dealing with the prophecy and birth of Christ, one concerning Christ’s passion, death, and spreading the Gospel, and one concentrating his resurrection, and the Day of Judgment) and from there, numerous scenes.  The “Hallelujah Chorus” is one of the oratorio’s turning points, and it brings the final scene in the second act to a dramatic close—the scene sometimes referred to as “God’s triumph.”  Right before this chorus is sung, there is an aria that expresses how God triumphs over evil, and after the people realize this they come together as a whole to sing praise to Him.

This chorus continues to move people today, outside the context of Handel’s Messiah, due to a variety of key elements ranging from a distinctively rich orchestra playing various instruments like trumpets, percussions, and strings together, to a unique setting on the D Major key, the “key of glory.”  Also, the important phrases glorifying God are brought to the listener’s attention and emphasized through techniques like monophony, homophony, and polyphony.  All of these elements combined have a significant emotional impact on the listener—one that is so strong, some audiences are brought to their feet.

Although I have found several technical factors that can be attributed to the chorus’ grandeur and power, I still wonder if this intense sense of divineness is a product of the music itself or if some of the listener’s response is due to the knowledge that he or she is praising the “King of Kings.”  Furthermore, I would be interested to see if listeners’ reactions would be different if the “Hallelujah Chorus” was glorifying someone or something random or insignificant in their lives.

Bach, the ocean.

by jadanmendoza

When I first found out that Bach composed more than one thousand works, I became really interested in understanding how it was that one man could be able to come up with so many pieces of music. After doing some research and going through some of his works, I realized that he was such a prolific writer because he decided to explore music in way that, at least in my opinion, could be considered obsessive (but no less impressive for being so). One example of his profound explorations of musical techniques and forms is in his work “The Well-Tempered Clavier”. This collection of works totals 48 pieces, which the textbook calls “a kind of encyclopedia of fugue composition”. The book includes fugues for every possible key and mode, that is, a composition for each of the 12 keys, in major and minor modes.

While trying to find more information on Bach’s compositions, I found out that many important composers admired not only Bach’s dedication but also his musical talent. Here are some of the quotes I found:

Not Brook but Ocean should be his name.
– Ludwig Van Beethoven (“Bach” is the German word for “brook”).

Now there is music from which a man can learn something.
– W. A. Mozart

Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars.
– Friederick Chopin

…the most stupendous miracle in all music!.
– Richard Wagner

Study Bach. There you will find everything.
– Johannes Brahms

I find it extremely interesting that many of Bach’s most outstanding “successors” have praised his work. In this sense, I believe Bach succeeded not only in providing a solid framework for other composers to study and appreciate, but also in capturing the essence of the music of his era.

∆ Classical Vocal Styles Today ∆

by beewack

Last Tuesday night I went to see alt-J, an English indie rock/ experimental group that has gained much popularity recently. The first time I heard alt-J was the summer of 2012 and I automatically added them to the running list on my phone of “Bands I need to see before I die”. This list currently only has five artists, and being the huge concert fan that I am, this makes this list highly exclusive in my eyes.

What I find most interesting about alt-J is their use of vocal harmonies. Much like the chants and motets we have been studying, many of the songs have vocal lines that harmonize and other times they sing opposing lines. Not only do both of the vocalists have very unique voices, but they complement each other very well. In the song Breezeblocks the vocalists sing in the round style, where they start singing one after the other, and then come together to sing the line together. This style mimics that of the Josquin masses but with a modern adaptation.

Another similarity I noticed by looking more closely at alt-J in relation to the music we have been studying has to do with the format of a song. In many of the pieces we have listened to that include both vocal and orchestral music we hear the call and response theme. Often times a singer will sing a verse and then the music will respond to that verse. We see this trend in both classical pieces and music we listen to today.

If you’ve never heard Alt- J before I definitely recommend checking out their album An Awesome Wave!


Reinterpreting Music

by asmallberg

The reading this week had a section on Glenn Gould, a Canadian pianist from the mid-20th Century who is renowned for his interpretation and performance of Johan Sebastian Bach’s keyboard pieces. While Bach always remained popular to play among a certain audience, it was Gould’s use of the piano to imitate the harpsichord that made Gould famous.

Here is a clip of Gould playing Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. As a listener, I could feel Gould’s passion for Bach, and the Piano served as a sufficient alternative to the harpsichord. In fact, I must admit I preferred the sound of the piano to that of the harpsichord. This got me to thinking about how we as listeners view reinterpretations of famous works, or even more broadly, how we view any different interpretation of art. When a book is turned into a movie, and the film moves away from certain aspects of the book, it is not hard to find those who will criticize the film, even though it may just be trying for a different interpretation. The same can be said for a remake of an older movie. Film critics are quick to criticize a film if shifts away from the original aspects of the movie. In music, when musicians try and reexamine their sound or style, there certainly is backlash from their original audience (take Bob Dylan’s transition from folk music and use of the electric guitar). Likewise, playing Bach in anything other than his original instruments could be seen as sacrilege. However, where there are critics there are admirers. As a new listener to Bach and having no previous attachment to him, it was not hard for me to enjoy Gould’s version of Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 more than Bach’s. I perhaps identified more with the modern piano than the harpsichord. What makes peoples so attached to the original version of a piece of music that they cannot hear other interpretations? Likewise, is it possible to say one interpretation of a piece of music is better than the other? Objectively probably not but certainly subjectively one could.  Gould’s popularity shows that there indeed was a large audience that enjoyed his interpretation of Bach’s work. However, I seriously doubt Gould himself, who revered Bach, would say his versions of Bach’s work were an improvement. But then, what was is the purpose in the first place of reinterpreting a piece of music or art?

Lang Lang’s 2011 Performance at Albert Hall

by apernot

Regarding Lang Lang’s 2011 performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at Albert Hall, I thought the performance was superb but, in all honesty, I enjoyed it more the second time with my eyes closed. Lang Lang’s exaggerated facial expressions and hand movements in slow motion were distracting from the music itself. At times, I also found that it made it difficult to take him seriously as a professional musician. The passion and excitement that Lang Lang felt while performing would have translated into his playing without all of the unnecessary theatrics. The overdone expressions and movements took away from the performance rather than added to it. The camera movements also had a tendency to draw my attention away from the music to the bright blue dresses of the violinists, the red dress of the cellist, the conductor’s bad haircut or the ornate columns of Albert Hall.

The performance itself seemed flawless. It was particularly impressive that Lang Lang played the entire time without looking at a sheet of music. Also, there were several sections during this performance where I was amazed at his ability to play such technically involved music at such high speeds, specifically in the last couple of minutes of the piece. Lang Lang demonstrated his skill throughout the show in several different aspects. The powerful notes were hit hard and some of the high parts were played as delicately as a whisper. Transitions between the different sections were smooth. Particularly during a section, a little more than half way through, where the music begins to build toward what sounds like a big climax, indicated by an increase in tempo and volume, but right before it reaches the pinnacle, seamlessly transitions into a section that is soft and delicate, the exact opposite of the previous one. Conductor Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra also gave an outstanding performance and are not to be overlooked. In my opinion the standing ovation for Lang Lang, the conductor and orchestra was well-deserved.

Learning to Appreciate Steve Reich

by nancytrinh

I have just managed to listen to Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain, Part I” in its entirety a few hours prior to writing this post. The first time I heard the piece (2 weeks ago, on Canvas) I was taken aback because it was quite unlike anything I had heard before. I could not handle it for more than a minute and a half. I tried listening to it again several times after that, but was always either interrupted by events, texts, or calls, or I found that I just did not have the mental strength to give the piece my full attention. However, I found that with each successive attempt, my appreciation of the piece increased. I was also reminded of Family Guy’s Ollie Williams’ proclaiming “It’s gonna rain!” on television, and the association made me like it even more.

Learning to appreciate Steve Reich’s piece has led me to understand how intellectually demanding some music can be. After listening to “It’s Gonna Rain,” I have tried my ear at his other pieces, namely “Music for 18 Musicians,” and “Double Sextet,” and am becoming quite a fan of his work. It is exciting to think of the music remaining to be discovered and enjoyed in the rest of this class.

The Evolution of City and Colour

by Bryce Arbour

Last Wednesday I went to see City and Colour (aka singer-songwriter Dallas Green) perform at the Electric Factory. Though he started as a guitarist and vocalist for the post-hardcore band Alexisonfire, I realized that the evolution of his solo career actually parallels the evolution of music that we have learned about so far.

At the beginning of his solo career, he released the album Sometimes (2005) – a ten song acoustic collection. It is music at its finest: one guitar, one voice. It received critical acclaim and created a sizable fan base for him. At the show I went to, he performed the song “Day Old Hate.” He admitted that he had written it when he was 16 years old and never expected to perform it for anyone, let alone thousands of people in a tightly packed room. That’s when I began to notice that the beginning of his musical career was similar to the beginning of music itself. Much like the anonymous composers of Gregorian chant, his early music is simple, pure, and singular, focusing solely on one voice and one supplement (an acoustic guitar, though piano was added post-production):

In contrast, his second full-length release, Little Hell (2011) began to evolve from simple to more complex. Though it is mainly acoustic, he incorporated the use of percussion, bass guitar, and rhythm guitar on this album. This is similar to the way music evolved from Gregorian chant to the styles found in the Renaissance and Baroque periods – there began to be more experimentation and use of varied instruments and voices. The song “Natural Disasters” from this album contrasts the above song:

Furthermore, his latest album, The Hurry and the Harm (2013), evolved even further. The instrumentation is focused heavily on his band (rather than one acoustic guitar) much like music found in operas uses an orchestra as the supplement to a vocalist. The song “Thirst” highlights the distortion and effects used by his band as well (like Steve Reich’s experimentation in It’s Gonna Rain):

Though he stays true to his acoustic roots on each album, he has evolved musically on each release, from acoustic guitar, to subtle backing instrumentation, to a full band… Seems a lot like the evolution from Gregorian Chant to Renaissance/Baroque and then opera!