The Thousand-Year Ears

A Musical Blog

Month: October, 2013

The End of the Virtuoso?

by maribé

The word virtuoso has been used to describe a highly accomplished musician, one who astonishes audiences with astounding displays of skill and whose performance provokes tons of ‘bravo’ from the audience. Paganini was one of them, if not the most famous one. His musical genius was surrounded by a certain degree of mysticism; he even came to be known as the devil’s son.  He introduced the idea of the virtuoso as an element of art. Nevertheless, this highly praised ability to play the most difficult passages and improvise the way Paganini did was something that only very few musicians possessed back then.

However, the growth of technical proficiency has increased rapidly throughout the years. According to reporter Anthony Tommasini (NY Times article below), “the fact that a young pianist has come along who can seemingly play anything, and easily, is not the big deal it would have been a short time ago.” Some examples of virtuosos today are Sarah Chang, Lang Lang, and the 7-year old violinist from the video I posted below. Consequently, it is not that there is a lack of virtuosity, but that more and more musicians are responding positively to new challenges and have more access and resources for training. This may have some major consequences. For instance, is it harder nowadays for a performer to be recognized for his work simply because the audience expects all soloists to be equally good when attending a classical/instrumental music concert? If the audience judges a musician based on whether he or she is able to perform pieces from the traditional repertoire (such as Chopin in the case of pianists), then once the musician passed a certain threshold he is simply considered as one more virtuoso.

In addition to the performer, some outstanding composers have also been referred to as virtuosos. Do you think this could influence the success of new works by beginning composers? If the general audience expects the composer to pass a certain threshold in order for the work to be ‘great,’ then being creative and coming up with new and different ideas that do not fit the standards of what is expected of a virtuous composer could mean that the new work is underestimated.

“Dream of Witches’ Sabbath” in modern day music

by copej

About three minutes into Mvt. V “Dream of Witches’ Sabbath” of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, I realized I had heard the tune before. But it was not because I am very familiar with classical music of the 19th century. Rather, it was because I recognized a snippet that had been sampled in a more recent track.

This commercial was aired in early 2007 as a Nike basketball promo and features “The Second Coming” by Juelz Santana and Just Blaze. They created the rap song specifically for a Nike campaign that promoted the Nike basketball family (by family, I mean the biggest NBA superstars that the shoe and athletic gear company sponsored).

“The family that prays together, stays together/and one that walks apart, just falls apart… together we stand, divided we fall,” raps Santana. “… If you fall, get up and try again.”

Intrigued, I checked the Internet to see if Berlioz had been sampled another time in recent years.

Sure enough, I found this track. This song is explicit

I find this pretty amazing. A program symphony written in 1830 can be completely reinterpreted and made relevant 180 years later. Many see classical and rap as genres on completely different sides of the music spectrum. Looking deeper, however, there are similarities among all three pieces; maybe they are not that different. The arts are our humanity, and to me art equals emotion. These artists use the same music to evoke strong emotions: Berlioz’s piece is one of lust and desire while Santana’s is one of brotherhood and perseverance while 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne, well, you can interpret those lyrics how you want.

21st Century Virtuoso

by sibelodabasyigit

A virtuoso before the 19th century was simply “a highly accomplished musician.” In a time where the opera gained more and more popularity from the end of the 16th century through its golden age in the mid to late 1800’s, the virtuoso was often viewed as an extremely talented vocalist, with many astounding instrumentalists being overlooked.  Niccolò Paganini’s international fame changed this definition of the virtuoso. The 19th century virtuoso became known to be a vocal or instrumental performer, with talents and skills well above average that would dazzle the public. Paganini’s talent as a violinist was recognized when he was just a child, and by the age of 18, Paganini was already playing in concerts. His title as a travelling virtuoso came when he toured to La Scala in Milan in 1813 and astonished the crowd with an outstanding concert.

Although this definition of virtuoso only recognizes performers, Paganini was an exceptional composer who performed solely his own works in his concerts. His most well known compositions are the 24 Caprices for solo violin, which we spoke of in class. They seem to be written for the purpose of wowing the crowd, rather than taking the listener on an emotional journey like many of the other works we have studied in class.

Our in-class discussion of virtuosity got me thinking: Who can be considered a virtuoso of the 21st century? Beyonce has won 17 Grammy awards and has sold over 118 million solo records. So can we consider international performer sensations like Beyonce or Justin Timberlake virtuosos? Would the Beatles, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Elvis Presley all be considered virtuosos? Would the term include big Hollywood producers and Swedish DJs? Or is this term confined to classical music or centuries past?

Speed Equals Emotion

by Jungreis

“Speed equals emotion.” That’s complete nonsense. Nonetheless, it is a phrase that is often said to young guitarists. Let me back up. Young guitarists –- both in the sense that they’re just beginning to learn the instrument and that they are young in age -– often dismiss the technically demanding playing of a guitarist like Yngwie Malmsteen (“ING vey MAULM steen”), saying that he is just pure speed. They claim that there’s no emotion in his playing like there is in, for example, the playing of Eric Clapton or Slash. (For the particular case of Yngwie’s playing having plenty of emotion, I direct you to “Far Beyond The Sun”, though even that song does have some instances where even I think that he needs to slow down.)

Yngwie is the archetypical “shredder”, an 80s or 80s-influenced guitarist whose playing is extremely technical and tends to draw from classical music (and jazz to some extent) more than blues like hard rock bands in the 60s and 70s (e.g. Led Zeppelin). Yngwie in particular is extremely polarizing. Nonetheless, plenty of guitarists and maybe some other people like Yngwie’s playing, and shred in general. More experienced players tend to see this argument about the lack of emotion as an excuse to avoid sitting down with a metronome and alternate picking 16th notes at 60 beats per minute, then 61, then 62, then 70, then 68, then 69, then 70, then 71, and so on until the desired 200 is reached; why 200 beats per minute tends to be the target is not something that I know. We all know that practicing with a metronome is boring; I don’t do it anymore, though I’ve gotten my technique to a point where I’m not so hindered for the purposes of playing what I want to play. (Don’t worry; there’s plenty of room for me to improve with every technique.) Thus we tell the young guitarists that speed equals emotion to try to break down their sense of not needing any technique. (That stance is ridiculous. Plenty of even the blues-rock material is very demanding. Someone who doesn’t practice technique is going to learn Slash’s solo in Anastasia? I think not. I tie my fingers in a knot with just the introductory electric guitar passage, and then some of what he does later in the main solos is three times as fast.)

There is some logic to claiming that there is a lack of emotion in fast playing, though. Much of the time, emotive guitar playing replicates vocal lines, perhaps even copying verbatim a vocal melody from elsewhere in the song. I find it hard to believe that a singer could sing the speedy parts in “Far Beyond The Sun”.

There must be some kind of happy medium, though. For this, I am reminded of an Einstein quote along the lines of “Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

“Make it as slow as possible, but no slower.” I think that’s how I often approach my own soloing. (Stepping back, though, I am a flagrant violator of that suggestion.)

19th Century Virtuosity

by britneymason27

This past week, our brief discussion of the rise of virtuoso performers, such as Paganini, reminded me of how we view modern-day performers so I decided to research the virtuoso movement in more detail. The image of the virtuoso developed extensively over time, and even at the height of the Romantic virtuoso’s success in the 19th century, musical virtuosity was received in different, even conflicting ways. The performances and performers themselves became more and more spectacular. The virtuosos came to resemble our modern-day celebrity in a way; rumors were spread about them (Paganini was rumored to have acquired his skill as a violinist while incarcerated for four years after “strangling his wife in a fit of violent rage,” which was completely fictitious), and there was an even greater fascination with their appearance and social fame.

The virtuoso style of play was a very ornate and often-ostentatious style of playing. Despite the highly developed abilities of most virtuosi, critics often found fault with this style of playing, as there was a distinct move away from the technical focus of music. Despite these often-harsh reviews, the virtuoso musicians’ fame did not waver in the eye of the public, as they still packed concert houses to hear these performers play. The excessive and spectacular use of loud dynamics was one of the most common techniques used by virtuosi to add grandeur to their performances.

I’ve posted a link below of Alexander Rybak playing the violin in a virtuoso performance of “ La Ronde des Lutins” by Antonio Bazzini. The speed at which he plays and the way he toys with the audience, characterized exactly what I imagined when I think of a virtuoso performer. What do you think?

Abraham Veinus describes the virtuoso as “one of the essential and corroding institutions in music history.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Do you think the rise of the virtuoso musician in the 19th century had a positive or negative affect, if any at all, on the way we view performers and musicians today? Are there any modern day examples of virtuoso performers that come to mind?

Beethoven Flashmob

by shikuang

Check out this flash mob of Beethoven’s Symphony NO. 9, Ode to Joy. I’m not sure about you guys, but I have never seen a flash mob of people playing classical music. I’ve seen street performers, but nothing like this. In the first few minutes, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would be just a couple of people playing violins and cellos on their chairs. Nothing out of the ordinary. However, in less than thirty seconds after the first guy started playing the cello, more and more people in black started coming to the stage and play. Their chorus blew me away! It started to feel like a concert (a free one too!… well technically it cost 25 cents for the little girl who paid for the whole ordeal). Babies were clapping, little kids were dancing and adults even sang along. You can tell that the audience were enjoying every second of their performance. The way they filmed the video made me feel like I was there myself.

From this video, I realized that classical music could be played in different settings, purposes, or anything that you can think of. I think if classical music is played in various ways such as this, people will enjoy and appreciate it more. There are definitely some people who don’t particularly enjoy classical music. I think that if we approach classical music differently, we can all get something out of it. The flash mob is a great example to get all kinds of people (who honestly might have not heard a single classical piece) to come together to listen a great classical piece. There was a blog post earlier about a musician mixing classical and pop music together, which received many positive responses. Mixing classical with some modern pieces can be a great way to attract others to listen to more classical music.

What do you guys think? How else can we approach classical music so that more people can appreciate and enjoy it more?

Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840)

by johnbuck8

Last week’s discussion about musical virtuosity in the nineteenth century has made me think about the incredible ability of individuals such as Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840). Although the term “virtuoso” was initially used to describe impressive musicians in general, this term was exclusively used with regard to performers in the nineteenth century, particularly those capable of captivating an audience with their striking abilities. In the Baroque and Enlightenment periods, opera had received a large amount of attention and virtuoso singers received a good portion of the focus. As music really came into the public spectacle in the Romantic age with more public concerts there was a new forum for the presentation of instrumental music.

Niccolò Paganini was the greatest violin virtuoso of the century. He had an unparalleled ability on this instrument and the word of his talent spread through all of Europe. Travel was another reason why these performers were able to gain recognition in many places. It was also why so many great composers heard about and focused on the work of Paganini. In the review we read it is clear that he had the ability to amaze his viewers and that his creations went on to influence many individuals. This is also evident because it discussed the reactions of great composers, including Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt, to his work.

Here is the video of his Caprice for Solo Violin No. 24 in A minor, Op. 1 ( This is the same video we saw in class and, as we discussed, an incredible performance. It shows the characteristics we talked about of the virtuoso and gives an idea of what Paganini was playing. I can only imagine how this piece would have looked to a crowd in the nineteenth century. This shows the intricacies of playing a piece like this and illustrates why he gained such a large amount of recognition.

Niccolò Paganini was an incredible instrumentalist and it is clear that the role of the instrumental virtuoso evolved in the nineteenth century. What do you all think about this video and how did this strike you when you first watched it? Also, how did everyone feel about the review of Paganini’s work that we read? What do people think of the notion of the “virtuoso” musician today? Which musicians today seem to have this type of ability?

Non-musicians Listening to Music

by Jungreis

I am unable to approach anything in this class (or music in general) as someone who is not a guitarist. I listen to a lot of music because I like the guitar playing. When the guitar is absent or used merely in a supporting role, I listen to the violin (or whatever) line and think about the techniques and note choices; this is difficult to do with something played on the piano.

I have to think that I am not so bizarre in listening to music to hear my instrument on display. A sax player music get a kick out of hearing a crazy jazz saxophone solo. (I’ll assume that a sax player likes jazz; this strikes me as necessary to play the saxophone.) Violinists must have really liked the in-class video of the Paganini piece (or they got really depressed, which can also happen when you hear someone who is really good).

A few weeks back, someone posted a video of a Mozart piece played on just one acoustic guitar. It was really cool. That’s the way that I think about most of what we listen to in this class.

For the non-musicians, how do you listen to music?

Conversely, how to the classical musicians listen to the music from this class? Are any of the singers offended by the strong presence of instrumental music, particularly as of late?

Fantasia: A Program for Kids

by abbygoettler

Last week in class we began discussing the concept of program music, a musical composition in which a piece is designed to mimic a narrative and evoke a specific idea or setting. In class we studied the famous example Symphonie Fantastique, composed by Hector Berlioz. Although this term is commonly applied to pieces from the Romantic period, there are examples of program music everywhere around us, even though we may not notice them.

While doing a bit of research this week, I came across many examples of program music in movie soundtracks or theme songs. One of the examples that jumped out at me most was Walt Disney’s film Fantasia 2000. This film consists of a series of animations set to many famous pieces of program music, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance.

This fist clip I’ve posted below is the first segment of the 2000 film. It is most relevant to our class because it features Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. This clip consists of a series of abstract images that one conjures when listening to the symphony. The combination of lightness and darkness along with the movements of these images mimic what one might imagine while sitting in a concert hall. While watching this film, which images do you think are the most effective in setting the tone of this piece?

This second clip is set to the The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, based on Goethe’s poem, “ Der Zauberlehrling.” This is probably one of the better known clips from Fantasia during which Mickey Mouse appears as an apprentice who tests his sorcerer’s magic. I must admit that as a young child, I was never able to watch this part of the movie without closing my eyes or leaving the room. For some reason, “The Socerer’s Apprentice” was always the “scariest” part, and I think I finally understand why that was. How does the music emphasize the narrative and conjure these magical images?

After watching these clips, I’m starting to believe I understand the concept of program music much better. Although it seems, given the examples we studied in class, that program music is overly complex or too “fantastic” to fully comprehend, it seems that it is much simpler than I had originally conceived. So simple, in fact, that it is even meant for children!

A Deeper Look into Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, Movement IV

by yanru2013

Beethoven’s fourth movement for the symphony No. 9 is unconventional in that it does not follow any of the music forms that we had studied previously. It is not developed through an exposition-development-recapitulation structure for Sonata form, a theme-variations form for variation form, nor does it use an ABACADA structure for Rondo form. Despite its innovative form, it is still well organized and carefully planned. The whole movement is composed to move the spirit and trend toward a higher point, the pursuit of higher being and universal brotherhood.

In addition, the other symphonies we studied before are purely instrumental, but Beethoven added human voice into his Symphony No.9, Movement 4. The solo singers who sing the recitative part and the chorus singing the joy theme gave an unprecedented experience to the audience. Beethoven attained a new height of texture richness in symphony through the addition of human voice in this movement.

Because this movement well incorporated the poem—the Ode to Joy, and because the music takes in joy theme and expresses it in an aesthetically appealing manner, this movement is also very programmatic in that it has music in support of the poem. The poem directed the melody, texture, rhythm and structure of the movement. The poem also directly influenced the composition of the melody in support of the pure joy and universal brotherhood. The melody is simple but forceful and effective. Through the change of texture in the movement, Beethoven conveys the theme of the poem by emphasizing the important points with diverse textures. I personally adore Beethoven’s structural innovation.

Going through all the forms in the early classical period, his unexpected change of the form makes the movement exciting and it also makes the audience curious to hear more and more of the development of the movement.

Here’s the link to the complete music piece: