Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #40/50…Air in D Major, Suite No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach

If I were to say the phrase cover tune to you, what would come to mind? In all likelihood, you would think of modern music and, in particular, the history of rock n’ roll which is replete with examples of singers and bands “covering” music that was originally written and performed by others. In fact there are many examples of local bands who thrive by exclusively covering the music of one band, such as The Practically Hip who, as you may guess, play non-stop Tragically Hip songs in concert. This makes the cover song a time-honoured tradition in modern music. As one would expect, there have been instances when an artist covering a popular tune does a tremendous job, just as there have been some really bad mash-ups, as well. One of the best instances of a cover song being done well is particularly relevant to today’s post. That was the time that the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, did his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt”.

Trent Reznor singing “Hurt”at Woodstock in 1995

“Hurt” was originally written by the lead singer of Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor. The song is about drug use and depression and survival. It is moody and atmospheric and stands as one of Reznor’s most beloved and recognizable songs. “Hurt” was released in 1994 and is regarded as one of the all-time greatest songs in Alternative music history. In addition, the live video of “Hurt” that was filmed at Woodstock in 1995, against the backdrop of disturbing onscreen images, is easily one of the most memorable music videos of the 1990s. Personally, I have always loved the way Trent Reznor sings this song. It is the perfect mix of substantive content and performative theatricality, coming as it did from Reznor’s soul at a time when he was living in the very same house in Los Angeles that actress Sharon Tate had been murdered in by Charles Manson’s followers. Reznor often called “Hurt” a valentine for the sufferer. Proof that the Nine Inch Nails version of this song is a classic can be seen in the fact that “Hurt” was rarely, if ever, covered by another musician of note. The reason for that is simple: how is it possible to cover a song and make it your own when it already exists in its definitive form? That was the thinking that still existed when it was announced that a musician of note was actually going to cover “Hurt” for his upcoming album. That musician of note turned out to be Johnny Cash.

A still frame from the video for “Hurt” as covered by Johnny Cash.

Johnny Cash was approaching the end of his life when he recorded his cover of “Hurt”. He had been working on an album of cover songs with famed producer Rick Rubin. It was Rubin who suggested to Cash that he take a run at “Hurt”. Rubin felt that there was just something within the anguish that permeated Trent Reznor’s lyrics that might find purchase in Johnny Cash’s lived experiences. At first, Cash was reluctant to try a song that was so far from his musical roots. He was afraid of publishing something that might end up more akin to parody than compliment. But Rubin asked him to trust him and give the song a try. Cash finally agreed. The one change that was made was to pare the core of the musical structure down and move it from electric keyboard to a standard piano. Members of Tom Petty’s back up band, The Heartbreakers, played with Johnny Cash on “Hurt”. When the track was finished, everyone who heard immediately knew that Cash had reached within himself and had laid his soul within Reznor’s very personal lyrics. When the video was created for this new cover version, “Hurt” played like the story of Johnny Cash’s life. It was an absolute masterpiece. Many call the Johnny Cash video for “Hurt” as being the best music video ever made. When Trent Reznor heard Cash’s version of his song, he felt a range of emotions, the core of which felt invasive. Reznor is quoted as saying, “Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend”. That someone else could take such a personal song and completely reinterpret it was as stunning to Reznor as it was to the rest of the world. As Reznor glumly said, “The song wasn’t mine anymore”.

To read this post thus far, one would have the impression that cover tunes are more of a modern phenomenon in the world of music. But, did you know that one of the very first popular cover versions occurred almost one hundred and fifty years ago?  In the late 1720s, German composer Johann Sebastian Bach composed a series of four orchestral suites which were designed to accompany courtly dances. The style of suite that Bach created was very popular in Germany and France at the time. The most well received of these suites was “Suite #3 in D Major”. This suite was made up of five distinct parts, of which “Air in D Major” was the second part. In this particular case, the term “Air” does not mean oxygen and blue skies. Instead, it refers to a style of instrumental music that acts in the same capacity as an operatic aria does. Bach’s “Air in D Major” became the most recognizable portion of the five-part suite and has lived on in history as a stand-alone classical music piece that is often played at formal events such as weddings and graduations. In fact, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air in D Major” is regarded as one of the most famous pieces of music ever written. I guarantee you that even if you don’t recognize the title of this composition, you will recognize the music when it is played from the very first notes.

August Wilhelmj.

Just as was the case with Trent Reznor’s version of “Hurt”, Johann Sebastian Bach’s version of “Air in D Major” was regarded as the definitive version of that composition. If other orchestras dared to play it publicly, they did so by faithfully reproducing what Bach had created, note for note. That was until a violin teacher named August Wilhelmj came along in 1871 and viewed Bach’s composition with fresh eyes. Just as Rick Rubin tweaked “Hurt” by changing from electric keyboard to standard piano for Johnny Cash, Wilhelmj changed Bach’s “Air” from D Major to C. This simple change made the playing of the “Air” much easier because all of the violinists could now play the entire piece on the lowest string on their violin which was the G string. Wilhelmj’s “Air on a G String” is a slight variation on Bach’s original version, but because it was so much easier to play, it has become the version that is most commonly associated with this piece of music today. Consequently, if you are ever at a gathering that features orchestral music being played and you hear “Air” begin, chances are that you are actually listening to the oldest cover tune in the world and not Bach’s original version. A classical cover tune! Who knew?!  Now you do.

The link to the video for the song “Hurt” by Trent Reznor can be found here.

The link to the video for the cover version of the song “Hurt” by Johnny Cash can be found here. ***Lyrics version is here.

The link to the video for the composition “Air in D Major” by Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here.

The link to the video for the composition “Air on a G String” by August Wilhelmj can be found here.

The link to the Johann Sebastian Bach Museum can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #39/50: Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss

I once took a philosophy course in university. We met in a round room for three hours a session and talked endlessly in circles. True story. Up until that class I had always considered myself to be somewhat of a deep thinker. I was not afraid to be alone with my thoughts in the dark. I thought that the conclusions I drew regarding the state of the world’s affairs were always spot on. If only everybody would see things as I did the world would be in such better shape. Then I took this philosophy class in the round room and my way of thinking changed. After having experienced immersive philosophy, I knew that there was another much deeper level of thinking that was going on in some parts of the world. This round room I found myself in was, for me, more of a carousel upon which I was merely a child bobbing up and down wondering when the ride was going to be over. It reminded me of the Dennis Miller joke that goes: “I was making love to my wife and she started moaning, “Deeper! Deeper!”, so I started whispering Nietzsche quotes in her ear and she yelled, “Whoa, Dennis! Enough! I’m trying to get off over here.” Which brings us nicely to the topic of today’s post, Richard Strauss’ masterful tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30”.

“Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30” is a tone poem created by German composer Richard Strauss in 1896. This composition was inspired by the novel by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Friedrich Nietzsche considered Thus Spoke Zarathustra to be his magnum opus. It is a book that chronicles the journey of a prophet named Zarathustra who, in turn, was based on a real life Iranian prophet named Zoroaster. In the book, Zarathustra spends much time contemplating life while alone on a mountaintop. He alternates those wisdom accruing sessions with actual interactions down in the towns and villages located in the valley below. Each chapter of the book explores one aspect of Man’s evolutionary progress, with the end goal being the process we must undergo to become an Ubermensch, or a “Superior man who justifies the existence of the human race”. As part of his journey, Zarathustra discovers the restrictive nature of faith in God and states that humans can never achieve greatness as long as we subjugate ourselves to a deity such as the Christian God. Therefore, Nietzsche famously declared God as being “dead”, along with organized religion and all that this entailed. Nietzsche also had thoughts on Man vs. Nature, the education process, the nature of power and authority and so on. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is considered one of the great literary works of all time. It is certainly one of the most influential books on philosophy that exists. It also inspired the creative mind of fellow German Richard Strauss, who recognized, within the structure of the language Nietzsche used, a cadence that he felt could be transformed into a musical structure. The end result of this transformation was the tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30”.

Composer Richard Strauss

Strauss believed in the philosophical premise posed by Nietzsche that self-actualization was possible but only through complete and total dedication to the process. His tone poem focuses on ten of Neitzsche’s 80 chapters. Each of these ten chapters is dedicated to one aspect of Man’s evolution as a species. While his tone poem has ten sections, it is played as one consolidated piece of music. A tone poem is different from a symphony, for example, because the format it follows is meant to inspire imaginative reactions from the audience, to set a mood where reflection and deeper understanding may happen. On the other hand, a symphony has a structure that consists of four standard parts. Because of the nature of how a symphony is structured, the audience is attuned more to what is happening in each section of the symphony, rather than drawing deeper conclusions based on the entirety of the work. Because Richard Strauss understood the nature of Nietzsche’s arguments, he incorporated several clever techniques within the body of the tone poem which helped give it greater depth. For instance, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is most widely known for the opening fanfare, which lasts approximately two minutes and is centered on a chapter of Neitzsche’s book concerned with the Dawn of Man. One of the clever things that Strauss did was to compose the fanfare in the key of C, which is known as the universal music key. Using a universal tone structure to create a backdrop to the Dawn of Mankind segment helped reinforce the commonality we all share from birth to death. One further thing to note is with the fanfare in particular, the note structure is in groups of three linked notes ascending the scale. It is easy to feel the magnitude of the subject matter…the Dawn of Man…as the scales ascend. This fanfare was most famously used by movie director Stanley Kubrick in the opening scene of his classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film, as you may know, is also a look at the place of Humankind in the grand spectrum of all creatures and things in the universe. It is a weighty movie that contrasts us, as humans, with the vastness of outer space, as well as the intelligence of the computer known as HAL. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there was a time when I considered myself to be a deep thinker. But now I look at people like Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Strauss and Stanley Kubrick and realize what an intellectual lightweight I probably am compared to them. Imagine how awkward it would feel for me if the four of us were placed in a round room and left to discuss whatever was on our minds. While I do dwell on the state of our world and worry about what the future holds for us as a species, I also worry about getting up carefully from the couch so as not to pull a muscle. For some of us, toilet humour and a good pie-in-the-face comedy sketch on TV or YouTube is more than enough deep thinking. For others, it takes a round room and the eternal recurrence of debates about things that just don’t seem to matter that much to make one realize that some deep thoughts are better left for the minds of others. To those special people for whom thinking deep thoughts is your jam, good for you. But I have to wonder if the knowledge that comes from knowing the answers to life’s greatest and most important questions is worth the journey it took to get there. I don’t have the answer to that because, after all, I am becoming more and more like Dennis Miller’s wife…”Whoa! Enough! I’m trying to get off here!”  Now comes the hard part…putting my laptop down and getting safely up off of the couch. Be careful out there, my friends.

The link to the official website for Friedrich Nietzsche can be found here.

The link to the official website for Richard Strauss can be found here.

The link to the official website for Stanley Kubrick can be found here.

The link to the video for the composition “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss can be found here. ***Note: This is just the fanfare, not the entire composition.

The link to the video for the composition “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as used in the opening of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey can be found here.

The link to the video of the Dennis MIller comedy special with the joke about the use of Neitzsche quotes with his wife can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of the post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written permission of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #38/50…”Piano Sonata No. 14, Quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2” or, as it is better known, “The Moonlight Sonata” by Ludwig van Beethoven

If you are anything like me, then somewhere in your home…in a closet, under your bed, in the back of a drawer….somewhere, you have a stash of letters and photographs that remain as evidence of your courting days with the one you love. For most of us, the story that our heart tells is well known by those who know us. However, for some people, their deepest desires were required to remain hidden. So imagine the scandal that might arise if you penned intimate odes of affection to another but never sent them, only to have those same letters discovered upon your death and reinterpreted by those who never knew the true facts. This happened to the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven. The enduring consequence of the discovery, after his death, of a stack of letters addressed to an unnamed Immortal Beloved, was to have others begin to view him and his work with new eyes. Thus, the romanticization of Ludwig van Beethoven and his many compositions began in earnest. The most egregious example of this was the renaming of his composition “Piano Sonata No. 14, Quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2” as The Moonlight Sonata. Here is the story of how that renaming came to be and what it meant, in the broader sense, for Beethoven’s personal and professional legacy.

Ludwig van Beethoven lived a complicated life. He was a commoner by birth yet lived his whole adult life in the company of some of the richest and most powerful people of his time. He was a composer who had a gift for making beautiful music, yet, not far into his adult life, he began to go deaf. He was lauded as a genius by those who had the pleasure of listening to him play, yet he often felt lonely and devoid of happiness. Finally, he possessed innovative skills when it came to the musical structure of his compositions and yet never felt fully appreciated in his time. He desperately desired the company of an equal such as Mozart, but with Mozart’s early death while Beethoven was still young, there was never anyone for Beethoven to trade ideas with. His was an island of virtuosity. More than anything, he longed to not be alone and even more than that, to be understood.

In the late 1790s, Beethoven was just beginning to earn a reputation as an innovative composer. Up until that time, he had spent many years studying under such composers as Gustav Haydn and Antonio Salieri. It was only as the 1800s approached that Beethoven began to develop the reputation of being a composer of note among those who populated the upper classes of society. Having the trust of those in society circles was important to Beethoven, as well as any composer, because one of the chief sources of income for a composer was being a music instructor for the children of the elite. In order to be hired in such a position of trust, a composer had to first impress the parents of his potential students by performing concerts of original work in the salons and royal ballrooms of Europe. For Beethoven, the two parts of this process went hand-in-hand.

A statue of Beethoven in Vienna, Austria.

As the 1790s progressed, the French Revolution loomed large over the continent. Beethoven left the comfort of his homeland of Germany and moved east to Vienna, Austria, in the hopes of avoiding Napoleon’s army. By doing so, Beethoven gave himself a fresh start in a new city. Because he had no personal connections as he arrived in Vienna, he felt a sense of freedom to experiment with the limits of his creativity. This new sense of freedom coincided with the first stages of his hearing loss. Thus, Beethoven approached his compositions with a zeal and a fervor so far unknown to him. His work seemed fresh and interesting to him. One of the ways he pushed at the boundaries of convention was by attempting to reinvent the classical sonata form. Back in the 1700s, composers were expected to follow a structural formula when creating new work. In the case of the sonata form, composers were all tasked with creating compositions in three parts, or movements. The structure of these three movements was that the first movement was to be vibrant and fast-paced, so as to grab the attention of the audience. The second movement was to be calmer and more subtle, so as to allow the audience to catch their breath and delve deeper into the meaning of the composition. Finally, the third and final movement was to ramp back up in intensity, leading to a glorious conclusion that would leave audiences drained of emotion and breath. The sonata form existed as described for well over a century without any attempt at modification. That was until Ludwig van Beethoven moved to Vienna. Under the pressure of his health concerns, but also feeling the freedom of the complete lack of expectations placed upon him in his new home city, Beethoven decided that there would never be a better time to try something new and different. With that mindset at play, Beethoven began working on a composition that he titled “Piano Sonata No. 14, Quasi una fantasia, Op 27, No. 2”. What was different and revolutionary about this sonata composition was that Beethoven abandoned the traditional sonata form and, instead, opted to start with a quiet, almost dreamlike first movement and build in intensity from there. Not only that, he employed a piano playing technique that was, at turns, very rudimentary and simplistic, and yet it remained incredibly difficult to play properly, requiring much concentration and dexterity. Because Beethoven was experimenting to see how his new sonata form sounded and how it would be received, he never considered it to be a major work. To him, “Piano Sonata No. 14, Quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No.2” was always viewed as being a stepping stone, or as part of the process of developing his skills as an innovative composer. Even when the composition was completed and first performed in public, Beethoven always regarded the work as being nothing special in its own right.

However, to those Viennese audiences, Beethoven seemed like a breath of fresh air. He was welcomed into the castles and drawing rooms of the aristocracy. He quickly gained the trust of a number of prominent families who all vied for his services as musical instructor for their young daughters. One such family who admired the upstart young composer was a family named Brunsvik. The Brunsviks had two daughters named Therese and Josephine. While providing instruction in music to these two girls, Beethoven began an intimate relationship with the younger sister, Josephine, who was 16 at the time. This relationship was discreet, but it was well known to Josephine’s sister, Therese. At the same time as he was instructing the Brunsvik daughters, Beethoven was introduced to Count Guicciardi and his wife, Countess von Brunswik and their daughter Giulietta.  Giulietta Guicciardi was a young woman who was described as being beautiful and enchanting by those who saw her. She had many admirers who all sought to win her hand. Ludwig van Beethoven was considered extremely lucky to have had such exclusive access to such a sought after young woman. Beethoven considered himself to be more than lucky, he was extremely infatuated with his new student. He wrote letters to a friend in which he publicly stated his desires but tempered expectations with the realization that, as a commoner, he had no realistic chance of being allowed to marry her. Nevertheless, he did manage to make one public gesture of affection toward his student. He dedicated his “Piano Sonata No. 14, Quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2” to Giulietta.

Fast forward to 1840, a few years after Beethoven’s death. By this time, Beethoven’s reputation was unmatched in the world of classical music. Works such as his Fifth and Ninth symphonies and many others established Beethoven as one of the greatest composers of all time. Because of his tremendously important position in the hierarchy of the world’s great composers, the books, letters and unfinished manuscripts left behind when he died became of great interest to music scholars. As a result, his possessions were sifted through by music experts and critics with great attention to detail. Among the many interesting things that were discovered was a stack of personal letters that Beethoven wrote to someone that he called his Immortal Beloved. The discovery of these letters led to much speculation and debate as to who this mystery lady might have been. The easiest answer is that his Immortal Beloved was his student Josephine Brunsvik. Those who claim that she was the object of his undelivered letters base this theory upon the many instances of the sister Therese making public comments about the relationship that her sister was having with Beethoven. Therefore, their relationship was hardly a career-threatening secret and was, in fact, considered to be common knowledge. However, there were those who thought that they knew Beethoven well enough to see into his heart. To those people, the only person who could possibly have been his Immortal Beloved was Countess Giulietta. That Beethoven knew he was beneath her social station in life, and, as a result, that the two could never wed, spoke to the fact that he exercised discretion in never delivering the love letters to her. This take on the speculation of who his Immortal Beloved may have been painted Beethoven as a hopeless romantic who lived out his life filled with unrequited love. It also started a chain reaction of reassessment by others with regard to his whole body of work, especially from around the time he was working with both Josephine Brunsvik and Countess Giulietta. Perhaps, the experts claim, the real fuel that sparked Beethoven’s creative impulses all throughout the most productive part of his adult life was the romantic love that existed within his heart. As a consequence of this new train of thought, many of his earlier compositions were re-examined to see if any hint of love could be found within his musical notes. 

The one composition that was most impacted by this new critical lens that was applied to Beethoven’s work was “Piano Sonata No. 14, Quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2”. Influenced by the discoveries of how Beethoven pined away in solitude for a lover he could never have, music experts and critics took another scholarly look at “Piano Sonata No. 14”, (which had been publicly dedicated to Countess Giulietta), to see if the words in those letters could explain why Beethoven decided to veer away from convention and create a composition that used a new sonata form. In particular, critics looked closely at the very slow, haunting, dreamy Movement #1. One music scholar named Ludwig Rellstab compared the musical structure of Movement #1 to being on the waters of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland and seeing the moonlight reflecting in the waves. The romantic descriptiveness of Rellstab’s interpretation caught the imagination of the public and of other musicologists. From that point onward, “Piano Sonata No. 14, Quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2” became referred to as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata

Truth be told, I find the Moonlight Sonata to be a very beautiful piece of music, especially the opening movement. Could it have been born from a love that could never be? Perhaps. But it is just as likely that such glorious music was born from the imagination of a creative genius who chafed at the constraints of conventional wisdom and who sought to create something new and magical and beautiful out of the sounds that he was increasingly becoming unable to hear. Whatever the case, we are left with a wonderful sonata, as well as a juicy romantic mystery that we may never conclusively be able to solve. As for me and my wife and our story, I know that when we are dead and gone and the time comes for people to find the letters that we wrote in our courting days, that they will find confirmation that we were each other’s Immortal Beloved. Nothing else matters beyond that.

The link to the official website for Ludwig van Beethoven can be found here.

The link to a video that shows the note structure of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata can be found here.

The link to the video from a scene in the movie Immortal Beloved that shows Countess Giulietta watching Beethoven as he plays the Moonlight Sonata can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shal be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #37/50: Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff

Since I write about classical music and YouTube algorithms being what they are, I often am recommended various classical music-related videos whenever I tune into my YouTube channel. A few weeks ago, a dramatic tagline grabbed my attention. It implored me to “click here” to listen to the saddest music ever created and to learn about how this composition has impacted all who listen to it. I usually ignore clickbait, but on this day, there was just something about it that caused me to actually click away. When I did, I was introduced to a composition created by Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff entitled Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor. What I learned from this video was that one of the motivating factors behind the creation of this composition was that Rachmaninoff had been suffering from clinical depression prior to composing it. This piece of music was his attempt to convey the harrowing emotions involved in being depressed. From there, I did my own research about depression and about this particular composition and discovered that it has been at the centre of many cultural touchstones over the past century. This includes being the foundational idea behind one of England’s most cherished and beloved movies of all time, as well as appearing in one of the 1970s’ greatest one-hit wonder songs and, finally, being the favourite composition of one of the modern world’s saddest and most loved figures, too. In the case of all three of those things, the themes of depression and loneliness and regret all play major roles, dancing in and around the notes of a composition that is justifiably called the world’s saddest piece of music ever recorded.

I will start off by saying that I have never suffered from clinical depression. I have had some sad times over the course of my life, but I think it is important to differentiate sadness from clinical depression because there is a world of difference between the two. The best description that I have ever heard used to describe what depression is like is the term aloneness. This is not the same thing as loneliness. Loneliness is the feeling one gets when you wish you were with other people but can’t be. Many people experience loneliness…seniors in nursing homes, university students who have just left home for the first time, soldiers stationed away from their loved ones…the list is vast and varied. While loneliness is a sad state of affairs to experience, it is not the same as depression and aloneness. Those experiencing depression often state that it feels like absolute nothingness, like being untethered in outer space, like being in a void or a vacuum or existing in an abyss. There is no light in one’s life, no colour, no touch that feels reassuring, no reason to move or think or hope. It is as if a blanket of emotional darkness has wrapped itself around you and you are completely and utterly alone, without any hope of ever seeing and feeling the sun again. With that having been said, let’s meet our featured composer.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Russia in the late 1800s. This was a glorious time in Russian history when it came to the plethora of talented composers who existed then. This was the heyday of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and many more. Into their midst was born Sergei Rachmaninoff. From a very early age he showed a proclivity toward playing the piano. By the age of five, he was being formally trained. By the age of ten, he was enrolled in one of Russia’s most famous music schools. He had legions of admirers who all expected him to grow into an adult who would be regarded as an equal to the many other great composers of the time. And so it was that Sergei Rachmaninoff became a child prodigy on the piano. By the time his teens had ended and he entered his twenties, his instructors deemed him ready to compose his own symphonies and take his place on the greatest stages in Russia as a public performer. So Rachmaninoff created his first finished composition. His debut was scheduled. The excitement in the Russian music community was palpable. The night of his debut finally arrived. The orchestra assembled. The audience settled in. Fellow composers took their seats. The conductor tapped his baton and the performance began. Almost immediately, everyone in attendance could tell that something was wrong. Instead of a tapestry of sound, there was more like a cacophony. The performance was a disaster. A detailed review of the performance that was held afterward, like an autopsy, indicated that the conductor may have been intoxicated and/or that some of the orchestra members may have deliberately sabotaged the performance out of professional jealousy against a composer they may have felt was receiving preferential treatment from the music establishment. Whatever the case, the magnitude of his public humiliation was something that the virtuoso-like Rachmaninoff had never experienced before in his life. He fled from the concert hall, mid-performance. He was so shaken by the scale of his public failure that he had what doctors describe as a psychotic breakdown. Rachmaninoff retreated from the public eye and went into a period of severe clinical depression.

For several years, Rachmaninoff refused to compose, not even playing simple tunes on the piano anymore. He appeared to those who loved and admired him as someone who had given up on life. He gained weight. His ability to practise self-care left him completely. He refused all visitors. But mostly, he experienced a deep sense of aloneness. Generally speaking, when a person falls into clinical depression and does so in isolation, it is often impossible for them to summon the inner strength necessary to pull themselves away from the abyss and return to what constitutes a normal life. Luckily for Rachmaninoff, he did not suffer in isolation. Even though he shooed visitors away, he was surrounded by a network of supporters who sought ways to help him recover, even if he didn’t want to on his own. One of the first treatments he received was to be placed in the company of other creative people who lived life the way he used to in his past. So, the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was brought in to meet with him regularly. The thinking was that Tolstoy would speak to Rachmaninoff about his latest creative endeavours, and by doing so, would arouse within the composer the desire to become creative again himself. But this tactic failed miserably. The impact upon Rachmaninoff of being in the legendary writer’s company was to be reminded of how great Tolstoy was and how great a failure he, himself, was and how he was a fraud in comparison to the great man. Eventually, Tolstoy packed up his books and notepads and went away.

The strategy that ended up reviving Rachmaninoff and helped him to find joy again in life was psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis was a form of therapy made famous by Sigmund Freud. In Rachmaninoff’s case, he was treated by a Russian doctor named Nikolai Dahl, who used a form of psychoanalysis in combination with hypno-therapy to help renew Rachmaninoff’s level of self-esteem and confidence. It was stated that Dahl worked with Rachmaninoff daily for one thousand consecutive days, until one day, when Rachmaninoff declared that he had thought of an idea for a new composition and wanted to play it on the piano. That new composition turned out to be Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor. Unlike his first public performance, Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor was well-received by music critics, fellow composers and general audiences, too. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Dahl and his support network of true friends, Rachmaninoff felt the sunshine on his skin once again and returned to a life of creativity and social engagement. If not for the dawn of The Russian Revolution and the chilling effect that had on creators in the Arts, Rachmaninoff might have lived his entire life in Russia. Instead, as the Revolution began, he left Russia; first for Europe, and eventually for the United States, where he lived until his death in 1943. But regardless of where he lived at any given time, it was his remarkable Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor that is regarded as his greatest work. The irony of this is that this composition was his attempt to describe, with music, the emotional effect of clinical depression. The impact of Rachmaninoff’s creative ability to convey how he felt has manifested itself in countless ways in the century since the Concerto was first created. I imagine it will continue to do so as time goes by. Here is a look at just a few notable instances where Rachmaninoff’s work has appeared in other forms since his death.

Rachmaninoff performing in public again.

One of the first uses of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor by another person occurred shortly after Rachmaninoff’s death. British movie director David Lean used the emotional depth of the piece as the foundation for a film called Brief Encounter, which has been hailed as one of the most beloved films in British cinematic history. This movie starred Celia Johnson as a married, middle class, middle aged housewife who meets a handsome stranger while waiting for a train. As the film progresses, she and the stranger find themselves meeting regularly at the train station, and, as plot developments require, they recognize that they are falling in love with one another. However, the one attempt the couple make to consummate their newfound love almost results in their relationship being exposed. Celia Johnson’s character finds herself trapped in a marriage to a kind yet dull husband and has realized that her true soulmate is someone she can never have. The two agree that they cannot have a future together and agree to part after meeting one final time at the train station. However, even that meeting falls flat when an acquaintance arrives and begins chatting away as the train pulls into the station and her loving stranger is forced to mouth a wordless farewell as he boards the train without a proper goodbye. Celia Johnson’s character is then faced with the decision to commit suicide by jumping in front of the train, or else to go home to her now loveless marriage and life. As she makes her choice and returns to her unsuspecting husband waiting at home, the music of Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor plays, reflecting the depth of her sorrow and the deadening of her spirit. Because of its placement within the movie Brief Encounter, Rachmaninoff’s music reached a much wider public audience than it ever had before. As a result, Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor came to be something that immediately and intuitively came to represent the feeling of emotional death and despair in the minds of the greater public.

In the 1970s, one of the biggest worldwide music hits was a song by a singer/songwriter named Eric Carmen called “All By Myself”. It is his most well known song. He had long been a fan of classical music and often used the music of various composers as sources of inspiration when composing new material. In the case of “All By Myself”, the entire musical structure of the chorus of this song is lifted directly from the second movement of Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. While Carmen’s song deals more with loneliness than it does with depression, the built-in association of the general public toward associating Rachmaninoff’s music with unending grief positioned Carmen perfectly to strike a chord with his own version of deep sadness and loss and yearning.

But, perhaps one of the most tragic examples of how Rachmaninoff’s music touched a famous soul can be seen in the case of Princess Diana of England. As many of you are aware, what began as a fairytale romance between a very young Diana and an older Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, turned out to be anything but in the end. Theirs was a loveless marriage that played out before the ravenous eyes of the paparazzi and the public, who just couldn’t seem to get enough of the salacious gossip that emanated so regularly from behind the walls of Buckingham Palace. Not only did Diana feel trapped within a loveless marriage (like the woman in the film Brief Encounter), but she also felt trapped within the rigid expectations imposed upon her as a member of the Royal Family. After her death, it was revealed by those who knew her personally that Diana’s favourite piece of classical music was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. Not only that, but that she was an accomplished pianist in her own right, and when life got too stressful for her, she would retreat into a private room of hers and would play Rachmaninoff aloud. It was as if it was the only music that conveyed the emotional depth of connection to what she was experiencing in her own heart. I think it is fair to say that there are few public figures so beloved by so many who, at the same time, were so completely unhappy and lost as Diana, Princess of Wales.

If/when you click the link below and listen to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor for yourself, do so in the knowledge that this composition is structured in three parts. By all means, feel free to listen to the whole piece if you so desire. However, the section that has become most well known is found in Movement #2. Feel free to fast forward if you like. Regardless, there are many who claim that the true breathtaking works of staggering genius created by artists of all genres cannot come from routine and everyday experiences. There are schools of thought that say that an artist must suffer for their craft. There are others who insist that mind-altering chemicals are needed to transport the artist from their everyday world to a higher plane beyond their regular grasp. I am not sure how valid either statement actually is, but in the case of Sergei Rachmaninoff, it did appear to take a complete separation of his mind from his soul in the form of clinical depression to allow him to fully understand the creative depth he possessed and express it properly as he did. Whatever it was, the result was one of the most impactful and influential pieces of music ever created anywhere by anyone.

The link to the video for the composition Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff can be found here.

The link to the official website for composer Segei Rachmaninoff can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer to the movie Brief Encounter can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “All By Myself” by Eric Carmen can be found here. ***Listen carefully to the music used in the background of the chorus for this song. That music is Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor by Rachmaninoff.

The link to a video that shows Princess Diana playing the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor can be found here. ***This video is 45 minutes long. Start at the 43:00 minute mark. The video ends with a discussion of her attachment to Rachmaninoff and what his music meant to her by someone who knew her well. The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor plays in the background as this person is interviewed. A segment of Princess Diana playing it is shown, too. It is all very sad and moving.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #36/50: Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

I hope that this post finds you well wherever you happen to be reading it. In Cobourg, Ontario, where I am, the sun is shining, the grass is greening up, the birds are singing and the temperatures are starting to become warmer. I have opened all of the windows in our house. It is a wonderful time to take my keyboard in hand and write this post to all of you. While I can report that our gardens are coming alive with the first sprouts of tulips and daffodils, I have not seen the first appearance of our important friends, the bumblebees. A lot of what we do in our yard, with regard to planting, is so that there will be pollinating plants for the bees to visit, along with milkweed and other varieties of plants essential for the health and well-being of butterflies. My wife and I are by no means experts in creating insect-friendly garden spaces but we try our best. Our reward comes in the form of the flitting of Monarch butterfly wings and the buzzing of the bees all around our home throughout the warmer months of the year.

That’s not a bumblebee! It’s a Prince!

Bumblebees are one of the most important living creatures on our planet. Their role as pollinators is critical to the growth of many plants that we, as humans, need to survive. However, despite the important role that they play, bumblebees are also the clown princes of the insect world, too. The reason for this is the design of their bodies. Bumblebees have large, strong stocky bodies, yet their wings are relatively short. There have been many engineering experts who have studied the design of a bumblebee’s body and have declared that, mathematically-speaking, a bumblebee should not be able to fly at all. Those short wings do not possess enough length to compensate for the girth of their bodies, which means that they can’t use their wings in the same way that most flying creatures can to create lift. It has been discovered that bumblebees are able to fly because they use their wings in a motion that resembles a human swimmer doing the breaststroke. The bee’s wings go forward and backwards instead of up and down. But even with this swimming-like motion, a bumblebee can barely lift its own weight, and thus it must work furiously to merely buzz about gardens such as mine. This manic effort, combined with the aerodynamic challenges inherent in a bumblebee’s design, often cause a bumblebee’s flight pattern to be erratic. If you have ever watched a bee flying in your garden, you will be aware that they rarely go from flower to flower in a straight, economical line. Instead, they buzz about in stops and starts, looping about each flower as if they are attempting to land in a windstorm. It is no wonder that bumblebees bathe themselves in golden pollen once inside a flower. It must be such a feeling of relief to simply not be flying anymore and be still.

Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

The chaotic nature of how bumblebees fly is not only of interest to those who ponder food chains and the survival of our planet. It also served as inspiration for one of classical music’s most famous and well-known compositions, “The Flight of the Bumblebee”, by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky-Korsakov was a very important and influential Russian composer who practiced his craft in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. He wrote many symphonies but was best known for his operas, many of which drew from Russian folklore. Consequently, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is regarded as one of the major composers of nationalistic music (which is more commonly referred to as the Russian sound). In 1899, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote an opera called The Tale of Tsar Saltan. In this opera, the Tsar goes to sea just as he is about to become a father. While at sea, he gets word that his child has turned out to be a monster of some sort. Meanwhile, a coup has taken place at home that, among other things, has seen the Tsarina and her new baby boy sealed into a barrel and cast into the middle of the ocean. One thing leads to another, and the boy grows up to be a prince on a small island that he and his mother had washed up upon. One day, the Tsar sails by this island totally unaware that his wife and son now reside there. A magic swan appears and grants the boy the ability to change into the shape of a bumblebee. In this form, the boy is able to fly across the water and, in a modern day drone-like fashion, watch the man who he has come to suspect is his real father. As the opera unfolds, the boy changes into the form of a bumblebee several times. Each time that he does, the music of “The Flight of the Bumblebee” plays. Used in this way, “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is considered to be a piece of music called an Interlude. An interlude is a short piece of music that acts as a bridge between scenes. In this specific case, the interlude known as “The Flight of the Bumblebee” plays during the act of the boy flying to be near his father’s ship.

Each yellow dash equals one note. This image shows five seconds worth of notes. That’s a lot of notes in a very short time!

There have been several examples of incidental interludes actually becoming famous stand-alone pieces of music that end up outshining the original symphony or opera in which they were found. Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” is one such example that you can read about here. In the case of “The Flight of the Bumblebee”, even though it is a short composition, it has gained fame due to the incredibly difficult skill level required to play it properly. Rimsky-Korsakov paid attention to detail. This can be seen in the fact that he constructed the notes of “The Flight of the Bumblebee” to be played at a rate that mimicked the speed with which an actual bumblebee has to use its wings in order to be able to fly. As we know, a real bumblebee has to move its wings incredibly fast, and even then, it still has difficulty moving about in an orderly fashion. Rimsky-Korsakov attempted to replicate this rapidity of movement by having the notes played as quickly as humanly possible. Not only that, but the way in which the notes appear in this piece requires the pianist to not only play with great speed but also with dexterity and extreme precision. For this reason, “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is generally considered to be one of the most difficult compositions for piano that has ever been written. It is often used as one of the examination pieces that students at conservatories of music are required to master before being granted certification. For proof of how difficult this short piece of music is to play, I ask you to click on the link at the end of this description and watch a video of this piece being played in a digitized fashion. The video shows the musical notes as coloured dashes that fall toward a piano keyboard at the bottom of the screen. As the notes fall, the pianist must hit the corresponding keys in time and in sequence in order for the video to continue. It resembles a video game on hyper drive. It seems to my untrained eyes that it is impossible to keep up the pace and accuracy necessary in order to play “The Flight of the Bumblebee” properly, but yet, many pianists manage to pull it off and real bumblebees can actually fly, so who am I to argue? You can watch this video by clicking here.

The Diner scene from Shine. Geoffrey Rush plays The Flight of the Bumblebee in a diner.

I will close by stating that “The Flight of the Bumblebee” has become a piece of music that has taken on a life of its own. It has been used in countless movies and animated television shows. In many of those cases, the music is played during chase scenes. There is one notable exception to this rule. In the 1996 movie Shine, actor Geoffrey Rush won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of pianist David Helfgott. In real life, Helfgott was a classically trained pianist who was raised in a very strict and demanding household in Australia. Eventually he moved to London and began to achieve a measure of fame for his playing skills on the piano. However, with fame came pressure that, in turn, came to manifest itself in the form of mental illness, eventual breakdown and hospitalization. In the movie scene that I will include in the links below, Geoffrey Rush (as Helfgott) stumbles into a restaurant that has a piano off to the side of the dining room. He is dressed haphazardly. As he enters the restaurant, his appearance attracts the attention of those dining inside. As the restaurant owners contemplate how they are going to handle this seemingly mentally unstable man, Rush sits down at the piano, drops his sheet music all over the floor, leaves it there and then launches into “The Flight of the Bumblebee”. For the brief moments that this composition lasts, Rush is able to demonstrate Helfgott’s prodigious talent and allow him to shine for all to see. It is a remarkable cinematic moment; one that went a long way toward helping Rush win the Best Actor Oscar.

The time for me to end this post is at hand. The time for me to head outside into the sunshine is at hand as well. I do not anticipate seeing a bumblebee in my yard on this day. It is still slightly too cool. But when I see them again, I will welcome their arrival. There will be no handshakes, hugs or high-fives between us. Instead, I will smile while keeping my distance. That bumblebee will be working hard just to stay aloft and say hello. I will leave it alone and allow it to stagger about, grateful that in doing so, it is saving the world. Bumblebees are truly one of Nature’s greatest miracles.

The link to the video for the composition “The Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov can be found here. ***Honestly, the pianist is moving her hands so quickly they are nothing but a blur in this video. Unbelievable.

The link to the video for the “Flight of the Bumblebee” scene from the movie Shine can be found here.

The link to the official website of a museum dedicated to the life of composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov can be found here.

***NOTE: On a personal note, I wish to inform my faithful readers that this will be my last music post for the foreseeable future. My 92 year old mother has landed in hospital in Nova Scotia. At this time I do not wish to speculate on the outcome of her stay. But, needless to say, I will be heading down to be with her in the days to come. Hopefully, I won’t need to be away long but in cases such as this, one never knows. So, hug the ones you love. I will see you all again sometime down the road. Bye for now.

***All original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #35/50…Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations

If there is one lesson that I can take after 30 years of being an elementary school teacher it is the fact that there is no one carved-in-stone method of teaching children that works for everyone. The learning styles possessed by the children who inhabited the classrooms I worked in were as varied as their hair colours, their favourite hobbies or the content of their lunches each day. They truly each are their own person. Yet, there is this seemingly endless desire to streamline and standardize education. Without going off on a huge tangent about it, just let me say that today’s post begins and ends with a story about how children learn. It involves one of the craziest things I was ever involved with as an educator. It is also the story of one of the world’s great modern pianists, Glenn Gould, and the music he would popularize and become famous for. This is the story of The Goldberg Variations. Let us begin.

About halfway through my career as a teacher I found myself working at a brand new elementary school in Bowmanville, Ontario. At the time that this story takes place, the school had been open for about five years. We had a student population of 800 or so from kindergarten to grade 8. The school drew its students from a community that most would consider to be solidly middle class. Many of the students played in sports leagues, took ballet, went on annual vacations, spent time at cottages and so on. All in all, the school community was wonderful to work with and I enjoyed my time there. As a staff we got along fairly well. We enjoyed being part of this new school community. So, imagine how we felt when we were told at a staff meeting one day that we had been chosen to participate in a pilot project about improving student success. The basis of this project was our school’s standardized test score results. In Ontario, grade 3 and 6 students write a series of standardized tests in the spring of each year. Without debating the merits of standardized test scores and the ability to draw any meaningful conclusions from them, our scores had been deemed to be stagnant. They were neither good nor worrisome. Our scores were average and had stayed basically the same. The powers that be wanted to conduct an experiment to see if there was a way to boost test scores, so they did something revolutionary…they asked for our input as educators. Now I must be honest and state up front that I have absolutely no faith in standardized test scores as a measure of anything of value. I could not have cared less about our school’s test scores. I cared about my students and their families. I cared about my fellow staff members. I cared about my profession. But I did not care about twisting myself in knots with worry about standardized test scores. But, they asked for a wish list of things we thought would help our students, so away we wished. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the wish list we created at the staff meeting that day basically became the terms of the pilot project we operated under for the next year or two. We asked for time to meet as teaching teams. That wish was granted. We asked for opportunities to visit other schools where test scores were consistently strong. That wish was granted. We asked for more classroom resources to use with our own students. That wish was granted, too. In fact, a couple of staff meetings later, we were told that all teachers in the Primary Division (grades K-3) were being given $2000.00 each to spend on books for our classroom. The books we were tasked with buying were ones deemed to be rich literature. This included biographies, books about science and the arts and so on. I can honestly say that in all my years as a classroom teacher, I have never had the opportunity to go shopping on the taxpayer’s dime. It was an unprecedented opportunity and we were all excited to go and shop for our classrooms.

***I feel it is important to stop for a moment and reiterate how completely bizarre a situation this was. Never before and never afterwards have I ever had access to such a large amount of money to use for classroom resources. In all other years the more common experience was to beg and plead for $50 here or $100 there to buy new classroom supplies. In most cases, that money came from fundraising conducted from school councils. So, to be given thousands to spend on books for the classroom boggles my mind to this very day.

Many thanks to the taxpayers of Ontario for allowing me to share this book with my students.

Off we went as a staff to a book repository in Toronto. There were ten of us who got to go on this shopping trip. The repository was run by the Ministry of Education, I believe. We entered a warehouse sized room that was filled with book shelves, all lined with shiny new books. We were given shopping carts and told to fill the carts up with whatever we felt would benefit the students we had that year in our classrooms. For hours we walked up and down the rows of shelves. As someone who loves children’s literature, it was an intoxicating experience. After three or four hours, my cart was finally full. We proceeded toward check out stations where our purchases would be tabulated and our books packed for shipping back to our school. I remember feeling light headed when it was all said and done. To this day, I cannot say whether or not that pilot project made any impact on the test scores of that school ( and I couldn’t care less, to be honest). But what I do know is that all of our students benefited from the injection of so many pieces of quality literature that we acquired that day. Many of these books were ones that I may not have purchased on my own due to their price tag or subject matter (which I may have viewed as being more of a want than a need). But I got to share these books with my students regardless and that was the important thing that came out of this exercise. One of the books that I acquired that day was called The Goldberg Variations by Anna Harwell Celenza. It came with an audio CD of the actual Goldberg Variations that I was able to play in class and discuss with the kids. I guess this is what they meant by the term rich literature.

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg

The Goldberg Variations was a suite of music composed by famed composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The story of their creation is that Johann Sebastian Bach was a composer, but he was also a teacher. Like many composers of his time, he earned much of his income as a result of offering instruction in music to students who were sponsored by members of the aristocracy. One such patron was a man named Count Keyserlingk. Whenever he happened to be passing through Leipzig (where Bach lived), Count Keyserlingk would bring along a student named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg for lessons. At one such session, Count Keyserlingk confessed to Bach that he was suffering from insomnia and that the only thing bringing him peace was having young Goldberg (who was in the Count’s employ) play for him on the harpsichord in the wee hours of the morning. Count Keyserlingk commissioned from Bach a piece of music that Goldberg might play for him at home. Bach agreed and ended up creating a composition that was based upon contrapunctual variations. Because these variations were created with the skill set of young Goldberg in mind, they became known as Goldberg’s Variations or, as they are known today, The Goldberg Variations. Without going into great technical detail, the key thing to know about this composition is that Johann Sebastian Bach was keenly interested in sounds. In a previous post (which you can read here), I wrote about his seminal work The Well-Tempered Clavier. That series of compositions was aimed at helping keyboardists acquire perfect sound quality from their instruments regardless of where they were playing. With that in mind, The Goldberg Variations was a suite of compositions that also dealt with sounds played on a piano. This piece requires great skill and dexterity by whoever is sitting at the keyboard, and as a result is viewed as being a difficult performance composition that should only be attempted by those possessing great talent.

This brings us to Glenn Gould.

A young Glenn Gould plays the piano under the watchful eye of his music teacher Alberto Guerrero.

Glenn Gould was the greatest classical pianist Canada has ever produced. The only child of parents who were also musicians, Gould was raised in an environment that was filled with opportunities to explore the world of music and of sounds. By the age of three, Gould was displaying an understanding of perfect pitch. By the age of six, he was creating his own original compositions and playing them in public at his local church. By the age of ten, Gould was enrolled in the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now, the Royal Conservatory of Music) and was receiving instruction in piano that was to shape his approach to music for the rest of his life. While his parents had always believed their son possessed prodigious talent, his teacher at the Conservatory confirmed it. Gould’s time spent with teacher Alberto Guerrero instilled in him ideas and techniques that would help Gould to become famous the world over. Techniques such as pulling down on the piano keys from below (as opposed to pushing from the top) and pre-tapping the entire composition with his fingers (so as to develop a form of muscle memory which would aid in speed and dexterity while playing) were just some of the skills handed down from Guerrero to Gould. What is most important to note is that Guerrero did what all good teachers do: he tailored Gould’s learning experiences specifically in ways that best suited his student’s learning style. Glenn Gould was a child prodigy when it came to the piano. He was an eccentric personality when it came to his social interactions. Guerrero knew upon first meeting Gould that a standardized approach would not be appropriate for this student. Because of his teacher’s efforts, Glenn Gould would develop the technical skills and the personal self-confidence necessary to take on one of the greatest challenges a classical pianist can accept…The Goldberg Variations.

Behold! The best selling classical music album of all time!

When Gould was first signed to a recording contract at age 22, he was taken to New York City to record the album. Record company executives expected Gould to choose relatively simple compositions to record because he was so young and so inexperienced at performing in public. When Gould told them that he was preparing to play The Goldberg Variations for his debut album, they were aghast and attempted to dissuade him. However, Glenn Gould was determined. The record was completed in only four days. Executives at Columbia Records were stunned. Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations has gone on to sell over five million copies worldwide, making it the best selling classical music album in history. To support this new album, Glenn Gould toured the world. However, the experience of performing to large audiences on the world’s biggest stages caused Gould to sour on the idea of performing in public. He felt that the need to “put on a show” detracted from his ability to delve into the deepest reaches of each composition. Consequently, after less than a decade of playing in public, Glenn Gould retired and spent the remainder of his days as a studio-only musician. What is noteworthy about this decision is that it placed Gould in a position that Johann Sebastian Bach would have envied. As it turned out, Glenn Gould was as enamoured of sounds as Bach was. By eliminating extraneous distractions such as performing in public, Gould was able to focus his mind on the nature of sounds in a controlled studio environment. In the 1950s, long before The Beatles and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys changed the nature of Rock n’ Roll by retreating to the studio and altering how sounds were used in their music, Glenn Gould was doing the same thing in his studio in Toronto. By splicing segments of audio tape together from various recordings, Gould was one of the first people to isolate tracks during recording sessions and reassemble them into a multi-layered soundscape. In fact, just before his death at age fifty, Gould re-recorded the entire length of his Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations album, slowing it down and giving it a depth and breadth of sound that was unprecedented in classical music history.

The iconic Glenn Gould bronze bench sculpture in front of the CBC building in Toronto.

Glenn Gould didn’t fit any mold. He was as unique as it was possible to be. Genius is like that. After his death, Gould was immortalized in bronze in a statue created by sculptor Ruth Abernethy that sits in front of the CBC broadcasting building in Toronto. In that sculpture, Gould is bundled up in a coat and hat as if he was anticipating it to be a blustery winter’s day. The truth was that Gould was always cold. He wore that same coat and hat when he performed once in Florida. At that performance, Gould was almost arrested for vagrancy by police because he looked so out of place, bundled up as he was in the Florida sunshine. Genius is like that, too. One of the warmest memories about him that was shared at the time of his death was how he would show up each morning between 2:00-3:00 at an all-day diner named Fran’s and eat scrambled eggs. Gould always came alone. He always sat in the same booth. He always ate the same meal. Genius is like that, too, I suppose.

In many ways, Glenn Gould shared much in common with his hero Johann Sebastian Bach. His fascination with all aspects of sound being the most obvious. I don’t believe that it was by fluke that Gould was drawn to The Goldberg Variations as a young man. It is almost as if Bach was speaking to Gould from beyond the grave with this composition. With its emphasis on sound creation and its origin as something to be experienced in the wee hours of the morning, The Goldberg Variations was the composition that helped connect Bach to the modern world. The only difference was that the instrument of this connection was not a young man named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, it was a young Canadian named Glenn Gould. Perhaps if Count Keyserlingk had enjoyed some scrambled eggs during his late night concerts, he would have found the peace he was looking for. All that I know is that the most important aspect of being a teacher is coming to truly know the students under your care. The second most important aspect of being a teacher is acting upon that information and creating a learning space best suited for them to thrive. That was always my goal throughout my career. That was Mr. Guerrero’s goal with a young Glenn Gould. It was Bach’s goal with a young Goldberg. Unlike many works which, if I was being honest, are just music to me, I find that The Goldberg Variations reaches into the very core of my being. While I didn’t really need that educational shopping spree which brought The Goldberg Variations book into my possession, I am extremely glad I did get to go. That story says everything to me about being a teacher and about helping my students become the best version of themselves that they were meant to be. What an honour to have been able to do that for someone for all those years. For much of my life I have felt like I was the right person in the right place at the right time. Sometimes that is the result of luck. Sometimes it is something more. Even though it is not the middle of the night, I suddenly have a craving for scrambled eggs.

The link to the video for the composition “The Goldberg Variations” as performed by Glen Gould can be found here.

The link to the official website for Glenn Gould can be found here.

The link to my hometown classical music station…Classical 103.1…streaming from Cobourg, Ontario, Canada to the world can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #34/50…Voices of Spring Waltz by Johann Strauss II

I have many reasons for being happy to live in Canada, but one of the most important to me is our climate. Even though our climate is changing and we are having more frequent bouts of extreme weather, for the most part our climate remains fairly temperate. What I specifically enjoy about that is that we get to enjoy distinct seasonal changes. At the moment, we are transitioning from winter to spring. For some of you, the beginning of spring may just be a date on a calendar and nothing more. But to those of us from Canada, the dawn of a new spring is a cause for celebration. I have never really been a winter person, so I find the melting of the snow that has blanketed my world to be emotionally and psychologically uplifting. My spirits soar with every twitter from a robin, with each blade of green grass that pokes out above the disappearing snow and every bud that appears on our trees. The air feels warmer on my skin, we are no longer as housebound as Mother Nature has compelled us to be, and the sun seems to shine brighter and for longer periods of time, too. Everything just seems better with the coming of spring. There is a reason that my favourite colour is green.

Coloratura soprano Bianca Bianchi

Today’s featured composition was written in the mid-1800s by the Waltz King, himself, Johann Strauss II. I featured Johann Strauss II in a previous post regarding his famous waltz entitled “The Blue Danube”. (You can read about his background and about that waltz here). His “Voices of Spring” waltz has been written in three forms: for voice, for piano and as the foundational piece to a full opera. When Johann Strauss II first composed “Voices of Spring”, he did so for voice. But not just any voice. Johann Strauss II composed “Voices of Spring” specifically for a woman named Bertha Schwarz who went by the stage name of Bianca Bianchi. Bianchi was a singer who is known as a coloratura soprano. What this means is that she possessed the vocal ability to hit very high notes and sustain them. As a comparison, think of modern day singers such as Celine Dion or Mariah Carey, who both have the ability to display vocal gymnastics when a song calls for it. At the time that Strauss II composed “Voices of Spring” for Bianchi, she was arguably the most popular singer in all of Vienna. She was so admired that a Viennese astronomer named Johann Palisa designated a newly discovered asteroid as 218 Bianca in her honour. Being the subject of so much attention can be overwhelming for some people, but Bianchi, being one of the original operatic divas, handled it all with grace and aplomb. She performed Strauss II’s complicated composition flawlessly when it debuted at the Royal Vienna Opera House in 1882. The success of her performance was so immediate that “Voices of Spring” was altered so that it could be played without voice, as music for the piano. When the new piece was first performed by Johann Strauss II, it was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews as well. In fact, the response was so good and the demand for performances so great that the original version of “Voices of Spring” was made into an entire opera, of which the star was…you guessed it…Bianca Bianchi!

Johann Strauss II

In the time since it was created, “Voices of Spring” by Johann Strauss II has become one of the most loved and easily recognizable compositions of classical music history. Next to “The Blue Danube”, it is Strauss’ most famous work. I have great confidence that you will recognize it as soon as you hear it. Because it turned out to be such an adaptable piece of music, I will include links to performances of it for voice as well as for piano. In either rendition, you should be able to recognize and enjoy this wonderful piece of music. I hope that as you read these words the sun is shining, the birds are singing and that your world is greening up all around you. Spring is in the air here in my home town of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada and our spirits are soaring on wings of happiness. Enjoy “Voices of Spring” by Johann Strauss II and enjoy your day wherever you may be. Until we meet again…bye for now.

The link to the video for the composition “Voices of Spring” (for voice) by Johann Strauss II can be found here.

The link to the video for the composition “Voices of Spring” (for piano) by Johann Strauss II can be found here.

The link to the Johann Strauss II museum can be found here.

Since “Voices of Spring” was first performed by Bianca Bianchi in Vienna, Austria, let’s go there and see the Royal Opera House for ourselves. The link to the official website for the Royal Opera House in Vienna, Austria can be found here. The link to the official website for Vienna, Austria, itself can be found here.

Finally, the link to the best classical music radio station…Classical FM 103.1…streaming to the world from my hometown can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #33/50: Symphony No.3 in E Major, Op. 56 (or, as it is also known, “Eroica”) by Ludwig van Beethoven

The stories behind the most memorable classical music compositions in history.

Do you know this man? I am willing to bet that you do.

I am willing to place a rather sizeable bet, that if I were to survey a crowd of one hundred people who claimed to know absolutely nothing about the world of classical music and asked them to name any one individual composer that they might know, the one name they would be able to come up with would be that of Ludwig van Beethoven. In a world of talented composers, Beethoven easily rates as one of the most talented of them all. But more to the point, he has created works of such importance and magnitude that even non-classical music fans can recognize their worth. The two compositions that spring most readily to mind are his 5th and 9th symphonies (which we will discuss in more detail in future posts). But, for those who admire Beethoven and who know him best, the consensus is that his most important work is a symphony that has become known simply as “Eroica”. “Eroica” translates roughly as “Heroic”. There are times when great artists rise up to meet the temper of the times in which they find themselves. This is surely the case of “Eroica”. It was a symphony composed in times that many felt were the most glorious in European history, composed for a man who Beethoven and many others first believed to be a saviour, Napoleon Bonaparte. In time, this symphony ended up causing the world to reevaluate the life’s work of one of Beethoven’s most admired contemporaries, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It also ended the Classical era of compositional style music with a declarative bang, ushering in the era of Romanticism. As if this wasn’t enough, “Eroica” is a piece of music that many claim helped to save Beethoven’s life. In short, “Eroica” changed the lives of two major composers and changed the world of classical music forever. It is simply one of the most important pieces of music ever created. This is the story of Beethoven’s “Eroica”.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Ludwig van Beethoven was born at the right time. Some people are lucky that way. He was born in Bonn, Germany in 1770. As he grew up, he did so in the brotherly shadow of another musical child prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Beethoven was a full generation younger than Mozart. But Beethoven, being born into a musical family, was well aware of who Mozart was. In fact, Beethoven’s earliest days were spent in mirror image to those of Mozart. Like his musical compatriot, Beethoven’s talent was noted at a very young age. In addition, like Mozart, Beethoven had a father who pressured him relentlessly in an attempt to bring recognition to the family through the prodigy-like reputation of his child. However, that is where the similarities ended. Despite being a prodigious composer, Mozart lived most of his life in near poverty. Beethoven, on the other hand, began life as the grandson of the Kapellmeister (Musical director) of Bonn. He was afforded the most capable of mentors simply because of his family’s connections in society circles. While Mozart composed over 800 pieces of music by the time he had reached his mid-thirties, Beethoven hadn’t formally published almost any original works until he was well into adulthood. Instead, Beethoven grew up studying the works of Mozart and Hadyn with an eye to making a career out of being a classical pianist or, more succinctly, a performer of the works of others he admired. In fact, the career of Ludwig van Beethoven is generally broken down into three distinct periods. In the first phase of his career, he composed some original works, but those were mainly steeped in the classical traditions of those composers who had come before him. The period in his life prior to 1802 is best noted as being that time when he learned to be a highly trained musician. It was while emulating the greatest works of other musical geniuses that Beethoven learned how to play the piano with great skill. As he did so, that knowledge became innate and provided him with the foundation necessary to begin writing piano-based compositions in his own hand. In this formative stage of his career, he most admired the work of Mozart. When he played compositions on the piano that had been created by Mozart, Beethoven was sufficiently skilled to recognize how innovative these works were. That experience of performing Mozart’s works inspired Beethoven to trust his own instincts when it came to creating original works in the future. That future looked bright for Beethoven until 1802. That was the year he began to go deaf.

One letter, from a collection of letters that Beethoven wrote, that have become known as The Heiligenstadt Testament.

Like a dancer who becomes lame or a painter who becomes blind, losing one’s hearing can be a career-ending turn of events for a musician and composer. When Beethoven first started to turn deaf, he sought advice as to how to best deal with this situation. One of the first things he was advised to do was to move away from larger centres such as Bonn or Vienna and move to the countryside where there would naturally be less ambient noise. So, Beethoven moved to the village of Heiligenstadt. This is noteworthy because, after his death in 1827, a group of letters that he had written while in Heiligenstadt (but never mailed) was discovered. These letters became known as Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament. In these letters, Beethoven disclosed that the onset of deafness had brought on a state of depression that was leading him to think suicidal thoughts. He quickly added that what allowed him to carry on was his belief in his ability to create dynamic, original Art. Beethoven stated that his entire catalogue of music up until that point now left him deeply unsatisfied. He ended off by making a vow to live with greater boldness going forward. A second group of letters was discovered. These letters were addressed to a mysterious figure referred to only as “My Immortal Beloved”. The identity of this mystery woman has never been revealed. That didn’t stop many from speculating, which led to the creation of a movie entitled “Immortal Beloved” starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven. (You can watch a scene from that movie here).

Napoleon Bonaparte

As Beethoven forced himself to rise up from the depths of his despair, two important historical events happened. The first was that the French Revolution had ended, and the second was that Napoleon Bonaparte became the leader of France. Without writing an entire essay on the subject, the French Revolution was a watershed moment in world history because it helped usher in a period of reforms that in many ways formed the foundational principles of a system of governance called Democracy. After having lived under centuries of oppressive Monarchist rule, the notion that ordinary citizens might come to have a greater say in how they lived their lives was a thrilling notion to many, including to a thirty-something young man named Ludwig van Beethoven. When the Napoleonic Wars spread across Europe and into Russia, the idea that democracy might come to the entire continent was breathtaking. So, just as Beethoven was committing himself to a bolder future as a composer, the image of Napoleon Bonaparte as a liberator of the oppressed appeared before him. Beethoven channeled those feelings of admiration and hopefulness for a better tomorrow for himself and for the citizens of Europe into a new symphony that he called “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55”, or as he wrote across the top of his original manuscript, “Eroica”. He dedicated this new symphony to Napoleon.

“Eroica” was a symphony unlike any the world had seen before. Like many of the works of Mozart, Beethoven took the best parts of the classical form in which he was so well versed and turned them on their ear. “Eroica” was twice as long as any other symphony in history. But most importantly of all, Beethoven’s symphony did not rely on the usual odes to God or to nobility; instead, it laid bare the emotional story of his own life. Never before had such emotion been interwoven into the score of a symphony. When “Eroica” was first performed, audiences were confused and upset. It was too long. It was too personal. What was Beethoven trying to say anyway?! But in time, “Eroica” became well known and respected precisely because of the emotion it contained. Beethoven’s vulnerability was being displayed for all to see because a new age of personal freedoms was dawning all across the land. His emotional display was actually symbolic of the freedom that a whole continent was set to experience for themselves and enjoy. It was the dawn of a new age, and as a result, nothing less than a reinvention of classical form was called for. That’s what “Eroica” really was. It heralded a new beginning in European history by being new and fresh and completely innovative in the structure of the composition and in the substance of its musical expression.

In many ways, Beethoven didn’t do anything with “Eroica” that Mozart hadn’t done with countless compositions a generation earlier. The difference was that the time and circumstances weren’t right for Mozart to have been credited with ushering in a new era of music prior to the start of The French Revolution. In the 1760s, life in Europe was dictated by the ruling classes, and for them, the introduction of revolutionary concepts in music was not welcomed at all. This accounts in large part for why Mozart lived much of his life in poverty and why he ended up being buried in a pauper’s grave. For Beethoven, the rampant optimism that existed across central Europe, in particular, as the 1800s began was the perfect opportunity to have something as new and inventive as “Eroica” accepted by audiences (which it eventually was). His “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55” changed the way composers approached their craft from that point onward. This symphony is said to have initiated a period in classical music known as the Romantic Era. This era is characterized by a general acceptance of the idea that composers are free to follow their muse when it comes to creating new works. They are no longer forced to follow rigid parameters as established by those who first practiced their craft centuries prior.

The original manuscript to “Eroica” minus one word that had been unceremoniously erased by Beethoven, himself.

As time progressed, “Eroica” underwent one fundamental change and had another aspect of it endure and become symbolic of Beethoven’s genius as a composer through to these modern times today. The one thing that ended up changing was that Beethoven became disillusioned with Napoleon. Specifically, when Beethoven found out that Napoleon had unilaterally declared himself to be Emperor (i.e., singular ruler with authority over all other citizens or, in other words, the opposite of being a democratic ruler who is elected by the people and who serves at their will), he angrily withdrew the part of “Eroica” where he had dedicated it to Napoleon. The original manuscript now bore a hole where the name “Napoleon” had once proudly stood.

But over time, one section of “Eroica” has emerged to stand as one of the great moments in musical history. In the second movement of “Eroica”, Beethoven included a three-minute funeral march. Some claim that this three-minute section of music is the saddest and most sombre music ever created. So much so that it has been played as the official funeral music of such public figures as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, German General Erwin Rommel, composer Felix Mendelssohn and most poignantly, at the funerals of the twelve Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.

When personal challenges present themselves we, as humans, can either face them or flee from them. Deafness is an almost catastrophic challenge for anyone who bases their life on arranging sounds in ways that move the hearts and minds of others. That “Eroica” was just the beginning of the most prolific chapter of Beethoven’s professional career stands as proof of his motivation and of his creative genius. We will delve more into how he managed to make such beautiful and important music while existing in a world of silence in future posts when we examine his 5th and 9th symphonies. Until then, please enjoy this incredibly innovative and important composition (especially, the very moving second part which you should be able to find time stamped in the video’s description section). Ludwig van Beethoven is the world’s most recognizable name in classical music history for a reason. “Eroica” is the reason many consider him the most important and talented composer as well. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the composition “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55” or, as it is better known, “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven can be found here. ***The funeral march begins at the 16:13 mark of the symphony if you wish to only listen to that proton of the entire symphony.

The link to the Beethoven Museum in Heiligenstadt can be found here.

The link to the official website for Heiligenstadt, Austria (where Beethoven stayed when he first began to develop deafness) can be found here.

The link to the world’s best classical music station…Classical 103.1….streaming to the world from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #32/50: Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland

As mentioned in the two previous posts (which you can read here and here), the period from the very late 1800s up through the 1920s was a time of great advancement in the world of The Arts all across the world. Actors such as Charlie Chaplin were transforming the world of film. Frank Lloyd Wright and others from the Prairie School of Design were changing the way people imagined buildings could look and function. As painters, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso were producing astoundingly original work in comparison to their predecessors. As we have seen previously in this series, Igor Stravinsky and his Russian compatriots Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev were busy reinventing the idea of what classical composition and ballet could and should be. In the world of dance, no one was taking greater advantage of those artistically expansive times than a woman named Martha Graham. Not only did Martha Graham help advance the notion of what emotive dance performance could look like, her techniques have become the standard by which other dancers from around the world have learned their craft for over a century now. Furthermore, her importance as a role model for women in many other fields cannot be overstated. Even though she rose to prominence during a time of cultural enlightenment, she did so while still having to navigate the corridors of power occupied mainly by men. Her success as a dancer, teacher and power broker in the world of The Arts served as an inspiration for generations of women who followed in her wake.

American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham (1894 – 1991) performs ‘Lamentation,’ 1935. (Photo by Barbara Morgan/Getty Images)

As Martha Graham established herself as the preeminent dancer and choreographer in the world of American Dance in the 1920s, one of her greatest skills had nothing to do with music and movement but, instead, had everything to do with her ability to build relationships. Graham had a wonderful ability to connect with a wide variety of people who could help bring her artistic visions to fruition. Some of her networking skills involved those in the world of finance, whether bankers, well-heeled society types who could act as patrons of The Arts and/or government officials who could be influenced to pass legislation favourable to her endeavours and to The Arts, in general. Graham enjoyed working with artists, architects, engineers and graphic designers of all types so as to give her productions the “look” that would make them extraordinary. Needless to say, Graham was a friend, mentor, critic and inspiration to a league of dancers and musicians as well. One of Martha Graham’s greatest networking attributes is that she was blind to issues of colour, gender, religion and so on. She would work with anyone who believed in The Arts and who approached life with the belief that anything was possible when one truly believed it could be so. One example of Martha Graham in action can be found in the story of “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland. Many critics and experts point to this composition as possessing the quintessential “American sound”. Let’s take a closer look at a piece of music that holds a rightful place in the great American Songbook. This is the story of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Erick Hawkins, and Martha Graham at the premiere of 201cAppalachian Spring,201d 1944. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

It is difficult for many of us to appreciate what it must feel like to have survived a global conflict such as World War I. As the War ended in 1918, much of the anxiety and self-sacrifice that so characterized the people of many nations gave way to a feeling of unbridled joy and optimism for what lay ahead. Much of the time and money and effort that had previously been devoted to the war effort was now unleashed in the opposite direction toward commerce, scientific advancement and toward The Arts. The Roaring Twenties, as the decade that followed WWI came to be called, was a time teeming with possibilities. One of those who understood the potential for good that existed at this time was Martha Graham. Not only did Graham believe that the 1920s was a wonderful boom time for The Arts, but she believed in her heart that The Arts had an important role in helping America and the rest of the world to heal and move forward in a positive way. One way in which Graham sought to sow the seeds of creativity and help to develop a sense of national identity in America was by commissioning a new ballet in which she would star. This ballet would not only act as a showcase for new and innovative ways to communicate to the world through dance, it would also set a tone for a new spirit of pride in America. In order to finance this new work, Graham teamed up with a woman named Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who was known as a promoter and patron of The Arts. For the designing of her set, she turned to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. For the musical score, Martha Graham recruited Aaron Copland.

Sculptor and Martha Graham set designer Isamu Noguchi

Aaron Copland was a composer who had studied abroad in Paris under the musical direction of a woman named Nadia Boulanger. Like Graham, Nadia Boulanger developed a well-deserved reputation as an excellent music instructor at a time in our social history when it was not all that common for men to take instruction from a woman. But Boulanger had such a vast knowledge of the personalities, repertoire and musical techniques of all of the major classical composers in history that she was respected without regard for her gender. She was simply the best instructor available, and so students such as Copland, Philip Glass and even Quincy Jones sat by her side and absorbed her great wisdom. Aaron Copland came into contact with Martha Graham during a period in his career when he had tried various styles of composition but had yet to develop the style that would make him famous in the annals of American music. At that time, Copland found that he could master various technical styles of composition but that he felt those pieces of music were not in sync with the mood of the nation. Thus, when Martha Graham and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge approached him with regard to their desire to commission a new ballet score that would come to define America as it felt in the 1920s, Copland felt as though a creative door had opened for him. The vision that Martha Graham wished to bring to the stage was exactly the connection with an audience Copland was desiring to achieve with his music. So, he immediately set to work.

Aaron Copland at home in his studio

As he allowed himself to think about the mythological idea of what America was, he started to conjure images in his mind of the vastness of the Great Plains, of open sky and of mountains harbouring cool, clear springs of water. To Copland, the openness and vastness of the land symbolized the vastness of its potential as a nation. Thus, he set to work creating a composition that sought to replicate that majestic vista in sound. The result of his efforts was a new work called “Appalachian Spring”. As the following years unfolded, “Appalachian Spring” ended up becoming two distinct works. First of all, it became the score of the ballet that Martha Graham had commissioned and ended up dancing to. The story told in the ballet was of a young couple arriving on the Great Plains to begin a new life as husband and wife. There were other characters living nearby who imparted their advice about life in a new land. The young couple accepted the dangers inherent in this new chapter of their lives but believed that through love and hard work, their dreams could be realized and that a better tomorrow was theirs to be had. In many ways, Graham’s ballet was a visual manifestation of the “American Dream”. Copland’s score was slow and sweeping. Coupled with Graham’s expressive manifestation of good old American values, “Appalachian Spring” became an immediate sensation. In time, Copland was asked to modify his score so that it could be performed by orchestras without the ballet component being necessary. So, Aaron Copland tweaked his score and made it possible for chamber-style groups to perform “Appalachian Spring”, too. There is a jazzy component to “Appalachian Spring” which is reflective of how prominent a genre of music Jazz was becoming in the 1920s. Even though the sound of Jazz doesn’t usually cause images of the Great Plains to appear in one’s mind, Copland combined the two in a very original and innovative manner and helped to create a new soundscape for a nation. Aaron Copland won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his efforts.

All through the course of my life, I have witnessed the ebbs and flows of opinion with regard to the value of The Arts in our society. Much of this debate concerns the investment of public funds (in the form of taxes) into having The Arts taught in our public schools. It shouldn’t surprise any of my regular readers to know that I value The Arts highly. There is no debate for me regarding their importance. I firmly believe that anything in life that can touch your heart and stimulate your mind is something that possesses great value. The Arts do that. Not every painting needs to be your cup of tea; not every song needs to make you feel something, either. But what The Arts do provide is a way of looking at the world that holds the potential to inspire individuals and whole countries. It is not without reason that Fourth of July festivities in the U.S. traditionally end with a concert by The Boston Pops or some other orchestra and that, as part of that concert, a piece of music called “Appalachian Spring” is played. When done well, The Arts can uplift the hearts of everyone who sees or hears the manifestation of that creative expression. We should all be grateful to the Martha Grahams and Aaron Coplands of the world for their efforts to prove the one great value of The Arts above all else…they show us the way forward toward a better tomorrow. And when there is Hope, there is Life.

The link to the video for the composition “Appalachian Spring” (ballet) by Aaron Copland can be found here. The Chamber version can be found here.

The link to the official website for Aaron Copland can be found here.

The link to the official website for Martha Graham can be found here.

The link to the official website for designer Isamu Noguchi can be found here. ***Apparently, if you Google “Noguchi table”, you can buy one from Walmart. I kid you not. Go ahead. Try it for yourself.

The link to the official website for Arts Patron, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #31/50: The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Matteo Chinellato/Shutterstock (7450793a) The cemetery of San Michele is located in the homonymous island in the Venetian Lagoon, located between Venice and Murano The San Michele Cemetery, Venice, Italy – 22 Nov 2016

The city of Venice, Italy is divided into six districts or sestieri. The northernmost of these is called Cannaregio. This district got its name because it contained the main canal that formed a transportation corridor in and out of the city proper to the mainland. Cannaregio is Italian for “Royal Canal”. In a lagoon just outside of Cannaregio lies the Isle of San Michele. Several centuries ago, the Isle of San Michele was designated for use as a cemetery. Over the years, many famous people have been buried there. One of those whose gravesite can be found there is Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Not far from his gravesite is another one that contains the remains of Russian Arts impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Forever united in life, they remain united in death as well. Today we shall learn the story of how they came to know each other and how that relationship resulted in one of the most famous moments in modern music history: the Paris Riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s symphonic opera, “The Rite of Spring”.

Sergei Diaghilev

In the late 1800s, the Diaghilev family was one of the most prominent families in all of Russia when it came to their involvement in The Arts. They hosted concerts at their estate every other Tuesday. They funded new ballets, symphonies and exhibits by all of the most popular writers, poets, painters and sculptors that Russia had to offer. In this environment, young Sergei Diaghilev grew up. He was encouraged to learn to play the piano and was giving public recitals of his own original works by the time he was only fifteen years of age. But more than possessing a love of music, Sergei Diaghilev possessed an amazing ability to organize the exhibits and concerts that happened at his family’s estate. In time, Diaghilev took his organizational talents beyond the walls of his home and began organizing concerts and art exhibitions throughout Russia. In doing so, he came into contact with a large group of talented young dancers, composers, writers and artists. In order to help promote the work of his new-found friends, Diaghilev founded an influential Arts magazine called Mir iskusstva or World of Art. Diaghilev became known as one of Russia’s leading promoters of The Arts, which earned him the protection and support of Czar Nicholas II. In time, Diaghilev wanted to extend the reach of Russian Arts so he began organizing art exhibits in Paris, France. When those went well, Diaghilev decided to bring Russian music into the cultural heart of Europe. To do this, he contacted one of the young, rising stars of Russian classical music, his friend Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky accepted Diaghilev’s commission and began work on a symphonic opera/ballet that came to be called “The Rite of Spring”. What happened next did nothing less than change the course of modern music.

As the early 1900s progressed, the Arts scene in Russia was filled with young artists in all disciplines who possessed a thorough grounding in Arts theories and traditions but who also wished to bring their own unique vision to bear in the new works that they were creating. It was a time of great creative innovation in the Arts, regardless of the discipline in question. Igor Stravinsky, along with fellow composers Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, formed the new vanguard of compositional thought when it came to creating symphonies, operas and ballets. Stravinsky believed that his work should be steeped in history but performed with unbridled imagination. Thus, the creative vision of Igor Stravinsky seemed a perfect match for the promotional vision of Sergei Diaghilev.

In composing “The Rite of Spring”, Igor Stravinsky drew upon cultural folklore for a story about the coming of spring and the rebirth of nature that accompanies the change of seasons. As you may remember from a previous post (which you can read here), the song “Carol of the Bells” was originally based upon a Ukrainian folk song called “The Little Swallow”, which also heralded the coming of spring and offered blessings for a good growing season and harvest to follow. So, by tapping into the coming of spring as the foundation for his new work, Stravinsky was bringing forth one of Russia’s most cherished and time-honoured aspects of its folklore. There was nothing controversial in this at all.

Composer Igor Stravinsky

However, Igor Stravinsky had no intention of simply creating a peaceful, pastoral composition for his own debut in Paris. In his mind, this was his golden opportunity to make a bold artistic statement. So, Igor Stravinsky decided to create a musical work called a symphonic opera ballet. What this means is that his work would have a unified theme running over two acts. The first act would be a traditional symphony and opera combination. In the second act, the visual element would change into a ballet. Both acts would tell a continuous story about the birth of spring. As he began his work, Stravinsky surrounded himself with the most creative people he could find. Thus, Maria Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky were hired as dancers and choreographers. The stage design and costumes were made by a man named Nicholas Roerich. The world of opera in Paris at the time was one in which tradition and refinement were the orders of the day. However, these young Russian artists had something else in mind when they created all aspects of “The Rite of Spring”. It was decided early on that this production would turn everything the world knew about music and dance inside out and upside down.

These dancers don’t look like ballet dancers to me! They didn’t look that way to Parisians, either.

With the luxury of retrospection, the term avant-garde would come to be coined to describe what Igor Stravinsky and his friends unleashed upon an unsuspecting Parisian audience that day. There was almost nothing about “The Rite of Spring” that conformed to any preconceived notions of what a symphony, opera or ballet should be like. Stravinsky believed his work to be grand and glorious. Fellow composer Giacomo Puccini, who was in attendance that evening, called it “a cacophony of noise”. The other members of the audience didn’t know what to make of a score in which notes clashed and competed for attention instead of working together in harmony as they were used to hearing. “The Rite of Spring” was not what they were expecting, which was exactly what Igor Stravinsky and friends had intended. Although this debut performance of “The Rite of Spring” was met with boos and jeers and with objects hurled toward the stage (which resulted in the Paris police being summoned), the concert never stopped for a single second. In the end, what saved Stravinsky’s performance, as well as Diaghilev’s promotional reputation, was that there were enough savvy Parisians there who came to realize that what, at first, seemed to be nothing more than noisy confusion was actually a revolutionary way of producing music as Art. While traditionalists balked at what Diaghilev, Stravinsky and company had achieved, history would render a more flattering judgment. “The Rite of Spring” is now viewed as a turning point in the world of modern music because it was the moment when someone proved that the “rules” of musical composition needn’t be confining and limiting. In fact, the exact opposite was possible. The foundational aspects of composing operas and ballets could be used to springboard in all sorts of new and interesting directions. Throughout the history of music, there have been moments of courage such as this (think about Bob Dylan going “electric” at the Newport Jazz Festival). Doing what is comfortable and expected is often the easier route for creators to take when creating new work. It takes courage to go against the grain on principle, but that is what Sergei Diaghilev believed was the necessary next step for Russian Arts at home and around the world. His sponsorship of Igor Stravinsky’s seminal work was to be just the beginning of a brave new world for Art everywhere. It was a revolutionary idea. But then came the real Revolution back home in Russia, and everything changed for people like Diaghilev and all those involved in the Russian Arts community.

As we saw in a previous post, the rise of Lenin and then Stalin to the top political post in Russia cast a pall over everyone who had enjoyed free rein under the Imperialist regime of Czar Nicholas II. Those who opted to remain in Russia were expected to follow the exacting dictates of Josef Stalin or, as happened to Dimtri Shostakovich, face the consequences. Personal creative freedom quickly gave way to The Arts being used to promote patriotic nationalism. Directors of The Bolshoi Ballet stopped performing anything remotely artistically innovative and original and instead, only put on shows that were deemed to be “good Russian productions”. If you stayed in Russia, like Sergei Prokofiev did, you created new work that conformed to what was expected and nothing more. Avoiding the wrath of those in positions of power was now the primary motivating factor behind most artistic decisions made by the Arts community in Russia under Stalin.

Not long after Stalin assumed control, Sergei Diaghilev was summoned home. He refused to return. As a consequence, he was officially condemned as a “bourgeois intellectual” in perpetuity, meaning he could never return to his homeland while Stalin was in power. Now considered an “artistic refugee”, Diaghilev centered his promotional efforts around The Ballets Russes and lived out the remainder of his days arranging for new works to be brought to international stages. One of the consequences of living in exile was that acquiring financial backing became difficult. He was no longer able to count on the support of patrons such as Czar Nicholas II (who had been killed during the Revolution). One of the people he would come into conflict with because of financial considerations was his friend, Igor Stravinksy.

A poster advertising a recording of the concert Stravinsky conducted at Massey Hall at age 85.

Like Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky refused his own summons back to Russia. He knew that he could never put the necessary shackles on his creativity that would be required in order to return home. So, he remained abroad for the remainder of his days as well. Unfortunately, Stravinsky’s income dwindled to almost nothing after losing access to Diaghilev’s patronage. Diaghilev never wanted to cut off Stravinsky’s income, but he could barely afford to mount the small productions that he was doing, let alone continue to provide his friend with an allowance. As a result, Igor Stravinsky spent the rest of his days adrift. He lived in Switzerland for a while and then moved with his family into the home of Coco Chanel in France. While there, he agreed to sell the rights to all of his piano-based compositions to the Pleyel Piano Company for inclusion in their line of player pianos. (It was a Pleyel piano that Frederic Chopin had shipped to the island of Majorca when he stayed there with writer/partner, George Sand. You can read a post about that here). Eventually, Stravinsky immigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. His final opera featured the poet Dylan Thomas as librettist. Igor Stravinsky’s final public concert was as conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra during a performance at Massey Hall. It is a small world.

Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky

As the final wish of both Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev, they were buried in the “Russian corner” of the cemetery on the Isle of San Michele near Venice, Italy. The Isle of San Michele is now their home. Even in death, the pair continue to make bold artistic statements.

The link to the video of the composition “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky can be found here.

The link to the official website for Igor Stravinsky can be found here.

The link to the official website for Les Ballets Russes, founded by Sergei Diaghilev, can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Isle of San Michele can be found here.

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