Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Little Summer Music

Summertime, and the living is easy. It's time to lounge around the pool, celebrate the fourth of July, and enjoy your summer vacation if you're in school. For classical musicians, it's also a good time to remember some of the beautiful music composed for the season. Composers from Beethoven to Samuel Barber have celebrated the beauty of summer in their music, so here's a few highlights.

1. Antonio Vivaldi's Summer Concerto

Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" concertos are some of the most popular and enduring works of classical music. The "Summer" concerto contrasts the season's languid ease with its intense storms. The first movement, for example, begins with long slow notes, then quickly amps itself into an energetic Allegro. The second movement has the soloist holding long notes with the orchestra only occasionally interrupting with bursts of speed, as though Vivaldi's foreshadowing the dramatic last movement, which is a virtuosic presto that's said to represent a summer storm. It's beautiful music, dramatic and powerful, and a good recording can make it feel as if you're hearing it for the first time. This is a piece whose popularity is well deserved, especially since it's the inspiration for the next piece on my list.

2. Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony

This symphony is so beloved and evocative that Walt Disney chose to animate it in the original Fantasia. The mythological country setting is based on the subtitles Beethoven gave each movement. For example, the first movement is "Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside," while the fourth movement is "Thunder and Storm." The sixth symphony is one of the few pieces Beethoven composed that's programmatic--that is, it tells a story or depicts a particular scene or scenes. If the inspiration for the music sounds similar to that of Vivaldi's Summer concerto, that's because it is--Beethoven was inspired by the older work.

3. Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream 

I can remember spending hours and hours practicing excerpts from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on my viola for orchestra auditions. Despite this severe provocation, I still manage to love the music. I'm sure that if real fairies existed, they would dance to it. It's light and delicate, with a brilliance and wild energy that evoke the best parts of Shakespeare's play. Mendelssohn is less appreciated than he deserves--he's a great genius of classical music.

4. Berlioz's Les Nuits d'Ete

I recently discovered this piece on youtube; it's a song cycle whose title translates as "The Nights of Summer." As a string player, I sometimes miss out on vocal music, so I was very glad to hear these songs for the first time. The songs focus on love, and seem to capture its many stages and moods, from the joyful excitement of the "Villanelle" to the dissonant despair of "On the Lagoons." This music shows a more contemplative side to the fiery composer best known for Symphonie Fantastique. 

5. Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 

This might be one of my favorite pieces of Barber's music, and that's saying something, since he wrote the haunting "Adagio for Strings" and some truly gorgeous string quartets. I first heard it at a small music festival in New York State--the Skaneateles Festival. I actually won free tickets to the show off the radio (how often does that happen?). Knoxville: Summer of 1915 has layered, lyrical music set to a text by James Agee. The music captures the text's nostalgia and its dreamlike depiction of carefree childhood, yet foreshadows the tragic loss of a beloved father. It's deeply poignant, and truly beautiful.

James Joyce's Ulysses: Chapter 8, Laestrygonians

Chapter Eight of Ulysses begins with a list of sugary sweets--pineapple rock, lemon platt, butterscotch.  This chapter focuses on food--contrasting true hunger with gluttony, and sacred vs. profane meals. It's inspired by Homer's depiction of the Laestrygonians in the Odyssey, who are depraved cannibals. As lunchtime approaches, Leopold Bloom is getting hungry, and his thoughts drift towards food. He sees a Christian brother who's buying candy at the start of the chapter, to give to students at a school. Bloom notes sweets are "bad for [children's' tummies." This subtle criticism suggests that the priest is using the candy as a lure, perhaps to manipulate the children into better behavior without giving them any true substance--a profane meal instead of a wholesome one.

As he continues walking through Dublin, Bloom sees Simon Dedalus' daughter (Stephen's sister) waiting for her father outside an auction house. He notes that she, who comes from a family of fifteen children, looks underfed and ragged, while the priests, who have no children of their own, "[live] on the fat of the land" with their "butteries and larders." The stark contrast between the dire situation of Dedalus' daughter and the priests who manipulate and threaten women into constant childbirth reflects Joyce's criticism of the church. It further establishes the contrast between what's truly wholesome with the enticing, but ultimately hollow promises of the church.

While Blooms reminisces about his marriage before their son died (when they were still happy), he runs into Mrs. Breen, an old flame who's trailing along behind her husband, who's losing his mind. Bloom listens to her sympathetically, while she explains her husband woke her up in the middle of the night over a dream that the ace of spades (a symbol of death) was walking up the stairs. To change the subject, she tells Bloom that Mrs. Purefoy is in the hospital giving birth. Bloom's conversation with Mrs. Breen contrasts images of madness and death--Mr. Breen, the mysterious man who passes them by, and the ace of spades--with the life affirming birth of Mrs. Purefoy (her name even begins with the word "pure").

After Mrs. Breen rushes after her spouse, Bloom considers Irish politics, imagining politicians luring men to their cause with hospitality, "Michealmas goose," "thyme seasoning under the apron." and "goosegrease." He remembers a squad of constables he saw earlier, and how the cause of Irish independence lead to so many deaths and betrayals. All these thoughts of death lead to his darkest moment so far; Bloom feels "as if [he'd] been eaten and spewed," another reference to the Laestrygonians, the cannibals of the Odyssey. He passes John Howard Parnell, the famous Parnell's "woebegone" brother, who looks like he has "eaten a bad egg," and has "poached eyes on a ghost." This dismal appraisal of Parnell's brother suggest that Ireland's hopes for independence died with the more vigorous man. The "bad egg" reference suggests that at best Irish politics make a sickening meal, and in the context of the "Laestrygonians," that Irish politics has cannibalized one of its best man, Charles Stewart Parnell.

Still hungry, Bloom first goes to the Burton restaurant to eat, but he's completely disgusted by the "dirty eaters" who spit out "halfmasticated gristle." Bloom decides to go to Davy Byrnes' instead. Although he had earlier laughed inwardly at vegetarians, after seeing men tearing into meat at the Burton, he reconsiders, thinking of the "pain to the animal," and the "wretched brutes there at the cattlemarket waiting for the poleax to split their skulls open." His sudden compassion for animals reflects Bloom's symbolic rejection and escape from the "Laestrygonians." At the quieter Davy Byrnes' pub, he orders a cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy. Yet even here, Bloom has moments of despondency, as of the other patrons asks about his wife's singing tour, which was organized by her soon-to-be lover, Blazes Boylan.

Davy Byrnes Pub in Dublin

Yet after his moment of pain, Bloom remembers the love he felt for Molly, and the joy he felt when she once passed him some seed cake from her mouth. Unlike the profane, disgusting meals he saw at Burton's, or the chaste one he has at Byrnes', Molly's seed cake represents the life-giving and joyful qualities of food, as well as love. In his better mood, Bloom shows himself to be generous; he helps a blind man cross the street. But after he leaves the pub, he sees Blazes Boylan on the street and his heart aches once more.

Blog Posts for James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Chapter One

Blog Posts for James Joyce's Dubliners:

"The Sisters" and "An Encounter"

"After the Race" and "Two Gallants"

"A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts"

"Clay" and "A Painful Case"

"Ivy Day in the Committee Room"

"A Mother"


"The Dead" - Read eBooks using the FREE Kindle Reading App on Most Devices

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Kingkiller Chronicles

I'd intended to read Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind for over a year before I actually read it. My husband had listened to the book on tape, and I had listened at first too, but through a series of unfortunate events I never finished it. To be fair, it took me quite a while to get into it, and the book on tape felt like it moved frustratingly slow, and it was harder to remember crucial details. Eventually, my husband bought me a regular paperback. Then I had a baby, and the paperback sat untouched for months. But finally, after much intention and little results, I actually sat down and started reading the book. I finished it in a couple of days. Not because the book is short, but because once I got into it I could hardly put it down. Once I finished The Name of the Wind, I immediately bought The Wise Man's Fear and read that too.

Rothfuss has been hailed as the next big fantasy writer, the next George R.R. Martin, and certainly he has created one of the best fantasy worlds I've seen. It's deep and fascinating, and manages to pay homage to traditional fantasy like Tolkien, yet still remain unique. An enormous vegetarian drug-addicted dragon? Check. The main character, Kvothe, is a brilliant wizard, yet the books seem to have a running theme: for all Kvothe's genius and talent, he has very little true wisdom. I've never seen a book, fantasy or otherwise, that convincingly depicted such a complicated and contradictory character. Kvothe's relationship with Denna might be one of the most nuanced portrayals of love I've ever read. I'd highly recommend these books to anyone who enjoys reading fantasy, and I can't wait for the next book!

Also, I can't wait to read The Slow Regard of Silent Things. Auri is such a mysterious and haunting character! - Read eBooks using the FREE Kindle Reading App on Most Devices

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Encouraging Students to Listen to their Music

As I've written before, it's very important to me to help my music students develop their listening skills. One of the most important ways students can develop their aural skills is by listening to the pieces they are working on. However, I noticed that no matter how much I told students to listen to the CD's that came with their music, they'd come to lessons with their CD's still wrapped in plastic, untouched. Clearly, I needed to find different ways to inspire students to do their listening practice.

First, I realized I needed to set a better example. While I encouraged my students to use their CD's at home, in their lessons I demonstrated the pieces myself, instead of playing them the CD. Now, I certainly don't think there's anything wrong with teachers demonstrating pieces and playing for their students. In fact, I still think that's very important. But I realized I had to model the behavior I wanted them to do at home as well. Besides, while reading Make It Stick, I learned that students absorb more knowledge when it's presented in a variety of different ways, instead of the same way every time. Since listening to the CD is a different experience than listening to your teacher perform, that variation could help students learn as well. Now, I play the CD for students as they're taking out their violins or working on short note-reading or music theory exercises. I've noticed a dramatic impact on my students' playing since I started doing this--their rhythms are more accurate, and they seem to have a better understanding of the music. Even better, I've noticed that they are far more likely to actually listen to their CDs at home now.

Still, many students told me they didn't have a CD player. Often, they prefer listening to music on their cellphones via iTunes or spotify. I've encouraged parents and students to upload the CD music onto their computers and cellphones, but parents can be reluctant to do that. It takes some extra work for one, and some people are uncomfortable using technology. Other students tell me they've lost their CDs! In these cases, I use another great source of material: youtube. There are plenty of brilliant performances on youtube students can easily access from their cellphones or a computer. Just searching for "Suzuki Allegro" can bring up a huge variety of video performances, from teachers to student recitals. These performances can inspire students in addition to help them develop their listening skills. After all, it can be exciting to see kids your age performing the same pieces as you! What's more, with youtube students can listen to far more pieces than just the ones on their CD. I love showing them performances of great violinists like Jascha Heifetz or Isaac Stern.

While it's been a challenge to get all my students to regularly do their "listening practice," I've found the results to be extremely valuable. If anyone has any other recommendations for how to inspire kids to do their listening, let me know!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Bach and the Kids: A Father's Day Tribute

Books on classical music are full of references to fathers and fatherhood. Joseph Hadyn is the "father of the string quartet," for example, and Monteverdi is the "father of opera." But in the case of Johann Sebastian Bach, he literally fathered twenty children, including four of sons who became prominent musicians and composers in their own right. In honor of Father's Day, let's consider J.S. Bach's role, not only as one of the greatest composers in history, but as a father.

J.S. Bach cared deeply about the education of his children. He later said that one of the reasons he took the position as a Cantor in Leipzig was for its educational opportunities--he enrolled all his sons in the St. Thomas School, which was associated with the church where he worked. Bach taught each of his children music himself. Evidence for his teaching survives in a book for his eldest son, the Klavierbuchlein (little keyboard book) for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. In the book, Bach wrote out an explanation of musical clefs and ornaments, then father and son copied pieces for the boy to play. Wilhelm Friedemann grew up to be a brilliant organist known for his improvisation skills. In fact, some historians think that J.S. Bach wrote the famous "Goldberg" variations as a showpiece for his son's keyboard skills. 

J.S. Bach's second surviving son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, became perhaps the most respected musician in the family after his prominent father. Mozart and Brahms admired his music, and Felix Mendelssohn may have used one of C.P.E's pieces (The Israelites in the Desert) as a model for his Elijah. Two of Bach's other sons had musical careers as well. Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach became a harpsichordist and concertmaster in Buckberg. He composed extensively, but unfortunately most of his music was lost during WWII, which might explain his obscurity. 

Johann Christian Bach was the youngest of J.S. Bach's sons. He travelled to London where he became a successful composer and music master to Queen Charlotte. Though his music eventually fell out of fashion, he did have a powerful influence on Mozart, who visited London at the height of Johann Christian's influence. Mozart adopted many elements of Johann Christian's galant style and his concerto forms, and there is evidence that the two became close. Mozart's sister recalled them playing a sonata together, each taking turns for a few bars, but so closely imitating each other's playing that it sounded like one man playing (Nannerl Mozart, “The Reminiscences of Nannerl Mozart,” in Mozart Speaks).

Of course, not all of Bach's children had successful musical careers. His eldest daughter, Catharina, was a musical genius who excelled at singing, but at the time women were not encouraged or even allowed to pursue careers in music. His son Gottfried Heinrich excelled at playing the keyboard, but had some kind of mental deficiency or illness that kept him from the success of his brothers. Worse, Bach's family life was marked by tragedy and loss. Of the twenty children he fathered, only ten survived him. Yet Bach's prominent sons helped to cement their father's legacy and left extensive compositions of their own. Their legacy reflects not only J.S. Bach's musical prowess, but his gifts as a beloved father and teacher as well.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Poems: Outdoor Concert and Car Dealership

an outdoor concert
mozart in the open air
tonight city streets
and food trucks
echo with glory

car dealership
on a hot day
jungle of concrete
metal and glass
beware the lions