Percy Grainger: Irish Tune from County Derry

So we're continuing our little journey into the band literature world and building our hypothetical list of desert island band literature with piece #4.  I can't help but feel that this list is so inadequate and ultimately useless.  I mean, if you were actually stranded on a desert island, what the heck would you do with band music anyways?  There's no power, so any recorded versions of these charts would only last so long.  There's solar power, but that's assuming you'd bring a portable rig to make that all work.  So that leaves sheet music, but why?  You're in a survival situation!  What is band music going to help with?  Plus if you're sharing a desert island with a bunch of musicians, you're gonna have a bad time.  But I digress...


Ultimately, I want you to know that this list is in no way comprehensive.  This blog, coincidentally, is in no way comprehensive.  In moments like these, I have to look back towards my goal, my calling.  This blog was built on the sole purpose to expand musical knowledge beyond what we already know.  I hope that one day it gets popular enough that people might actually email me a suggestion or two to listen to, so that I might hear something I've never heard before.  But, until that day- I'll just keep going off what pops into my head.  This week, it's Percy Grainger (1882-1961).

Who, according to Reddit, looks like a "sadomasochist,
atheist, anti-Semitic, vegetarian" version of Ryan Gosling.

Grainger was an interesting character.  His father was a bit of a sleaze ball who married his mother without informing her that he had previously fathered a son with a different woman in London and that he had contracted syphilis which he so graciously shared with Grainger's mother.  She became the sole caregiver and raised the young Percy herself.  This began a close, but potentially worrisome relationship between mother and son, that some claim was incestuous in nature.  There are many examples of Grainger's personality that showcased a private life of sexual deviance (not to mention a whole not-so-private museum), but that's quite another story.

Grainger was born in Australia and eventually moved to London after becoming quite skilled on the piano.  He frequently performed concerts, often expressing his intent to promote his performing faculties ahead of his compositional talents.  He had a knack for taking European folk music and arranging it various styles that incorporated different genres that were commonplace in his day and age.  He was an avid follower of technology and even pioneered the use of recording technology to capture his folk song material in a manner that he would be able to use while composing, so as to reproduce it in his arrangements in such a manner that it would emulate the texture and emotional context of the original.

So speaking on folk tunes, let's examine what is probably the most convoluted tale of historicity for any folk song ever written.  The Air from County Derry.  There are two components at work here, the first being the actual melody.  There are numerous claims to who actually wrote the thing in the first place, but most people attribute it to a region in Northern Ireland known as Londonderry county, although there is some disagreement over that name itself.  Nationalist Irish do not favor the "London" added to the prefix of Derry and it became a naming dispute ubiquitous to "the Troubles" through the 1960's onward to 1998.

Not those troubles...

Anyways, the tune was written by someone in Ireland and that's as far as most anyone can determine.  You can look up the various claimants of the authorship if you'd like.  The other aspect of the piece relates to the text itself.  Grainger did not concern himself with the text as his renditions are instrumental in nature (for piano, band, etc.), but the most prevalent textural treatment is "Oh Danny Boy" written by the English lawyer, Frederick Edward Weatherly in 1910.  Here's the text:

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flow'rs are dying
'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer's in the meadow

Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, and all the flowers are dying

If I am dead, as dead I well may be
I pray you'll find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.

And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me

And all my grave will warm and sweeter be
And then you'll kneel and whisper that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.

Weatherly originally did not set his song to Londonderry Air, however three years after penning these words, he reworked it to fit.  "Danny Boy" has become somewhat of an unofficial anthem for Irish-Americans and Canadians and it is often reserved to be sung at funerals of those such people.  I've heard it described by many musicians as the greatest example of melody known to man, and throughout my tenure as a music educator I have observed it to hold a special place in the heart of many a salty, old band director.  Grainger's treatment of the tune is unequaled.

For me personally, I came to know this piece through high school band and like many of you who might read this blog, I had the pleasure of having Joe Kreines conduct our band while we worked through it.  I think more than anything, it reminds me of my grandmother, my "Ninie", who would often sing songs like this one to her grandchildren and who also took great pride in the Irish blood that flowed through her veins.  It is a heritage that I carry proudly, and Grainger's setting is a beautiful piece of the old country that I can share with you today.

Homework: Free write this week.  Whatever comes to mind.  Be brave.  

See you next Friday.



Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

So I was in Tallahassee two weeks ago.  My wife works for the Summer Music Camps at Florida State with another friend with whom they run the Elementary Music Day Camp.  She bogarted the computer for a majority of the week and the other portion of the week I was helping her friend's husband (who is incidentally my good friend as well) build a sort of Antarctic mountain out of particle board and screws.  Needless to say, I haven't had much time to do my homework, hence the week lost.

Like Douglas Adams once said, I feel the deadline whooshing right by me.  But I will persevere, I will not let my faithful readership down.  All 2.5 of you.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was a German born composer, conductor, violinist and teacher.  He was famous for a lot of things but I really just want to focus on two of his bits of famousosity before diving into our homework for the evening.  First thing, he was a composer growing up in Nazi Germany.  We'll talk about that in a second, but the second thing was that he reinvented how we think about tonality.  Now some of you might just be asking, what is tonality?  And that's ok, because it means you're paying attention.  Tonality relates to the center of the key that you're dealing with.  So think of all the white keys on a piano: together they make up all the notes of a C major scale.  If you start on C and move up D E F G A B and back to C you'll play the scale in ascending order.  C is the first and last note and it is also known in this case as the tonic.

Not...that tonic.

So in our system there's 12 of these keys in total before they repeat over and over.  Each key has its own scale and each scale starts on a different note and that first note is always called tonic.  So thinking back to tonality- we are really talking tonic and how all these other notes relate to it.  So stay with me cause it gets a little bit squirrelly here.  In most Western music we operate in what is known as diatonic harmony (essentially meaning "of the tonic") which is a really fancy and useful way for saying we're gonna write a piece of music, pick a key, and then only use notes from that key.  

It all falls down when you realize that if you stay diatonic you've only got 7 notes to work with and that tends to get boring.  So we introduce things like key changes and notes not in the key (non-chord tones, non-diatonic harmony, other fancy words, etc.) and many other crazy ways to justify using notes that aren't in the key, but we are just trying to relate this all back to the poor tonic.  

So going back to the other part of Hindemith's life, here he is caught right in the midst of pre-war, Nazi Germany trying to etch out what purpose his music would hold.  There was considerable support from within the Nazi party purporting that Hindemith's music represented the new order of Germanity, but there was equal criticism that claimed it was essentially experimental noise and nothing more, that it lacked German folk roots.  Hindemith's stance on all of this was seemingly apolitical.  He was motivated to earn a living and support his family, and he had a vision of how music could be written and analyzed and he wanted to share it.  He married a Jewish woman, and frequently worked with Jewish composers and artists which put him in a paradoxical relationship with those in the higher offices in the Nazi party.

Although Mel Brooks seemed to do alright.

Hindemith eventually began teaching composition in Berlin and that's when things came to a bit of a head. A performance of his opera, Mathis der Maler, was forbidden by the Nazi authorities.  The higher up's had enough of Hindemith's ambiguity towards the whole Jew-hating/murdering thing that they were going for so Hindemith quietly submitted his resignation and left for Turkey to start a music school in Istanbul.  About a year later he did attempt to move back to Germany and actually went as far as signing an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler in 1936.  This was only a few years prior to the beginnings of the Jewish genocide. 

Hindemith's reputation (his relationship with the Jewish community and his seeming apolitical views) ultimately doomed his German career to failure and in 1940 he finally emigrated to the United States where his music had been performed frequently since the 1920's.  In the US, Hindemith's music filled a void that was created as the concert band began to take a strong foothold.  Though he was extremely popular as a composer of wind band music, he frequently composed for multiple formats and a wide variety of instruments.  He actually wrote the first ever sonata for the trombone in 1941, almost 250 years after the birth of the trombone as we know it today!

OK, so getting back to why he's awesome- Hindemith had this idea.  What if instead of thinking of music in these little diatonic boxes where you've got 7 notes and that's it, what if we picked our tonic and then just used everything based around that note?  So instead of playing in C and using only C, D, E, F, G, A, & B, what if we could use all the notes on the keyboard?

Well, what if we rated the distance (also known as the interval) between each of these notes on a scale from most consonant to most dissonant?

Not those consonants...

OK, consonant basically means two notes that sound pleasing to the ear.  Dissonant is the opposite, it sounds harsh, crunchy, tense.  If you listen to the Hans Zimmer "Batman" soundtracks, you'll hear lots of examples of dissonant harmonies.  Por ejemplo, listen to the music in this scene.  You'll hear several ascending pitches all moving independently of each other.  This is a common trick in modern film scores since it creates a natural feeling of tension (you only have to watch until Batman shows up).  

So Hindemith said, why don't we just use all of these notes however we want, just paying attention to how they individually relate to the tonic we've chosen?  It's what I imagine it would be like to invent a new color, all of a sudden you have all these crazy new wild harmonies you can create, and what's more you have new grounds for melodies too!  Hindemith made it a point to write melodies that didn't just float around tonic chords. So think of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.  Timeless classic.  Sing it in your head:

Twinkle, twinkle little star...

The notes (if we were in C) go:

Twin - kle, twin-kle lit-tle star...

C         C    G     G   A  A  G----

The C major chord is C-E-G and this essentially outlines it (barring the A in the middle there).  But if you have anyone younger than about 6 in your home, you've heard all of these nursery rhymes that all incorporate this style of melody.  It's all based on these basic, diatonic chords.  Hindemith broke out of that box when he said all 12 notes are fair game, so long as you understood the relationship to tonic and where on the dissonance/consonance curve they sat.  

Now, if you're still scratching your head a bit, that's OK too.  This ain't simple stuff.  But, what I really like about Hindemith doesn't have to do with his music theory.  I feel like he was caught in an ocean that was much bigger than himself, and he really wanted to change the tide.  Sure, he was seemingly apolitical, but at the core I think he felt somewhat helpless to prevent the Nazi war machine from bringing death and destruction to Europe and beyond.  I think in his deepest heart, he wanted to embrace his German heritage, he wanted to be the poster child for young German composers, he was just born at a really, crappy time.  I can only imagine the personal turmoil he must have experienced.  

It shines through in what he wrote.  

In the end, Hindemith was a lot like the Batman.  He was the composer Germany deserved, but not the one it needed.  

Our listening for this week is the Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.  Weber was an early Romantic era composer, but that's for another LF.  This is a four movement work for band, written originally for a ballet, but it fell through.  Hindemith salvaged the two themes he originally wrote for that project and continued with this work, adding two additional movements.  We'll listen to the final movement today, Marsch.

It always makes me think of penguins waging some sort of Antarctic war.  

I don't know why...

Homework: Listen.  Write a story based on what you hear.  Try very hard to not write about penguins.  

See you next Friday.





No LF This Week!

Sorry, everyone.  I was out of town this past week in Tallahassee helping my wife who works at a summer music camp up there.  I had no time to write and even when I did, she stole the computer for a majority of the trip.  I managed to start an entry, but I didn't want to rush it without fact-checking so I just elected to take a week off.  Screw it.  It's summer.  

I don't want to leave you with nothing though, so here's a picture of some song by Adele:

See you next Friday...promise.



James Barnes: Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Nicolo Paganini

In no particular order, I'm going through a list of 5 of what I would consider my "Desert Island Band Literature", essentially pieces that if I were to be stranded on such an island I would be remiss without.  Of course, it's by no means a concrete list, but I thought it would make for a fun series since I haven't posted about too much wind band music yet.  For this week we have a long one (and thus we are breaking the rules once again on overall length- womp womp).  The Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Nicolo Paganini by James Barnes (b. 1949) totals over 16 minutes in length, and boasts 20 separate variations on Paganini's own 24th Caprice. We've got a lot to talk about today, but first- I know last week was a bit morose, but I assure you: we're bringing the funny back this week.

So the first gentleman we've already mentioned- Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) was an early Romantic era composer and violinist.  It was from his work, the 24 Caprices for violin (the 24th movement specifically) from which James Barnes created his piece.  So your first question might be, what the heck is a caprice?

Ghost-riding the whip is no way to go through life, son...

Music terminology can be confusing at best, irritatingly befuddling at worst.  Through musical history, words sometimes change meaning age to age.  Generally speaking, caprices or capriccios are short musical works, usually without any distinct form and they are often designed to showcase the abilities of the virtuosic performer.  Paganini's caprices fit this bill directly.  Each one of the 24 exhibited a facet of his playing, demonstrating his capability on the violin.  They were written as etudes, but it would be years later before any mortal violinist would scratch the surface of these works.  

Paganini may or may not have resorted to supernatural forces to acquire his prowess at playing violin.  It was not a topic he would dispute.  He was a strange looking man to begin with, but he typically arrived at concerts dressed in all-black, riding in a black carriage pulled by black horses.  Contrasting sharply with his macabre accouterments, his countenance was pale and deathly.  Historians today believe that he may have been afflicted with Marfan's syndrome, the symptoms of which include a tendency to grow very tall and possess long slender limbs and thin fingers.  Coincidentally, the long, thing fingers crafted of his genetic disorder might have been part of his extraordinary capability on the violin.  Another symptom of Marfan's is poor circulation, which would cause a person's hands to consistently be cold.  He also lost his teeth in 1828, leading to a gaunt, skeletal face.  So, put it all together: wicked-good violin chops, thin, slender frame, ghost face, hands as cold as ice, dresses like a 19th century Ozzy Osbourne.  

Paganini: the Anti-Charlie.

The other part of Paganini's story that's interesting is the fact that he was both praised and feared.  On two occasions he borrowed violins to perform with and after using them was told to keep them since the original owners feared that the evil power Paganini possessed had tainted the instruments.  At the same time, women (and men) went nuts for him.  Think Elvis/Beatles nuts.  Paganini had no problem showing off his ridiculous technique for crowds, but his extravagant life of concerts, women, and fiddling came at a cost to his health.  Paganini suffered from various illnesses much of his life, and died at the age of 58 in 1840.  What's weird is that he wasn't actually buried until 1876.  The Catholic church refused him a burial because of his reputed association with the Devil and also probably due to the fact he refused his last rites, from his thinking he wasn't as close to death as he unfortunately was.  The other weird part is he was exhumed some time later by his grandson for a final viewing (at the behest of another violinist) and finally reburied for a final time.

Mr. Barnes honors Paganini in a lengthy rendition of his 24th Caprice.  It follows a similar format as the caprice in that the whole concept of any theme and variations is that you start with a relatively short piece of music and then expand upon it, introducing it in a new and unique way.  Sometimes it's faster, slower, played in a different style, etc.  In this case, Mr. Barnes was writing this piece as commissioned by the United States Air Force for their band to perform.  They required a piece that would feature every section of the band in kind.  You will hear the piece begin with a boisterous introduction that leads into a jaunty double-reed exposition which pronounces the main theme.  This is played twice, the second time around it's full band.  From there we go into variation land (like I said, 20 in total), so how many you wish to listen to is of course entirely up to you.  The conclusion features the full band just as it was in the beginning.  

My own personal experience with this piece was in college.  The technical gymnastics thrust upon each individual section as they are sequentially exposed is enough to make this piece a bit too difficult to perform by most high school bands, the other crippling factor is the length.  Often times it is performed in part, usually bearing weight on which parts can actually be played.  When you've got 17 minutes worth of music to rehearse, it's a lot of work to get underway.  But dammit if it ain't fun to play!  

The featured performers this time are the Swedish National Wind Band performing in Stockholm.

Homework: Find a variation you enjoy, write about how you feel Mr. Barnes altered the melody to cater to the featured section.  

See you next Friday.