Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in b minor, D.759

So many of us in life start out building temples: temples of character, temples of justice, temples of peace. And so often we don’t finish them. Because life is like Schubert’s "Unfinished Symphony." At so many points we start, we try, we set out to build our various temples. And I guess one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable. We are commanded to do that. And so we, like David, find ourselves in so many instances having to face the fact that our dreams are not fulfilled.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is an excerpt from a sermon given by Dr. King at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on March 3rd in 1968.  One month and one day later he would be dead from an assassin's bullet in a Memphis, Tennessee motel.

I like to think that in this world, there still exist prophets.  And I don't mean that in the crazy "drinking the Kool-Aid", riding-the-comet sense.  I mean that there are people who can perceive their own actions and thoughts outside the ebb and flow of humanity.  My 7th grade English teacher would call them aliens.  She claimed that if in fact there existed sentient beings among us who were not of Earth, they would easily blend in under the guise of our most revered and famous minds.

I don't know if that's entirely true, but I will readily agree that there are a class of people who exist above the din of our structured society.  They often speak quietly, and are very rarely recognized significantly before their death, and a great tragedy is that their death is often part of their legacy.  A capstone on their contribution to our history.

My scoutmaster from my youth often would claim that "you can't see the forest through the trees." It is a strange adage to be certain, since we normally equate trees and forest as cut from the same cloth. However, we often are unable to see greatness when looking directly upon it.  We have to see it from another angle before we can perceive that what we are observing is in fact something significant.

Like many composers of art music, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was more popular in death than life. If I had to wager a guess, I would have to blame the inherent lack of Facebook for this seemingly perpetual travesty.

Don't worry, they're not.  This was the least stupid one I could find.
The internet has given us many, many wonderful things, chiefly the ability to research ad nauseum pretty much anything you can imagine.  Hell, this blog is a testament to that in and of itself! More so, the internet, in some ways, has leveled the playing field a bit and given a voice to the previously voiceless masses.  This...has not always been such a good thing.

So Schubert lived in Austria and grew to be well-respected among a decent circle of musicians and music-lovers in Vienna, but it wasn't until after he died that people really began to understand the scope of what the young musician had accomplished.  The communication and marketing of his time was nowhere near the break-neck pace that we experience in daily life today.

Schubert died at age 31, but at his death he had composed over 1,500 works of music- including "over six hundred secular vocal works (mainly Lieder), seven complete symphonies, sacred music, operas, incidental music and a large body of chamber and piano music" and one incomplete symphony.  This is a massive amount of music to have been written by an average composer.  This is an insane amount of music for someone to write in under three decades.

The crazy part is that his family and friends sat on most of his library for quite a while after he died. Eventually, Felix Mendelssohn discovered several works and began performing them and pushing them to the forefront of the musical circles of his time.  Franz Liszt began transcribing and performing his lieders (songs), followed by Antonín Dvořák, with Hector Berlioz and Anton Bruckner all paying tribute or claiming influence from Schubert's pen.

Schubert, by all accounts, was a Classical Era composer.  He was studied in the form and function of Mozart and Beethoven and composed in a style that was indicative of the unyielding format of his time.  The example for today follows the traditional sonata form that was pioneered in the early 18th century.

If you'd like a more entertaining explanation of this format, Peter Schickele AKA PDQ Bach has a wonderful video (shown below) that explains it in baseball terms:

If you watch that all the way through you'll notice that at a few points the announcers get frustrated with the deviations from the standard sonata form that's detailed above.  You see, Beethoven himself would bend these conventions of form from time to time and that's why he was considered to transcend the Classical Era and also be a founding member of the Romantic Era.  Schubert was also given such a distinction.

His "Unfinished Symphony" is a bit of a mystery.  He began writing the work in 1822, as a means of expressing gratitude to the Graz Music Society whom had awarded him an honorary diploma.  He sent his friend and leader of the society, Anselm Hüttenbrenner, a copy of the first two movements and a few pages of a scherzo that was intended to be the 3rd movement.  That surmises what we know for certain about this symphony in b minor.  

There's some reason to believe that there might have been more to this work and several scholars have posited that Schubert did indeed complete a fourth movement, but simply reworked it into the incidental music for Rosamunde, a play by Helmina von Chézy.  The other peculiar thing noticed by historians is that the copies sent to Hüttenbrenner had a few pages torn out.  So Schubert dies in 1828 and Hüttenbrenner sits on this partial symphony for a whopping 37 years!  It wasn't until 1865 that this work was premiered.  We don't know why Hüttenbrenner held onto it for so long, or why there were pages missing, but it raises a lot of questions.  

What we do know about the work is that it is a remarkable piece of music.  Schubert places a great emphasis on melody, which is where some stake the claim that this is the first true Romantic symphony. The major difference between Classical and Romantic music is the departure from the strict forms established in the 17th century, but another part to that is the triumph of melody in the 19th century.  Program music was born at this time and was designed to tell a story through song and melody and as a result much more expressive themes had to be invented and more loquacious harmonies to compensate.  The rigid construct of Classicism would not allow for such liberties, but such lofty compositional goals could not have been built without first given the foundation and framework established in the Baroque and Classical eras.  

When you listen to Schubert's "Unfinished" you hear a true sonata form work to the core. However, deep within the structure, particularly through the development in the 1st movement, you begin to hear the boundaries being tested.  Without delving too much into the theory of it, he breaks quite a few conventions with what would be the expected tonalities throughout the middle of the piece. It's almost as if he were testing the proverbial waters for what was possible through expanding beyond the confines of the traditional sonata form.  

Schubert was dead for almost four decades before this symphony was published.  We don't fully know if this was a dream mistakenly deferred and went unrealized from a life cut short or even if he meant to return to the work and finish it as a symphony at all.  What we do know is what Dr. King told us at the beginning of this article- there is not one among us who will live to see the culmination of the entirety of our dreams.  

And that's OK.

We still struggle with violent opposition to equal rights in our world today.  Does that mean that the struggles Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contemporaries went through in the 60's were not worthwhile?  Or does that simply mean that they were an irreplaceable cog in the vast machinery of humanity as we continue to grind out a path toward enlightenment?  

Would the Romantic Era of music have happened without the influence of Schubert?  The answer is a pretty resounding yes as much of his music went undiscovered until well into the midst of Romanticism.  But did his contributions have an immeasurable impact on the future compositions that would follow in the centuries after his passing?  It's evident they did as we still remember Schubert for what he wrote.  

You see, the beauty of humanity is that we are blessed with the ability to collectively enhance our intelligence from generation to generation, that the sum of our entire existence is carried forward to the youngest of our species.  We are continually updating ourselves and furthering our knowledge and understanding of the universe and passing that forward to those that will come after.  

So, while we may not live to see the ratification of our efforts we can rest easy knowing that the dent was made, the first ground was broken and the foundation laid.   For in spite of our own unfinished symphonies, time will pass also.

See you next Friday.




Percy Grainger: Children's March (Over the Hills and Far Away)

I can vividly remember being 17, it probably was my favorite age so far.  I was still too young to even begin to contemplate that there was a real world beyond the county in which I resided.  I had a job.  I had a truck.  I had no concept whatsoever that this life of mine I led would change so vastly and erratically over the next decade and a half.  Like many teenagers, I had no concept of my own mortality.  I had plans, but everyone has plans.  Guidance counselors make a solid living off of telling youngsters that in order to be successful at life you must have a plan.  So we all made our plans.

So I had my plan, but it didn't seem real. It just was a thing. It was like a print of a renaissance painting you buy at Hobby Lobby to hang in your hallway so your friends think you have a sense of culture.  It was a fad.  It wasn't tangible, but it would become part of my identity and take form as the so-called plan was forged against reality and hewn from the puerile marble of my vision of "adult-land" as I left high school and thus became my first foray into this brave new world laid before me.

One thing I didn't expect was fatherhood.

Percy Grainger (1882-1961) is someone we've discussed before.  A couple times, actually.  Since we usually delve into a bit on the composer's personal history, I'll take most of that as read today and if you're really interested you can click around and find out something on your own through catching up, why not.  I will share a bit about this Children's March piece of his though.  Grainger, as you might know, was a voracious consumer of folk music of his time.  It had become a bit of a hobby amongst his musical contemporaries to find these wonderfully well-kept tunes in the English countryside and transform them into symphonic masterpieces for any number of instruments, voices and the like.  Grainger was well-known as a pianist, so many of his pieces ended up as piano music initially, but in his heart was a special place for the wind band, and some of the finest literature we have for that ensemble comes from good ol' Percy himself.

In 1917, following the entrance of the United States into World War I, Grainger joined the US Army as a saxophonist, but also had a strong will to learn the oboe.  At some point while visiting Denmark in 1904 he had come to know a Scandinavian woman named, Karen Holten.  They corresponded frequently and were romantically involved over the course of a decade.  While in the service, Grainger penned his "Children's March (Over the Hills and Far Away)" and dedicated it to his "playmate beyond the hills", which historians presume was indeed Ms. Holten.

Courtesy of the Grainger Museum (1909)
Now, I proceed delicately because if you know nothing of Percy Grainger, you might be a bit surprised to learn that the man had some issues.  He was into the sadomasochism scene in a large way.  He also had an unusually intimate relationship with his mother, that some claim was incestuous.  I'll leave you to your devices to suss out the truth there, but his relationship with Ms. Holten was indeed hampered by his mother's jealous nature and they remained "playmates", last seeing each other in 1953 when Grainger went to Denmark for an operation for his abdominal cancer, to be performed by her brother.  Karen died that same year.  

Percy and his mother, Rose Grainger (1920)
This piece of music is unique in the fact that it is a Grainger original.  As I stated before, Grainger was renowned for his skill at arranging, but an original melody is a bit of a rarity.  Despite this novelty, it does not disappoint.  He treats it as it were any other folk tune and cycles it through various tonal and textural variations, exploiting the instrumentation of the Army band of which he was a member at the time of composition.  He also wrote the work simultaneously for piano score.

To me the piece exemplifies the innocence of childhood, of first love, of discovering the world about you.  You take so much for granted, you drift from your roots, you aimlessly wander back again and again.  And through it all, it's a journey of self-discovery, of rebirth.  I feel so detached from that 17-year-old, so much so that I feel that iteration of me has long-since expired, replaced by another, supposedly more mature and stoic version that will ultimately be uprooted and replaced.  It's like we're forever in beta testing on our personalities, our existence.  Constantly updating and releasing patches to compensate for our life's sometimes injurious experiences.  Grainger's work here captures a youthful and pristine part of that journey, very near the beginning, but just at the precipice of letting go and beginning our journey over the hills rising in the distance.

I hear my son a lot in listening to this work.  I hear his jubilant exploration of the environment that surrounds him, and it makes me fall back into a similar state of mind.

I wrote what you're about to read a while ago.  It was originally a Facebook post, but I think it fits the message of today's entry quite well:

"Here's my thoughts for tonight. Yesterday, I was putting my son to sleep in a Pack 'N' Play at my mother-in-law's house. We have been traveling a great deal in the past week or so and he had grown accustomed to my wife and I sleeping in the same room as he. Prior to this, he was an absolute piece of cake to put to sleep. Read a few books. Goodnight kiss. Plop him in bed. Lights. Door. Done. Since the traveling, he's gone a bit haywire. I think he misses the companionship of us bunking in the same room. So, to solve the problem, sometimes we will lay on the floor by his crib as he goes to sleep. 
"So yesterday evening, he's all done and we're looking at the same situation. I grab a stuffed toy and use it as a makeshift pillow and settle in on the carpet, trying to make it look comfortable and convincing. After all, he wants to believe I'm going to sleep too. After some initial shuffling and getting comfortable, I can tell he's winding down and begins breathing slow, deep breaths and drifts off to whatever dream land a 17-month-old kid can conjure up. It must be something! 
"I start thinking. It's really easy to do while looking at him. I see the whole of existence in my son. The moment he came into being, was the moment I truly realized that one day I will die. I've said before, his existence makes me realize that mine is finite. Maybe that's the way of things? For so many years as an angst-filled teenager I felt invincible. I took risks, most of them stupid, and endangered my life in so many reckless ways. Not much changed through my 20's until I got a "real" job. 
"In this moment, next to my son, I realize another thing. Something so darkly sinister, I imagine most parents don't dwell on it often or worse just simply shut it out entirely. It's this: 
"No matter how hard I try- I can never completely protect my son. No one can. 
"It's evident every single day! He sprints around like an ant with a sugar crystal. BOOM! Coffee table. 
"If I can't protect from running into the coffee table everyday, how can I protect him from a random act of violence? I think about the parents of the children in Connecticut often. God knows they did their best and more too. 
"Life is painful. It's just so, so utterly, tragically painful. 
"My son starts to stir a bit. He grabs his "Doggy" and pulls it tightly against his little chest instinctively. His breathing settles down, back to the familiar rhythm. 
"I begin to think about a dear friend of mine, whose children are in college and beyond. He's resting at home in an empty house with his wife. I think about the welcome serenity and calm being returned after two decades or more of racing around with kids. I think about that respite in contrast to my present situation with the toddler tearing full speed into large heavy things and falling down a lot. I think about how it will feel, knowing that you can say, "Job well done! The kids did alright!" I think about being alone with the wife. Alone with no kids. 
"But I also think about the journey. Because every station in life is just that, a stopping off point. Nothing ever really stays constant for long. We strive so hard to get to the destination only to find that once we arrive, we're already packing our bags for the next one. Kindergarten. Middle School. High School. College. Job. Family. House. Kids: Kindergarten Middle High College Job House Family Grandkids: Kindergartenmiddlehighcollege  
"So I'm laying on the floor. And I'm enjoying the moment. I'm taking a picture on the train, because when it's all said and done- I want my memories from the trip."

We can stop the passage of time no more than we can hold back the tides nor fix the moon in the sky.  These are things that come to pass, and will pass.  Again and again.  We control so little of our destiny, but we are given to cherish that which we hold dear while we are able, without a second thought to the erosion of the moment.

Such a beautiful lesson taught so well by someone so small in stature.

Over the hills and far away!

See you next Friday.


Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra
Conductor: Timothy Raynish
A Chandos Recording



Bedřich Smetana: Vltava

We humans, are creatures of habit.

As much as we cast our vision into our environment, we are very much forged by it- given to search subconsciously for the path of least resistance as a puddle of water gently finds its way down to nestle as close to the Earth's core as the soil will allow.

It is not as lazy as it sounds though.

I am given to reflect on Karl Husa and his Music for Prague 1968 as an example of this.  His work (which you can read about through the link) describes the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in the winter of 1968.  It paints a picture of a people given a glimmer of hope, but crushed in spirit at the hands of an overwhelming majority of force.

A people forced into the path of least resistance.

Sadly for the city of Prague and the land of Bohemia, this sort of thing isn't alien.  Over the past 200 years or so alone they've experienced similar fates, wars and struggles for the freedom to express and live free and faced overwhelming odds pushing them back.  This particular environment has given birth to a great number of revolutionaries, artists, and composers and one such composer we'll explore today is Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884).  In 1848 eastern Europe was in a state of social and political upheaval, occasionally referred to as "Spring" or sometimes "Summer".

Smetana was born to a relatively wealthy family, his father was a brewer and also a decent amatuer musician. Bedřich himself took to the piano at an early age and grew in popularity as a gifted performer.  Despite a promising childhood, he struggled to gain notoriety as an adult in the highly cultured city of Prague.  After the loss of of three of his daughters, the lack of any progress as a professional composer, and the suffocating political climate, Smetana left Prague to try and establish his career elsewhere.

He eventually settled in Gothenburg, a "musically unsophisticated" city where he was able to quickly rise to the top of his local contemporaries.  He began a school, gained notoriety and respect in a matter of a few months.  After about five years, the political climate had again shifted in Prague and the need for a Czech national identity was created.  Smetana returned, emboldened by his success in Sweden, and took the creation of a new national opera company as a sign to help generate that identity by inventing the Czech opera.  

He would meet challenges as many in musical power in the city of Prague felt his work bordered too close to the side of radicalism.  He embraced Liszt and Wagner which was considered eccentric for the time.  Many in the city felt a more conservative approach was warranted and Smetana would struggle through the remainder of his life to etch out his place in history.

And etch he would.  Now internationally, Dvořák is considered the senior Czech national composer, however within the Czech Republic and Prague itself Smetana holds a special place.

From 1874 to 1879, Smetana composed six symphonic poems (we talked about this style before with Camille Saint-Saëns and his Danse Macabre) under the caption of Má vlast, translated: My Homeland.  In this work he quotes historical tales and physical places of the Czech countryside and Prague itself.  The most famous of these poems is Vltava also known by its German title, Die Moldau.

The Vltava (or Moldau) is a large river that travels through the heart of the Czech countryside, beginning from two small springs and eventually growing massive and weaving through the city. Through music, Smetana describes a journey along the river, passing a farm where a wedding is taking place, past ruins and castles, echoes of Bohemian history, and finishes by passing through the great city into the distance beyond.

It's clear in studying Smetana that the man had a great and deep love of his country.  He had an early desire to create a national identity, a unifying ideal through his music.  Whether those desires rose out of a call to fame or fortune or simply because he wanted to fight oppression of thought is debatable. One thing I kept returning to was the fact that despite his contemporaries in Prague criticizing and reviling his work, he maintained a perpetual optimism that his diligence would in fact stand the test of time.  That perseverance could override the resistance he faced in achieving his goal.  Smetana might not have lived to see the scope of his work fulfilled, but with his love of his people and his homeland, he changed his environment.

For the better.

See you next Friday.




Johann Sebastian Bach: Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor, BWV 582

Every once in so often I set up to write one of these little entries and come up with somewhat of a false start.  I usually try and accomplish a few things in a typical Listening Friday entry.  First off, I primarily use it as a vehicle to introduce a work.  Accompanying that I will also try and build some sort of transfer to another topic of interest, something that I usually use as an "A Theme" to introduce things and get the ball rolling.  This can range from a current event, an idea, a pop-culture tidbit or really anything that I can find some leap between that will create a sort of contrast that can help break up the dialog a bit and maybe even supplement a narrative that's related to the piece or possibly my own interpretation of the music being discussed.

Occasionally this is not as easy as it sounds.

I had a great English literature teacher in 7th grade.  To be honest, I've been fortunate enough to have great English teachers for most of my life, but in 7th grade I had a teacher who forced us, against our will and frequent protestations, to write 5 paragraph essays every single day of class.  There would be some sort of prompt, usually a sentence or two about a topic or current event and we'd have to write some cohesive opinion about it following the simple rules that would allow you to create a cogent mini-thesis on whatever the topic was about.

Despite my lack of reverence for this methodology, it has endowed me with the ability to write ad nauseum about essentially anything.  It came in handy when presented with exams with essay sections since they really don't care about whether or not you actually understand the topic but more so that you can create an organized pattern of thinking without drooling on the paper.

You'd probably be right.  But here's the thing- one of the biggest writing hurdles I hear most people talk about is just getting started.  It's so prevalent that real writers actually came up with a name for it- Blank Page Syndrome.  The cure I've found for that sort of phobia is to just start freaking writing! Anything.  Everything.  Just begin to put words on the page.  The beauty of the electronic age is that you can type as much or as little as you want and copy and paste it all over the place.

Here's an example.  I started this very entry with this phrase:
"How long can you listen to the same 16 notes repeated before you lose your mind? 
"According to J.S. Bach (1685-1750) about seven and a half minutes.  Fourteen if you count the fugue. in this case.  His Passacaglia..."

And that's about as far as I got.  I was staring at a blinking cursor.  Originally, I felt that this might be a cool way to start things out talking about Bach's Passacaglia, but after seeing it on the screen it just felt a bit silly.  A portion of overt dramatics.  I mean, it's really cool that he repeats the same 8 bars 20 times and adds stuff in to make it interesting enough to listen to, but that's really just what a passacaglia is.  You take an ostinato (a short phrase that's repeated throughout a composition) put it in 3/4 time, play it in a minor key, riff all over it 10-20 times, and you've got your passacaglia.  It's very similar in nature to a chaconne.  The trick really comes into composing it so your musicians and audience alike don't expire from boredom prior to the conclusion of the piece.

Here's the thing about Bach- he was the last son born into a musical dynasty.  His father was music director in their town and several of his 7 siblings were instrumental (ha) in building musical talent within the young Bach, particularly his older brother Johann Christoph.  Bach's parents died 8 months apart from each other when he was only 10 and JC Bach took JS under his wing.

JS Bach adapted early to the organ and found a strong following for his talents at the keyboard for the remainder of his life.  Surprisingly his compositional talents were not truly appreciated until some time after his death, well past the Classical era (1750-1820) as the titans of the Romantic Era (1800-1850) were getting their footings on the mount of the musical world.

He was married twice, his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach, died unexpectedly while Bach was away on business.  It was a tragic event for Bach, who had 7 children with Maria (three of which died young).  He remarried Anna Magdalena 18 months later with which he had 13 children (7 of which died in infancy or childhood).

So here's the deal- Bach wrote some 1120 pieces of music that we know about.  He lived 65 years, which would mean that at a minimum (assuming he started composing at let's say age 8) that's still an average of 20 pieces a year, some of which were massively lengthy (and granted some of which were relatively brief works), but all of which were published.  I have one kid and can barely write 1000 words a week about music!  Either he had the best au pair in history or he just never slept.

Another facet of Bach's music (which you will observe in the Passacaglia and the Fugue) is that it is intensely technical.  So much so that many of his contemporaries had great difficulty replicating it and even today some of his organ works are more commonly performed by ensembles as opposed to individual organists simply because there aren't really that many people on the planet who can play the organ well enough to create a reasonable facsimile of what Bach wrote.

This piece you're about to listen to is really two pieces melded into one giant bit of awesome.  It starts with the Passacaglia (which we explained above), but at about 7:30 it turns into a fugue- particularly a double fugue.  This type of work is a highly structured format that uses a theme (in this case two themes made up of the bisected ostinato from the passacaglia) and presents them with each voice of the ensemble one at a time and then develops the fragmented theme statements into a new idea (or development section).  The best explanation I've heard comes from another Listening Friday favorite, and somewhat of a Bach scholar himself, Chris Thile.  He has performed a number of Bach's works on mandolin successfully and when describing a partita that he was about to perform he explained that "Bach just kinda riffs on the shit he just did."  That's pretty much what goes on halfway into the fugue section as Bach just plays with the melodies he created.  You hear the themes broken up and shared amongst the different voices that had introduced them and through it all another theme is created (called a countersubject).  Now these three themes are performed together, but never by the same combination of voices twice, making it a permutation fugue.

To help you out, you'll hear the fugue section start with the bassoons (around 7:35) and then the oboes take a turn, followed by the low voices and so on.  It just all swirls around as Bach experiments with the different texture and dips into Bb and Eb major, giving the theme an altogether different experience from what we just heard.

At this point, I would traditionally try to steer back toward my original thought from the beginning of the entry and wrap it up with some witty or clever transfer that puts a nice bow on the entry.  This format usually works quite nicely as it gives a strong sense of finality to everything.  Given that my "A Theme" was in fact a diatribe about how I had nothing to write about and more so on the actual format I ascribe to for the blog, it's proving difficult to "wrap it up" as it were.

Perhaps then, I can just say this- Bach lost his parents young, lived with his brother, worked his fingers to the bone playing organ and composing, lost his wife (who was buried before he even knew she had died) had 20 children, half of which died in childhood.  Granted, this sort of life was not entirely out of the ordinary for his day and age, Bach himself died following some sort of eye surgery (which in 1750, I can only imagine the field of optometry was a guy with a magnifying glass and a butter knife), so death was a pretty common event, hence the need to create a lot of progeny in order to preserve one's lineage. But even still, it had to have had an effect on the man.  He himself never lived to even comprehend the sort of acclaim his name garners to this day- and yet, he gave the world so much in spite of it all.

To me, that's always been an inspiration to create no matter the cost, no matter the hurdles.

See you next Friday.


The example from today comes from the annual Proms at Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Litton performing the Respighi setting of the Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor.  Turn up.