What I Like About...
Sunday, May 16, 2004
  Le bourgeois gentilhomme: Ballet des nations b) Chaconne des Scaramouches, Trivelins et Arlequins
Jean-Baptiste Lully
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Track 50

The French knew swing even before the States were anything. Lully's band of string players answered the royal demand for dance tunes with enough elegance and motion to be remembered hundreds of years later. When we think about Jazz we must remember that it is not a simple fusion of African and European traditions. Because of Lully, I suspect the European contribution was not devoid of rhythm and I would not be surprised to learn that the African influence included pitch organization.

Concerning this chaconne, I would argue that Lully accomplished courtly grace by means other than consistent four-measure phrases. The descending bass line, which makes this chaconne a chaconne, is only really present at the beginning and end of the piece. In fact, immediately after the first presentation of this defining line, Lully departs from this pattern just enough to let you know that he is in control, not the pattern. The phrases are wonderfully asymmetrical, oftentimes not starting on beat one. The units that build the phrases are also of varying sizes.

What I like about Lully's dance is that it is put together in a simple, inevitable way. The harmonies are as much a consequence of the line as the line is a result of the harmony. The phrase lengths are as long or as short as needed for a given moment. It is as if Lully had recorded a motion as simple and as varied as a falling leaf.

Also read an account of life with King Louis XIV
Saturday, May 15, 2004
  Le bourgeois gentilhomee: Ballet des nations a) L'entree des Scaramouches, Trivelins et Arlequins represente une nuit.
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Track 49

It is fitting that our symphonic tradition, rising out of the opera pit via the overture, truly begins with Jean-Baptiste. The political structure of the modern orchestra is not unlike the environment in which Lully thrived. As Lully was a specialist who answered to his King, principal players are specialists who answer to the conductor. Also, to many, Lully is the first conductor--though the baton he employed (as tall as himself) would seem ridiculous on stage today. And, I can't resist mentioning, because of his big baton, Lully is the orchestra' first casualty.

One of the compelling features about this brief excerpt is the five-voice texture. It is hard to imagine the orchestra as Lully heard it. Our ears have been so strongly grounded in the sound of our four-voiced string section learned in Bach chorales.

What I like about this piece is what I always like about Lully: rhythm. Scaramuccio, in spite of himself, has a touch of class when he walks with Lully. Because of Lully's proximity to the Sun King, everything that Lully wrote is permanently associated with the regal power of the ruling class once in Versailles. No number of Scaramouches on stage can dull the edge of the French overture rhythm.

For Baroque music performed with great rhythm, try Jordi Savall
Thursday, May 13, 2004
  La Griselda
Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Track 46-48

Alessandro knew that once was not enough. His audience would want to look at his Zelda just a little longer. Not interested in singing something new, she repeats what she has already sung. The listeners follow the dal segno, entranced. Because they have already heard this music as recently as a few minutes ago, they are now well-trained listeners. They are able to hear the background without being distracted. They are able to look past the notes into the face and sorrow of Griselda.

Scarlatti set the scene for Griselda's complaint very quickly. Within the first few bars, the violins and continuo evoke bittersweet contemplation during a walk by presenting a melody peppered with dotted rhythms. They are joined by a flute which imitates their tune. The flute, an instrument long associated with the great outdoors, establishes the pastoral setting of Griselda's outing.

What I like about this aria is the relationship of parts. The violins, continuo, flute, and voice overlap and blend in way that is unpredictable but never jarring. The violins, the most continuous part, provide a vantage for the listener from which we are able to admire the other parts and sympathize with our heroine.

Read also a timeline on the history of the flute
Tuesday, May 11, 2004
  Toccata No. 3 (1615, revised 1637)
Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Track 45

The value of Girolamo's virtuosity is the potential it has to inspire contemplation. As Mr. Frescobaldi's friends, seated in the church before Mass, were assaulted by his saxophone-like technique, we can hope that their minds were encouraged to think. With all his daring-do, our keyboard player maintained a calm, proud posture. And the listener may see in that a reflection of man's competence and ability to master the complex. With this small catalyst, the mind may drift into weightier topics such as the issues of the church.

The right and left hands of this keyboard player share the stage equally. It is even difficult to tell when one has taken over from the other. Consequently, the melodic range of the tune expands both clefs. With all this space Girolamo moves up and down with an improvisational agility. In the background of his speedy tune, Frescobaldi supports this action with slow moving chords in free rhythm. It is probably a very bad idea, but I can not help but wonder how well this keyboard piece would fair transcribed for a banjo ensemble.

What I like about Frescobaldi's Toccata is that it encourages me to hum. In spite of all the speedy notes, there is something of the aria in this music.

For some good banjo music try the Flecktones
Monday, May 10, 2004
  Lamentation faite sur la mort tres douloureuse de Sa Majeste Imperiale Ferdinand le troisieme et se joue lentement avec discretion
Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Track 44

It was Froberger's affection for Frescobaldi that made the suite a suite. Because so much time has passed, this lament recalls not the sad fading of the Holy Roman Empire but the precedent for a collection of six pieces that have made many a 'cello player's career. The souvenirs of Froberger's travels explain why a later provincial composer in Leipzig would be writing pieces with French titles and Italian counterpoint. And this is a historical development almost as important as Leopold's rise to power.

The style brise we heard in Jean-Henri's contribution abounds under Froberger's fingers. The gangly harpsichord imitating the romantic lute is almost forgotten by modern audiences. Curiously, we now have the opportunity to hear the angular result of that effort in a different context. The twice romantic 'cello imitates the gangly harpsichord imitating the romantic lute which, for brief moments, has the disjunct melodic motion most would associate with the heroic and lyrical serial composers.

What I like about this lament is the rhythm and chromaticism of the bass line. Although it does not come across too strongly on keyboard, this is a four-voiced tune. The bass voice is the one that establishes the slow pace and circumspect attitude Froberger wanted.

Read also about Ferdinand III
  Gigue: La Poste
Ennemond Gaultier/arr. Jean-Henri D'Anglebert
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Track 43

D'Anglebert's tribute relocates La Poste. As we may recall, the middle section of Gaultier's composition indulges in the beautiful low sounds of the lute. In D'Anglebert's version these notes are placed in an unremarkable treble range. Clearly, D'Anglebert had the keys in front of him to be able to play Gaultier's peculiar gigue at pitch. It seems, however, tessitura was more important.

Since the soulful twang of the original could not be reproduced by the wooden mechanics of the 17th century keyboard, Jean-Henri felt no need to lean to the left in pursuit of pitches that, under his fingers, would sound muddy. The higher octave brings to the dance floor a well-centered keyboard player and a sharper, almost robotistic interpretation of the dance.

What I like about this gigue (in addition to the use of register) is the way it achieves a complex sound with simple ingredients. Basically, there are trills, scales, and chords. Because the individual parts are that simple, the listener is always able to comprehend. Because the aggregate is complex, the listener's attention is never lost. (It helps that the piece is no more than two minutes long--one, without repeats.)

Read also how a harpsichord works
Friday, May 07, 2004
  Gigue: La Post a) Lute
Ennemond Gaultier (ca. 1575-1651)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Track 42

Ennemond’s gigue is a meditation more than a dance. Hearing La Poste our feet may stay still as our ear follows the line through its gentle chords. Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine people dancing to this line. People wearing the big clothes fashionable with Gaultier’s audience would have moved at the steady elegant pace we hear in this performance. More than athletic demonstration, the dancer’s attention would be taken by the contemplation of clothes, long looks in the eye, and the slight touch of a hand.

Somewhere in the room, perhaps, there would be a lute player listening. This person, disinterested in courtly behavior (a lute hobbyist, maybe) would stand motionless. Gaultier’s melody holds this person’s attention fully. The tune is structurally simple. Generally, Gaultier has asked the lute player to move by step. Yet there are other melodies that, alone, seem mere fragments. Combined, they create unexpected leaps and meandering delights.

What I like about this gigue in binary form is the use of the low register. The move to the low register for the middle of the piece reinforces the form of the dance. While the form and the general motion of the piece are clear and disciplined (almost restrained), it is in the details that Gaultier has allowed his performer to be free and loose. 
Thursday, May 06, 2004
  Grand Concerto: Saul, was verfolgst du mich
Henrich Schutz (1585-1672)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Tracks 40-41

Paul and Schutz did well enough without the Internet. Mass communication and the up-to-the minute-avant-guard can only be fleeting. These two gained ideas on their travels that they would take with them and, with time, influence the world. Though times have changed, listeners today have no more advantage then the listener's in Henrich's home town. And music, like religion, progresses no faster or better today than it did then.

I imagine the voice that converted Saul was a complex sound. If I am right it would be a low soft voice, a high piercing voice, many voices and only one voice all at once. It would be cacophony and silence. Inspired by the Italians, Schutz did well to recreate such a voice. The brief excerpt we have in this anthology remains as a memorial to Paul's career. It is also a memorial to the success of Schutz in appropriating Italian advancements. Furthermore, the lesson of both Paul's and Henrich's histories is that beliefs grow from belief.

What I like about this rowdy chorus work is the single voice that becomes fixated on Saul's name. This happens toward the conclusion of the excerpt. As the rest of the ensemble becomes more preoccupied with making noise, the persistence of this voice keeps the work focused on the personal message that is directed to Saul. It also provides the listener's ears a vantage point from which to comprehend the splendor of the whole.

Read also Kyle Gann's argument that reports of our speed are greatly overestimated
Tuesday, May 04, 2004
  Historia di Jephte, b) Chorus: Plorate filii Israel
Giacomo Carissimi
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Track 39

Carissimi commiserated with Filia by offering her a dirge. Musically, a dirge is very useful. It can be effective in comic as well as tragic settings. It can contrast with previously static moments as easily as it can contrast with previously hectic moments. A dirge can lift you up or bring you down. Filia, who just completed a stunning aria in Latin (which included a request for commiseration), was in need of the kind of respite only a dirge could bring.

It is the steady descending line prominent in the bass that is most evocative of a dirge. In this example, the chorus as a whole tends to conform to the walking rhythms of its lowest voice. As this bass line is applied to other dramatic situations by other composers and becomes more familiar, we will find the upper parts more independent.

What I like about this chorus is that though all the parts are generally the same, they are not always singing at the same time. Carissimi has employed a six voice choir and has made good use of this number. Every now and then, the chorus does sing the same rhythm at the same time. Because these moments are few and carefully placed, Carissimi has achieved a steady momentum throughout. 
Monday, May 03, 2004
  Historia di Jephte, a) Filia: Plorate colles
Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Track 38

Giacomo knew how to tell those biblical stories. It is a shame that this oratorio is not as frequently played as Handel's Messiah. Of course, how could Jephte compete with the hero of that story? Handel's own Jephte has not gotten as much stage time. Nevertheless, Carissimi's telling of violence in the middle east reveals a love of language far beyond what we can hear in the more popular oratorios.

Most memorable is his setting of the word ululate. Carissimi took advantage of the frequent vowels in this word to quickly curve the line upward over the first two syllables, and then present a slower, downward curve over the long last syllable. It is anticipating hearing this shape again, since it is present so near the start of the lament, that holds the listener's interest. It is this shape, I would argue, more than any harmonic event, that the listener takes home.

What I like about this piece is how clearly Carissimi understood this Latin text. When we hear the doomed Filia commanding the valleys and caves to echo the horrible sound, it is the Latin that is most compelling. It is set so clearly that it could not be translated and could not be misunderstood. Exhorrescite rupes, obstupescite colles, valles et cavernae in sonitu horribili resonate!

Read also the comments of Dr. James Chi-shin Liu. He is a medical doctor that seems to know a great deal about Carissimi and Jephte. 
Sunday, May 02, 2004
  Motet: O quam tu pulchra es
Alessandro Grandi (ca. 1575/80-1630)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 4 Tracks 35-37

If Grandi had lived to be 350 he might have heard tonality dismantled by the same desires that motivated its development. The early Italian Baroque composers and German expressionists were looking to increase music's ability to convey the visceral. To my ears, recitative is like Sprechstimme, the seconda prattica is like the emancipation of dissonance, and figured bass was a way to harness innovation like a tone row. In a private journal, perhaps, Alessandro of advanced years would complete a long commentary on the commentaries each generation had for itself.

Unlike the German expressionists, Grandi and friends sometimes applied the visceral innovations of their time to subjects that did not involve someone being mistreated. In this case, Grandi gently presents the Song of Songs. This text, in addition to being a good read, should be a reminder that the sacred and secular are not separate worlds. And the happiness of our narrator is not a totally unrelated thing from the unhappiness of those unlucky in love. Illustrating this, Grandi took advantage of the line, "For I pine for love." For these few words the narrator indulges in the languid chromaticism of madrigal.

What I like about Grandi's masterpiece is his frequent use of the descending line. It reminds me of Mondrian's flowers. You may recall, Mondrian saw great beauty in things beginning to wilt.

Also read about and read the Song of Songs
In January 2004 I starting writing an opinion for each selection in the Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music. Now, more than a year later, I am almost finished. Soon, I will have an archive full of opinions on the music we so carelessly call "classical." And no one can stop me.

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Director of the Contemporary Performer's Workshop... Music Teacher for St. Aloysius Gonzaga School... Principal 'Cellist of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra... Composer

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