What I Like About...
Sunday, June 27, 2004
  Vingt-cinquieme ordre b) La Monflambert
Francois Couperin
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Track 23

Mr. Couperin's friendly piece offers a lesson in orchestration. Intentionally or not, our gentle Frenchman has provided us with a model of doubling. This technique, as one can hear in this gigue, can have a profound influence on a work's narrative. To my ears, the petit reprise here arises from the charm of parallel sixths (separated by the octave).

Speaking of reprises, it is significant to me that the doubling does not start until after the conclusion of the first section. Hearing the initial material in a new key is Mr. Couperin's signal that we will be moving into new territory and that brave new world is one in which we listen to parallel sixths. Monflabert must have cherished this sound. It is placed in the narration like the gem of a ring.

What I like about this gigue is that the left hand gets a chance to carry the tune. Not all of us sing in treble clef. 
Friday, June 25, 2004
  Vingt-cinquieme ordre b) La Misterieuse
Francois Couperin (1668-1733)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Track 22

It is in this mysterious one that we can find a gentle extension of Gregorian Chant. With instrumental writing now established, composers happily, yet cautiously, find new ways to complicate the art of line learned from the good monks. Surprisingly, it is not in the flurry of virtuosity that our Francois advocates complexity. It is in the calm of music intended for contemplation. Keyboard music, like chant, is music that can be accomplished by anyone looking for a way to amuse themselves. And it is with such a solitary musician in mind that Mr. Couperin wrote this once uniquely shaped tune.

The complex line is achieved via a simple formula: one note in the left hand followed by three in the right. Because the left hand notes ground the listener so firmly, the right hand notes are free to explore various possibilities. Sometimes they leap, sometimes they step. Sometimes they are static, sometimes they are melodic. An intelligent keyboard player (alone on a rainy day) may begin to see a myriad of constellations outlined by Couperin with these pitches.

What I like about this picturesque allemande is that it reminds me of a piece written a few years later. Couperin opens this tune in a way similar to one of the movements of J. S. Bach's Italian Concerto. This is a happy association for me. I love the Italian Concerto because I first heard it when I was ready to listen to lines. 
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
  Vingt-cinquieme ordre a) La Visionaire
Francois Couperin (1668-1733)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Tracks 20-21

The best audience for a composer is the performer. Even though the beautiful dreamer Mr. Couperin had in mind was an amateur, this short piece is still worthy of the most skilled fingers. It can serve the pro like a good short story. I am impressed by this accomplishment because it seems there are many composers who succeed in writing for the listener or for the performer but not both. Couperin's talent had the luck of being around for a rather small, musically educated audience. When composers would later try to write for masses of people without any musical ability, I think the quality of music suffers.

A curiosity of pieces like this one are the repeats. To repeat or not to repeat? I can understand that, for an anthology, one might skip the repeats to conserve space. However, this piece is designed for attentive listening. Someone paying close attention will make good use of the second presentation. Besides that, the 'B' section is so different from the start that there is no need to hurry to that transition.

What I like about this binary dream is the way the 'B' section works its way back to material similar to the opening. We never fully return to that Lully-like sound, but we have benefited from visiting. 
Saturday, June 19, 2004
  Chorale Prelude: Danket dem Herrn, BuxWV 181
Dieterich Buxtehude
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 tracks 17-19

I have never found brevity to be a fault. When a piece of music does not take much of the listener's time, it can afford to be strange and, whatever happens, gains significance by isolation. The listener has the opportunity to internalize the music sooner and more deeply when they do not have to sift through developmental material. Taking this Chorale Prelude out of its prelude context, it has the glistening beauty to be found centuries later in an Austrian composer almost credited for inventing brevity.

In Rashomon style, Buxtehude thanks the lord three times. Each time his cantus firmus divides the narration into three sections, the first and last section with approximately seven bars. Emphasizing the symbolism in the number three, there are never more than three voices present. Creating an interesting depth of field, Dieterich distinguishes the cantus firmus voice by requiring it to move slower than the other two.

What I like about this prelude is the music in between the first and third sections of each variation. As we move into the territory without cantus firmus, we hear fragments of that tune as details of counterpoint. In this context, because of brevity, the architecture of the piece and even something like the leap of a fourth gain a sense of the profound that is lost in more ambitious projects. 
Thursday, June 17, 2004
  Praeludium in E Major, BuxWV 141
Dieterich Buxtehude (ca. 1637-1707)
Norton Recorded Anthology or Western Music, CD 5 tracks 12-16

I have the Russians to thank for my appreciation of solo organ music. Not that I ever disliked the sound. It was the presentation, I think, that made it difficult for me. For a young listener, the appeal of a man sitting with his back to you in the front of a church absorbed in a strange language was limited. However, after seeing Tarkovsky's Solaris from 1972, this sound acquired meaning. I grew to understand this music as a cathartic exercise of the endless yearning in humanity to understand and join infinity. And once I got past that, I could listen to Messiaen.

Regarding our Danish virtuoso, in spite of Buxtehude's effort to notate each pitch and rhythm of this romp in E Major, the score does a poor job of looking like it sounds. Perhaps understanding that no two organs will sound the same anyway, Buxtehude has given no instructions on the setting or changing of stops. And though his notation of rhythm is not ambiguous, the clarity of this piece depends on the performer's loose interpretation of that notation. Because of these freedoms the performer is required to understand the piece as if he or she were the composer. Which gives the performance that fresh, improvised sound.

What I like about this piece is the meter change near the end (track 15). Signaling the approaching coda, Dieterich gives his feet a rest, starts a fugal section in the tenor voice, and gives us that triplet lilt once thought to be the only proper way to divide a beat. 
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
  The Fairy Queen: Hark! the ech'ing air a triumph sings
Henry Pucell
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, Vol. 1, CD 5 track 11

It has been a long time since Augustine's unfinished treatise. Strangely it is the Fairy Queen--a more pagan representative could not be found--that, making good use of her introduction, presents a hitherto undocumented expansion of the long tradition of European singing. Her imitation of a trumpet is also a development for the instrumentalists. No longer imitators and becoming increasingly self-sufficient, the now standardized and thus more cohesive force of players can look forward to exerting an exceptional influence on our concept of musical line. Furthermore, because she is paired with the weepy Dido, Henry's happy fairy does him the favor of vouching for his emotional range. (For a fuller English flavor our scholars would have done well to include Purcell's bawdy tunes.)

Much of the success of this composition and performance comes from the simple arrangement of listening to the trumpet first. In this recording we can hear inspired moments in the continuo that, with Purcell's encouragement, imitate our soloist imitating our trumpet. Reminding us that a little can go a long way, the trumpet only plays a few bars at the start and end of the piece.

What I like about this motto aria is the V-like shape of the theme. Fitting for a victory cheer and trumpet obbligato, the listener traces the left descent of the V with eighth notes and then the right ascent with sixteenth notes.

Also read a short biography of Henry Purcell. 
Sunday, June 13, 2004
  Dido and Aeneas Act III, Scene 2: Dido: Thy hand, Belinda/When I am laid in earth, Chorus: With drooping wings
Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Tracks 7-10

A book of Tate's underneath the bough, a pint of beer, a good bass line--and thou, Lady Port-Huntly, in the brewery--Oh, brewery were paradise now! Or so I am inclined to think after revisiting Purcell's English hit. I thank Dido for her sadness, in spite of her most persuasive petition. And I wonder at the depth of the students in Chelsea who premiered this exceptional piece.

It is odd, for me, to hear this famous five-bar bass line performed with the gentle plucks recorded here. Even while listening to this version I still imagine the 'cello. In fact, the long sustained pitches that occur in the continuo, to my ears, should have more tension than we hear in this rendition. However, this may only be a preference for the familiar. The performers here have accomplished, unmistakably, a rendition that allows Henry's music to speak for itself.

What I like about this short excerpt of a short opera is the way parts enhance each other. The opening recitative takes the listener into the aria quickly and beautifully. In memory, it becomes inseparable from that more lyrical section. And in that section that the listener is able to indulge in repetition. The chorus is necessary as a way to soften our vicarious grief and provide some sense of closure. In each section the listener experiences the power of simple music symbolism: a descending chromatic line conveys sadness.

And if you feel sad and like it....

Read also about the Westminster Abby, where Purcell remains close to the keyboards. 
Friday, June 04, 2004
  Armide b) Act II, Scene 5: Armide: Enfin il est en ma puissance
Jean-Baptiste Lully
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Tracks 4-6

This is not music that came from silence. The debut would have been surrounded by the rustle of people with short attention spans in big clothes, the workings of elaborate scene machinery, and the thuds and grunts of dancers. More impressively, the work seems to have been shaped by the extravagant effort to flatter the man in charge at the decadent court of Versailles.

Armide's unfortunate love for Renaud, however, is conveyed with talent and flare. To my ears, this scene is a reflection of the people that surrounded Lully. It is passionate music yet able to impulsively change attitude quickly. It is also music that is able to control opinion. Without giving us reason to like Armide, in this scene we sympathize with her only because the music compels us to see the story from her point of view.

What I like about this scene is the way Lully represents air. Of course, the inclusion of noise (drums and wind machine) is an exciting element. But even the pitched instruments do well to evoke Armide's background and aides. The duple meter of the French overture does well in the music that opens the scene in dark, heavy air. When Armide asks her desires and demons to become zephyrs that will carry them to the end of the universe they do so in triple time.

Read also more about Renaud
Wednesday, June 02, 2004
  Armide a) Overture
Jean-Baptiste Lully
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Tracks 1-3

Isolated from the audience, the stage, and the rest of the opera, this overture has enough substance to stand on its own. Yet it does not. The work was intended to grab the listener's attention and prepare the stage. Because this piece does that so well, hearing it without the subsequent rewards, to my ears, is like being told about a party that one missed. Perhaps a truly authentic recording of this piece would include the noises from the listeners.

Nevertheless, this overture is effective because of the form. Competing with the restlessness of his audience, Lully has restrained his string players from being longwinded. The second virtue here is the distinctness of each section. Because each section has a unique character the audience is aware of the progress of the piece and entertained by the changes. Because the third, and final, section is the most contrasting, the audience is brought to the conclusion with a satisfying alertness.

What I like about this piece is the way it changes gears into that concluding section (located at track 3). Although the upper voices have dominated the narration of this piece, this is a moment for which the lower strings and continuo can proud. The octave leap up followed by a downward curve on the leading tone of the relative minor is not only good music, it is music that creates a change.

Read also Laura Gregory's comments on Lully's career
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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