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Friday, July 30, 2004
  Cantata: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, 5. Recitative: So geh herein zu mir
Johann Sebastian Bach
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 6 Track 9

How should a love letter be preserved? Unlike the tenor who sang earlier in this cantata, the bass singer on this track delivers the sweetness possible in the German language. The intimacy of the text and Bach's passionate setting of it suggest that he may have had his wife in mind while writing. To my ears, it is intimacy and passion like this that makes Bach's music, in general, so appealing. He wrote for his moment fully.

Setting the mood, the string orchestra creates a halo around the loving Basso. The long sustained soft pitches gently and perhaps surreptitiously move the listener from E flat to B flat. Although this device was important to Bach as a transition from the preceding chorale to the following Duet, because of his level of craft, this movement is a fulfilling, albeit brief, work of art on its own.

What I like about this recitative that could have been written for Barry White is the setting of "nun die Angst, den Schmerz." Especially the sympathetic "nun die" that approaches the word "Angst." Mr. Bach's use of conventional dissonance for these sensitive words successfully conveys the lover's sympathy for past troubles.

Read also Robert Gable's recommendations of Glass as well as Getty, about Martinique nature as seen by Mwanji Ezana, more on the Baroque from Charles T. Downey, Jens F. Laurson's comments on Parsifal, about Alex Ross' return from Bayreuth and learn the story of a dog.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004
  Cantata: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, 4. Chorale: Zion hört die Wächter singen
Johann Sebastian Bach
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 6 Track 8

In a song about singing Mr. Bach atypically arranged his forces to concentrate his power on heartfelt melody. Abstaining from harmony, the strings are unified above the ubiquitous rhythm section and the tenors enjoy the absence of the rest of the choir. Because, in this piece, the tenors never sing more than three bars at a time, the unison strings nearly have the room to themselves. The tenors are present just enough to create what photographers call depth of field. To my ears, the rhapsodic indulgence of this piece seems unique for late Baroque.

Doubling the violins with the violas is a good match for these tenors in the background. The tune the string players play has wide happy leaps and healthy sixteenth note passages. With all the strength and verve in this melody, the listener never misses the expressive harmony that comes so easily to Mr. Bach.

What I like about this single-voiced chorale is the way the choir almost always starts on a weak beat. Thus the listener hears them as if from a distance. Much like Zion, in the text, hears the watchman. The one exception to this is the word, "Hosanna!" Even this exclamation, though, overlaps the end of one phrase and the beginning of another.

Read also travel notes from Mwanji Ezana, more Baroque thoughts from Charles T. Downey at ionarts, and Helen Radice's response to refined atmosphere.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004
  Cantata: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, 3. Aria (Duet): Wann kommst du, mein Heil?
Johann Sebastian Bach
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 6 Track 7

How is it that C minor can sing so sweetly? By the time of this aria the affections have been categorized and understood well enough that a minor chord could make even the crustiest basso weep. Yet this love duet does well in the minor mode. Neither singer builds phrase upon phrase to climatic, emotional epiphany. Rather, taking advantage of the extended vocabulary offered by a minor key, they content each other with brief, gentle exchanges and an occasional sustained pitch.

Timbre is vital to this duet for four. For instance, the distinction between the violin and soprano is primarily one of color. Though they have very different jobs, their registers overlap. This voice crossing is important to the symbolism of the composition and is effective only because of their strong differences in timbre. The same is true for the bass voice and ‘cello. However, Bach’s interest in timbre is only utilitarian. The voices and string instruments never exchange jobs.

What I like about this three way over ground bass is that it concludes so simply. After all the fancy filigree sol, fa, re, do is enough for the violin and mi, fa, sol, do is enough for the ‘cello.

Read also about more baroque duets from Charles T. Downey at ionarts, Jessica Duchen listens to Carmen and Chopin, and Alex Ross is in Bayreuth.

Sunday, July 25, 2004
  Cantata: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, 2. Tenor Recitative: Er kommt
Johann Sebastian Bach
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 6 Track 6

There are times when Bach sounds a little like the blues. For instance, hergegangen, the last word of this recitative, moves down to the final note in a way that emphasizes the flat third scale degree. But, alas, our singer slips in an unauthorized second scale degree making it sound much more white than it should. I am exaggerating, I know, but our singer does seem to have an aversion to ending a phrase on a descending third. Four times in this short track he adds a pitch to avoid this small leap. To my ears, the pitches Bach wrote are more interesting.

The opening words, Er kommt, er kommt, are particularly striking because Bach, listening to future German music, set them to the tune of Brahms’ fourth symphony. Unlike the orchestral version, our singer fills these notes with the anxiety of those waiting. He appropriately and frenetically works his way up to the highest note for Sein Ausgang eilet aus der Höhe.

What I like about this tenor break is the way the word Dort sticks out, pointing "over there!" Even though the highest note of the tune was spent early setting the word Höhe, Bach is able to achieve a climax on Dort by disrupting the flow.

Read also Jessica Duchen’s complaint about music with moderators.
Friday, July 23, 2004
  Cantata: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, 1. Chorus: Wachet auf
Johann Sebastian Bach
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 6 Tracks 1-5

Here, music offers a view of an event far in the past. We see Mr. Bach setting a few simple ideas into motion. A string contingent with a swing in three is echoed by a double reed trio. A French Horn supports a choir singing a good morning song. And the rhythm section walks a steady beat. The aggregate of these easy parts rings with the clarity and truth that church is supposed to have. Because Bach wrote for his moment and the people around him, there is something almost voyeuristic about listening to him now.

For the first time in this anthology the oboes, without flutes, enjoy some elbow room. In fact, joined by an English Horn, the two oboes are now a force equal to the upper strings. Also pertinent to the emerging orchestra is the arrival of the French Horn. This instrument is here to double soprano. But because this part is the least active in the choir and the horn has such a beautiful ability to sustain long pitches in the background, we hear the horn, at least in this recording, as a voice of its own.

What I like about this tune are the two brief moments when the walking bass takes a break. Both times, the absence of the continuo allows the music to convey a sense of elevation without sending the performers into high, uncomfortable ranges.

Also read about Bach in the wikipedia.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004
  Durch Adams Fall, BWV 637
Johann Sebastian Bach
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Track 45

One is three listeners to Bach. First, you hear Durch Adams Fall as you walk into the sanctuary. Although you do not know the text and are only guessing the composer, something about the piece seems beautifully, heartbreakingly asymmetrical. Second, you follow up on your curiosity and clumsily read through the piece on your own several times. You stop and start, sometimes playing a chord or passage several times while you hum along. Third, while waiting in line at the county clerk’s office to renew your auto license, the entire piece, unsolicited, emerges from your unaware mind in clear detail. You hear the imperfect silence of the hallway and understand the sound of this piece as a profound constellation of meanings.

It is remarkable that this piece is a four voice chorale. The inner voices move around too much and the bass voice is barely supportive. Furthermore, there are three different speeds. The Soprano moves in quarter notes, the alto and tenor in sixteenth notes, and the bass in eighth notes. And yet, we are never lost and what confusion we encounter inspires contemplation.

What I like about Adam’s Fall is the way Bach anticipates the tune by two notes in the alto voice. This figure repeats several times in this very short piece. It is an insistence on the elasticity of a grave fall in slow motion.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004
  Preludium et Fuga in A Minor, BWV 543
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Tracks 43-44

My high school cross country coach once gave me an award for most consistent. He, Major Graves, was working hard to say something nice. As I approached the podium Major Graves talked about my perfect attendance to races we never won and my strong admiration for the music of J.S. Bach. This and many other high school experiences coincided with the early days of rap music. When I hear rap music on the street these days it rarely seems like the complex pattern music my classmates shared with the rest of the school and environs from their car speakers. In a way, I liked it. I wanted to get one of those Pacer station wagons, put some big speakers sticking out of the back, and cruise around with some Prelude and Fugue for the neighborhood. It would be even cooler if I managed to lay down a track of someone cussing in German.

Much visceral appeal is achieved by pedal tones. Among other advantages, these notes allowed Bach to pursue complexity because they hold the listener to a particular point.

What I like about BWV 543 is the moment, near the end of the first long pedal tone, where all etiquette is tossed aside. Just before the feet take off in a speedy arpeggio for the first time, the fingers stutter out a diminished chord with happy zeal.

Sunday, July 18, 2004
  Hippolyte et Aricie, Act IV, Scene I: Ah! faut-il
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Track 42

Rameau reminds us that it is never too late. His contribution to world history came fifty years near the end of an era and thirty years near the end of his life. His book, Treatise on Harmony, is a buoy in the history of music that marks the early stage of tonality. And his music, like this brief excerpt, resounds beautifully unencumbered by his interest in music theory.

Rameau has added oboes and bassoons to the ensemble that helped Griselda’s complaint. As reinforcements to the now modern string contingent they do not enjoy the moments of liberation given to the flute players. But these double reeds do extend the range of color for the strings. This is a subtle yet vital detail. Color is especially important concerning the opening pitch. This note, in the brief duration of a single beat, sets the stage. Hippolyte surveys the land in which he has enjoyed the glory of his family and the love of Aricie. The woodwinds help gently project this single pitch over this expanse of land.

What I like about this subtle excerpt is the wonderful part writing to be found in the string section. None of it is filler. Because Rameau supports melody with melody, these parts are a joy to read and hear.
Thursday, July 15, 2004
  Concerto for Violin, Op. 9, No. 2, RV 345, Largo (second movement)
Antonio Vivaldi
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Track 41

Read Kyle Gann's comments on the dangers of being a professor.

A composer is an asset to even the most Spartan societies. Who cares how they collect their pay? Somebody in town should be thinking about music. Concerning Vivaldi, I like to think of him as an academic composer. If his entire career had taken place in the confines of the Pieta, that would have been enough. The unique demand for new music he enjoyed may have given him a boost. But there is nothing anyone could have said, there is no award or payment that could equal his own judgment after hearing his work performed well. Because he had found a way to write and hear his music he was able to achieve the only success there is for any composer; he kept writing. What we have chosen to say about his effort since then is almost none of his business.

Growing up, I suffered a diet too full of Mozart, particularly the stuff for solo piano and string quartets. It has taken me sometime to recover. However, I never tired, even as a sulky teenager, listening to slow movements. It is in slow movements like this one that we hear the graceful transition away from the arias that started the Baroque to the instrumental pieces that will crystallize in the Classical.

What I like about this piece is the cello part that introduces the soloist and then later closes the curtain. It is impressive that Vivaldi is able to get away with so many leaps, sixes and sevenths even, without losing grace. 
Wednesday, July 14, 2004
  Concerto Grosso in G Minor, Op. 3, No. 2, RV 578 b) Allegro (second movement)
Antonio Vivaldi
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Tracks 34-40

Once is never enough for large leaps and chromatic scales. Vivaldi found a way to indulge in these instrumental habits. He helped his listeners with repetitions. The tight harmonic changes Don Antonio favored, which were familiar to his critics, also help liberate the listener's ears. In the comfort of repetition and recognizable chords, visitors to the Pieta listened to music unlike song. They may have even hummed along.

They were listening to the sound of the string orchestra. The significant changes to the instruments since then have developed the strings, the bow, and the player's technique. And yet, Vivaldi makes good use of modern strings, bows and players like Kyung-Wa Chung. Because Vivaldi and his students successfully embraced the new without losing their audience, their accomplishment resonates farther from home and time than they could have imagined. Somewhere in the Midwest, while deciding which cereal to buy, a woman hears the Four Seasons and thinks, "I know that tune...and I like it."

What I like about this piece is section at track 39. Here, two solo Violins heroically stand against the orchestra. Exchanging parts every two beats, no one is sure which is which. 
Saturday, July 10, 2004
  Concerto Grosso in G Minor, Op. 3, No. 2, RV 578 a) Adagio e spiccato (first movement)
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Track 33

Women have never had as strong an influence in music as can be found in the work of the red priest. Though without credit and seated behind a thick screen, Vivaldi's students irrevocably severed instrumental music from a dependence on story telling or dance. Prepared by the emergent overture, these dauntless performers inspired the organization of the string orchestra that proudly sits in front of the woodwinds, brass, and percussion of today. To my ears, Vivaldi was their spokesperson.

Much like family histories, one learns what little of music history we can in a lopsided fashion. The first time I opened this score, in freshman history class, I sneered. With a prejudice borrowed from a sibling's reaction to a radio station's limited collection, I thought Vivaldi too often got stuck on one note. I wanted to hear the convoluted lines of Bach. When the professor played the recording I was amazed to hear, embedded in the insistent pulse, complicated lines crossing over vibrant harmonies.

What I like about this spiccato first movement is the brief moment that avoids eighth notes near the end. The adagio's general rigidity is all the more stronger with this exception. 
Friday, July 09, 2004
  Trio Sonata, Op. 3, No. 2
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Tracks 28-32

Corelli comes out on top. As we may recall, this anthology presents another unfortunate comparison on the other side of Baroque. The second time we heard Orpheus announce his plans to go underground was far more convincing than the first. And here, the second time we encounter violins fulfilling the promise of cruel Amaryllis, Legrenzi, sadly, is upstaged.

The first attraction of Corelli's piece is the attention he gave to the bass line. Of course, three voices make a better fugue than two. But the cello is a boon in the slow movements as well. Because of the sense of motion it provides, the upper two voices are able to linger, once and awhile, on a delicately calculated dissonance.

What I like about this genuine trio are the moments when the violins sustain a single pitch for more than a bar. The opening, for example, is unforgettable in the way that a single note, above the descending bass, is doubled. Strangely, two violins sustaining a note together has a profoundly different meaning than one violin alone. Corelli makes the unison sound memorable. Before the final cadence, he rewards our memory with one more beautifully sustained pitch (near the end of track 31). 
Thursday, July 08, 2004
  Trio Sonata: La Raspona
Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Tracks 26-27

Fearless Legrenzi sends his joyful violin players into happy competition. The seventeenth century tangle of two violins that is La Raspona reminds me of the thirteenth century tangle of three tenors that is Sederunt. The violins have chords to play with (leaps and showy arpeggios) where the ancient singers contented themselves with melodic intrigue. However, in both pieces it is the combination of voices that holds the listener on the edge of his or her seat. As we may recall, Perotin balanced this complexity with an unmoving bass part. Here, of course, the continuo keeps the two violins from getting lost.

In spite of the score's division into two parts, Allegro (track 26) and Adagio (track 27), the narration comes across more as a palindrome. The Allegro slows down into the Adagio and the Adagio speeds up into the conclusion.

What I like about Giovanni's echoing chamber piece is the beginning of the Adagio. For a mere two bars, the violins take on a very operatic style. After this, we gradually return to the competitive voice exchanges of the opening. It is as if, after grabbing our attention, Legrenzi slowed the music down to insure that we appreciated each violin fully. 
Tuesday, July 06, 2004
  Vingt-cinquieme ordre e) Les Ombres errantes
Francois Couperin
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Track 25

Sensitive to scales, our composer may have heard this piece before it was written. The shadows in his title are uncomplicated musical lines that move with significant weight. They were in motion before he tossed them between the conflicting gravitational bodies of C minor and E-flat major. The then fashionable frills added on the page allow the plucky harpsichord to think itself capable of sustaining one pitch into harmony with another. After a novice observes Francois' spooky finale, the roving is likely to continue. Unmonitored and, perhaps, untrained improvisation may became a more varied terrain for these generally stepwise ghosts. Thus, Mr. Couperin's three shadows rove beyond the confines of the page.

Meaning, for Couperin, is in the direction of the scale. For instance, the bass line starts on mi so that the descending mi, re, do establishes the work's sense of inertia that is conducive to suspensions. These suspensions create the environment in which our thin characters plod up, down, or stay around the same note. In this way, Mr. Couperin provides us with a piece, though easy to follow, is not so easy to hum. The melody does not stay with us as much as the experience of wandering.

What I like about this tapestry of footsteps is that no line dominates the others for the length of the piece. Because of my training as a cellist, my ear is prejudiced to hear the bass line more than the others. But our talented composer lightens up on the bass enough to keep the listener's ears moving. 
Thursday, July 01, 2004
  Vingt-cinquieme ordre b) La Muse victorieuse
Francois Couperin
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 5 Track 24

Mr. Couperin achieved opera without singers. His haiku-style production was aimed at an audience of one. The ideal listener, wearing those funny pants of the eighteenth century, would have been someone familiar with the going-ons of the theater. Francois was appealing to someone who knew what plot lines were in fashion, the pace of dramas, the way singers conversed, and the machinery of the scenes. (Though this miniature production could fit in the budget of even the most impoverished opera house, I would guess Couperin's audience was well-to-do.)

The title of this movement is enough to prepare us to experience a retelling of adversity conquered. Once there, the phrase lengths are just enough irregular to keep the pace quick. The simple contrast in register and the gem-like themes are enough to evolve a small cast of characters. Because the style is light--one might say rococo--even the emotional range flourishes on a small scale.

What I like about this piece is that the themes are so compact. For instance, at the opening, while the keyboard player revels in the ornate sol, la, ti, do, we pass through three enjoyable bass lines. Even in this short amount of time, each of these bass lines has a unique proximity to the tune. More than the tune, it is the relationship of the right and left hands that stays with the listener. More than melodic development, Couperin treats these opening bars and other sections like small building blocks to be duplicated and transposed. 
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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