Tag Archives: Composers

Esoteric orchestration

Gérard Encausee (Papus)

Aligned with the Symbolists, Camille Mauclair considered the orchestra a transposed symbol of the emotions in nature and cited Wagner’s music as an outstanding realization of this concept.

Although he was a staunch Positivist who attacked the Symbolists, Ange-Marie Auzende described the symbolic qualities of instruments and considered the orchestra a mirror of the soul. Ernestine-André van Hasselt wrote for popular audiences, characterizing instruments as expressing or even embodying various personalities and psychological states.

In the 1894 pamphlet Anatomie et physiologie de l’orchestre, co-authored by the popular occult writer Gérard Encausee (writing under his esoteric pseudonym Papus) and the young Frederick Delius, the four instrumental groups—strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion—were associated respectively with God, the head, and the nervous system; man, the chest, and the arterial system; woman, the chest, and the venous system; and nature, the abdomen, and the lymphatic system.

Further subdivisions and associations were outlined in preparation for a larger prescriptive work for composers that never materialized.

This according to “Sound as symbol: Fin de siècle perceptions of the orchestra” by Eric Frederick Jensen (The music review LV/3 [August 1994] pp. 227–240; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1996-16688).

Above, Papus in the back room of the Librairie du Merveilleux ca. 1890; below, the opening of Delius’s Appalachia from 1896, perhaps an example of his application of such theories.

Related article: F, the keynote of nature

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Filed under Curiosities, Romantic era

Uncracking the Nutcracker

Photo from the original 1892 production of “Nutcracker” showing Varvara Nikitina as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Pavel Gerdt as the Cavalier.

Although the place of Ŝelkunčik (Nutcracker) in the hearts of today’s audiences is secure, its genesis hardly seemed auspicious.

Čajkovskij repeatedly sought to abandon work on the project, and complained bitterly about it to the Director of Imperial Theaters; the reasons why he begged to be released from it, or why he ultimately persevered, remain unknown.

The problems probably involved the libretto, which the fastidious composer may well have found vexing. Parts of it lack any rationale, the balance of mime and dance is lopsided, and the overall arc of the story is incoherent, with several essential plot elements entirely missing.

These issues can be resolved by rendering most of the ballet as Drosselmayer’s thoughts rather than Clara’s dream. One can easily imagine the composer taking delight in this solution.

This according to “On meaning in Nutcracker” by Roland John Wiley (Dance research III/1 (fall 1984) 3–28; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1984-12142).

Today is the 130th anniversary of Nutcracker‘s premiere!

Below, part I of Mark Morris’s approach, which he called The hard nut.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Romantic era

Paganini and Marfan syndrome

Since the 1950s scientists have increasingly agreed that Paganini was probably a victim of Marfan syndrome—although beneficiary seems a more appropriate word than victim.

The typical characteristics of this pathological condition—a tall, thin body and particularly long, thin arms and hands—are perfectly in keeping with the virtuoso’s somatic characteristics, noted by all who described him and confirmed by the concert sketch by the writer and painter Johann Peter Lyser, the only artist known to have reproduced the violinist’s exact physiology (above; click to enlarge).

There can be no doubt that Paganini’s abnormal ligaments—together, of course, with his extraordinary musical talent—were a definite advantage in his chosen career.

This according to “Nicolò Paganini (1782–1840)” by G. Sperati and D. Felisati (Acta Otorhinolaryngologica Italica XXV/2 [April 2005] pp. 125–128; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2005-51589).

Today is Paganini’s 240th birthday! Below, Jascha Heifetz plays the composer’s Caprice, op. 1, no. 24.

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Filed under Performers, Romantic era, Science

Citizen Kane and the Isle of the Dead

Die_Toteninsel

A five-note motive in Rahmaninov’s Ostrov mërtvyh (The isle of the dead, op. 29), which evokes the opening of the Dies irae melody used by Berlioz and Liszt, is strikingly similar to what Bernard Herrmann referred to as the motive of power or fate in his score for Citizen Kane.

Rahmaninov’s work was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting Die Toteninsel (above; click to enlarge), and Herrmann’s statements about his creative process suggest that the opening images of the film might have unconsciously reminded him of the painting, which in turn could have aroused an association with Rahmaninov’s work.

This according to “The Dies irae in Citizen Kane: Musical hermeneutics applied to film music” by William H. Rosar, an essay included in Film music: Critical approaches (New York: Continuum, 2001, pp. 103–116). Below, the first minutes of Citizen Kane, followed by Rahmaninov’s symphonic poem.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Film music, Visual art

Vaughan Williams and Blake

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Job: A masque for dancing is based on William Blake’s cycle of illustrations of the biblical tale; but a study of the scenario and of preserved correspondence indicates disparate theological and philosophical arguments and conflicts.

The composer put his own stamp on the story, while accepting the symbolism of Blake’s drawings, and effectively deconstructed the illustrations in favor of his own intentions. Job: A masque for dancing is no ordinary theater piece—it reveals a personal view as individual as that present in Blake’s original illustrations.

This according to “A deconstruction of William Blake’s vision: Vaughan Williams and Job” by Alison Sanders McFarland (International journal of musicology III [1994], 339–371; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1995-4362).

Today is Vaughan Williams’s 150th birthday!

Above, Blake’s depiction of Job and his family restored to prosperity; below, a complete recording of Vaughan Williams’s ballet.

Related article: Blake and Jerusalem

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Visual art

Szymanowski and Eros

The desire to voice the artistic revelation of the truth of a precarious, multifaceted, yet integrated self lies behind much of Karol Szymanowski’s work.

This self is projected through the voices of deities who speak languages of love. The unifying figure is Eros, who may be embodied as Dionysus, Christ, Narcissus, or Orpheus, and the gospel he proclaims tells of the resurrection and freedom of the desiring subject.

In Król Roger Szymanowski used the unifying Christ/Eros figure as a means of indicating that the King might be transformed from an anguished despot to a loving expressive subject; this is demonstrated in the encounters of King Roger with the voices of Narcissus, the Siren, and Dionysus. Throughout, the composer fused Slavonic and Middle-Eastern mythological inspirations to fulfill a utopian vision of a pan-European culture bound together by the spirit of Eros.

This according to Szymanowski, eroticism, and the voices of mythology by Stephen C. Downes (London: Royal Musical Association, 2003; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2003-4450).

Today is Szymanowski’s 140th birthday! Above, a portrait by Stanisław Witkacy. Below, the ending of Roksana’s aria from Król Roger.

Related article: Wagner and Eros

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Opera

John Cage’s microtonal rāgas

John Cage’s 18 microtonal rāgas are found in Solo for voice 58 from Song books (1970).

To perform them, the dhrupad and experimental music specialist Amelia Cuni decided to apply experimental procedures to dhrupad vocalism and to elaborate her Indian music background in a new music context. She also wanted to explore an influential contemporary composer’s take on rāgas and step back from her personal involvement with the tradition and observe it from another perspective.

In collaboration with the Berliner Festspiele and several other contemporary music venues, Cuni’s interpretation of Solo for voice 58 was premiered in Berlin in 2006 and has been performed since then at several European and U.S. festivals.

This according to Cuni’s “Chance generated ragas in Solo for voice 58: A dhrupad singer performs John Cage” (Journal of the Indian Musicological Society  XLI [2011–12] pp. 127–54; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-23192).

Today is Cage’s 110th birthday!

Below, a studio recording of Cuni’s realization; a full live performance can be viewed here (the performance starts at 10:00).

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Prokof’ev’s bad dog

In 1917 Sergej Sergeevič Prokof’ev briefly returned to one of his childhood interests: writing fiction.

He considered what this pursuit entailed. “My style caused me concern,” he wrote. “Did it have individuality or was it awkward?”

Ultimately he concluded, “If there’s an idea, then the style will be subservient to the idea. If I have an idea, that means I’m an author.”

One of his short stories, Пудель: Мерзкая собака (The poodle: A bad dog) was published in an English translation by Three oranges (3 [May 2002] pp. 6–9; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2002-9136. The full text is here). A surprise twist at the end is a wry nod to the composer’s interest in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Below, Prokof’ev’s good dog.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Animals, Humor, Literature

Mozart’s vitamin deficiency

Several hypotheses regarding the cause of Mozart’s death have been advanced, but until now none have noted the likelihood that a very low level of vitamin D in his system contributed to his untimely demise.

Mozart did most of his composing at night, so he must have slept during much of the day, minimizing his exposure to sunlight. Further, at Vienna’s latitude (48°N) it is impossible for the body to make vitamin D from solar ultraviolet-B irradiance for about six months of the year.

The composer died on 5 December 1791, about three months into the Vienna winter; since the half-life of vitamin D in the human body is four to six weeks, his level of the nutrient would have been very low—an important risk factor for infectious diseases.

This according to “Vitamin D deficiency contributed to Mozart’s death” by William B. Grant and Stefan Pilz (Medical problems of performing artists XXVI/2 [June 2011] p.117; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-3181).

Below, Jerry Hadley discusses solar irradiance in “Si spande al sole in faccia nube talor così” from Mozart’s Il rè pastore.

More articles about Mozart are here.

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Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Science

Percy Grainger and world music


Today, on Percy Grainger’s 140th birthday, let’s recall his reflections on the two broad stylistic groups he discerned in world music.

Grainger believed that strong musical and human characteristics unite the musical output of the Nordic countries, which include Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia, and several others.

To him, the melodic habits of Nordic music were more like those of China and other Mongolian countries than those of such European countries as France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Austria. His Mongolian-Nordic musical tradition favored solemn or spiritual unadorned melodies with long sustained notes, gapped scales, and a tendency to underlying polyphonic thought. The Nordic musical mind sought inspiration in nature.

In contrast, the southern or Mohammedan tradition favored nervous, excitable, and florid tunes with quickly fluctuating notes, closely filled-up scales, and a tendency to seek surface complexity in technical passagework rather than in harmony.

This according to Characteristics of Nordic music, a talk broadcast on New York’s WEVD radio on 4 July 1933. Grainger’s talk is reprinted from a typescript held by the Grainger Museum, Melbourne, in Grainger on music (Oxford: Clarendon 1999, 258–266; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-20329).

Above, Grainger with a radio microphone in 1928; below, some vintage recordings.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, World music