Friday, December 5, 2008

French Influence on the New World

Pardon me, Dr. Granade, as I write an extra post not directly related to the class. But I found this so interesting, I had to share:

I was studying for the upcoming Exam on the Baroque era, when I read in detail a description of the courante in the French Dance Suite:

"The courante was a French dance whose choreography included bending the knee on the upbeat or offbeat and rising on the beat, often followed by a step or glide:"

This seemed terribly familiar from my experiences with learning Native American dance and culture. My father, who studies Native American culture almost religiously, was sure to bring me up taking me to Pow Wows, teaching me the proper wear and use of regalia, and treating me to fry bread tacos. There are different dances, depending on one's gender and regalia, that one can find at a Pow Wow. My father's dance of choice is the straight dance, which could be described as, well, "bending the knee on the upbeat or offbeat and rising on the beat, often followed by a step or glide:"

Very similar, but not identical... I also remembered then the two-step, which is a common couples dance found at Pow Wows:

Can we be all that surprised when considering the alliances between the French and the Indians? Consider this said about the Prelude to the French and Indian War:

"The French were more apt to cultivate a friendship with the natives; French traders would often marry into a native tribe to solidify a good commercial relationship. The British, on the other hand, were often seen as interlopers who came to steal land. But as the Indians came to rely more and more upon European trade goods, their alliance would change depending on whom they thought they could get the most from. As the Native Americans began to play one country off against the other, the Europeans began to try to manage the alliances more powerfully to their own advantage."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Handel’s Giulio Cesare

I must applaud Chris for sitting through the entire opera Giulio Cesare, for I was not so fortunate. With finals coming down to crunch time, my excellent finds in literature on the opera, and my attempts at wrapping my brain around Baroque audiences clamoring for castrated men to perform (which I finally answered), made it a challenge. But just as Chris discusses in depth, the performance given by Jennifer Larmore, who plays Julius Caesar, is stellar.
Chris’s entry shows his research in the Giulio Cesare performance recorded on the album directed by René Jacobs. There was little mentioning about the piece and composer itself, and so I decided to find out more.
George Frideric Handel, born in Halle Germany, in 1685, began his solid music education after the Duke of Saxe Weissenfels persuaded Handel’s father to allow his to take young Handel to Hamburg at the age of 18. His later travels from Florence to London have given his music a melding of the various styles of the time from Germany, Italy, and England. Handel traveled to London in 1711, where his first Italian opera, Rinaldo, was performed the same year at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket. Interest in Italian opera in England was rising, and so Handel became a regular employee of the Queen’s Theatre. It was here that the first performance of Giulio Cesare was seen in 1724.
The roles of Julius Caesar, Nirenus, and Sextus, were all originally performed by castrati. The voice of castrati became popular for having both brilliance and power, and an unearthly timbre. The rolling, wide-ranged arias of Julius Caesar display Handel’s use of the castrato, which often brought fame and glory to the singer at the time, rather than the composer. Handel shows his talent in both displaying the talents of the singers, as wells as his attention to characterization. This is best seen in the wide range of emotion and color to the character, Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s arias show her as being a scandalous flirt in seducing Julius Caesar, but also later fearing for his safety in ‘Se pieta.’
One of my favorite parts of the opera was Handel’s use of both recitative secco and recitative accompagnato. The recitative secco is used for more conversational parts (“Cesare, alla tua destra”), mainly accompanied on harpsichord. The recitative accompagnato is then used for the arias (“Presti omai”), in which Handel uses full orchestra. His use of the orchestra supports the emotion and text of the scenes beautifully.
Giulio Cesare is one of the most popular operas of the Baroque, and Handel’s best known Italian opera. Even to this day, attempts at recreating its brilliance resonate throughout the Western world. But society’s attempts at cutting corners leave most performance of it in want. Performances are often abridged (Chrysander in 1875), or the ranges are transposed to match the ranges of the men singers available to us today (Germany, 1922). At times like these, we can thank the music gods for recordings like that of René Jacobs’ Giulio Cesare.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons

I was never one for practicing. What seemed to get me through learning violin in elementary school were two main components: my teachers and parents telling me I had to, and listening to gorgeous violin concerti and wanting to be just like the musicians I heard. In elementary school, one of my favorite pieces was “Summer,” the first movement of The Four Seasons. This seems fitting that I aspired to play a piece by Vivaldi, considering what I learned later in high school about its composer, and what is discussed here.

Antonio Vivaldi was a center-part of late Baroque music and particularly famous for his concerti as they explored the potential of instrumental music in ways never seen before his time.

He was born in 1655 in Brescia Italy, and was a resident of Venice since the age of ten, had three main patrons for both his compositions and performances: the Opera House, the Pio Ospedale della Pietá (an orphanage in Venice for which he composed and taught young girls to perform music), and Maestro de’ concerti (his published works).

Though it is not certain, it is believed several hundreds of Vivaldi's concerti were written for his pupils at the Pietá. These girls, either orphaned, from impoverished families, or left outside the orphanage without any information, were oftentimes trained as musicians in small musical groups, and would later perform in chapel choir and orchestra. Vigorous training in music performance in both voice and instruments (violin, flute, organ, oboe, cello, bassoon, and others) were conducted to prepare the girls for suitable lives as either nuns or wives. Having the girls perform music outside the orphanage was forbidden by the Pietá.

Performances by the girls, which took place almost every Saturday, Sunday, and major holidays, made the Pietá a popular landmark for those visiting Venice in the eighteenth century. Reports from audience members in diaries and letters describe onlookers wildly applauding, biting their nails, clasping a hand to their breast in awe, or even fainting when the girls would play. This was the intent of the composer, because Vivaldi's main goal was to showcase the abilities of the young performers. Though it is not certain that all his concerti were written for the girls at the Pietá, it is believed many of them were. This includes his most famous work, Vivaldi’s four-concerto cycle, The Four Seasons.

Written for string quartet (two violins, viola, cello), The Four Seasons follows Vivaldi’s standard form: three movements (fast first movement, slow second movement, fast third movement) are found in each of the four concerti: Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. Sounds from all the seasons become vivid in his use of sound image. A bird singing in the third movement of Spring in the solo violin brings celebration of the earth's rebirth. The dripping of icicles in the second movement of Winter in the pizzicatos of the accompanying strings carry the listener to a snowy wonderland. These are only two examples of many in the entire work.

The prominent feature in the Four Seasons is Vivaldi’s use of ritornello, which is a short recurring passage. One of the best examples of this is in the first movement of Summer, where the movement begins with equal voicing in all the parts, generously holding rests between phrases to create tension and release. Suddenly, a violin duet bursts almost violently from the calm, depicting a hot Summer wind rising from an ominously quiet day. It includes impressively quick string changes, detaché bowing, and use of high positions, giving the music potential for deep emotional expression in the hands of a skilled musician. Once the solo has built up, it is joined by the tutti. It switches evenly between the solo voices, and the tutti for the rest of the movement, with the movement finally ending with a strong, final collaboration of all voices. Vivaldi’s use of the ritornello gave opportunity to not only show off the talents of the soloist and create musical interest, but the tutti gave time for the soloist to recover without leaving empty spaces in the flow of the music. This also served as a marker for the audience to follow and know where they were going.

Having been a teenage student violinist who played his music, I find both the history and works of Antonio Vivaldi one of the most fascinating parts of music history. His life work as one of the greatest music educators, as well as one the greatest composers for violin, serve as a direct inspiration for me. Playing and listening to Vivaldi's music strikes me on a very personal level because he wrote his music for young women, with whom I can relate, to better themselves through the noble art of music.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Gilles Binchois, Mon Souverain Desir response

Get your floppy, pointy, bulky Renaissance hats on; it is time for lovin’ like it is 1420! And what sets the mood better than one of Binchois's chanson? Works by Gilles Binchois, a central figure in the development of the Burgundian chanson, can be found on the album Mon Souverain Desir, which has a very distinct, universal theme: romantic love.

Jaime’s description of the music itself is accurate and detailed, enhancing my listening experience. After reading her article, I put her suggestion to practice to read the text while listening to the music. To quote Jaime, “Reading the translations while listening at the same time gave a much better representation of what was being sung about and why the music sounded as it did.” The sound-image is clear when coupling the music with the words. More than anything, Binchois expressed emotion through both the lyrics and the music. For example, in Amours mercy, he cries out, “I cannot suffer forlorn hope/so richly have I chosen as I wished/and for Love, who commanded me to do so.” The music is steady-paced, with simple intervals and imitation, as if the unaccompanied singers were carrying a heavy burden. But the lyrics express this burden of hope and love being one that has been chosen, so the music has an element of tranquility. Binchois, however, does not need to rely on text to convey the music's emotion, as displayed in Je me recommande humblement, which is an upbeat piece, entirely instrumental, making it perfect for a couples dance in the Renaissance.

The music as a whole is brimming with musical description of human emotion, from the burden of love to the celebration of it. The text, polyphony, and oftentimes usage of the hemiola rhythmic effect keeps the music fresh and intriguing. Even so, Binchois has an underlying element that makes him different from his predecessor, Guillaume Du Fay, in that Binchois has pieces both emotionally charged, but notably debonair and controlled.

Had I been living in a Burgundian land during the peak of Binchois's popularity, this would be my kind of scene. His instrumental music makes for marvelous couple dancing, in being both fun and refined. I wonder if these dance halls had the same issues that our found in today's society. Was there scandalous hand-holding? Women flashing their ankles? Did the poor earl of Suffolk spend the dance crying over his lady leaving him for the visiting duke of Dijon? Perhaps in other dance halls would such barbaric events take place, but not in the courts who are fortunate enough to have Binchois perform. Wistfully I wish such dance halls with music playing from Binchois still existed, but for now, I can sit and listen to the recordings of his romantic music being played.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Orlando di Lasso/Reginald de Lassus: Missa pro defunctis and Prophetiae Sibyllarum

Search engines have met their match when it comes to Orlando di Lasso. Or is it Reginald di Lassus? Or Orlando Lasso? What about Orlandus Lassus? All of these names point to one man; and by any name, the Franco-Flemish composer best known as Orlando di Lasso, was a Renaissance music celebrity, his fame spreading all over Europe.

Legend says that young Orlando di Lasso, a Franco-Flemish choir boy born at Mons (now Walloon Belgium), was abducted and spirited away to foreign lands to sing, as it was custom of the Italians to abduct sweet-singing choir boys during this period. He escaped and returned home, only to be abducted twice more. After his third abduction at age twelve, he chose to stay and work under the Viceroy of Sicily.

What history tells us is that Lasso did in fact begin working for the Viceroy of Sicily at age twelve, though he certainly did not stay in one place. Lasso served patrons throughout Italy, from Mantua to Rome. He travelled frequently to Flanders, France and Italy, even after finding a permanent post in Munich working for Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in 1556. Leaving no European stone unturned in his travels, Lasso is the most famous composer in the Renaissance, the best-traveled musician of his time, as well as the most eclectic in genres, styles and languages.

Best known for his motets, Lasso’s ability to portray images and emotions through sound-image (to correlate the movement of the music with the text) was unrivaled. Two of Lasso’s pieces written for the Mass, as performed by The Hilliard Ensemble (Missa pro defunctis and Prophetiae Sibyllarum), demonstrate this beautifully.

Missa pro defunctis and Prophetiae Sibyllarum are both written for four voices and are settings of the mass. Interestingly, even though it was written for the Mass, Prophetaie Sibyllarum is inspired by the stories of the Greek prophetesses, or Sibyls. A Sibyl is, as described in the album’s booklet, a “mystical soothsayer whose origins are lost in the mists of antiquity.” This source of inspiration should not be surprising, when considering the many other pagan and Christian cultural crosses, and that Lasso certainly did not isolate himself in one society.

This feeling of being spoken to by a “mystical soothsayer” is apparent, as the phrases begin with one voice and are commonly either echoed or supported by the remaining voices. The Prophetiae Sibyllarum's opening has baffled music scholars for centuries now, using chromaticism frequently, especially in the first nine measures, which was never used before. Scholars argue about the exact structure of the tonality, or if there even is tonality within the beginning measures. Regardless, all the scholars can agree it is unlike anything before its time. The chromaticism and step-wise motion in the Prophetiae Sibyllarum give fluidity of the sound, resulting in the music having a calm, easing-into feeling, as if the music was water moving from a small brook into a larger, faster-moving stream. The metaphorical water babbles quietly and sweetly at first. As it moves through the Mass, it swirls and expands into a larger body of sound and emotion. The music is soothing, but not the type of soothing that lulls a child to sleep. It is the type of soothing that one would play during meditation, the type that puts you in a calm, clear mood.

After decades of turmoil over how much emphasis to put in the music in the church, I believe that Lasso found that balance. His attention toward text and his ability to portray it so meaningfully through music has had him recognized as the supreme composer of the Renaissance. Along with his influence over Europe, it is no small wonder he has become such a grand milestone in music history.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Les Escholiers de Paris response

Having listened to the album "Les Escholiers de Paris" now, I can agree with Julie that it is "an amazing CD of Medieval music". The reason she found that some of the songs ran together is because that was the intention of the performers. For example, track 5 (Puisque bele dame m'eime) and track 6 (Par un matinet) were put together because "the beginning of 5 also appears at the end of the upper voice of 6", as stated in the album's booklet. This album is well performed and well laid out, with fantastic variety. The collaboration of instruments, men and women's vocals, and even two languages (French and Latin), gave the album as a whole a wonderful mosaic of styles found in Medieval Paris.

It is a challenge to describe the music on this album with one word, as I could with Hildegard von Bingen's album. The album mostly consisted of motets and chansons, but outside this, there seems to be no central theme in style. The music can sound lilting and mysterious (Biaus m'est este quant retentit la bruille), or it can be lively and joyous (Estampie instrumentale). The music can feature an accompanied singer, an unaccompanied singer, have the singer turn take with the instruments on being the focus, or be instrumental. The instruments also varied in timbre, family, dynamics, etc. Instruments included were harp, gittern, rebec, violin, recorder, bagpipe, shawm, and percussion.

Julie's history given on the named composers gave good overall information about these composers. I, however, decided to read more about the location and circumstances that these Escholiers composed their music. What I found explains further what created such diversity in style, even within this one city. Music Scholars of Paris had many different audiences for which to write. From the church, to the public, to the courts of nobility, these trouveres were not lacking in venues.

Paris was, during this general time, celebrating the completion of world-famous monuments Notre Dame and the Saint-Chapelle, and celebrate they did! With music such as this supplied by these Scholars, who couldn't keep their foot from tapping? (Assuming that was practiced then as well as today...) Religious rites and processions became centralized around these new monuments.

In the courts, musical performers would often be hired to play for one family. This reason was twofold: Firstly, the court of said prince, baron, or other such nobility would commonly be hosting celebrations, and so the performers of that court would provide the musical entertainment. Secondly, nobility enjoyed music enough to hire on-call musicians to play whenever the family thought fit, which could range from dinner music to sheer boredom. Performers practiced daily after vespers to have their repertoire always prepared for such circumstances.

Julie expressed her preference for female vocals and French. I, for one, adore instrumental music, especially strings. Had Julie and I been residents of Medieval Paris and held these differences, I am sure then, by the sound of this album, there would be no need for rivalry. The Scholars of Paris were wise performers by not limiting their repertoire, and definitely historical figures that aspiring musicians even today can revere.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen, a nun of the Benedictine monastery and later prioress of her own convent at Rupertsberg, was a woman of power for her time. In a time when women were not allowed to even speak in church, she composed music for the church and was recognized by Pope Eugenius III as divinely inspired. But one does not have to be told that her music was inspired by God to recognize its distinct style.
Hildegard's music is drastically different from the standardized chant found in the church during her time. Hildegard's music, like the majority of music in the church during the medieval period, was music for voice only. Her antiphons (two choirs singing) and responses (one person sings, then the choir), explored on the album, Hildegard von Bingen: Canticles of Ecstasy included other instruments accompanying the singer/s; however, it seems that the performers recording her music, a group by the name of Sequentia, took artistic license, since the album booklet identified the composer of many of the accompaniments. This recording does a fair enough job supporting the music, but takes away some of the beauty and purity of the music from Hildegard in not letting it stand alone.

Another unusual aspect of her music is that all of it sung on the album features a woman singing it. Since Hildegard was a prioress of a convent, this stands to reason, but is nonetheless uncommon when comparing it to most music of the time. Usually sacred music was sung by men only in the church; only in convents where there were no men could women sing. Even in liturgical dramas that featured female characters, oftentimes only men performed in them.

It seems Hildegard did not mind challenging her singers as well. The nuns during that time were probably very used to the favored step-wise motion being used. But in Hildegard's music, the melody flows quickly through octaves and occasionally in leaps. Singers frequently use both their chest and head voice within only a few measures. But as much as a challenge it probably was, I am sure they saw merit in the work, for Hildegard's music was well-worth portraying for its fullness and vibrancy.

It is easiest to describe this music in terms of visuals, and if I were to associate a picture with the elaborate, flowing singing, I would chose the vibrant colors one might experience in a mystical realm, as if one had stepped through a stained glass. This is fitting, considering Hildegard claimed to have seen tongues of flames descending on her that summoned her to publicly proclaim her visions. She struggled with having these visions, having frequent relapses with her health and feelings of inferiority, being a woman in the Medieval era. Despite her challenges in both stabilizing her mental and physical health, she was a woman of strong faith and described herself well as “a feather on the breath of God.” I agree with this analogy, because from reading about her history, the image of a physically weak, small, demur woman comes to mind, as if she were as dainty and frail as a feather. But because of her faith, she has support and stature, as if being lifted high into the air by a divine being.

It is strange, because when given a brief description of Hildegard's history, the mental image of a strong, outspoken woman first comes to mind, when in fact she was often physically ill, and a woman who repressed her visions for as long as she felt she could. I listen to this music, and I attempt to put myself in the shoes of one of the congregants listening to a chant of hers for the first time. It is so much more musically interesting than anything heard in the Mass of that time. It is colorful, strong, has poetic lyrics (“The beautiful flourished in you/gave its aromatic fragrance/to all that was withered,” Quia Ergo Femina). Even a single voice, when given such leaps and bounds and continuous motion, the music can envelope the listener. I look about and see the stained glass representations of what the music is telling me. Then, I experience the slow awakening when the music stops, and the quiet shuffling of those around me brings me back to my universe, of being a peasant, noble, or even nun at the time. As a peasant, I stand outside the church and chatter about the revolutionary music heard inside. As a noble, I make a request to meet the composer of such a moving antiphon. As a nun, perhaps even a pupil of hers, I cannot imagine my humble little prioress having such passion in her composing.

These works are incredible when standing alone, and the woman behind the works is even more so. In a time when things seemed so simple and mundane, Hildegard brought music, leadership, and even aggravation to the liturgical world. Hildegard composed writings not only about music, but about health, and fought to found her convent in St. Rupertsburgs. She was not afraid to go against the church, if she believed herself to be in the right, as demonstrated by her burying the body of an excommunicated knight. This led to her placement under a Church interdict, which forbade her to perform any holy rituals or sacraments. Even this Hildegard fought, until the interdict was finally removed in March 1179. Hildegard von Bingen died that year at the phenomenal age of eighty, September 17.