Week 44 (Week of January 25th):
A very warm hello to you all! Hope this finds you all doing well!
I’d like for us to continue highlighting famous Classical works this week by turning our attention to a beautiful orchestral work from a 20th-century American composer, Samuel Barber.
Let’s take a listen to what is arguably his best-known work, Adagio for Strings.
Adagio for Strings was composed in 1936 and was taken directly from the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet, Opus 11 (also composed that same year) and arranged for String Orchestra. The work was first performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra on November 5, 1938, in a recorded radio broadcast and was conducted by the Italian musical director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini. It received primarily glowingly positive reviews at the time of its premiere, with reviewers noting the great emotion and ‘pathos’ of the work.
One reviewer, Alexander J Morin, wrote that Adagio for Strings “rarely leaves a dry eye.”
Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber takes approximately eight or nine minutes to perform and is composed largely in the Key of Bb minor.
The term ‘Adagio’ in the title refers to the tempo marking (or rate of speed) at which the piece should be performed, in this case, ‘slowly and with great expression.’
Sidenote: Piano Class members may remember my mentioning this work last week during our tempo vocab flashcards review and discussion.
The work begins with a soft b flat note that is played and held by the first violins, as the lower strings enter after two beats. The melody of this breathtaking work creates a sense of tension and suspense by its stepwise slowly ascending and descending melodic line. The melody from this work also creates a strong emotional pull and often evokes a sense of sadness and longing in the listener. This work is so noted for evoking pain or sorrow that Adagio for Strings has been used in many famous funerals and memorial events.
This work was broadcast over the radio at the announcement of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death and was played at the funeral of both Albert Einstein and the Princess Grace of Monaco.
Adagio for Strings was also a favorite work of John F. Kennedy and was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra in a national radio broadcast following JFK’s funeral service. Jackie Kennedy herself arranged the concert for the Monday after his death and it was played to an empty concert hall during the national radio broadcast.
This work is so well known for its emotional pathos that in 2004, a BBC radio show voted it the “saddest classical work ever.” It has also been featured in many TV shows and included in many movie soundtracks. Adagio for Strings has been featured in movies such as “The Elephant Man”, “Platoon”, “Lorenzo’s Oil” and “Amélie” and included in TV episodes of shows such as ER and Seinfeld.
Let’s take a listen to this work and explore together this piece which certainly rises to the top of my own list of favorite Classical works!
Let’s experience this work by listening to three different videos that feature this work. Enjoy!
- A performance of Adagio for Strings by the Vienna Philharmonic during their Summer Night Concert Series of 2019: https://youtu.be/WAoLJ8GbA4Y
- A virtual performance from the recent “Covid Cello Project”, recorded by and featuring 278 cellists from 29 countries- arrangement for Cellos only. : https://youtu.be/0ly61HpQ3mU
- I’d also love to include this clip from the dance competition TV show So You Think You Can Dance from 2012.
This short performance featuring Adagio for Strings interprets the work through the language of dance masterfully with choreography from Emmy Award-winning choreographer Mia Michaels: https://youtu.be/xUgRyVw9gck
Bonus Video: As always, here is your weekly virtual piano concert from the great Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro.
Today’s video is from his Saturday January 2nd Facebook livestreamed gig. Enjoy! https://youtu.be/uR28U2uWwrY
Week 43 (Week of January 18th):
Greetings friends! I hope this finds everyone doing well and staying positive and healthy in this challenging season we are in.
This week, let’s continue to dip into our Music History studies by turning the spotlight to composer Erik Satie.
Erik Satie, born 1866-died 1925, was an eccentric French pianist and composer with an unconventional style who had a major influence on 20th-Century music.
His work is often considered to be a precursor to the ‘minimalism’ and ‘repetitive music’ movements of musical composition.
In 1879 Satie entered the Paris Conservatoire for music where he was labeled as ‘insignificant’ and ‘the laziest student in the Conservatoire.’ He left the Conservatoire after a little over two years of study and eventually found work as a cafe pianist. When Satie was 21 he moved to Montmortre where he began publishing some of his works. It was also around this time he was said to have befriended fellow French composer Claude Debussy. From 1898 on, he lived alone in the Paris suburb of Arcueil, composing and permitting absolutely no one to entire his small apartment.
Satie’s music represented a break from the 19th-Century Romanticism of the day. He died at the age of 59 from cirrhosis of the liver, after years of heavy drinking.
After his death, when Satie’s friends finally entered his apartment in Arcueil, they found it full of squalor and chaos. They found miscellaneous unsorted items and clutter, a notably large collection of umbrellas, and two grand pianos placed on top of each other with the upper piano being used as storage!
Today, let’s look closely at one of his more ‘well-known’ works- ‘Gymnopédie No. 1’.
The first of a set of three solo piano works, “Gymnopédies”, it was composed in 1888 and published in the same year as an individual work.
The unusual title comes from the French form of ‘gymnopaedia’, “the ancient Greek word for an annual festival where young men danced naked- or perhaps simply ‘unarmed’.”
The source and inspiration for such a title have long been a subject for debate.
The first Gymnopédie is stunningly beautiful in its simplicity and expressive, melancholy melody line. The work is in 3/4 time and is marked as “Lent et douloureux”- meaning ‘slow and painful/painfully’. The work is in the key of D Major/d minor, with the opening and closing theme in the Major Key and a middle development section in the parallel minor key.
In 1897 his Satie’s friend and fellow composer Claude Debussy helped draw public attention to the works of his friend by orchestrating arrangements of his “Gymnopédie No 1” and “Gymnopédie No. 3”.
Let’s take a listen together! Here is an excellent performance of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” by pianist Khatia Buniatishvili: https://youtu.be/TL0xzp4zzBE
For more of a study into this work, here is a link to a short podcast episode about the work that was just published this past March by a pianist named Jeeyoon Kim on her podcast channel
‘Journey through Classical Piano’.
As always, here is your weekly virtual piano ‘gig’ from the phenomenal Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro.
This week’s video is from his Facebook livestream concert from December 26.
Week 42 (Week of January 11th):
A very big hello and warm greeting to all SRC participants and friends! I hope this finds everyone doing well and staying happy & healthy at this time.
This week I’d like to take a look at a famous, talented pianist of the 20th Century, one who is perhaps best known as a genius musical comedian.
The great Victor Borge!
Victor, who lived from 1909 until 2000, was a Danish-American comedian, conductor, and pianist. Victor Borge was born ‘Børge Rosenbaum’ in Copenhagen, Denmark into an Ashkenazi Jewish family to parents who were both musicians themselves: father a violist with the Royal Danish Orchester and mother a pianist. It became evident from an early age that Børge was a child prodigy. Børge began piano lessons at the age of two and by the age of eight, he was giving his first recital. After studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Børge took up the life of a classical concert pianist for a few years, married, and slowly began blending musical comedy and jokes into his concerts.
Børge was playing a concert in Sweden when German armed forces occupied Denmark on April 9, 1940, and managed to escape to Finland. He then traveled to America on the last neutral ship out of Petsamo, Finland. Once in America, despite having only $20 to his name and not knowing a word of English, Børge quickly adapted his jokes to the American audience and learned English through watching movies of the day. Børge took the name ‘Victor Borge’ and after a stint on Rudy Vallee’s radio show, was hired by Bing Crosby for his ‘Kraft Music Hall’ program.
Børge’s rise to fame was a quick one. He won Best New Radio Performer of the Year in 1942 and was soon offered his own show on NBC, “The Victor Borge Show.”
Borge is known for his mix of incorporating both Classical Music performances and humor, as well as the popular music of the day. His ‘trademarks’ in his routines include often repeatedly announcing his intention to play a piece but then getting “distracted”, his brilliant spontaneous interactions with his audience, as well as his more ‘physical comedy’ aspects that are built into his routines. (pretending to trip or slip off of the piano bench, facial expressions). Two of his more famous ‘nonmusical’ routines include “Phonetic Punctuation” and “Inflationary Language.”
Following the success of his tours and his shows, Borge became a naturalized citizen of the United States in the year 1948. He often played with and conducted orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony Orchester, the New York Philharmonic, and the London Philharmonic. He also has made appearances on several Children’s television shows of the day such as The Electric Company, Sesame Street, and The Muppet Show. Børge, throughout his two marriages, had five children (one adopted) who also occasionally performed with him in his acts.
Børge also wrote three books and founded the American Pianists Association in 1979.
Those familiar with Victor Borge’s many shows and acts, know just what a delight his comedy can be!
In fact, just watching his routines and shows can serve to teach Music History and famous classical piano works in a way that keeps you laughing and wanting more!
Let’s take a listen to this musical comedian together. Below you can find 4 clips that will give you a well-rounded idea about both his comedy acts and his skill as a Classical pianist.
- His famous ‘Phonetic Punctuation’ sketch: https://youtu.be/eixevXANKAo
- Hisfamous Hungarian Rhapsody performance with pianist Sahan Arzruni. https://youtu.be/BcV19rylSZc
- One of my favorite sketches- on Modern day ‘composing’. https://youtu.be/RMMoB7hbL1U
- Performance of Clair de Lune- no comedy- showcases his talents as a classical pianist – https://youtu.be/1mPJ3hm6M5I
BONUS VIDEO: As always, here is your weekly virtual piano ‘gig’, from the amazing Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro.
This week’s video is from his Facebook live concert from Saturday, December 19th. Enjoy! https://youtu.be/5wnCnv6zUFE
Week 41 (Week of January 4th):
A warm hello to all SRC participants and friends. I hope this finds everyone doing well and having had a restful and enjoyable last couple of weeks of 2020.
This week, let’s explore some Music History as we learn about an individual who rarely gets mentioned in Music History textbooks, but probably should receive much more acclaim and credit than she does- Anna Maria “Nannerl” Mozart. Anna Maria was the older sister of the famous Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, about five years his elder, having lived from 1751-1829. Anna Maria was also an extremely talented musician in her own right and later would go on to teach music lessons in her adult years.
Just as he would later instruct her younger brother, her father Leopold began teaching her the harpsichord at age seven. In fact, during these lessons and instructions, it was said that it would be commonplace to see her younger brother Wolfgang, sitting right next to his older sister, sharing the bench and carefully watching and observing. She toured and concertized right alongside her younger brother in their youth- BOTH of their talents being showcased. In fact, in their early days of touring, it was often Anna Maria who received the most acclaim and “top billing” for her musicianship and skill over the very young Wolfgang. However, at around age 18, given her parents’ views and the societal pressure of the time, she ceased traveling and touring along with her father and younger brother as she had then reached ‘marriageable age’. When her younger brother Wolfgang was reaching his prime and receiving a high degree of acclaim and praise in their musical touring around Italy in the 1770s, Anna Maria by that time was home in Salzburg with their mother.
The relationship between brother Wolfgang and his older sister ‘Nannerl’ was always a close one- in particular during their childhood. Diaries and letters show their correspondence as warm and affectionate, full of teasing and inside jokes. So close was their relationship as children that they even made up their own imaginary kingdom, of which they were King and Queen, complete with a secret language. There is evidence that Anna Maria was also a composer, Wolfgang in letters would occasionally praise her works, but unfortunately, none of her works have survived. Wolfgang composed a handful of works for his older sister to perform, including the Prelude and Fugue in C, K. 394, and throughout the years would send her copies of his Piano Concertos.
Unlike her younger brother, who died at the age of 35, Anna Maria Mozart lived a long life and passed at the age of 78. She eventually married a magistrate and together they had three children, alongside the five children from her husband’s previous two marriages (twice a widower). While she is typically just a footnote in the study of her famous younger brother, who can say what a profound influence Anna Maria ‘Nannerl’ Mozart really had on her younger brother? As well as what her own compositions may have been, as she most likely did indeed do some composing! (though of course not as prolific as her younger brother!).
This week, I would love to share with you the inspiration for this week’s content- a fairly recent podcast episode from one of my favorite podcast channels- “Stuff You Missed in History Class” hosted by Holly Frey and Tracy V. Wilson. Their episode on Anna Maria Mozart recently was very educational and entertaining! If you have some time this week and are interested in learning more about the life of Anna Maria Mozart, take a listen to their approximately half-hour podcast episode about her life. To perk your interest, I purposely left out of the above summary a very intriguing story involving Anna Maria and her first child, son Leopold!
Click here for the podcast, then on the webpage click the play button found directly below the purple logo box to listen – https://www.iheart.com/podcast/stuff-you-missed-in-history-cl-21124503/episode/maria-anna-mozart-73669777/
BONUS VIDEO: As always, here is your weekly virtual piano ‘gig’, from the amazing Centurian, Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro. This week’s video is from his Facebook live concert on Saturday, December 12th. Enjoy!
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