Week 64 (Week of June 21, 2021):
I hope this finds everyone doing well and staying cool in yet another small heat wave.
Speaking of hot SUMMER weather, Happy 1st full day of Summer!
In light of the change of season, I thought this week that it would be a fun idea to highlight a well known song about summer.
Today, let’s learn some background together about the song “Summertime” by George and Ira Gershwin.
The song “Summertime” was composed by the Gershwin brothers – with George Gershwin as the composer and brother Ira sharing the lyricist credits with DuBose Heyward.
“Summertime” is an aria that was composed in 1934 for Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess; an opera that was adapted from DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel “Porgy.”
In 1926, as the story goes, George Gershwin read the novel by DuBose Heyward and knew immediately that he wanted to write an opera using its content.
While he immediately wrote to Heyward about the idea, the Gershwin brothers did not begin their collaborative work on the opera until 1933.
Porgy and Bess first premiered on September 30, 1935 in Boston before it soon moved to Broadway in NYC.
The opera tells the story of a disabled black street beggar named Porgy who is living in the slums of Charleston and attempting to rescue Bess from both her violent lover and her drug dealer.
George Gershwin at the time insisted that his first production feature an entirely black cast, a stance that essentially launched several brilliant operatic careers!
However, as so often tends to be the case, the opera did not see the success and accolades that it was due until after George Gershwin’s death in 1937.
The opening lullaby in the opera, “Summertime”, eventually became a hit- widely considered today to be “one of the most covered songs of all time”.
“Summertime” has become a popular ‘jazz standard’ song, with over 25,000 known recordings of the beloved song.
‘The Jazz Discography’ in 2005 ranked the song 4th (out of 1,161 selections) among jazz standards.
Fellow Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim has stated that the lyrics for “Summertime” are “the best lyrics in musical theater.”
To quote Sondheim speaking of the opening line in the song, he praises the song saying:
“That ‘and’ is worth a great deal of attention. I would write “Summertime when (the livin’ is easy”), but that “and” sets up a whole poetic tone….
It’s the exact right word, and that word is worth its weight in gold. “Summertime when the livin’ is easy..” is a boring line compared to “Summertime and..” “
Gershwin’s goal in composing the song was to create a song along the lines of a simple spiritual and folksong.
The song is used 4 times in the opera throughout- introduced first as a lullaby at the opening scene.
The song was first recorded by Abbie Mitchell, an American opera singer who performed the role of ‘Clara’ in the opera.
On this first recording it was also George Gershwin himself playing the piano to accompany Mitchell, as well as conducting the orchestra!
Here is the 1938 recording featuring Abbie Mitchell:
The song and the opera came at a time in American history when our country was just beginning to assert its own unique but serious art forms.
The opera was revolutionary for its day as it developed a unique new musical hybrid by blending together southern black culture, jazz, blues and African-American spirituals.
The song itself appeals to and draws the listener in by evoking those lazy hot sunny ‘summertime’ days with a yearning and often melancholy nature.
The song itself begins on a dark and tense minor chord- again evoking a bluesy, brooding mood from the very opening of the song.
At the lyrics “hush little baby” the music shifts to a C Major chord giving light to the rocking minor chords in the beginning of the piece.
Now that we have listened to the original first recording of this song, let’s highlight a handful of other notable covers of this summer song.
* In 1936, only a year after the opera’s premiere, 21 year old Billie Holiday recorded her own version of “Summertime”- hitting the US charts at #12.
Here is Billie Holiday’s recording: https://youtu.be/uYUqbnk7tCY
* In 1957 Mahaila Jackson, dubbed “the Queen of Gospel”, recorded a version of “Summertime”- one of the few times she recorded music that wasn’t religious in nature.
Here is a recording of Mahalia singing “Summertime” : https://youtu.be/5q4qwSzQXYo
* Also in 1957, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s cover of “Summertime” rocketed the song into the limelight, as the song was still fairly unknown by the general public.
This version in particular was said to have cemented the song as truly a jazz staple and a “globally recognizable hit.
It was 2 years after this recording that the opera was turned into a film, featuring Sidney Poitier and Dorthy Dandridge.
Here is Ella and Louis’ take on “Summertime” : https://youtu.be/MIDOEsQL7lA
* In 1968 Janis Joplin, with her naturally bluesy vocal style and raw emotional performance style, recorded “Summertime” on her album ‘Cheap Thrills’.
Here is a live performance of Joplin’s cover of “Summertime”: https://youtu.be/bn5TNqjuHiU
* And finally, one last notable cover- in 2005 American Idol contestant Fantasia Barrino performed “Summertime” on one of their live television episodes, earning her a Grammy nomination for “Best Traditional R&B Performance” with her unique vocals and take on this song.
Probably one of my own favorite covers of this song!
Here is Fantasia’s take on the classic song: https://youtu.be/-WWtGpEqpV4.
That’s all for today, friends. Happy “Summertime” days to you all.
I hope you enjoyed learning the background behind this classic ‘summer’ song, as well as hearing several different varied covers of this classic jazz standard.
Bonus Video: As always, here is your weekly virtual piano concert from the amazing Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro.
This week’s video is from his Saturday, May 22nd Facebook Live streamed online gig. Enjoy!
Week 63 (Week of June 14):
A very warm hello to you all!
I hope this finds everyone doing well and enjoying the warmer weather lately (when it’s not raining that is!)
This week let’s turn our attention to the German Classical composer and pianist, Robert Schumann.
For the past couple months, our SRC Piano Classes have been slowly walking through listening to the 13 movement larger piano work by Robert Schuman called “Kinderszenen”
(Scenes from Childhood).
Today, let’s look a bit more into the life of the composer himself- Robert Schumann.
Robert Schuman, born 1810 and died in the year 1856, was a German ‘Romantic Era’ (approx. 1800-1910) Classical composer who became known particularly for his piano music and his many Lieder (German art songs) for voice and piano.
While occasionally confused with Austrain composer Franz Schubert (there’s a funny 1956 German postage stamp confusion story there!), Robert Schumann is widely regarded as one of the greatest and top influential composers of the Romantic Era of Western Classical music.
Today, let’s take a broad strokes overview look at his life and legacy.
Schumann began to study music and compose around the age of 7, taking piano lessons with Johann Kuntzsch- a teacher at his high school.
While showing tremendous talent, insight and interest in music and piano especially, shortly after the death of his father in 1826 Schumann left high school reluctantly to study law at the University of Leipzig.
However, even during his time at Leipzig, his interest was not in law but in song composition, piano improvisation and his attempts to write a novel.
It was also around this time that Robert Schumann began to take piano lessons with Friedrick Wieck, a well known piano teacher in the area who would later go on to become his father-in-law (more on this in a minute!)
In 1829, he left Leipzig for Heidelberg and continued his law studies while also composing many piano waltzes and practicing the piano with tremendous effort in the hopes of perhaps becoming a virtuoso pianist.
Shortly after, around 1830, as the stories go, Schumann permanently injured a finger/area of his right hand and thus ended his dream of perhaps becoming a concert pianist!
After this devastating hand injury, Schumann fully abandoned the idea of a concert career and fully devoted himself to musical composition.
The period that followed his hand injury was a prolific time of composing for Schumann- producing such pieces as his piano cycles “Papillons” and “Carnival”.
It was also around this time (1834 approx), that Schumann began publishing his own writings in a journal for music called “Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik” (“New Journal for Music”) that was full of critical writings of composers from the past and promoting new upcoming contemporary composers of the time such as Chopin and Hector Berlioz.
Around this time (1834/1835), Robert Schumann began feeling a growing attraction towards the young 15 year old daughter of his former piano instructor, Clara Wieck.
Clara Wieck was an established concertising pianist herself and truly a musical prodigy in her own right.
While their feelings were mutual, Clara’s father, Schumann’s former teacher Friedrich Wieck, did not approve (to put it lightly) and forbade their further meetings and even correspondence.
During the 16 months that followed, Schumann composed his great “Fantasy for C Major”, continued editing his music journal, and continued other composition works.
After many requests to Clara’s father for permission to marry and even a court hearing with lengthy statements and petitions made by Clara’s father against their union, the couple finally married in 1840- the day before Clara’s 21st birthday.
(a long story made very short!)
Other Schumann works composed around this time include “Kinderszenen” (1838) and “Kreisleriana” (1838)
While Schumann primarily composed for solo piano, he also composed many German art songs for piano and voice (Lieder)- in the year 1840 as many as 138 songs were composed!
In 1841 he wrote 2 of his 4 orchestral symphonies and in 1842 he devoted much of the year to composing chamber music and Piano Quartets/Quintets.
His one and only opera, “Genoveva” premiered in the Spring of 1850.
His works composed in the early 1850s represented a wide variety of genres, but critics noted that the quality of his work around that time began to show signs of his impending mental health deterioration.
Schumann began his struggles with his mental health perhaps in the 1830s, when he is said to have ‘contemplated suicide’ on at least 3 seperate occasions.
The 1840s saw Schumann suffering periodic seasons of severe depression and extreme exhaustion.
By the early 1850s, Schumann’s general mental health was so deteriorating that he was experiencing bouts of depression and mania as well as developing auditory hallucinations and delusions.
In early February of 1854, he warned his wife Clara that he feared he may try to harm her.
On February 27th, he attempted suicide by jumping from a bridge of the Rhine river, but was rescued by a group of fishermen in boats.
He then asked to be taken to an asylum. He was taken to a sanatorium in Endenich and remained there until his death in July of 1856 at the age of 46 from pneumonia.
Together, Robert and Clara had eight children.
While much more could be said regarding Schumann’s mental health deterioration, his wife Clara’s background and her own skills as an amazing pianist, and Schumann’s legacy of works, I hope you learned an overview of the life of this notable composer.
Let me leave you with a couple worthwhile youtube videos to watch related to Robert Schumann.
- A brief biography on the life of Robert Schumann: https://youtu.be/S_4eve-9lKY
- One of his most notable works for piano, Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17- https://youtu.be/XZ7hE4lQAYs
Stay tuned, as in the near future we will also take a closer look at his piano work “Kinderszenen” (Scenes from Childhood) as well as perhaps even focus on the life of Clara Wieck-Schumann!
As always, here is your weekly virtual piano concert from the amazingly talented Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro.
Today’s video is from his Saturday, May 15th Facebook live streamed online ‘gig’.
Week 62 (Week of June 7, 2021):
A warm greeting to all SRC participants & friends! Hope this finds everyone doing well and having had a relaxing Memorial Day weekend!
This week we are going to take a look at a cultural instrument- a Slavic instrument (central/eastern Europe) perhaps more closely associated with Russian folk music- the Balalaika.
Piano Class students will recognize this word “balalaika” from one of our recent new piano songs, “Tum Balalaika”.
Along with being just plain fun to say, this instrument is characterized by it’s triangular shaped body.
A Russian folk stringed instrument with a triangular wooden hollow body and a fretted neck, the balalaika uses only 3 strings- 2 of which are tuned to the exact same pitch.
The third string is tuned to the interval of a 4th higher.
The most common tuning is E4, E4 (the e above middle C), A4.
Balalaikas come in many sizes- and in general the larger the instrument the lower the tuning.
There are six main sizes of a balalaika.
For example, the Contrabass balalaika is the lowest pitched of the balalaika family and is so large that it is placed on the floor and has a retractable peg just like the stand up bass.
The higher pitched balalaikas (the descant, piccolo and prima balalaikas) are used to play the melodies and chords.
There do exist balalaika orchestras – ensembles made up of different sized (and therefore different pitched) balalaikas that play music specifically arranged for various balalaikas.
Because the sustain or carried sound created by the balalaika is short and does not ring out for a long time, playing the balalaika necessitates fast strumming or plucking.
This rapid strumming is also closely associated with the instrument itself.
Another important part of balalaika playing technique is the use of the left thumb on the neck of the instrument to fret lower notes on the lowest pitched string.
The earliest mention of the term ‘balalaika’ dates back to a 1688 Russian document.
Interestingly enough, this 1688 document was a guard’s logbook from the Moscow Kremlin referencing that 2 drunk townsmen were stopped from playing the balalaika!
Further documents from the early 18th Century also mention the balalaika.
It is generally thought that the creation and evolution of the balalaika as an instrument was produced as a result of increased interaction with Asian-Oriental cultures.
Some think that the balalaika possibly descended from the ‘dombra’ – a round bodied 3 stringed long necked lute from the East Slavs.
In the 1880s, a professional violinist from St. Petersburg named Vasily Vasilievich Andreyev modernized and developed the instrument into what we know today.
It only took a few years later before the instrument was being made in different sizes, creating an entire family or orchestra of balalaikas.
Not only did Andreyev patent his design of balalaikas, but he also went on to arrange numerous Russian folksongs for the orchestra as well as composing an entire body of concert pieces for the instrument!
In today’s popular culture- the balalaika has been used prominently in film scores such as the 1965 film “Dr. Zhivago” and the 2014 film “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
In 1931, the instrument made a brief appearance in Charlie Chaplin’s film “City Lights” and The Beatles even referenced the instrument in their song “Back in the USSR.”
Let’s take a look and listen to the instrument itself.
Here is a great little introductory video on the balalaika: https://youtu.be/U8m_XMYQVWg. (stay tuned at the end for a short performance clip!)
Another short introductory video on the balalaika: https://youtu.be/BuEb8JBTlfc
And for your listening pleasure, here are a couple of performance videos that feature the balalaika.
* A Russian balalaika orchestra featuring a 7 year old balalaika soloist ! https://youtu.be/UAfuMol1e-0
* A traditional balalaika ensemble: https://youtu.be/0lN-iL3hz4g
* The songs “Tum Balalaika”/”Hava Nagila” performed by a “Russian Carnival” ensemble- that features the large Contrabass balalaika! https://youtu.be/V0rueHU1v7E
BONUS VIDEO: As always, here is your weekly virtual piano concert from the ever-inspiring Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro.
Today’s video is from his Saturday, Facebook live streamed gig from May 8th, 2021.
Week 61 (Week of May 24):
Hello all! It’s my hope that this finds everyone doing well!
This week, let’s take a look at an instrument that is closely associated with our upcoming National holiday, Memorial Day.
Let’s learn about this instrument a bit more together and look at just why we associate the bugle especially with Memorial Day!
A bugle may, at first glance, appear to be the same as a trumpet.
However, one very important detail distinguishes the trumpet from the bugle- valves!
A bugle is the most basic and simple brass instrument – there are no valves (pitch changing buttons) on a bugle!
The bugle player is able to change notes/pitches on the instrument simply by changing the shape of their lips/mouth/facial muscles.
The term for this, in the world of brass and woodwind instruments, is the word ’embouchure’.
Embouchure is defined as “the use of the lips, facial muscles, tongue and teeth that includes the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece.”
Since bugle players have no valves to press to change notes (as on a trumpet) AND all of this (pitch changing) must be done simply by the shape of their ’embouchure’, the bugle player is then considerably limited as to what notes their instrument is ABLE to play.
This is why standard bugle calls primarily consist of only 5 notes!
Here is a good video to demonstrate some basic “how-to’s” on the bugle: https://youtu.be/G29e5yb_UZ8
The bugle is primarily used in the military and Boy Scouts.
For Boy Scouts the bugle is used to tell the daily routines of camp life.
Historically speaking, the bugle has been used in the cavalry to pass on instructions from officers to the soldiers in the thick of the battle.
The bugle has also been used as a sign of peace in cases of surrender in battle.
There are several standard bugle calls in the military (roughly 30 standard), that serve to announce scheduled events or activities in the routine of military life.
Here is a good video that plays and talks through a handful of these bugle calls: https://youtu.be/42QGf3W2BZw
While we could look at some of these bugle calls (for example, “Reveille ” as the morning roll call), today let’s primarily look at only one famous bugle call.
As many of us, I’m sure, know and have heard before, the bugle call of ‘Taps’ is the bugle call that represents and signifies the end of a military day’s activities.
“Taps” is the bugle call played at 2100 hours during flag ceremonies or at military funerals by the United States Armed Forces.
The tune itself is a slight variation on another earlier bugle tune, “Scott Tattoo”.
“Taps” was officially recognized by the US Army in 1874.
“Taps” became a standard part of a US military funeral in the year 1891.
The melody for “Taps” is made up entirely of the notes of a C chord- C E G.
This is because the bugle can only play middle C, G above middle C, Treble C (the c above Middle C) and the E and G above Treble C- again, 5 notes!
While the entire “Taps” melody consists only of a brief 24 notes, (again only 5 DIFFERENT pitches!), these 24 peaceful yet mournful notes commemorate the members of all 5 branches of the United States Armed Forces: the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Air Force and the Coast Guard.
On Memorial Day, particularly at 3pm, this simple yet profound tune rings out in commemorative ceremonies across our Nation.
This final, “day is done” bugle call is a sign of respect and a tribute to those fallen members – both known and unknown.
Let’s listen to a version here : https://youtu.be/i_HjrNoS78o
Here is also a moving news clip from Memorial Day 2020 that centers around the bugle and “Taps”: https://youtu.be/GZId_3WJQVw
I hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about the bugle and the bugle call, “Taps”.
Let’s remember those fallen in the service this Memorial Day; those who gave their lives for our country throughout the decades.
BONUS VIDEO: As per usual, here is your weekly virtual piano concert from the amazing Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro.
Today’s video is from his Saturday, May 1st Facebook live streamed online gig.
Week 60 (Week of May 17):
A very warm greeting to all SRC participants and friends! I hope this finds everyone doing well!
Today we are going in a bit of a different direction and I would like us to take a brief, ‘overview’ look at a field of study that can be a bit tricky to wrap your brain around!
While you may have heard of the word ‘Musicology’, it is quite possible that the meaning behind the word remains a bit fuzzy.
Today, let’s unpack the term a bit and briefly explain what a musicologist could study and focus on.
Oh and no, I’m not talking about the song/album by Prince! ;).
Musicology is defined as “the scholarly analysis and research-based study of music”.
Quite literally, ‘the study of music.’ Very broad and vague, right?
Another definition goes a bit further and explains that “Musiciology is the study of music encompassing all aspects of music in all cultures and all historical periods..”
The field of Musicology is often so broad and interwoven that it can be tricky to define without greatly restricting it.
Typically a collegiate level musicology department would belong to the humanities.
Traditionally the broad area of musicology can be divided up into 3 branches: Historical Musicology, Systematic Musicology and Ethnomusicology.
Let’s take a brief look at each and watch a couple Youtube videos that better describe Musicology.
Historical Musicologists primarily study the history of Western classical music- whether it be specific composer’s life and works or studying particular genres or eras of Music History.
These individuals, Music Historians, could study the minutiae of manuscripts, study past music critics, and dig into historical records to dive deeper into a particular composer, for example.
Historical Musicologists write journal articles on their findings, books, new editions of famous works, or write biographies or books on any given subject in Music History.
Someone who studies in the branch of Systematic Musicology would study music with respect to its structure, how it is perceived, how it functions as art and with respect to the means of performance (study of musical instruments, acoustics, etc).
These individuals could study Music Theory, Music Pedagogy (the teaching of music), the science of musical instruments, or the philosophy or psychology of music and music aesthetics.
A music theorist studies the elements of music and the application of different methods for composing and developing music and analyzes music notation.
A musicologist more focused on the field of Music psychology applies psychology to understand how music is perceived and responded to.
Music therapy is more of a specialized form of musicology and is often more closely associated with health fields.
An Ethnomusicologist draws from anthropology (i.e. field research) to understand how and why certain people groups and cultures make music.
Ethnomusicology studies music within its cultural context and is most often concerned with the study of non-Western music.
The majority of ethnomusicologists are involved in long-term participant observation and recording of their research.
Folklorists who began preserving folk music in Europe and the US around the 19th centuries are considered precursors of this field of study.
Many universities and programs around the world act as centers for ethnomusicology research and classes.
A brief explanation of ethnomusicology: https://youtu.be/gn74wzJk2Qk
Musicology as a field is very heavily research-oriented and most musicologists work as lecturers, instructors or professors in colleges or universities.
Here is a clip from a Musicologist, trying to broadly explain his field for us:
Musicology 101: https://youtu.be/QYiBqXTPLAA
Here is another more specific clip from the same Musicologist trying to summarize concepts studied in Ethnomusicology (and Music Philosophy…)
Here is our brief subject: Is Music a Universal Language? (His answer: No).
Let’s take a listen to practice together “thinking about music in a critical way.” (his personal definition of musicology).
Get ready for some deep thinking here….
I hope you’ve found our brief dip into the field of musicology and have found the 2 above videos interesting and a good start at thinking critically about music.
BONUS VIDEO: As always, here is your weekly piano concert from the inspiring Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro.
This week’s video is from his Saturday, April 24th Facebook live streamed online gig. Enjoy!
Beer-Making Workshop Catherine Segal, Senior Resource Center Board Member and beer aficionado, led us in a beer-making workshop last month! The class started with mashing, separating, boiling, stirring, and fermenting. Everyone was very busy planning the different...
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