Some are helpfully straightforward, some are quite complex yet followable and others are more abstract and hypnotic, but I especially love this one, via Jeremy. As he says, “Have a look, but be warned once you’ve started you’ll be there to the end!”
Whether alphabetized or not, when it comes to classical music composers, Bach’s at the top of the list. It’s hard to overstate his influence and legacy. But, as this excerpt from Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History shows, he was no saint.
J.S. Bach the rebel
I’ve talked to people who feel they know Bach very well, but they aren’t aware of the time he was imprisoned for a month. They never learned about Bach pulling a knife on a fellow musician during a street fight. They never heard about his drinking exploits—on one two-week trip he billed the church eighteen groschen for beer, enough to purchase eight gallons of it at retail prices—or that his contract with the Duke of Saxony included a provision for tax-free beer from the castle brewery; or that he was accused of consorting with an unknown, unmarried woman in the organ loft; or had a reputation for ignoring assigned duties without explanation or apology. They don’t know about Bach’s sex life: at best a matter of speculation, but what should we conclude from his twenty known children, more than any significant composer in history (a procreative career that has led some to joke with a knowing wink that “Bach’s organ had no stops”), or his second marriage to twenty-year-old singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke, when he was in his late thirties?
Seeing orchestral music played live is a marvellous thing. Years ago I wrote about how uplifting watching an orchestra can be, as opposed to just listening to a recording.
If only the same could be said for being in an orchestra. Here’s an impassioned account from Kate Wagner of the heartache and struggle you face when you come up against the “myth of meritocracy”.
Strike with the band
Classical music is cruel not because there are winners and losers, first chairs and second chairs, but because it lies about the fact that these winners and losers are chosen long before the first moment a young child picks up an instrument. It doesn’t matter if you study composition, devote years to an instrument, or simply have the desire to teach—either at the university level or in the public school system. If you come from a less-than-wealthy family, or from a place other than the wealthiest cities, the odds are stacked against you no matter how much you sacrifice, how hard you work, or, yes, how talented you are.
A couple of fun musical performances that caught my eye recently.
World piano playing record broken by 88 schoolchildren
The team created an enormous, multi-stringed instrument which allowed 88 children, aged six to 14 years old, to play at the same time. The record previously stood at 21 pianists.
The project began in 2018 when engineers from University of Cambridge decided to try and break that record, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo Da Vinci.
So much invention within each individual key. Here’s the fuller video.
And from the very large to the very small.
One of the world’s greatest pianists came to Classic FM, so we made him play our silly, pink toy piano
He’s one of the world’s finest keyboard virtuosos – and he composes, paints, writes and is brilliant on Twitter – a true Renaissance man. But can Stephen Hough master our pink piano? We wanted to find out.
I mentioned earlier how metal has the power to make us happy. Whilst I enjoyed riffing down memory lane, the music that lifts my spirits now is more orchestral.
Here, composer David Bruce introduces us to minimalism and the work of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and, in particular, John Adams. I remember being completely blown away when I first heard this type of music, on a CD just called Minimalist, and it’s great to understand a little more about some of the orchestral decisions that goes into such work.
How John Adams writes for orchestra (The Chairman Dances & influence of minimalism)
The early minimalists choice of instruments and ways of composing influenced a whole generation of composers, myself included. In this video I look at how the style they developed went on to influence later orchestral compositions, in particular looking at the orchestral technique in John Adam’s piece ‘The Chairman Dances’.
And here’s that performance in full.
Now for something completely different. I’ve been vaguely aware of the name Victor Borge for a while, but never really knew anything about him or his stage routines. Consider this one of the YouTube recommendation algorithm’s big successes.
Les Dawson, anyone?
I can’t think of many things more enjoyable than listening to music. Starting with the radio alarm clock in the morning, mp3s on the bus, Spotify in the office, to relaxing with the radio again on an evening, I try to have music around me all day. Why (apart from distracting me from my tinnitus)? Because it’s pleasurable, of course. But why is it pleasurable? Er, good question.
It’s hard to know why music gives pleasure: is that the point?
We know music is pleasurable, the question is why? Many answers have been proposed: perhaps none are quite right.
The thought of being without music or amongst music makers is horrible — “Between 2007 and 2017, funding for arts programs in Philadelphia public schools was cut from $1.3 million to $50,000 annually.” So begins this short, quirky documentary from Topic.
The format of the film could be seen as gimmicky, but I think its setting and style are really appropriate. And quite moving in parts.
How Philadelphia fixed its ‘Broken Orchestra’
When the Philadelphia public-school system began losing almost all the funding for its music-education programs in 2007, thousands of instruments in need of repair were forced into retirement, and community members moved to action. In this triumphant new documentary by Charlie Tyrell, we are introduced to a few of the innovators, educators, volunteers, advocates, and musicians behind Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, a music and art project begun in 2017 that raised awareness for the issue, helping to get those broken instruments back into Philadelphia students’ hands.
From Philadelphia’s Broken Orchestra to Manchester’s Kaleidoscope Orchestra, and their re-imagining of The Prodigy’s music. We’ve seen this kind of thing before — Nick Proch’s orchestral arrangement of Rage Against the Machine, for example, and of course 2Cellos and Thunderstruck — but there is surprising delicacy and emotion here.
A gorgeous orchestral tribute to the late Keith Flint of The Prodigy
In April we recorded this tribute to Keith Flint. We were shocked and saddened to hear of his passing and wanted to pay our respects through an orchestral medley featuring music by The Prodigy. We’re continually trying to help raise awareness for the mental health of musicians as it affects so many of us.
More on music and loss.
Italy violin-makers rush to save damaged wood
An unprecedented wave of storms has knocked trees down in Italy’s forests and artisans are racing to salvage the valuable wood before it rots. More than 2,500,000 red spruce trees were felled in violent storms. Red spruce is a wood prized by violin-makers – and they are concerned that supplies of it are running out, which makes destructive weather like this even more devastating.
An emotional reunion between cello and cellist
The accident led to the discovery of other, more insidious problems: Matteo’s three-hundred-year-old insides were collapsing. The top was losing its arch; the cracks were widening. “A domino effect,” Haimovitz said. He visited every two months. Once, he arrived to find cello parts scattered around the room, attended to by different experts, like an intensive-care unit. “For thirty years, it goes everywhere with me, and then, so suddenly, not to have it around? And then to see it—” He broke off, full of emotion.
It’s pretty scary reading about how talented Hilary Hahn is, how much she achieved at such a young age. But, as this interview with Guernica shows, it’s all about the music, and Bach in particular.
Hilary Hahn: Entering the sublime
When I play the solo repertoire, the way Bach writes is pretty progressive. I believe he would be considered somewhat experimental even by today’s standards. He was a tonal composer as opposed to atonal or twelve-tone and he used acoustic instruments because he had nothing else; but when I listen to the progressive aspect of his music, I feel like he’s a master of disguise. You are going with him in one direction—you get there, but you realize you are not where you thought you were. You look around and notice a door, but when you get to the door, it’s a wall. You look around and notice that the floor you’re standing on is a trap door. You go down the trap door to what you think is the basement, but it’s the attic. Bach feels a lot like that—a really interesting fun house. The dimensions are different from a distance than when you get up close.
Otherworldly talent. But as this video shows, she is human.
The Classic FM Hall of Fame 2019 was unveiled over the weekend, and Ralph Yawn Williams’s The Lark Ascending is in the top spot yet again. But don’t worry if, like me, you’re not a fan — here’s a much improved version.
The Star Wars theme combined with the Lark Ascending is unashamedly populist
Nobody saw this coming: Star Wars has never been so pastoral in this arrangement for keyboard.
I love this Google Doodle, though even Bach can’t rescue my appalling lack of musical ability!
Google’s first AI-powered Doodle is a piano duet with Bach
Starting on March 21st, you’ll be able to play with the interactive Doodle, which will prompt you to compose a two-measure melody or pick one of the pre-existing choices. When you press the “Harmonize” button, it will use machine learning to give you a version of your melody that sounds like it was composed by Bach himself.
Various Google teams were involved in this project, including Google Magenta. There is an incredible amount of detail about the technologies behind the Bach harmonies on their own site.
Coconet: the ML model behind today’s Bach Doodle
Coconet is trained to restore Bach’s music from fragments: we take a piece from Bach, randomly erase some notes, and ask the model to guess the missing notes from context. The result is a versatile model of counterpoint that accepts arbitrarily incomplete scores as input and works out complete scores. This setup covers a wide range of musical tasks, such as harmonizing melodies, creating smooth transitions, rewriting and elaborating existing music, and composing from scratch.
I cannot begin to understand what’s going on there, but it sounds good.
Yo-Yo Ma’s touring again, but his Bach Project isn’t just a series of concerts.
Yo-Yo Ma — The Bach Project
It is a journey motivated not only by his six decade relationship with the music, but also by Bach’s ability to speak to our common humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division. […] Alongside each concert is a day of action, a series of conversations and collaborations that explore how culture can help us imagine and build a better future.
As well as the concerts, he’s been meeting with students, community groups and artists to share the idea that culture connects us and is needed now more than ever.
Yo-Yo Ma’s days of action
Ma said that he had come to Anacostia because of the community’s efforts to strengthen itself through culture. “You give of yourselves from substance,” he said. “It’s not money, it’s not just work, it’s that you give of yourselves, and, when you do that, that’s when beauty emerges.” He then played the Prelude of Bach’s G-major Suite. Kymone Freeman, the station’s co-founder, approved. “This is the type of culture that should be exposed to our children,” Freeman told his listeners. “The first thing that gets cut is art. The last thing that gets funded is art.” […]
At the Bowl, Ma said little, disappearing into the music. For the cathedral concert, which was presented by Washington Performing Arts, he was in a more boisterous mood. He wore a colorful scarf around his neck, and explained that he had found it at an Anacostia boutique called Nubian Hueman. “I’m doing all of my holiday shopping there,” he said. At the halfway point—there was no intermission—he motioned for the audience to stand, which was taken as a signal for an ovation. But Ma wasn’t seeking adulation: he wanted everyone to stretch. He proceeded to do a few jumping jacks while holding his multimillion-dollar cello in one hand.
Here he is explaining the reasons behind the new album and tour.
But I couldn’t resist also adding this video here, too. It’s quite remarkable, not just to Yo-Yo’s playing at such an early age, but for Bernstein’s wonderful introduction.
Leonard Bernstein presents 7-year-old Yo-Yo Ma’s high-profile debut for President John F. Kennedy
The New York Times reported that on November 29, 1962, a benefit concert called “The American Pageant of the Arts” was to be held with “a cast of 100, including President and Mrs. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Leonard Bernstein (as master of ceremonies), Pablo Casals, Marian Anderson, Van Cliburn, Robert Frost, Fredric March, Benny Goodman, Bob Newhart and a 7-year-old Chinese cellist called Yo-yo Ma, who was brought to the program’s attention by Casals.”
As biographer Jim Whiting noted, “the article was noteworthy in two respects. First, it included Yo-Yo’s name in the same sentence as those of two U.S. presidents and eight world-famous performers and writers. Second, Yo-Yo had been identified in a major newspaper for the first time. It would hardly be the last. In the years since then, the New York Times alone has written about him more than 1,000 times.”
From the comments:
It makes me weep to see how Bernstein articulates a vision of open internationalism and welcome in this nation, which has now become so closed.
Yo-Yo Ma played before President Kennedy at 7, and also played for President Obama’s inauguration. What a life for him!
We’re off to see Opera North’s Tosca in a few weeks. Can’t wait, it’s been getting some great reviews.
Tosca, Grand Theatre, Leeds, review: Drama to hit you in the gut – chiming with the demands of Puccini’s music
Post-Weinstein, and following revelations of world-wide corruption in the Catholic church, recent history has played into the hands of any director who wants to give Puccini’s Tosca topicality. Edward Dick and his team have eagerly grabbed this opportunity: their production for Opera North is both viscerally shocking in its violence, and queasily recognisable in its portrayal of the deal which power likes to make for sex.
Tosca review, Opera North, Grand Theatre Leeds: a brutal, thumping success
The closest opera has yet come to the world-view of the action movie, Tosca hits hard, below the belt.There is no subtlety to mine here (though I toy with a fancy that Tosca might secretly be quite excited by Scarpia’s sexual offer) and no time to waste: from the violent opening explosion to the heroine’s final defiant death leap, Puccini has no higher aim than that of gripping an audience by its vitals.
Tosca review – contemporary take on Puccini is compelling and creepy
Edward Dick’s provocative, if quirky new production of Tosca for Opera North relocates Puccini’s political thriller from Rome during the Napoleonic wars to an unnamed present-day country in which church and state collude as forces of reaction. Dick is acutely aware that the opera maps on to the concerns of our own times – the printed programme contains photographs of a Five Star Movement rally in Rome and Donald Trump standing, head bowed, in front of a wooden cross. The staging alludes, too, both to the emergence of the new far right and the abusive sexuality that has resulted in #MeToo.
Tosca, Opera North review – exciting update, strong on sonic thrills
Puccini’s Tosca isn’t a subtle work, and this, Opera North’s fourth production since the company’s founding in 1978, is occasionally too loud and crude. But it’s undeniably powerful. Edward Dick’s 2017 Hansel and Gretel left me a little nonplussed, but this Tosca is miles better, a colourful update which manages to juggle plenty of schlock with sound artistic nous. He’s helped by conductor Antony Hermus, making his Opera North debut and securing some terrific, full-throated orchestral playing, much of it at the upper end of the dynamic scale.
In preparation, I’ve been listening to this Callas recording — it’s all pretty thunderous stuff!
The Opera North version is directed by Edward Dick, the guy behind the amazing Hansel and Gretel we saw last year.
Hansel and Gretel review – screen-savvy kids summon a Blair Witch fairytale
Bold video projections evoke an online forest where two youngsters find danger, in Opera North’s imaginative Engelbert Humperdinck revival.
What happens when two musical heavyweights clash.
Who’s the boss?
For a conductor to address an audience prior to a concert is nothing out of the ordinary. But for that conductor to essentially disavow the performance, before a single note is played? That would be almost unthinkable. And yet, this is precisely what happened at Carnegie Hall on April 6, 1962, at a matinee concert of the New York Philharmonic. Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein were scheduled to perform the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, but after intermission, only Bernstein emerged onstage. Gould, who played infrequently in public, was notorious for canceling concerts at the last moment, and at first, Bernstein had to reassure the audience that the afternoon’s soloist was indeed in the house. Then, the conductor went on to deliver a highly controversial speech that has since become part of musical lore.
The article from The American Scholar goes on to transcribe part of that speech, and here’s an audio recording of it and the subsequent performance.
Here’s Bernstein’s own take on it, and the press attention that followed:
The truth about a legend
So I said to Glenn backstage, “You know, I have to talk to the people. How would it be if I warned them that it was going to be very slow, and prepare them for it? Because if they don’t know, they really might leave. I’ll just tell them that there is a disagreement about the tempi between us, but that because of the sportsmanship element in music I would like to go along with your tempo and try it.” It wasn’t to be a disclaimer; I was very much interested in the results—particularly the audience reaction to it. I wrote down a couple of notes on the back of an envelope and showed them to Glenn: “Is this okay?” And he said, “Oh, it’s wonderful, what a great idea.”
So I went out, read these few notes, and said, “This is gonna be different, folks. And it’s going to be very special. This is the Glenn Gould Brahms concerto.” Out he came, and indeed he played it exactly the way he had rehearsed it, and wonderfully too. The great miracle was that nobody left, because of course it had become such a thing to listen to. The house came down, although, if I remember correctly, it took well over an hour to play. It was very exciting. I never loved him more.
The result in the papers, especially the New York Times, was that I had betrayed my colleague. Little did they know—though I believe I did say so to the audience—that I had done this with Glenn’s encouragement. They just assumed that I had sold him down the river by coming out first to disclaim his interpretation. It was, on the contrary, a way of educating the audience as part of Thursday night’s procedure. All this was not only misunderstood, but repeated and repeated and multiplied exponentially by every other newspaper that wrote about it.
And, for good measure, here’s another clip of Bernstein and Gould together, more harmoniously this time, perhaps.
Research, which I don’t pretend to fully understand, has been undertaken on why the violins made by the Italian masters are so good.
Acoustic evolution of old Italian violins from Amati to Stradivari
The unique formant properties displayed by Stradivari violins may represent the acoustic correlate of their distinctive brilliance perceived by musicians. Our data demonstrate that the pioneering designs of Cremonese violins exhibit voice-like qualities in their acoustic output.
Thankfully, a few websites picked this story up and explained it for the rest of us.
Scientists find secret behind sweet sound of Stradivarius violins
The instruments achieve their sweetness and brilliance by mimicking aspects of the human voice, study says.
The world’s best violins sing like humans
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that not only do great violins sing like humans, those built by different makers may remind us of different types of human voices.
“Although we did not perform any psychological experiments in this study, I speculate that the similarity between violins and voices can explain why violins are so popular,” Tai concludes. In other words, we may not yet understand quite how these instruments do what they do. But maybe we like them because when they do it, they sound like us.
It’s not the first time science has tried to understand what makes these instruments so special.
The brilliance of a Stradivari violin might rest within its wood
Why nobody has been able to replicate that sound remains one of the most enduring mysteries of instrument building. A new study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that answers may lie in the wood: Mineral treatments, followed by centuries of aging and transformation from playing, might give these instruments unique tonal qualities.
Violin-fiddling boffins learn that ‘f-holes’ are secret to Stradivarius’ superior sound
Although each violin maker inarguably possessed a good ear – in order to recognise and replicate the violins that sounded best – whether or not they recognised the particular design elements that contribute to a more powerful sound is still up for debate. In other words, the violinmakers knew what was a better instrument to replicate but they didn’t necessarily know that its slender holes were what made the sound it produced tonally pleasing.
An interesting but ultimately depressing essay from the LA Review of Books about the uses classical music is being put to these days.
Whereas Japanese train stations are attempting to move on undesirables by playing ugly sounds only the young can hear, in other parts of the world it’s the wonderfully uplifting (to me, anyway) music of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart that’s being used instead.
Bach at the Burger King
The inspiration for the Burger King plan, a CMCBD official commented, came from the London Underground. In 2005, the metro system started playing orchestral soundtracks in 65 tube stations as part of a scheme to deter “anti-social” behavior, after the surprising success of a 2003 pilot program. The pilot’s remarkable results — seeing train robberies fall 33 percent, verbal assaults on staff drop 25 percent, and vandalism decrease 37 percent after just 18 months of classical music — caught the eye of the global law-enforcement community. Thus, an international phenomenon was born. Since then, weaponized classical music has spread throughout England and the world: police units across the planet now deploy the string quartet as the latest addition to their crime-fighting arsenal, recruiting Officer Johann Sebastian as the newest member of the force.
It is crucial to remember that the tactic does not aim to stop or even necessarily reduce crime — but to relocate it. Moreover, such mercenary measures most often target minor infractions like vandalism and loitering — crimes that damage property, not people, and usually the property of the powerful. “[B]usiness and government leaders,” Lily Hirsch observes in Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, “are seizing on classical music not as a positive moralizing force, but as a marker of space.” In a strange mutation, classical music devolves from a “universal language of mankind” reminding all people of their common humanity into a sonic border fence protecting privileged areas from common crowds, telling the plebes in auditory code that “you’re not welcome here.”
So our metaphor for music’s power must change from panacea to punishment, from unifying to separating force, as its purpose slips from aesthetic or spiritual ennoblement into economic relocation. Mozart has traded in a career as doctor for the soul to become an eviction agent for the poor.
And as if that’s not bad enough, the essay goes on to examine how classical music is being further reduced by advertising and our ‘sound-bite culture’.
Extended musical forms allow the listener to appreciate the subtle interplay of motif and movement — and it is exactly this nuanced appreciation that quote-clipping nullifies. There is a two-part mechanism to extract and transplant a tune: detach a 15-second theme from a 45-minute symphony (where it functioned as an integrated part in an organic whole) and attach it to an alien subject. Uproot “O Fortuna” from a Latin cantata, so it can be grafted onto a Domino’s Super Bowl spot. These transplants produce jarring mashups that trigger another insidious side effect: by always quoting works out of the context the public forgets that they have a context. The spectator forgets that “O Fortuna” could be glorious in its original context because it’s absurd hyping Domino’s Pizza. In sum, in the remix media ecosystem, famous compositions degenerate from serious music into decorative sound, applied like wallpaper to lay a poignant surface over banal intentions.