Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Naming Game, Part 2 - Cataloging Chaos

A keyboard sonata by Dominico Scarlatti.
But which one?
Classical music nomenclature can be a major obstacle for newcomers to the genre. In Part 1 of this series, I tried to demystify things a little by explaining why and how numbers were used. But what about all those letters? In some cases, they're referring to some type of catalog system, which is what this post is about.

A little disorder around the edges
Beginning around the start of the 19th Century, music publishing became a mature and organized industry. If you look at a list of published works by Beethoven, the opus numbers represent all of his approved compositions. The same is true for Mendelssohn, Schumann, and certainly Brahms.

All of these composers have works that were never published, though -- or were never assigned opus numbers. Usually you'll see something like WoO 3, which means "Without Opus, Number 3." So if a composer has, say twelve unpublished compositions, they may be labeled WoO 1, 2, 3, etc.

So where do these numbers come from?
Usually there's a biographer (sometimes a team of scholars) that pour through a composer's papers and create the initial catalog of unpublished works. They're the ones who establish which piece will be designated WoO 3 rather than WoO 4.

So where do those extra letters come from?
For the composers who published almost everything, cleaning up the leftovers with WoO is usually sufficient. But there are some composers -- like Schubert -- who wrote far more than they ever published. And when you go back to the Baroque period (and earlier), composers wrote prolifically, but published very rarely.

These are the bodies of work that need serious organization -- and this is where all of those extra letters come from. Several methods have been used to catalog works. Chronological is the most intuitive. This is how Ludwig von Köchel cataloged Mozart's works in the 1860's. These numbers usually have a K (Köchel) or KV (Kochel Verzeichnis) in front of them. Modern scholarship and the discovery of lost manuscripts have made some revisions to the list, which is why you'll see things like:

Mozart: Symphony in G, "Alte Lambach", K.45a (the "a" denotes an insertion between K. 45 and K. 46 of the original list)

Otto Erich Deutsch did the same thing with Schubert's music in the 1950's. Although Schubert has over 100 published compositions, he wrote almost 1,000, Most people just refer to his music using the Deutch numbers.

Schubert: String Quartet, No. 2 in C major, D. 32

OK, Köchel and Deutsch makes sense, but what's up with Haydn's numbers?
Anthony van Hoboken used a different type of his organization for Haydn's music in the late 1800's. He first arranged everything by type of composition, Type I: symphonies, Type II: divertimenti, Type III, string quartets, and so on.

Within each type, the works are arranged in chronological order. So Haydn's first symphony is Hob:I:1. While the symphonies work pretty well, it can get a bit messy for other works. His piano sonatas, for example, have a number system assigned to them by Haydn scholar Howard Chandler Robbins Landon that is at odds with the Hoboken numbers.

So Haydn's Piano Sonata in G, written in 1766, is L.13, Hob:XVI:6

Social numbering
Sometimes it's not a person but an organization -- or society -- that does the numbers. Johann Sebastian Bach only had a few works published during his lifetime. When the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue) undertook the task of publishing his complete works, they also assigned catalog numbers to them. Like Hoboken, they sort of organized the music along the lines of type.

So the first group of BWV numbers are all cantatas. Bach's Cantata No. 140 "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" is indeed BWV 140. As with other catalogs, the listing has been updated over time, so you'll sometimes see things like BWV 1006a and 1006b.

There also was a Händel-Werke-Verzeichnis, with a purpose similar to the Bach society. They assigned HWV numbers to Handel's works, although their usage isn't yet as widespread as the BWV numbers.

When catalogs collide
Sometimes not even the scholars agree -- which can make things ugly.  The first person to catalog the 555 keyboard sonatas of Dominico Scarlatti was Alessandro Longo in the early Twentieth Century. He grouped them together in suites according to keys, and assigned them L. numbers (for Longo -- not to be confused with the L. of Landon-Robbins fro Haydn's music).

Ralph Kirkpatrick, scholar and harpsichordist, did extensive research of these works in the 1940's. He came up with a revised chronological listing, and gave each sonata a K. number (for Kirkpatrick, not Köchel -- you can see things are already going south).

In the 1960's, Giorgio Pestelli offered up yet another revised listing, different from both Longo's and Kirckpatrick's catalogs. And yes, he assigned each work a new number with P. for Pestelli.

So Dominico Scarlatti's (and you have to specify Dominico -- his uncle Alessandro Scarlatti was also a famous composer) keyboard sonata in D minor, Andante moderato is simultaneously known as:

D. Scarlatti: Sonata in D minor, K. 52, L. 267, P. 41

So what's it all mean?
Catalog numbers are usually a good way to uniquely identify a work. Don't be intimidated by them, or particularly impressed by people who use them extensively, though. If you refer to Haydn's Symphony No. 45 as the "Farewell" symphony, most classical music lovers will know exactly which work you're referring to. Calling it Hob.I:45, not so much.

When catalog numbers clarify, use them. When they don't, don't. That's what I do, anyway.

Just be careful with Scarlatti (Dominico, that is).

The Naming Game, Part 1, Opus 1! 

The Naming Game, Part 3: Tilted Titles

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Naming Game - Part 1, Opus 1!

One of the biggest barriers to enjoying classical music I think, is the names of pieces. For people just getting started with classical music the nomenclature can seem intimidating, arcane, and perhaps even arbitrary. And, unfortunately, there's a certain (small) segment of the classical audience that, like a grammarian, loves to correct any slight error or omission in a work's title.

Why not just call a song a song?
The reason why compositions have the titles they do is because, for the most part, the pieces aren't titled. Instead, they are generally referred to by the type of composition they are.

So while "song" pretty much covers anything in the realm of popular music, in classical music it would generally only refer to a work for voice and piano. Is it for violin and piano (with no singing)? Then chances are the composer calls it a "sonata." A "concerto" is usually for a solo instrument with a backing ensemble, while an "oratorio" is understood to be a piece for vocal soloists, chorus, and instrumentalists.

So the generic name for a work (whether assigned by the composer or not) is pretty important to identifying the piece. "Beethoven's Fifth" doesn't help much. Do you mean his fifth symphony, or his fifth piano concerto? Or perhaps his fifth string quartet, or even his fifth piano sonata? Knowing the right type of composition helps tremendously.

An Opus is more than a penguin
Imagine if, say, Led Zeppelin had given no titles to any of their songs. And let's say that they also didn't title their albums. How would you know which song you were listening to? One way would be to refer to the album by number (actually, Led Zeppelin isn't that bad an example -- their first four albums are numbered).

So then the proper name for what we know as "Stairway to Heaven" would be Led Zeppelin Song 4, Album 4. That's pretty much how it works in the classical world, too. Many composers published collections of music, similar to the concept of a record album. These usually have opus numbers. "Opus" comes from the Latin for "work" (notice how often classical compositions are referred to as "works").

So the first work, or collection of short works a composer has published is their Opus 1. You can get sometimes get a good idea of how prolific a composer is by looking at their opus numbers.

Consider Alan Hovhaness' Symphony No. 60, Op. 396, "To the Appalachian Mountains." Whether you look at the symphony number or the opus number, it's clear Hovhaness wrote (and published) a lot of music!

Key is key
So opus numbers are important, as are piece numbers within the opus. But why are keys always referred to? Well, they help further differentiate the work. Take Chopin's collection of Ten Etudes, Op. 10. Some of these etudes (or "studies") are written in different keys.

So you could just refer to the Etude in E-flat major, Op. 10 and that would be fine -- there's only one in that set. But you'd be in trouble if you talked about the Etude in C major, Op. 10. Because there are two. Do you mean Etude No. 1, or Etude No. 7? So that's why on the air we refer to it as "Chopin: Etude No. 1 in C major, Op. 10."

Composer, composition type, key, number in the set, publication number of the set. That's really what's behind most titles. And as long as it's clear which piece you're referring to, you don't have to be pedantic and include everything (although we usually do on air for clarity).

"Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67" is technically correct. But "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony" is equally clear.

That way there's no confusion.

But wait -- what about all that other stuff?
Don't worry -- I'll cover that in upcoming posts. Next time we'll talk about catalog numbers. Most composers have them, but they're only used widely used for some. I'll explain why.

The Naming Game, Part 2: Cataloging Chaos

The Naming Game, Part 3: Tilted Titles 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: "Hilos" Presents a Tapestry of Gabriela Frank's Music

Gabriela Lena Frank is an up-and-coming composer who's really made a name for herself in the realm of chamber music. The latest collection of her work features four recent chamber compositions with a common theme. All, in some fashion, draw inspiration from Latin and South American music traditions.

It's an impressive recording. The CD starts with the title track, "Hilos" (Threads), a 2010 work for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Based on Peruvian elements, the work works and reworks various instrumental combinations, creating the sonic tapestry the title refers to. Frank composes with a strong rhythmic feel, using sparse melodic and contrapuntal lines that make the work accessible while sounding like nobody else.

The "Adagio para Amantani" seems more influenced by academia than Andelusia. This haunting work for cello and piano presents small repeated note motifs that seem to hang suspended in space, punctuated by chord clusters. But this isn't just an intellectual exercise. The music has a forward motion and a logical progression to it that makes it work.

The Quijotadas for string quartet is similar, but has a much stronger Latin feel to it. To me, it's the most musically substantial composition on the album. While I enjoyed it the first time I heard it, I know repeated hearings will reveal more of the complex structure of the work.

My favorite track was the Danza de los Saqsampills for two marimbas. It's a uniquely Frank work, but if I had to describe it in other terms, I'd call it a Latin-American Steve Reich homage (which only hints at what the work sounds like). A better description might be that this is simply six minutes of fun.

I have to admit I didn't know a lot about Gabriela Frank before getting this recording. But now that I've listened to it, I'd like to explore her music further.

The works are performed by the ALIAS Chamber Ensemble, a group Frank has worked closely with. The ensemble know and understand Frank's compositional language, which really adds to the performances.

If you're looking for a fresh compositional voice (especially if you like chamber music), then I highly recommend giving Hilos a listen.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Off the Deep End? Depends.

Yesterday, while I was hosting "Gamut" I received a call from an unhappy listener who sternly told me that I had finally gone off the deep end, and he wanted his comment on record. OK, here it is.

So what prompted his comment? I think I know. When he called, I had aired the following works (in this order)
  • Charles Wuorinen:
      Second Piano Quintet
  • Johann Sebastian Bach:
      Cantata No. 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4
  • Carl Nielsen:
      Rhapsodisk ouverture "En Fantasirejse til Faeroene"
  • Gabriela Lena Frank:
      Hilos (Threads)
He called while the Frank work was airing, so I suspect that was the tipping point. I'm sure Bach and Nielsen brought him to the point of rage. Perhaps he had been listening from the beginning of the program, and music by two living composers was just two too many. That's probably not fair.

Usually listeners call in to complain about something that's happening right at that moment. If he didn't like the Wuorinen, I would have most likely received the rebuke at 6:10 in the morning instead of 7:40, while Hilos was playing.

Gabriela Frank is indeed a young composer (b. 1972), but she has amassed a solid list of awards and recognition for her work. Of course, what's on her resume doesn't matter -- only what her music sounds like.

I couldn't find an example of Hilos to share, but there is this performance of another Frank work on YouTube of her Danza Peruana, which is fairly representative of her style.

As you can hear, it's far form the toolbox-descending-a-staircase school of academic composition that many people think (unfairly) is modern classical music.

I find Frank's music fresh, tonal, tuneful and well-crafted.

But I think I understand where my listener was coming from. We all expect different things from classical music. And it's when those expectations aren't met that there's trouble. For some, classical music is soothing and calming -- sort of like high-brow Muzak. For others, it's about revisiting the masterworks to perpetually gain new insight.

Some are fascinated by the subtle variety of the human voice, especially among opera singers. Others can't stand the sound of all that caterwalling and prefer only instrumental music. Some find early music charming, while others think it's crude and unappealing.

And we can go still further. Is the Baroque period the apotheosis of music? Some agree, others don't. How about the three B's? Are they the greatest composers of all time? You'll find plenty of folks on either side of that question.

So let's get back to my caller. Something about the Frank composition prompted him to call. And so I've put his call on record. But I think his assertion is just a little inaccurate. I don't think I went off the deep end of the pool -- I think I went off the deep end of his pool.

And that's OK.

Because at the same time, I just entered the shallow end of someone else's.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Review: Glazunov Complete Concerti -- Completely Enjoyable

Jose Serbrier's taken some time off from his recording cycle of the Glazunov symphonies to do this two-disc set of the Russian composer's concerti. Being well-familiar with Glazunov's works, he leads the Russian National Orchestra (who have an affinity for music by their native sons) in a series of well-defined, sympathetic performances of these works.

Glazunov composed concerti for a variety of instruments, so there's a host of soloists featured as well. Chronologically, Glazunov straddles the beginning of the 20th Century. He studied under Rimsky-Korsakov, and mentored Dmitri Shostakovich.

His first piano concerto (1911) is full of rich, romantic-era orchestration, and sounds somewhat like Rachmaninov's first concerto, composed around the same time. By the second, though, (1917) Glazunov had a more distinctive compositional voice. Pianist Alexander Romanovsky plays with fire and conviction without pushing the solos into theatrical pyrotechnics.

For me, the Violin Concerto (1904) is the crowning jewel. Rachel Barton Pine brings out the warmth of the melody, lightly skipping around the technical passages without breaking a sweat. If you like the Brahms concerto and haven't heard this work, you're in for a treat.

Also included are Glazunov's cello and saxophone concerto. Like the violin concerto, his work for cello exudes late-romantic lushness with just a hint of Glazunov's Russian origins. Of more interest, though is the Concerto in E-flat major for alto saxophone and string orchestra.

Written just two years before his death in 1936, the concerto shows Glazunov at his most adventurous. It may have been his maturity as a composer, but I also think it was the still-new saxophone's lack of repertoire and performing traditions. It gave Glazunov a blank slate in which he wrote as free of the influence of his mentors and peers as he ever got. It's a very appealing, although somewhat different work, then the other pieces on this recording.

Serebrier rounds out the recording with some short works for solo instruments and orchestra. For those of us who are familiar with Glazunov, it's instructive to hear these works one right after the other. For not familiar with this Russian master, this disc is a great place to start.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Understanding Minimalism

It's difficult to talk about music. As a friend of mine once remarked, "you're trying to put into words something that couldn't be expressed with words in the first place."

There are two videos, though, that may help folks understand one of the important underlying concepts of minimalism. When music is stripped down to its basics, what provides the conflict, the forward motion that we're used to with tonal music?

For some composers, such as Steve Reich, it's the changing relationship between musical elements as they gradually move "out of phase" with one another, and then back in. In the video below, this change is demonstrated physically. Note how complex and beautiful patterns emerge as the pendulums swing, each in their own regular, but unique arc.

Reich uses this concept frequently. "Clapping Music" is one of his simpler (and shorter) works -- on paper. It's scored for two musicians clapping hands. The patterns are simple quarter-note and eighth-note combinations that repeat. The video below shows the score in action.

After you watch it, try just listening to it. The sound is much more complex -- and engaging, then the simple patterns would suggest. And that's the point. Very simple elements combined in every possible way.

But don't think of this as just wind-up music. There are many compositional decisions to be made (instrumental combinations, timbres, durations, tempo, etc.) and one has to be able to  imagine what all these possible combinations will sound like. And it all has to elicit an emotional response. It's more art than math.

Minimalism has different aesthetic, perhaps, than older tonal music, but it's one that works. Both visually and audibly!