Music Appreciation: Happy 150th to Amy Beach

Happy birthday, Amy Beach!

Photo of Amy Marcy (Cheney) Beach (1867-1944)

Amy Marcy (Cheney) Beach (1867-1944)
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Who’s Amy Beach, you ask? Sadly, too many people ask that question, despite her being one of America’s foremost woman composers. As today is the 150th anniversary of her birth, I wanted to introduce you to her.

I do have to admit, that while I knew of Amy Beach, I had not heard much of her music. This post gives me a chance to really sit down and listen to some of her work. (I won’t get through her entire catalog right away; she was quite prolific and composed over 300 published pieces!)

Born in 1867 in New Hampshire, Beach was a music prodigy. She was memorizing a large catalog of songs at one, playing hymns and composing by four, performing pieces by the likes of Chopin on piano at seven. She made her public performance debut at age sixteen in Boston, as well as getting compositions published that same year. Two years later, she performed a Chopin piano concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

 

Here are some of Beach’s earlier works, composed between 1887 and 1891.

At this point, Beach’s story has a familiar aspect to it, especially for female artists. Her family discouraged any sort of true career in music, and her new husband (Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach) wanted her to limit performing in public. Although he encouraged her to pursue composition instead, that encouragement still came with strings attached. Her husband did not allow her to take any lessons or classes that would have furthered her studies.

But Beach was determined. While she’d previously had one year of formal training in harmony and counterpoint, she largely taught herself. She studied and analyzed the music of great composers before her. She read books on composition. She gave herself an education.

Her education paid off. In 1892, the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston premiered her Mass in E-Flat Major.

Then, in 1896, her “Gaelic” Symphony was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

While her music was accepted and praised, there was often a shadow of “… for a woman” involved; in one instance, a critic praised her by basically saying she didn’t sound like a woman (“… difficult to associate with a woman’s hand”).

A recent New York Times article goes more in-depth on Beach’s life and attitudes about women in music. It is a worthwhile read, and served as part of the impetus for my own post.

In 1910, Dr. Beach died, leaving Amy a widow at age 43. With no one to tell her “no,” she traveled to Europe to resume performing and present her own works. After a successful tour, she returned to Boston in 1914. She later divided her time between New York City, Cape Cod, and the MacDowell Colony.

She continued to compose a wide variety of music before her death in 1944, such as:

String quartet:

Piano music (solo and duet):

Woodwind quintet:

And so much more (like I said, she was prolific!) I hope you take some time to explore her work. I know I’m ready to hear more!

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Music Appreciation: Danzon No. 2 by Arturo Márquez

Let’s explore beyond most of the pieces I’ve discussed so far here on the blog and travel to Alamos, Mexico, birthplace of composer Arturo Márquez. Márquez was born in 1950 in Alamos, living there until 1962,

Dancers

Dancers

when his family moved to Los Angeles County, California. He was exposed to music early on, as his father played violin and was a mariachi. The younger Márquez learned several instruments, primarily violin, and began studying composition. His studies lead him around the world, and he currently resides in Mexico City. He has a large body of work that is worth exploring (I know I want to check out his Zarabandeo for clarinet and piano).

Márquez composed a series of eight Danzones, which fuse Mexican and Cuban musical influences. His most popular Danzón, number 2, is the one we’ll discuss today in my music appreciation series. If you’ve watched the Amazon series Mozart In the Jungle, you’ve heard this piece. I do recommend listening to all eight, though.

 

 

 

The piece begins quietly, with a sparse, seductive, and dreamy ensemble of clarinet (Theme A), piano, pizzicato strings, and claves. The claves are beating out a standard rhythm of Latin music. The oboe takes over the lead at 0:50 (Theme B), with the clarinet sometimes answering, sometimes running along, but always dancing together. At 1:15, the two lead us into a slight mood shift. The violas and flutes enter with Theme A, while the oboe and clarinet perform an obbligato (brilliant countermelody that is integral to the piece). The theme ends on a bit of a suspenseful chord, and the piano plays a plinky, syncopated transition into the next section (1:45).

We change moods here– more forceful and insistent (1:51). The strings start sawing away with new thematic material for the transition, with some accents from the brass and piano. Around 2:11, the oboe (and other winds?) run up a scale, encouraging the ensemble to modulate at 2:13. You’ll notice that we’ve also increased tempo quite a bit during all of this as well. The strings keep doing their thing, then at 2:20, the horns announce their entrance and the strings run up a scale to take us to a new section.

Now we’re really dancing (2:24)! Márquez has introduced a new theme (Theme C), which is a syncopated back-and-forth between the sections of the orchestra. Check out 2:41, where the brass echo actually calls back to something we heard earlier in Theme A. You think we’re going to continue that phrase, but no, it’s just a teaser. Instead, we get into even more new thematic material (Theme D) in the strings (2:47).

The strings change the mood a little in their new theme. It’s much smoother, with a lot of notes happening in the runs. But things still feel urgent, dizzying. The upper strings and piano take the lead, but listen for the countermelody lower in the cellos. There’s some fun stuff happening here.

At 3:07, the brass interrupt with their own small (but mighty) motif. The strings then back out of the way, allowing for a piccolo and piano duet to come through (Theme B modified). I’ll admit I don’t think I’ve ever heard that in a large ensemble piece, but it definitely works. The winds hold chords underneath. While the accompaniment is much calmer now, the tempo is still quite fast and insistent.

The piano and piccolo finish their theme and the strings pluck out a rhythmic accompaniment (3:23) accentuated by a brass “Hey!” at 3:28. The winds bring in even more new thematic material (Theme E). It’s smooth yet syncopated, and the brass keep shouting out in the background. The winds’ theme finishes around 4:05, but the mood is still suspenseful, alternating between two chords. We get a hint of something more from the trombones starting around 4:08. The group crescendos into a big, unison statement from the low brass at 4:16, slowing us down for the next theme.

One voice rises out of the cacophony we just heard– the piano. Solo, playing a rather sultry intro to this section (4:21). We return to Theme A, this time as a duet between violin and clarinet. They play a beautiful duet, then the rest of the strings (and piano) join them at 4:58 to usher in a lush, full, version of Theme A.

At 5:31, the strings subside and the clarinet solo comes in with the modified Theme B. It turns into a conversational duet with the flute at 5:35, with the piano continuing a rhythmic, octave accompaniment underneath. It feels very dreamlike here, like two lovers talking deeply while the entire world simply blends into the background. Eventually the lovers must say goodbye, and the world emerges once more (6:13).

The strings harken back to the transitional material they played at 1:51, but this time it becomes an accompaniment to a trumpet solo (6:25). This is a brand-new melodic material (Theme F). It starts brash and loud, then has a subdued section at 6:37. It doesn’t last long, however, and we’re back to brash at 6:44. At 6:52, there’s a hit, then a forceful statement from the high brass. They elaborate for a few moments, along with more hits from the orchestra, then move to a faster pace and more chaos (7:02).

Suddenly, at 7:23, the mood shifts, but briefly. Márquez breaks the tension, only to have the strings build back up immediately. He also brings back Theme C, followed by Theme D. Everyone is partying now! The brass interrupt at 8:17, just like they did earlier, and we get another listen to the piano/piccolo duet. We then go back to Theme C for another round (8:35).

When the brass interrupt again at 8:55, it’s to signal that the piece is nearing the end. Most of the ensemble either softens immediately or drops out completely, but there’s still an insistent single-pitched rhythm over a syncopated bass line. This grows, adding both instruments and volume, riling us up until the final two, solid notes.

Thanks for joining me on this journey! I’ll leave you with a final video: it’s of the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain’s Main Orchestra doing a fantastic job on this piece.

 

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In Praise of the Adult Amateur and Non-Pro Musician

I attended the first-ever Chicago Clarinet Symposium this weekend at Northeastern Illinois University. It was two days filled with everything clarinet: master classes, concerts, vendor displays and sample instruments. I enjoyed my time there. I took lots of notes, discovered new-to-me repertoire, heard amazing performances, and met some nice (and talented) people. I even met my bass clarinet hero. We were all kindred spirits in our love of the clarinet.

One thing that became clear to me, however, was that I was not part of the target audience for this event. I am not a college student, professor, or full-time professional performer. I have a Bachelor of Music in Theory and Composition, a Master of Library Science, and work as a cataloger for a public library.

Me performing "The Old Grumbly Bear" with the Crystal Lake Community Band, July 2015

Me performing “The Old Grumbly Bear” with the Crystal Lake Community Band, July 2015

I do cobble together some of my income from music. I teach private clarinet and piano lessons to middle and high school students, sell my compositions and arrangements at Sheet Music Plus, and sometimes get paid for performing. I consider myself a semi-pro musician in that I do make money from music, but it is not my primary income (and as of yet, does not come remotely close to matching my primary income).

I felt some inkling of not-really-belonging as I registered, as the master class performance options were nearly full already. Once I arrived and saw my fellow conference-goers, it seemed even more clear that I was an outlier. On the second day, I appeared to have completely flummoxed one woman I was chatting with in that I didn’t fit any preconceived notions about The Attendees beyond the fact that I played clarinet (and even that seemed to stump her when I said my degree was in theory/comp, not clarinet performance). She seemed surprised that I’d even heard about the event, much less had the interest and inclination to attend.

I do want to reiterate here that I did enjoy myself. I may not have been part of the target audience, but I still gained immense value by attending. Besides, I’m actually kind of used to being the odd duck and a bit of a loner, so I wasn’t uncomfortable by any means. I also know that a couple of my peers would have liked to attend, but the scheduling just didn’t work out for them this time.

But this did get me to thinking about so many of us musicians who are my true kindred spirits: those of us who took the practical route after getting our BMus degrees (or didn’t pursue music degrees at all); those of us who earn most or all of our income through non-music careers; those of us who still want to participate even if we’re not the ones taking center stage at a prestigious concert.

Those of us who still want to learn. We are in community bands, teach private lessons, have jam sessions with friends, play the local pit orchestras, and participate in any number of other musical activities. We’re out there.Just because we’re not full pros or still in our youth doesn’t mean that we are done learning. Click To Tweet

Just because we’re not full pros or still in our youth doesn’t mean that we are done learning. In fact, some of us finally have the resources (and some time) to put toward that goal. I have felt a pull toward taking lessons again myself, though finding a college-level teacher when you’re not in college anymore is a challenge. It’s hard to know where to start, how to discover who is willing to take on a middle-aged clarinetist who isn’t working toward landing a symphony job, how to work lessons and practice time into an already-crammed adult life schedule. And I don’t even have kids that I’m shuttling back and forth to their own numerous activities.

(Of course, this also leads to examination of the past, and how much time I could/should have spent practicing and networking, but didn’t. For a variety of reasons. But that subject will have to wait for another post.)

What, then, can we do to encourage and include the adult amateur and semi-pro? I believe there are large numbers of us. Do we start our own conference? Do we speak up to event organizers to see if they will include some tidbits for us? Some sports have pro-am events—can we incorporate this idea into our music world? Or do things like this already exist? I’m not sure, and I’m just starting to really mull all this over.

Knock on Wood rehearsal, January 2017

Knock on Wood clarinet choir rehearsal, January 2017

I am the founder and organizer of Knock on Wood, a clarinet choir based in McHenry County, Illinois. We are a community group of over twenty musicians. We range in age from teenagers to octogenarians and range in clarinets from the itty-bitty E-flat sopranino to the ginormous contrabass. We play in this group because we love the clarinet family and the gorgeous music that can happen when you get large numbers of us together. We want to sound good. We want to improve ourselves. We want to simply enjoy playing our favorite instrument with fellow clarinerds. (And we’d love for you to stop by our Facebook page to see what we’re about).

We’ve discussed having our own Clarinet Day, with a few master classes and a mass choir that invites those who don’t regularly play with us to join us for the day. While yes, we want to encourage our high school (and even middle school) players to come to the event and participate, I want to make sure we still give opportunities to our adult players.

This is still in the very early planning stages. We have things to consider since we’re not affiliated with a university, namely the budget. We also have a challenge that we’re “way out” in McHenry County and not closer to the city of Chicago (that said, I’ll mention again that we have over twenty clarinetists on our roster, with more who would join us if their schedules could fit with ours. People are out here and interested). I do feel that an event like this would add great value to our community of musicians, though, and we can make it happen.We exist, we want to learn, and we want to be included. Click To Tweet

But until we get this event off the ground, I want to encourage those who are beyond the status of amateur to remember that we’re here. We exist, we want to learn, and we want to be included.

 

Music Appreciation: Discussion by Yves Gourhand

I don’t know how it is where you live, but here in the Chicago suburbs the weather has been glorious for February!

Mod architecture by geralt.

Mod architecture by geralt.
CC0 Public Domain

We’ve been able to take walks outside, open the windows a bit, and our moods are certainly lifted. I know this warm spell won’t last, and we’ll probably get a March (or April) snow like usual, but I’m happy to get a bit of spring.

In deciding what piece to talk about next, I realized I have not talked about any clarinet quartets (for shame! And I’m a clarinet player!). While there are a ton of quartets out there, I chose “Discussion” by Yves Gourhand. It seems to be somewhat obscure. All the more reason to talk about it, right? At this point, I don’t actually remember how I came across this piece– whether I heard about it somewhere or I just found it while falling through the black hole of YouTube. Regardless, it captivated me.

Part of the problem with obscurity, though, is that I haven’t had much luck finding info on Gourhand. He has a few published pieces out there, all focused on clarinet (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my world!). I’d like to know more about him, and whether he working on any other pieces.

Immediately there’s a quiet intensity to the piece. The first clarinet plays a syncopated rhythm over the bass clarinet, who holds the pitch an octave lower. The rhythmic pitch rises a step, the bass still holding the original pitch, but has a quick change at the end. The intro continues similarly, with the first clarinet continuing to rise in the scale and the other clarinets joining in over time. The bass line also grows more active throughout, and the groups grows louder as they move into the first theme.

At 0:20, we begin Theme A. The first clarinet leads, with the second and third playing pulsing chords and the bass undulating underneath it all. I’m struck with imagery of a cityscape for this theme. It’s very much hustle and bustle, but a beauty within it all. At 0:27, the second and third, then the bass, have a bit of an echo to take us to the next measure. We repeat the first phrase, but listen to how the accompaniment changes at 0:33– the middle clarinets have a short moving line instead of the pulsing chords. The melody changes slightly for the last bit of this second time through.

To bridge the gap to the next theme, the bass clarinet gets a fun run up and down the instrument (0:36). Theme B is full of flying fingers, jazzy sounds, and syncopation. It’s a short theme, but energetic and wild. Of course, as a bass player, I love the great solo lick at 0:55 (It’s fun to play, too!). From there, we return to Theme A in its entirety (0:57), with just a couple of small alterations in the middle clarinets’ accompaniment and a slightly different ending.

We get a new theme at 1:16. The running line moves between the second and third, the bass has a different bass line, and the first has a more of an accompaniment role. The first does take over again around 1:24, then the group plays a syncopated line upward to finish the phrase. There are some octave jumps in the bass to bring us back to Theme A. It’s largely the same, but again he changes some of the middle parts ever so slightly. I, admittedly, did not realize this before when I rehearsed and performed it. However, I was playing the bass part, which doesn’t change during the bulk of Theme A. It’s mainly the ending that changes for that part. This time around, the bass line leads up to a held chord from everyone, signaling something different is going to happen.

We’re into a new theme at 1:54– the “slow” theme (Theme D). As with other pieces I’ve discussed, like “Overture to Candide” and “Festive Overture”, things only feel slow because Gourhand is using quarter and eighth notes, instead of the sixteenth notes and syncopation that we’ve heard until now. The underlying pulse is the same, the note lengths are just different proportions. It’s common, but very effective, composition technique. Theme D begins with the second, third, and bass clarinets in octaves. The next iteration of the theme is in the first part, with the second providing harmonic material (2:12).

At 2:29, the first continues the melody, the third takes over the harmony that the second had been playing, and the second brings in new harmonic material. Finally, Gourhand’s not quite done Theme D yet, and we get one more round of it at 2:46. The third gets to shine on the melody this time, the second goes back to her original harmonic line, and the first takes over what the second was just playing. The bass brings in a new line as foundation for the rest. At the end of the theme, there’s a slight ritard, a chord held for just a moment, and a run back itno Theme A.

We’re treated to a near note-for-note recap of Themes A-B-A. As Gourhand likes to do, he slightly changes the middle parts’ accompaniment rhythms. But largely we have the same as what we heard at the beginning (including that great little bass lick!). However, the last time through the A melody, he writes a call and answer throughout the group, rising up intensely through chromatic chords until the final chord in the soprano clarinets and a run down the bass line.

I hope you’ve enjoyed “Discussion” as much as I have. See you next time, and remember– think spring!
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Music Appreciation: Praeludium by Armas Järnefelt

As it’s winter and there a lot of things happening in the world right now, I decided I wanted to talk about a happy little tune, “Praeludium” by Finnish composer Armas Järnefelt (1869-1958). Järnefelt had a long career as a conductor and composer. He lived in Sweden for about twenty-five years, serving as music director for the Royal Theatre.

Heather. Picture by Snufkin on Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain license)

Heather. Picture by Snufkin on Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain license)

He bounced back and forth from Sweden to Finland, eventually having a “home base” in Stockholm but leading the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (HPO) during World War II. The Soviet Union had declared war on Finland in 1939, resulting in the then-current conductor of the HPO fleeing the country and man who originally would have been successor refusing to come back from the United States. Järnefelt lead the orchestra in forty concerts, including one to celebrate the cease fire.

“Praeludium”  was originally composed for small orchestra in 1895 and is one of his best-known pieces. A lot of people have never heard of Järnefelt, however, partly thanks to his sister marrying a big-name Finnish composer of the time and friend of Järnefelt– Jean Sibelius.

 

We begin with a bouncy, pizzicato string accompaniment that sets the cheerful mood of “Praeludium.” The oboe enters with the melody (Theme A), echoed soon after by the first clarinet at 0:08. The bassoon, second clarinet, and flute have staggered entrances after that. Notice how the melody is fugue-ish — it flits about throughout different instruments, overlapping each other, with some variance here and there as it fits with the other lines. Another interesting tidbit is his overall instrumentation for the woodwinds; full orchestras typically have pairs of woodwinds (two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons). In this piece, the only woodwind to have its usual pair is the clarinet; the others are singles.

As the woodwinds flitter along merrily and the strings keep plucking away, Järnefelt decides to add even more layers of melody via the brass starting around 0:23 (two horns and two trumpets pitched in F instead of their usual Bb). There’s a lot going on here! It’s worth listening to this entire opening section a few times to challenge your ear in picking out all the different lines that are happening at once. Some percussion even join in here (triangle, then cymbal).

Despite the euphonic chaos, everyone comes together to close out this section of the piece. The strings are on autopilot and seem like they’ll just take us around to start it all over again, but the woodwinds take over the plucking and change gears (0:42). I love the modulation that happens so quickly there.

The violins bring us a new theme (B), one that’s smoother without as much happening along with it (0:44). There are some held chords, with the clarinets and horns providing a long—short-short rhythm in  the accompaniment. The second violins provide harmony to the moving melodic line. It’s a short theme, though, and some bounciness bubbles up in 0:48 in the melody, echoed by the clarinets, then echoed again by the violins. Other instruments join in a run up to a restatement of Theme B, which turns the melody over to the woodwinds and the moving accompaniment back to the strings. This time, when we get to the bounciness, we only hear the statement by the woodwinds and one echo in the strings before the woodwinds take off into another run that leads to a big, long (for this piece) chord at 1:02. There’s brief cutoff before what sounds like it could be a final cadence, except the strings go right back to their plucky accompaniment that we heard at the beginning. They’re quite determined!

We don’t quite go back to the beginning, though. At 1:08, we hear Theme A, but this time it’s played by several instruments together (instead of fugue-ishly), and most other instruments are doing either the plucky accompaniment or the long—short-short version. The theme ends, exposing a single held note on the horn– a big shift from everything we’ve heard so far. We get a quiet callback to our plucky accompaniment from the strings (1:17). Realizing that the horn is resolute in holding that note, the strings slow down their plucking and lead us into the next section.

Here we experience a big change in mood. We’ve been very cheerful and lively throughout the piece so far; the violin solo that begins at 1:36 is quite different (Theme C). Melancholy. Wistful, perhaps? Beautiful, no matter what other adjectives you use. The accompaniment still has a long—short-short feel to it, but it’s subdued. The horn answers the violin with its own countermelodic line at 1:31; it culminates in a beautiful chord progression from the horn and accompaniment and an emotive octave jump in the solo violin around 1:34.

The oboe takes over Theme C at 1:37. The accompaniment changes to focus on held chords with the second violins and violas singing an upward-moving line. The violin restates the horn’s line we heard a little while ago and extends it down farther. The oboe and horn answer at 1:50, slowing down just a bit before the rest of the strings take over, determined to get us back to our Happy Place (1:56).... before the rest of the strings take over, determined to get us back to our Happy Place Click To Tweet

While the pluckiness and peppy tempo have returned, it takes several seconds for the strings to modulate back into F Major. They do, however, and we find ourselves back to the beginning of the piece, the oboe starting Theme A (2:03) and the layering process all over again. If you hadn’t listened to the opening a few times earlier, here’s another chance to catch some of the melodic lines you may have missed before.

We get Theme A in its entirety. When the melodic lines take a short break, the strings keep plucking away, although this time it’s toward the end of the piece. We get a few measures more of just the accompaniment, which then gives way to a line that walks up through the string section (2:40) and the final, two-note cadence from the entire ensemble.

I hope that “Praeludium” has provided a bit of sunshine to a winter day, and that you’ll join me next time on Tonal Diversions. Thanks for reading!

(Shameless plug: This is another piece I’ve transcribed for clarinet choir. Check it out at this link and support the blog with your purchases at Sheet Music Plus.)

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