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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Slava! by Leonard Bernstein

With the appearance of “Slava!” on our music stands this semester in community band, I decided now was as good a time as any to chat about this fun piece by Leonard Bernstein. For those of you who have followed the blog since the beginning, you might remember my post from a couple of years ago on Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide.” I’m way past due for talking about another Bernstein piece!

Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich playing cello.

Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich playing cello. Photo by music2020; used under CC BY 2.0 license.

Shostakovich composed “Slava! A Political Overture” to honor Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) in his first season as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. He was a prominent cellist in addition to a conductor, and he worked with many composers to bring new cello works to the repertoire. This piece for orchestra is titled after Rostropovich’s nickname, “Slava.”

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I’ve played this piece a few times and have listened to it too many times to count. But it’s always been the band version (transcribed by Clare Grundman). I knew it was originally composed for orchestra in honor of Rostropovich, but didn’t think about it too much beyond that. I learned some things while researching this post! For one, the concert band version has a different subtitle: “a concert overture.” It turns out that it’s more than just a simple subtitle change. The original version (which is what I’ll dissect later) has a section in the middle that’s cut for the band version. This section is a vamp that accompanies a pre-recorded tape of parodied political speeches. I had no idea this part existed until now. If you’d like to read some more of the background of the piece, head over to the Kennedy Center’s website.

 

Bernstein sure knows how to start with a bang! We start with a rush down through the orchestra that ushers in an accompaniment. The basses aren’t content with their usual “oom” to someone else’s “pah,” so they add in a run of notes every few beats. The lead trombone starts the melody at 0:08, a jaunty tune that slides around a bit. Another brass voice takes over at 0:15, followed by a muted trumpet. The accompaniment punctuates each shift. More voices join the fun at 0:20, continuing the theme through its first half. (Note: Composers are great recyclers. To hear a previous incarnation of this theme, head over to this video around the 4:15 mark to hear “Grand Old Party” from the Broadway flop “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”). Composers are great recyclers. Click To Tweet

At 0:26, most of the group is in on the action to begin the second half of the theme. It starts out very similar to the first iteration, with different voicing and some other little differences (I love how at 0:31 it sounds like the trombone is laughing). The tune gets passed around some more and we build toward the end of the theme. There’s a great horn line starting at 0:41 that echoes the melody. The final lick (0:44) makes you think it will end on a nice chord, but instead it immediately rushes headlong into a recap of the intro.

However, Bernstein being Bernstein, he doesn’t continue into a repeat of Theme A. He takes through a busy, helter-skelter type of transition to lead us into the next theme.

“Pooks!”

(“Pooks” was the name of Rostropovich’s beloved dog. This particular outburst is omitted from the band version)

Now we settle into an active, yet constrained, accompaniment (1:05) compared to what was happening during Theme A. We’ve moved into 7/8 time. There are seven eighth notes per measure, but at this speed, we hear it as a lopsided three beats (1-2-3-4-5-6-7). Once the soprano sax solo* begins Theme B (1:11), it’s easier to hear those three larger beats. There’s an undulating accompaniment pattern underneath the soloist. (*Thanks to a keen-eared reader that also heard another instrument playing the theme with the sax. I thought I heard something, but couldn’t quite tell. Based on the instrumentation, I’m wondering if it’s electric guitar. Have any of my reader played this in orchestra to know for sure?)

(Once again, Bernstein pillages material from “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” though I think it’s rather evident that this music was worthy of receiving new life. This time the source song was called “Rehearse.” Check out this video around 8 minutes in for the full song, although it’s also part of the overture)

At 1:36, we modulate abruptly and get the accompaniment in a new key. The melody is now in the upper voices; but as usual, the horns steal the show with their echo starting at 1:40. We continue through the entire theme (because, why wouldn’t we? It’s an awesome theme!). The two lines converge at the end, then the trumpets barge in at 2:03 with a call back to the intro. There’s some back and forth between various instruments, ended by a snare drum hit that comes across as a parental, “Enough!” (2:08). There’s one final burst from the other instruments to finish their thought.We continue through the entire theme (because, why wouldn’t we? It’s an awesome theme!). Click To Tweet

Immediately we jump back to the intro, but with different and reduced instrumentation that leads us to the vampy, political section (2:10). We hear various snippets of fake political speeches, which are appropriately capped off with a blow from a siren whistle (the instrumentation lists I’ve found show slide whistle, but this recording sure sounds to me like a siren whistle is being used).

The full orchestra comes in joyously with Theme B (2:46), including the horns’ echo, though this time there’s more of a balance between the primary line and the echo. At 3:09, we shift immediately into Theme A, with a vastly different group of instruments than what we heard at the beginning of the piece. More folks join in at 3:20, filling out the sound, and pretty much everyone is in by the time we get to the last bit of the first half of the theme (3:26) and the start of the second half.

Bernstein dials it back a little so that we get the same type of interplay between voices at 3:32 as we did the first time through all of this. But the rest of the group isn’t content to remain on the sidelines, and they join the party again at 3:39. They get to the last phrase of the theme, repeat it, but then give us a third time that’s altered just a bit rhythmically. There’s the briefest moment of silence before everyone brilliantly and enthusiastically gives us a final taste of Theme B (3:51). The tune is altered ever so slightly, but to me it’s just enough to give this last bit some extra oomph and sound rather triumphant. We get one last quick change back to a itty bitty part of the intro (3:57), then a sudden, quiet, sustained chord for a few beats until the musicians shout out, “Slava!”, and then the final, quick notes of the piece.

Thanks for joining me for Bernstein’s rousing overture. See you next time!

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Pavanne by Morton Gould

It’s summer already – wow! The rest of May was a blur, so I’m much later with this post than I’d planned.

Trumpeter statue

Picture by LucasFZ70 on Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain license.

Ah well, such is life. Since summer band is in full swing, I thought I’d talk about a piece that showed up in my folder recently, “Pavanne” by Morton Gould (1913-1996).

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There’s a good chance you’ve heard something by Gould, even if you don’t know it’s him, specifically “American Salute“. He had a long a fruitful career, including being the staff pianist at the newly-opened Radio City Music Hall and many years of composing and conducting for various ensembles.

“Pavanne” is the second, and most popular, movement of Gould’s American Symphonette No. 2, which was premiered in 1938. It incorporates jazz and swing elements into an orchestral piece.

 

 

Gould introduces the piece with a light and bouncy little bass line (which rather reminds me of Grainger’s “Molly on the Shore”). A solo muted trumpet presents our theme (0:08). It’s a fun, jazzy ditty. At 0:19, the clarinets join in the accompaniment with sustained chords, finishing with a bouncy echo. Back to the melodic line, it’s actually a flute who finishes off the theme, taking over from the trumpet (0:28).

At 0:36, the solo trumpet once again spins his melody, this time with the strings hopping along underneath. We don’t hear as much of the theme, as there’s a shift in mood at 0:49. More of the brass enter on a driving, yet single-pitch, line. It adds a certain tension over the plucky accompaniment. The flute counters this line with a smooth motif of its own at 0:55. The brass insist again at 1:01, and the flute calms everyone back down.

There’s a change in orchestration at 1:14 – I do believe I’m hearing saxes on the new accompaniment line. While there’s still a lot of rhythmic activity going on with the accompaniment, it has a heavier feel both in mood and movement. The oboe and bassoon present new melodic material at 1:20. The line is long and smooth. The trumpets take over and raise the pitch at 1:32. Everyone comes in at 1:43 to start closing out the theme and the flute, once again, has the final say (1:50).

We’re ushered into a recap of the first theme, but instead of solo trumpet, we’re treated to some woodwinds playing it (1:59). Notice that while we still get the bouncy bass line, he’s continued the rhythm from the previous section. It has a different chordal structure and is played lightly by the strings, but the rhythm is there.

The trumpet section plays the second part of the main theme. However, this time we don’t get the bouncy echo like the clarinets played earlier. He continues with the current accompaniment rhythm (2:19). Then he gives a quick shoutout to the trombones before the flute (who else?) and others finish the theme.

At 2:27, we’re back to the trumpet ditty, with the bouncy bass and hopping strings. We get a glimpse of the driving line again at 2:40, but he adds a descending harmonic line underneath. There’s an answer of the rhythmic accompaniment figure, then the driving/descending figure again played by the saxes. The muted trumpets take their turn answering in rhythm (2:49) before the final soft, short notes of the piece.

Thanks for joining me on this summer diversion. I hope your June is going well so far and I’ll see you again soon!

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Ouverture by Germaine Tailleferre

Les Six

Les Six

In deciding which piece to tackle next, the fact that March is Women’s History Month meant that it’s a great time to talk about “Ouverture” by Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983). She was a prolific French composer and member of the famed “Les Six”, a group of composers who included the likes of Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud. She showed interest in music from a young age. Her father objected to her chosen career path, but with the support of her mother, she was admitted to the Paris Conservatory. She won several competitions there, and through her studies met other up-and-coming musicians. She spent some time in the U.S. in the 1940s, but returned to France after that. She worked and composed until shortly before her death in 1983. For more biographical information, visit Classicalmusicnow and Sinfini Music.

 

We burst out from the gate – no introduction at all in this piece. Three repeated notes, then off in a flurry of activity. Listen to all the movement happening throughout the opening melody. At 0:14 we get the three-note motif and start to repeat the running line, but she already takes us in a different direction starting around 0:19.

At 0:21, we get a new theme (B). It’s a call-and-answer between various sections of the orchestra. First we get strings vs. winds. At 0:29 we get strings vs. some twinkling in the background then brass vs. strings/winds (0:32). We continue the call-and-answer idea at 0:40, but with a difference. Now we hear the three-note motif from earlier as the call, with horns answering. The conversation gets more fragmented and feels faster.  We hear a roll from the timpani (0:56) then trills that travel up as a transition into the next section of the piece.

Here we have a shift in mood. The flutes introduce a new theme (C) which is lyrical and smooth, but you can still hear the motion underneath. There is no change in tempo, though it feels as if there is. At 1:15, the violins take over the lyrical melody, and the action is brought more to the fore by using brass as accompaniment. Starting around 1:25, the piece grows in volume and more instruments join in. At 1:28, the entire orchestra unites in the same rhythm – quarter note chords.

Then 1:36 brings another big change in mood. I’m pretty sure we change into 6/8 time here, and the gong, brass fanfare, and rolling feel of the rhythm make me think of a soundtrack to an old seafaring movie. Don’t know that that’s what Tailleferre was going for, but it works for me. The oboe has a lovely solo beginning at 1:44, with some of the other woodwind tone colors prominent in the accompaniment. There’s a neat, short interlude of sorts at 1:58 with flute, and perhaps clarinet, before the oboe comes back in for the rest of the solo.

There’s just the briefest slowdown and pause before jumping energetically back to the opening theme at 2:16. The recap is largely like what we heard at the beginning, although with differences in instrumentation. Around 2:48, we venture off into transition territory, and Tailleferre plays around with the call-and-answer idea. She builds on that motif until 3:09, where she nods back to the quarter note chords we’d heard at 1:28.

This time, however, she doesn’t take us into a slower section. There’s a briefly held high note from the trumpet & co. at 3:21, like a roller coaster at the top of the hill. Then we race down the hill in a short fugue until about 3:33. We get back into a bit of a call-and-answer, with a hint of our first theme at 3:42 or so. The orchestra continues to whirl into a frenzy, though unifying a bit in rhythm through 3:54, where it goes down another roller coaster hill. It finds a variation of the opening theme at 3:57, with added glissandi from the strings. We make one last frenzied run, take the briefest of breaths at 4:15, and end with a flourish!

Thank you for celebrating Women’s History Month with me. I’d love to hear who your favorite female composers are!

P.S. I thought you might also enjoy listening to a band transcription of the piece.

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Turandot from Symphonic Metamorphosis by Paul Hindemith

I thought it was time for another movement of Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, this time the second movement: “Turandot; Scherzo; Moderato.” Just like the other movements, this one was also inspired by the music of Carl Maria von Weber (Turandot).

 

After a note from the chimes, a flute introduces us to the theme. The strings have a pianissimo sustained chord underneath. Another chime, and a clarinet joins with the piccolo to repeat the first phrase, while the flute provides a harmonic line. The strings continue holding. At 0:26, the flute gives us the next part of the theme. While the clarinet joins in again at 0:41, this time both clarinets play (in octaves) and the flute and piccolo have the countermelody. While it repeats a good chunk of what we just heard, this line ends sooner. And the strings continue to hold. This entire introduction, while played at a brisk 128 or so beats per minute, feels unhurried. At 0:47, the percussion start beating out a rhythm as a transition into the bulk of the piece.

Before we dissect the next few minutes’ worth of music, keep Maurice Ravel’s Bolero at the back of your mind. In both pieces, the repeated melody travels throughout the orchestra, as does the accompaniment. The number of instruments playing increases over time, bringing with it a gradual crescendo.

At 0:56, the cellos and basses start off with the melody, alternating with the violas and cellos. Listen for the neat countermelodies first in the oboe and then in the flute. Also notice that the structure of the melody is what we heard from the introduction – the first motif is played twice, followed by the second motif, then the second motif, mostly. Underneath all of this is the humming of trills played by the clarinets and oboes.

At 1:21, we shift our focus to the woodwinds for the melody. The upper strings have some trills, but they’re not quite as persistent as the previous trills in the woodwinds. The lower strings have pizzicato quarter notes keeping time.

The horn takes over the melody at 1:44, and they’re the first brass sounds we’ve heard in this movement. They tag-team with the trumpet and then provide a bit of a countermelody in spots. It’s interesting that Hindemith adds the bass clarinet for one brief moment at 1:58. As a bass clarinet player, I think it’s great, but I’m curious as to why he did it since it doesn’t happen again in this section. Otherwise, the bass clarinet (and the other woodwinds) are back to trilling and some of the strings are doing their pizzicato thing.

Hindemith continues to add more instruments, especially in the brass for the melody. He also adds a new element to the accompaniment: triplet runs that travel up and down the string section (2:08). Continually adding voices results in a natural increase in volume.

We get our next big orchestration change at 2:31. Here, the strings take over the melody, the woodwinds get the triplet runs, the horns have trills, and the low brass have oom-pahs (previously heard as the string pizzicato quarter notes). The group keeps getting bigger and louder. At 3:01, the brass return with the echo of the melody. The brass fully take over at 3:20, leading to the apex of this section of the piece.

At 3:44, we reach the end of the first buildup. There are big trilled chords in the winds, the brass have a kind of a short fanfare, and the strings keep running with the triplets down toward the transition. Listen for the first violins at 3:50, they have a really neat triplet line that connects what we’ve been hearing to the new section of the piece.

The violins overlap just a bit with the new theme (B) introduced by the trombones. It’s a variation on the first theme, and a bit jazzier. Here we let the brass shine. Listen how the motif gets passed around throughout the brass and also for the mini two-note motif that is extracted and repeated. Around 4:47, they reach their largest point, followed by a conversation with the timpani at 4:52. They keep forging ahead, bringing back theme B to keep it in our ears.

Then at 5:05, we have a huge shift in orchestration and mood. The woodwinds take over, softly, as opposed to the fortissimo we’d just heard from the brass. They also pass the melody around, but in their own woodwindy kind of way. They’re not as jazzy or brash, and you really hear the difference in tone between the various instruments. But don’t think of the woodwinds as wimps. At 5:34, listen for the rather heroic-sounding trio of two oboes and the English horn. It’s seriously one of my favorite bits of this piece. The flutes, then the clarinets/bass clarinet get their turn at heroism before finishing their section of the piece.

The percussion make their presence known (albeit softly) at 5:46, signaling the beginning of the end. Listen to the different rhythms being played throughout the percussion instruments. At 6:02, Hindemith gives a nod to the beginning of the piece by having the cellos and basses play a snippet of the original melody. This forms an ostinato foundation that will carry us through the next portion of the movement. Over time, Hindemith layers the other instruments, with a different motif, one section at a time to grow the coda. Around 6:22, the trumpet enters with its own rhythmic motif, followed by the horns then the rest of the brass.

The layers build and build until 6:46, where we hit a big chords and high trills, and we get a sense of reaching the acme of this piece. Hindemith won’t let us stop there, however. At 6:57, we start a downward fall from everything we’ve been building toward. The percussion are back with their various rhythms, and the rest of the ensemble starts wandering away with a series of “doot doot” chords. In contrast to the building up of layers that we’ve been hearing throughout this entire movement, Hindemith dismantles it all, section by section. The brass leave first, followed by the strings. The woodwinds trickle out, finishing with both flutes and piccolo, then one flute and piccolo, then just piccolo. The percussion fade away. They don’t actually slow down; their note values are written to give the effect of a slowdown (eighth notes to quarter notes to half notes). We finish with a soft, sweet chord from the low reeds, horns, and low strings.

If you’d like to hear the next movements, visit the Andantino (movement III) then the March (movement IV).

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