Music Appreciation: Turandot (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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This Eerie Song Will Make You Get Into the Halloween Spirit

Gather ‘round for the tale of dear Tam o’Shanter, a farmer who spent one evening getting drunk with friends and had a night he (and his horse) will never forget.

"A Scene from Tam O'Shanter."

“A Scene from Tam O’Shanter.” Photo credit: Summonedbyfells. Used by permission under a Creative Commons license.

Okay, so he spends many evenings getting drunk with friends, but this piece (and the poem that inspired it) speaks of one night in particular. I’m excited to talk about this piece by Malcolm Arnold as it’s ranked in my top tier of favorite pieces ever since I first heard it many years ago. Arnold (1921-2006) was a prolific English composer who wrote a variety of works, from string quartets to ballets to movie scores.

Malcolm Arnold took his inspiration for this piece from the poem of the same name by Robert Burns (1759-1796), which details Tam’s raucous ride home from the pub.

Tam finally begins his trek home on his mare, Maggie, while a storm is brewing. That’s not the only thing in store this night, however:

The wind blew as ‘twad blawn its last
The rattling showers rose on the blast
The speedy gleams the darkness swallow’d
Loud, deep, and lang the thunder bellow’d
That night, a child might understand
The Deil [Devil] had business on his hand

But perhaps we should go back to the beginning…

At the pub

We begin on octave Es throughout the range of the strings, just a mysterious hint of sound. The clarinets mimic a bagpipe drone at 0:10, giving us a clue to the location of our tale (Ayr, Scotland, near Burns’s birthplace). The piccolo plays a short motif; it’s rather a sweet beginning that feels like we’re taking a peek into village life.

But with another chord from the flutes and clarinets, the pub door opens and Tam stumbles out. He’s so sloshed he’s seeing double – bassoons, that is. We have a wonderful drunk bassoon duet at 0:23, which is accented by some sliding around in the brass. At 1:00 we catch glimpses of the impending storm, but Tam continues on his meandering way to find his horse (1:20).

Tam gets Maggie (his horse) and starts toward home as the storm gains intensity (1:30). Tam seems to have just enough wits about him to sense the severity of the storm, as evidenced by the trombone solo at 1:43 (note, though, that he’s still rather drunk and sliding about the notes).

Fleeing the storm

The wind blusters about and Tam presses Maggie onward toward home. Listen how convincingly Arnold paints this mental picture of Tam and Maggie tearing across the countryside during the furious storm. You can hear the rhythm of hoofbeats underneath the swirling winds (2:36).

We get a brief respite beginning at 2:50 — a lull in the storm — where we hear a different version of Tam’s drinking song played by the piccolo (2:57). Perhaps he’s thinking of his wife, dear Kate, who had warned him about going out yet again. We can still hear the hoofbeats and some thunder claps despite the piccolo trying to sing a slightly sweeter song to us.

The storm rears its head again (3:15), this time prompting Tam to use the whip on poor Maggie, who probably isn’t dilly-dallying anyway. I’m sure at this point she just wants to be home at the barn with some hot mash and hay. The trombone returns to the drinking song at 3:47, this time with more urgency (though still not nearly sober enough). The storm refuses to abate.

Tam O'Shanter Makes His Escape by Mary and Angus Hogg

“Tam O’Shanter Makes His Escape” by Mary and Angus Hogg.
Used by permission under a Creative Commons license.

At 4:22, the landscape shifts. Everything’s still intense, but now we get some fast, ominous trills in the strings. The brass and winds hold out long tones that sweep upward at the end. There’s another shift at 4:44, with most of the ensemble playing a variation of the hoofbeat motif. The brass continue with their long notes. There’s yet another shift at 4:55, the storm reaching its crest.

Tam has to be almost home, right?

“And, wow! Tam saw an unco [strange] sight!”

It turns out he has ridden past the haunted Alloway kirk (church) and discovered a coven of witches and warlocks! They’re having a grand old time when Tam sees them at 5:15. If you listen closely, there’s some resemblance between this theme and the opening piccolo solo. Perhaps some foreshadowing by Arnold? You can hear the bagpipe drones underneath it all and some great horn rips starting at 5:27.

The theme fades into the distance as someone catches Tam’s attention (5:38). It’s Nannie, a witch Tam thinks of as “winsome.” I’m sure it has absolutely nothing to do with her wearing a skirt short enough to show her “cutty sark” (underknickers)! Tam is transfixed. Meanwhile, the party continues (5:46), with the addition of a great, harsh brass line.

At 5:58, we’re reminded that there is still a storm going on. We have a different hoofbeat motif from before; I think Maggie’s amazed at what she’s seeing as well, although she might be getting a little impatient at this point. But Tam really wants to stay and watch Nannie (6:21). The bacchanal continues in its frenzy, building and building until Tam can no longer hold it in and shouts —

“Weel done, cutty sark!” (6:58)

Well, THAT certainly caught everyone’s attention! And not in a good way, either. The witches and warlocks see him (and poor Maggie) and shoot after them in hot pursuit (7:01). Tam uses the whip again (7:14), desperately trying to flee the witches. But ahead he sees a bridge! As long as he crosses it, he is safe, because in folklore witches cannot cross water (in this case, the river Doon). As he crosses the river, the sounds of the coven diminish and we hear a beautiful, slow chord progression from the flutes and clarinets (8:00). Tam is safely across the river, and the nightmare is over.

Or is it?

One witch is still in pursuit and gets close enough to pluck Maggie’s tail clean off!

With that, I present the closing lines:

Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Each man and mother’s son, take heed:
Whene’er to drink you are inclined,
Or cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
Think! ye may buy the joys o’er dear;
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.

If you’d like to hear a delightful reading of the poem, check out Irene Michael’s rendition. She’s wonderful!

There’s a great recording of the band version of this piece on the CD “Arnold for Band.” Purchase it from Sheet Music Plus and support the blog!

Until next time… And please do not stumble across any witches’ parties in the meantime. Or, if you do, try not to be like Tam.

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Music Appreciation: Andantino (Symphonic Metamorphosis) by Paul Hindemith

Over a year ago, I discussed the march from Symphonic Metamorphosis here on the blog and commented that I’d eventually talk about the other movements in this fantastic piece. Why wait any longer? Today I’ll be talking about the third movement.

As with the other movements of this work, Hindemith used a piece by Carl Maria von Weber as the foundation to build upon. In this case, it was a piano duet from a set of six pieces (Op. 10, No. 2). I did manage to track down a YouTube video of the set – click here if you’d like to hear the original piano form (it starts at 3:14 in case the link is wonky).

So without further ado, let’s listen to the piece:

 

There is no introduction to this piece; we begin with a clarinet solo on Theme A. It is melancholy, accompanied by minor trills in the low register of the flute and somber chords in the strings. The cellos come in with a descending line at 0:12, which adds to the mood. For the second half of the theme, the bassoon takes over the melody (0:17) with the second clarinet on the low minor trills. At 0:31, the clarinet returns so that we can repeat the entire theme.

Theme B begins at 1:03 with a horn solo; the strings and flutes answer. Immediately the clarinet makes a statement (1:10). Again, the strings and flutes respond (this time including horn). For the second half of the statement (1:20), the strings get to provide the melody. We’ve kept fairly quiet up until now – here we finally let out some sound and build up to forte.

Hindemith uses a very short transition into Theme C, only 1-2 seconds long. However, there’s a big change in mood (1:37). While we go back to being quiet, the melody itself has transitioned to a major key. It can be heard in the clarinet, bass clarinet, and cello. Instead of a call-and-answer type of setup, most of the non-melody instruments are sustained on a chord. The exception are the violas, who have running notes as an accompaniment/countermelody. Listen to that line – it’s not quite ready to give up the melancholy mood from earlier in the piece.

For the second run through Theme C, Hindemith switches the melody to the first violins, violas, and oboes (1:55). The second violins and cellos provide the running line, but not in unison. This adds another layer of tension to what was originally a happier-sounding melody.

At 2:13, we have a bit of a transition section. The winds (with the exception of the bassoon and contrabassoon) play the running line, moving together in parallel fifths. The strings have a new motif, which I consider to be the primary line in this section. The horns provide chordal support, although the first horn has a line that sounds more like a countermelody. While we’ve been in 6/8 time (counted in six instead of a faster two) since the beginning of the piece, Hindemith adds one 9/8 measure (counted in nine; 2:22). This adds just a bit more tension as we work toward finishing out this section.

We hear one last statement of Theme C (2:29). Hindemith includes the entire orchestra (well, except for first flute, but you’ll understand why in a moment). All lines are accounted for: melody, running accompaniment, and sustained chords. Despite everyone’s involvement, we’re still marked just piano here; it’s more of a sense of “fullness” than “loudness.” He inserts another 9/8 measure at the end of the phrase, giving us an extra moment for the first flute to lead us into the final section (2:48).

For the most part, the final section is a straight recap of Themes A and B, with no repeat of A. There are a few minor differences in instrumentation, and the minor trills we heard earlier have changed to short musical statements. It’s okay that there aren’t many changes here, as it lets us turn our attention to the solo flute.

The solo flute is the star of the last section. She plays an obbligato – an essential countermelody or accompaniment. Listen to how it flits and moves above the orchestra, almost like a butterfly or bird bringing a small sign of spring. The line covers a large range, low to high, with lots of peaks and valleys. But eventually, everyone eases into calm, the flute continuing just a bit more as the other instruments sustain a chord underneath, the melancholy mood never fully lifting.

From here, I encourage you to continue on to the fourth movement for a change of mood.

 

Sassy the cat

Sassy

Postscript: I began this post a couple of weeks ago. Since then, we had to say goodbye to one of our beloved kitties, Sassy. She was a loving, silly, confident little girl and she will be missed. She had been in the shelter for four years when we adopted her. We like to think she was waiting for us.

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Music Appreciation: Wiener Philharmoniker Fanfare by Richard Strauss

I thought it might be time to feature another fanfare, one composed for a specific orchestra and purpose. The Vienna Philharmonic is familiar to many; I’d guess that even people not overly familiar with classical music may have heard of the group.

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) lived during the late Romantic/early modern era and was one of the major composers of his time. Strauss was influenced by the music of fellow German Richard Wagner (1813-1883). He developed as both a composer and conductor, despite some unconventional choices in musical interpretation.

The Vienna Philharmonic dates back to 1842. In 1924, the group held its inaugural ball in order to raise funds for the musicians’ pension. Strauss composed a piece for the occasion; it has been played at the beginning of every ball since then. You can find a bit more information at Barbara Heninger’s site.

 

 

Like many fanfares, this one starts with a single note. It’s played by the E♭ trumpet (it’s like the trumpets you see in school band, but a bit smaller and plays a higher range). We hear a single pitch for three beats, followed by a set of triplet eighth notes on beat four. Keep this rhythmic motif in mind, as it’s woven throughout the entire piece. The trumpets repeat the  motif, adding layers of harmony to the opening note. After the initial musical statement, the trombones echo in triplets (0:09), followed by the horns (0:12). They have a short conversation, then the trumpets join back in with their own line of triplets (0:20).

The layers build and build, with lots of give and take between the sections. They start to come together rhythmically at 0:30, although the timpani and horns want to continue to converse (of course… chatty little things). We build a bit more, trumpets and trombones against horns and timpani.

At 0:36 we reach what we’ve been building toward – a solid wall of triumphant sound, moving rhythmically as one through a majestic theme. The horns answer with their own motif at 0:44. In the next bit of the theme beginning at 0:47, we hear triplets from one voice or another, but they feel more supportive than conversational than the triplet figures we heard in the intro.

With the second half of the theme (0:55), the pitch moves just a bit higher and is a bit more lyrical, introducing new rhythmic pattern at 0:59 (a very short new rhythmic pattern – it’s a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note instead of a set of three eighth note triplets. While both fit into the space of one beat ([quarter note], It’s a subtle yet distinct difference).

The lyrical line ends as the horns and trombones come in with the horn motif (1:04), which alternates with the running triplets in the trumpets and trombones. It’s interesting that the timpani is playing running triplets during the horn motif, not with the other triplets. The conversation builds again.

The lyrical theme comes back again at 1:16, but modified. It’s presented in a different key, sounds more minor. It doesn’t last long, though, and we’ve moved back into a happier-sounding place by 1:34. From there, we head into the second half of the lyrical theme. Or so we think. While Strauss gives us the first part of the second half, he doesn’t end it like before. He repeats the initial motif of that section up a little higher (1:39) and a little higher (1:43), then very briefly acknowledges an idea from the first theme we heard at 0:36 (1:47) before heading into a recap of the intro (1:51).

In this last section, Strauss continues to build up the intro motif, going higher and higher with most of the ensemble, the horns and timpani (and one random trombone) answering back. After the third time through the motif, the trumpets and trombones shimmer on a high major chord while the horns milk their motif for all its worth (2:04). Yes, they’re playing that entire line from way down below to way up high. After the horns have had their say, the entire ensemble comes together for its final bows.

(To this day I’m ready to hear Overture to Candide immediately after hearing this piece. A concert I played years ago opened with this fanfare, followed by Candide. I listened to that recording so many times the two pieces are forever linked in my mind.)


 

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Bonus Features: March from Symphonic Metamorphosis

I still have the Hindemith piece on my mind, so I thought I’d share a little bit more.

I’d mentioned in my previous post that Hindemith based much of Symphonic Metamorphosis on piano duets by Carl Maria von Weber. The march for Hindemith’s fourth movement comes from 8 Pieces (Op. 60, No. 7). You can find the sheet music over at the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library.

While I couldn’t locate a piano duet on YouTube, I did find one recording of a double woodwind quintet playing a transcription of the piano piece. If you remember my post about Malcom Arnold’s Three Shanties, you’ll know that a woodwind quintet consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. A double woodwind quintet has two of each of those instruments.

And here’s a recording of the concert band transcription:

If you liked this piece, I highly encourage you to listen to all four movements. Preferably more than once, as there’s a lot to absorb. While I hope to talk about the other three movements eventually here on the blog, if you want to get a head start, here’s a full recording:

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