How to Improve Your Ear With the Delightful Tune “Praeludium”

It’s January.

It’s cold, snowy, and downright dreary. You’re tired of all the layers of clothing and being cooped up inside. Spring seems so far away! So what’s a winter-sport-averse person to do to beat the winter doldrums? Grab a hot beverage and find your own little ray of sunshine.

One bright little tune to chase the winter blues away is “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.

Järnefelt originally composed “Praeludium” 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.

 

Setting the tone

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. An 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). Some percussion even join in here (triangle, then cymbal). There’s a lot going on here! I recommend listening to this entire opening section a few times to challenge your ear in picking out all the different lines. How many can you hear?

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 a bit of 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 what 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.

A change in mood

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

Back to the beginning

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 they’re moving us toward the end of the piece. We get a few measures more of just the accompaniment, which 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 “Praeludium” has provided a bit of sunshine to a dreary winter day, and 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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Music Appreciation: Old Scottish Melody (Auld Lang Syne) by Charles A. Wiley

I feel like I say this every year, but is it the end of December already? As with any year, 2016 has had ups and downs.

String of festive lights

String of festive lights

I feel I’ve grown musically thanks to some of the opportunities I’ve had, and look forward to continuing on that journey in 2017. I’m happy with the progress I’ve made with my music over at Sheet Music Plus and plan on adding several more pieces to my catalog next year. (If you’re a composer or arranger and want to start selling on SMP, I’d be grateful if you used my referral link to sign up). I enjoy playing with several ensembles, and I’m happy to see my Knock on Wood Clarinet Choir grow in membership. I do have things to work on, though, and more regular posting for this blog is one of those things. But at least I’m here now, with one last post of 2016. And what better song to chat about than Auld Lang Syne?

Most of us are familiar with this tune, as it’s played and sung on New Year’s Eve around the world. The lyrics are attributed to Robert Burns, though he said he was simply the first person to write down the old words. (For regular readers of the blog, you’ll remember that we talked about ol’ Robbie before, with the piece Tam O’Shanter). This particular version was arranged by Charles A. Wiley (1925-1992), a prominent band director who later founded TRN Music Publisher, Inc. This is my favorite arrangement of Auld Lang Syne. I think that’s partly because it has a similar feel to Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry, which is another favorite of mine.

The piece begins with the melody in the middle to low voices, most notably first trombone and baritone. The accompaniment is understated, with some slow movement here and there throughout the band. At 0:33, as we begin the chorus, there’s a lovely descant line above the melody. The music swells toward the climax of the first section, then fades to a final chord.

The second verse begins with the melody in the upper winds (1:07), bringing out a different tonal quality than we heard at the beginning. The accompaniment starts out similarly understated, with the range extending downward throughout the first several measures of the verse. Around 1:17, however, you start to sense a running line happening in the clarinets. The flutes join that line at 1:25.

As we transition from the verse to the chorus (1:38), there’s a series of “bell tones“ that rise up through the brass and percussion. The band crescendos to a nice, full sound for the chorus. We still have some bell tones, then the brass take over the running line (1:52), albeit more punctuated than what we’d previously heard in the woodwinds. The chorus quiets down a bit as it reaches the end, but not much since it turns around into a crescendo to bring us into the final stretch.

Instead of going into a third verse, Wiley takes us into a repeat of the chorus (2:17). He expands the music in volume and range, pushing in new directions compared to what we’ve heard throughout the piece so far. The first line of the chorus has the melody with powerful chords supporting it; the second line treats us to a forceful horn line running through it (2:26). We also hear percussion that waited to have its say until now (cymbals and timpani). As we reach the last lines of the song, the ensemble quiets down to a peaceful ending.

And so we say goodbye to another year. Whether 2016 was good, bad, or indifferent for you, I wish you all a happy and healthy 2017. Thank you for joining me on this musical journey at Tonal Diversions!

 

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Music Appreciation: 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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Music Appreciation: Early One Morning by Percy Grainger

Well, I didn’t intend to miss all of July (and most of August…). Sorry about that. Between band and travel, July simply flew by in a flash and August has been time to regroup. But here I am, finally, with a new post!

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I’ve talked about Percy Grainger before, and I think I’ve waited a respectable time before talking about another piece of his. “Early One Morning” is a beautiful little folk song setting. If you’ve ever heard the traditional tune, it’s a fairly cheery-sounding song. Of course, if you know the lyrics, they describe a sorrowful lass mourning the loss of her beau (which is a rather standard subject in old English folk songs).

Dandelions. CC0 Public Domain license.

Dandelions. CC0 Public Domain license.

Early one morning,
Just as the sun was rising,
I heard a young maiden,
In the valley below.

CHORUS:
Oh, don’t deceive me,
Oh, never leave me,
How could you use
A poor maiden so?

Remember the vows,
That you made to your Mary,
Remember the bow’r,
Where you vowed to be true,

Chorus

Oh gay is the garland,
And fresh are the roses,
I’ve culled from the garden,
To place upon thy brow.

Chorus

Thus sang the poor maiden,
Her sorrows bewailing,
Thus sang the poor maid,
In the valley below.

We begin with a somewhat ominous-sounding chord from the clarinets, bassoons, and a tuba; Grainger lets us know right away that we’re not going to hear the same lilting ditty we’re used to with this tune, at least not right away. The euphonium presents the first, soulful statement of the melody in a deliciously minor key. Given that, overall, the lyrics to this song really aren’t all that cheery, it makes sense that Grainger wouldn’t sound too happy here. The accompaniment has some movement, but it’s more of a low, subtle moaning than any sort of typical accompaniment beat.

The euphonium sings the chorus starting at 0:23 (Oh, don’t deceive me), followed by the bassoon providing the second line at 0:27 (Oh, never leave me). The euphonium takes over to finish the chorus. Listen the accompaniment starting around 0:34 and how it starts to shift away from the dark moodiness we’ve been hearing so far.

At 0:41 we shift slightly into another key. It’s not obvious at first, but then the horns, followed by the trombones, come in with simple (yet very lovely) lines at 0:43.

The flute brings a refreshing bit of happiness in the melody at 0:50. Now we get to hear the tune closer to how it’s normally performed: in a major key. The accompaniment, while still mostly held chords by the trombones and first clarinet, doesn’t sound as dismal as before.

The oboe takes over at 1:05 for the first line of the chorus. Listen to the horns underneath, as they play the three-note motif we heard back at 0:43. The second line is given to the clarinet (1:09), though the horn continues with the idea of the three-note motif. The flute comes back in for the remainder of the chorus, with the clarinet playing a harmonic line underneath (1:12). The horn echoes the last line of the chorus, though a bit modulated. It provides the briefest transition into the new verse.

Now the trumpet solo takes over the verse (1:24). The clarinets and saxes provide a chordal accompaniment that rises steadily upward in pitch. The horn inserts a lovely bit of suspension at 1:38 before the upper winds come in for the chorus. This is the closest we’ve come to having the full ensemble play at once. If you look at the score, you’ll see Grainger isn’t afraid of having people rest for long periods of time. (As a composer/arranger, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to do that.) The trumpet comes back in for the second line of the chorus at 1:44, then the winds play again to finish out the theme.

While the melody folks finish, the accompaniment is simultaneously building up for the final verse and chorus. Some of the winds and trumpets give us the theme and there’s a wonderful, suspended countermelody happening in some of the saxes and other trumpets, among others (1:57). There are some beautiful, squishy chords happening throughout all this in the accompaniment; try to listen beyond the melody to hear what else is going on.

Grainger generally keeps the same instrumentation throughout the chorus, adding a floating trumpet line over the melody that he marks “much to the fore” (2:12). At the end of the second line of the chorus, listen for the quick rhythm in the bass line (2:19), but keep your ears open for the continuation of the trumpet line (especially the reach up to concert A at 2:23) as the entire ensemble hits the apex of the piece. Everyone then comes back down toward finishing the melody.

At 2:29, the maiden apparently can’t handle it any more, and starts bawling. Click To TweetAt 2:29, the maiden apparently can’t handle it any more, and starts bawling. We go back to the not-so-merry version of the chorus at 2:29, this time in the bass voices. The horns get their own “much to the fore” section here as well, quoting the “oh, don’t deceive me” line at a slower pace than what’s happening below. There are some angry-sounding chords in the rest of the ensemble while this is going on. But in time, the anger subsides, and the maiden lets out a couple more sobs that resolve into a final, major chord.

Thank you for joining me, and I hope to send out my next post a bit quicker than this one. If you like my blog, please take a moment to spread the word. The individual posts have “share” buttons that can be used to send content to various social media platforms. Thank you to those who have already shared – it means a lot to me!

See you next time!

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What’s playing at Tonal Diversions – June 2016

It’s the end of June already! How did that happen? Time for another segment of “What’s playing?”

(Time for the disclaimer: I don’t have any affiliation with these artists or authors. I checked the albums and book out from my library and want to chat about them)

“Hamilton” by Lin-Manuel Miranda

It’s the musical everyone’s talking about: “Hamilton.” While I haven’t seen the show, I did check out the cast album. I’m not usually a big fan of hip hop/rap, but it really does work with this show. Unsurprisingly, though, a couple of my favorites on the album were more traditional Broadway-style songs. I listened to this in the car and was essentially flying blind in that I didn’t have a song list, lyrics, or synopsis to prep me for anything. Due to that, “You’ll Be Back” (sung by Jonathan Groff) cracked me up when I realized just what the song was about. At the other end of the emotional scale, “Burn” (sung by Phillipa Soo) broke my heart.

If you haven’t seen James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke,” I recommend his Broadway version (especially the Les Mis section at the end!)

“Violet” by Jeanine Tesori

I’m a fan of both Jeanine Tesori and Sutton Foster. I first heard mention of the show “Violet” when I got to hear Sutton Foster in concert in Chicago a few years ago. Foster’s album “Wish” has a solo version of the song “On My Way,” which is from “Violet.” That show got a Broadway revival in 2014, and I finally got my hands on the full album. I really enjoyed it. Of course I liked “On My Way,” and I was really impressed with the actress who played young Violet. One of the other standout songs for me is “Luck of the Draw.”

Here’s a clip of the cast singing on the Today show.

“Phone Power” by They Might Be Giants

Ah, TMBG, how fun you are! They’ve still got it. Like with Hamilton, I was flying blind on this one in terms of titles and lyrics. This time it was the song “Shape Shifter” that gave me a good chuckle, especially since I hadn’t known the title beforehand. “I Love You for Psychological Reasons” is catchy and fun. Two songs in particular (“I Am Alone” and “Sold My Mind to the Kremlin”) feel like the embodiment of TMBG.

“Why You Love Music” by John Powell

Now we’ll switch gears to print media. This title came across my desk at work and I knew I had to check it out. I’m about halfway through and have found it very interesting. Powell talks about how music interacts with our brains. Some of this I’ve known (or suspected, even if I couldn’t articulate it) and some took me by surprise (how music can affect how we perceive wine to taste, or even which wine we buy). I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

Lori with most of her summer band gear

Lori with her usual summer band gear

Part of what caught my attention when I first saw the book was the top lines of the back cover: “Did you know that… carrying a musical instrument makes you more attractive?” I had to laugh, because they must be talking about guitars or something. I’m not sure that being in my summer band polo shirt, hair in a ponytail, with a bass clarinet case strapped to my back and carrying a drum stool and a bag of music really ups my attractiveness level. I have a concert on Sunday– maybe I’ll have someone get a pic of me and let my readers decide 😉

That’s what I’ve been listening to and reading lately. Have a good summer and I’ll see you again soon!

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