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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O Filii et Filiae by Volckmar Leisring

Freising Church

The pipes of the organ in a church in Freising, Germany.

Back to the choral world for a bit for “O Filii et Filiae” by Volckmar Leisring. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with this piece lately, so it seems fitting to talk about it here. There doesn’t seem to be much information online about Leisring. He lived from 1588-1637, he’s German, and he was a composer and pastor.

 

 

 

 

 

“O Filii et Filiae” is considered an antiphonal isorhythmic motet. “Antiphonal” relates to two ensembles (in this case, choirs) performing alternately to each other, with occasional parts together. Motets were popular vocal forms in the Medieval and Renaissance ages, with the isorhythmic form developing during the Renaissance. This form is defined by a repeated rhythmic pattern. I think you’ll easily pick out the repeating rhythm in this piece.

The Latin lyrics celebrate Easter:

O filii et filiae
Rex celestis! Rex gloriae!
Alleluja!
O filii et filiae
Christus surrexit hodie!
Alleluja!

Roughly translated, it means “O sons and daughters, the king of Heaven, the king of glory, Christ is risen.”

As you listen to the piece, pay attention to the interplay between the two choirs. They do a great job of balancing between the two, and when they arrive at the “Allelujas” it’s seamless.

Two things I love about this piece are the chord progressions and the bits of syncopation (i.e. 0:33-0:35). Despite the joyous lyrics, this piece isn’t cemented in a major key. Taken on their own, the “Allelujas” are mostly minor plagal cadences (what we think of as the “amen cadence“) that just repeat quickly, unlike using it as the final end of a hymn. However, Leisring uses a perfect cadence when we reach the final time through, going from an E major chord (the fifth of our key) to a glorious A major chord (the tonic, or “home base,” of our key). By ending on A major, instead of minor, we get to hear an example of a Picardy third. This was a technique used often in earlier music to end a piece that was based in a minor key. Instead of ending on that minor chord (in our case, it would be A-C-E), the composer raised the third of the triad to make it major (A-C♯-E).

Don’t be scared off by the theory, though; just enjoy the beautiful piece Leisring composed!

After hearing this piece a number of times over the years, I realized it would transcribe beautifully for our local horn ensemble, the Cor Corps. So I did it. They premiered the piece for me in April, 2015, and I couldn’t be happier with how they performed. Please have a listen! As you can hear, we took the piece at a much livelier pace than the choir above, but I like it.

And now for a shameless plug (because if I can’t do it on my own blog, where can I?) My horn transcription, both the sheet music and the audio, is available for purchase at Sheet Music Plus. And why should the horns have all the fun? I’ve also done transcriptions for 4 horns/4 trombones and mixed brass ensemble (2 trumpets, 2 horns, 2 trombones, baritone, and tuba).

Thanks for reading – see you next time!

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Andantino from 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.

Bonus Features: The Alcotts

Finally, the bonus features post! I hadn’t forgotten that I wanted to do this; sometimes “real life” gets in the way.

Here’s another video of the piano version. Part of the reason I chose this one is because you can hear the difference in interpretation between this performance and the one by Ives that I used in the previous post:

 

I also wanted to give you a chance to hear the band transcription. This arrangement was my introduction to the piece. The end section is quite powerful when you have an entire band playing it! Listen, though, to how the different instruments bring out the various melodies.

 

This last one is just fun. How would “Chopsticks” sound if arranged by Charles Ives? Richard Grayson gives it a shot.

 

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