Sarabande from “Pour le Piano” by Claude Debussy

It took me a while to figure out which piece to discuss this time. November has been a busy month. It started with a combined student recital and clarinet choir concert that I organized and performed in, followed by a week-long staycation for me where I got a chance to dive back into an arranging and composition project I’ve been neglecting for far too long. I was also busier with teaching private lessons (which is good, but it does add to my schedule). Then there’s the usual work and house stuff, plus Thanksgiving. Before I knew it, it’s the end of the month and I hadn’t picked a piece to talk about.

Claude Debussy

By Donald Sheridan (Donald Sheridan) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My busy schedule aside, let’s talk about Sarabande, from the suite Pour le Piano, by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). I didn’t appreciate Debussy until I was an adult. For various reasons, I dismissed him when I was younger. I’m sure part of it was his use of “smushy” chords, though I didn’t fully grasp that at the time. Some of it may have been because I couldn’t easily play the pieces I came across in piano compilation books. I seem to remember a friend of mine (who also played piano) didn’t like him, and that influenced me. But later on, after I’d been exposed to more of his music, I realized I do like him after all. He’s mostly known for piano music, but that music also works well when transcribed for other instruments. For today, we’ll stick with a piano performance.

A sarabande is a dance form in triple meter (i.e. 3/4 time). It has origins in Spain, but later became popular in France as a slower, stately dance. Many orchestral and other instrumental suites over the years have had a sarabande as one of the movements. Debussy marks this piece as “avec une élégance grave et lente” (roughly translated to “with a serious and slow elegance”), so pianists’ interpretations vary on exactly how slow to go. Beyond the version I show here, poke around YouTube a bit to listen to other performances.

 

 

The piece begins quietly, both hands moving together in rhythm. We start right in on those squishy chords, don’t we? But the rhythm and shape of the line sets up our primary theme (0:07-1:13, kind of). The themes and motifs in this piece are more nebulous than in other pieces we’ve discussed. so bear with me on this one. And while Debussy uses a lot of complex chords, sometimes he treats us to straight-up major chords (0:39 and 1:09) which let our ears take a break from the more complex harmonies throughout the piece.

At 1:15, Debussy repeats what we heard at the very beginning, note for note. While he keeps the rhythm at 1:32 to match what we heard earlier (0:25), he alters the notes and shape of the line, and adds in chords for a full sound before dropping down to utilize the lower octaves of the piano (1:37). After the fullness of what we’ve heard, it’s unexpected.

The secondary motif begins at 1:50, dark and brooding. Listen for the moving line in the middle of the chords. I hesitate to call this a full theme because it doesn’t really stick around all that long before morphing into a transition. But you’ll hear that initial rhythmic line, and a close relative, several times in this section (1:50-2:51). We keep building upward in pitch, though not always in volume, until 2:52 where the chords cascade down into the recap of the primary theme.

While we’ve been rather quiet and delicate up until this point, Debussy changes moods when he goes back into the main theme. The first statement is marked forte (our first one in the piece), and the chords are bolder and more “normal”-sounding that what we’ve been hearing so far. But quick as that, Debussy switches right back to delicate at 3:22. The notes and rhythms are similar enough to what happened at the beginning of the piece to be recognized as such, it’s just an octave higher.

But at 3:39, he inserts a brand-new motif instead of continuing on with the main theme. Pay attention around 3:54, however, as there’s a tiny rhythmic snippet that will return later. At 3:57, after a build-up in intensity from the previous few measures, we’re treated to another lovely major chord. We continue on with the rhythm from the primary theme, though on different notes, landing on another big major chord at 4:17.

After all that, we quiet down suddenly at 4:22, repeating the primary theme rhythm with the pitches closer to what we heard originally (0:45). It’s a brief quote, though, as we move on toward the closing section of the piece (coda). At 4:36 we hear that small rhythmic snippet from back at 3:54. It echoes at 4:40, with the echo ringing downward in pitch until 4:48, where we hear one last quote from our main theme. Debussy closes the piece with bell-like chords moving up the range of the instrument and some final, quiet notes in the bass.

That wraps up our afternoon with Claude Debussy. I hope you’ll explore more of his music, and feel free to let me know any of your favorite pieces by him so I can listen to them. If you’d like the sheet music for this piece, there’s a public domain version available at IMSLP.org. (Shameless plugs: if you’re a clarinet player, I’ve arranged this for clarinet choir. You can also buy collections of Debussy’s and other composers’ works at Sheet Music Plus and support the blog).

To go along with the above shameless plug, I now have a recording of real people playing my clarinet choir arrangement. Yay!

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Tam o’Shanter by Malcolm Arnold

As it’s Halloween, it’s time to talk about a piece I’ve had on my list since I started the blog: Tam o’Shanter by Malcolm Arnold. This piece has 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). It tells

"A Scene from Tam O'Shanter."

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

the tale of dear Tam o’Shanter, a farmer who spent one evening getting drunk with friends (well, he spends many evenings getting drunk with friends, but the poem speaks of one night in particular). He 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:

We begin on octave Es throughout the range of the strings, just a 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 wonderfully 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 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). 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 a 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. We hear a different version of Tam’s drinking song in the piccolo (2:57). Perhaps he’s thinking of his dear wife, 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.

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 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’s 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)

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.

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.

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!

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Jabberwocky by Sam Pottle

Jabberwock as illustrated by John Tenniel

Jabberwock as illustrated by John Tenniel

As we turn to autumn and the stores have filled with pumpkin-flavored everything and Halloween costumes, I thought we’d listen to some music befitting the season. There’s no shortage of seasonal music in the non-pop music world, so I imagine I’ll have plenty to keep me busy for as long as I write this blog.

Many of you are familiar with Lewis Carroll’s (Charles Dodgson) poem “Jabberwocky,” which first appeared in his novel Through the Looking Glass. It’s full of wonderful nonsense words, and parodies English scholarship and heroic poetry. There have been any number of derivative works resulting from this one poem, but we’ll focus on a choral setting by Sam Pottle. Along with doing a lot of songwriting for “Sesame Street,” Pottle co-wrote the theme to the “Muppet Show” – one of the best TV theme songs, ever. I guess that helps explain why I like “Jabberwocky” so much! (Tangent: if you haven’t seen the Muppet version of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” do it now. Totally worth it.)

If you’d like to purchase the sheet music to this piece, please use Sheet Music Plus and support the blog.

 

The piano starts with a bouncy accompaniment firmly in the key of E major. The full choir enters soon thereafter, the opening jumps in the melody reminiscent of horn calls signaling a hunt. At 0:17, the women break out into beautiful three-part harmony, followed by the men in unison with the piano, the tonality shifting a bit out of our happy key of E. The choir finishes out the verse with a neat chord progression that brings us back to E (0:25-0:28). At 0:30, did you catch the small “ping” of the triangle? What else might appear throughout the piece?

The second verse takes on a more ominous tone as we hear the first warning about the feared Jabberwock (0:32). While the women’s part at 0:40 is the same cheery bit at in the first verse, the addition of the men’s voices add weight to the words. Descending chromatic lines between the men and women (and the addition of a baby rattle) further warn us of the “frumious Bandersnatch,” with a final severe warning at 0:55. Brrr!

We return to the horn-call melody for the third verse, the hero taking up his sword in preparation of battle. This time Pottle changes up the women’s line, keeping the same tonality but changing the melodic content (1:07) and adding a glockenspiel for effect. The men echo the women, both groups coming together in thought at 1:14. They think some more. They finish the verse with what must have been a very profound thought, given the seriousness of the tone at 1:25.

A roll of the tambourine and deep tremolo in the bass notes of the piano warn us that danger is near (1:32). We also shift into C minor, the piano playing a similar, but scarier, version of the original accompaniment. The percussion also shifts – now we hear a drum and cymbal as well as the tambourine.

At 1:38, the men bring a different melody into the fourth verse, one that fits with the menacing tone of the accompaniment. The women join in, the drum accentuating what must be the footfalls of the horrible beast. We hear a modified version of the chormatic theme from the second verse, this one whirling about twice as fast (my guess is that the Jabberwock is twice as scary as the Bandersnatch!).

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

“One, two! One, two! And through and through the vorpal blade went snicker-snack!” We’re in the heat of battle now (2:03). The percussion (now including a ratchet) starts going crazy. Snicker-snack! Everyone holds a mostly-B♭ major chord, the tremolo E in the left hand of the piano giving what should be a triumphant chord a lot of tension (2:15). The choir cuts off as we hear two beats from the piano and percussion. Then silence.

The piano regroups, continuing in a series of two beats at a time, but softly and on a different chord. The choir comes in softly at 2:27 with the open fourths and fifths we heard during the battle scene. As our hero leaves the scene, he gains strength and energy, taking the motif upward chromatically toward home (2:35).

The hero arrives home, both in key (E major) and to his father (2:49). We hear the original piano accompaniment with added percussion. The father’s theme also returns, this time asking if his son was successful (2:54). The women (Mom? Sisters?) are all “Ah!” and “Ooh!” at the tale. Everyone then joins in for the women’s motif, rejoicing that the Jabberwock is no more! At 3:05 we think we’re going back to the chromatic theme, but we don’t. This is a celebration, after all! Whee!

We return to the original theme just as we return to the words of the first verse (3:15). The percussion join in the revelry. Instead of having to warn of the Jabberwock, the group continues to celebrate (3:34) using an effective alteration between C major and E major. The choir and piano belt out heroic-sounding chords as they finish the piece. Ta da!

Whew! After that perilous journey, I believe I’m ready for a nice cup of tea and a crackling fire. Look for my next post around Halloween – I have a great piece picked out for the occasion!

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Loving classical music – unabashedly

I just stumbled across this new-to-me article from The Guardian by Armando Iannucci. I highly encourage you to read it before going on with my post.

This article resonated with me, and touches on why I write this blog. I’ve loved classical since I was a kid; it’s always been a part of me. I still don’t know most rock or pop singers/bands, except in passing and knowing that there are a few things out there I like. My MP3 player is filled with classical, showtunes, some jazz, and a tiny bit of rock. I know I’m an oddball in that sense compared to my peers, but I don’t care. One of my favorite quotes is from Gretchen Rubin (The Happiness Project): “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” I like performing, listening to, and composing/arranging classical music*. No apologies made or necessary.

(*Yes, I use the term “classical music” in the broad sense of the term, not just limited to music written between 1750-1820. To the more pedantic readers out there – deal with it.)

This quote from the article sums it up nicely:

“Classical music has been, for me, the single most inspiring, most moving, most magical thread running though my whole cultural experience. It’s the art form in whose presence I feel most comfortable, most myself.”

I started piano lessons in either kindergarten or first grade. My sister (3 years older) started flute the next year or so and, given that she had dreams of being a teacher, decided that she needed to teach me to play flute as well. At least that’s how I remember it – she might have another version. A couple years after that, I went along to hear her play at a solo and ensemble contest, and that’s where I saw it: a clarinet. I was immediately smitten, and knew that was the instrument I wanted to play when I started band.

The blogger at a piano lesson (~1983)

The blogger at a piano lesson (~1983)

I did have a brief fling with oboe in seventh and eighth grade due to boredom (and extreme band geekiness), but returned to my true love my freshman year. In college, I finally got to play bass clarinet and had a taste of contra, cementing my allegiance to the “dark side” (the low clarinets). While I still love to play the noodling-doodling lines in regular clarinet, there’s something about the power of the low beasts that’s quite satisfying.

Because of my love for music, it does pain me when people dismiss classical out of hand. Yes, it can be pretentious. Yes, it can be boring. Yes, it can be difficult to know where to start. No one will love every single piece of music. But there’s so much out there that to not give any of it a shot because of the couple of “boring songs” you heard makes me sad.

“I’m aware that it’s easy to fall back on quasi-mystical, pretentious language when trying to talk about one’s experience of classical music, but that shouldn’t stop us trying. We don’t talk about music enough. As someone who’s never felt he’s had the technical language at his fingertips, I feel all I can do is talk about it in whatever English I have at my command. I want to emote about how I feel.”

This is another quote that spoke to me, and it goes the heart of why I do this blog. I try to talk about pieces in a way that anyone can get, even someone who has never had any formal training in music. I just want people to hear the awesome sounds that happen in classical music and maybe nudge someone to explore more of the genre. I want to share my love for music with anyone who’s willing to listen. I don’t care that you don’t know a clarinet from a trombone, just that you have an interest in music. You don’t have to know the name of something in order to like it.

“I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I find I can’t listen to Mozart. I don’t dislike him, I’m just unmoved by him. I realise I’m in a minority and I’m intrigued as to why this is. I broadcast a Radio 3 interval talk about this a few months ago, and the controller, Roger Wright, rather mischievously scheduled it in the middle of a live relay of The Marriage of Figaro. I received the biggest response to anything I’ve ever done. Buckets of letters and emails. None of them hostile. One or two confessing they agreed with me. But many more patiently, movingly, explaining why they loved Mozart.”

Brahms is my homeboy

Brahms is my homeboy – visit Wacketees on Cafe Press for more!

*looks around furtively* I’m not big on Mozart, either. Similar to Iannucci, it’s not that I don’t like him, there are just other composers that do more for me. Bring on Brahms, Ives, Arnold, Copland, Bernstein! I’m sure someone out there would love to revoke my Classical Musician Card™ due to my apathy toward Mozart, oh well. Let them try. Like I said earlier, there’s so much out there – we don’t all have to like the same thing or agree on everything. I once looked at one of the many Facebook groups for classical music. They made no bones about being elitist and had a list of Good and Bad composers. While I could understand quite a few of their choices, the fact that they had such a hard and fast list completely turned me off to wanting to join the group (and the fact that they seemed perfectly willing to ridicule anyone who disagreed with their list). Unfortunately, I believe those types of attitudes are what most non-musicians think of when they hear the term “classical music,” and further causes people to not even try listening to classical.
I'm sure someone ... would love to revoke my Classical Musician Card™ due to my apathy toward Mozart Click To Tweet

I hope my rambling today has made some sense. The TL;DR version would be “give classical a shot.” Ask me questions, even if you’re afraid they’re “stupid.” I’ll answer to the best of my ability. Check out local concerts by community groups. Even if we are far from perfect in our performance, we’re excited about what we do. Maybe we can excite you as well. Encourage your kids to take up an instrument or singing. Swing by the classical CDs on your next trip to the library or look for a classical genre on your preferred streaming service. Just give it a chance!

(I couldn’t leave without linking to some piece of music, so here’s a recent performance by me on bass clarinet. Enjoy!)

 

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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