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: 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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Music Appreciation: Overture to Candide by Leonard Bernstein

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Candide

Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina in the Huntington Theatre Company’s CANDIDE. Directed and newly adapted by Mary Zimmerman (2011). Photo by T. Charles Erickson. (CC BY 2.0)

I couldn’t wait too long before talking about the Overture to Candide.  Leonard Bernstein is probably known best for his music for the musical West Side Story (which is awesome as well), but I can’t get enough of one of his other musicals: Candide.  The show is based on the book of the same name, a satirical work from 1759 written by Voltaire.  The musical version has a long and complicated history, beginning with the first production from the 1950s.  The link in the previous sentence has a good summary of the ups and downs of the show, and does a much better job describing it than I would.  I had the good fortune to see Candide on stage in Chicago a few years ago.  There were even more changes, but I enjoyed the production immensely and am glad I finally got to see it.

I love this piece so much I had the opening and closing bits as my Windows startup/shutdown music for years.  Until Windows 7 took away the option to customize that *grumblegrumble*  Maybe I should use it as a ringtone instead…

I love that this video was on YouTube, because I think it’s great to see Lenny himself conducting the piece.

Bernstein immediately grabs your attention with a huge timpani hit and a brass fanfare.  Then away we go with a fast, rippling melody in the strings over a slightly shifted oom-pah support (the strong bass beats are actually on count 4 instead of the naturally dominant 1).  The melody finishes and the fanfare repeats itself.  While the melody starts off the same for the second time, it veers into raucous new territory at 0:28.  Well, not really new.  Go back to 0:15 and listen to the trombones (the camera even focuses on them).  Sound familiar?  Nice foreshadowing by the bones there.

(Cute dance at 0:28, Mr. Bernstein!)

This new theme is presented in full force with a emphatic echo by the low voices.  The second time through, however, is a little lighter, using trumpet, xylophone, possibly some upper woodwinds.  The strings have a pizzicato accompaniment on the offbeats instead of the heavier trumpet/trombone offbeats from the first time around.

Next we have a dialogue between the forceful brass, basses and percussion and the chirpy winds and strings.  I don’t know exactly why, but I love playing that loud bass part (0:40).  For some reason, I find that part quite satisfying on my bass clarinet (at least in the band arrangement; I’ve never played the orchestral part).  Maybe it’s because I get to pretend I’m a timpani.

Bernstein takes us through a development section, manipulating the original fast melody and giving it to various soloists – flute, clarinet, and bassoon.  After a few neat blips from a clarinet, the piccolo grabs the melody, then takes it on a path down through the winds into the “slow” section.  I love that descending line, how it passes between piccolo and clarinet with some pizzicato strings for accents.

The “slow” section (1:22) is reminiscent of Festive Overture (aha – another overture!) in that the underlying tempo of the piece does not change.  The note values are longer, which give it the effect of feeling slower.  Try singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with each syllable getting one beat.  Now keep that beat going, but have each syllable last for two beats.  Hear how that changes the mood of the melody?

Anyway, back to the piece.  This is another one of those gorgeous melodies that gives me goosebumps.  The first time through, the melody is so lush coming from the violas.  Violas don’t always get a lot of love – they’re not the flashy violins, nor the big, cool basses.  But Bernstein gives them a chance to shine here.  The upper strings join in on the second time through, and this time you can hear a neat countermelody joining in (1:34).  I get jealous of the folks who get to play it!  At 1:46 we get into the B section of this theme, mostly the same rhythm as before but a different melodic line.

From there we have a bit of an interjection by the woodwinds that brings us back to the A section of the theme.  Now the horns get that beautiful countermelody (along with the piccolo, but honestly, I’m all about the horns at that point).  After drinking in that rich sound, Bernstein wakes us up with an abrupt return to the fanfare from the beginning of the piece.

This time, though, we hear the theme in a quieter manner, with a flute solo on the melody (2:21), joined by some wicked sawing by the first violin at 2:28.  Bernstein reprises his dance moves at 2:33.

We return to the forceful brass/chirpy strings theme at 2:38.  We don’t stay here long, though, and move back into the slow theme.  But notice how he takes the chirps in the strings and carries them over the slow melody (a duet between oboe and horn).  I love the descending line in the chirps at 3:01.

And the horns return in all their glory at 3:05.

At 3:18 we start to transition into the final section of the piece.  We have more dialogue between winds and strings, with a quick pause before diving into completely new territory. The bassoon gets a quick oom-pah going, with a fun little melody in the flute.  Does it sound like laughing to you?  It should.  Stay tuned for the bonus features for this piece and you’ll get to hear the full effect of the laughing theme.  But until then, listen to how the theme gets echoed in the strings (3:32), then in the horns (3:38).  It builds for a bit before charging off in yet another direction, this time with the trumpets playing a new melody (3:34).

I love how Bernstein gets this to all work out at 3:34, as he has the melody and accompaniment at odds with each other.  It’s kind of hard to explain without resorting to drawing, but the melody is in a fast two with an odd measure of 3 thrown in, while the accompaniment is in a faster 3 throughout.  It’s one of those parts where you have to trust yourself and not listen too much to what others are doing.  Usually, I feel a musician needs to listen to everyone else in the group just as much as she listens to herself, but there are certain times when you really have to focus on your line only and watch the conductor for “beat landmarks”.  (Tangent: I played the piece Tempered Steel in community band, and I was the only one in this one part of the music who had a rhythm that was continually at odds with everyone else. I had to be aware of the rest of the group, but I couldn’t focus my ears on them too much or else I would start playing with them instead of against them).

So the trumpet melody gets repeated and grows in intensity until 4:03, where we hear the fanfare again. But this time it doesn’t stick around for long before we hear modulations of the original fast theme.  Those don’t last for long, either, and we’re back to the trumpet theme one more time.  The horns really show off at 4:21 with their bold statement of the slow theme, punctuated by the timpani.  We get one last flourish from the winds and strings, a soft, short chord, then a final boom!

Stay tuned for the bonus features post – I have some fun things to share!

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Bonus Features: Festive Overture

I had a couple more things to talk about with Festive Overture, but the last post was getting a bit long.  So here’s another “bonus features” post.

First off is our piece as played by a concert band.  Bands frequently play pieces that were originally for orchestra.  An arranger takes the parts and rewrites them for the instruments in the band.  So the violin parts get redistributed to flutes, clarinets and oboes; saxes, bassoons and bass clarinets get the viola and cello parts.  The low brass get more of the string bass parts, etc.

So why do all that?  Because we can 🙂  Why should the orchestras have all the fun?  You could liken it to when rock bands do cover songs.  It’s another way of expressing and hearing the music.  Some arrangements try to be as faithful to the original work as possible.  These arrangements are considered to be “transcriptions”.  The arranger doesn’t add his own voice to the piece outside of some decisions as to what instrument plays which part.  Other times, the arranger manipulates the original – he changes the time signature, modifies the melody, stuff like that.

So here’s a transcription for band by Donald Hunsberger.  The key has been moved down a half step from A to A♭.  There are practical reasons for changing the key in that different instruments have an easier time with certain keys over others.  So the group you’re writing for can influence which key you use.  Sure, we musicians should be able to play in all keys, but I figure why makes things harder than they need to be?

Do you like one version better than the other?  What differences did you hear in the instruments?  Did you notice when one section of the piece was played by a different instrument than in the orchestral version?

I have one more recording to share.  We’re back to the orchestral version, but listen to how fast they go!  Holy cow!  I came across this one while searching for just the right one to use in my discussion post.  While I admire how well they play, I prefer the slower one.  With tempo, there is often some wiggle room for interpretation.  Composers will sometimes specify a metronome marking (which specifies speed as “beats per minute”).   I tend to see more general terms, such as allegro (fast), maestoso (majestically), etc.

Here’s the warp speed version:

And that wraps up our discussion of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture.  I hope you enjoyed it!

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Music Appreciation: Festive Overture by Dmitri Shostakovich

Now we move to a Festive Overture by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), a Russian composer who had a strained

Photo of Dmitri Shostakovich (1958)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1958)
(Public domain image)

relationship with Joseph Stalin’s regime in Soviet Russia.  During that time, artists had to be careful what they produced.  There could be terrible consequences if they didn’t properly reflect the state’s approved aesthetic of “socialist realism”.  Despite the lack of artistic freedom, Shostakovich was a prolific composer, writing symphonies, string quartets, ballet and movie music, and much more.

I didn’t know the back story on Festive Overture before now – I just knew I loved the piece and have had a great time rehearsing and performing it.  I hadn’t known that it was composed just three days before its premiere at a concert commemorating the anniversary of the October Revolution.  Wow!

(In researching this post, I stumbled across an archived story about Shostakovich that NPR did a few years back.  They talk a bit more about the political climate Shostakovich faced.  You might also be interested in articles from the LA Philharmonic and California public TV station KCET.)

So let’s hear some music!

 

Shostakovich creates a bold beginning with a trumpet fanfare, adding in the horns to help build the chord.  The low voices follow with a statement of their own.  As the high brass repeat the fanfare, the strings and upper woodwinds join in with some shimmer in the high range.  The tension builds through repetition, with the entire orchestra uniting in rhythm and slowing down just a bit to introduce the main theme of the piece.

And then we fly!  The clarinets play the main theme of the piece – it’s just so gleeful and free.  They’re joined by the flutes and piccolo, with the strings as accompaniment. But listen to the strings here – listen to how rhythmic that accompaniment is.  I feel it adds an extra push of excitement to the rollicking already happening in the melody.  Then the violins decide they want the melody, too, and let the horns take over the accompaniment.  Even though it’s not as syncopated as the string accompaniment earlier, it still has an intensity to it that propels the melody forward.

(For the love of Pete – why on earth do the audience members look as if they’re listening to a funeral march?  Maybe I’m more of a nerd than I thought, because it’s hard for me not to break out into a grin when I hear this piece, especially as that clarinet part begins.)

At 2:15, the trumpets enter with a new theme, accented by flourishes from the upper instruments.  It doesn’t last very long and is followed by a conversation of sorts between the strings and brass (2:24).  The woodwinds join in and keep the conversation flowing and building toward the next section.

This time, it’s the middle and low voices who get the primary melody (2:45).  The rest of the ensemble adds flourishes and accents.  Listen closely here – does the melody sound familiar at all? It’s actually the same as the initial clarinet melody, just slower.  Pretty cool, huh?  He changes it just a bit, but it’s clearly based on the main theme.

After the low instruments have their say, they help to usher in the gorgeous “slow” theme (3:04).  I put slow in quotes because the overall tempo of the piece doesn’t change, and you can hear that the accompaniment is still driving along under the lushness of the cellos.  But this melody is not frenzied and exuberant like the first theme.  (I talk about many different themes in this piece, but I consider the first clarinet melody as the main theme and the “slow” melody as the second most important theme).  The melody continues with the violins joining in, then Shostakovich uses repetition and manipulation of a motif at 3:30 to transition into the next section (a motif is the smallest bit of thematic material; think of the da-da-da-dummmm of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony).

This next bit is interesting in that it doesn’t have a melody that announces itself like all the other themes.  At first it sounds like regular oom-pah-ing to usher in the next part, but if you listen closely, it’s quite melodic.  The ensemble helps show the musicality of this part with its subtle crescendo and descrecendo at 3:44-45-ish.  Another reason this section feels different is because the strings are playing pizzicato, which means the players pluck the strings instead of using a bow drawn across them.

After going through this oom-pah melody twice, the high winds join in with some runs which gain in intensity and provide a good compliment to the heavier accented line in the strings.  Shostakovich brings back the trumpet theme we heard back at 2:15, but uses the strings this time.  All through this he builds tension and anticipation, moving us forward, bringing us finally to the primary clarinet theme, this time with the entire orchestra playing.  We get some relief from the tension he’d built leading up to this.

He’s not done with us yet, however.  At 4:29, he takes the melody in a bit of a different direction, teasing us some more by manipulating the runs in the violins, adding some repetition to them, and using a trill at 4:36 to add even more tension, until…

Glorious resolution!  Everything comes together at this point.  We have the gleeful fast melody over the lush slow melody.  There are some slight changes to each, but the effect is amazing.  He lets us on for a bit before calming down a little.  I’ve always loved the descending line/transition at 4:48 that brings us back into the slow theme.  But he doesn’t keep us there for long, as he’s back to manipulating the melody at 4:58, bringing the tension in again, raising the pitch of the melody to add to that tension.  Another transition statement I love is starts with the back and forth at 5:12, which has an ascending brass line to move it forward, and concludes at 5:15 with the entire group playing the same rhythm.  Using the same rhythm is very effective here.

We have one last burst of energy at 5:17, bringing back earlier themes throughout this section.  We noodle around some more, finally slowing down just a tiny bit to usher in a return to the fanfare we heard way back in the beginning of the piece.  Remember that? It was several minutes ago!  This time the entire ensemble is playing and the strings and winds have added various flourishes.  He’s not quite finished with us yet.  We take one last dive into the swift river of sound, joyously building toward the end.

Did you have fun?  I sure did!  It’s difficult not to feel the “festive” part of this overture.  I actually have a couple more tidbits to share, but given the length of this post I think I’ll cover those in a bonus features post.  See you next time!

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