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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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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Music Appreciation: Sleigh Ride by Leroy Anderson

Welcome to my favorite holiday song!

It’s hard not to think immediately of snow, Christmas, or just the holiday season in general when hearing the opening bars of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride.  Anderson uses musical imagery to great effect in his works, and Sleigh Ride is no exception.  And to think he composed this classic winter song during a heat wave in the summer of 1946!

Old-fashioned horse and sleigh

Old-fashioned horse and sleigh
(used under CC0 license)

Anderson’s music falls into the category of “light classical”.  If you’ve heard anything by the Boston Pops (notable conductors include Arthur Fiedler, John Williams and Keith Lockhart), you’ve heard light classical.  The lines can be a bit blurry as to what makes something “light” classical versus “serious”, but I think of it like the movies: the “serious” pieces are the heavy-hitting dramas that get nominations for Best Picture at the Oscars; the “light” pieces are your romantic comedies and such.  Or literary fiction compared to a cozy mystery.  I enjoy a variety of music, so I’ll gladly include some lighter pieces on this blog.

 

The introduction throws us immediately into this winter wonderland, with the jingling sleigh bells and bouncy trumpet call, followed by flute snowflakes.  I like the horn tension underneath the trumpets at the beginning.

Then we get on our merry way, with the horse trotting through the snow.  The main melody is just so happy and light!  There’s a smooth, longer line in the mid-range instruments that my bassoonist friend likes to say is the road the sleigh is traveling over.  Listen for the reply in the trombones and bass voices after the first statement of the theme (0:20).

The next section adds some temple blocks for the “horse hoof” effect.  Not quite as funny as a pair of coconuts, but it gets the image across just the same.  There’s a nice little countermelody going on in this section.  It sounds like it’s in the violas, but I’m not positive on that as I’ve only performed the band version (do any of my readers know?)  Then we hit a sforzando-piano chord at 0:42 (it’s suddenly accented then immediately softer) in the horns, which grows louder (crescendos) as the xylophone gives us a transition back into the main theme.

This time, the theme is played by the trumpets as the high woodwinds and strings create snow flurries by playing a short trill on each note.  After this time through the melody, we move into a syncopated transition and the ensemble gets quieter for the next part.

Here we get another toy from the percussion – the “whip”.  You might think, “how hard can that be to play?”.  Well, you need to be absolutely on time with those whip cracks!  After a buildup in volume from the rest of the ensemble, there’s one beat where no one else plays – if the whip doesn’t sound there, it’s rather obvious.  After the successful whip crack, Anderson brings us back down to piano (soft) in order to crescendo again into another whip crack.  With the distraction of the whip and the liveliness of the melody, it’s easy to miss some neat chord changes that are happening during this bit after the second whip crack (1:13).

The next transition harkens back to the beginning of the piece, but adds some echoes and uses shorter segments of that trumpet theme (1:33) before restating the “flute snowflake” theme (1:40).  But for the next statement of the main theme, Anderson makes it 20% cooler by jazzing the whole thing up.  The trumpets do their jazzy thing, followed by the trombones’ more bombastic reply (1:47).  Then everyone gets to jump in: the upper voices get a fun doodle and the basses have a great moving line.

After the excitement of the jazz section, the ensemble settles back down for the rest of the ride.  We hear familiar themes and accompaniments as the pieces winds down.  Anderson doesn’t let us get completely comfortable, though, as he interjects a brief call-and-answer between the instruments (2:30). This begins the lead-up to the most famous part of the piece: the horse whinny, courtesy of a solo trumpet player.  We then hear a quick salute to the clip-clop of the horse hooves and one more whip crack before the entire orchestra announces the end.

I’ll close this post with a fun arrangement of Sleigh Ride.  Remember how we had that odd-metered section in Armenian Dances?  The one in 5/8 time?  Well, here’s Sleigh Ride in 7/8.  The seven beats might not be easily heard right away, but the intro has a 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 rhythm, so you’ll hear three long pulses then one short pulse.  This sequence happens four times (four measures’ worth) before the melody starts.  Whether or not you can hear those seven quick notes per measure, you should feel a bit of a lilt to the rhythm.

Happy and safe holidays, everyone!  I’ll see you in 2013!

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