Classical Tyro

A Beginner's Guide to Great Music

Maurice Ravel and the Destruction of the Waltz


World War I represents a breakdown in civilization that might lead some to think of the national leaders who caused it as “
marching morons.”

In August 1914 the nations of Europe stumbled into a four-year conflict that killed over 16 million people. In one battle alone, the Battle of the Somme, over one million soldiers died, and the combatants of that battle might have been hard-pressed to explain what they were trying to achieve.

Battle of the Somme, 1916
World War I can be seen as even more disastrous considering the decades of relative peace and prosperity that preceded it. (I stress the word “relative.”) For Europe, the late nineteenth century was a time of tranquility and economic growth that fostered much scientific and artistic innovation (think Darwin and Monet). Then came World War I, the war that achieved little beyond causing a second world war and the deaths of another 60 million people. They called World War I the “war to end war.” Marching morons, indeed.

all quiet
Countless works of art, including many films and literary works, have attempted to describe the insanity and destructiveness of World War I. A piece of orchestral music that many put into that category is Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, a piece composed in 1919 that some hear as a tone poem depicting European civilization descending into barbarism. Ravel denied this interpretation and stated, "This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement."

Ravel completed
La Valse shortly after World War I, and it's easy to see how some might have heard the brutality of the war in Ravel's "ascending progression of sonority." In composing music that clearly portrays the decay and destruction of the Viennese waltz, Ravel created what many can't help but hear as a metaphor for what happened in Europe from 1850 to 1918.

Follow the time indicators listed below and listen to how the elegant Viennese waltz heard at the beginning of
La Valse moves through several episodes before deteriorating into confusion and despair. Even though Ravel said he did not intend to describe what had happened to Europe during World War I, it's easy to hear how some people might have heard it that way. (After listening to the orchestral version, don't forget to listen to the encore embedded at the end — a terrific version of La Valse for solo piano by Steven Osborne.)


Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France

0:00 – The Mist
The music begins with a rumbling in the basses as an elegant Viennese waltz slowly emerges from the fog.

2:05 – Viennese Waltz

The waltz, played in its purest form, is introduced by the violins and eventually taken over by the full orchestra. The waltz then evolves through several episodes of its development, from graceful, sweet, and gentle to joyful and grandiose

2:49 – Episode 1

4:01 – Episode 2
4:32 – Episode 3
5:02 – Episode 4
5:52 – Episode 5
7:33 – Episode 6


8:03 – The Mist
We return to the fog from the beginning (a rebirth of the waltz) that takes us toward …

8:20 – Confusion, Part 1
A variety of instruments playing fragments of the Viennese waltz. Each fragment is played with unexpected modulations and instrumentation.

9:50 – Confusion, Part 2
The waltz begins to whirl out of control.

10:09 – Despair, Part 1
The waltz turns gloomy and gradually builds toward …

11:09 – Despair, Part 2
A Danse Macabre

12:15 – Coda
The waltz dies as the music changes from three beats per measure (waltz time) to two beats per measure (march time).

As an encore, here's a version of La Valse for solo piano.

Steven Osborne, piano
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Aaron Copland and Billy the Kid


Aaron Copland finished composing his ballet suite about Billy the Kid in 1938. The music portrayed the Kid in a sympathetic light, and I suspect that had Copland composed it a dozen years earlier, he would have used a different musical style and presented an entirely different version of the Kid's story. 

I say this, in part, because Copland had reinvented himself as composer during the decade after he left Paris and returned to America in 1924. After he finished his studies at the Fontainebleau School of Music, he came home determined to create music that was “as recognizably American as Mussorgsky and Stravinsky were Russian.” He then embraced modernist dissonance and tone clusters, composing avant-garde music that seemed intentionally designed to provoke audiences. His music may have sounded “American,” but it was music that would never find a wide — or let’s say, “democratic” — audience.

Photo of Aaron Copland, 1970
Not until 1936, when he composed El Salon Mexico, did Copland begin to develop the “populist” style for which he is so well known, a style that often incorporates the simplicity of folk songs.

The change in Copland’s compositional style came partially from the social and political changes stemming from the Great Depression, as well as the rise of fascism in Europe. He wanted to expand his audience and create music that was accessible and inspirational. He wanted to give Americans a sense of ownership and pride in their nation’s heritage. He wanted to help people feel good about being American.

Copland's change in philosophy should lead to an obvious question: If he was so determined to celebrate what was good about America, why did he choose to compose music about an outlaw like Billy the Kid?

To answer that question we must begin by understanding that music and art are a product of the time in which they are produced. Copland's version of Billy the Kid, in many ways, was nothing more than a product of its time.

Photo of Billy the Kid
When Billy the Kid was shot dead by Pat Garrett in 1881 (over fifty years before Copland's ballet), he was portrayed by the media as a black-hearted villain and cold-hearted killer. The Kid represented anarchy and lawlessness and throughout the late 1800s became a symbol for everything wrong with the American West. After he was killed, one newspaper even referred to him as the “devil’s meat." By the early 1900s, the Kid began to disappear from American media and history books, having become a character from the past who Americans wanted to ignore and forget. 

Then, in 1926, a Chicago journalist named Walter Noble Burns published
The Saga of Billy the Kid. Burns had visited New Mexico and heard firsthand accounts of the Kid that changed his view of the boy outlaw. Burns interviewed people who had known the Kid and used those interviews to write a book that was eventually listed as a main selection of the Book of the Month Club. In short, Burns had written a bestseller that resurrected and redefined the Kid in popular culture.

In
The Saga of Billy the Kid, Burns portrayed the Kid as a young boy fighting against a powerful and corrupt political machine. According to Burns, the Kid was a noble and charming champion of the oppressed. The Kid may have been a violent young man, but his actions were justified, and he personified a type of individualism that was disappearing in America. All told, Burns created a hero for an America that felt betrayed by the financial corruption of the 1920s and economic depression of the 1930s.

During the 1930s, the Kid was at the height of his popularity as a hero in popular culture. In 1930, MGM made a movie titled
Billy the Kid that showed the young outlaw fighting for the powerless and downtrodden, a heroic character at war with villainous bankers and big landowners. Preview audiences for the film reacted so negatively to the Kid’s death at the end of the film that MGM was forced to create a new ending, showing Pat Garrett shooting at the Kid and intentionally missing. The Kid then fled on horseback across the border into Mexico.

As for Aaron Copland’s
Billy the Kid, the music did nothing more than conform to the popular image of Billy the Kid that was widespread during the 1930s. Had Copland composed Billy the Kid in 1925 it might have been a dissonant portrayal of a villainous desperado. The version composed in 1938, however, provided a folksy depiction of a young boy who was muy simpático.

Today, Copland’s
Billy the Kid can be heard as a timeless piece of music, a composition that represents much more than a milestone in Copland’s evolving compositional style. It is also much more than an artifact of the 1930s. Despite the changes that are sure to come in how music is composed or how Billy the Kid is portrayed in popular culture, Copland’s Billy the Kid will remain an emotional and romantic portrait of an American icon.


Kevin Noe conducting the Michigan State University Symphony Orchestra

0:04 Part 1
— The story begins with Sheriff Pat Garrett leading pioneers westward across the open prairie.

3:38 Part 2 — The story shifts to Silver City, NM, a small frontier town where the young wide-eyed and innocent Billy lives with his mother. Toward the end of this section Billy’s mother is killed by a stray bullet during a gunfight (9:44). Billy then kills the man responsible for his mother’s death and goes on the run, living the life of an outlaw.

10:37 Part 3 — The scene shifts to several years in the future. Billy is an outlaw living in the desert, playing cards with his companions at night. The solo trumpet (12:41) portrays the Kid as a lonely character.

14:09 Part 4 — Billy finds himself in a gunfight with a posse charged with arresting him. Billy is captured and taken to jail.

16:11 Part 5 — People celebrate the capture of Billy the Kid. During the celebration, the Kid kills two guards (18:30) and escapes from jail.

18:45 Part 6 — Billy, alone on the prairie, is hunted by Pat Garrett and shot dead.

20:28 Part 7 — The opening theme returns with Sheriff Pat Garrett leading pioneers westward across the open prairie.

Support this blog by using the links below to purchase books and recordings from Amazon. The book Catherine's Son is a novel written by the author of this blog and tells the story of Billy the Kid during the years he lived in Silver City, NM.




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Rachmaninoff's Hands

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I first heard about Sergei Rachmaninoff’s hands when I was in college and a friend of mine, a piano major, was told that she would not be required to play some of Rachmaninoff’s music because she lacked the reach in her fingers. Since that day, I have noticed that it is difficult to read about Rachmaninoff without the size of his hands creeping into the text. Indeed, the legend of his hands is so pervasive that I often sense writers grasping for adjectives to describe his hands the way someone learning to swim might struggle to breathe.

In
The Lives of the Great Composers, Harold C. Schonberg writes that Rachmaninoff’s hands were “supple,” “spectacular,” and “phenomenal.” The Sound Post reports that his oversized hands were "contrarily delicate.” Wikipedia states, “Rachmaninoff possessed extremely large hands, with which he could easily maneuver through the most complex chordal configurations.”

And how big were Rachmaninoff's hands? In
A Walk on the Wild Side, the pianist Earl Wild states, “His reach extended to a twelfth!” Put another way, Max Harrison in Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings reports that Rachmaninoff could "with his left hand stretch C–E-flat–G–C–G and the right could manage C (second finger)–E–G–C–E (thumb under).” 

Sit at a piano and see if your fingers can stretch from middle C to G in the next octave. Anyone with average-sized hands will probably be astonished that fingers can reach that far.

The reason Rachmaninoff's hands were so large may have stemmed from a genetic disorder. In the
British Medical Journal (Volume 293, December 20-27, 1986) D.A.B. Young states,  “The extraordinary size and extensibility of Rachmaninoff's hands might indicate Marfan's syndrome.”

The disease is also mentioned in
Wikipedia: “Along with his musical gifts, Rachmaninoff possessed physical gifts that may have placed him in good stead as a pianist. These gifts included exceptional height and extremely large hands with a gigantic finger stretch. They and Rachmaninoff's slender frame, long limbs, narrow head, prominent ears, and thin nose suggest that he may have had Marfan syndrome, a hereditary disorder of the connective tissue. This syndrome would have accounted for several minor ailments he suffered all his life. These included back pain, arthritis, eye strain and bruising of the fingertips.”

And how did the size of Rachmaninoff's hands affect his musical performance? Earl Wild states, “Hand size makes no difference whatsoever when playing the piano. As for the ideal fingers, Chopin’s boney, tapered fingers were perfect. Rachmaninoff also had marvelously tapered fingers, although in his case, it was his lush sound that made him famous as a pianist.”

Earl Wild also points out that the size of Rachmaninoff’s hands my have been an obstacle in his musical performance. “Rachmaninoff’s large hands, although a blessing, caused great problems for him…. In octave playing a large hand can be helpful, but an over-sized hand is definitely a hindrance. This is the reason we find so few octave passages in his compositions.”

If Rachmaninoff had not been a great musician, wholly committed to developing his skills as an artist, the size of his hands would not have mattered. He was not only one of the most highly acclaimed pianists of the twentieth century, he was also a great conductor and composer. Focusing too much attention on the size of his hands may be nothing more than an amusing sideshow.

As D.A.B. Young concluded in his article about Rachmaninoff's Marfan syndrome in the
British Medical Journal, “I should add that Rachmaninov's eminence as a pianist was founded as much on his interpretation of the music of others, especially Chopin, as on the extraordinary virtuosity he displayed in performing some of his own compositions. Undoubtedly, his hands contributed to his virtuosity; but for his interpretation of others' work it was artistic genius, not large hands, that made his performance so memorable.”


Rachmaninoff playing the First Movement from his Piano Concerto No. 2 
(Recorded in 1929 with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra)



Igudesman and Joo, "Rachmaninoff Had Big Hands"





© 2011 James L. Smith (originally posted on sonataform.blogspot.com)
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Sibelius, Symphony No. 5, Third Movement Finale (1915)

Although Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony seemingly has three movements, the first movement contains an allegro and a scherzo, providing the feeling of four movements for the symphony. In its entirety, the symphony can be heard as a “struggle” leading to the “victory” heard in the beautiful “Swan Theme” at 1:24 in the video below. (The theme was said to be inspired by the swan calls Sibelius heard after watching sixteen swans taking flight at once.) Note the unusual ending for the symphony.


Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
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Canteloube, "Baïlèro" from Songs of the Auvergne (1930)

If you have never heard Baïlèro ("The Shepherd's Song") by Joseph Canteloube, I recommend taking six minutes to give it a listen. Baïlèro, quite simply, is one of the most beautiful songs ever composed.

Baïlèro is sung in
Auvergnat, which is a dialect of the Occitan language from southern France. Occitan is rarely heard today, and the French government refuses to give it any official recognition or status, claiming it is merely a dialect of the French language. Occitan is actually a Romance language that is much older than French.

Between 1923 and 1930, Canteloube wrote a collection of songs in the Auvergnat dialect. Baïlèro is the most famous of those songs.

Enjoy.


Anna Caterina Antonacci, soprano (François-Xavier Roth conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales)


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Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1, Fourth Movement (1917)

Although this symphony was composed in 1917, it sounds like a throwback to the type of symphony that Joseph Haydn wrote in the late 1700s — many even called it Prokofiev's "Classic" Symphony. I love the tempo Valery Gergiev establishes on this recording. He has the music sounding playful and liberated. (To read more about this symphony, go to my blog entry titled “Decorating Time with Prokofiev’s First Symphony.")


Valery Gergiev conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker
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Stravinsky Causes a Riot

History books are traditionally divided into chapters that attempt to compartmentalize the ebb and flow of historical change. In most cases, however, historical change is not orderly and well-defined. History is not always marked by clear beginnings and endings. Even so, now and then, a single event turns everything upside down and transforms a society — the attack on the Bastille in 1789, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, the stock market crash in 1929. Those events clearly marked new “chapters” in human history.

Music history — like political and economic history — also has its earth-shattering moments, the moments when everything changes. Monteverdi’s
L’Orfeo  (1607) changed European music forever, as did Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (1805) and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865). All three of those works shook the foundations of music and made it difficult for composers to continue using the traditional "rules" of composition that had preceded them. Another such moment in music history came on May 29, 1913, when The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Photo of Champs Elysees Theater
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

The first performance of The Rite of Spring caused such an uproar that most accounts of the audience’s reaction refered to it as a “riot.” Even though the ballet’s unusual choreography may have had as much to do with causing a commotion as the music, we cannot avoid describing The Rite of Spring as one of the most significant and influential pieces of music ever composed.

The Rite of Spring was the third ballet by Stravinsky for the Ballets Russes. Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian art critic and entrepreneur, created the Ballet Russes in 1909 when he brought Russian ballet dancers to Paris. Employing the finest dancers in the world, Diaghilev gained much fame combining music, scenery, costumes, acting, and drama into what Richard Wagner had once described as “Artwork of the Future.”

During the first season of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev produced performances of classic ballets with music by Chopin and Rimsky-Korsakov. During the second season, however, Diaghilev scheduled performances with new music. The first ballet commissioned by Diaghilev with new music was
The Firebird by Stravinsky. At the time, Stravinsky was an unknown Russian composer, a former pupil of the great Rimsky-Korsakov.

The Firebird, which premiered in June 1910, became a hit, leading Diaghilev to commission another ballet from Stravinsky. That ballet, titled Petrushka, made Stravinsky an international star and Diaghilev asked Stravinsky for a third ballet — The Rite of Spring. At its premiere the audience was full of aristocrats and celebrities, and Paris was primed for a major social event. Little did the audience know they were about to make history by witnessing an event that would scandalize Paris and revolutionize the language of music.

PIcasso's Drawing of Stravinsky
Pablo Picasso's sketch of Stravinsky

The Rite of Spring paints a picture of a primitive and pagan world, a version of primeval human beings paying tribute to nature with rituals related to spring. During the ballet, a young virgin is selected for sacrifice and then dances herself to death.

Parisian painters had already been influenced by primitive art and had created a new artistic style known as Fauvism. “Fauvists” (or “Brutes”) painted with wild brush strikes and jarring colors.
The Rite of Spring might be described in the same terms. The combination of modernist music and dancing went far beyond what some members of the audience at the premier performance were willing to accept.

Carl Van Vechten, an American writer and photographer, attended the premier and later describe the chaos in his book
Music After the War.

“A certain part of the audience, thrilled by what it considered to be a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art, and swept away with wrath, began very soon after the rise of the curtain to whistle, to make catcalls, and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. Others of us who liked the music and felt that the principles of free speech were at stake bellowed defiance. The orchestra played on unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The figures on the stage danced in time to music that they had to imagine they heard, and beautifully out of rhythm with the uproar in the auditorium. I was sitting in a box in which I had rented one seat. Three ladies sat in front of me, one young man occupied the place behind me. He stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring, thanks to the potent force of the music, betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time. They were perfectly synchronized with the music.”

In addition to Van Vecthen’s description, other well-known stories from that evening illustrate the controversial nature of the ballet.

  • A woman who was enjoying the performance stood up and spat in the face of a man who didn't like the music.
  • Another woman who was also enjoying the performance was seated in a theater box . When a boobird in the box next to her got on her nerves she reached into his box and slapped his face. Her escort then challenged the boobird to a duel.
  • The Princesse de Pourtalès walked out of the theater exclaiming, “I am sixty years old, but this is the first time that anyone dared to make a fool of me!”
  • The ambassador from Austria sneered and laughed out loud.
  • Music critic André Capu screamed that the music was a fraud.
  • Composer and music critic Alexis Roland-Manuel loudly defended the music, causing a protestor to tear the collar from his shirt.
  • Police came to the theater in large numbers and arrested over 40 people.
The well-known people at the performance included Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Ravel shouted the word “genius” during the performance. Debussy pleaded with those around him to be silent and listen to the music. Meanwhile Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer, tried to jump into the audience to fight the protestors. Stravinsky held Nijinsky backstage to keep him from getting into a fistfight. The crowd's noise also prompted Nijinsky to stand on a chair shouting directions to his dancers as Stravinsky held his coattails.

Byron Hollinshead has edited a pair of books titled
I Wish I'd Been There in which distinguished historians answer the question, “What scene or incident in history would you most liked to have witnessed? Although I can think of several historical events I would like to have witnessed, the premier performance of The Rite of Spring would be near the top of my list.

If I had been at that performance, I would have wanted to attend as neutral observer, someone who was not taking sides. I would have wanted to watch that performance knowing what we know over 100 years later, fully cognizant of how much Stravinsky’s music was changing everything that came after. I wish I'd been there to see what it looks like when the world is shaken to its core and everything begins moving in a different direction.

*****

Music Outline for The Rite of Spring (LeSacre du Pintemps)

The two animated scores embedded below are among the best I have seen. The animations come from Stephen Malinowski and Jay Bacal at
Music Animation Machine. I find their work on The Rite of Spring riveting and thrilling. NPR called them "mind blowing."


Based on a recording rendered by Jay Bacal using virtual instrument software from Vienna Symphonic Library.

Part One: Adoration of the Earth


 
0:06 | 1. Introduction

 
3:18 | 2. Augurs of Spring (Dance of the Adolescents): The celebration of spring begins in the hills. Pipers play music and young men tell fortunes.

 
6:26 | 3. Game of the Abduction: An old woman enters. She knows the mystery of nature and begins to predict the future. Young girls with painted faces come in from the river in single file and begin the spring dance.

 
7:48 | 4. Spring Rounds: The young girls dance the “Spring Rounds.”

11:22 | 5. Games of the Rival Tribes: The people divide into two groups opposing each other and begin the “Games of the Rival Tribes.”

13:08 | 6. Entrance of the Wise Man: The holy procession enters with the wise elders led by the Wise Man.

13:48 | 7. The Wise Man: The Wise Man interrupts the spring games and the people tremble as the he blesses the earth.

14:09 | 8. Dance to the Earth: The people dance passionately and become one with the earth.


Based on a recording rendered by Jay Bacal using virtual instrument software from Vienna Symphonic Library.

Part Two: The Sacrifice


 
0:15 | 9. Introduction

 
4:54 | 10. Mysterious Circles of the Adolescents: At night, the adolescent girls engage in mysterious games, walking in circles.

 
8:10 | 11. Glorification of the Chosen One: One of the girls — a virgin — is selected as the Chosen One after being twice caught in a perpetual circle. The adolescent girls honor her with a marital dance.

 
9:36 | 12. Evocation of the Ancestors: The adolescent girls invoke their ancestors in a brief dance.

10:30 | 13. Ritual of the Ancestors: The Chosen One is entrusted to the care of the old wise men.

14:06 | 14. Ritual Dance of the Chosen One: The Chosen One performs a sacrificial dance and dances herself to death in the presence of the old wise men.




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Amy Beach: The Only Woman on Boston’s Hatch Shell

Historians know the story well — the opportunities of an intelligent, talented woman are restricted by a culture that sees women only as wives and mothers. The musical careers of Nannerl Mozart and Fanny Mendelssohn were never allowed to develop, although both may have been as talented as their famous brothers. Alma Schindler ended her possible career as a composer the day her husband Gustav told her the Mahler family could only contain one composer.

Photo of Amy Beach
Amy Beach (1867-1944) was a talented musician who confronted the same cultural restrictions as many women who came before her. Amy, however, was unwilling to accept the barriers imposed by the man’s world of composing and performing music, and her determination to overcome cultural restrictions led her to became one of the greatest and most significant musicians in American history.

Born Amy Cheney, she was a child prodigy whose parents opted not to enroll her in a music conservatory. Instead, she studied with private teachers and debuted as a concert pianist to great acclaim when she was only sixteen. By any standard Amy would have been headed for a successful career as a concert pianist — if she had been a man.

Photo of Amy Beach
When she was eighteen she married Henry Beach, a Boston surgeon who was twenty-four years older. Dr. Beach told Amy to abandon her public performances, and at first she obeyed his wishes. Her creative spirit, however, could not be crushed, and she taught herself musical composition and orchestration. If her husband would not allow her to perform in public, she would at least be able to compose at home. In the process, she became a charter member of the first generation of American composers.

Amy was a product of the Romantic era’s desire to create music with a national sound. She therefore looked to her Irish roots for thematic material and created a sound that was uniquely Irish-American. In 1896, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra played her
Symphony in E Minor (the "Gaelic" Symphony) she became the first American woman to compose music performed by a major orchestra. The symphony, characterized by its Irish-American themes, placed Amy in the first rank of American composers.

After her husband died in 1910, she returned to performing in public and toured Europe, playing her own compositions. In her later years she continued to compose and worked hard to promote the careers of young composers. She died of heart disease at the age of seventy-seven.

On July 9, 2000, Amy's name was added to the granite wall on Boston’s famous Hatch Shell, joining eighty-six other great composers. To this day, Amy Beach is the only woman listed on the wall with such composers as Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy.

Amy Beach, Theme and Variations for Flute and Strings




© 2012 James L. Smith
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Claude Debussy: The Tranquil Revolutionary

"I am more and more convinced that music, by its very nature, is something that cannot be cast  into a traditional and fixed form. It is made up of colors and rhythms. The rest is a lot of humbug invented by frigid imbeciles riding on the backs of the Masters—who, for the most part, wrote almost nothing but period music. Bach alone had an idea of the truth."

– Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was one of the most accessible composers in music history, and if you don’t enjoy listening to his music, you may never enjoy anything from the classical repertoire.

Picture of Claude Debussy
I've often told students that a great piece of music must be heard several times before it can be fully understood or appreciated. With Debussy that is generally not the case. His compositions can make a lasting impression with a single hearing, and I don't use the word "impression" lightly.

Early in Debussy’s career his music was labeled “Impressionist," a term that had previously been applied to a style of painting associated with artists such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The term came from the title of Monet’s painting
Impression: Sunrise (shown below) and refers to paintings that use light and color to create a soft-focus image of a scene rather than a detailed representation. By that definition, it's easy to see why some people used the term to describe Debussy's music.

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Although Debussy disliked the comparisons of his compositions to Impressionism, the adjectives used to describe Monet’s style of painting can also be used to described Debussy’s music. Like Monet's paintings, Debussy's music is often static and seemingly unconcerned with any need to move forward. Debussy's music might also be described as “blurred,” using harmony and timbre to create musical impressions. Like Monet's paintings, the mood of Debussy's music is more important than the image or story.

Debussy disliked the music of most other composers and criticized the work of Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven. (He did, however, seem to like Bach.) This disdain for the music of others can be heard in the way Debussy rejected the musical traditions of past masters and created a whole new musical language. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, he provided listeners with music unlike anything ever heard before. He was an artistic revolutionary and, for that reason alone, ranks as one of the most significant composers of the last century.

The best way to describe Debussy’s music is to take the following ingredients and mix them together. When finished you will have what amounted to a new type of music for the twentieth century.
  • He was unconcerned with the expectations of his audience, and created a musical language that divorced itself from the long-standing German traditions. He famously wrote: “I want my music to be as relevant to the twentieth century as the airplane.”
  • His music was largely programmatic, although he did not try to paint a picture or tell a story with his music as much as he tried to evoke a mood.
  • The sounds of his native language can be heard in his compositions. Debussy was French, and — like the language he spoke — his music was generally free of sharp accents and harsh consonants.
  • His music emphasized “color” through his creative use of musical timbre. He used instruments either by themselves or in unusual groupings to create sounds that had never been heard in an orchestra.
  • His music provided unorthodox harmonies and melodic lines. Generally unconcerned with whether his themes were set in a major or minor key, Debussy employed harmonies designed to evoke a certain mood, using whole tone scales (play C – D – E – F# – G#– A# – C on a piano), pentatonic scales (play the black keys on a piano), and chromatic scales (listen to the flute at the beginning of The Afternoon of a Faun on the video embedded below).
Although Debussy’s music was shockingly original when it was first composed, it did not cause the same social earthquake as other modernist music of the early twentieth century. Debussy was as much a revolutionary as composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, but the benevolent sound he created did not give people a sense that he had turned the musical world upside down — even though he had.

As for my statement above that unlike many other composers Debussy's music can make a lasting impression with a single hearing, let me finish by quoting Debussy on that very subject:

"Love of art does not depend on explanations, or on experience as in the case of those who say ‘I need to hear that several times.’ Utter rubbish! When we really listen to music, we hear immediately what we need to hear."

Debussy, “Claire de lunefrom Suite bergamasque (1905)
graphic score by
Music Animation Machine


Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894)
Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra






© 2011 James L. Smith (originally posted on sonataform.blogspot.com)

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Barber, Adagio for Strings – Quartet (1938)

Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings has been labeled “the saddest music ever written,” gaining status in the United States as the unofficial anthem of national mourning. During times of collective tragedy — such as the assassination of John Kennedy or the attacks of September 11 — Adagio Strings will certainly make an appearance. It has also been used with tragic effect in numerous films, such as The Elephant Man and Platoon. Although the Adagio is traditionally performed by string orchestra, Barber originally composed it as the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. The version embedded below is from the original version for string quartet.


The Dover Quartet


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Decorating Time with Prokofiev's First Symphony

"Ah, music! A magic far beyond all we do here!"

– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Music can cleanse a melancholy soul and calm a cluttered mind. It can cause you to weep tears of joy, and you won’t even know what is affecting you so deeply.

None of that is hyperbole. The power of music is mystical — especially classical music.

A listener might know nothing about classical music and still feel an emotional rush when listening to the crescendo at the end of a symphony. However, classical music is more enjoyable when the listener possesses some fundamental knowledge of music and the “story” it is telling. All told, the more someone knows, the better the music will sound.

As an example, listen to the video I’ve embedded below and follow the time indicators. What you will hear can be classified as sonata form, but there’s no reason at this time to get too technical. Simply think of each theme as a “character” in a story and then follow that story’s narrative as if you were reading a book or watching a movie.

Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1, First Movement (1917) conducted by Leo Siberski


0:07 – Theme 1: The opening theme begins in the key of D major. Since it is in a major key, it should sound bright and upbeat. (A minor key would probably sound dark and downbeat.)

1:04 – Theme 2: Think of this theme, composed in A major, as the second character in the story.

1:57 – Development: Think of this section as one containing much action. Something is happening. Close your eyes and imagine the movie in your head. You should be able to hear bits and pieces of the first two themes.

3:08 – Theme 1 Returns in C Major: Notice that this theme has emerged from the development in a major key (happy and upbeat). It looks like everything will end on a positive note. (No pun intended.)

3:43 – Theme 2 Returns in D Major: Hearing this theme in D major should make you feel that you are back where you began. All is well.

4:13 – Coda: This section tells us that the piece is over. (The word “coda” is Italian for “tail.”)

Not so bad, eh? Watch this video more than once. Watch it often enough that you become so familiar with the music that you will know what is coming next. Indeed, the more you listen, the better the music will sound.

It’s been said that we use art to decorate space and music to decorate time. The time spent understanding this short piece should provide you with time that has been well decorated.

© 2015 James L. Smith

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Debussy, Syrinx (1913)

When Claude Debussy composed Syrinx in 1913 it was the first significant work for solo flute composed since C.P.E Bach’s Sonata in A Minor in 1763. The technical improvements added to the flute by Theobald Boehm in the mid-1800s made the piece possible, allowing Debussy to showcase what could be done with the new and improved flute. As a flute player myself, I have played the piece often and enjoyed the flexibility in how it can be interpreted.


Emmanuel Pahud, flute
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Falla, Fire Dance (1915)

This piece is taken from Manuel de Falla’s ballet El Amor brujo (The Bewitched Love). During the ballet, the ritual fire dance is performed by gypsies to help a widow exorcise the ghost of her dead husband. Originally composed for a small ensemble of winds and strings, this version is performed by a dozen cellos.


Crocellomania directed by Valter Dešpalj
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