Vincent and Theo • Wilbur and Orville • George and Ira • Jack and Bobby
Some people are forever linked in history to their siblings.
In most cases, we bother to learn little or nothing about a historic person’s siblings. George Washington had a brother Lawrence who played a significant role in shaping his life. Lawrence, however, generally, gets lost in the history books. I doubt, however, that few people will ever read about Vincent van Gogh without also reading about his brother Theo. The same is true for Wilbur and Orville Wright, George and Ira Gershwin, John Kennedy and his brother Bobby. It’s probably not even possible to learn about one of the Marx Brothers without learning about the other four.
Some siblings are even linked in death. Theo van Gogh died six months after Vincent and is buried next to him at Auvers-sur-Oise in France. Bobby Kennedy died less than five years after his brother and is buried close to him at Arlington cemetery.
And any list of siblings connected by history would be incomplete without including Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.
The Mendelssohns were an intellectual and ambitious family, unwilling to let anything hold them back. In 1811 they moved to Berlin, a city with more opportunities than provincial Hamburg. By the early 1820s the entire family had converted to Lutheranism and changed their name to Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Abraham and Lea did not want the prejudice and discrimination against Jews affecting their children.
When Fanny was born her mother proclaimed she had “Bach-fugue fingers” and begin giving her piano lessons at age six. After the family moved to Berlin, Fanny took lessons with a master pianist named Ludwig Berger. It was clear to anyone who met Fanny that she was a prodigy.
Felix also began taking piano lessons at age six. Like Fanny, he was a musical prodigy and also studied with Ludwig Berger. At age ten he learned to write counterpoint from Carl Zelter, as did his sister. Both Fanny and Felix began composing when they were children and were both more advanced than Mozart at a comparable age.
Everything changed for Fanny when she turned fifteen. Her parents told her she must abandon music and prepare for marriage and motherhood. Her father said, “Music will perhaps become Felix’s profession. For you it can and must be only an ornament.” The Mendelssohns were a proper family, not about to challenge social mores regarding the role of woman.
Felix gained great fame and adulation as a composer, conductor, and pianist. His works were performed by the finest orchestras in Europe. Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, composed when he was only seventeen, received rave reviews after its first performance. He was twenty when the Hebrides Overture played to rapturous applause.
He began conducting when he was nineteen and quickly gained a reputation as a virtuosic and innovative leader of orchestras and choirs. He was the first to use a baton and the first to create a repertoire of masterworks from the past. At age twenty he conducted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a piece that had not been heard since Bach’s death seventy-nine years early. The performance resurrected an almost forgotten composer and created a mania for all things Bach. The great composer Hector Berlioz said, “There is but one God — Bach — and Mendelssohn is his prophet.”
At age twenty-six Felix became the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the most prestigious conducting jobs of the time. He soon turned the Gewandhuas into the best orchestra in the world. When he was thirty-four he founded the Leipzig Conservatory of Music. He was, quite simply, one of the most successful and well-known musicians of his time.
Fanny, on the other hand, had been denied a career in music by her parents, as well as the cult of domesticity that limited women's opportunities in European society. The fact that she was as talented as her brother made no difference. Instead of setting the musical world on fire, Fanny read about her brother's success in the newspapers. Felix traveled throughout Europe while she stayed home. Felix conducted great orchestras while she played in amateur quartets. Felix became an international superstar. She remained unknown to the general public.
At age twenty Fanny married the artist Wilhelm Hensel. The day after her wedding Wilhelm handed her a piece of manuscript paper and asked her to return to music and begin composing again. With the support of her husband, Fanny resumed her life in music, but only as an amateur. After several miscarriages she gave birth to her only child, a son she named Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel in honor of her favorite composers. When she wasn't taking care of her son, she hosted musical salons and organized a small chorus. She also composed songs and wrote short pieces for piano. She would compose almost 500 pieces of music, and seven collections of songs were eventually published under her name.
Fanny nevertheless remained unknown to the public during her lifetime. European culture would simply not accept music composed by a woman. Felix secretly published several of her songs under his own name, songs that gained wide exposure and popular approval. On one of Felix’s many visits to England he met Queen Victoria who raved about the song “Italien.” Felix created a slight controversy when he confessed that his sister had written the song.
On May 14, 1847, Fanny was playing the piano with a chamber group when her hands went numb. The next day she died of a stroke. She was forty-two years old.
Felix, distraught over the loss of his sister, was too emotionally upset even to attend her funeral. Over the next few months his health deteriorated and less than six months after his sister died he was killed by a stroke. He was thirty-eight.
Today, in a graveyard outside Berlin, Fanny and Felix are buried next to each other, joined forever in death. Felix was a composer for the ages, gaining the fame that history grants to few artists. His story, however, can never be told without also telling the story of his sister Fanny, a woman of prodigious talent who was born at the wrong time in history.
Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn Burial Site
- Stride (Art Tatum)
- Two-Fingered Percussiveness (Nat King Cole)
- Lyric Octaves (Errol Garner)
- Relaxed Block Chords (George Shearing)
- Double Octave Melody Lines
As for Peterson’s own style, here’s how it's described in A Natural History of the Piano by Stuart Isacoff:
“The Peterson style was always characterized by rapid, graceful, blues-tinged melody lines unfurled in long, weaving phrases with the inexorable logic of an epic narrative; and, equally important, a visceral sense of rhythm, transmitted with fire and snap. Those qualities for which he was renowned — effortless fluidity and clockwork precision — were not merely aspects of his playing; they were the very foundation on which his artistic expression rested. And pulling them off required the highest level of athletic prowess.”
“When I finish playing one of the books of The Well-Tempered Clavier in one evening, I have the feeling that this is actually much longer than my real life, that I have been on a journey through history, one that begins and ends in silence.” – Daniel Barenboim, Music Quickens Time
In 1708, Johann Sebastian Bach accepted a job as organist, composer, and chamber musician for the Duke of Weimar. Even though the Duke raised Bach's salary in 1713 to keep him at Weimar, Bach felt snubbed in 1717 when the Duke passed him over for a job as Kapellmeister (Director of Music). Angry at the Duke, Bach decided to leave Weimar and take a job as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold at the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen. When the Duke refused to give Bach an early dismissal from his job at Weimar, Bach made such a fuss that the Duke had him thrown in jail. During the month he was in jail, as the legend goes, he began composing his iconic work, The Well-Tempered Clavier.
“For the use and profit of the musical youth desirous of learning and for the pastime of those already skilled in the study.” – Bach's inscription to Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier
Although the forty-eight pieces Bach composed for The Well-Tempered Clavier stand collectively as a masterwork of music, they were most likely conceived by Bach primarily as technical exercises, a means of providing keyboard players experience at working with chords, arpeggios, and scales in every key. Indeed, the music has been used to train musicians of all nationalities and musical styles for almost 400 years, including many of history's best-known composers and performers
The Well-Tempered Clavier, for example, formed a foundation for the lessons delivered by Nadia Boulanger, the famous French teacher who trained over 1200 musicians, including composers of such disparate styles as Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, and Charlie Parker. Even though Boulanger was well known for helping composers develop their individual voices, she did standardize one element of her instruction — she required every student to memorize Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
“Let the Well-Tempered Clavier become your daily bread. Then you will become a musician.” – Robert Schumann to Felix Mendelssohn
And now for the primary purpose of this posting: If you would like to find a pot of gold on the Internet look no further than the website that features the pianist Kimiko Ishizaka playing Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier in its entirety. Adding even more luster to that pot of gold is a collection of animated graphical scores from Stephen Malinowski, creator of the Music Animation Machine. Malinowski has created animated graphical scores for the entirety of Ishizaka's performance. (What a great time to be alive when treasures like this are so easily accessible!)
I have embedded Ishizaka's entire performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier below, and to whet your appetite for Malinowski's work I have added a video of the Fugue in C major. I recommend visiting Malinowski's YouTube playlist featuring animated graphical scores of all 24 works from Book One.
Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, Kimiko Ishizaka (piano),
Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, Fugue in C major, video by Stephen Malinowski
and the Music Animation Machine (Kimko Ishizaka, piano)
George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
Maxim Eshkenazy conducting the Symphony Orchestra of the Bulgarian National Radio,
Andrew Armstrong (piano)
Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings (1938)
Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring (1944)
Seikyo Kim conducting Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen
As a bonus, here’s a piece not heard often in concert halls but discussed at length in my presentation. In brief, it’s a piece that celebrates the democratic ideal — the uniqueness of the individual, as well as the responsibility of the individual to contribute to the community. (Keep in mind that Carter composed music designed to challenge the intellect rather than evoke emotion.)
Elliot Carter, Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (1961)
“I was born very young into a world very old.” – Erik Satie
Erik Satie (1866-1925) lived his looney life with a playful attitude. He was often overcome by unexpected fits of laughter. He wore nothing but gray velvet and carried black velvet umbrellas. During a love affair with a woman named Suzanne, he bought her a necklace made of sausages and said he liked the way she belched. His playfulness was even evident in the titles of his musical compositions:
- “Genuine Limp Preludes (For a Dog)"
- “Sketches and Exasperations of a Big Boob Made of Wood"
- “Waltz of the Mysterious Kiss in the Eye"
- “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear”
And here's a version of Satie’s well-known Gymnopédie No. 1, performed and animated by Stephen Malinowski. Malinowski describes Gymnopédie No. 1 as a "languorous melody moving just once (or less) each beat, accompanied by one bass note and one chord per measure.” If you enjoy watching this version, visit Malinowski's YouTube Channel, where it’s not difficult to become a fan of his animated work.
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.
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
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)
The piece is composed in ternary (ABA) form. Use the time indicators below to identify the beginning of each section in the Eggner Trio's performance.
- 0:00 – Section A
- 2:25 – Section B
- 4:50 – Section A1
- 6:10 – Section B1
- 7:48 – Section A2
Paul Begala, harpsichord / Otto Büchner, violin / Paul Meisen, flute
– François Couperin, Preface to Pièces de Clavecin , Book 1 (1713)
This piece by Couperin for harpsichord is almost 300 years old and still sounds fresh. It’s difficult to imagine anyone not enjoying The Mysterious Barricades.
Katherine Shao, harpsichord (animated graphical score by Music Animation Machine)
– 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.
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.
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).
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 lune” from 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)
Embedded in this posting is a must-see TED talk by Benjamin Zander, the conductor and music director of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.
I hope Zander's lecture will give tyros a reason to give classical music a chance. His moving performance of Chopin's Prelude in E Minor should be enough to persuade people to begin the journey.