Monday, April 26, 2010

Ben Johnston's String Quartet No. 4 (Amazing Grace)

Ben Johnston was born in 1926 and became famous in the second half of the 20th century for his modern compositions and use of microtonality. He worked with John Cage and Darius Milhaud, though arguably his greatest influence was Harry Partch, a pioneer in justly tuned microtonality. String Quartet No. 4 (Amazing Grace) is considered his most famous work, as he integrates his avant-garde style to one of America’s most beloved hymns.

The piece begins with the “Amazing Grace” melody along with counterpoint-like side melodies. The strings fit beautifully with this well-known hymn, and when the melody is raised an octave and ornamentation is added, the piece becomes even more endearing to its listeners. In the next variation, the piece becomes cute, as the melody and rhythm begin to evolve and the other strings echo. I especially enjoyed the playful plucking of the cello and the switch to a deeper sounding string ensemble. By its fourth repetition, “Amazing Grace” is flowing into a waterfall of new melodies and rhythms, and though the melody is nearly lost, listeners can still sense what they’re supposed to hearing. However, this feeling goes away by the seventh repetition, when Johnston eases into a minor-ish, jazzier section and the only hints of melody come from the evolving rhythms of previous sections. A new attacking variation soon begins and unique, mixed meters can be heard, along with new notes that sound bent or from a non-typical scale. The melody is completely forgotten and new, dramatic ideas continue to build until a new, polar variation presents itself. Now slow and sorrowful, the music begins to sound Eastern due to the new scales and tuning. However, the “Amazing Grace” melody is starting to show hints of life again. A sudden fury of oddly-tuned miniature steps begin to color the piece, reminding me of an angry beehive. Out of the dissonance suddenly shines the beautiful “Amazing Grace” melody, with the bees still chaotic in the background. Eventually a sense of finality begins to surface as the strings move to a higher register and some of the opening melodies re-emerge. Listeners are soothed as the disorder and microtones evaporate to allow beautiful tonality to take control of the piece. By the last variation, the listener is reminded of the quartet’s gorgeous opening and he or she can reflect on the journey it took to get back to the beautiful melody that Americans love so much.

The charming “Amazing Grace” melody makes this piece sound simple, though a glimpse of the score will prove its complexity. In the performance notes, Johnson tells performers to use three different tuning systems, including: Pythagorean tuning (based on fifths), triadic just intonation (based on fifths and major thirds), and a new form of just intonation using a seventh partial in the overtone series. These are notated in the score using symbols like pluses, minuses, upside-down 7s, and other accidentals. Rhythm is also horrendously complex due to unique time signatures such as 10/64 or 27/32 that are often occurring at the same time in different instruments. Johnston continually makes each variation more arduous by expanding both the number of pitches used and the rhythmic complexity, and this seems to be the purpose of the piece. Of course, to the listener, they barely hear any difference, but many performers will attest that this piece is one of the most difficult string quartets in the repertoire.

Using a melody that Americans know by heart, Johnston is able to be extremely creative with this work. Because I knew the hymn, I was able to follow Johnston’s work and “go for the ride,” as he threw me into new directions and played variations that tricked my ears. I appreciate how this piece challenges listeners to think about what they’re hearing, and how it uses a familiar tune to teach and explore modern music. I also thought Johnston did a remarkable job of creating different emotions with the Amazing Grace melody. While one variation may be charming and charismatic, the next may be stressed and conflicted. The moments of melody sounded remarkably beautiful due to the extreme dissonance usually preceding it. Also, the beautiful open fifths and flowing American folk melody reminded me of Aaron Copland, while the microtonal sections sounded like something Charles Ives would experiment with.

Though Johnston’s 4th String Quartet was fairly popular, it has lacked fame and inclusion into the canon for many reasons. In 1973, classical composers were losing an audience due to the appeal of popular music and resistance to modern music. The piece’s novel tuning also may have turned off many performers. An out-pouring of unique and experimental music defined the second half of the twentieth century, and may have been another reason for Amazing Grace’s exclusion. Composers were already exploring every area of music imaginable, so as more and more unique pieces were composed, each one begins to lose gravity and importance. The canon can distinguish only so many pieces, and with such an outpouring of creativity and borrowing of techniques and ideas, a piece like this can easily be overlooked. When scholars discuss tuning in modern music, the first names mentioned are Henry Cowell and Harry Partch, while Ben Johnston is often viewed as an extension of these creative pioneers. Though I believe he deserves his place in the western canon.

This work should be included in the canon because of its appeal to western listeners. Unlike other avant-garde pieces, this piece is viewed favorably by students because of its familiar melody and the beautiful variations Johnston experiments with. This piece has a lot of offer, as it demonstrates modern elements like microtonality and atonality, along with an interesting take on harmony, rhythm, American folk song, and even medieval, renaissance, and classical music concepts. The piece is less than forty years old but I feel it has enough beauty and universal elements to stand the test of time.

Gann, Kyle. American Music in the Twentieth Century. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997.

Shinn, Randall. “Ben Johnston’s Fourth String Quartet.” Perspectives of New Music 15, no. 2, 1977

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hall Johnson - He's Got Spirit!

Francis Hall Johnson was an American composer and arranger that wrote the African American spiritual and turned it into a prominent form of music. As Johnson began to embrace this genre of music in the 1920s, he not only increased its popularity, but his compositions were impressive enough to be compared to European music of the time. This legitimized his art form and would forever influence our perception of what the African American spiritual is today.
Spirituals were the songs of enslaved Africans in the early 1600s and would become especially prominent in American music and culture hundreds of years later. As slaves labored under white power they would sing these religious, emotional songs, creating their own unique music style with their unique rhythm and pitch-bending. White men would go on to mock black songs through vaudeville shows but by the twentieth century African American music was an integral part of American culture, and genres like the spiritual began to evolve and be taken seriously. Groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Hall Johnson Negro Choir became major hits on Broadway, radio, film, and would go on to influence the evolution of jazz.
Hall Johnson was a major composer of the spiritual and took the genre to unprecedented heights. Growing up he was influenced by much African American music. His father was minister and president of a prominent Methodist church and constantly exposed his son to the church choir, while his grandmother, a former slave, would sing the spirituals that had been orally passed down through generations of slavery. These impassioned Johnson at a young age, and as he continued his music education at Juilliard, rare for a black man of his day, he was able to further develop African American music, specifically the spiritual. He grew tired of hearing performances of black spirituals conveyed in essentially white barbershop harmonies, and he wanted to preserve and convey the true Negro spiritual as it had been performed during times of slavery. In describing the spiritual, John said, "Its source is that of all great art everywhere - the unquenchable, divinely human longing for a perfect realization of life. It traverses every shade of emotion without spilling over in any direction. Its most tragic utterances are without pessimism, and its lightest, brightest moments have nothing to do with frivolity. In its darkest expressions there is always a hope, and in its gayest measures a constant reminder. Born out of the heart-cries of a captive people who still did not forget how to laugh, this music convers an amazing rang of mood. Nevertheless, it is always serious music and should be performed seriously, in the spirit of its original conception." This shows the reverence and devotion Johnson had for his music genre.
Johnson's spirituals range from simple solos such as "My Good Lord Done Been Here," to call and response spirituals between choir and soloist like in "Fix Me, Jesus," to the complex layering of choir voices in "Elijah Rock." Johnson also alters the spiritual's usual I-IV-V chord progression by adding intricacies and new chords and notes such as the 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th, and dominant 7. In his a cappella choir works he uses the bass vocal line to root homophonic chords, yet gives each voice an individualized melody and sense of purpose that, when combined with the rest of the choir, becomes a creative, exciting vocal piece. The spiritual had been a seemingly simple genre, but with these advancements, Johnson took the genre to a new level.
Spiritual texts are usually based on the Christian faith combined with the struggles of slavery and oppression. They use African American dialect in covering topics such as Jesus, the Holy Spirit, freedom, prayer, avoidance of Satan, etc. Johnson's texts continue to build on these traditions, along with adding m more of the American folk hymn into his songs, certainly influenced by his upbringing in his father's church. His texts are usually strophic and alternate between verses and refrains, and often include call and response forms, like in "Cert'n'y Lord" as the soloists ask the choir if they're ready for Heaven, in which they enthusiastically reply "Cert'n'y Lord!" Johnson has also stacked different vocal lines that become percussive and impressive, like in "Elijah Rock."
Having been in choir for over ten years, I have come to love spirituals and can appreciate everything Johnson has done to aid the genre. And though Johnson may have been the impetus that led the spiritual to prominence and acclamation, I agree that he may be excluded from the canon. This is not to say he needn't be mentioned in music classes or when tracing the influence of African American composers on music in the early twentieth century! I just feel the spiritual as a genre is very unique and individualized, as it is isolated in its influence of music and its place in music history. The spiritual is a great form of song and extremely telling of the feelings of the cultural climate of its day; however, the piece, when performed for the public rather than in church, seem to be more about entertainment and style, rather than conveying the emotions and depth that canonic works usually possess. Also, though the quality of Johnson's works are high, the genre of spirituals are naturally simplistic in lyrics and texture, and most canonic works are more refined in nature. The genre of spirituals also lacks an international style and doesn't feel significant enough in the broad spectrum of world music. Johnson did amazing things for the spiritual and should be studied in American vocal music and jazz studies, though the genre itself is a niche in the Western canon.

Johnes, Randye, Afrocentric Voices, "Biographis: Hall Johnson"; available from; Internet; accessed 23 Mar 2010.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Paulus, by Felix Mendelssohn

In 1832 Felix Mendelssohn was commissioned to write an oratorio honoring the life of Paul. Paulus is an amazing work that showcases not only characteristics of the Romantic era in which it was written, but also those of Baroque and Classical oratorio styles. For example, Mendelssohn uses Romantic qualities such as chromaticism, beautiful melodies, and new orchestration practices while staying true to Baroque and Classical traditions, such as the thunderous choruses of Handel and Bach. Paulus is a masterpiece that deserves more academic attention and inclusion into the Canon.

Paulus consists mostly of sacred texts set to chorales, recitatives, and arias, and uses a variety of texture styles such as homophony, polyphony, and counterpoint in this two act oratorio. The first half tells the story of St. Stephen, his encounters with Paul (named Saul at the time), and his eventual martyrdom. The second half focuses on Paul's missionary work alongside his fellow prophet Barnabas, and ends with Paul's dramatic death by an angry mob. The work includes a chorus and a solo soprano, alto, tenor, and bass who depict different characters in the oratorio's storyline - for example, a bass plays the role of Paul while a tenor sings as Stephen and Barnabas.

Mendelssohn was a brilliant composer and able to create beautiful sounds from his orchestra, as shown in the opening overture. The audience is introduced to many themes, varying from majestic and beautiful melodies that simply soar, to portentous melodies with strings that seem to shiver in angst. Immediately following the overture, a booming chorus sings "Herr! Der du bist de Gott," similar to the overwhelming nature of Handel oratorios. The work continues as Mendelssohn uses recitatives to narrate the oratorio, beginning with the story of Stephen. Particularly stirring is the scene of a growing mob that eventually stones Stephen to death. Here the chorus sings eerie, threatening thematic material, while the orchestra adds to the ominous feeling using a shivering strings theme from the opening overture. Though the oratorio is dedicated to the life of Paul, much time is spent on Stephen's martyrdom. This is because Stephen's story is the first time that Paul is mentioned in the Bible, and by focusing on Paul's persecution of Christians, this leads to a more dramatic scene with his eventual conversion to Christianity. As the chorus plays the role of God in singing "Wachet auf! Ruft uns die Stimme," the first act ends with Ananias baptizing Paul and a choral piece proclaiming the glory of God.

The second half of Paulus tells the story of Paul and Barnabas' travels as apostles of Christ. It begins with praise of God's presence on earth in "Der Erdkreis ist nun des Herrn," with the choir singing homophonically then suddenly splitting into imitative polyphony, singing a fugue! I found this shift stunning, and I assume this is honoring past styles and composers such as Bach, the father of the fugue. The second half continues as the people are inspired by Paul the apostle and they begin to praise him. Paul becomes angry and scolds the people for looking to him, not God, and they soon turn into an angry mob. A soprano narrator begins to describe Paul's persecution by the angry mob while a tenor's simple air symbolizes Paul's unwavering devotion to God, even to his death.

In Paulus, the orchestra's role is different than in past oratorios. Romantic orchestras are known for being more than mere accompaniment, as they play a vital role in setting specific moods and are able to depict actions without need for actors or words. Mendelssohn does this wonderfully throughout the oratorio. He makes the orchestra nearly equal to the chorus, a very Romantic idea and different than in past oratorios.

I feel that this work may have been particularly special to Mendelssohn due to the amount of time he spent on it. Mendelssohn was a very prolific composer and could compose much music in a short time span; however, this oratorio took him four years, leading one to believe he worked particularly hard on this piece and wanted every detail to be perfect. Also, this work closely focuses on presenting the biblical story accurately rather than entertaining the audience, perhaps inferring Mendelssohn's reverence and seriousness to this work and the oratorio as a compositional form.

I find this piece especially provocative due to Mendelssohn's complicated religious heritage. His grandfather was a Jewish rabbi and scholar, though with anti-Semitism on the rise, the family used the name Bartholdy. And during all this time Mendelssohn was a devoted Lutheran! In fact, it was Felix's father Abraham that pushed for him to write the Paulus oratorio. This puts things more into context and adds an interesting twist to the back-story of this piece.

When scholars look at Mendelssohn's oratorios today, Elijah is the piece include in the Canon, not Paulus. Paulus has been deemed boring and long-winded, while Elijah has a more exciting plot to today's listeners and may be sung in English. Audiences today aren't as receptive to Paul's conversion as audiences in the 19th century, which is why, ironically, Paulus was the more popular piece of its day. This is just one of the reasons I believe Paulus should be included in the Canon. If scholars want to better understand the public's music preferences in the Romantic era and the social environment in which these works were presented, Paulus, as the more popular work, must be further studied. I also believe this oratorio should be included in the Canon because of the impact Mendelssohn had on resurrecting genres of the past. Choruses and oratorios were on the decline in the Romantic era and by Mendelssohn accepting this project, he was trying to save the genre, or at least show reverence to the lessening art form and its past composers. Mendelssohn appreciated the works of these composers and continually paid homage to them by resurrecting their pieces and performing in their styles. I feel that Mendelssohn felt that this was his purpose and to exclude this piece from the Canon would go against everything he stood for. This work belongs in the Canon. It is a compositional masterpiece of a well known Biblical figure and it includes a wide variety of compositional styles and techniques that are the perfect tool for comparing Romantic works with musical characteristics of the past. I was blown away by this piece and learned much from it, and by adding Paulus to the Canon, others too will have the chance to be exposed to a brilliant piece of Romantic music literature.

"Mendelssohn Really Was a Lutheran," The Wall Street Journal, 17 Aug 2009, sec. A, p. 10.
Robinson, George. "Mendelssohn, Lost and Found. The New York Jewish Week. Vol 221, Iss. 35 (Jan 2009): 33.
Seaton, Douglass. The Musical Genesis of Felix Mendelssohn's "Paulus" (Florida State University, 1998), 310.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Listening Journal for Classical Era, ft. Mozart (who else?!)

Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp, K. 299

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart compositions are the epitome of music in the Classical Era. His music sounded simple, as themes were presented in an organized and predictable manner, yet there was a complexity and beauty that announced his genius to all that heard him play. As a child prodigy, he was able to travel throughout Europe and learn differing styles of music and eventually combined the best of these cultures into some of the most beautiful music of the 18th century. He is arguable the greatest composer of all time and provides a substantial amount of works to the classroom Canon.

Though all Mozart pieces are valuable to study, not all of them are included in the Canon, including his Concerto for Flute and Harp. This concerto is typical of the Classical Era with its three movements, ordered Allegro (fast), Andantine (slow), and the typical Rondo (fast). In fact, it was Mozart who set this as the standard form for concertos. Each section is eight to ten minutes long, making the concerto last approximately twenty-five minutes, and it features a solo flutist and harpist who play multiple themes that are constantly developed throughout the piece.

The first movement begins with the ensemble majestically stating the opening theme, followed by the introduction of the solo flutist and harpist. As the exposition continually highlighted thematic ideas, the contrasting dynamics stood out to me. Not only are they charming, but they also seem practical, as the harp is a quieter instrument and would be hard to hear over a fortissimo ensemble. The harp and flute playfully intertwine, as the two reply to each other using arpeggios and sequence patterns. Everything seems very neat, balanced, and organized, all typical of Mozart pieces. The second movement is slower, simpler, and more lyrical, with long, beautiful flute lines that are daintily varied by the harp. I especially enjoyed hearing some of the unique modulations, particularly whenever the harp embraced minor chords, an effect musicians don't often hear. The final Rondo movement begins as the ensemble and especially strings propel the tempo forward. We hear an Alberti bass accompaniment and lots of antecedent-consequent phrases, as we intuitively feel the end of the concerto coming. There are a few measures that are particularly delightful, as the harp and flute continually play a major 3rd apart.

Music always brings images to my head, and I especially enjoy when program music leads my thoughts in a specified direction. During this concerto, a story came to my mind. The first movement brings two playful girls (flute and harp) frolicking through a flowergarden in child-like wonderment. For hours they adventurously explore the garden and tell each other of the wonderful new flowers each has found. Eventually they are summoned to come inside by their mother, who is fearful they will ruin all the hard she has put into the garden. The second movement begins with the girls bounding inside, flopping onto the furniture, and lying exhausted from their adventure. They discuss the beauties and mysteries of the flower-garden, with one girl (the flute) especially giddy (full of trills) after the experience. The final movement picks up tempo, as the girls are now anxious to return to the garden and animatedly plead with their mother to let them go back outside. They excitedly tell mother how marvelous her garden is, and after all the adoring comments, she allows the girls to resume their adventure. The two girls skip out the door and back to their beloved garden.

I became interested in this piece after hearing the charming effects of the harp. Having little knowledge of the instrument, I was fascinated with its sound and balance against the rest of the ensemble. The harp, though large in size, seems like a coy instrument with many intricacies unknown to its listeners. It was very interesting to hear a solo harp leading a large ensemble, as it is a quiet instrument often used specifically for special effects. But, as heard in this piece, it makes a fine partnering instrument and has more to offer than the simple arpeggios and glissandos it provides for orchestras. I can also hear hints of virtuosity in the solo lines, though the harp's delicate sound leaves listeners more charmed than impressed with the abilities of the performer.

This pleasant concerto is not included in the Canon because it is just that - a plain, pleasant concerto. I agree with its exclusion from the Canon. There is nothing revolutionary about this piece, besides perhaps the showcasing of the solo harp in a concerto. If the harp were exluded from this piece, the work would seem quite ordinary and may have been even more neglected from the era altogether! But the harp is what makes this concerto unique. Had public preference for the harp risen during the 18th or even 19th century, this concerto may have popularized and received more study and appreciation, but to this day the harp has never become a prominent or ground-breaking instrument and lacked performers. For as long as the harp is neglected, this concerto will also be neglected. Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp may include all the characteristics of the Classical concerto, but it isn't anything more than a charming piece that will continually be overlooked until the harp becomes a more prevalent instrument.