Sunday 1 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

This Serenade in G major is arguably the most enduringly popular of all of Mozart's works. It was written in 1787, during a period when the composer was also hard at work on his opera Don Giovanni. The title Eine kleine Nachtmusik (literally, “A Little Night Music”) is Mozart's own; “Nachtmusik” was actually a common designation for serenades of this type.

The first movement is probably the most famous. It is in sonata-allegro form, and starts off with a Mannheim rocket theme. This is typical feature found in many works of the Mannheim school composers, basically consisting in a swiftly ascending passage. The second theme, on the other hand, is more graceful and in D major, the dominant key of G major.

Categories: Classical Serenades SonatasDifficulty: intermediate
Monday 2 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Good King Wenceslas

 Traditional Christmas carol

This popular Christmas carol is about a king who goes out to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by the heat miraculously emanating from the king's footprints in the snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia.

The lyrics of the carol were written in 1853 by English hymn-writer John Mason Neale, but the tune is much older: it is that of “Tempus Adest Floridum” (Latin for “It is time for flowering”), a 13th-century spring carol, first published in the Swedish Piae Cantiones (“Pious Songs”) in 1582.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunes Traditional/FolkDifficulty: easy
Tuesday 3 November 2009

Tune of the Day: A Serpina penserete

 from G.B. Pergolesi's opera “La serva padrona”

La serva padrona (“The Servant Mistress”) is an opera buffa (a comic opera) by Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736). The whole opera is only 45 minutes long, and was originally performed as an intermezzo between the acts of a larger opera.

La serva padrona is often seen as the quintessential piece that bridges the gap from the Baroque to the Classical period. Owing to its importance, over time it came to be known as more than just an intermezzo and was performed as a stand-alone work.

The aria “A Serpina penserete” (“You will think of Serpina”) is taken from the second part of the opera. Serpina, a maidservant, has come up with a trick to get her master Uberto, an elderly bachelor, to marry her. She tells him that she has found a handsome man to marry and then, in melodramatic sorrow, laments how Uberto will probably forget her after she is gone.

Categories: Arias Baroque Opera excerptsDifficulty: intermediate
Wednesday 4 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Spring

 from “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi

Le quattro stagioni (Italian for “The Four Seasons”) is a set of four violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi. Composed in 1723, it is Vivaldi's best-known work, and is among the most popular pieces of Baroque music.

Cast in three movements, the Concerto in E major subtitled "Spring" was, like its three siblings, inspired by an Italian sonnet, whose colorful pastoral scenes and events the composer depicts in his wonderfully imaginative music.

Springtime is upon us.
The birds celebrate her return with festive song,
and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes.
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven,
Then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more.

On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.

Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dance beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.

Though it is not known who wrote these sonnets, there is a theory that Vivaldi wrote them himself. This makes sense because each sonnet is broken down into three sections, each section corresponding to a movement in the concerto. The Four Seasons can therefore be classified as program music: music that intends to evoke something extra-musical.

Categories: Baroque ConcertosDifficulty: advanced
Thursday 5 November 2009

Tune of the Day: O Holy Night

 A favorite Christmas carol, set to music by Adolphe Adam

This beautiful Christmas carol, whose original title is “Cantique de Noël”, was composed by French composer Adolphe Charles Adam in 1847 to the poem “Minuit, chrétiens” (“Midnight, Christians”) by Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant and occasional writer of poetry. It is said that Cappeau was about to embark upon a business trip to Paris when the local parish priest asked him to write a Christmas poem. About halfway to Paris, Cappeau received the inspiration for “Minuit, chrétiens”, and wrote the poem down. When he arrived in Paris, he took the poem to the composer Adolphe Adam, who was then at the peak of his career, having written his masterpiece, the ballet Giselle, only a few years before. Adam wrote the tune in a few days, and the song received its premier at the midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1847.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunes RomanticDifficulty: intermediate
Friday 6 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Valse sentimentale

 by P.I. Tchaikovsky, arranged for Flute and Piano

The “Sentimental Waltz” is the last of Tchaikovsky's Six Morceaux (Six Pieces), Op. 51. Originally composed for solo piano, this waltz has long been a popular salon piece. It has also often been played in its transcription for violin.

This waltz was composed during a very difficult period in the composer's life. From the late 1870s until 1885, the composer felt restless, somewhat disoriented, and unsure of his creative powers. As a result, he led a nomadic existence, constantly traveling, without a home he could call his own. Composed in the summer of 1882 at a cottage where Tchaikovsky was able to work in peace, the Six morceaux are all dedicated to women. The “Valse sentimentale”, which is the best known work of the set, is dedicated to Emma Genton, the governess to the children of Nikolai Kondratyev and his wife Mariya, who were family friends of Tchaikovsky.

Categories: Dance tunes Romantic WaltzesDifficulty: intermediate
Saturday 7 November 2009

Tune of the Day: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

 Traditional Christmas hymn

It is believed that this traditional tune stems from a 15th century French processional for Franciscan nuns, but it may also have 8th century Gregorian origins. It is one of the most solemn Advent hymns.

The words were com­bined from var­i­ous an­ti­phons by an un­known au­thor, pos­si­bly in the 12th cen­tu­ry; they were subsequently trans­lat­ed from La­tin to Eng­lish by John M. Neale in the mid-19th century. Neale's orig­in­al trans­l­a­tion actually be­gan, “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Em­man­u­el”.

The lyrics echo a num­ber of pro­phet­ic themes. The ti­tle comes from Isai­ah 7:14: “Be­hold, a vir­gin shall con­ceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Im­man­u­el.” Im­man­u­el is Hebrew for “God with us.”

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunes Traditional/FolkDifficulty: intermediate
Sunday 8 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Fossils

 from Camille Saint-Saëns's “The Carnival of the Animals“

In this funny piece from Le Carnaval des Animaux, Saint-Saëns mimics his own composition, the Danse Macabre, which makes heavy use of the xylophone to evoke the image of skeletons playing card games, the bones clacking together to the beat. The musical themes from Danse Macabre are also quoted. Allusions to “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman” (better known in the English-speaking world as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), the French nursery rhymes “Au Clair de la Lune” and “J'ai du bon tabac”, the popular anthem “Partant pour la Syrie” as well as the aria “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini's The Barber of Seville can also be heard. The musical joke in this movement is obviously that the musical pieces quoted are the fossils of his time.

Categories: RomanticDifficulty: intermediate
Monday 9 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Sonata facile

 Allegro from Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 16, arranged for Flute duet

The Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, K. 545, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was described by Mozart himself in his own thematic catalogue as “for beginners”, and it is sometimes known by the nickname “Sonata facile” or “Sonata semplice”, which in Italian mean “Easy sonata”. Although the piece is very well known today, it was not published in Mozart's lifetime, first appearing in print in 1805. The relative ease of K. 545 has ensured that it has become the most famous of all Mozart's piano sonatas, a work that scarcely a student of the instrument fails to learn at some point in his or her career.

The opening Allegro movement, written in Sonata form, is often quoted as a paradigm of the ambiguity of Classical “simplicity”. The familiar opening theme is accompanied by an Alberti bass, a particular kind of accompaniment often used in the Classical era, consisting of broken chords where the notes of the chord are presented in the order lowest, highest, middle, highest (e.g. C-G-E-G). It was named after Domenico Alberti, who used it extensively, although he was not the first to use it.

Categories: Classical SonatasDifficulty: intermediate
Tuesday 10 November 2009

Tune of the Day: In Dulci Jubilo

 Traditional Christmas hymn

“In Dulci Jubilo” is latin for “In Sweet Rejoicing”, but the hymn is commonly known in English as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice”. It dates back at least to the year 1328, when the German mystic Heinrich Seuse claimed that he had learned the song from dancing angels.

Its most distinctive feature is its mixture of Latin and German in the text; texts of this type are charmingly designated by scholars as macaronic.

A lively instrumental arrangement of the piece by English musician Mike Oldfield reached number 4 in the UK in 1976. This version featured 2 recorders, kortholt (a Renaissance woodwind), snare drum, and Mike Oldfield on acoustic and electric guitars, piano and string synthesizer. It is one of his most re-issued short songs, and the video is still shown occasionally on television.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunes Traditional/FolkDifficulty: intermediate
Wednesday 11 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Minute Waltz

 by Frédéric Chopin, arranged for Flute and Piano

Published in 1847, the Trois Valses (“Three Waltzes”), Op. 64 were the last set of such works to be published during Chopin's lifetime, and were among the very last works sketched by his prodigious pen. Each of the three is among the shortest of his entries in the waltz form, making them entirely unsuitable for effective use in the ballroom.

The “Minute Waltz” is the most famous of Chopin's waltzes, and ranks among the best-loved pieces in the entire classical repertoire. Its sprightly mood and kinetic energy belie the composer's personal situation at the time of composition: his health was in serious decline, and his relationship with novelist Aurore Dupin Dudevant (who wrote under the pseudonym of George Sand) was falling apart.

The Minute Waltz is also known as the “Dog Waltz” (or “Petit chien”), because for some it suggests the image of a dog chasing its tail, and legend has it that the waltz was inspired by Chopin's own pet.

The piece is used as the theme tune to the BBC radio show Just a Minute; despite its nickname, however, a typical performance of the piece lasts between one and a half and two and a half minutes. This is because Chopin's publisher, who coined the nickname, intended the “minute” to simply mean “small”.

Categories: Romantic Show-off pieces WaltzesDifficulty: advanced
Thursday 12 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Deck the Halls

 ... with boughs of holly, fa la la la la, la la la la!

This well-known tune appears to come from Wales, possibly from the 16th century, and belongs to the so-called canu penillion dull y De tradition, where dancers would dance in a ring around a harpist. The verses would be extemporized, and a participant would drop out when he or she would fail to sing a new verse. Originally, the harpist would play the “answering bars” (“Fa la la la la”, etc.), but these nonsense syllables were substituted when harpers began to disappear. The first published lyrics for the piece in Welsh bore the title “Nos Galan” (“New Year's Eve”).

In the eighteenth century the tune spread widely across Europe. Even Mozart wove it into his Sonata in G for violin and keyboard K. 301, commonly identified as “Sonata No. 18”. The Austrian composer may have heard the Welsh folk song during his boyhood visits to England.

The American text of “Deck the Halls” first appeared, without music, in a New York newspaper, in 1881. How the tune got wedded to the text is uncertain, but by the turn of the century “Deck the Halls” as we know it was already part of the American carol tradition.

Categories: Christmas carols Traditional/FolkDifficulty: easy
Friday 13 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Giga

 from Sonata in F major by George Frideric Handel

Of the 15 or so sonatas for solo instrument and basso continuo composed by Handel that have at various times been lumped together under the title Opus 1, a full third were originally composed for the recorder. In fact, only the violin is more fully represented in the Opus 1 collection. However, each of the five recorder sonatas from Opus 1 is undoubtedly the product of Handel's pen, whereas a handful of the violin sonatas may well be spurious. They are all splendid examples of Handel's youthful craftsmanship, probably composed before the composer moved to England in 1710.

The fourth and final movement of the recorder sonata in F major, this Gigue is a joyous and infectious reworking of one of Handel's favorite instrumental themes. This kind of piece, also known under the Italian spelling Giga, is to be thought as the music to the lively baroque dance of the same name, which originates from the British jig.

Categories: Baroque Dance tunes Jigs SonatasDifficulty: intermediate
Saturday 14 November 2009

Tune of the Day: O Come, All Ye Faithful

 Christmas hymn “Adeste Fideles”

“Adeste Fideles” is the name of the tune to “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, and the first line of the Latin text for which the tune was originally written. The tune is now commonly attributed to John Francis Wade, an English hymnist of the 18th century. The text itself has unclear beginnings, and may have been written in the 13th century, though it has recently been concluded that Wade was probably the author.

Before the emergence of John Francis Wade as the probable composer, the tune had been purported to be written by several musicians: from John Reading and his son to Handel, including a Portuguese musician, Marcos Antonio da Fonseca, who wasn't born until after the tune was first published. There are several similar musical themes written around that time, though it can be hard to determine whether these were written in imitation of the hymn, the hymn was based on them, or they are totally unconnected.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunesDifficulty: easy
Sunday 15 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Gavotte

 by François-Joseph Gossec

François-Joseph Gossec was a Belgian composer of the Classical era who worked in France. He was little known outside France, and his own numerous compositions, sacred and secular, were overshadowed by those of more famous composers; but he was an inspiration to many, and powerfully stimulated the revival of instrumental music.

Although most people would have difficulty recognizing Gossec's Gavotte by its title, the melody itself remains familiar in the United States and elsewhere because Carl Stalling used an arrangement of it in several Warner Brothers cartoons.

Categories: Classical GavottesDifficulty: intermediate
Monday 16 November 2009

Tune of the Day: O Christmas Tree

 Traditional Christmas carol
O Christmas Tree

This old folk tune comes from Germany. In German, a Tannenbaum is a fir tree (die Tannen) or Christmas tree (der Weihnachtsbaum). Although most Christmas trees today are Fichten (spruce) rather than Tannen, the qualities of the evergreen have inspired German musicians to write several “Tannenbaum” songs over the years.

The first known “Tannenbaum” song lyrics date back to 1550, while the best known version was written in 1824 by the Leipzig organist, teacher and composer Ernst Anschütz. There are at least a dozen English versions of the carol.

The tune has also often been used to carry other texts, most notably:

  • “Maryland, My Maryland”, the official state song of Maryland;
  • “The Song of Iowa”, the official state song of Iowa;
  • “The Red Flag”, anthem of the British Labour Party;
  • “Gift of Love”, recorded in 1962 by pop singer Jack Jones.
Categories: Christmas carols Traditional/FolkDifficulty: easy
Tuesday 17 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Pavane pour une infante défunte

 by Maurice Ravel

The Pavane pour une infante défunte (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) was originally written for solo piano in 1899, while Ravel was studying composition at the Conservatoire de Paris under Gabriel Fauré. Ravel also published an orchestrated version of the Pavane in 1910.

The pavane was a slow processional dance that enjoyed great popularity in the courts of Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ravel described his piece as “an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former, times, have danced at the Spanish court”. This antique miniature is thus not meant to pay tribute to any particular princess from history, but rather expresses a nostalgic enthusiasm for Spanish customs and sensibilities, which Ravel shared with many of his contemporaries (most notably Debussy and Albéniz) and which is evident in some of his other works such as the Rhapsodie espagnole and the Boléro.

When the Pavane was first performed, it was warmly welcomed by the public, but received much more subdued reviews from Ravel's fellow musicians. Indeed, Ravel himself complained that the piece “lacked daring”. Subsequent performances tended to be much too slow and plodding. After one of such performances by pianist Charles Oulmont, Ravel is reported to have complained: “I wrote a Pavane for a dead princess, not a dead Pavane for a princess.”

Categories: 20th century PavanesDifficulty: intermediate
Wednesday 18 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Angels We Have Heard on High

 Traditional French Christmas carol
Raphael's Angels

This famous Christmas carol is sung to an adaptation of the French carol melody “Les anges dans nos campagnes” (literally, “Angels in our countryside”), arranged by American organist Edward Shippen Barnes. This hymn tune, also known as “Gloria”, features the memorable chorus: “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!”, which is Latin for “Glory to God in the highest”. The sung vowel sound “o” of “Gloria” is fluidly sustained through a lengthy rising and falling melismatic melodic sequence.

The song commemorates the story of the birth of Jesus Christ found in the Gospel of Luke, in which shepherds outside Bethlehem encounter a multitude of angels singing and praising the newborn child.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunes Traditional/FolkDifficulty: intermediate
Thursday 19 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Dream of Love

 Liebestraum No. 3, by Franz Liszt, arranged for Flute and Piano

This Liebestraum (German for “Dream of Love”) is the last and by far the most famous of a set of three solo piano works by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Published in 1850, the three Liebesträume were originally conceived as songs after poems by Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath. Freiligrath's poem for the third nocturne is about unconditional love: “Love as long as you can! The hour will come when you will stand at the grave and mourn”.

The piece can be considered as split into three sections, each divided by a fast cadenza requiring dexterous finger work and a certain degree of technical ability. The same melody is used throughout the entire piece, each time varied, especially near the middle of the work, where the climax is reached.

It isn't hard to see why No. 3 is universally known and the other two are only infrequently heard. Its gently arcing six-bar phrases and throbbing repeated notes, and that glowing, completely unexpected modulation to B major make it a miniature masterpiece. By the mid-20th century, Liszt's “Dream of Love” eventually became so popular and overplayed that pianists began dropping it from their repertory. Though that trend eventually reversed, the piece is still not as often performed as it once was.

Categories: Lieder Nocturnes RomanticDifficulty: intermediate
Friday 20 November 2009

Tune of the Day: We Wish You a Merry Christmas

 Traditional English Christmas carol

This old folk song is said to come from the West Country of England in the sixteenth century, but almost nothing else is known about it.

The origin of the carol seems to lie in the English tradition where wealthy people of the community gave Christmas treats to the carolers on Christmas eve. By the way, it's amazing what a brief mention in a 16th-century Christmas carol can do for an obscure little dessert called “figgy pudding”. Every year, thousands of people around the world become curious about the figgy pudding mentioned in the chorus of this secular English carol (“Oh bring us a figgy pudding”). For the curious, these delicacies were not dissimilar to modern day white Christmas puddings, and of course included figs as the main ingredient. It must be some seriously good pudding, since apparently the carolers of the lyrics refuse to leave until they get some!

Categories: Christmas carols Traditional/FolkDifficulty: easy
Saturday 21 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Minuet

 from Offenbach's opera “Orpheus in the Underworld”

First performed in 1858, Orphée aux enfers is said to be the first classical full-length operetta. Offenbach's earlier operettas were small-scale one-act works, since the law in France did not allow certain genres of full-length works. Orpheus was not only longer, but more musically adventurous than Offenbach's earlier pieces.

This minuet is taken from Act II. An extravagant party is in full swing in Hell, and the gods are singing the praises of wine. Eurydice sneaks in disguised as a bacchante (a follower of Bacchus, the god of wine), but Jupiter's plan to sneak out with her is interrupted by calls for a dance. Unfortunately, Jupiter can only dance minuets which everyone else finds boring. Things liven up, though, as the most famous number in the operetta, the Galop Infernal (best known as the music of the Can-can) starts, and everyone throws himself into it with wild abandon.

Categories: Dance tunes Opera excerpts RomanticDifficulty: intermediate
Sunday 22 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Away in a Manger (Mueller)

 Attributed to James R. Murray

The text and the tune of the Christmas hymn “Away in a Manger” have both been erroneously attributed to Martin Luther. The traditional melody has also been attributed to an otherwise unknown and unidentified Carl Mueller. However, it is now believed to have been composed by James Ramsey Murray, a Massachusetts musician.

The tune appeared with the first two stanzas of the hymn in his 1887 Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses with the notation, “Luther's Cradle Hymn (composed by Martin Luther for his children and still sung by German mothers to their little ones)”. There is no evidence to substantiate this claim. In fact, researchers had known for a long time that the hymn could not be found anywhere in the 57 volumes of Luther's works or the 24 volumes of supplements. A possible reason for the spurious attribution is that the 400th anniversary of Luther's birth was in 1883. The words were probably based on a poem written for this anniversary, and credited to Luther as a clever marketing gimmick.

Murray's tune, also known as “Mueller”, is the tune most commonly played in the United States. Another tune, Kirkpatrick's “Cradle Song” is more commonly heard in Britain.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunes Traditional/FolkDifficulty: easy
Sunday 22 November 2009

Want more? Away in a Manger (Cradle Song)

 Melody by William J. Kirkpatrick

This is the tune to which “Away in a Manger” is most commonly set to in the United Kingdom. (In the US, the hymn is more often sung to the tune Mueller.) Originally titled “Cradle Song”, this tune was written by American musician William J. Kirkpatrick for the 1895 musical Around the World with Christmas. Kirkpatrick, like others before him, attributed the words of the hymn to Luther.

It seems that more than 40 different tunes have been written for “Away in a Manger”, and this multiplicity of settings can really become a source of confusion. There's even a story of a school teacher who had been teaching her children to sing the hymn to one tune, while the Sunday schools in her town were telling them to sing it to another. Both the day school and the Sunday school song books gave their tune as composed by Martin Luther. Which tune did Luther really write? Ironically, the answer is: neither!

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunesDifficulty: easy
Monday 23 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Largo

 from J.S. Bach's Sonata No. 3 for Solo Violin

The Sei Solo – a violino senza Basso accompagnato (“six violin solos without bass”), as Bach titled them, have a great historical significance, as they firmly established the technical capability of the violin as a solo instrument. The set consists of three sonatas da chiesa, in four movements, and three partitas, in dance-form movements. It was completed by 1720, but was only published in 1802. Even after publication, it was largely ignored until the celebrated violinist Josef Joachim started performing these works. Today, Bach's Sonatas and Partitas are an essential part of the violin repertoire, frequently performed and recorded.

This splendid Largo in F major constitutes the third movement of Sonata No. 3 in C major. Considered by some as the most beautiful of all solo works ever written for violin, it has always been an obvious choice for an encore at any performance.

Categories: Baroque SonatasDifficulty: intermediate
Tuesday 24 November 2009

Tune of the Day: The First Noel

 Traditional English Christmas carol

This traditional English carol, also known as “The First Nowell”, is most likely from the 18th century. The now popular com­bin­a­tion of tune and lyr­ics first ap­peared in print in a collection of Christmas carols published in 1833. The melody is unusual among English folk melodies in that it consists of one musical phrase repeated twice, followed by a variation on that phrase. It is thought to be a corruption of an earlier melody sung in a church gallery setting; because of its repetitive nature, it probably began as a descant to another melody, or possibly as parts of other tunes.

Here the word “Noel” (or “Nowell”) comes from the French Noël, meaning “Christmas”, from the Latin natalis, “birth”. It may also be from the Gaulish words noio or neu meaning “new”, and helle, meaning “light”, referring to the winter solstice (December 21), when sunlight begins overtaking darkness.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunes Traditional/FolkDifficulty: intermediate
Wednesday 25 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Dance of the Mirlitons

 from “The Nutcracker Suite” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Also known as “Dance of the Reed-Flutes”, or “Marzipan”, this is one of the most famous numbers from The Nutcracker. It was originally featured in the second act of the ballet, played immediately after the also popular “Russian Dance”.

If you are wondering what a “Mirliton” is, here's a short explanation. First of all, let's make it clear: the Cajun vegetable also known as chayote has nothing to do with this dance. The French title of the piece is “Danse des Mirlitons”, and in France a “mirliton” is a small pipe-like instrument, similar to a kazoo. This is a reference to the reed-pipes that the shepherdesses depicted in the scene might have played to their flocks.

The piece is featured in the classic 1940 Disney film Fantasia. Accompanied by this gentle music, colorful flower blossoms dance on air currents until they come to rest on the surface of a stream. There, they are transformed into dancers with billowing skirts. A light breeze disturbs their dance, swirling them across the water's surface and sweeping them over a waterfall.

Categories: Ballet excerpts Dance tunes Romantic Show-off piecesDifficulty: intermediate
Thursday 26 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Ding Dong Merrily on High

 Traditional Christmas carol

This carol is a good example of a carol in the original sense of the word (i.e. a secular dance tune) evolving into a carol as it is understood today (i.e. a song for Christmas). The tune first appeared as a secular dance tune known as “Le branle de l'Officiel” (“The Officer's Brawl”) in Orchésographie, a late sixteenth-century study of French Renaissance social dance by Thoinot Arbeau. This manual provided critical information on social ballroom behavior and on the interaction of musicians and dancers. According to this manual, the “Branle de l'Officiel” was to be danced by “lackeys and serving wenches, and sometimes by young men and maids of gentle birth masquerading as peasants and shepherds”.

The song is particularly noted for the line “Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!”, where the sung vowel sound “o” of “Gloria” is fluidly sustained through a lengthy rising and falling melismatic melodic sequence.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunes Traditional/FolkDifficulty: intermediate
Friday 27 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Menuet from L'Arlésienne

 by Georges Bizet

This pretty minuet constitutes the third movement of L'Arlésienne Suite No. 2. This second suite was put together rather clumsily by Bizet's friend Ernest Giraud after the composer's death. Bizet had already used most of his best music in the first suite, so for the second Guiraud had only leftovers to deal with. He compensated in part by pulling in music from other sources, and composing new music upon themes from the incidental score.

This minuet in particular is actually an intruder: it was borrowed from Act 3 of Bizet's La jolie fille de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth). And it doesn't appear in the original incidental music to L'Arlésienne at all! Nonetheless, it is regarded as the most emotional movement of the whole work, and it is frequently played. It's a lovely flute-and-harp piece that originally accompanied a scene of aristocratic seduction, with a ceremonial Trio section for full orchestra.

Categories: Minuets Opera excerpts Romantic Written for FluteDifficulty: intermediate
Saturday 28 November 2009

Tune of the Day: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

 A Christmas carol by Felix Mendelssohn

Originally, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was sung to the same tune as Charles Wesley's celebrated Easter song, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today". According to researcher William Studwell, it was "a poor fit at best".

But in 1855, William Hayman Cummings, an English organist, adapted Wesley's hymn to some passages from Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's choral work entitled “Festgesang”; the full title is actually Festgesang zur Eröffnung der am ersten Tage der vierten Sakularfeier der Erfindung der Buchdruckerkunst (“Festival Song”), which should not be confused with the similarly titled Festgesang an die Kuenstler, Op. 68. This Festgesang honored the 400th anniversary of Johann Gutenberg's invention of moveable type, and was first performed at the great festival held at Leipzig's open marketplace in June 1840.

Cummings was a Mendelssohn enthusiast who sang as a choirboy under the composer’s direction in London. At this point, it is impossible to say precisely where Cummings took his inspiration; however, the tune by Cummings appears to have been inspired by some passages in the second movement of Mendelssohn's cantata, “Vaterland, in deinem Gauen”.

Mendelssohn said of his work that it could be used with many different choruses but that it should not be used for sacred music. This may be because the melodic and harmonic structure of the tune are similar to the Gavotte of Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 4; indeed Mendelssohn, who has always been linked with the music of Bach, may simply have adapted Bach's music for his chorus.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunesDifficulty: easy
Sunday 29 November 2009

Tune of the Day: The Shepherd's Lament

 “Schäfers Klagelied” by Franz Schubert

This musical setting of Goethe's poem “Schäfers Klagelied” (“Shepherd's Lament”) was the first publicly performed song by Schubert and it was, according to reports, a highly successful debut. Schubert scored Goethe's lament in a pastoral 6/8 in E minor; he often employed this tonal center to symbolize sadness, depression and nostalgia.

High up on that mountain,
I have stood a thousand times,
bowed over my staff
and gazing down into the valley.

“Schäfers Klagelied” is a shepherd’s lament of lost love. The music spontaneously illustrates the state of emotion and scenery the text describes: it is as though Schubert paints a musical artwork of the shepherd standing “high up on that mountain” in which the painting illustrates the vast array of emotions and the depth of meaning the topic implies.

Categories: Lieder RomanticDifficulty: intermediate
Monday 30 November 2009

Tune of the Day: The Coventry Carol

 Traditional English Christmas carol

This Christmas carol dates from the 16th Century. It was originally performed in the English city of Coventry as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, which depicted the Christmas story as described in the Gospel of Matthew. The Coventry Carol, which is the only carol that has survived from this play, refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod orders all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. That's why the lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother's lament for her doomed child.

The carol is notable as a well-known example of a Picardy third (aka tierce de Picardie). This harmonic device consists in using a major chord of the tonic to conclude a minor-mode phrase. In other words, despite this tune being in G minor, it ends on a G major chord, with a B-natural instead of a B-flat.

This carol is traditionally sung a cappella, that is, without instrumental accompaniment. Thus, it makes a perfect piece for a flute ensemble.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunes Traditional/FolkDifficulty: easy