Tuesday 1 December 2009

Tune of the Day: The Clarinet Polka

 Traditional Polish tune

This piece used to be a virtual requirement for any clarinetist. In April 2006 it was brought to worldwide popularity by the YouTube video “Charlie the Unicorn”, in which it was used as the tune to the “Candy Mountain Cave” song:

Oh, when you're down and looking for some cheering up,
Then just head right on up to the Candy Mountain cave.
When you get inside you'll find yourself a cheery land,
Such a happy and joyful and perky merry land.

The tune is actually a traditional Polish polka, also known as “Dziadunio Polka” (“Grandfather Polka”). It is sometimes attributed to Polish violinist and composer Karol Namyslowski (1856–1925). Namyslowski is often remembered for having located and trained more than 200 countryside musicians, forming an orchestra that played an important role in awakening the national spirit of Poland.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Tune of the Day: God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

 Traditional English Christmas carol

Like so many early Christmas songs, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” was probably born as a direct reaction to the music of the fifteenth-century church. It was arguably the most popular of the early carols, sung for centuries before being published in Britain in 1833.

The carol is even referred to in Charles Dickens' beloved short story A Christmas Carol: “... at the first sound of — ‛God bless you merry, gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’ — Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”

The first line of this carol is often object of discussions regarding grammar and punctuation. People comment on two things. First, that the word is always “you” and not “ye”, since “you” is the object of “rest”, while “ye” is the archaic subject pronoun. Second, that there should be a comma after the word “merry”, not before it, because “merry” is the complement of the verb. “Rest” can (or could in the past) take a number of such complements, such as “rest content”, and it was also used transitively as in the Shakespearian “I rest myself content”. In this case the carolers ask that God will rest merry the present company (“Gentlemen”).

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunes Traditional/FolkDifficulty: easy
Thursday 3 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Stick Game

 from “Romanian Folk Dances” by Béla Bartók

As a young man, Bartók wrote his mother of his life’s ambition: to contribute to “the good of Hungary and of the Hungarian nation.” Although he made his living primarily as a pianist and teacher, he is now recognized primarily for his compositions and his ethnological work. During his lifetime Bartók collected and classified more than 14,000 folks melodies of Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Croatian, Turkish, Bulgarian, and North African origin. He was particularly drawn to the Romanian folk traditions, because he felt that the Romanian groups had been more isolated from outside influences and were therefore more authentic.

Romanian Folk Dances is a suite of six short piano pieces composed by Béla Bartók in 1915, and based on seven Romanian fiddle tunes. The first piece, “Jocul cu bâtă” (“Dance with Stick”, or “Stick Game”), is an energetic and merry dance coming from Mezőszabad, Transylvania.

Categories: 20th century Dance tunes Gypsy music Traditional/FolkDifficulty: intermediate
Friday 4 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Ma'oz Tzur

 Traditional Hanukkah song

“Ma'oz Tzur” is without any doubt the most popular Hanukkah (Chanukah) song. Written in Hebrew, it is traditionally sung after lighting the festival lights. The hymn is named for its first two words in Hebrew, which mean “Stronghold of Rock” as a name or epithet for God. There is also a popular non-literal translation of the song in English, called “Rock of Ages”.

The bright and stirring tune now so generally associated with “Ma'oz tzur” serves as the “representative theme” in musical references to Hanukkah; indeed, it has come to be regarded as the only Hannukah melody, four other Hebrew hymns for the occasion being also sung to it. This melody has been identified as an adaptation from the old German folk-song “So weiss ich eins, dass mich erfreut, das pluemlein auff preiter heyde”, and was widely spread among German Jews as early as 1450.

Categories: Hanukkah music Hymn tunes Traditional/FolkDifficulty: easy
Saturday 5 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Clair de lune

 from “Suite bergamasque” by Claude Debussy
Clair de lune

The Suite bergamasque is one of the most famous piano suites by Claude Debussy. It was likely named after Paul Verlaine's poem “Clair de lune”, which possibly alludes to a bergamask, a clumsy rustic dance. Debussy wrote the suite in 1888 at age 26, but the work was not published until 1903, and the extent to which he revised it during the interval is unclear. Certainly the published work is a great stylistic advance over the few short piano works which preceded it, but whether that advance is due to an early maturity or to much later alteration will perhaps always elude historians.

The third movement of Suite bergamasque is its most famous. Titled “Clair de lune” (“Moonlight”), it was written with Paul Verlaine's poem of the same name in mind. It is perhaps the most famous piece Debussy ever penned, and has a way of drawing the listener into its magical atmosphere. It is mostly played slowly, pianissimo (very softly), and in the key of D-flat major (with five flats, beginners beware!).

Categories: 20th centuryDifficulty: advanced
Sunday 6 December 2009

Tune of the Day: O Little Town of Bethlehem

 Christmas hymn by L.H. Redner

Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest from Boston, was inspired to write this hymn when he was visiting the little town of Bethlehem in 1865. He wrote: “I re­mem­ber stand­ing in the old church in Beth­le­hem, close to the spot where Je­sus was born, when the whole church was ring­ing hour after hour with splen­did hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voic­es I knew well, tell­ing each other of the Won­der­ful Night of the Sav­ior’s birth.”

Three years later he wrote the poem for his church, and his organist, Lewis Henry Redner, added the music. Redner's tune, simply titled “St. Louis”, is the tune used most often for this carol in the United States.

The tune has been covered by many artists, including Elvis Presley, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, Tammy Wynette, Bob Dylan and, more recently, by Britain's Got Talent star Connie Talbot.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunesDifficulty: easy
Monday 7 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Himno Nacional Mexicano

 National Anthem of Mexico

Unofficially, this anthem is sometimes called “Mexicanos, al grito de guerra” (Spanish for “Mexicans, at the cry of war”), which is also the first line of its chorus. The lyrics, which allude to Mexican victories in the heat of battle and cries of defending the homeland, were composed by poet Francisco González Bocanegra in 1853. Catalan composer Jaime Nunó, who had been invited to Mexico the same year by President Santa Anna to lead the Mexican military bands, composed the music which now accompanies González's poem. In 1854 Nunó submitted his composition, originally titled “Dios y libertad” (“God and Freedom”), to the national contest to find music for the poem, and his entry was chosen as the winner.

Thanks to Jeff for suggesting this piece!

Categories: National anthems PatrioticDifficulty: intermediate
Tuesday 8 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Up on the Housetop

 Christmas song by Benjamin R. Hanby

“Up on the Housetop” may well have been the first American song of importance which elaborates on the theme of Santa Claus. It is also one of the first entirely secular Christmas songs composed in the United States. Written by little-known Ohioan composer Benjamin Russell Hanby for use as a Christmas sing-along, this vivacious song is an especial favorite of children.

According to researcher William Studwell, Hanby may possibly have composed another popular carol, “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas”, which is of roughly the same period and which has a suspiciously similar style of music and lyrics. There is absolutely no evidence that Hanby was responsible for the other song, yet the chronological and stylistic coincidences do elicit the conjecture that Hanby might have authored both songs. At the least, Hanby's ”Up on the Housetop” may have influenced “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas”.

In 2005, “Up on the Housetop” was brought back to life with a new recording by American Idol singer Kimberley Locke. The recording broke a Billboard record when it made the largest leap into the Top 5 in the chart's history, moving from 32 to 5 in only a week. It was also the second longest Billboard holiday chart topper in the chart's history, sitting at #1 for 4 consecutive weeks.

Categories: Christmas carolsDifficulty: easy
Wednesday 9 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Nimrod

 from “Enigma Variations” by Sir Edward Elgar

The Enigma Variations are a set of a theme and its fourteen variations written for orchestra by English composer Edward Elgar in 1898–1899. It is Elgar's best-known large-scale composition, for both the music itself and the enigmas behind it. Elgar dedicated the piece to “my friends pictured within”, each variation being an affectionate portrayal of one of his circle of close acquaintances. In the score each variation is prefaced with either a nickname or initials, a clue to the identity of the friend depicted.

Variation IX carries the name “Nimrod”, a punning reference to the Old Testament patriarch described as “a mighty hunter before the Lord”. Now, the german word for “hunter” is Jaeger, and that's why the name “Nimrod” refers to Augustus J. Jaeger, a music editor who was for a long time a close friend of Elgar, giving him useful advice, but also severe criticism, something Elgar greatly appreciated. Remarkably Elgar later related on several occasions how Jaeger had encouraged him as an artist and had stimulated him to continue composing despite setbacks.

This variation has become popular in its own right and is sometimes used at funerals, memorial services, and other solemn occasions. It is always played at the Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Sunday (the second Sunday in November).

Categories: 20th century Funeral music VariationsDifficulty: intermediate
Thursday 10 December 2009

Tune of the Day: It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

 Christmas carol by Richard S. Willis

The lyrics to this popular Christmas carol were written by Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Weston, Massachusetts. No movie scenarist could have devised a more romantic setting for the composition of a Christmas poem. Reportedly, it was a cold winter day in December 1849. Outside, a snowfall was in progress and inside, the fireplace in the study was erupting with warmth and light. No doubt this picturesque New England scene and the holiday season inspired the frail minister, and his pen scratched out several stanzas of verse about the birth of Jesus.

A year later, in 1850, a tune by Richard Storrs Willis, a composer who trained under Felix Mendelssohn, was published under the title “Study No. 23”, set to the hymn “See Israel's Gentle Shepherd Stand”. Soon after the tune was rearranged to fit Sears' poetry — probably by Willis himself, although some sources state that Uzziah C. Burnap was responsible. The melody, now simply known as “Carol”, has become the most widely-known tune to the song in the USA, although other tunes exist; most notably, “Noel” by Arthur Sullivan, which is based on a traditional English air.

A variation in Willis' music has appeared during the course of the 20th century. The third note of the melody, which is played to the first syllable of the word “upon” in the first verse, was originally the same as the fourth note, i.e. C in the original key of B-flat major. Following an influential Episcopal hymnal, where the variation first occurred, the third note is now often sung a third below, making it an A. Since notable recordings exist for each one of the two versions, now both are generally accepted as “correct”.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunesDifficulty: easy
Friday 11 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Tre giorni son che Nina

 Attributed to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

“Tre giorni son che Nina” is one of the best-known arias of the Italian Baroque. The lyrics refer to the concern of a man for his beloved Nina, who is in bed seriously ill. This is a common topic in the popular music of the period.

For three long days my Nina, my Nina, my Nina
Upon her bed has lain, upon her bed has lain.
Louder and louder, ye players all, awaken my Ninetta,
Awaken my Ninetta, that she may sleep no more.

Despite the enormous popularity of the air, there are still serious doubts about its attribution. For nearly a century and a half, the air has been attributed to Pergolesi, and it still is, despite the absence of any element linking it with the Italian composer. Since the first known execution of the piece took place in 1749, some scholars consider Vincenzo Ciampi as the most likely author; however, the problem remains open. In particular, the style of the air seems to follow the style of the Neapolitan school, and not that of the Venetian school which Ciampi belonged to.

This aria makes a great encore piece, and it was often used as such by famous violinists Fritz Kreisler and Nathan Milstein.

Categories: Arias BaroqueDifficulty: intermediate
Saturday 12 December 2009

Tune of the Day: The Holly and the Ivy

 Traditional Christmas carol
Holly

This is one of numerous carols concerning holly and ivy. Many of the earliest carols reflect an ancient contest of mastery between the two. Possibly of pagan origin, some writers have hypothesized that this conflict has come to symbolize a contest between the masculine (holly) and feminine (ivy) elements in nature. Over the centuries, these distinctions have, to an extent, been blurred. In this particular carol, for instance, the holly is now used to represent various aspects of Christ's life, while the ivy is not discussed at all.

The melody to “The Holly and the Ivy”, which is apparently French in origin, was revamped by folk music collector Cecil J. Sharp in his collection of songs, hymns and carols published 1911. His version was collected from a woman in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire.

Categories: Christmas carols Traditional/FolkDifficulty: easy
Sunday 13 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Humoresque No. 7

 by Antonín Dvořák

During his stay in America, when Dvořák was director of the Conservatory in New York from 1892 to 1895, the composer collected many interesting musical themes in his sketchbooks. He used some of these ideas in his American compositions, notably the “From the New World” Symphony, but some of them remained unused. While in holiday in the summer of 1894 in his beloved home in Bohemia, he worked out some of these sketches into a cycle of 8 piano pieces. Initially, the composer considered naming them “New Scotch Dances” (after an earlier set of Ecossaises he wrote) but eventually settled for the title “Humoresques”.

Of the eight pieces, the seventh is without any doubt the best known; as with all of Dvorák's most successful piano works, it exhibits his talents for rhythmic originality and idiomatic textures that lie gratefully under the fingers. Indeed, the piece quickly became one of the most popular classical pieces in existence, and the publisher made vast amounts of money on it by publishing it separately in arrangements for all imaginable instruments and ensembles.

The original key of the piece is G-flat major (with six flats), but we decided to transpose it up a semitone to G major in order to make it more accessible. Since the piece contains few accidentals, the fussy among us can easily try to play it in the original key by considering a six-flat key signature instead of the printed one. Unfortunately this trick does not work in the minor-mode part, where an enharmonic transposition to F-sharp minor would be needed.

Categories: RomanticDifficulty: intermediate
Monday 14 December 2009

Tune of the Day: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

 Christmas carol by John Baptiste Calkin

Despite the mention of bells and Christmas in the title, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is as much an antiwar song as it is a Christmas song. In fact, the poetry of this renowned carol was crafted by the great American literary figure Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the midst of the American Civil War. On Christmas Day in 1863, Longfellow wrote the familiar lines in response to the horror of the bloody fratricidal conflict in general and to the personal tragedy of his son, who was severely wounded in November 1862.

It was not until sometime after 1872 that the poem, which was originally titled “Christmas Bells”, was converted into a carol. The composer of the tune, organist John Baptiste Calkin, was the most famous of a family of accomplished English musicians. At first Calkin's melody was published with the 1848 American hymn “Fling Out the Banner! Let It Float” by George Washington Doane. Ironically, “Fling Out” was an old-fashioned militant missionary hymn which contrasted greatly in purpose and spirit from the more permanent partner of Calkin's music.

Although Calkin's melody, which is actually titled “Waltham”, is beautiful, at least three alternative tunes have been tried. Among these, the wafting melody by Johnny Marks (who is most noted for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) has become particularly popular. Marks' composition is now often used for modern recordings of the song, while Calkin's melody was notably featured in recordings by Elvis Presley, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Jimmie Rodgers.

Categories: American Civil War Christmas carols Hymn tunesDifficulty: easy
Tuesday 15 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Arirang

 Traditional Korean folk song

“Arirang” is without any doubt the most popular and best-known Korean folk song, both inside and outside Korea. The word arirang in itself is an ancient native Korean word with no direct modern meaning; to get an idea of how the piece should be interpreted, consider that ari means “beautiful”, while rang can mean “dear”.

The South Korean government designated Arirang as the official march of the US Army 7th Infantry Division after its service in Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s, although the official Division song was the “New Arirang March”, an arrangement of Arirang into an American-style march.

In February 2008, the New York Philharmonic emblematically performed Arirang as an encore during its unprecedented trip to North Korea.

Categories: Love songs Pentatonic Traditional/FolkDifficulty: easy
Wednesday 16 December 2009

Tune of the Day: We Three Kings of Orient Are

 Christmas carol by John Henry Hopkins, Jr.

Both the lyrics and the music of “We Three Kings” were written by Reverend John Henry Hopkins, Jr. as part of a Christmas pageant for the General Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was instructor in church music. While the carol is suggested to have been written in 1857, it did not appear in print until 1863. Hopkins composed the song in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where he was a pastor at Christ Episcopal Church. Researcher William Studwell reports that his purpose was to devise a special Christmas present for his beloved nephews and nieces during his annual holiday trip to his father's home in Vermont.

Notable recordings of this carol include those by The Beach Boys, Burl Ives, Patti Smith and John Rutter.

A brief note on the Magi: the Gospel of Matthew is the only biblical reference to the “Three Kings”, and it really just says that some “wise men from the east” visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gold, incense and myrrh as gifts. Because three gifts were recorded, there are traditionally said to have been three Magi; however, Matthew does not specify their number, nor their names.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunesDifficulty: easy
Thursday 17 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Hatikvah

 National anthem of Israel

The theme of “Hatikvah” (which means “The Hope”) revolves around the nearly 2000-year-old hope of the Jewish people to be a free and sovereign people in the Land of Israel, a national dream that would eventually be realized with the founding of the modern State of Israel in 1948.

The melody for the anthem derives from “La Mantovana”, a 17th-century Italian song originally written by Giuseppino del Biado. It was later known in early 17th-century Italy as “Ballo di Mantova”, and gained wide currency in Renaissance Europe. This melody was also famously used by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana in his set of symphonic poems celebrating Bohemia, Má vlast, as “Vltava” (which is also known by its German name “Die Moldau”).

The adaptation of the music for Hatikvah is believed to have been done in 1888 by Samuel Cohen, a Jewish Palestinian immigrant from Bessarabia (now Moldova). Cohen himself recalled many years later that he had adapted the melody from a Romanian folk song, possibly “Carul cu boi” (“Carriage with Oxen”), which shares a few structural elements with Hatikvah.

The tune is mostly in the minor mode, which is often perceived as mournful in tone and is therefore seldom encountered in national anthems. However, as the title “The Hope” suggests, the import of the song should be optimistic, and the overall spirit uplifting.

Categories: National anthems PatrioticDifficulty: easy
Friday 18 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Winter: Largo

 from “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi

“L'inverno” (“Winter”) is the closing chapter in Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, a cycle of four violin concertos each inspired by an Italian sonnet whose pastoral scenes the composer attempts to describe in the music. Not surprisingly, this Concerto in F minor contains the least exuberant music, and at times even takes on a dark expressive manner.

That said, “Winter” still has its share of bright sounds and happy moods. The second movement in particular, marked Largo, brims with the kind of sweet lyricism that makes the listener long for snow-covered scenery and a warm fireplace. In fact, this lovely singing music depicts people warming themselves by a fire while a cold rain falls outside (in Venice, where Vivaldi lived, winter rarely produces snow), as described in the related sonnet:

Before the fire to pass peaceful
Contented days while the rain outside pours down.

Categories: Baroque ConcertosDifficulty: intermediate
Saturday 19 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

 Traditional French Christmas carol

This Christmas carol, also known under the French title “Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle” originated from the Provence region of France in the 16th century. First published in 1553, the song was not originally intended to be sung at Christmas, but rather to be played as dance music for French nobility.

The carol tells the story of two milkmaids, Jeanette and Isabella, who go to milk their cows in a stable in Bethlehem, only to find the baby Jesus sleeping in the manger. The two girls run to town to tell the village of the coming of Christ, and the townspeople come with their own torches to view the sight for themselves. To this day in the Provence region, children dress up as shepherds and milkmaids, carrying torches and candles to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, while singing the carol.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Presto

 from Flute Sonata in E minor by G.F. Handel

Composed circa 1720, this E minor sonata (HWV 379) is Handel's own compilation of movements taken from three other solo sonatas. Confusingly, this extra sonata has sometimes been numbered Op. 1, no. 1a, when in fact it never appeared in Opus 1.

Of the eleven flute sonatas that are traditionally attributed to Handel, this is the only one that appears to have been genuinely intended for the flute, since it is the only one that survives in that form in Handel's own manuscript. Uniquely among Handel's solo sonatas, it falls into five rather than four movements.

The concluding Presto we present today lets the flute sing over a jogging bass line; this, like the second movement (Andante), originated in the Recorder Sonata in G minor (HWV 360, Op.1, No. 2).

Categories: Baroque Sonatas Written for FluteDifficulty: intermediate
Monday 21 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Pat-A-Pan

 Traditional French Christmas carol

This traditional minor-mode carol comes from the Burgundy region of France. It was written about 1700 by poet Bernard de La Monnoye, and set to a tune which was probably taken from the Burgundian tradition.

The carol revolves around the birth of Jesus Christ, and is told from the perspective of shepherds playing simple instruments, flutes and drums, the sound of which gives the song its name: “pat-a-pan” is meant to mimic the sound of the drum, and an accompanying lyric, “tu-re-lu-re-lu”, the sound of the flute. This is similar conceptually to the better-known Christmas song “The Little Drummer Boy”. However, as historian William Studwell points out, the cheerful and rhythmic “Patapan” is a brisker and richer predecessor to “The Little Drummer Boy”. The recent song, in contrast, does have the advantage of a sensitive and heart-warming narrative. Musically, though, “Patapan” is superior to “Drummer Boy” and the majority of other carols from any period.

Notable recordings of the song include those by Leroy Anderson, Julie Andrews, David Archuleta and James Galway.

Categories: Christmas carols Traditional/FolkDifficulty: intermediate
Tuesday 22 December 2009

Tune of the Day: March

 from “Riccardo Primo, re d'Inghilterra” by G.F. Handel

Riccardo Primo (Italian for Richard the First) is one of Handel's unjustly neglected operas, and musically speaking it is arguably one of his finest. The German-English composer wrote the work as homage to the newly crowned King George II and to the nation of England, where he had just received citizenship.

The plot of the opera is based around the eponymous hero, King Richard the Lionheart, and his marriage to Constanza, a Spanish princess. On her sea journey to be married to Riccardo, Costanza and her party are shipwrecked off the coast of Cyprus, where they find shelter at the court of the local governor, Isacio. Upon seeing Costanza, Isacio makes violent advances towards her, and has the idea to send his daughter, Pulcheria, in place of Costanza to Riccardo, whilst keeping the real Costanza for himself.

The triumphal march we present today is taken from the end of the third and final act of the opera. It is played after Riccardo triumphs over Isacio, so that he can finally pledge eternal fidelity to Costanza. In the original setting, the march is played by two trumpets, oboes and strings.

Categories: Baroque Fanfares Marches Opera excerptsDifficulty: intermediate
Wednesday 23 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Fum, Fum, Fum

 Traditional Catalan Christmas carol

This is a traditional Catalan Christmas carol that could date back to the Renaissance era. It is one of the few popular ones of Spanish origin in the English-speaking world.

One often speculates about what the “Fum, Fum, Fum” represents here. Some have asserted it is onomatopoeic in that it is the imitation of the strumming sound of a guitar, while some other mention a similarity to the tapping of a drum. Whether it represents the sound of a musical instrument or not, it does give a rhythmic and colorful character to this charming carol. The melody's lively, festive manner has even moved some to suggest that “Fum” in the text should be replaced by “Fun”, so spirited and joyful is the music.

Categories: Christmas carols Traditional/FolkDifficulty: easy
Thursday 24 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Silent Night

 Christmas carol by Franz Gruber
Nativity

“Silent Night” is likely to be the most popular Christmas carol in the world, but the history behind it is still the source of some dis­agree­ment.

The tra­di­tion­al story is that Father Josef Mohr and headmaster Franz Xaver Gru­ber wrote the carol in Obern­dorf, Aus­tria, on Christ­mas Eve 1818, when they dis­cov­ered the church or­gan was brok­en (dif­fer­ent ver­sions say it rust­ed out, or mice chewed through vi­tal parts); for this reason, Mohr and Gruber created a song for accompaniment by guitar. How­ever, re­cent evi­dence in­di­cates this may be only folk­lore. Some believe that Mohr simply wanted a new Christmas carol that he could play on his guitar. According to Austria's Silent Night Society, there are “many romantic stories and legends” that add their own anecdotal details to the known facts.

And here are the facts: the carol was first performed in the Nikolaus-Kirche (Church of St. Nicholas) in Oberndorf, Austria on December 24, 1818, and it was an instant success. The song has since been translated in over 44 languages, and recorded by over 300 artists; among the most successful we can mention the hit versions by Bing Crosby, Enya (sung in Irish) and Andrea Bocelli.

Categories: Christmas carols Hymn tunesDifficulty: easy
Friday 25 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Hallelujah Chorus

 Merry Christmas from flutetunes.com!

With the arguable exception of the Water Music, the oratorio Messiah is the one work of Handel's which is universally known. Yet it was composed at a time when Handel's fortunes were at a low ebb. His final attempt to return to opera had proved a failure, and rumor even had it that, having despaired of the London public, he was preparing to leave England. Fortuitously, the clergyman and writer Charles Jennens lured Handel back to the idea of English oratorio; at much the same time, the composer received an offer to take part in the following season of oratorio performances in Dublin. The libretto offered to Handel by Jennens was based around the birth and Passion of Christ, and was called Messiah. By the way, it was originally created for Lent; it was only in the 19th century when it crossed over the Atlantic that performances of “Messiah” became associated with the Christmas season.

The first performance took place at the New Music Hall in Dublin in the spring of 1742. It was received with huge acclaim, the Dublin Journal proclaiming that “Messiah was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard”. The following year the triumph was repeated at Covent Garden, and by the time of the Composer's death in 1758 Messiah had already attained an iconic status it has never relinquished.

The “Hallelujah” chorus, which concludes the second of the three parts of the oratorio, is by far the most famous movement of the work. The text is drawn from three passages in the New Testament book of Revelation:

Hallelujah: for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ;
and He shall reign for ever and ever.
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
Hallelujah!

There is a story told (perhaps apocryphally) about this chorus that Handel's assistant walked in to Handel's room after shouting to him for several minutes with no response. The assistant reportedly found Handel in tears, and when asked what was wrong, Handel held up the score to this movement and said, “I thought I saw the face of God.”

In many parts of the world it is traditional for the audience to stand during the Hallelujah Chorus. Legend has it that King George II was so moved by the music that he rose to his feet when he heard it, requiring that his subjects followed suit.

Categories: Baroque Christmas carols OratoriosDifficulty: intermediate
Saturday 26 December 2009

Tune of the Day: The Twelve Days of Christmas

 Traditional Christmas carol

Contrary to much popular belief, the ”twelve days of Christmas” are not the twelve days before Christmas, but the twelve days from the day after Christmas (December 26) to the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, or the Twelfth Day). Although the carol was first published in England in 1780, textual evidence may indicate that the song is actually French in origin.

It is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by “my true love” on one of the twelve days of Christmas.

Unlike most popular music, the time signature of this song is not constant. The introductory lines are made up of two 4/4 bars, while most of the lines naming gifts receive one 3/4 bar per gift, with the exception of “Five gold(en) rings”. Another peculiar aspect about this song is how the second through fourth verses (before the song gets to the “five golden rings”) use a different melody than in the fifth through twelfth verses.

Categories: Christmas carols Traditional/FolkDifficulty: easy
Sunday 27 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Symphony No. 40

 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Symphony No. 40 in G minor, KV. 550, in 1788. It is sometimes referred to as the “Great G minor symphony”, to distinguish it from the “Little G minor symphony”, No. 25. Quite remarkably, the two are the only minor-key symphonies Mozart wrote.

The symphony is cast in the usual four movements; the opening “Molto allegro” immediately announces something unusual by starting darkly, not with its first theme but with accompaniment. The uneasy passion of the main theme leads to conclusions that seem to protest rather than find any consolation. The movement's dominant feeling is urgency: upbeat after upbeat after upbeat occurs.

Symphony No. 40 has elicited varying interpretations. Robert Schumann regarded it as possessing “Grecian lightness and grace”. Almost certainly, however, the most common perception today is that the symphony is tragic in tone and intensely emotional. Although interpretations differ, the symphony is unquestionably one of Mozart's most greatly admired works, and it is frequently performed and recorded.

Categories: Classical SymphoniesDifficulty: intermediate
Monday 28 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Minuet and Trio

 from French Suite No. 3 in B minor by J.S. Bach

The French Suites are six suites which Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for the harpsichord between 1722 and 1725. The suites were later given the name “French” as a means of contrast with the English Suites, whose title is likewise a later appellation. The name was popularised by Bach's biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who wrote, “One usually calls them French Suites because they are written in the French manner.” This claim, however, is inaccurate: like Bach's other suites, they follow a largely Italian convention. There is no surviving "definitive" manuscript of these suites, and ornamentation varies both in type and in degree across manuscripts.

The Minuet we present today can be viewed as an exercise in turning a B minor chord into a series of arpeggios that constitute a moderately fast eighth-note melody. The Trio that follows stretches out its melodic material more, and the movement ends with a final reprise of the Minuet.

Categories: Baroque MinuetsDifficulty: intermediate
Tuesday 29 December 2009

Tune of the Day: The Little Shepherd

 from “Children's Corner” by Claude Debussy

Debussy dedicated his 1908 piano cycle Children's Corner to his five-year old daughter, writing in his dedication: “To my beloved little Chou-Chou, with the tender excuses of her father for that which follows”. The composer's sentiments were presumably an acknowledgment of the inevitable loss of innocence that comes with growing up, but his words take on a darker, more prophetic, hue in hindsight: only a decade later, Debussy was dead, and his daughter was to follow him next year.

The fifth piece in the suite, titled “The Little Shepherd”, is a witty piece in a pastorale style. It tells a story of a young shepherd, playing his pipe, dancing around the meadow, resting by a tree, and finally falling asleep. The expressive simplicity of the piece is conveyed by imitating soliloquy on shepherd's reed pipes which alternates with accompanied dance tunes.

Categories: 20th centuryDifficulty: intermediate
Wednesday 30 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Sicilienne

 by Gabriel Fauré, arranged for flute and piano

This Sicilienne is among Fauré's most familiar pieces; it began life as an orchestral sketch in 1893, intended as incidental music for a revival of Molière's play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Left incomplete as that establishment went bankrupt, Fauré rounded it off and arranged it for cello (or violin) and piano in 1898 as Op. 78. He also included an orchestrated version of it as part of his Op. 80 incidental music for a London production of Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande. In this play, the gentle melody of the Sicilienne introduces the scene at the beginning of Act Two, in which Mélisande's wedding ring slips from her finger and disappears into a well as she plays gently with Pelléas.

Faure's original tempo indication was “Andantino”; he changed this to “Allegretto molto moderato” in the orchestral version.

Categories: Romantic SicilianasDifficulty: intermediate
Thursday 31 December 2009

Tune of the Day: Auld Lang Syne

 Traditional New Year Song

This song is sung at the stroke of midnight in almost every English-speaking country in the world to bring in the new year. By extension, its use has also become common at funerals, graduations, and as a farewell or ending to other occasions.

The song's Scots title may be translated into English literally as “old long since”, or more idiomatically, “long long ago” or “days gone by”.

The tune to which Robert Burn's poem “Auld Lang Syne” is now universally sung is a pentatonic Scots folk melody, probably originally a sprightly dance in a much quicker tempo. English composer William Shield (1748–1829) seems to quote the melody briefly at the end of the overture to his opera Rosina, which may be its first recorded use. The contention that Burns borrowed the melody from Shield is highly unlikely, although they may very well both have taken it from a common source, possibly a strathspey called “The Miller's Wedding” or “The Miller's Daughter”. The problem is that tunes based on the same set of dance steps necessarily have a similar rhythm, and even a superficial resemblance in melodic shape may cause a very strong apparent similarity in the tune as a whole.