Friday, October 28, 2016

Bach and the Internet's Pot of Gold

When I finish playing one of the books of The Well-Tempered Clavier in one evening, I have the feeling that this is actually much longer than my real life, that I have been on a journey through history, one that begins and ends in silence.” 
– Daniel Barenboim, Music Quickens Time

In 1708, Johann Sebastian Bach accepted a job as organist, composer, and chamber musician for the Duke of Weimar. Even though the Duke raised Bach's salary in 1713 to keep him at Weimar, Bach felt snubbed in 1717 when the Duke passed him over for a job as Kapellmeister (Director of Music). Angry at the Duke, Bach decided to leave Weimar and take a job as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold at the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen. When the Duke refused to give Bach an early dismissal from his job at Weimar, Bach made such a fuss that the Duke had him thrown in jail. During the month he was in jail, as the legend goes, he began composing his iconic work, The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Bach completed his first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722, furnishing the world with preludes and fugues for keyboard in all twelve major and minor keys — a total of twenty-four pieces of music. Twenty years later, Bach completed a second book, again producing preludes and fugues in every major and minor key. All told, the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier provide an encyclopedic record of Bach’s extensive understanding of the keyboard and the music it can produce. 

“For the use and profit of the musical youth desirous of learning and for the pastime of those already skilled in the study." 
– Bach's inscription to Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier

Although the forty-eight pieces Bach composed for The Well-Tempered Clavier stand collectively as a masterwork of music, they were most likely conceived by Bach primarily as technical exercises, a means of providing keyboard players experience at working with chords, arpeggios, and scales in every key. Indeed, the music has been used to train musicians of all nationalities and musical styles for almost 400 years, including many of history's best-known composers and performers

The Well-Tempered Clavier, for example, formed a foundation for the lessons delivered by Nadia Boulanger, the famous French teacher who trained over 1200 musicians, including composers of such disparate styles as Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, and Charlie Parker. Even though Boulanger was well known for helping composers develop their individual voices, she did standardize one element of her instruction — she required every student to memorize Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

“Let the Well-Tempered Clavier become your daily bread. Then you will become a musician.” 
– Robert Schumann to Felix Mendelssohn

And now for the primary purpose of this posting: If you would like to find a pot of gold on the Internet look no further than the website that features the pianist Kimiko Ishizaka playing Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier in its entirety. Adding even more luster to that pot of gold is a collection of animated graphical scores from Stephen Malinowski, creator of the Music Animation Machine. Malinowski has created animated graphical scores for the entirety of Ishizaka's performance. (What a great time to be alive when treasures like this are so easily accessible!)

I have embedded Ishizaka's entire performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier below, and to whet your appetite for Malinowski's work I have added a video of the Fugue in C major. I recommend visiting Malinowski's YouTube playlist featuring animated graphical scores of all 24 works from Book One. 


Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, Kimiko Ishizaka (piano),



Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, Fugue in C major, video by Stephen Malinowski
and the Music Animation Machine (Kimko Ishizaka, piano)


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Claude Debussy: The Tranquil Revolutionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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







© 2011 James L. Smith

Monday, October 3, 2016

Oscar Peterson's Master Class

The distinguished and elegant Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) was a Canadian jazz pianist who was trained in the European classical tradition. This short video of Mr. Peterson explaining styles of jazz piano is a gem. All told, the video provides six examples of jazz piano. 
  • Stride (Art Tatum)
  • Two-Fingered Percussiveness (Nat King Cole)
  • Lyric Octaves (Errol Garner)
  • Relaxed Block Chords (George Shearing)
  • Double Octave Melody Lines
  • Tonality-Based


As for Peterson’s own style, here’s how it's described in A Natural History of the Piano by Stuart Isacoff:

“The Peterson style was always characterized by rapid, graceful, blues-tinged melody lines unfurled in long, weaving phrases with the inexorable logic of an epic narrative; and, equally important, a visceral sense of rhythm, transmitted with fire and snap. Those qualities for which he was renowned — effortless fluidity and clockwork precision — were not merely aspects of his playing; they were the very foundation on which his artistic expression rested. And pulling them off required the highest level of athletic prowess.” 




Saturday, October 1, 2016

Analyzing Works of Art in a History Class

Whether you teach European history, United States history, or some other historical topic, works of art are a great tool for helping students gain a more sophisticated understanding of history. The purpose of this blog is to suggest one approach for helping history students analyze works of art. Although the approach might seem simple, it is nevertheless quite effective at helping students learn to reach historical conclusions on their own.

Once you have selected a work of art, ask students to analyze that work and then use their analysis to reach conclusions about the topic they are studying. You might, for example, choose Pablo Picasso's Guernica to help students better understand the rise of European fascism during the 1930s. Follow my two recommendations below and you should be able to create lessons that not only engage students but also help them become independent thinkers.


First, provide students with enough background information that they can place the work of art in historical context.

To help students reach conclusions about a work of art on their own, I recommend keeping the background information to a minimum,  

In the case of Picasso’s Guernica, I might, for example, provide students with a little information about the Spanish Civil War. I would probably also talk about the newly-established German Air Force and how it bombed the Spanish city of Guernica in April 1937. In supporting Francisco Franco, the fascist leader of Spain, Germany used Guernica to practice the techniques of air warfare that they would later use in the blitzkrieg of World War II. In attacking Guernica, a city of 7000, the Germans injured 900 Spaniards and killed 1700.

If students know that minimal amount of information, they should be able to glean much meaning from the painting.

Next, show students the work of art and ask them to answer three questions.
  1. What details in the painting catch your attention?
  2. What questions of curiosity are sparked by the painting?
  3. What conclusions can you make that are based on information in the painting?
Take note that these questions are designed to encourage students to examine the painting closely and come to their own conclusions about the rise of fascism. As always, history teachers should avoid teaching students what to think and instead teach them how to think.

If students need more time for research, provide that time after they have examined the painting closely (required by question #1), created a list of questions they want answered (required by question #2), and come to a few conclusions independently (required by question #3). In my experience, student research will be much more focused after they have already completed their analysis of a work based on the three questions.  

In Guernica, Picasso supplied several images of what happened to the one town after the bombing. From the image of the woman holding a dead child and screaming into the air to the single light shining upon the atrocities, Picasso created a touching portrait of human suffering that will most likely engage the hearts and minds of anyone who examines the images closely. Picasso also used the bombing of Guernica to create a painting that was anti-fascist and anti-war, a painting that portrays the cruelty that human beings can inflict on each other. 

As a teacher, I have never had to explain all that to students. Most students are able to figure it out by answering the three simple questions listed above. Additionally, students usually extract meanings from the painting that I have overlooked. 

The approach that I have outlined can also be used to ask students to synthesize historical information and make a comparison between Guernica and other works of art from other historical eras. In the case of Guernica, for example, I might ask students to compare and contrast Picasso’s painting with Francisco Goya's The Third of May, 1808 (1814). Although the two paintings were created almost 125 years apart, they were both painted by Spaniards, and they both offered similar themes and images inspired by similar events.

I must admit that writing about all this makes me miss my work with high school students. I can’t help but think about how much fun I had listening to students talk about Guernica and The Third of May. What my students taught me was always far more than I ever taught them.


As a postscript, I have an assignment for the readers of this blog. I ask that you watch the 3-D animation of Guernica embedded below and answer the three questions as you watch the video. If all goes as I expect, you should be inspired to learn much more about the events and themes surrounding Picasso's masterwork.


© 2012 James L. Smith