It’s not the notes he did write, it’s the notes he DIDN’T write.

November 3, 2016 at 11:37 am

If you think about it, writing (musical or text) is just the older way to record sound. To preserve an image through eternity, you paint a picture. To preserve a sound for eternity, you have to use a code which tells you how to recreate the sound in the present – whether that code is phonetics, hieroglyphs, or notes on a staff. If a human isn’t recreating the sound (out loud or in the mind), the writing is just visual patterns.

As history progressed, music notation became more and more complex, giving composers complete control over the music they wanted to preserve or create. More and more musical terms and symbols made their way into scores from the 18th to the 19th centuries. By the 20th century, scores were expected to be precise down to the most miniscule subtlety. If it wasn’t written down, the performer didn’t do it. There also opened up fields of musical scholarship that studied the older scores and tried to detoxify them of modern performance practices. For example – if Bach wrote a little squiggly line above a note (called an ornament), what exactly did that mean? play an extra note below the printed pitch? two? or above? above and below? fast or slow? etc. etc. etc.

This is similar to a lead sheet – sheet music regularly used by jazz, pop, and rock musicians. It displays the melody of the piece with chords labeled above the melody. It allows the performers a good deal of freedom – they can choose which instruments to use, what sort of beat to play, and how the accompaniment will work. Take “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, which is famous in two versions – the original and the ukulele. So, if you have a lead sheet to “Bad Romance“, you could perform it as a polka if you really wanted to (why has nobody done that yet?)

Here are two images of the same piece of music – the slow movement of a sonata for violin and basso continuo by Tomaso Albinoni. The first is the actual notes that Albinoni wrote. The second is the way this performer plays it – even if you don’t read music, you can see plenty of things that the performer did that weren’t actually written in the score. (in the video, this musical moment happens at 5:40)


the original score


the ornamented version
(what the performer plays)

If the performer didn’t do this, the piece would be very dull; by adding notes, the piece really comes to life and becomes a thing of elegance. Sometimes, there’s a lot more music hiding behind the printed notes.


Mozart, eat your heart out

October 26, 2016 at 3:00 pm

I’m said before that Mozart wrote the Requiem against which all others are judged. I’ve also mentioned how the intense emotions of that piece foreshadow a big change in musical style between the 18th and 19th centuries. Mozart’s is a masterpiece, classical in balanced form and romantic in dramatic execution. But what if we dump that balance and go straight for the feels – specifically, the OMG-I’m-afraid-to-die day-of-judgment fire-and-brimstone scared-out-of-my-wits feels?

Enter Giuseppe Verdi, the revolutionary composer who helped Italian Opera stay on the map. His Requiem IS an opera; the emotional drama is as chilling as Othello, heart-wrenching as Traviata, dark as Rigoletto. When we hear about the day of judgment, we are scared. We are very very scared. And when Verdi’s angel sounds the trumpet (at 2:25, “Tuba Mirum”), it makes me want to cower under my desk. Mozart’s Tuba? not so much. Makes me want to do a Mr. Bean dance.

Kudos to the performers here for having A LOT of singers in the choir, so the brass could play at full-volume!

The music is scary up until 4:10, at which point it’s the conductor’s face which is scary.


A Violinist’s Nightmare

October 25, 2016 at 2:05 pm

Occasionally I will dream about a new piece of music – when I awake, I desperately try to cling to the notes flying in my head and, in my tired, confused state, write them down before they evaporate forever. Musical dreams are fascinating, and I’m certainly not the only person who has them. Take, for example, composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini

Tartini had one of these musical dreams which he describes thus:

In 1713, I dreamed that I sold my soul to the devil. Everything went perfectly – the devil fulfilled any desire I named. I handed him my violin to see if he could play; he began to play a marvelous sonata which had me completely enraptured. Never could I have imagined such beautiful music. I was so moved that I woke up in a cold sweat, and running to my violin, I tried in vain to remember the music I had heard. What I did write down, however, is the best music I have ever written; even so, I would destroy my violin and forsake music forever for a chance to hear the devil’s music once again.

Now, this description was not written by Tartini, but related in a book by his friend, so it is very possible that it is completely made up! Even so, it makes a great story.

Making a deal with the devil is a common theme in literature was well as in music. The sonata Tartini ended up writing down (whether or not he actually composed it) is called the “Devil’s Trill Sonata” – perhaps because the devil was the composer, but more likely because of the devilishly difficult double-stops (playing two violin strings at once) and trills in the work. It’s a classic example of a baroque sonata for solo instrument and basso continuo (fancy word for bass accompaniment, which was provided by cello, bass, harpsichord, organ, theorbo, guitar, or a combination of those instruments.)