June 30, 2016 at 10:30 am

note: this cannon makes music AND war.

Blogging: some days the words flow from a never-ending stream of genius and awesomeness; other days, I end up blankly staring at my screen, watching the worst of YouTube, desperately looking for inspiration. (the same thing can happen when it comes to music composition, by the way!) When I’m stuck, the first thing I do is search for historical events that happened on the day of the post. So what happened on June 30? The Tunguska Event – and no, I had never heard of this until today’s web search.

Basically, the Tunguska Event was a meteor that struck the middle of Siberia in 1908 and caused a massive explosion that leveled 2,000 sq. km of forest (and caused no known human casualties***).

.. a big BOOM … in Russia … eureka! I’ve got it! I’m a genius!

Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture is the most famous musical BOOM. It was written in 1882 to celebrate Russia’s victory over Napoleon in 1812. As far as the music is concerned, it’s not the most amazing piece ever written; I’d venture to say that it’s one of Tchaikovsky’s tackier contributions to the Art Music canon (pun intended). I’m not saying it’s bad, but compared to his 6th symphony or to his opera Eugene Onegin, the 1812 Overture is a hodge-podge collage of nationalistic sentimentality, including some ridiculously long, melodic sequences (like the one that starts at 0:52 and ends at 1:39 – yes, 45 seconds of descending tetrachords …), and, of course, cannons!

This is why I’m posting just the finale, not the whole piece. You can listen to the whole thing if you want, but trust me, it’ll just be a long wait until the cannons come out. Here’s what you’re hearing:

  • 0:03 La Marseillaise, the French National anthem, representing Napoleon of course
  • 0:40 the first of the cannons!
  • 1:39 A Russian Orthodox Hymn (O Lord, Save Thy People)
  • 1:45 Church Bells celebrating the Russian victory
  • 3:14 God Save the Tsar, the Russian National anthem at the time (spoiler alert – God doesn’t save the Tsar)

*** if it did cause any human casualties … what a totally metal way to die!



June 29, 2016 at 10:30 am

I occasionally play organ music to accompany silent films (and did so at a concert yesterday evening). When I do this, I like to steal borrow melodies from other composers. One of the pieces I used last night was Csárdás – though I admit that I knew nothing about the piece or its composer. (I’ll never forget the first time I heard it, though, under a funny circumstance***).

So here it is: Vittorio Monti‘s only lasting contribution to the Art Music world – but it’s a good one!

*** The funny circumstance: I was teaching at a university, and giving a final exam in Music Theory. The students were silent, hard at work, concentrating deeply. Suddenly, music broke out from the practice room next door – it was a marimba playing the fast section of Csárdás. The music can be a bit silly to begin with, and having it break the solemn silence of an exam made all the students’ heads pop up, eyes wide open – and then we all had a good laugh. I guess you had to be there.


Life’s a Beach and then you Die.

June 28, 2016 at 10:30 am

Amy Beach was the first successful female American composer. She remains unsung today, but ironically this has less to do with her sex than it has to do with the year she was born.

Beach was one of the members of the “Boston Six” – Six American composers whose musical success marked a new era for Art Music in the US. After centuries of being considered a backwards musical wasteland, the United States was finally on the Art Music map. So what happened? Why are the Boston Six not household names? Well, their writing was very rooted in the European style (German, specifically), and there is little that is uniquely American about their music. This wasn’t a big deal during the height of their careers; but soon afterwards they became completely overshadowed by two things: Charles Ives and Jazz. Ives became the poster-boy for academic, aloof, cultivated Art Music, while Jazz quickly became the defining American musical idiom.

Back to Amy Beach – her music is truly fantastic; as good, if not even better, than the European masters who get overplayed.