Britten – Rejoice in the Lamb

Benjamin Britten was a celebrated 20th century composer who is best known for “bringing back” English opera. Like musical theatre, an opera is a play in which the words are sung, and has been popular in Italy since it was invented there in the 17th century. English opera was less common after the death of composer Henry Purcell in 1695, but Purcell’s music inspired Britten to return to the genre, starting with the opera Peter Grimes in 1945.

Besides opera, Britten wrote many other kinds of music for singers, including the chilling War Requiem in memory of World War II. During the war, Britten also wrote the cantata Rejoice in the Lamb for the anniversary of a church. A cantata is like a mini-opera without costumes and acting, and J.S. Bach famously wrote over 200 of them on everything from the Bible to his love of coffee. Below is a recording of Rejoice in the Lamb by the Choir of King’s College in Cambridge, in 2 parts.

A cantata has several parts, or movements, which are either for the chorus (all singers), or a solo (one singer). Below is a chorus movement that is written as a fugue, a form that is similar to the canons we discussed in Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Listen to how each voice starts singing the melody at a different time, but joins together with the other voices at the end.

The libretto, or lyrics, of the cantata are from a poem by Christopher Smart, who wrote it when he was supposedly insane. This religious poem includes such odd ideas as the “rhymes” of different instruments (the cymbal’s are bell, well, toll, and soul), and the letters H, K, L, and M. The poem is best known for its description of Smart’s cat “Jeoffrey”, a section which Britten sets as a lovely solo for treble (high women’s or boy’s) voice. Listen to this solo below, along with the following movement, which is an alto (low women’s voice) solo telling the story of a mouse.

Besides voice and percussion (drums and cymbals), the only instrument you will hear is the pipe organ. Organs were the original music synthesizer, popular before the invention of pianos and electronics. They came in all shapes and sizes, from hand-cranked versions played on street corners, to enormous instruments still used in churches today. Organs have several stops, or groups of pipes, that each make a different sound, and the largest organs can imitate an entire orchestra with hundreds of stops. in the movement below, listen to the different dynamics (loud and soft) and timbres (the instrument it sounds like) that the organ can play.

Brubeck Quartet – Time Out

Dave Brubeck was a great American jazz pianist and composer and one of the creators of the style know as cool jazz. Jazz was born from African-American blues and spirituals, and quickly spread around the world to become one of the first genres of popular, or pop music. Jazz’s use of syncopated (off the beat) rhythms, “blue” or off-tune notes, and improvisation (making up music on the spot), is still heard in everything from modern classical music to rock and roll, R&B, and hip hop. Cool jazz was a reaction to the fast, difficult style of bebop jazz, which was itself a reaction to the dance styles of the “big bands” of the 1920s to 1940s.

A typical jazz tune can be adapted from existing songs such as “Someday My Prince Will Come”, or an original composition. This song is repeated at the beginning and the end as the “head”, while musicians take turn improvising a new melody during the “solos” in the middle. The remaining musicians repeat a pattern of chords, called the chord “changes”, to give the melody harmony throughout.

Organized by Brubeck from 1951, The Dave Brubeck Quartet is a typical jazz ensemble with a drummer (Joe Morello) to keep time, a bassist (Eugene Wright) to lay down the changes, a harmonizing instrument (Dave Brubeck on piano), and one or more melodic instruments (Paul Desmond on alto saxophone). The quartet’s most famous album is Time Out, which plays with your sense of time by using unusual or irregular meters of 5, 6, or 9 beats per measure.

“Blue Rondo a La Turk” was inspired by street music heard by the quartet while touring Turkey, and is written on a 9 beat pattern divided into 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 parts. The title of the song is a play on Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” (Rondo in the style of the Turks), which was itself inspired by Turkish military band music. An abrupt change into 4/4 marks the start of Paul Desmond’s solo, which showcases the relaxed and light sound of cool jazz.

“Take Five” is one of the best known jazz tunes of all time. Played entirely in 5/4 meter, you can hear the division of 5 beats (10 subdivisions) into 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 clearly in the piano part throughout – the same beat pattern as the “Mission Impossible” theme.

Kathy’s Waltz starts as an unassuming 4/4, which is then transformed into an upbeat 3/4 when Desmond enters. But during Brubeck’s piano solo, he magically returns to the original quadruple time while the drums and bass continue the triple time that started with saxophone. If you tap along to every 2 beats from the beginning, you will find there are exactly 3 beats of the faster triple time for every 2 beats of the slower quadruple time, a relationship called polyrhythm or hemiola.

Percy Grainger – A Lincolnshire Posy

Percy Grainger was a globe-trotting pianist: born in Australia, he worked in London and later moved to the United States, serving in the army band during World War I. With inspiration from English folk songs, he wrote and arranged many exceptional pieces which have become classics for the wind band.

In 1905, Grainger travelled around Lincolnshire, England, to record folk songs using the newly invented phonograph. Thirty years later, he turned these recordings into six songs for wind band, calling it a “bunch of musical wildflowers”, or Lincolnshire Posy. Although each song uses a simple “theme and variations” form, Grainger’s creative orchestration (choice of instruments) and irregular rhythms combine to make a unique “musical portrait” of each folk singer.

The first movement is a lively tune in which another folk song, The Duke of Marlborough, appears suddenly as a counter-melody. See if you can hear it in the horns.

The second movement is a sentimental song, developed with the rich chromatic chords that Grainger loved. Listen for examples of his chromaticism, or use of notes outside the regular key (scale), towards the climatic ending.

The third movement is a haunting song of the violence between poachers and groundskeepers. This complex and powerful movement shows off the many colourful sounds of the wind band. Listen closely for a soprano saxophone solo, double-tongued trumpet, and an unusual duet which happens twice: a canon (the melody played with itself) between piccolo/clarinet and oboe/bassoon.

Here is a recording of the original folk singer of Rufford Park Poachers:

The fourth movement is a fast and cheerful tune with some very challenging woodwind parts! Listen for lightning-quick sextuplets and another canon between oboe and soprano saxophone. The movement ends with yet another of Grainger’s characteristic dissonances.

The fifth movement is a drinking song, and showcases the power of the wind band’s brass instruments. Not only is the movement written in mixed meter, meaning the number of beats changes between 4, 5, and even 2 1/2, there are also sections in which the conductor leads without a steady beat. Listen for the frequent tempo changes – do they make a “drunken” sound?

The final movement has a very similar melody to Green Bushes, a popular folk song that had been used in several other wind band pieces, including English composer Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite, and even Grainger’s own Green Bushes.

Astor Piazzolla – The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires

Think of the four seasons, and Antonio Vivaldi’s concerti are the first pieces of music that come to mind. But Vivaldi is not the only composer to have been inspired by the seasons. The following is Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires), by the father of tango nuevo, Ástor Piazzolla

Tango began as the music and dance of gangsters and thugs in 19th century Argentina. Much like jazz, which gained popularity and was later elevated into an artform, tango was popularized in the 20th century, during which Piazzolla was inspired by jazz and classical music to develop a more academic style called tango nuevo. He abandoned the large tango orchestra in favour of smaller groups modelled after the jazz combo, which allowed him to experiment with extended harmonies and the use of counterpoint (music with more than one melody).

The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires were originally separate compositions written from 1965 to 1970, later combined into a single suite. The above recording is by Piazzolla’s Quinteto (quintet), an ensemble including a violin, piano, electric guitar, and bass. Much like in a jazz ensemble, each musician has the freedom to improvise and respond to one another. Throughout the recording you can hear Piazzolla leading the group on the bandoneon, a type of accordion common in tango.

I first heard this anecdote about Piazzolla from Dr. Peter Paul Koprowski, who had also studied with the famed composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger. In his 30s, Piazzolla went to Paris to study with Boulanger. At the time Piazzolla was ashamed of his roots in tango, so he only showed Boulanger his avant-garde compositions. But it was not until he played his tango Triunfal for her that she exclaimed, “That’s the true Piazzolla. Never leave it.” For me, this story is a reminder to stay true to yourself and pursue your passion, for otherwise how can you create anything meaningful?

Piazzolla also wrote tangos in collaboration with notable Argentinian poets including Jorge Luis Borges. I’ll leave you with a personal favourite, the tango Las Ciudades with lyrics by Horacio Ferrer.

J.S. Bach – Goldberg Variations

To kick off this listening series, I present the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by none other than one of his foremost interpreters, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould.

J.S. Bach lived humbly as a small town musician. He was incredibly prolific not only as a musician but as the father of 20 children, several of whom became notable musicians and composers in their own right. To give you an idea of Bach’s work ethic, in his first few years working in Leipzig he directed the music for four churches, taught schoolchildren, and still managed to write a new cantata every week for Sunday service! At around 20 minutes long, for multiple vocalists and accompanying orchestra, the 209 surviving Bach cantatas are a treat for your ears and a hole in your wallet. During his life, Bach was better known as an organist than a composer. At the court of Frederick the Great, where his son was employed, Bach famously improvised a three voice fugue on a melody given by the king, and subsequently expanded on this theme with a series of elaborate fugues and musical riddles called The Musical Offering.

A “Theme and Variations” is an old musical form where a melody (the theme), is repeated in different versions (the variations). The Goldberg Variations, supposedly written for an insomniac Count, are Bach’s impressive take on this form. Not only are there a staggering 30 variations, but 9 of them are canons. A canon is a clever melody that can be played over itself after a short delay, such as the tune “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or Pachebel’s Canon in D. Not to be outdone, each of Bach’s canons separates the melody by a different interval (the distance between pitches), from the unison to the 9th. The full score is available here if you want to follow along.

The theme begins as a simple aria (6’22”):

Aria melody beginning, Goldberg Variations - J.S. Bach

Of all the variations, my personal favorite is number 18, the canon at an interval of the 6th (32’54”). Notice how the top voice (notes with stems pointing up) copies the shape of the bottom voice (stems pointing down):

Variation 18 (canon at the 6th) beginning, Goldberg Variations - J.S. Bach

The final variation is a quodlibet, which is a kind of musical mashup of the popular tunes of Bach’s day (52’08”):

Variation 30 (Quodlibet) beginning, Goldberg Variations - J.S. Bach

As for Glenn Gould, there are countless books and even a documentary about this Canadian icon. He was not only a prodigy who transformed our understanding of Bach and recorded music, but an eccentric, and several of Gould’s oddities are on display in the video. The low folding chair he sits on was specially adjusted for him as a child, and he carried it to his performances all his life. And if you listen carefully, you will hear the occasional buzzing noise of Gould humming along to his own playing.