Let’s ignore for a second the fact that the writing is AWFUL, that the plots never make sense, that the characters are hackneyed, that the integration of music into story is woeful, that the treacly overproduction of each and every song is an aural demoralization, and that most of the scenes are so poor that it makes me uncomfortable to watch them by myself. No, all of that is Glee’s own business, and it’s my fault for watching it.
But when Glee decides to put on a high school production of West Side Story, it gets PERSONAL.
1) Mercedes and Rachel are going up against each other for the role of Maria. And why is that? Is Mercedes really prepared to sing the high C at the end of Tonight? Has anybody on this casting committee bothered to consider the RANGE and VOCAL TYPE needed to play any of these parts??
2) Rachel’s statement that she would sing the “classic Maria song ‘Somewhere'”. Though there is a brief — and I mean brief — a cappella reprise of “Somewhere” by Maria at the very end of the show, the theatrical version of West Side Story assigns this song is to an off-stage voice. The actual actress playing Maria is onstage enacting the Ballet reenactment of the first act. Somebody please do your homework.
3) Dear Idiots: the melody of “Cool” has two notes on both of the first “Boy”s. Here’s what I’m talking about:
Here’s what you did:
And this was after Mike Cheng proudly announced that he’s been “working on his singing”. Sounds to me like he and everyone else at Glee needs to work a LOT HARDER.
4) Leonard Bernstein has not been mentioned once this season. Kurt name checked Stephen Sondheim in this past week’s episode. It’s not like a have a problem with that per se – I’m all for mentioning the hallowed name of Sondheim whenever possible – but the line he delivered made it sound like Sondheim was the creator of West Side, and yes, he was one of the creators, but I just don’t want Lenny to be forgotten in the hubbub, since if they’re going to crap all over his songs, they might as well help popularize his name/image/work among the younger generation. I don’t seem to recall them having mentioned him in connection with “Ohio” last season either.
So that’s why Glee is really the worst, and why it’s a crying shame that I’m going to have to keep watching it this entire season to keep them honest about their use of the West Side property.
Having said that, I will admit that Darren Criss is the perfect Tony.
Hi blogfanz – I’m back, and I’m glad to be returning to our top 10 top 10 with List #8, the Top 10 BEST Composers, where by “BEST” we mean something along the lines of “Most Technically Accomplished”.
“Compositional technique” is a phrase that gets bandied around a lot (among a tiny, tiny élite of classical musicians and critics). But I don’t think I’ve ever heard it defined. Composers confront a series of Design Challenges and Execution Challenges as they write a piece. So, is a composer’s technique simply a question of how well he or she executes a given design? Is it possible to separate the design from the execution?
My favorite example of this conundrum is Gordon Jenkins, a composer/arranger from the Golden Era of pop music who wrote beautiful, lush arrangements for Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, et al. As a composer, he specialized in writing “concept albums” for many of these collaborators.
His concepts for these albums were, in a word, ludicrous – Frank Sinatra taking a guided tour of outer space, for example. But the music he wrote to accompany his zany scenarios is gorgeous. It’s like, “yeah, if Frank Sinatra took a space ship to Saturn and then sang a jig about it, this is the best possible version of that jig.” You know?
Here’s what I came up with. We’ll talk more about the criteria at the end:
1. J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750)
Any person who writes a canon at the 7th, smoothly and gloriously, you do not mess with this person.
00:00 Impassioned 2-part counterpoint; violins v. lower strings; build-up to
00:11 The previous two lines are remixed into one, and this composite line is pitted against itself; build-up to
00:21 Dramatic tremolo in strings, winds play the main motive (ascending 3-notes), trombones recall the main motive from the previous movement of the symphony.
00:32 Letter D:
Violins and bassoon play the counterpoint from the beginning of this movement, flute and oboe keep playing the motive from the last section, long tones in the lower strings build drama and tension into
00:48 Parallel section to 00:21
This is what we call ‘tightly constructed’ – the themes all relate to each other, play against each other, appear and reappear, and build up into a large scale structure. But honestly, you don’t have to appreciate ANY of this to enjoy the symphony. This wealth of composerly technique is in the service of beautiful, dramatic, and emotional musical story-telling.
3. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
I say we let Lenny sort us out on this one:
4. (F.) Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Now, a lot of the tricks that Lenny was just talking about w/r/t Beethoven, I’m convinced Beethoven learned from Haydn. That is to say – the guy (Haydn) was killer when it came to form. But he (Haydn) also happened to be really good at all the things Lenny claims Beethoven sucked at: melody, harmony, fugues, etc. Haydn dazzles us, leaves us spinning, and has a ball doing it.
So for all his fancy tricks, I’m going to present a passage that seems rather mundane – just 8th notes, in pairs. The trick though, is that he slowly modulates the harmony, dynamics, and instrumentation to bring us back to the opening theme of this, the last movement of his 88th Symphony:
It’s like you’re driving around some back country roads, and just when you think you’re totally lost, you look up and it turns out you’re back where you started. That’s Haydn.
5. Johannes Ockeghem (1420ish – 1497)
I’m hardly an expert on this composer or his music. But like many an undergraduate music major before and since, I did at one time learn about the staggering contrapuntal accomplishments of Flanders’ greatest son.
Let’s look at his most famous work, the Missa Prolationum, so called because of its extensive use of “prolation canons”. It works like this: you all know what a canon is – “Row, row, row yr boat”, “Frère Jacques”, etc., anything where one guy sings a tune and the other guy starts singing the same tune a little later and it all works out harmonically. Well, in a “prolation canon” (which is more commonly known as a “mensuration canon”), the two guys sing the same tune at different speeds. Normally, they have a relation to each other – like twice as fast or twice as slow.
They don’t always have to stagger their entrances either – they can both start singing at the same time and it still counts. Ockeghem took this idea of mensuration canons to the extreme. Here’s the Kyrie II from his mass. There are two melodies: one in the soprano and alto, and another one in the tenor and bass. The soprano and alto sing their melody at different speeds. The tenor and bass sing their melody at two entirely different speeds. What’s more, the two melodies are very closely related.
I don’t know where to even begin talking about Mozart’s ridiculous compositional technique, but you can’t do much worse than the final set of canons in his last symphony, No. 41 (the “Jupiter”). This piece is chock full of canons, fugues, and other contrapuntal devices – and yet, you never get tired of them (unlike, let’s admit it, Bach). It’s just one vivacious bar after another:
With a mind to the generalish audience that sometimes reads this blog (if anyone’s actually made it this far), let’s turn again to the Hungarian composer’s Nonsense Madrigals, based on texts by Lewis Carrol.
So what makes this so great? Well, first off, let’s figure out what’s going on.
Element the first: The tenor has a melody (“when the rain… when the rain comes tumbling down… in the country or the town”). Each of the three phrases of the melody begins the same and builds to a higher note. The rhythm of the melody is irregular – it has a rhapsodic quality.
Element the second: This piece is a passacaglia, which means there is a repeated, regular figure in the bass line. Ligeti does that and also includes the two baritones in establishing the pattern. So even though this pattern gets shifted from beat to beat, there is a regular pulse going on, grounding the music.
Element the third: When the altos come in, they pick up the tenor’s melody, but their rhythm mimics the regular pulse of the passacaglia people, but shortening their pulse by 1/4 of the value. Just to make things a little more complicated, at the top of the third system, the second alto starts drifting off into his own little world.
So again, what’s so great about this? It’s that Ligeti combines the elements in a way that gives the listener a simultaneous sense of regularity and irregularity – everything sounds natural but odd, logical but unpredictable. It works like a precision machine, as does much of his music, including the wild, 100-instrument scores from his early period.
9. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
I’ll admit, there’s occasionally things that are clumsy in Stravinsky’s writing – some of his meter and barring choices can be rather confusing at times – but the flaws are very minor, and easily overlooked when taken in context of his overall skills as a writer of music.
Since fugues seem to be a common theme of this list, here’s a great one:
Alban Berg, the shining light of the Second Viennese School, has gotten all too little love up in these lists so far. Finally, we’ve arrived at his category.
What I personally find so impressive about Berg’s writing is his ability to unite disparate elements. He chose to use a wide range of compositional tools: tonality, atonality, dodecaphony. He wrote waltzes and polkas, but infused them with eerie harmonies. He wrote startling, arhythmic sound masses and contrasted them with delicate, crystalline chords.
His opera Wozzeck is practically a textbook of compositional forms. But I’ve chosen the most famous passage from his Violin Concerto to illustrate how he so skillfully combined vastly different musical worlds:
Berg’s going from a huge dissonant cluster to a quotation of Bach. What’s admirable is the smooveness with which he does it: the chorale melody starts with a rising 4-note motive. He introduces this motive in the violin during the most dissonant music. Then he gives us the tune, but it’s set against slightly less dissonant music. By the time the winds enter on Bach’s harmonization, it makes all the sense in the world.
So, in choosing the composers on this list, I think I settled on the following criteria for great compositional technique:
1) handling of counterpoint (multiple, simultaneous lines)
2) tight motivic construction (building melodies and sections of music out of small themelets)
3) form (a logical succession of musical ideas, paced correctly so that the music seems to follow a logical flow)
4) ability to contrast and unite disparate musical ideas (which nobody does better than Schnittke, and I hate not including him on this list)
And then there’s the matter of, given their resources, how well did these guys write the stuff down on a score? Sibelius is one of my favorite composers, but his scores are a certifiable mess when it comes to logic and consistency. Ligeti’s scores are nearly as virtuosic in their meticulous layout and instructions as they are in their musical content.
So, y’all, what do you make of these criteria? And who fits it? My guys, or some other peops?
If you’ve made it this far, it’s time to let your voice be heard in the comments section!
Our fourth in the series of top 10 lists, this list focuses on people who might be termed “the best collaborative composers”. Composers who are distinguished by their contributions to film, theater, dance, TV, or some other non-musical medium. In some cases, their works have a life on the concert stage, or in yet another medium. In some cases, they also double as brilliant composers for the concert hall. (In other cases, they double as not-so-brilliant composers for the concert hall. Quite a smorgasbord we’ve got here.)
Each of these media requires something different. Opera, pantomime, and ballet often require the music to tell the story as much as the action on stage. Some music theater composers do this as well, but some just write great songs that propel their story along at a really entertaining clip. Movies, TV, and “incidental music” for the theater are different – if the music distracts from what’s going on in the drama, it has ceased to serve it’s function. But the really excellent composers for these media do more than just set a mood – they come up with ingenious ways of working the musical material into our minds and play subtle psychological games so that we interact with what’s going on in front of our eyes on a subconscious level.
1. Stephen Sondheim (1930 – )
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think Sondheim is our greatest living American composer. The irony of my including him on this list, however, is that I always find that his music is ruined when I see it staged in the theater. His music (not to mention his lyrics) does such an amazing job of telling the story that I can lean back, close my eyes, and see every move, facial expression, and visual image in the play.
But it’s not Sondheim’s fault that the people in the business of recreating his works can’t possibly match his genius and live up to what he’s written. Here’s a glimpse of a nearly-original production of Sweeney Todd (the ’82 touring company). It’s directed by Hal Prince, so let’s just go ahead and call it “authentic”. Notice how Sondheim writes all of Mrs. Lovett’s slaps, stomps, and sighs into the music? That’s good theater.
2. Bernard Herrmann (1911 – 1975)
Would Alfred Hitchcock’s films be what they were without Bernard Herrmann’s music? No way. His pre-Hermmann films were excellent, and had that certain Hitchcock touch, let there be no doubt: through Herrmann, we see Hitchcock at his best. Herrmann’s music elucidates and amplifies everything in Hitchock’s visual language.
He scored Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane. He scored Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. He wrote the iconic opening sequence for The Twilight Zone. What more do you people want?? Whatever it is, he’s got it. A horror score using only strings? Psycho. A heavily ironic score for a romantic comedy adventure? North by Northwest. An intricate psychological dreamscape? Try this:
3. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)
Name a single ballet in the common repertory written before Tchaikovsky came along. The only ones I can think of are “Giselle” and… that’s it. Even Ballanchine said that before Stravinsky, the only ballet scores of any merit were Tchaikovsky’s. He is a brilliant musical storyteller. Add to that the fact that his music is so very danceable, and you’ve got a hit, baby.
More than any of the previous lists, this list is bound to reflect my personal view as an American. And what could be more American than seeing The Nutcracker during the month of December. No, seriously, I think we’re like the only country who really gets into this ballet at Christmas thing.
Swan Lake moves me to tears, and it’s no surprise that it’s featured prominently in films like Billy Elliot and the highly comedic and altogether craptastic Black Swan.
4. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924)
Now, my friend Marcello and I have gotten into a lot of debates about Puccini v. Verdi. He thinks that Verdi is a better storyteller through music, whereas Puccini more or less writes soundtracks for the action on stage. Point well taken, though not entirely conferred.
My biggest problem with opera is pacing. A composer is invariably tempted to stop the action and tell us everything about a character’s inner depths. That’s great, and it’s a really unique property of music that it can do just that, so why not go for it? Because if the characters aren’t doing anything, why should we care about their inner lives?
For me, Puccini is that rare combination of an opera composer who can pace the action in a scene and simultaneously tell us everything we need to know about the characters in it.
5. John Williams (1932 – )
Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Indiana Jones, E.T., Home Alone, Hook, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, and don’t forget a little something called THE OLYMPIC GAMES.
Yes, it does read like a Steven Spielberg filmography, but fine. The two are ideally suited for each other. They are both unabashed manipulators of our emotions, and they both do it incredibly well.
John Williams may be a red-handed thief when it comes to his material. But he doesn’t waste what he’s stolen. His music may be as cheezy as an overflowing fondue pot. But I bet all of you could sing the main themes from each of the above listed movies, and that’s saying a LOT.
I mean, come on, right?
6. Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990)
Wait, so you’re saying street gangs don’t do ballet? Could have fooled me.
7. Alberto Iglesias (1955 – )
During their generation, Hitchcock and Herrmann were the most distinguished practitioners of their respective art forms. It also happens that they were ideally suited collaborators – they shared an artistic soul. One expressed that soul in a visual language, the other in an aural one.
I would say the exact same thing about Alberto Iglesias and Pedro Almodóvar. Again, the movies Almodóvar made pre-Iglesias are very much his own, and excellent in and of themselves. The ones he made with Iglesias as collaborator are just way better.
8. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
Stravinsky’s first three major works, all ballets, are staggering accomplishments in every category: harmony, form, orchestration, instrumentation – everything. And I don’t care that we’ve lost a lot of the original choreography – I know that these are perfect works for the stage. Much like what I said about Sondheim, Stravinsky’s music tells the story.
My primary example would be Petrushka, his 1911 ballet about puppets coming to life (a Russian sort of Pinnocchio, you might say). Every character, every argument, every laugh is vividly portrayed in the music. Different musics interact with each other, and pile on top of each other, just like freaks at a carnival show.
He did plenty of experimenting in weird little stage genres, like pantomime (Renard), narrated chamber music (Histoire du soldat), and ballet chanté (Les noces). But what I find really striking is that he could be as moving in the overblown romanticism of The Firebird (1910) as he could be in the refined and formal classicism of Apollo (1928):
I think Guys & Dolls is the perfect musical. Great tunes, great pacing, great dialogue – everything you’d want. The amazing thing is that Frank Loesser is the first and only Broadway triple threat, having written the score, the lyrics, and the libretto for this gem of the musical stage.
Plus, how do you not include someone who looks like that?
10. Danny Elfman (1953 – )
Everyone just looves to talk about how Danny Elfman doesn’t write his own music. Admittedly, there is so much rumor-mongering out there, it can be really hard to sort the facts from the fiction. I think this article makes a really good case, and I’m willing to take it at face value.
OK, so the guy writes his own music. And it’s really, really cool. I can hardly think of a more inventive score than Beetlejuice – it’s a wild romp, just like the movie itself. And who doesn’t tear up when that choir comes in at the end of Edward Scissorhands?
The pièce de résistance however, has to be Nightmare before Christmas – I loved it when I was a kid, and I was really surprised when I started conducting youth orchestras 10 years later that it was still so very popular.
(so, Danny Elfman:Tim Burton::… do we really have to go through this whole thing?)
So that last list didn’t seem to generate much talk… I guess it was just a little too tame for the Webern crowd. But I’m anticipating that this list could get real territorial real quick. Will the opera queenz, the balletomanes, and the Hans Zimmer fanatics get all up in each others’ grillz? Will there by any video game music people out there? Will anyone say Adam Guettel? Will Gabe say Monteverdi?
And are there any Lost fans out there? I never watched the show, but I almost thought about including Michael Giacchino just on Alex Ross’s recommendation. And speaking of TV, how about Alf Clausen?
Just remember, we’re not trying to glorify any cults here; we’re just taking a chance to reason and discuss and think about music. But the fun of this game is to face the artificial limits it provides and organize your thoughts accordingly. So, either a) come up with and present your own list or b) suggest alternatives and remove someone from my list in so doing.
1) Since posting my Addenda to the Civic Orchestra of Chicago Concert (below), the renowned Russian conductor and arranger Rudolf Barshai has passed away. Mr. Barshai was one of many to arrange Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet for string orchestra, but his was the only one to receive Shostakovich’s express approval.
2) The critics (the goodones at least) found out what I’ve known since the tender age of 19: that “A Quiet Place” just isn’t Lenny’s finest work. In fact, it’s not really even very good. OK, let’s admit it: it’s a klunker. And the really unfortunate thing is that when he interpolated his earlier opera, “Trouble in Tahiti”, into the flow of the later work, it just served to emphasize the genius of 40’s and 50’s Lenny and the unfortunate turn that 80’s Lenny had taken.
[Ed: the above picture is not in any way meant to illustrate an “unfortunate turn”. Quite to the contrary, it’s actually a portrait of perfection. Which will work against the ensuing argument, but it’s still a great picture.]
But I actually find something very inspirational in “A Quiet Place”, because it makes Lenny more human. As Stephen Sondheim says, the main thing he learned from Lenny is that if you’re going to fall off the ladder, fall off the highest rung. And it turns out that Lenny wasn’t perfect! He fell hard. Although I think he would have made a great fireman. [That’s a reference to the aforementioned “ladders”. And just a general comment.]
3) Speaking of Maestro Sondheim, I put my entire life on hold for 2 1/2 days so I could read his new book of collected lyrics, Finishing the Hat. It’s every bit as brilliant as you’d expect it to be, and also more. It is a vivid insight into the mind of a genius. It makes you feel like you’re sitting right next to Mr. Sondheim himself and he’s explaining to you everything you ever wanted to know. Since the lyrics in this volume only run through 1981, it also leaves you begging for more.
Which brings me to a particular post-1981 Sondheim lyric, and a particularly cheeky end to this blog post. I’d like to share with you something that recently dawned on me. Actually, I’ll challenge you to find it for yourself. See if you can you discover the hidden libertarian message in this song:
Here’s a clue:
Although I have a feeling that these two pieces reach slightly different conclusions…
Well, it’s happened again – preparing for a talk at Symphony Center, I’ve come across way too much material for my allotted 30 minutes. Here are extra insights on the October 31, 2010 concert of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. To the various concert attendees who found their way here after hearing my talk – Welcome! Do feel free to peruse the rest of my web site, always being aware that it does not in any way represent the Chicago Symphony or Civic Orchestras.
Shostakovich, Chamber Symphony(1960)
(String Quartet No. 8 arranged by Rudolf Barshai for String Orchestra)
The Chamber Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich began life as his 8th String Quartet – the version that we hear in concert by string orchestras is simply an arrangement by the Russian conductor Rudolf Barshai. More than any other Shostakovich Quartet, the Eighth seems particularly suited for this kind of expanded treatment.
Shostakovich’s eighth quartet is a sort of mix tape of previous compositions, woven together with his “signature motto”, the notes DSCH as in Dmitri Schostakovitch (This actually requires a lot of explanation, and it requires us to pretend we’re German musicians for a moment: the German note name system calls our E-flat “Es” – hence the use of the letter “S” in this motto; similarly, the Germans refer to our note “B” as “H” for some reason. Also, you’re going to have to go German in the spelling of Dmitri’s last name, since American’s tend to prefer the spelling Shostakovich with no “c”.)
Here is the opening of the Quartet, with that exact motive in the cello part:
This is the theme that will connect the vast array of quotations from Shostakovich’s earlier works. Here they all are, in order:
1.) First Symphony (1926)
The original, a playfully sardonic duet for trumpet and bassoon:
In the quartet the music is greatly slowed down and sounds like the expression of an old man in comparison to the previous:
2.) Fifth Symphony (1937)
The tune, deep in the horns, really nothing but a descending line:
rendered much more demurely (even timidly, on might say) in the eighth quartet:
3) Second Piano Trio (1944)
Originally, Shostakovich gave this Jewish theme a delightfully eerie “oom-pah” dance rhythm, creating a soft, macabre folk texture:
In the second movement of the quartet, the same tune is presented in a texture that is best described as diabolical:
4) First Cello Concerto (1959)
The only difference between the original:
and the quartet version:
is the instrumentation.
5) The Young Guard (1948)
There seems to be a lot of confusion in the literature about the nature of the next quotation. The quote itself is minuscule – a four-note motive from Shostakovich’s score for the 1948 film “The Young Guard”:
This motive itself comes from the very first notes of a revolutionary song which features prominently in the plot of the movie. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, we see a group of young girls who have been imprisoned by the Nazis for their resistance during World War II (these are in fact the Young Guards of history). As they sing this anthem, they defy their captors and work up the courage to fight back; the young men in the next cell over join in:
When it appears in the quartet, the four-note motive is cut short by three violent bow strokes:
The internet being the mind-boggling thing that it is, you can actually watch the entire film on YouTube (in Russian and German, without subtitles):
This is the only quote in the piece that is not from one of Shostakovich’s own previous works. It is a revolutionary song, said to be Lenin’s favorite. There is a wonderful page that contextualizes this song in terms of Russian Revolutionary music here. There is a page devoted to this particular song in its many iterations here (in Russian). It goes a little something like this:
and it’s used in the quartet like this:
7) Katerina’s arioso from the fourth act of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District:
which itself sounds a little bit like a mixture of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo:
and “Bess, You is my Woman Now” from Porgy & Bess:
and is used in the quartet like this:
David Fanning: Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 (2004) – google books
Michael Mishra: A Shostakovich Companion (2008) – google books
Richard Taruskin: Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays (1997) – google books
For anyone who has even a moderate interest in the Shostakovich String Quartet repertoire, I would seriously recommend dropping 42 bucks at the Amazon mp3 store (50 bucks on iTunes) and buying the recordings of all 15 Shostakovich Quartets by the confusingly named “Beethoven” Quartet. These performers collaborated extensively with Shostakovich himself and gave the premieres of several of his quartets including the Eighth. You could also spend just 5 bucks and get the Eighth Quartet individually. Amazon, iTunes
For a more recent, fast, polished, full-throttled reading of this piece, I highly recommend the Emerson Quartet’s recording. Amazon, iTunes
As for recordings of the Rudolf Barshai-arranged “Chamber Symphony” version, it’s very difficult to find one in which both the orchestra and the conductor seem to be in the spirit of the piece: often, the technical demands of the string writing are too difficult for and entire orchestra to play together up to tempo, or the conductor indulges too much in Shostakovich’s ‘mood music’. One recording that I highly recommend is Vladimir Ashkenazy’s reading with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. iTunes
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 (1888)
OK, so I totally geeked out on the Shostakovich stuff, so just watch this and enjoy it: