Suggested Listening: “Tenebræ factæ sunt” by Carlo Gesualdo

Here’s some SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTICTenebræ factæ sunt by Carlo Gesualdo, performed below by Nordic Voices (NO).

About the Composer:

Carlo Gesualdo (image via)

Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) is classical music’s darkest villain, a man whose eerie music is matched by a chilling biography comprising adultery and gruesome homicide.  From an early age, Gesualdo was enthralled by music, studying lute and forging relationships with local musical luminaries as a member of an elite accademia, or intellectual club.  Sent as a child to train for the priesthood, Gesualdo watched as his older brother Luigi was designated heir to the Principality of Venosa in southern Italy.  Luigi’s death in 1584, however, paved the way for Carlo’s ascension to power.  In 1586, Don Carlo Gesualdo married his cousin, the mythically beautiful Donna Maria d’Avalos, with whom he had a son and who, not four years after their marriage, could be found with her throat slashed, drenched in blood, in the bed of her lover.  The lover in question, the Duke of Andria, was murdered as well: the official who found the Duke’s body noted that his corpse was wearing “a woman’s nightdress with fringes at the bottom” and was “covered with blood and pierced with many wounds,” while “a bit of the brain had oozed out” of a gunshot wound to the head.  As a prince, a man of great influence and — apparently — violent inclination, Gesualdo was never tried for his crimes; in fact, he fled town following the murders, leaving behind a bizarre legacy: a trail of lurid rumors that to this day inhabit Italian folklore;  and dozens of musical compositions, sacred and secular, renowned for their twisted emotional intensity.

About the Piece:

The question that haunts Gesualdo’s musical legacy is this: was he a tormented genius whose inner turmoil came to life in the unusual, grating harmonies of his compositions — or, were his unusual, grating harmonies the result of mediocre musical talent, nonetheless thrust into the spotlight by the macabre glamour of his criminal record?  Regardless of the answer, Gesualdo’s music is widely viewed as ahead of its time, pushing the notion of tonality across thresholds of conventionality that most Western composers wouldn’t dare toe until the turn of the 20th century.  In Tenebræ factæ sunt, a selection from his set of liturgical works for Good Friday, six voices croon and cluster in stirring harmonies that progress through tightly adjacent chromatic lines.  Though the pacing is calm — almost eerily so — the piece is marked by surprising shifts of mood, from despair to ecstasy, as the Latin text recounts the crucifixion.

Further Reading:

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Suggested Listening: “Scherzo: Finale” from Symphony No. 3 by Florence Price

For this week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC, check out the riveting finale from Florence Price’s Third Symphony, performed below by the Women’s Philharmonic (US), Apo Hsu conducting.

About the Composer:

Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953), née Smith, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the youngest of three children.  Her father was, at that time, the only black dentist in Little Rock; her mother was a schoolteacher, musician, and businesswoman.  Price and her siblings were raised in a prominent and intellectual household, and were encouraged by their mother to pursue musical studies, with Price giving her debut piano recital at the age of four.  In 1903, Price graduated at the top of her high school class and entered Boston’s New England Conservatory as a student of piano and organ — but her mother feared for her daughter’s safety and reputation (the year 1903 saw eighty-four lynchings of African-Americans), and listed Florence’s hometown as Pueblo, Mexico, on her enrollment papers so the young composer might “pass” as Mexican and avoid the brutal prejudice faced by the African-American community.  At the time, the New England Conservatory was one of only a small number of American music schools that accepted students of color (the great composer William Grant Still also attended several years after Price).

After graduating with a performance degree in organ and a teaching degree in piano, Price moved to Atlanta and became the head of Clark University‘s music department in 1910.  Two years later, she married Thomas J. Price, a respected attorney, and moved with him back to Little Rock.  However, an escalation of racial violence in that city, including a 1927 lynching, led the Price family — now with two daughters — to relocate to Chicago.  It was there that Price’s career as a composer truly blossomed: she studied with prominent local composers; published numerous works; forged connections with Harlem Renaissance icon Langston Hughes and renowned singer Marian Anderson; and won a competition for which the prize was a performance of the winning composition by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  This performance made Price the first African-American woman to have a piece premiered by a major symphony orchestra — just one example of the pioneering work and creative spirit that define her legacy as one of America’s most significant, though sadly underperformed, composers.

About the Piece:

Composed in 1940, Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor is a masterwork of the Chicago Renaissance.  This vibrant creative movement — though of less national renown than its sister movement in Harlem — brought the talents and intellects of leading African-American artists and scholars to the forefront of society in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood.  Energized by the Great Migration of African-Americans from continuously deteriorating race relations and socioeconomic conditions in the South, the Chicago Renaissance gave voice to this thriving and evolving community as they adjusted to, shaped, and contemplated this new, urban environment.  Price’s Symphony, however, stands uniquely among other output of the Chicago Renaissance: rather than overtly spotlighting musical elements of African-American culture, she synthesized such familiar syncopations and folk melodies into her own symphonic style.  This fourth and final movement from the symphony is a thrilling one.  Swinging and swelling in compound meter, the brass and strings compete for domination while nautical clarinet interjections interrupt the hurried heroism of the main theme.  A quieter interlude — woodwinds wandering through unsettled harmonies — is the eye of the storm, before the full orchestra returns at gale force, charging toward the final, crashing chord.

If you enjoyed the finale from Symphony No. 3, you might also like…

Suggested Listening: “Piano Miniature No. 11, ‘For Syria'” by Mohammed Fairouz

Today’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC is a topical one: Piano Miniature No. 11, “For Syria,” by Mohammed Fairouz, performed below by pianist Lara Downes (US).

About the Composer:

Mohammed Fairouz (b. 1985) just might, maybe, possibly, be one of the most important composers of his generation.  That’s a sweeping claim (minus the might‘s and maybe‘s), but hear me out: the Arab-American composer’s expansive output represents a thoughtful and thought-provoking response to social and geopolitical issues rarely addressed in the concert hall.  Educated at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and Boston’s New England Conservatory, Fairouz has received tutelage from such famed composers as György Ligeti, Richard Danielpour, and the late Gunther Schuller.  At only thirty, he is the youngest composer to ever have a Deutsche Grammophon album dedicated entirely to his music; has served on the music faculty at Northeastern University; and is among the most widely performed and commissioned living composers.  Fairouz’s music delves into difficult themes, from his 9/11-inspired fourth symphony, In the Shadow of No Towers, to the piano work featured here today — all with an artistic voice that is youthful, honest, and world-wise.

About the Piece:

Syria has been embattled in brutal civil war for over four years, resulting in staggering loss of life, a heartrending refugee crisis, and frightening political tensions.  Al Jazeera recently reported that 25% of an estimated 80,000 civilian casualties comprises women and children; the United Nations documented the horrifying case of 100 people — including forty-nine children — shot at close range in the city of Homs.  Fairouz composed his eleventh piano miniature, For Syria, in 2012, shortly after the Homs massacre.  “Throughout 2012,” Fairouz writes in his program note, “Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been murdering men, women, and children who have been asking for change in Syria.  A recent news report displayed dozens of children found dead in Homs.  The reporter commented on how they looked peaceful, ‘as though sleeping.'”  The image of those sleeping children inspired Fairouz to craft a lullaby — “a lullaby that [the children] have been robbed of the chance to hear” — as the piano takes on an elegiac sensibility, weaving a simple, singing melody over darkly unsettled harmonies.  The work is sweetly sorrowful, a cinematic commentary on lost innocence, and a reminder that music is connected — stringently, inexorably — to the world it inhabits.

If you enjoyed For Syria, you might also like…

Some accessible resources for understanding Syria:

Suggested Listening: “Gada Meiren” by Xin Huguang

Some SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC for your weekend reading: Gada Meiren by Xin Huguang, a powerful symphonic poem performed below by the Central Philharmonic Society of China, Han Zhongjie conducting.

About the Composer:

Xin Huguang (1933-2011) was a genius composer and bold pioneer.  Gada Meiren, which she wrote as her final graduation piece at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music, has been widely hailed by Western critics as one of the greatest symphonic works to come out of China — but at its premiere, few in the audience believed it could have been written by a twenty-three-year-old woman.  While at the Central Conservatory, Xin was introduced to two great loves: Mongolian folk music, and the saxophonist who would become her husband.  In the 1960s, China’s oppressive Communist government implemented the Cultural Revolution, a tumultuous decade of ideological purging.  To escape, Xin and her husband moved to Mongolia, where she taught and composed for nearly three decades, raising three sons (including a famous Chinese film composer) and encountering the folk traditions she had learned about during her studies.  In 1982, however, she moved back to Beijing, where she continued working as a composer and pedagogue until her death just four years ago.

About the Piece:

Composed in 1956, Gada Meiren recounts the story of the eponymous Mongolian folk hero, leader of an uprising against the unjust takeover of southeastern Mongolian grasslands by Chinese settlers.  An ethnic Mongol, Gada Meiren (1892-1931) was forced to flee his ancestral land at the age of ten, when it was sold to Chinese colonists without permission of the regional Mongol prince.  As colonization continued, ethnic Mongols were forced out of their native grasslands and left without livelihood as Chinese settlers took over the cultivation of Mongolian farmland.  With his people in poverty, Gada Meiren — at this point, a young regional military officer — spearheaded a series of diplomatic campaigns to cease further colonization.  When these campaigns proved futile, resulting in his 1929 imprisonment, he tried a different tactic: violent rebellion.  Beginning with a ragtag militia 200 strong, he led attacks on land surveyors and organized the burning of land sale contracts, ultimately attracting an army of 1,000 fed-up, displaced Mongols.  From his humble beginnings to his downfall at the hands of the Chinese army, the life of Gada Meiren is captured in a 2002 film — incidentally, scored by Xin Huguang’s son San Bao — which you can watch in its entirety here.  The vibe of the film is very John Wayne, cowboys-versus-Indians, but with the lens reversed in support of the underdog.  It’s no wonder, then, that Xin’s music — punctuated by the Mongolian folk melodies she had studied — is so cinematic in scope, a veritably narrative piece of music — there’s a reason it’s called a symphonic “poem” — with the same pacing and excitement of an epic hero’s tale.

If you enjoyed Gada Meiren, you might also like…

Suggested Listening: “Ukom” from Talking Drums by Joshua Uzoigwe

Today’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC comes from a fantastic album I recently stumbled upon, Senku: Piano Music by Composers of African Descent by Ghanian-American pianist William Chapman Nyaho.  Bradley Bolen, a reviewer on Amazon who enjoyed the CD as much as I did, had this to say:

Every now and then a recording comes along that is as important as it is unique….I approached this CD with a desire to explore a back road of art music, in the hopes that I might find a hidden gem of inspiration, or even a piece to perform myself (I am also a pianist). What I found instead was a superhighway of talent and creativity that has somehow remained overlooked by the “mainstream” art music world….I highly recommend this CD to anyone wishing to enrich their musical life.

I would definitely encourage my readers to listen to the whole album, an entirely enjoyable wealth of little-known music performed with precision, pizzazz, and perspective… but for now, let’s take a listen to “Ukom” from Talking Drums by Joshua Uzoigwe, performed below by Mr. Nyaho.  (Unfortunately, the video can only be accessed in the U.S.  To listen globally, don’t hesitate to purchase Mr. Nyaho’s album — it’s well worth it!)

About the Composer:

When Joshua Uzoigwe (1946-2005) was born, slavery had been outlawed in Nigeria only a decade earlier.  A British colony since 1800, Nigeria wouldn’t gain independence until Uzoigwe was a teenager; and within seven years of independence, the young nation would face brutal civil war.  Uzoigwe was a member of the Igbo ethnic group, which was the target of a horrific 1966 pogrom that escalated the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War and resulted in the slaughter of over 3 million Igbo.  The massacre took place in southern Nigeria, however, while Uzoigwe grew up in the east, distanced from the heart of the violence but not unaffected.  After studying at the University of Nigeria in the central city of Nsukka, Uzoigwe headed abroad.  He trained at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama from 1973-77 before receiving his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1981.  Upon returning to Nigeria, he received faculty appointments at the Universities of Nigeria and Uyo, composed an immense output of chamber and piano works, and contributed to a Nigerian cultural renaissance that lent strength, imagination, and identity to a nation with a bloody past and an uncertain future.

About the Piece:

Talking Drums is one of Uzoigwe’s most celebrated works, a multi-movement suite for piano rife with rhythmic intrigue.  Each movement is meant to emulate a particular style of Igbo drumming, the study of which was the focus of Uziogwe’s Ph.D.  The first movement, “Ukom,” depicts the ukom drumming used by the Igbo when a prominent woman in the community passes away, commemorating her accomplishments and helping to guide her to the afterlife. The drum used in ukom music is, aptly, a talking drum: with its two drumheads connected by cords stretched along its hourglass shape, the player can manipulate the tension in the cords to produce sounds and tones that mimic the contour and prosody of human speech.  Talking drums are unique to West Africa, woven into the cultural identities of distinct communities ranging from Igbo to Yoruba, and master talking drummers not only create artful music, but can also convey complex messages using drumming as a “language.”  The Igbo’s ukom drums can produce ten different pitches, a range of color and vibrancy which Uziogwe captures in his playfully percussive melodies.  Minimalistic and mesmerizing, the music is a complex interleaving of Western-colonial pianism and Igbo tradition, at once striking, harmonious, and infectious.

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Suggested Listening: “The Little Prince” by Rachel Portman

Today’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC brings a bit of magic to our Tuesday afternoon.  From composer Rachel Portman and librettist Nicholas Wright, enjoy an excerpt from The Little Prince: A Magical Opera, performed below in a BBC production with Joseph McManners in the title role.

About the Composer:

When Rachel Portman (b. 1960) won the 1996 Academy Award for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score, she was up against a man’s club of formidable nominees: Alan Mencken, Marc Shaiman, Randy Newman… And isn’t the entire world of film scoring truly a man’s club?  Only three women have ever won an Academy Award for Best Score: the incomparable Ms. Portman, as well as lyricist Marilyn Bergman in 1983 and Anne Dudley in 1997.

Portman, born in West Sussex, first became interested in scoring films as a music student at Oxford, where she began composing for student film and theatre productions.  Her earliest work was for BBC television dramas, such as Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Since then, she has scored for over 100 film, television, and theatre projects, racking up three Oscar noms and one win; nods from Emmy, Grammy, BAFTA, and Golden Globe; not to mention a freaking OBE appointment in 2010.  Not too shabby.

About the Piece:

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s classic novella has charmed and enchanted readers of all ages since its 1943 publication.  The Little Prince is one of the most translated books in the world (besides, like, the Bible), and various incarnations have brought it to stage, screen, and even ballet.  But among the most delightful adaptations by far is Rachel Portman’s two-act children’s opera, premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in 2003.  Portman’s film background shines through in her sweeping, cinematic score: rich, vibrant strings undulate beneath innocent children’s voices — including McManners‘ angelic boy soprano and a choir of twinkling stars — accompanied by heroic swells of brass and contemplative piano ostinato.

For those unfamiliar with The Little Prince, it tells the story of a pilot who crash lands in the Sahara Desert, where he encounters a young prince who has fallen to Earth from a faraway asteroid.  The tale is a fantastical one, imagined with a child’s ingenuous wit, and Portman’s opera is brought to life by the directorial eye of Francesca Zambello, one of today’s preeminent opera directors (not to mention one of only a few leading women in the field).  Watch the full opera here, and be transported to a realm that is musical, magical, unbelievable, and entirely delightful.

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Suggested Listening: “Presto e leggiero” (Instructive Study No. 1, Op. 6) by Benna Moe

Since apparently I’m on an obscure-Nordic-composers kick (see June 2’s post), this week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC takes us to Denmark for Benna Moe’s Instructive Study No. 1, Op. 6, performed below by pianist Catherine Penderup (DK).

About the Composer:

Benna Moe. (source)

Benna Moe (1897-1983) was a force to be reckoned with.  A virtuoso organist, pianist, and mezzo-soprano, she got her musical start at an all-girls’ school in the affluent town of Gentofte, Denmark.  It was there that she first began composing at the age of twelve, her early output ranging from simple songs to an orchestral overture.  She grew up in a bourgeois household, the only sister among brothers, all of whom supported her talents (and one of whom — a bookseller and publisher — ensured that her music went to print).

Moe ranks among the greatest women in Denmark’s history, and her music is intertwined in the stories and lives of other important Danish women.  In 1913, for instance, she composed a piece celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Johanne Luise Heiberg, star of 19th-century Danish film and theatre.  When Margarethe II of Denmark (then, heir presumptive to the Danish throne; now, Queen) was married in Copenhagen in 1967, Moe composed a wedding waltz in her honor.  (As an interesting feminist side note, Margarethe II became heir presumptive in 1953, when Parliament altered the Danish constitution and allowed for a new law of succession; prior to that year, only men could ascend the Danish throne.)  Following a performance of Moe’s music at Copenhagen’s National Scala, one reviewer commended her “ladylike attitude [as] she directs her own compositions.”

Though I couldn’t dig up much information on Moe, what I did find reveals an interesting character and important cultural figure.  As I’ve discussed in past posts, women composers receive far too little attention, so I was delighted to stumble upon her wonderful music and feature it here today.

About the Piece:

The album Romantic Piano Works by Danish Women Composers (how’s that for specificity?!) features two sets of Moe’s “instructive studies,” her opuses 6 and 9.  An instructive study, or étude, is exactly what it sounds like: a “teaching” piece of music, often challenging, for a student to practice with the goal of improving his or her technical and musical skills.  While Moe’s Op. 9 set of three instructive studies presents lighthearted sketches of Italy (titles include “Venezia” and “Tarantelle”), her Op. 6 is a much heavier, more formal trio of works.  “Presto e leggiero” (Italian performance instructions meaning “very fast and delicate”) is the first of the three Op. 6 studies.  Brooding and undulant, it challenges the pianist with swelling waves of notes in constant motion, while a plaintive melody is woven into the music’s billowing texture.  About a minute in, the key transforms from minor, hushed and urgent, to a hopeful and nostalgic major mode.  The respite is short-lived, however: by two minutes, the darkness of minor has seeped back in, tugging the musical narrative once more toward a place of despair.

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