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Archive for February, 2012

String parts from Eroica opening
Opening chords of Beethoven’s Eroica (string parts)
(public domain, via IMSLP)

The producer of the video clip below must really like Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony – and must have quite a record collection. Here we have no fewer than 66 different approaches to the opening chords of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.

It’s pretty entertaining in its own way, especially if your idea of humor is (in)variation on a theme! In fact, that may be all that its creator intended. But I wonder if it doesn’t say something, deliberately or not, about changing performance practice, and the way different conductors approach the same work.

You can’t assign a formula to it, of course. Still, as the years have gone by, prevailing ideas about Beethoven’s tempi have changed – mostly toward faster.

This is an issue that musicians have argued over for generations. Johann Maelzel’s metronome dates from 1812, eight years after Beethoven completed the Eroica, but Beethoven later added metronome markings to the score. Many conductors – and scholars – still insist that Beethoven can’t possibly have meant for his works to be played as fast as his markings indicate, that his metronome must have been inaccurate. But in more recent years, some conductors have taken Beethoven at his word, and not just those closely associated with the historically informed performance movement, either. That has resulted in some – shall we say – exciting, even breathtaking, readings.

So, are the more (dare I call them) ponderous deliveries of these chords near the beginning of this 1929 – 2011 chronology? That will be left as an exercise for the reader.

As for overall stylistic trends, those too have evolved, but interpretation remains highly individual with the conductor. Just ask anyone who has heard a work he loved on WKSU and bought a CD of it, only to find – maybe to his chagrin! – that it sounds quite different under a different baton. (I know this experience all too well from my own light-walleted early days of record buying, when I fell victim to the siren song of $2.98 bargain-table LPs.)

This is nowhere more apparent in the immense range of ways these conductors interpret the same two measures. To my ears, at least, Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwaengler, and Fritz Reiner give Beethoven’s chords something akin to a gravitas. George Szell, Leonard Bernstein, Osmo Vanska, and Andrew Manze pull back the slingshot with these notes, launching the orchestra into the first movement. Rene Liebowitz, Michael Gielen, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt almost breeze past them.

This clip will drive one more contrast home: the pitch difference between modern instrument and period instrument orchestras. The latter play about a half-step lower. Once you’ve heard it this way, you’ll never forget it. The producer of this video clip has no mercy.

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Below are two links, each complimenting the other.

The first one is for you to hear.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-FUEidQc-E

It’s a recording of Giacomo Puccini and his wife from 1907. They stopped by a studio while on a visit to New York City. Both were quite happy with the hospitality the dignitaries and fans had shown them. Their address is mostly in Italian, but even if you don’t understand the language, you’ll hear him say “New York.” Just before his entourage starts to applaud, he says, “America, forever!”.

The next click will get you to a film of the streets of New York City, made about the same time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=954L9MpfCEo

It’s just traffic, but use your imagination a little bit. Look at the windows of the buildings. Behind one of them might be the very studio where the above recording was made.

In those days, a recording studio was nothing like today’s. Electricity was used mainly for lighting. The first “electrical” recordings (made with microphones, amplifiers, and electric cutters) were still almost 2 decades in the future.

The recordings of 1907 were acoustical – that is, they were made with nothing more than the faint energy of the sound waves themselves. The sound was directed from a small room into a huge cone (often several feet in diameter). The cone went through the wall into the next room. Where it came to a point was a vibrating diaphragm with a needle attached. The needle inscribed a groove onto a wax cylinder (Edison system) or a flat gramophone disc (Berliner system).

Modern studios are soundproof, but that was hardly necessary in those days. The acoustical recording equipment was so insensitive that any noise beyond a few feet from the cone was not picked up.

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Edward Elgar circa 1917
Edward Elgar circa 1917
(Wikimedia Commons)

When you think of long-lost manuscripts rediscovered, you probably think of works by Bach or Mozart. Certainly it’s cause for celebration when such an ancient manuscript turns up, since it can give musicologists insight into the composer’s original ideas about the piece.

But such discoveries are rare. Let’s face it – in those days, most composers were writing for the moment. They didn’t consider the possibility that their works would outlive them. If they kept their manuscripts, it was mostly for reference.

Bach and Handel, for example, saved their manuscripts so they could recycle from them. They often lifted entire movements from those earlier works to adapt for their present needs. Handel’s Messiah contains sections of his Italian operas. Bach’s concertos draw on movements from his cantatas (and vice versa).

You’d think that by the 20th century composers would have realized that they might be writing for the ages, and would have learned to be more careful with their originals. Still, they clearly placed more value on some works than others. It’s not too surprising that a composer might not think a short work written for a special occasion would be of much interest beyond that day. And in fact it appears that Edward Elgar wasn’t too careful with the original manuscript of just such a work .

That manuscript turned up just this past Tuesday (14 February 2012) in Leicestershire, after being lost for over half a century.

It’s a work for carillon (church bells, usually mechanized and played with a keyboard, but sometimes played entirely manually). Edward Elgar composed it for the 1923 opening of the Carillon Tower in Queen’s Park, Loughborough, which was built as a memorial to the fallen in the first world war. Although copies of the manuscript have been known for some time, the original was thought to have been lost.

But on Tuesday staff at Charnwood Borough Council were cleaning and reorganizing a secure room, and they found a dusty old folder. It contained the original hand-written score for Carillon Chimes. They also stumbled across several letters from Elgar, and a film which may be footage of the tower’s opening. The items had been donated to the Council in the 1950s, filed away, and forgotten.

The film has been sent for analysis, to determine what it contains and whether it can be restored. As for the music itself, maybe this will bring new attention to a composition nearly forgotten.

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About a year ago, pianist Simone Dinnerstein was featured on the television program CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood. I’ve been meaning to tell you about it all this time, and finally, here it is.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/01/23/sunday/main7274692.shtml


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