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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987) was a Russian composer who managed a successful artistic career during Soviet times.  His music won many awards in his homeland during his lifetime.  He was also a force in music education: he set up a music education curriculum in 25 schools and even briefly taught a class of 7-year-olds.  He wrote “Comedians’ Galop” in 1938 as part of a broader suite of pieces, The Comedians, op. 26.  Originally conceived as incidental music for a play, he later chose 10 numbers for the suite, which became his most famous work.

Here’s the straight-up orchestra version of “Galop”:

And here it is in a bottle band arrangement:

If you do one thing while looking at this post, you MUST watch the first video posted below!  It really puts the whole piece in perspective.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) was the French composer of such famous works as Carnival of the Animals, the opera Samson et Delila, Danse Macabre, and the Organ Symphony.  He was a child prodigy who became France’s most renowned composer.  Late in life, he traveled to all corners of the world.

Bacchanale comes from his 1877 opera Samson et Delila, which is based on the Biblical story of those 2 characters.  In both the opera and the Bible, Samson is a leader of the Israelites, who are in the midst of a revolt against their malevolent rulers, the Philistines.  The Philistines want to bring him down, so they send one of their own, a woman named Delila, to seduce him and discover the source of his extreme physical strength. It turns out that secret is his long hair, which binds him in a vow to God. But Samson does not let that secret slip easily: he misleads Delila several times before finally revealing the true secret.  Yet when that is done, Delila shaves his hair while he sleeps, allowing the Philistines to capture and blind him.  After years of forced labor at their hands, Samson winds up in the temple of Dagon, one of the Philistine deities, in Gaza.  There, he prays to God to restore his strength, and he pulls down the central columns of the temple, killing himself and all of the Philistines inside.  Each version of the story has its nuances (e.g., the Bible says Samson killed 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass!) so it’s worth your time to investigate both.  The Bacchanale occurs in Act III of the opera, just before Samson is led into the temple of Dagon.  It is a depraved dance performed by the priests of Dagon.  Saint-Saens loved “exotic” sounds, so he used an exceptionally exotic sounding scale for a good chunk of the piece: it contains two one-and-a-half step gaps (from the 2nd to 3rd steps and the 6th to 7th steps).  While that does heighten the exoticness of the piece, it is not authentic to any world musical tradition.

Here it is in the actual opera.  They’re almost naked!

For something a little different, Gustavo Dudamel leads the Berlin Philharmonic in Bacchanale.  He plays a little fast and loose with tempo, but it’s really a thrilling version!

Here’s the band version done by a Japanese middle school.  As I’ve come to expect from young Japanese bands, they knock it out of the park: this is the only band version on YouTube that’s any good at all, and I looked at a couple dozen!

Saint-Saens bio at the Classical Archives.

Saint-Saens on Wikipedia.

Another Saint-Saens bio on thinkquest.

Some extra program notes on Bacchanale from the Immaculata Symphony

Did you know that the Bible is fully online?  Here’s the Samson and Delilah story in full, from the Book of Judges.

The William Byrd Suite is remarkable for showcasing the talents of 2 composers: the titular William Byrd (1540-1623), an English Renaissance composer and a founder of the English Madrigal School; and Gordon Jacob (1895-1984), a 20th century British composer who, along with Holst and Vaughan Williams, is known as an early champion of the wind band and a skilled composer in the medium.  Jacob assembled the suite in 1923, most likely as part of the festivities for the tercentenary of Byrd’s death.  He “freely transcribed” it from six pieces of Byrd’s keyboard work that appeared in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a contemporary collection of almost 300 pieces written between about 1562 and 1612.  This collection contained keyboard works of more than a dozen composers.  While the collection had the virginal – a keyboard instrument that is essentially a portable harpsichord – in mind as its medium, the compositions inside could have been played on any contemporary keyboard instrument.

The virginal lacked any means of dynamic or timbral contrast: every note sounded the same and was just as loud as any other.  So composers for the instrument had to find other ways to make their music interesting.  Thus, the pieces in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book are full of melodic variation and rhythmic invention.  While Mr. Jacob preserved all of this in his suite, he also artfully added the dynamic shadings and instrumental color that the wind band is known for.

The William Byrd Suite has 6 movements.  At 18 minutes, it’s a rather large undertaking to play all 6 movements.  So, as is common practice, we will play a selection of the movements: the first 2 and the last 2.  I present here videos of every movement, not necessarily in order.  Enjoy!

First, a very accomplished high school band plays “No. 1: The Earle of Oxford’s Marche”, “No. 3: Jhon come kisse me now” (at 3:10), and “No. 6: The Bells” (at 5:20).  I have 2 beefs with this performance: the end of the 1st movement needs much more drama, and I think the percussion got lost at the end of the 6th – you should hear crazy ringing bells all the way to the end!

Now, another high school age group tackles a different set of movements.  “No. 1: The Earle of Oxford’s Marche”, “No. 2: Pavana” (at 3:20), “No. 3: Jhon come kisse me now” (at 6:10), and “No. 5: Wolsey’s Wilde” (at 8:04).

The UCLA wind ensemble in 1983 doing “No. 4: The Mayden’s Song”.

Finally, here’s what “The Bells” sounds like in its original form: played on a virginal (ok, it’s actually a harpsichord, but that’s still in the ballpark) from Byrd’s manuscript.

Now some links:

Gordon Jacob on Wikipedia – note the middle names!

GordonJacob.org – a website run by the Jacob family promoting Gordon’s life and music

Fantastic program note and resource (particularly the errata) on the William Byrd Suite at windrep.org.

William Byrd on Wikipedia and Naxos classical.