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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Washington, D.C. native and legendary bandmaster John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) wrote a dozen operettas, six full-length operas, and over 100 marches, earning the title “March King”.  He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at an early age and went on to become the conductor of the President’s Own Marine Band at age 26.  In 1892 he formed “Sousa and his Band”, which toured the United States and the world under his directorship for the next forty years to great acclaim.  Not only was Sousa’s band hugely popular, but it also exposed audiences all over the world to the latest, cutting-edge music, bringing excerpts of Wagner’s Parsifal to New York a decade before the Metropolitan Opera staged it, and introducing ragtime to Europe, helping to spark many a composer’s interest in American music.

From the Oklahoma City University Band Program Note Archive:

Hands Across the Sea was composed in 1899 and premiered during the same year at the Philadelphia Academy of Music.  Although a number of ideas have been presented concerning the title, Paul Bierley believes that Sousa was inspired by a line credited to John Hookham Frere:  “A sudden thought strikes me — let us swear an eternal friendship.”  In the Great Lakes Recruit of March 1918, Sousa discussed the justification of the Spanish-American War, quoted Frere’s line, and added, “That almost immediately suggested the title Hands Across the Sea.  Sousa’s music and his musicians had the ability to affect people in many lands.  Extensive European tours were made by Sousa’s band between 1900 and 1905.  In December 1910, a world voyage was begun, which included England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Canary Islands, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji Islands, the Hawaiian Islands, Canada, and the United States.  The tour lasted one year, one month, and one week.

You can find out more about Hands Across the Sea at Wikipedia and Classical Archives.  You can also download free, public domain sheet music at the IMSLP (piano score and another recording) and the Band Music PDF Library (full set of parts).

Read more about the Sousa Band and its history at Click the link that says “Read more about this recording.”

Sousa shrine – including biography, complete works, and much more – at the Dallas Wind Symphony website.

John Philip Sousa on Wikipedia

Hands Across the Sea performed by an anonymous band:

The Library of Congress has this recording of Sousa’s band playing the piece in 1923.

Hands Across the Sea shares its title with a play by Noël Coward and several nonprofit groups.

Hands Across the Sea is a senior choice for Sam Alexander ’13, trombonist and co-leader of Making Music Matter.


Giaochino Rossini (1792-1868) was prolific Italian composer best known for his operas, which include William Tell and The Barber of Seville.  He grew up mostly in Bologna in a musical family.  The Rossinis wasted no time starting their son’s musical education: Rossini’s father, a horn player, had his son playing the triangle in his ensembles by the age of 6.  It paid off: Rossini finished his first opera when he was 17.  There followed two decades of continuous composition that would bring Rossini to all of the biggest cities in Italy as well as Paris, and during which time he composed an additional 38 operas, becoming a superstar throughout Europe.  Then, at age 40, he retired from composition almost entirely.  He lived another 36 years writing barely a note.

The Italian Girl in Algiers (L’italiana in Algeri) was Rossini’s fifth opera, written in in 1813 when he was 21 years old.  The mostly comic story revolves around the Bey of Algiers and his desire to add an Italian woman to his harem.  The overture is something of a tribute to Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, with light pizzicato passages interrupted by huge orchestral hits.  It also shows off Rossini’s flair for melodic invention.  It is still frequently performed by orchestras and bands around the world.  The opera itself continues to be performed by major companies everywhere.

An accomplished high school band plays the Lucien Cailliet arrangement:

Georg Solti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the original version:

Read more about the opera and the overture at Wikipedia, the Metropolitan Opera, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Houston Grand Opera (complete with a slideshow of their productions), a detailed pamphlet from the Pittsburgh Opera, the Seattle Opera, or get a score from IMSLP.   There is a lot of colorful material about Rossini.  He has biographies on PBS and Wikipedia.  The Christian Science Monitor did a great couple of articles on him, covering his sense of humor and his chronic procrastination.  One final fun fact: Rossini had a leap day birthday.  He had a Google Doodle in his honor on February 29, 2012, his 220th (or 55th?) birthday.

Beck Hansen (born Bek David Campbell in Los Angeles in 1970) is known everywhere by his first name.  He is a multi-platinum recording artist who defies genre labels, pulling his influences from every corner of the music universe.  He also has a way with words, dreaming up song titles like “Devil’s Haircut” and “Nicotine & Gravy”, and lyrical phrases like “On a government loan with a guillotine in your libido” (from “Profanity Prayers”).  He has released 11 studio albums, which cover a wide range of musical styles, and provided music for the film Scott Pilgrim.

Beck’s 12th album, Song Reader, looks conspicuously backward.  He recorded nothing for the album, but rather partnered with publishing house McSweeney’s to produce new songs to be released exclusively as sheet music.  There are 20 songs in the set, each in its own richly decorated folio.  The set includes a preface (read the whole thing here on the New Yorker blog) in which Beck describes his motivation in such an unusual project.  An excerpt:

Initially I was going to write the songs the same way I’d write one of my albums, only in notated form, leaving the interpretation and performance to the player. But after a few discussions [with author Dave Eggers], the approach broadened. We started collecting old sheet music, and becoming acquainted with the art work, the ads, the tone of the copy, and the songs themselves. They were all from a world that had been cast so deeply into the shadow of contemporary music that only the faintest idea of it seemed to exist anymore. I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia—a way to represent how people felt about music back then, and to speak to what was left, in our nature, of that instinct to play popular music ourselves.

He goes on to say that he intends for people to play these songs themselves and make their own versions, changing as much or as little as they like.  And so we are going to do in the Columbia University Wind Ensemble.  Beck included two instrumentals in the set, and I have arranged one of them, The Last Polka, for wind band.  The original is a prelude for solo piano.  Beck gives no dynamic markings or tempo indications, allowing for a huge range of interpretations.  The only interpretive hints lie in the initial expressive marking, (“Premonitory”), the title, and the cover illustration, which shows a deserted street in a brown palette, suggesting a softly post- (or pre-) apocalyptic scene.  The music itself supports that interpretation: the melody is rife with descending chromatic contours, a classic figure of lament.  The form is ABA, with a brief, chaotic transition from A to B.  Despite its title, The Last Polka is not a polka at all: the A section reads almost like a comical lament, and the B is, if anything, a waltz.  Sticking with the idea of a lament, I decided to keep it slow, accelerating only in the transition section.  The B section builds in intensity, such that the return of A seems like an even more heartfelt lament for a disappearing world.  Textures melt away at the end to a feeling of accepting the inevitable. Even so, there is little tragedy in this music.  It feels almost like a quiet version of the words, to quote REM, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

The Columbia Wind Ensemble plays my arrangement at the Columbia Festival of Winds on March 3, 2013:

Pianist Hanna Silver plays the original and provides her interpretive notes:

A chamber group plays a version that, in the spirit of Beck’s wishes, deviates quite a bit from the original:

Beck has a great website and a Wikipedia page.  All of his lyrics are collected here.  Song Reader also has its own site, complete with descriptions of the songs and versions by musicians from all over the place.  Whiskey Clone keeps a running tab of new versions, including mine (they found it in less than 12 hours).  New versions are constantly popping up, so stay on the lookout!  For now, here is Beck talking to NPR about the album, as well as a cello ensemble playing all 20 songs from it.  Finally, Diffuser lists their five favorite versions of Song Reader songs so far.

In keeping with the spirit of this blog, I have a composer bio and piece description up for this piece as usual.  But so much has already been said about the man and the music.  There’s very little that I could possibly add other than to consolidate what’s already out there.  Therefore, I highly encourage you to explore the richly informative links below.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a child prodigy born in Salzburg, Austria who toured Europe as a boy, playing keyboards and violin for nobility and the general public.  He began composing at age 4, amassing an impressive output of over 600 pieces by the time of his untimely death at age 35.  His compositions encompassed solo keyboard works, symphonies, operas, string quartets, concertos, chamber music of all stripes, and religious works.  He famously died while composing his Requiem, K. 626.  It is possible that he believed himself to be writing his own funeral music, but it is unlikely that he was poisoned by the composer Antonio Salieri, as is asserted in the film Amadeus.  In life, he had a reputation as a prankster, which shone through in his music at times (witness the 4-voice canons Difficile lectu and O du eselhafter Peierl).  He is remembered today as perhaps one of the greatest composers who ever lived.

Mozart wrote the Serenade in C minor, K. 388 in 1782.  Exactly when it was finished, when it premiered, for whom he wrote it, and what motivated its composition are all unknown.  We do know that wind music was very much in vogue in the Holy Roman Empire of the day thanks to Emperor Joseph II‘s establishment of a Harmoniemusik ensemble at his court.  These usually consisted of pairs of wind instruments, often oboes, clarinets, French horns, and bassoons, as in K. 388, although basset horns and English horns sometimes also appeared.  Very often they were used for light entertainment at parties (Mozart has one playing in the background during the ballroom scene of his 1787 opera Don Giovanni) or even to accompany the imperial supper.  They were ideal for outdoor performances: many of the contemporary serenades written for Harmoniemusik were intended to be played outdoors, perhaps even with the musicians on the move.  So the Serenade in C minor, with its dark tone and apparently serious purpose (let alone its minor key) would have confounded expectations for Harmoniemusik at the time, as it still does scholars of Mozart and wind music today.  The Serenade is in four movements, closely replicating the common symphonic form of the day.  The first is a straightforward sonata whose development seems to run out of steam before a forcefully dark recapitulation.  The second, an andante in three, also takes sonata form (the development is all of two phrases) and includes cadenza-like passages for the first oboe and first clarinet.  The third movement is a minuet marked “in canone”, and indeed there is always a canon going on.  The final movement is a decidedly dark series of variations broken up by a some unrelated E-flat major material in the middle.  After so much gloom, the Serenade takes an unexpected turn and ends with a noisy C major variation.

Here is a wonderful performance of the entire Serenade.  Especially wonderful is the variety of approaches to the variations in the fourth movement.

Now for the links I promised.  The Serenade has its own pages at Wikipedia, Hal Leonard, and You can get certain versions of the score for free at the International Music Score Library Project.  I am not the only blogger to have written about the Serenade: this enthnomusicologist’s blog post is much more comprehensive than mine when it comes to analysis and context, and I highly recommend you read it!  The BBC did a “Discovering Music” program(me) on the piece in 2006.  Fellow band blogger Dave Wacyk wrote about it at the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra site.  The Chicago Chamber Musicians also have a write-up about it.

As for Mozart himself, see Wikipedia, The Mozart Project, Studio-Mozart, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra kids site for something a little more interactive.  All of this only scratches the surface.

I couldn’t write about Mozart without including a scene from Amadeus.  In one of my favorites, Mozart, on his deathbed, dictates the beginning of the Requiem’s “Confutatis” to Salieri:

Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere.   The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms.  In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s.  Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century.  His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year.  He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.

Stravinsky wrote the Octet (he also called it the Octuor) in 1922.  He conducted its premiere in Paris the following year. Its instrumentation is unusual, with 1 flute, 1 clarinet, and 2 each of bassoons, trumpets, and trombones.  About this, Stravinsky said: “The Octet began with a dream, in which I saw myself in a small room surrounded by a small group of instrumentalists playing some attractive music . . . I awoke from this little concert in a state of great delight and anticipation and the next morning began to compose.”  With its use of older forms like sonata and theme and variations, it marked the beginning of his Neoclassical phase, which was to last for most of the next three decades. Coming after intensely rhythmic and primitivist works like The Rite of Spring, the Octet sounds like a mockery of classical forms.  The first movement opens with an adagio introduction typical of classical sonata form, but utterly different in its melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic conceptions.  The sonata begins in earnest with a clear, allegro thematic statement.  It unfolds in typical sonata fashion: exposition, development, recapitulation.  The exact moment of recapitulation is hard to place: Stravinsky not only mirrors the restatement of his themes in the 2nd half of the movement, he also deceives the listener by stating only part of the primary theme toward the end, before finally giving the theme one last full airing at the very end of the movement.  The second movement is a fairly straightforward theme and variations.  It segues directly to the third, a rondo of sorts that is based on a Russian dance rhythm.

Here is but one performance:

For another perspective, listen to this recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1947 at Tanglewood.  Also, take a look at Bernstein’s markings in the score (of a later edition), via the New York Philharmonic archives.

Musicians love to talk about the Octet.  It has its own, extensive Wikipedia article, complete with a history and a formal analysis of each movement.  It was the subject of a doctoral dissertation at the University of North Texas in 2007, dealing specifically with the trumpet parts.  It is featured on the Wind Repertory Project.  This Boosey & Hawkes blurb has some great contemporary quotes on the piece (one of which I used above).  Stravinsky himself wrote an essay about it for the premiere, which he published in 1924.  This other essay refers to that.  Since the Octet has such legendarily fun bassoon parts (my favorite bit is the cascade in the 2nd movement, although the beginning of the 3rd also gets me every time), it’s only fitting that the principal bassoonist of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra would write a fantastic and detailed blog post about her experience with the piece.  Finally, it has a place in the Classical Archives.

Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as Foundation in his name with an Internet presence.  So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice.  But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.