Music and Happiness is changing radically in 2016. We will no longer be sending out notices of new posts to Subscribers. In fact, we are deleting our Subscriber List.
This website will remain online, and you can still contact us here by using our Contact form. (See below for more on this.)
Music will continue to play a major role in our work, since this website will now offer descriptions and dates of courses that Josh is teaching online covering many kinds of music and musicians, like the very popular ones he offers in Lifelong Learners programs. As you know from the many years of posts here, his knowledge as a professional musicologist is encyclopedic, so if you have a burning desire to learn about something musical, contact us with your wish list in the message box.
Our new nonprofit (501c3) organization, the Ageless Mind Project, encompasses both music and other activities that research shows contribute to a higher quality of life, especially as people grow older. This Project has already established a major online presence in virtual environments as well as through in-person workshops and classes.
If you want us to contact you about our activities from now on, use the Contact Form right here on our website to give us your name and email. In the subject line simply write: “keep me posted.” We will send out personal notices only to interested individuals. And of course you can always check this website for news, so bookmark it!
We have enjoyed “meeting” so many of you and have been buoyed by your enthusiasm and interest over the years – we began Music and Happiness in 2007! – and we hope you will want to stay with us in our new, ambitious endeavor.
With deep appreciation for you and our common love of all music,
For many, Gershwin’s An American in Paris is associated with the 1951 MGM movie starring Gene Kelly, not to mention a number of Broadway revivals. But these versions are not only larded with a number of other Gershwin pieces, they also slice and dice the original work.
The 1928 orchestral “rhapsodic ballet ” was composed during what was a miraculous decade in a tragically short life—one that saw the creation of such other perennially fresh works as “Lady, Be Good!,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” and “Concerto in F,” as well as a treasure trove of songs co-written with his brother Ira.
Connected with his two stays in Paris—in April 1926 and during a more extended period from mid-March to mid-June 1928, An American in Parisis Gershwin’s most richly textured and vividly orchestrated score. For example, in the woodwinds alone, in addition to the more conventional instruments, Gershwin draws upon the seductive reedy sonorities of bass clarinet as well as soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones. And the panoply of percussion instruments is equally striking: aside from timpani, there are the snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, triangle, bells, xylophone, wood block, small and large tom tom.
But the most attention-grabbing of all are the sounds of the four taxi horns. They are a vital part of the street noises as our American visitor strolls about the city. We know that Gershwin went shopping for horns among the automobile dealers along the Avenue de la Grande Armée. As one friend reported: “We went to every shop we could find to look for taxi horns. He wanted horns that could sound certain notes.” And he reportedly ended up with some twenty taxi horns lying about his hotel room.
In a sense, Gershwin was a child of his time in using these horns. The 1920’s saw composers bring aircraft propellers and other machines to the stage of Carnegie Hall. For instance, Frederick Converse used a Ford automobile horn in his 1927 piece “Flivver Ten Million: A Joyous Epic.”
An American in Parisis organized in five large sections. Taxi horn beeps are heard first near the beginning of the work. The opening sound, however, is the “walking theme,” a “refrain” or unifying idea later heard multiple times. There is also a brief quote from one of the pop songs of the day, “La Mattchiche” (a.k.a. “La Maxixe”), parodied in the U.S. with the lyrics, “My ma gave me a nickel to buy a pickle.”
Clarinets soon pipe up, in their upper register, with a perky fresh theme. Gershwin proceeds to develop much of this material in a richly polyphonic texture. The pace then slackens as our visitor hesitates, passing what could be a church or the Grand Palais, a famous landmark.
A bridge passage –a sinuous, chromatically descending phrase in the flutes—brings us to the second section. Our visitor has presumably now arrived at the Left Bank. Much of the sound is raucous and vigorous. But calm eventually sets in as a solo violin, cushioned by lush Debussyesque chords, is heard. Some commentators suggest this represents a French girl approaching our visitor with her broken English.
Soon a similar bridge passage follows, this time played by two solo violins, bringing us to the third section. A “spasm of homesickness” has now struck our visitor, as we hear an expansive blues sound first heard on the trumpet. But, before it is picked up by the whole orchestra, there is a fleeting interlude for string quartet, attesting to the range of Gershwin’s musical antenna. This passage could have been written by Alban Berg, a composer he adored and whom he visited in Vienna in 1928.
The fourth section brings us a “second fit of blues,” energized by the rhythm of the Charleston. This section climaxes in a grand statement of the blues introduced in section three. As the excitement winds down, we hear a series of three brief bluesy solos, consequent phrases, on violin, tuba, and bass clarinet. These usher in the fifth and final section. Our American has now reached “open air” and is once again “an alert spectator of Parisian life.”
We want to share with you a wonderfully vibrant and youthful performance by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
(Full disclosure: the conductor of the St. Thomas Orchestra, with which I will be performing An American in Paris in an upcoming concert, considers this version the most outstanding he has ever heard.)
To guide your listening to the Dudamel performance, here are cues for the five sections of the piece:
Question: What makes a familiar piece of music stay fresh to the mind and ear?
One Answer: Learning something new about it.
Josh plays violin in an orchestra made up of passionate musicians who, by day, are psychiatrists, pediatricians, teachers, students, hedge fund managers, software engineers, etc. ranging in age from 18 to 80.
He writes the Program Notes for their concerts to help audiences listen with heightened awareness and pleasure. We bring you here a classic performance by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic.
A suggestion: Read the Program Notes first as you watch and listen. Then just listen.
Sometime during the summer of 1817 Beethoven happened to be dining with the poet Christoph Kuffner. At one point the conversation reportedly went as follows:
K: Tell me frankly, which is your favorite among your symphonies ? ( The Ninth had not yet been written.)
B:–[in great good humor] Eh! Eh! The “Eroica.”
K: I should have guessed the C minor.
B: No, the “Eroica.”
Studying Beethoven’s creative process, I am awed by the extent to which the “Eroica” Symphony is fueled by an inspirational fire like no other.
A vital clue as to how this magnificent masterpiece came together can actually be found in its last movement. The basic material heard there can also be found in the seventh of a delightful set of dance miniatures, the “Twelve Contradances,” from around 1801. It reappears as well, in more developed form, as the finale to Beethoven’s ballet score, “The Creatures of Prometheus,” Op. 43, from the same period. It can also heard, in much more highly evolved form, in the so-called “Eroica” variations for solo piano, his Op. 35 from 1802.
This speaks to his passionate engagement with the myth of Prometheus and its association in his mind with particular musical material. Going by copious circumstantial evidence, it would be no exaggeration to say that Beethoven thought of himself as a latter-day Prometheus, that great hero of Greek mythology who defied the gods by stealing fire from heaven to bring warmth, light, and enlightenment to mankind.
Turning to the political arena, it is clear that Beethoven initially saw Napoleon Bonaparte as another Prometheus, one who would bring “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” to not only France but all mankind. However, by the late spring of 1804, after his revolutionary work was complete, the news came to him that Napoleon had had himself crowned Emperor, ending the dream of a new epoch of Freedom. In a rage, Beethoven tore up the title page with the name “Bonaparte” in its dedication, renaming it “Sinfonia Eroica, composed to celebrate the Memory of a Great Man.” (I added the italics.) Everything about Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony shattered the musical status quo.
[Start the video now.] The first movement, after two whiplash chords on E-flat, outlines the notes of that chord in the cellos in the four following measures, only to throw us off balance in the fifth measure with a disruptive shift to C-sharp.
A mighty struggle is now joined in this opening symphonic movement, the likes of which had never been heard before. We have to wait for the climactic coda for a full realization of this opening idea. There, two perfectly matching four-bar phrases–first heard in the French horn starting in measure 631 (16:53)–at last begin to resolve the struggle.
There are three more such statements–in violins, then in cellos, culminating in the triumphant trumpets. Beethoven’s process of reaching a resolution translates into a tortuous journey of bold key relationships, masterly motivic manipulation and counterpoint, repeated duple disruptions of what is supposed to be triple meter, dynamic contrasts, and dissonance of unprecedented intensity.
A telling dissonant moment comes at 9:26. Another can be heard at 11:54 as the recapitulation is about to begin: an impatient French horn jumps the gun, coming in sounding the notes of the home key, while hushed violins play a dominant chord–a chord built on the fifth note of the key. (11:54)
The intensely expressive second movement, the funeral march, is riveting from the moment it starts, with the dark sound of the open G string (violins and violas) and the imitation of solemn drum strokes in the cellos and basses. Its grief-stricken outer sections frame a midsection where we briefly find consolation in the sunshine of C major, only to then turn dark and tragic again in a double fugue. This fugue is followed by a series of restatements in which the main theme assumes almost apocalyptic intensity.
Beethoven introduces a clock-ticking rhythm in his coda–a hint at human mortality–which in turn brings back the main theme, now heard as a series of sobs from the violins. The ensuing scherzo, in 3/4 time, is so fleet-footed that we can feel only a single beat per measure. The Trio puts three French horns on show as they cavort heroically in E-flat.
A headlong, plunging line in the strings launches the finale; it is as though Prometheus himself has come down to earth to ignite our own fire. Beethoven proceeds to lay down a pizzicato bass line–really underpinning the earlier Prometheus melody. Two variations follow. In the third variation, the oboe introduces the Prometheus melody itself–in effect, a countermelody. What follow are eight variations of path-breaking compositional virtuosity, where Beethoven draws upon virtually every trick in his toolbox. The music ranges in scope from an earthy contradance variation to the most intricate fugal writing. A return of that headlong, hurtling line launches the Presto coda as we all surge ahead in glorious triumph. What a transcendent moment!
Program Notes for St. Thomas Orchestra (copyright J. Berrett, 2012)
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This sign made us smile while we waited in a long line at the car wash recently.
Another snow day. It’s been a rough winter here in the Northeastern US. We wonder if our Butterfly Bush will survive the cold. The Rhododendron’s leaves are rolled up so tight, they look like pencils. When we shovel, there’s no place to put more snow.
What brings a sense of hope is that March has now arrived. With that more cheerful thought in mind, we bring you a visualization to music that is one of our favorites.
Visualization is a form of Meditation. It employs images to take the listener on an inward journey of personal discovery. Music adds another dimension to this process as it resonates in the body.
Click on the button below to go on your own journey.
If you’d like to listen to this atmospheric music all by itself as well–we use Claude Debussy’s Nuagesplayed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy–click on the button below.