Jean Sibelius: An Introduction

The young Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wanted to be a virtuoso violinist but it was in composition that his greatest talent lay. All his life, he was deeply connected to the natural world, and this love of Nature is expressed in much of his music.

Jean Sibelius in 1913

I know of no better introduction to the music of Jean Sibelius than the two CD set of his Symphonies No. 1, 2, and 4, and Finlandia and the Karelia Suite by Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Decca 455 402-2

The earliest composition featured on this recording is the Karelia Suite, completed in 1893; the latest is the pensive Symphony No. 4, completed in 1911. All of the music on these discs is splendid, the performances inspired, and the recordings immersive.

Ashkenazy seems to have an innate understanding of Sibelius, and his conducting and interpretations shine here throughout.

As with many (most?) of the greatest composers, Sibelius faced a number of challenges and personal demons throughout his life. Though he lived a long and productive life, he wrote almost no new music after his brilliant tone poem Tapiola in 1926, 31 years before his death. He did complete a Symphony No. 8, but threw the score into his fireplace in 1945. Sibelius once remarked, “If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last.”

To find out more about the life and music of Jean Sibelius, I’d like to direct your attention to an excellent two-part documentary film by Christopher Nupen, completed in 1984. It is available through the classical music streaming channel medici.tv (highly recommended) and Amazon.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The remarkable composer and virtuoso pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) wrote five works for piano and orchestra. The first four were his piano concertos.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in F♯ minor, Op. 1 (1891; revised 1917)

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1901)

Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909)

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 (1926; revised 1941)

His 2nd and 3rd piano concertos are especially beautiful, and are among the finest examples of this genre in the entire repertory.

Then, in 1934, eight years after his final piano concerto, he wrote his final work for piano and orchestra, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It is a set of 24 variations in a single movement lasting 23 to 25 minutes. Its point of departure is the last of the 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, written between 1802 and 1817 by the great violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840). Here is a performance of Caprice No. 24.

Kyoko Yonemoto playing Caprice No. 24 in A minor by Niccolò Paganini

And, oh, what Rachmaninoff does with this theme by Paganini! Energetic, scintillating, lush, virtuosic—these are just a few of the words that describe this incredibly dynamic and exciting work. It is the perfect introduction to Rachmaninoff’s music, and arguably his finest work—at least in terms of what he accomplishes in a mere two dozen minutes.

There are many fine recordings of this remarkable piece. I have several. Here they are, in order of duration.

23:00 Gary Graffman (1928-), New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

23:01 Cecile Licad (1961-), Chicago Symphony, Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

23:16 Adilia Alieva (living; birth year unknown), Orchestra Sinfonica do Samremo, Walter Proost (living; birth year unknown)

23:36 Vladimir Ashkenazy (1937-), London Symphony, André Previn (1929-2019)

23:44 Stephen Hough (1961-), Dallas Symphony, Andrew Litton (1959-)

24:56 Daniil Trifonov (1991-), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (1975-)

As you can see even from this small sample, a piece of music can be played with widely varying tempos and, of course, interpretations. The Trifonov recording is the latest addition to my collection, and you’ll note that it is a full 1m12s longer than the next longest interpretation, another great recording by pianist Stephen Hough.

I was bowled over by this Trifonov recording, and it is my current favorite. There is so much to savor here, and yet I never get the sense that the tempo is too slow. Time is certainly relative when it comes to music!

Give this recording of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini a listen! Truly outstanding.

Deutsche Grammophon 479 4970 GH

Bastien and Bastienne…and Beethoven?

Musical mystery, or compositional coincidence?  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the music for his one-act opera Bastien and Bastienne in 1768, at the age of 12.  The short Overture to Bastien and Bastienne bears a remarkable resemblance to the opening theme of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, composed between 1802 and 1804.  Although the keys are different (Mozart’s overture is in G major and Beethoven’s symphony is in E♭ major), could it be that Beethoven had Mozart’s theme in mind while he composed his 3rd symphony?  It is unlikely that Bastien and Bastienne was known to Beethoven, as that music received its first public performance in 1890.  Perhaps, just a coincidence.  Great minds think alike, it appears.

Overture to Bastien and Bastienne, Statatskapelle Dresden, Sir Colin Davis, RCA 74321-56698-2
Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, London 430 792-2

Scythia Sweet

One of the enjoyable aspects of recording asteroids passing in front of stars (we call them asteroid occultations) is the interesting names of some of the asteroids. This month, Bob Dunford, Steve Messner, and I had two double-chord events across the asteroid 1306 Scythia, discovered in this month of 1930 by Soviet astronomer Grigory Neujmin (1886-1946).

The name 1306 Scythia immediately brought to mind a favorite piece of music, the Scythian Suite—surely one of the most unusual and otherworldly compositions by Sergei Prokofiev, or anyone else for that matter.

A quick look at the entry for 1306 Scythia in the 5th edition of Dictionary of Minor Planet Names by Lutz D. Schmadel (1942-2016) quickly confirmed my suspicion that the subject matter of both asteroid and musical composition is the same.

Named for the country of the ancient Scythians comprising parts of Europe and Asia now in the U.S.S.R. in regions north of the Black sea and east of the Aral sea.

In the wee hours of Friday, July 12, Bob Dunford in Illinois and I in Wisconsin observed only the second asteroid occultation of 1306 Scythia (and the first since 2014). The predicted path is shown below.

Predicted shadow path of the asteroid 1306 Scythia from the star Tycho 5189-597-1 (UCAC4 414-136241) on 12 July 2019 UT.

Bob, who was observing at Naperville, observed a 4.3-second dip in brightness as the asteroid covered the star between 8:23:46.203 and 8:23:50.531 UT, and I, observing at Dodgeville, observed a 1.3-second event between 8:24:01.783 and 8:24:03.054. Our light curves are shown below.

Bob Dunford’s light curve of the 1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT, using a 14-inch telescope.
David Oesper’s light curve of the 1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT, using a 12-inch telescope.

Here’s a map showing our observing locations relative to the predicted path.

1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT – Predicted Path and Observer Locations

Here’s the profile showing the chords across the asteroid.

1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT – Asteroid Profile and Chords

Just four days later, both Bob Dunford and I had a high probability event of the same asteroid passing in front of a different star, and this time we were joined by Steve Messner. Bob and Steve both got positives! Unfortunately, I was clouded out.

Predicted shadow path of the asteroid 1306 Scythia from the star TYC 5188-573-1 on 16 July 2019 UT.
1306 Scythia / Tycho 5188-573-1 event of 16 July 2019 UT – Predicted Path and Observer Locations
1306 Scythia / Tycho 5188-573-1 event of 16 July 2019 UT – Asteroid Profile and Chords

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote the Scythian Suite in 1915 when he was 24 years of age. Even at that young age, Prokofiev already showed great talent and originality.

Sergei Prokofiev, circa 1918

Here are some excerpts of the Scythian Suite performed by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Stanisław Skrowaczewski. This is a 1983 recording (Vox Box CD3X 3016). The movement descriptions are based on those given in Wikipedia.

1st movement: Invocation to Veles and Ala – barbaric and colorful music describing the Scythians’ invocation of the sun.

Some of the music you’ve heard in the original “Star Trek” certainly was inspired by this.
Alien landscape music
Alien landscape music #2

2nd movement: The Alien God and the Dance of the Evil Spirits – as the Scythians make a sacrifice to Ala, daughter of Veles, the Alien God performs a violent dance surrounded by seven monsters.

Best to observe this nasty dance from a distance…
This certainly reminds me of Dmitri Shostakovich, but he was only 9 years old at the time and just beginning to compose!

3rd movement: Night – the Alien God harms Ala; the Moon Maidens descend to console her.

This beautiful movement of many moods begins peacefully, then moves to a section of descending lines that might remind you of “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, but this was being written at the exact same time as the Scythian Suite! Next the music takes an ominous turn, and then returns to a little night music, but more a travel through interstellar or intergalactic space rather than a terrestrial night.

4th movement: The Glorious Departure of Lolli and the Cortège of the Sun – Lolli, the hero, comes to save Ala; the Sun God assists him in defeating the Alien God. They are victorious, and the suite ends with a musical picture of the sunrise.

Here, now, the conclusion of this remarkable work.

Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. There is nothing else like it in the orchestral repertoire!

Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is, of course, best known for The Planets, but I continue to discover other compositions by Holst which are truly remarkable and unjustifiably neglected.

I listened to an out-of-print compact disc this evening that features some Holst rarities: Hymn to Dionysus, Choral Hymns of the Rig Veda, and Two Eastern Pictures. Fortunately, there are still used copies available of this 1985 UK release, so I was able to purchase the disc: Unicorn Digital DKP(CD) 9046. These performances are by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, conducted by Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015), and the legendary harpist Osian Ellis (1928-). What a gem of a recording this is! Seek it out!

The standout work on this disc is a (nearly) complete recording of the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, written in four groups between 1908 and 1912. The Rig Veda is the oldest scripture of the Hindu religion. Not satisfied with existing English translations, Holst learned Sanskrit so that he could provide his own translation.

Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, op. 26

First Group, for chorus and orchestra (H. 96)
   I.   Battle Hymn
   II.  To the Unknown God
   III. The Funeral Hymn [not included in this recording]

Second Group, for women's chorus and orchestra (H. 98)
   I.   To Varuna (God of the Waters)
   II.  To Agni (God of Fire)
   III. Funeral Chant

Third Group, for women's chorus and harp (H. 99)
   I.   Hymn to the Dawn
   II.  Hymn to the Waters
   III. Hymn to Vena (Sun rising through the mist)
   IV.  Hymn of the Travellers

Fourth Group, for men's chorus and orchestra (H. 100)
   I.   Hymn to Agni [not included in this recording]
   II.  Hymn to Soma (the juice of a herb)
   III. Hymn to Manas (the spirit of a dying man)
   IV.  Hymn to Indra [not included in this recording]

I also very much enjoyed the final work on this recording, Two Eastern Pictures, written in 1911.

Two Eastern Pictures, for women’s voices and harp (H. 112)

I.  Spring
II. Summer

I certainly hope that this fine recording will be reissued soon, and that live performances of these works are in the offing.

Rhapsody in Blue

American composer George Gershwin left us much too soon at the young age of 38. He died of a brain tumor in 1937, and eight years after his death a somewhat fictionalized movie about his life was released in 1945, Rhapsody in Blue.

One remarkable aspect of this movie is a number of people who knew Gershwin were in the movie as themselves: Oscar Levant, Paul Whiteman (who premiered Rhapsody in Blue), Hazel Scott, Anne Brown, Al Jolson, George White, and Elsa Maxwell. It is a love letter to this remarkable composer and musician.

Robert Alda (father of Alan Alda) turns in a great performance as George Gershwin, as does Joan Leslie as his fictionalized love interest Julie Adams.

Robert Alda as George Gershwin and Joan Leslie as Julie Adams in Rhapsody in Blue (1945)

Strong performances were also turned in by Morris Carnovsky as George Gershwin’s father, Albert Bassermann as his fictionalized teacher Professor Franck (perhaps patterned in part after both Charles Hambitzer and Rubin Goldmark), and Herbert Rudley as Ira Gershwin.

And then there’s the wonderful music of George Gershwin throughout the film, including much of An American in Paris, a personal favorite of mine. I’ll bet you’ll hear familiar songs that you didn’t even know were written by Gershwin!

I loved this movie. Unfortunately, it is not available through either Netflix or Amazon streaming, but you can purchase a high-quality DVD for $12.99 from Warner Brothers.

https://www.wbshop.com/products/rhapsody-in-blue

If you don’t know much about George Gershwin, this movie is a good starting point. After you watch it, I guarantee you’ll want to learn more about the real George Gershwin and his music. Enjoy!

My Music Recorded in 1976

Leaving Behind the Tears

All songs written, performed, and recorded by David Oesper

Recorded January – August 1976

Remixed August 20, 1976

Special thanks to Bob Gebhardt for loaning me his open reel tape deck in 1976.

Special thanks also to Jake Ewalt for his skillful analog to digital transfer in July 2002.

VOLUME 1VOLUME 2
1. Hope1. Here With You
2. Leaving Behind the Tears2. Memories
3. Misled Again3. So Long
4. Reaching Out For Love4. Did I Tell You
5. Rock Star5. The Day You Left Me
6. Time Out6. Far Away Somewhere
7. You Should Have Seen7. Moments With You
8. I’m Thinking About You8. Hometown Boogie
9. Destiny9. He’s Gone
10. Picking Up the Pieces10. Hold On
11. Life11. If That Is All
12. For All Time12. In the End
13. Idol13. I’ll Come Back
14. Rock of the Country14. You’re the One
15. Pathless Roads15. No Other Person
16. You Get In Your Own Way

Neptune, the Mystic

Many years ago I wrote a short poem while listening to the final and most otherworldly section of The Planets by Gustav Holst: Neptune, the Mystic.

Here it is:

Neptune, the Mystic from The Planets by Gustav Holst
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley
Ambrosian Chorus, John McCarthy
Alto ALC 1013
The endless poetry of space
Sends shivers across my spine,
And there upon the threshold sounds
The now distant drone of time.
Music fills the spacecraft
Starlight fills the night,
And there upon the threshold think
I wonder, was I right?
David Oesper

 

The Planets was written by Holst between 1914 and 1916, and the premiere performance was at The Queen’s Hall, London, on September 29, 1918.  Adrian Boult conducted the orchestra in a private performance for about 250 invited guests.  The Queen’s Hall was destroyed by an incendiary bomb during the London Blitz in 1941, seven years after Holst’s death in 1934.

Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, and was considered to be the ninth planet until its controversial demotion by the IAU in 2006.  A number of composers have added a Pluto movement to The Planets (“Pluto, the Renewer” by Colin Matthews, for example), and even an improvised performance (“Pluto, the Unpredictable”) by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.  I remember enjoying “Pluto, the Unknown” by American composer Peter Hamlin performed by the Des Moines Symphony in 1992, but unfortunately no recording of this work exists.

Gorgeous Grieg

Edvard Grieg (Photo EGM0270, Edvard Grieg Archives at the Bergen Public Library)

Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) is best known for his iconic Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16, written in 1868 when the composer was just 24 years old, and his Peer Gynt suites, No. 1, op. 46 (1875, 1888), and No. 2, op. 55 (1875, 1891).  Like Tchaikovsky, Grieg had a gift for melody.

Grieg once wrote, “Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on the heights.  I only wanted to build dwellings for men in which they might feel happy and at home.”  With this in mind, you will find no better introduction to some of the other gorgeous music that Grieg wrote than Norwegian conductor Bjarte Engeset conducting Sweden’s Malmö Symphony Orchestra on Naxos 8.572403.

https://i2.wp.com/cps-static.rovicorp.com/3/JPG_500/MI0003/853/MI0003853098.jpg?resize=500%2C750&ssl=1
Bjarte Engeset

Seldom have I found a disc of music so beautifully paced and played.  These five pieces for string orchestra (augmented by oboe and horn on “Evening in the Mountains”) followed by one piece for full orchestra provide the listener with over 71 minutes of pure enjoyment that will convince you (if you weren’t already convinced) that Grieg deserves a place alongside the most significant composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  For me, personally, every one of these pieces is a favorite.  There is nothing to skip over here!

Naxos 8.572403

Two Elegiac Melodies, op. 34 (1880)
+ The Wounded Heart
+ The Last Spring

Two Melodies for String Orchestra, op. 53 (1890)
+ Norwegian
+ The First Meeting

From Holberg’s Time: Suite in Olden Style, op. 40 (1884)
+ Prelude
+ Sarabande
+ Gavotte
+ Air
+Rigaudon

Two Lyric Pieces, op. 68 (1897-1899)
+ Evening in the Mountains
+ At the Cradle

Two Nordic Melodies for String Orchestra, op. 63 (1895)
+ In Folk Style
+ Cow-Call & Peasant Dance

Lyric Suite, op. 54 (1905)
+ Shepherd Boy
+ Gangar
+ Notturno
+ March of the Dwarves

Don’t let words like “gorgeous” and “pure enjoyment” give you the impression that this music is lightweight fare.  There is a sadness in this beautiful music that evinces that it is anything but superficial.  Grieg and his wife Nina lost their only child, Alexandra, to meningitis when she was little more than a year old, Nina later miscarried a second child, and Grieg himself suffered all his adult life from the effects of pleurisy he had contracted when he was 17 years old.

Nina Grieg with her daughter Alexandra (Edvard Grieg Archives at the Bergen Public Library)

Howard Goodall

I first became familiar with British composer, musician, and music presenter extraordinaire Howard Goodall on August 7, 2017, when his documentary Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution aired on Wisconsin Public Television.  As a lifelong Beatlephile who knows a thing or two about the Beatles and their music, I was immensely impressed with the quality and content of this documentary.  I especially liked his detailed analysis (vis-à-vis Alan W. Pollack) of what makes the music of the Beatles so extraordinary, and his obvious enthusiasm for the subject.  After watching this wonderful hour-long (yes, no commercials!) programme, I vowed to do two things:

  1. Purchase an official DVD copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution
  2. Find out more about Howard Goodall and his work

#1  Sad to say, periodic searches have only turned up bootleg copies from questionable sources.  When will the DVD finally be released?

#2  Somehow I missed it when it was originally broadcast on PBS, but I was delighted to find Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs available through Netflix, so I recently ordered it.

First broadcast in the UK in the autumn of 2000, Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs is a series of 50-minute documentaries on five transformative developments in the history of Western music.  They are

  1. Notation
  2. Equal Temperament
  3. Opera
  4. The Piano(forte)
  5. Recorded Sound

I just finished watching this series, and would highly recommend it for anyone interested in music history.

I enthusiastically look forward to other music documentaries by Howard Goodall.  After watching Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution, I believe that he may well be the best person in the world to develop an entire documentary series on the music of The Beatles.  Here’s hoping!

There are those who say that if music has mass appeal it can’t also be music of great significance or depth. What The Beatles proved once and for all is that this idea is hopelessly and absurdly wrong. – Howard Goodall

There are very, very few composers in history whose work changed all the music that followed it: Beethoven was one, Wagner was another. I believe that posterity will add to their select ranks The Beatles. – Howard Goodall