Friday, May 27, 2016


No. 222 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


This week;’s Blog and Podcast is the first in a series of posts that are feeding our ongoing Journey of Musical Discovery, meandering through the repertoire as we build up musical forces from “chamber” to “orchestral” music.

In past posts, we’ve already looked at pairs, groups of three and, more recently, groups of five and seven. This week, we will look at groups of four.

For whatever reason, when we think of quartets, we immediately think of string quartets – that is two violins, a viola and a cello. This configuration has been extremely popular, from the days of Joseph Haydn all the way to contemporary times – quartets by Debussy, Ravel and Shostakovich coming to mind. The first work in this week’s podcast is precisely one of those: the lyrical quartet by Alexander Borodin.

However, as I made an effort to show as well, there are other examples of quartets: there’s the Barber Shop quartet – four male a capella singers who sing at different regusters – typically, two tenors, a baritone and a bass.

This interesting blend of voices, which mirrors the string quartet in its formula, can be applied to other families of instruments – I chose as an example Aldo Forte’s use of a clarinet quartet made up to what we will call “tenor”, “alto” and “bass” clarinets. The same approach could apply to other reed instruments - the saxophone, for example.

Then, there’s the piano quartet, which I see as adding a second violin or a viola to a piano trio. This formula, using Schumann’s piano quartet as an example, has been used by other classical and romantic composers, most notably Johannes Brahms.

Sometimes, quartets are written :making do" with what's available. Dvorak's bagatelles are such an example - these were written for two violins, a cello and a harmonium, a pump organ that could be found in households..

The ultimate look at a quartet as a “loose grouping: of four instruments is probably the most poignant: Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, scored for clarinet (in B-flat), violin, cello, and piano - which can be viewed in a way the same as a piano quartet as adding a clarinet to a piano trio. The combination of instruments is unusual, but not without precedent: Walter Rabl had composed for it in 1896, as had Paul Hindemith in 1938. However, there’s more to that story, and that’s what makes this group of four so noteworthy.

As a member of the French Army in World War II, Messiaen was captured by the German army in June 1940 and imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany. While there, Messiaen befriended clarinetist Henri Akoka, violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier. After he managed to obtain some paper and a small pencil from a sympathetic guard, Messiaen wrote a short trio for them; this piece developed into the Quatuor for the same trio with himself at the piano.

The quartet was premiered at the camp, outdoors and in the rain, on 15 January 1941. The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards. Messiaen later recalled: "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension."

The same guard, Carl-Albert Brüll, helped the performers get released after the performance by forging papers.

I think you will love this music too 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Karl Böhm Conducts Richard Strauss

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

This week’s Vinyl’s Revenge is an old favourite recording of mine, featuring Karl Böhm conducting four works by his friend and mentor Richard Strauss, including two of his oft-heard tone Poems: Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan.

I thought I would sjhare with you excerpts from a Gramophone interview from 1972 authored by music critic Alan Blyth. In it, there are a pair of long anecdotes about Richard Strauss and their mutual admiration:

"[…] I met Strauss for the first time when I was in Hamburg, where we did a new production of Elektra. After that we were close friends for the rest of his life. Of course he was a musical genius as a composer, but he was also a very good conductor— and taught me a great deal. I remember once after he had rehearsed the first scene of Elektra, he said to the orchestra, 'Play it very softly, it's too loud composed'. He always told me that one must conduct only with one hand; the other should be in one's pocket. But I recall one occasion when he was doing Die Frau ohne Schatten at Dresden, he followed his own advice for most of the evening until he got to the final quartet. There, in the fortissimo C major he brought out his other hand and got really excited. After the performance he asked me, 'Böhmel'—he always called me that—'how was it?'. I said that it was fine except that you used your left hand. Three days later I was sitting in my box when he conducted the same work again. When he reached that passage, he used only his right hand—and with the other, waved to me".

[On Mozart] “Strauss also said that Mozart was the inventor of unending melody—and took for his example Cherubino's 'Voi che sapete'. The melody begins with the first bar and ends with last".

For conducting Strauss, Böhm went back to that dictum of the composer himself. "Not too loud". He added; "I conducted the premieres of Schweigsame Frau and Daphne. Strauss was always present during rehearsals and he repeatedly said, 'too loud, Böhmel'. In the former opera, he once said he couldn't hear the words, so he took the score back to his hotel and reduced the clarinets and bassoons from four to two, with red ink''. Then the thought ran through Böhm's mind that the work had never been recorded, and he made a mental note to put right that neglect.
Richgard Strauss is, it must be said, the prototypical transitional composer, bridging the Late Romantic German tradition and the modern language of the 20th Century. Although Strauss isn’t a true atonal composer, he did relish in some of the dissonance of his Viennese contemporaries. Strauss is at home in opera and in lieder, but has left an indelible mark in orchestral repertoire of his generation.

His tone poens – Also Sprach ZarathustraEin Heldeleben, his Alpine Symphony and the two shorter works featured this week show him as part trail blazer, par successor to the Liszt tradition. Böhm has stidied these scores with great care, and every subtlety, every indication is given full consideration in his rendition.

In addition to the two Strauss staples, we add the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils from his one-act opera Salome, as well as the less-heard Festival Prelude, written in 1913 for the opening of the Wiener Konzerthaus. This circumstance suggests a parallel with Beethoven's Consecration of the House, written for the opening of a theatre. If Beethoven came up with a Handelian overture, Strauss wrote a solemn work, based on hymn-like tunes, celebratory fanfares and majestic organ chords, in all their diatonic grandeur.

Richard STRAUSS (1864 –1949)

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op. 28 [TrV 171]
Festliches Praeludium: für grosses Orchester und Orgel, op. 61 [TrV 229]
Don Juan, op. 20 [TrV 156]
Salome's Dance From "Salome", op. 54 [TrV 215]

Wolfgang Meyer, Organ (opp. 28, 61)
Thomas Brandis, violin (opp. 20, 54)
Berliner Philharmoniker
Karl Böhm, conducting
Studio recording, 1963
Deutsche Grammophon ‎AAA reissue – 2535 208

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Project 366 - The King of Instruments

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.

As we showed on a graphic in the previous installment, not all instruments are created equal, and not all instruments are showcased equally in solo repertoire. Keyboard instruments like the piano have a bigger share of that repertoire because they provide a greater range of tones.

Physics explains how instruments produce sounds – it’s all about creating waves, and amplifying them. Sound waves are generated through the transfer of a mechanical wave, that is to say, how a string, or a surface can be made to vibrate either through the action of striking it, or plucking it, or blowing in it.

More Power

To get from Point A to Point B, people choose many mode of transportation, one that suits their needs. A bicycle is very economical to ride, doesn’t require much space, and provided that you are (physically) up to it can get you anywhere through any road.

But who doesn’t like a train? There’s something awe-inspiring about a powerful locomotive, how it makes the ground shake and the air move… All this to say that it’s in our collective DNA – we always look for things that can be made to be more powerful, more awe-inspiring. It’s true of music and of musical instruments.

Size matters! Physics also dictates that the size of the physical source of a sound wave (a string’s length or thickness, the size of a reed, the thickness of the skin on a drum) dictates vibration frequency, which explains why a violin has four strings and a long fret. It stands to reason that a large keyboard instrument can house many strings, thus support a larger breadth of tones.

Keyboard instruments, the piano in particular, are the results of innovations and evolution. The harpsichord, which is really the grandfather of the piano, was designed to “pluck” strings, and as such was limited in “dynamic range” – it doesn’t matter how “hard” or how “softly” you hit the keyboard, the resulting sound is the same.

By “hammering” on strings rather than plucking them, the fortepiano provided this added dimension of “dynamics”. Like the name suggests, this keyboard instrument has the ability to play notes hard (forte) or softly (piano). The last innovation is the ability to further enhance the dynamics by “dampening” the vibration of the string – this action, which is achieved by raising or lowering the instruments’ bottom surface through a pedal, takes us to the instrument we know recognize as the “modern acoustic piano”.

Let’s think outside the box for a minute; simple wind instruments – like a flute –create distinct notes through standing acoustic waves. A standing wave results in this case from acoustic waves bouncing off the ends of a pipe several thousand times a second “beating” into each other until we get a unique “signature” wave. The resulting note is dictated by that signature wave that is unique to the pipe (whose characteristics change when a flautist changes how he blows in the flute, or plugs holes with his fingers and instrument keys).

What if you engineered an instrument with several pipes, tuned to specific pitches, and came up with a way to pick the pipes you want to create the notes you want… That’s precisely what an organ does – it produces sound by driving pressurized air through pipes selected using a keyboard. The organ's continuous supply of wind allows it to sustain notes for as long as the corresponding keys are depressed, unlike the piano whose sound begins to decay soon after a key is hit.

The potential for an organ to achieve epic scales is, well, huge!

The smallest portable pipe organs may have only one or two dozen pipes and one keyboard (or manual); the largest may have over 20,000 pipes and several manuals. They are installed in churches, synagogues, concert halls, schools, and other public buildings primarily because they are so large, require so much space and care that they are not practical anywhere else. 

From Ancient Greece to Gothic Churches

The origins of the pipe organ can be traced back to the Hydraulis, literally "water (driven) pipe (instrument)." It is attributed to Ctesibius of Alexandria, an engineer of the 3rd century BC. The hydraulis was the world's first keyboard instrument and was, in fact, the predecessor of the modern organ. 

Technical Diagram of Ctesibius; Hydraulis

The Hydraulis of Dion, Dion Archaeological Museum

Unlike the instrument of the Renaissance period, the ancient hydraulis was played by hand, the keys were balanced and could be played with a light touch, as is clear from the reference in a Latin poem by Claudian, who uses this very phrase (magna levi detrudens murmura tactu . . . intonet, “let him thunder forth as he presses out mighty roarings with a light touch”).

We can trace the origins of the organ to the Ancient Greeks, however advances in engineering over centuries culminate with the first documented permanent organ installation, in Halberstadt, Germany in 1361. The Halberstadt organ was the first instrument to use a chromatic key layout across its three manuals and pedalboard, had twenty bellows operated by ten men, and the wind pressure was so high that the player had to use the full strength of his arm to hold down a key.
Now that’s power!

During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the organ's tonal colors became more varied. Organ builders fashioned stops that imitated various instruments, such as the viola da gamba. The Baroque period is often thought of as organ building's "golden age," as virtually every important refinement was brought to a culminating art.

Overview of the Repertoire

As for the repertoire for the organ it is quite varied: concert music, sacred music, secular music, popular music… In the early 20th century, pipe organs were installed in theaters to accompany films during the silent movie era!

Because organs have been used constantly over the centuries, there are significant works for the pipe organ throughout the ages. However, in my opinion, we can narrow things down to two distinct periods – the Baroque and the period after 1865, with an emphasis on generation or two of French artists that dominated the landscape at the turn of the 20th century.

Although most countries whose music falls into the Western tradition have contributed to the organ repertoire, France and Germany in particular have produced exceptionally large amounts of organ music.

German sacred organ music is dominated by the chorale, hymnal music of the Lutheran faith. Composers such as Samuel Scheidt and Heinrich Scheidemann wrote chorale preludes, chorale fantasias, and chorale motets. Towards the end of the Baroque era, the chorale prelude and the partita (or suite) became mixed, forming the chorale partita. This genre was developed by Georg Böhm, Johann Pachelbel, and Dieterich Buxtehude. The primary type of free-form piece in this period was the praeludium, as exemplified in the works of Matthias Weckmann, Nicolaus Bruhns, Böhm, and Buxtehude. 

Johann Sebastian Bach composed extensively for the organ (as well as the keyboard), and his works are both secular (large-scale preludes and fugues) and sacred (chorale-based works), dedicated to the organ or featuring the organ in one of his many cantatas.

In France, very little secular organ music was composed during the Baroque period; the written repertoire is almost exclusively intended for liturgical use. The important names there were Jean Titelouze, François Couperin, and Nicolas de Grigny.

Organ music was seldom written in the Classical era, as composers preferred the piano with its ability to create dynamics. In Germany, the six sonatas op. 65 of Felix Mendelssohn (published 1845) marked the beginning of a renewed interest in composing for the organ. Inspired by the work of renowned French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, the French organist-composers César Franck, Alexandre Guilmant and Charles-Marie Widor led organ music into the symphonic realm. Guilmant and Widor were not only great organists and composers, they were also great teachers, and among their students and apprentices we count Louis Vierne and Marcel Dupré who, in turn, instructed Olivier Messiaen, and the brother and sister tandem of Jehan Alain and Marie-Claire Alain. Many of these organists were closely associated with the many great church organs in France, from Notre-Dame-de-Paris to Saint Sulpice.

The Great Organ at Saint Sulpice (Paris), reconstructed by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1862

The development of symphonic organ music continued with Vierne and Charles Tournemire. Widor and Vierne wrote large-scale, multi-movement works called organ symphonies that exploited the full possibilities of the symphonic organ.

Exploring the organ repertoire - Some Listener Guides

Listener Guide #7 - "Norddeutsche Orgelschule": A selection of works from the North-German organ school performed by Dutch organist Piet Kee: Sweelinck, Buxtehude ad J. S. Bach.  (ITYWLTMT Montage #217 - 11 March 2016)

Listener Guide #8 - "J.S. Bach - Ton Koopman‎ - Organ Works": Dutch organist Ton Koopman performs some Toccatas and Fugues by J. S. Bach, including his well-known Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. (Vinyl's Revenge #7 - 10 March 2015)

Listener Guide #9 - "French Organ Masterworks": A collection of French organ works from Late Romantic and Early Contemporary French organ composers: Franck, Dupre, Messiaen, Widor and Vierne. (Once Upon the Internet #25 - 18 March 2014)

Listener Guide #10 - "Marie-Claire Alain (1926-2013)": The late great Marie-Claire Alain performs a collection of French organ works from Baroque and Early Contemporary French organ composers: Jehan Alain, Leon Boellmann, Louis Couperin and Louis-Nicholas Clerambault. (ITYWLTMT Montage #221 - 13 May 2016)

Saturday, May 14, 2016


A quick note to tell you I had to change the blog template hurriedly as the one I was using wasn't compatible with the Blogger HTTPS conversion.

In slow time, I will clean things usp.

Apologies if you couldn't experience my recent posts!


Friday, May 13, 2016

Marie-Claire Alain (1926-2013)

No. 221 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


Today's Blog and Podcast is part of our collection of many podcasts and playlists dedocated to organ music. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, there are really two major "schools" of organ music - German and French. Today's podcast looks at the latter.

Also, this is a bit of a revisit for me, as today's artist was the subject of a Tuesday Blog in 2013, and I will shamelessly reuse some of my musings from that very post.

According to, Marie-Claire Alain is the youngest child in a family of distinguished musicians. Her father, Albert Alain (1880-1971), a composer and amateur organ builder, had been a pupil of Alexandre Guilmant, Louis Vierne and Gabriel Fauré. Her sister Odile was a promising soprano and pianist who lost her life early in a mountaineering accident; her older brother, Olivier Alain, was a composer, pianist, and musicologist. Her oldest brother was the renowned Jehan Alain, a composer and organist whose teachers included Marcel Dupré, Paul Dukas, and Jean Roger-Ducasse. He numbered Olivier Messiaen and Francis Poulenc among his closest friends and his works for organ - Litanies, in particular - established him as one of the brightest stars among rising French composers in the decade before his battlefield death in 1940, at 29. A twin sense of loss and inheritance informed her studies and career.

At the age of 11 she made her debutas organist in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. At age 18, in 1944, Marie-Claire entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying with Marcel Dupré for organ, Pié-Caussade for counterpoint and fugue, and Maurice Duruflé for harmony. She studied with M. Duruflé from 1944 until 1950, school-work being augmented by private lessons. During her Conservatoire years, she carried off four Premier Prix.

Her career truly takes off in 1950 with her formal debut in Paris. Over the years, she made frequent tours of Europe. In 1961 she made her first tour of the USA. During her career she has given well over 2,000 recitals world-wide. She succeeded her father as organist of the parish church of Saint-Germain-en-Laye after his death in 1971 and served for 40 years. As a performing organist, she was particularly known for performing substantial works entirely from memory. Her exhaustive repertoire included works by the Baroque masters as well as contemporary scores.

Marie-Claire Alain was much in demand as a teacher. She lectured at the Haarlem Summer Academy of Organists in Holland from 1956 to 1972. She also gave master-classes around the world. She had a long association with the St Albans International Organ Festival.

Marie-Claire Alain's reputation as a performer and recording artist would be hard to overstate. Her recordings number in the hundreds, and she recorded the complete works of J.S. Bach three separate times, a singular achievement. She also recorded the complete works of over a dozen other major composers for the organ, as well as many individual important works. She was the most-recorded organist in the world, with over 260 recordings in her catalogue, several of which have won awards. By the 1980's, she had become known as a specialist in 17th and 18th century music, with numerous recordings of works by François Couperin, Nicolas de Grigny, Antonio Vivaldi, Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Pachelbel, Georg Frideric Handel, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Haydn, and Mozart - among many others - to her credit. But she also made distinguished recordings of Romantic repertoire with albums of works by Felix Mendelssohn, César Franck, Franz Liszt, Widor, Vierne, Francis Poulenc, and Jehan Alain - whose punctilious execution is suffused with passion - carrying into the 21st century living traditions extending to the middle of the 19th.

At the heart if this podcast is a long-forgotten recording of 18th Century French music by Clérambault and Louis Couperin, digitized by the French National Library for their CD reissues of Public Domain recordings from their vinyl collection. Jehan Alain and Boëllmann complete the recital.

I think you will love this music too!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Music from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

Five Years of Tuesday Blogs

I joined TalkClassical in May of 2011, and started my Tuesday Blog a few weeks later. The landscape hasn’t changed much – some of the TC lurkers have come and gone, but I have tried to stay the course, though my contributions have been limited to a few per month over the last while. Balancing work, home and my pastimes can be a challenge!

Allow me to take a moment to thank my fellow TC’ers – past and present – for their continued support and readership, as well as for their (too few) comments on my many posts. Looking ahead, I have many playlists on deck, so I plan to be around these parts for a while yet!

An Old Formula Returns… if only for this week

Since last fall, I’ve been posting on TC about twice a week, and my posts have either explored my old vinyl collection (in posts I like to call Vinyl’s Revenge) and old downloads from defunct music web sites (Once Upon the Internet). However, not so long ago, we used to prepare playlists based on “music hyperlinks” around a common theme. We did a lot of those over the years, combining YouTube videos with hot links from open source sites. One of my “go to” sites in preparing those playlists was the Music Library of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which has a very impressive collection of live chamber performances. For a few summers, we made a point of doing chamber music playlists (remember the Summer of the String Quartet? Or the “In Camara” series?)

This week, allow me to indulge in one of those ”throwback” hyperlink posts, showcasing three performances from the ISGM, which have a common theme: musical democracy in the form of “large” chamber works. By large, I mean something requiring more than four players.
The works I chose present the challenge of democracy in music in two distinct ways – are these works featuring five or six independent performers each having their moment in the Sun so to speak, or are they ensemble pieces, where the individual artists forego their individual play in favour of that of the group as a whole. You decide!

To begin, I chose Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet, performed by the “Musicians from Marlboro”. This ensemble, with a varying lineup, was created as an extension of Vermont’s Marlboro Music Festival, offering valuable touring experience to artists at the beginning of their careers, and for featuring programs of unusual as well as beloved chamber repertoire.

Since their inception, the Musicians from Marlboro have introduced such great talents as Yefim Bronfman, Pamela Frank, Richard Goode, Jaime Laredo, Murray Perahia, Paula Robison, András Schiff, Peter Serkin, Richard Stoltzman, Christian Tetzlaff, Benita Valente and Harold Wright, among others.

Next, I programmed a pair of string sextets performed by “ad-hoc” ensembles featuring well-known interpreters. When you browse the line-up of these sextets, you will see some names that garner marquee appeal, as well as great craftspeople, known for their chamber play. The two works, though merely separated by a few years, span both ends of the late Romantic period – Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence and Schönberg’s still very tonal Transfigured Night.  Despite the fact that the artists featured don’t usually perform as an ensemble – in fact, these are pick-up sextets - you will be pleased to hear how “together” they actually sound!

Happy Listening!

Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Kvintet for Flöte, Obo, Klarinet, Horn og Fagot (Wind Quintet) in A Major FS 100 [op. 43]
Musicians from Marlboro

Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Souvenir de Florence for string sextet in D Major, TH 118 [op. 70]
Featuring Kyoko Takezawa, Cho-Lang Lin, Paul Neubauer, Scott Lee, Gary Hoffman, and Alisa Weilerstein

Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht for String Sextet, op. 4
Featuring Ida Kavafian, Ani Kavafian, Paul Neubauer, Roberto Diaz, Ronald Thomas, and Fred Sherry