Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dieterich Buxtehude

Born in either Denmark or Germany, and eventually settling in Elsinore, Dieterich Buxtehude was one of the most popular organ players of his time. Even though he was such a talented musician, he still had to pull a few strings to get work; to be the organist at St. Mary’s Church, Buxtehude had to marry his boss’s daughter. He was also a composer, however, and is remembered today not only for his organ works, but also for his instrumental and choral pieces. All of these pieces were composed because of his post at St. Mary’s because the works were written for the service. One of his most influential career moves was starting public concerts at the St. Mary’s Church called Abendmusiken. These concerts were so influential because as Jaime mentioned in her journal, Bach, who rarely traveled far distances, journeyed to hear this music.

This particular album of Buxtehude’s music features just his organ pieces, which include preludes, chorale settings, ciaconas and others. The chorale settings outnumber all the other pieces, but the preludes were my favorite. I agree with Jaime’s statement that says the album does not get boring because the instrument of the organ is capable of sounding completely different when different stops are pulled. Sometimes, like in the piece Puer Natus in Bethlehem, the organ seems to be accompanying the flute, and in others, a low contrabassoon seems present. In reality, however, only the organ is playing and it is able to make plenty of voices, which adds variety to this album. Never having played organ music myself, I do not know if the composer calls for certain voices, or the performer gets to choose them, but in either case Bine Bryndorf does a wonderful job playing the pieces. Sometimes the counterpoint and pedals seem almost impossible, but Bryndorf plays flawlessly. She makes it seem as if we are in St. Mark’s listening to Buxtehude himself performing for a concert. After hearing this, I wish I had been around in the late 1600s in Germany so I could attend these performances.

Before listening to this album, I must admit that really the only organ piece I was familiar with was JS Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D minor. Upon first hearing Buxtehude’s music, that is what instantly came to my head. I knew this was not the correct approach to listening to this music, however, so I tried to clear my head and hear with fresh ears. I was able to appreciate this music on its own. Also the fact that the organ seemed to imitate other instruments made it easier for this realization to happen. One track, however, just seemed extremely similar to this Bach piece and the title of it was Passacaglia in D minor. This was my favorite piece and I really liked the range of the organ on this because it got incredibly low. It sounds like Bach took some measures exactly from this piece, but perhaps it sounds like that because both used scales and arpeggios greatly in their writing. Jaime briefly touched on the Buxtehude’s influence on Bach, but I feel she neglected to fully connect these ideas. She mentioned that Bach had some pieces by the same name as Buxtehude’s pieces, and since they were both using chorale settings for the Church for organ, that was only natural. The fact that Buxtehude was a huge influence on Bach only makes that less of a coincidence. I liked this opportunity to learn more about both Buxtehude and Bach and the life of a German musician during the Baroque era.

In the end, I think Jaime did a great job analyzing the music and looking at the structure of the songs. Her journal was obviously well researched and well written. She provided information that caused me to go look up more about the structure of the pieces, because she herself had analyzed that so well. In spite of this, I still wish she had included more subjective opinions on the piece so I could compare my opinions with hers. We seem to have thought about a lot of the same matter concerning the concerts and other things, so I think I really would have benefitted to see her opinions, to see if those matched as well.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Il Primo Omicidio

Alessandro Scarlatti was one of the most prominent composers of opera in Italy during the Baroque period. Il Primo Omicidio, the first murder, is not an opera but rather an oratorio he wrote in 1707. Oratorios are like operas in that they have a poet (librettist) and composer. In the case of this oratorio, the librettist is unknown. Oratorios are different than operas, however, because they are not staged. They still have characters and dialogue but no sets, costumes or staging. Also, oratorios are sacred in subject matter while operas during this time period were based on Greek history and mythology. During the Church seasons of Advent and Lent, operas were not performed because they were seen as frivolous during a time when people were not allowed to have petty joys in their life. In their place, oratorios were performed.

This particular oratorio is about Cain and Abel. This Bible story is extremely dramatic and was a popular subject matter for oratorios at the time because the story line and the glorified quality composers could write for the first murder of humankind. Several other composers besides Scarlatti, including Metastasio and Johann Philipp Fortsch, composed for this Bible story, but Scarlatti’s oratorios is one of the most popular musical settings of the tale today.

Il Primo Omicidio was recorded by the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin conducted by Rene Jacobs. The recording featured a group of about 18 instrumentalists and six singers, all of whom sang for a specific character. What I found most surprising about the singers on the recording is that the part of Cain is sung by an alto and Abel by a soprano. I thought during this time women were not allowed to sing in church, so it seems like in this oratorio women would certainly not be allowed to sing the lead roles of this oratorio. I would have enjoyed listening to countertenor singing these lead roles, but I am sure that it would awfully difficult to find male singers today who are able to sing these parts. Because castrati are no longer used today, Rene Jacobs utilized women.

The arias, especially “Nel Poter Il Nume Imita,” sung by the character of the Devil, are all wonderful hear. Just listening to this recorded version, I can imagine the voice of the Devil calling to Cain to tempt and convince him to kill his brother, Abel. I feel that Scarlatti’s music was enough to tell the story and staging or costumes would have taken away from the emotion and intensity that is present. Perhaps this was because of the fantastic work that Scarlatti was able to do with a melody. All his arias have the “singable” factor, meaning they are so catchy people can sing them after hearing them, causing the arias to become fairly popular. Another element of Scarlatti’s oratorio that I really liked was that the recitative was still fairly melodic. While the arias were still much more musical and expressive, the recitative was not merely a couple repeated notes. Scarlatti knew how to best convey the text in order to reveal this story to the audience. He knew how to incorporate elements to add to the dramatic quality of the story. Scarlatti also did such a good job with these musical elements that he did not need a chorus or a narrator; the story is completely told through the characters. Finally, the instrumental pieces that this oratorio features are just the perfect combination of tension and excitement. I can honestly feel myself tense up while listening to the overture just waiting for the story to begin. Scarlatti does a lot to help his audience anticipate what is coming next in the story.

I chose this oratorio because I recognized Scarlatti’s name. Some of his music is in the standard repertoire for singers such as “Le Violette.” I chose to listen to this oratorio to compare these short songs with a full-length work. This oratorio is not only darker but also much more dramatic than his art songs. Many of his arias, however, are very similar to the art songs because they are all in ABA form, or da capo arias. This album is my favorite of all the listening journals that we have done. This is because the music seems like it is something that is still relevant and similar to what is still popular today. In its entirety, I bet it is not often performed and that is a shame because I thought the entire piece was incredibly gripping. This oratorio was very entertaining and I hope that I can listen to many more in the future.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The recording of Orlando di Lasso by the Hilliard Ensemble is an exemplary work of music. The all male vocal group sings two settings of Lasso’s masses, the Prophetiae Sibyllarum and the Missa pro defunctis, quite well. I had listened to this album before, during, and after reading Victoria’s blog about Lasso, so I became enormously familiar with these works. Her blog was not only educational, but also entertaining when revealing facts to the reader. I loved how she incorporated Lasso’s younger life into the blog, informing the reader that, according to legend, he had been kidnapped three times in his childhood. I wish that she had included more of her personal feelings on the music. She did an excellent job of not persuading the reader on one direction of the music, but it still would’ve been nice to compare opinions about this subject. Her research was evident throughout the writing, and though I wish she had included more about the Missa pro defunctis, upon searching for it myself, I discovered that there is dreadfully little research existing on this Mass.

Lasso was an exceedingly popular composer of his time. He could be considered a true musical “Renaissance man” because he composed in nearly every style of music. Because he mastered almost all types of music, musicologists have not defined a distinct Lasso style. He was simply too well rounded for a label. Lasso’s motets were his claim to fame in his day. His popularity in these came from the emotion and text painting in his motets. One can hear these elements in the masses that are on the CDs. Unlike the crystal clear works that Palestrina had, Lasso relies more on the emotional aspect of the music. Also unlike Palestrina’s clear polyphony as a response to the Reformation, Lasso does not do anything different to retaliate for the Reformation. He was not alive when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on a Catholic Church, but he still would have been writing music as a Catholic composer in a time when the Protestant Church was booming. Victoria brought up a good point in her blog however, when she said that Lasso found balance. The balance I believe she was talking about was the text declamation of Palestrina and the emotion and text painting that he commonly used.

Listeners of Lasso’s day might have been shocked by the chromaticism that they heard in Prophetiae Sibyllarum. I enjoyed listening to this mass, and I suppose my ears are simply accustomed to hearing the accidentals that Lasso included. Listeners of the time, however, probably would not have appreciated this new writing, and the mass was not even published until after Lasso’s death. He never again wrote with this much chromatics in his music, so we can assume several things: either he was not terribly happy with the results or he knew the public would not appreciate this music. Since people in the public were the ones paying him, he would have to write some things to please them to keep their patronage. From these two examples, I do not think that I would continue to provide paying Lasso, just because they were so extremely different than everything I would have ever heard. Lasso had more popularity with his motets for a reason. The second Mass on this album is more pleasurable than the first Mass, which seems a little boring to me. Victoria said this music was soothing and while this is true, I doubt if I would sit and listen to it on a regular basis.

The most attention-grabbing bit of information I pulled from Victoria’s journal was that the Prophetaie Sibyllarum was “inspired by the stories of the Greek prophetesses.” I find this sentence to be incredibly ironic. The Council of Trent almost wiped out polyphony in the Church, but they did say that masses were supposed to be less secular in the manner that they had previously been. The secular aspects they were talking about were basing Masses off secular songs, but I would think that basing a Mass off Greek prophetesses might be as bad as, or worse than using secular songs.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is sometimes called the savior of Catholic Church polyphony. During the 16th century Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the Council of Trent considered removing polyphony from the Mass. Polyphony, they thought, distracted people from the words. The point of music was to glorify and complement the text, not to completely cover it up with creative ornamentation. Palestrina, however, wrote a polyphonic Mass in which words could be understood. Because Palestrina’s writing was so beautiful and so effective at conveying the lyrics, his sound became the norm for music in the Catholic Church until Vatican II.

On this CD of Palestrina’s work called Palestrina: Motetti & Missa “Assumpta est Maria” we hear motets by Palestrina and his Mass based on his motet “Assumpta est Maria.” The CD was recorded by a group of 22 singers under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe at La Chapelle Royale in Paris. Palestrina’s Missa “Assumpta est Maria” is a parody mass, which means that it is based on a pre-existing work; in this case, the motet by the same name, “Assumpta est Maria.” Over the course of his career, Palestrina established and practiced a rigid set of composition rules, which he employed in this particular mass including text projection, the careful use of dissonances, and the use of mostly stepwise motion. All the music on the CD is performed a cappella, using the performance style used in Palestrina’s time (the Church suggested that no instruments except organ be used in the Mass). Since all voices are singing primarily the same rhythm, or homophonically, the text is easy to understand. The polyphony seems to flow endlessly; even cadences do not feel like true ends or pauses but ways to move to the next phrase.

The author of the CD liner notes Philippe Beaussant mentioned that it is critical when recording a piece from a different time period to be true to the original idea. I felt the argument was lost when after, making this point, Beaussant went on to write that this particular recording is the 19th century style. The author’s point was to inform the listener that the recording is different than what Palestrina wrote for and heard. Because today one is so used to the sound of many singers on one part, I am not opposed to the direction that this CD uses. It would have been neat to hear what Palestrina himself would have thought of as the “Palestrina sound,” but sometimes that sound was not ideal. Singers were not always available, so a 6 part motet might have 3 singers and 3 voices played on the organ. Also, musicologists today have difficulty finding the exact performance practice that Palestrina used, because he did not think it was necessary to write performance practices and after his death, people did not always follow his performance practices. This recording is metered and concentrates on harmonies rather than free flowing phrases. Also, the choir of 22 is bigger than the group of soloists probably used by Palestrina.

What struck me most about Palestrina's work was the flowing endless polyphony. I could sit back and close my eyes and envision myself in the Papal Chapel listening to the almost celestial music. My favorite track on this CD is the “Credo,” which enumerates the key beliefs of the Catholic faith. To convey that important text, Palestrina wrote so the voices sing together for the majority of movement. I enjoy the beautiful, pure aspect that Palestrina creates in order to ensure that the text is left as the principal element. He also emphasized the words by adding or subtracting voices. When all parts sing forte in the same rhythm, the listener is sure that those words are perhaps the most important text of the entire creed. Another way Palestrina manages to stress significance is through repetition. When voices sing the word “crucifixus” each voice part sings in succession. Palestrina highlights the word and makes that word’s importance clear to the listener. Palestrina skillfully painted the text for those not fluent in Latin. In the line, “Et ascendit in caelum” which means, “And ascended into heaven,” all the voices sing an upward pattern. When I listened to this part, even though I was not consciously following the Latin, I assumed that the text must be talking about Christ’s ascension. During the 16th century, most people did not speak Latin, so Palestrina’s skill was an imperative one for the congregation’s comprehension.

All in all, I have little to complain about with this recording. I have no problems with the 19th century style they chose for it, but I do, however, wish that whoever compiled this album had included Palestrina’s motet on which this Mass was based. Upon looking the motet up on Naxos, however, I discovered that the Mass and the motet sound tremendously similar. Both have seamless polyphony and use homophony. The voices of the motet, like in the Mass give the impression of flying to heaven. During this time, motets were sacred, so it makes sense that both works would sound divine. The sounds of Palestrina were heavenly, and I fully understand why the Catholic Church kept his style.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Journal Response: Hildegard of Bingen

During the 12th century, when Hildegard of Bingen lived, the Church allowed women to do an insignificant amount of daily tasks. Convents, where women could do things that were usually for men only, such as sing during Mass services and hold positions of leadership, had only women. Hildegard of Bingen not only held a position of power at a convent, but she also composed numerous works consisting of antiphons, responsories, and she even wrote both the words and music to her pieces. Also, women who were nuns at the convent sang the music. Her composition of both the words and music are worthy of note because men rarely wrote both words and music that during this time, so for a woman to do so was extraordinary. Hildegard possessed other talents besides her gift to compose. She is also a visionary, which means she had revelations from God. She wrote religious poems, prose, and books besides her music.

Her divinely inspired music is sometimes puzzling for modern ensembles to play since it leaves much open for interpretation. The group, Sequentia, that recorded this CD, was willing to try their take on Hildegard of Bingen’s work. Using only women’s voices, fiddle and harp, the group manages to capture the simplistic beauty of Hildegard’s composition. The
Canticles of Ecstasy, features 16 tracks that last a little longer than an hour. Most of these pieces are antiphonally sung which means they have choirs that alternate singing, but some pieces are responsorially sung meaning they have a soloist and a choir. The instruments mainly provide a drone under the singing, except in the instrumental piece in which the harp and fiddle play together. This piece has much more rhythmic movement than the rest of the CD, probably because it is not chant, like all the vocal pieces.

Because Hildegard wrote mostly in chant, the rhythmic patterns are not exceedingly difficult. While the music is pretty and soothing, the lack of quick movement is boring and I wish there were more rhythmic variation. I realize that during this time, this style is what writers used. In spite of the rhythm that I found boring, Hildegard did use a technique that was uncommon and made these chants more pleasing to my ears. The large leaps provide more interest to the melody; they also employ much more of the range of the voice than was common for this era. Because of these characteristics, most of these pieces do not fit the definition of the genre of a typical chant, which would ordinarily move in step-wise motion. In Victoria’s blog, I enjoyed how she brought up this point of skips. She mentioned that it was difficult for the singers to sing this music because they would be bouncing back and forth between head and chest voice in the same measure. This is something that, even though I am a vocalist, I would never have thought of without reading this blog. Also, I do agree that when listening to this music, it is moderately easy to picture a mystical realm; nevertheless, this is not enough to redeem the music for me. The text is fairly profound and moving, but I concentrate more on what I hear right away rather than what I must look up and think about, and it simply did not catch my attention. I certainly admire Hildegard for all her accomplishments in her life, but for me, I will not be a regular listener of her music.

Because Hildegard is an approved visionary of the Church, the way I see this collection is greatly impacted. She believed that God inspired all her compositions. This can relate to earlier theories about m usic. Boethius and Pythagoras believed that there were three levels of music. First, was the musica instrumentalis, which is the name for the vocal and instrumental music. Next, was the musica humana, which had to do with the symmetry of the body and soul. Finally, the highest form of music was musica mundana that was God and the stars singing. If we believe that Hildegard was divinely stimulated to write her music, then that would be the lowest and highest levels of music uniting. In this way, her music is not only enjoyable for listening; this music is God’s and that makes it better than all things. I highly respect this music because of its background, but even with that admiration, I cannot bring myself to be a die-hard fan of it.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Listening Journal 1a- Cantigas de Santa Maria

King Alfonso X, also known as Alfonso el Sabio (the Wise or the Learned), is not remembered for his military conquests or his great acquisitions of land, but instead for the historical impact he had on Spanish music (Sage, “Cantiga”). Alfonso was a great patron of science, art and culture. He supervised the compilation of the Cantigas of Santa Maria. As Jack Sage writes, the Cantigas de Santa Maria is “one of the great artistic achievements of the Middle Ages.” This set of 420 songs is not merely a group of pretty tunes; it reveals many aspects of medieval life to listeners today.
The CD, Alfonso X: Cantigas De Santa Maria, recorded by the Unicorn Ensemble, includes ten of the cantigas and lasts about one hour. The instruments, language, modes, meter, and monophony all define this work as from the Medieval period. The listener hears instruments that were used during this era such as percussion instruments, recorders, flutes, bagpipes, harps, the shawm, the hurdy-gurdy, the rebec and finally the human voice. The Unicorn Ensemble decided to use these instruments not through guessing, but based on the four beautifully illustrated manuscripts of the "Cantigas" that are extant. Three manuscripts even include musical notation. The ensemble, along with many other musicians, was able to see the instruments used in performing these songs. The language of the cantigas is Portuguese-Galician, a fascinating use for two reasons: First, the songs are sacred in subject manner, but they are not in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church. Secondly, Portuguese-Galician was not the vernacular of the people in Alfonso's kingdom; the language was Castilian. Poets preferred to write in Portuguese-Galician because they found it more lyrical.
In addition to the oddity of language, there are also musical ones. Many of these pieces are in the Dorian or Mixolydian modes. [watch that you always transition smoothly between subjects and that new subjects are given new paragraphs] Modes are scales with varying arrangements of half and whole steps and both sacred and secular music from the Medieval period use four (the Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Phrygian). The meter of these songs varies; at times it is in duple, other times it is in triple, and some songs even use both. Because Alfonso X compiled this set of cantigas during the Medieval era, it is worthy of note that songs about Mary, the Mother of God, use the duple meter. Musicians thought that triple meter was perfect, because it was like the Trinity, and duple meter was imperfect because it was not like the Trinity. Because of this way of thinking, one would assume that Mary would only receive songs in triple meter. She doesn’t, however, which leads us to believe that at this point in the 13th century, not everyone followed the strict mindset of the Church. During this time, life revolved around the Church. There was a lot of disease, suffering, and death, so the Church's views on eternal life were sometimes all that common people had to offer hope. This is why even their meter related to God. The monophonic or single line of music is also a common musical characteristic of the Medieval period. Instead of being polyphonic or having many independent voices, this music has one melodic line. It can be doubled in unison or at octaves and sometimes, because of instruments like the bagpipe, it can have a drone. Finally, the form of most of these pieces are virelais. Virelai form is ABBA and is one of the three formes fixes, the other two being the ballade and the rondeau. These forms became extremely popular in 14th and 15th century France, so these Spanish 13th century virelais are a predecessor of what was to come. Most of the songs have a clear refrain or “A” section which repeats after contrasting sections.
Before this history class, I had never heard of Alfonso X or this collection. Initially, I chose this album because it grabbed my attention. I am Catholic and the Virgin Mary therefore is someone I admire, much as Alfonso and the writers of the Cantigas venerated her. Not all tracks on this CD are songs. Some are instrumental and others are poems that are recited while music is playing. Reading the liner notes and a few of the translations, I came to enjoy the texts that these songs use, especially as they are not the same that we would sing today about Mary. Some, like track five, are similar to modern-day hymns about Mary, but others, like, “Quen serve Santa Maria” surprise me. This is nothing like what I would imagine hearing in church today. In this song, a man kills his unfaithful wife and asks Mary for help. I know Mary is merciful, but this is extreme.
Overall, I was glad that I chose Cantigas de Santa Maria for my listening journal because I was able to learn a lot about one of the most historically important pieces for Spanish Medieval music. Not only this, but I track enjoyed most of the tracks, especially 3, “Instrumental CSM 259.” The constant drone of the hurdy-gurdy is haunting and beautiful. This music makes me feel many things, and makes me able to relate with the Greeks on their theory of ethos. Also, listening to track 4, I can picture myself dancing in King Alfonso’s court. The meter is strong in this piece, but it also has slower sections, which makes me imagine the people stopping and listening to the poem of Mary’s miracle. Some of the melodies used here may have been taken from secular songs and applied to these texts (Sage, “Cantiga”). In this, I imagine Alfonso X was trying to make these cantigas more popular, an endeavor in which he succeeded as I find them melodic and catchy and their repetitiveness makes them easy to remember. Had I been living in the 13th century near the Iberian Peninsula, I’m sure they would’ve caught my fancy.

Jack Sage. "Cantiga." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed September 10, 2008).

Nigel Wilkins. “Virelai.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed September 10, 2008).

Latham, Alison. "Cantigas de Santa Maria." In The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online, (accessed September 10, 2008).