Come with me as we begin a musical journey I know you will enjoy on many levels. Starting Sept. 15, I will trace the history of Western music, beginning with Bach and moving through three centuries to composers of today.
By the last class, you will know how and why each composer fits into the great, musical Milky Way.
Why a music history class? Lots of reasons.
First, we will hear the greatest music by the greatest composers. Why begin with Bach? His noble and sublime music summed up so much of what came before.
Second, by devoting one class to one composer, we can dive deeply into the music and find out what makes it stand out, how it fits into its time and how it influences composers who follow.
Third, who were these guys? What were they like? How did they live? How did they compose? How did their first audiences respond?
Fourth, we will see how music develops over time. Why does Beethoven sound different from Brahms, who sounds different from Debussy?
Fifth, we will demystify terms, revealing what all the fuss is about orchestration, harmony, texture, form, phrasing and counterpoint.
Sixth, we will learn why this music keeps turning up in concert halls around the world. Why don’t we get bored with it? Why does it still move us?
Seventh, learning this stuff will make you a better listener and better listeners enjoy music more.
Eighth, it will bring some beauty to your life. Not some, a lot of beauty.
Ninth, we’ll have fun and you’ll get to meet some wonderful people who love music as much as you do.
This will be a fascinating, and, at times, surprising, journey, I promise.
3 p.m., Sept. 15: Johann Sebastian Bach — The river to which all other composers are tributaries.
3 p.m., Nov. 3: George Frideric Handel — He embraced the full range of human experience.
3 p.m., Jan. 5: Franz Joseph Haydn — No one possessed such cheerful optimism, delightful wit and superb craftsmanship.
3 p.m., Feb. 16: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — Perhaps the most extraordinary musician in history.
3 p.m., March 29: Ludwig van Beethoven — Here comes the revolution.
3 p.m., April 26, 2020: Franz Schubert — If Beethoven grabs listeners in a half nelson, Schubert's music unfolds like a dream.
Each class is on a Sunday afternoon in the Recital Hall at Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie, next to the Aladdin Theater, at the corner of Milwaukie and Powell Blvd. Cost per class: $20, at the door. No advance registration needed.
I haven't explored musical form too deeply in previous classes, but that's about to change! Don't be put off by the word "form." We won't be digging into boring names or diagrams or formulas. Instead, we're going to listen to some exquisite music to show why one certain form -- sonata form -- has enchanted and challenged composers and audiences for 200 years.
My next music class is approaching and I know you’re going to find it fun as well as useful. A bonus! I’m calling it “Musical Magic Formula."
Have you ever listened to a symphony and found yourself feeling lost? Where are we? Where are we going? What’s happening? Step by step, we'll explore why sonata form contains so much psychological power. You will never feel lost, again.
4 p.m., Sunday, April 7, Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie and Powell Blvd. $20 at the door.
Hope to see you there.
Three different versions of a Chopin Nocturne. One is slow and dreamy. One is fast and direct. And one is by the man who inspired the Oscar-winning film, “The Pianist.” You won’t forget them.
I'm calling my next class "Music in the Mirror" because we will explore different versions of piano pieces, cello pieces, opera arias, choruses, songs and symphonies. Some of these pieces will be familiar and some may not be, but we’ll get to know them in new ways. I thought it would be interesting to compare performances of single pieces as a way to talk about how meaning and emotion change depending on how the performer makes the music come alive.
4 p.m. Feb. 10, Classic Pianos in Portland, 3003 SE Milwaukie and Powell Boulevard.
Here's one example: In 1944, a German officer found Wladyslaw Szpilman hiding in an abandoned building in Warsaw. He asked Szpilman if he would play something on a nearby piano. Szpilman played Chopin's beautiful Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor. The officer told him where to hide in a better place and brought him food. Szpilman inspired Roman Polanski's film, "The Pianist" and, in 1997, recorded the same Nocturne:
We had a great class of holiday music, ranging from bawdy 17th-century England, to Shapenote singing to an Orthodox carol to the ethereal beauty of Morten Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium." Thank you to everyone who attended. If you have your own unfamiliar favorites, please share!
Here are the videos:
American composer Christopher Rouse's "Karolju":
From Cuba, "Toquen presto a fuego" by Esteban Salas (“Play fast and fiery”), from 1786:
Orthodox monks from the Sviatohirsk Monastery in Ukraine:
Shapenote singing: "Star in the East" by Norumbega Harmony, a choral ensemble organized at Wellesley College in 1976:
"The Lamb," John Tavener, 1982, sung by the Erebus Ensemble from Bristol, England:
"O Magnum Mysterium" by Beaverton-raised composer Morten Lauridsen, King's College Choir:
"Hey for Christmas," a bawdy song from 17th-century England, performed by the Baltimore Consort:
"Night of Silence: Silent Night" by Daniel Kantor/Frans Gruber, with the St. Olaf Choir performing in Norway:
If you’re tired of “Santa Baby” — and who isn’t? — I have a gift for you. I'm going to share my favorite yule-time music with you. This is music you may not know, but I'm sure you are going to love: Gorgeous carols from Appalachia, the sassy, swaying Navidad of Spain’s Joaquin Rodrigo and the heart-stopping beauty of Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium.”
We'll hear shapenote carols, Ukrainian carols, Orthodox carols and the brilliant, joyful Karolju of Christopher Rouse, plus three lovely Hanukkah songs.
I'm also delighted that the Oregon Cultural Trust will be present to talk about the Trust’s vital work in sustaining culture throughout Oregon.
If you’re looking for a little grace this season, you’ll find it here.
Note the unusual time: 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2, Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie and Powell Boulevard. Cost: $20 at the door. 503-546-5622.
Thank you for the robust and engaging class on protest music! I loved hearing your comments, including from the woman from Lithuania who talked about walking into the streets of Vilnius with just her passport and a piece of bread in her pockets, joining throngs of people lifting their voices for democracy. The "Singing Revolution" was a powerful moment in history.
Here are links to several videos we watched in class.
Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony, 1775. Sinfonia Rotterdam, Conrad van Alphen, conductor. Start at minute 22:00.
"Go Down Moses," c. 1850, with Paul Robeson.
"Va, Pensiero" from "Nabucco," 1841, by Giuseppe Verdi.
"Strange Fruit," 1939, Billie Holiday
"Dialogues of the Carmelites," 1956, by Francis Poulenc.
"Quiet," 2017, by MILCK
Thank you to everyone who answered my survey questions after the last class. I loved reading your comments and suggestions and have used them in shaping my next series of classes. I especially loved hearing about your connection to the music we explored, reminding you of your father, evoking a powerful memory or sending you to do further research.
As I mentioned at our last class, I've decided to cut back a bit this season, from one class each month to one every other month. Not because I don't love these classes, but because I have a couple of other projects I also want to pursue. We will continue to meet at Classic Pianos.
I posted the dates and class descriptions on the Classes page, but here they are, again. Thank you for your enthusiasm, comments and ideas. See you in October!
4 p.m., Oct. 7, 2018: Music of #protest
Protests are on the rise. There’s probably one near you, today. And while folk music is rich with songs of protest, so is classical music. We explore both popular and classical works that call out war, oppression, racism, abuse, even homelessness.
12:30 p.m., Dec. 2, 2018: Cool holiday music you haven’t heard a million times
Lo, I hear from afar, yule-time music I know you're going to love. These pieces are a tad out of the mainstream, so you probably don't know them. We’ll rejoice in the clarity of English cathedral singers, choral music that swings between Eastern Orthodox chant and American folk hymns and the sassy, swaying Navidad of Spain’s Joaquin Rodrigo.
4 p.m. Feb. 10, 2019: What’s in a name?
Musical forms are like road maps. They tell us where we are and where we’re going. What’s a sonata? Why are symphonies in four movements? We dig into the most common forms of classical music — sonata, suite, tone poem, rondo, aria — and reveal their hidden, psychological power.
4 p.m. April 7, 2019: Music in the Mirror
We compare different versions of the same piece, much like the Japanese film Rashomon revealed alternative versions of the same incident. The notes of these musical works may be the same, but we’ll hear startling differences in sound, tempo, touch and emotional impact, exposing how much leeway performers take in the name of interpretation.
I really enjoyed our second season of classes and I'm mulling dates for next season. The discussion and comments we had after our last class was very helpful and got me thinking about next season. So far, these are class dates I've nailed down, again at Classic Pianos:
Check back for updates, soon.
Concertos are among the most dramatic forms of classical music, which is one reason we have so many extraordinary examples in the literature, from Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Bartok and others. Great composers can’t resist the musical and theatrical possibilities of this particular form: One person going up against an entire orchestra.
The most important fact about concertos is that audiences wait for the soloist to enter and when she stops, they wait for her to begin again. The opening introduction sets the scene, creating a sense of anticipation, that something is about to happen.
And when the soloist does enter, we know that virtuosity will be on display. Pyrotechnics will ensue. Tension will be high. Reputations will be on the line. And that makes them terrific fun for us to experience, either in the concert hall or on recordings.
But what if the soloist doesn't wait for an orchestral introduction? Mozart was the first composer to sense the dramatic possibilities of not waiting. Beethoven expanded that idea, as did others who followed.
In my next class, May 20, we will explore two unusual elements: When concertos break the rules and those extraordinary cadenzas when the orchestra stops and the soloist brings out the howitzers.
At my next class, April 29, I would like you to imagine you are a composer. Your job is to organize sounds into coherent form. Where do you look for inspiration? You might begin by looking at sources close by: Music you heard as a baby, rocking in your mother’s arms. Or in school, in church, or when your grandmother sang to you. Maybe you remember music you heard at dances, weddings or funerals, on the radio, in recordings or on soundtracks to films. And some of this music stuck with you.
It spoke to you with its rhythms and melodies — moved your heart, resonated deep inside because it said something about who you are, where you live, the work you did, the stories you heard, the joys and sorrows you read about or experienced.
We’re talking about music that has been passed down from one generation to another — folk music — an enormously rich tradition that has inspired classical composers for centuries, and continues, today.
We will hear how Bach inserted popular ditties into his sublime “Goldberg” Variations. Chopin found echoes of his Polish homeland in the Mazurka. Lou Harrison merged Indonesia’s gentle gamelan with his own beautiful melodies and Portland’s Kenji Bunch evokes the pounding rhythms of southern chain gangs in a mesmerizing symphony.
Join us, 4 p.m. Sunday, April 29, at Classic Pianos.
Here's a sample:
David Stabler is a pianist, writer, dad and cyclist. He's working on a novel based on his childhood years living in Africa and rode across America with his brother in 2017.