We're going deep in my next class, January 21. Originally, I wanted to give you a broad sample of American music, and we can still do that at a later date. But now, I want to explore the extraordinary work of just three 19th-century Americans who embody very different backgrounds, personalities and styles.
The music of Stephen Foster ("the father of American music") is simple, nostalgic and inward-turning, rooted in black America's sorrow and resilience. Louis Moreau Gottschalk was his opposite: a rock star of the stage and a phenomenally successful pianist who wrote swaggering, sexy music based on Creole and black music, not unlike George Gershwin. And John Philip Sousa was our March King, similar to Vienna's Waltz King, Johann Strauss. With their vigor and optimism, Sousa marches "should make a man with a wooden leg step out."
Despite their differences, all three Americans embody the spirit of their time in fascinating ways.
Join us at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21, Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie Ave., Portland.
We love chamber music because it offers intimacy and the exhilaration of animated conversation. Chamber music has been called "the music of friends.” Goethe described the string quartet as "four rational people conversing.” This conversation refers to the way one instrument introduces an idea and other instruments respond to that, repeating it, embellishing it, arguing with it, shouting it down, or giving it the silent treatment.
Here are a few of the selections we heard on Nov. 19. Thanks to all who came.
Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 132 in A Minor, third movement, with the Ebene Quartet. Start at 19:50.
Schubert's String Quintet in C Major, Borodin Quartet with unidentified second cellist:
Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor, Scherzo, with Orion Weiss, piano; Noah Bendix-Balgley and Diana Cohen, violins;, Dimitri Murrath, viola; Robert deMaine, cello:
Arvo Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel," Leonhard Roczek, cello; Herbert Schuch, piano:
At my next class, Nov. 19, we will explore a handful of chamber music works known for their astonishing beauty. Each of these pieces speaks to my heart and I know they will speak to you, too.
For example, after nearly dying, Beethoven wrote a string quartet in profound gratitude for his recovery, asking the musicians to play a thanksgiving hymn “with the most intimate emotions.” We’ll also hear what experts consider the best piece of chamber music ever written and we will hold onto our seats for the demonic Scherzo from Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor. We'll also watch Martha Graham dance to “Simple Gifts,” a song that evokes the pastoral beauty of America in Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” and we’ll end with a work so hushed and remarkable, it will leave you speechless.
I can't wait to share these with you.
At my last class, Oct. 29, we learned that singing can be a direct conduit to the heart.
We listened to rich examples from Bach, Brahms and the quietly radiant "Dirait-on" by Oregon-raised Morten Lauridsen and heard how composers can express themselves using human voices in ways they can’t with purely instrumental music. Think what a different experience it would be if Beethoven had not used a chorus in his Ninth Symphony.
Here are just three examples from class. First, the powerful Prologue from the opera "Mefistofele" by Arrigo Boito. It's a relentless crescendo that builds to a thrilling climax. The San Francisco Opera performs.
A beautiful arrangement of the Scottish folk song "Loch Lomand" by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It takes us out of the here and now and shows what a creative arranger can do with a simple song. Listen to the harmonies, the suspensions that slowly resolve, the long phrases where the singers don’t take breaths. This arrangement turns a folk song into polished art, self-consciously slow, artfully shaped.
Morten Lauridsen's ravishing song "Dirait-on" from a song cycle "Les Chansons des Roses."
We had some fun with the idea of mavericks in classical music at our opening class, Sept. 24. Did you know the word "maverick" comes from the name of an actual person? Samuel Augustus Maverick was a 19th-century cattle rancher in Texas. When he won a herd of cattle in a poker game, he decided not to brand his new cattle, but let them loose on the range. After that, any free, unbranded steer was called a maverick and the word eventually came to mean loner, dissenter, someone who strikes out on their own.
Next class is all about choral music and the beauty of voices singing together, Oct. 29.
Here are some of the "revolutionary" pieces we heard:
Chopin Etude Op. 10, No. 1, Garrick Ohlsson, piano:
Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," Danish Radio Orchestra:
George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," Gershwin, piano:
Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians," Eighth Blackbird:
Thank you for coming in out of the sunshine to hear some great singing in our last class of the season. Here are the videos we saw, beginning with Franz Schubert, who wrote roughly 615 songs in his short life. This is the beautiful memory song, "Der Lindenbaum," or "The Lime Tree" from his song cycle "Winterreise."
At my class on Sunday, May 21, we will hear the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore perform Schubert's "Der Lindenbaum." It's a memory song, recalling the gentle rustle of a lime tree in summer as the narrator trudges through winter. We'll also hear songs by Schumann, Wolf and Bolcom, plus a bunch of arias, because we can't leave out opera. This is a class devoted to the human voice and we will hear some wonderful singing. Hope to see you there.
We heard some wonderful music for the piano at my last class, April 30. Here are links to YouTube videos showing how composers have seized on the piano's chameleon-like qualities to create impressions of a shimmering fountain, exploding fireworks, a flamenco guitar, a rippling harp, a singer breathing long lines of melody, a three-part conversation and, finally, imitating the heft of a symphony orchestra.
In 1984, the Soviet Union boycotted the LA Olympics. As a cultural symbol of musical muscle, precision and American jazz, 84 pianists played George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" at the opening ceremony.
A clavichord from 1763:
A harpsichord, popular in the Baroque era:
One of three surviving pianos built by the piano's inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori:
No one plays a singing line as well as Artur Rubinstein in the Chopin Nocturne in D-Flat Major:
A fountain, in Liszt's Jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este:
As a flamenco guitar:
A three-part conversation in Myra Hess' famous arrangement:
A massive symphony orchestra:
I love pianos for what they offer: an enormous range of sound, the physicality of playing the keys, contact with some of the great works of music. Pianos also provide stories of their own. Because they last a long time, pianos go through a lot. Several years ago, I wrote a story about this for The Oregonian called "The Secret Lives of Pianos." Photographer Torsten Kjellstrand and I found a bunch of pianos that had great stories to tell.
We found a piano allegedly owned by Hitler's piano tuner. The piano Elliott Smith used to record several songs. A piano in the state penitentiary. A grand old Steinway presiding over Pioneer Courthouse in downtown Portland.
I thought of that story as I was preparing my next class on The Piano, scheduled for April 30. Here's how the story started:
They sit in courthouses and prisons. In Dumpsters and concert halls. In barns and family rooms.
Some pianos are sleek and supple, purebreds born for power and speed. Others squat in corners, shoved aside like old couches, their voices dull and out of tune.
Where have they been? In how many living rooms, bars or church basements? What have they seen? How many births, deaths, divorces, anniversaries? How many times have they played "Freres Jacques" or "Amazing Grace"?
Mystery -- along with 7,500 moving parts -- lies at the heart of a piano. Each one has a tale to tell, and we're going to share some of them with you. But owners don't usually keep track of where their pianos came from, so yarns take hold. Some are doozies: A note on a piano's flank that sits in a barn in Hillsboro:
This piano belonged to Adolf Hitler's piano tuner.
Here's the link to the full story.
Here's a mystery: The piano is a box of gadgets -- strings, rods, pins, hinges, levers, shanks, screws and iron. With 7,500 parts, it is a factory of sound. So, we ask ourselves: How does a contraption sing? This is the great gift of a piano — the point at which hammers and steel give way to the animation of feeling.
At my next class, April 30, we will explore the piano and the pianists who make magic with it. We will hear the piano as birds, fountains, fireworks, a harp, a singer's voice, a three-part conversation and striving to sound like an entire orchestra.
Here is one example: the piano as flamenco guitar. Spanish pianist Luis Fernando Pérez performs Isaac Albeniz's thrilling "Leyenda" ("Legend").
4 p.m. April 30, Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie & Powell Blvd., Portland OR, $20, payable at the door. To register, call 503-546-5622, or email Peggie Zackery at email@example.com
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.