Category Archives: Classical Music

Review: University Symphony Concert (FSU)

By Nicholas D. Lewis

I very rarely write reviews about performances or musicians, but I attended a concert this evening that forces me to break the mold.  The University Symphony Orchestra at the Florida State University, lead by Alexander Jimenez, is a group comprised of the most passionate students musicians I have ever had the privilege of seeing.  This is an ensemble that rehearses and practicse almost every day, but it doesn’t end there for these young musicians.  In fact, it seems to only be the beginning.

Hearing the University Symphony Orchestra convinced me that I was hearing the repertoire for the first time.  The performance shed a special light on the music that made me believe the notes were being played for the first time.  And for students to pull this off so convincingly is outstanding.

And so I challenge all musicians to approach a piece of music as though they are seeing it for the first time.  Rehearsals are necessary, but these students prove that the work does not need to take away from the inspiration.  I reject the belief that classical music dying.  The problem is that classical musicians who know how to inspire audiences are dying.  The art-form is in the hand of young people now.  Rather than worry about whether you can get a job, worry about loving what you do and be excited to create opportunities.  The art form will only die if we allow it to die.  Let this review be a lesson: It’s in your hands now.

Nigerian Church Music: Reform

By Segun Akinfenwa

Unlike the early years of worship in the Church of Nigeria, where each music setting – Canticles, Psalms, Chants, Hymns, Versicles and Responses – has a different part, the present day way of worship is not so. My experience playing in the Anglican church in the Nigerian city of Ibadan summed up the problem. I was teaching our choir the canticle, psalm and chant in preparation for a visit to the Diocesan Bishop for annual anniversary. One of my choristers approached me and asked, “Why must we sing this ‘ORIN ARO’ on a day like this” ORIN ARO – Yoruba language meaning “Mourning song”.

CANTICLES

A Canticle (from the Latin Canticulum) is a hymn-psalm or other song of praise. In the Church of England, morning and evening prayers according to the Book of Common Prayer were extensively used in Canticles.

At the Morning Prayer

  • Venite (Psalm 95)
  • Te Deum (not biblical) or Benedicite (Daniel 3 :57 -88 on the Aporcypha)
  • Benedictus (Luke 1 : 68 – 79) or Jubilate Deo (Psalm 100)

At evening prayer

  • Magnificat (Luke 1: 46 – 55) or Cantate Domino (Psalm 98)
  • Nunc Dimittis (Luke2 : 29 – 32) or Deus Misereatur (Psalm 67)

CHANT

Chant (from French Chanter) is the rhythmic speaking or singing of words or sounds often on one or two pitches called reciting tones. Chants can range from a simple melody involving a limited set of notes to highly complex musical structures. These often include a great deal repetition of musical sub-phrases, such as great Responsories and Offertories of Gregorian chant.

PSALMS

In early Temple worship, the psalms occupied a central place in temple liturgy. For example: there is an appropriate psalm for each day of the week. Day 1 (Ps. 24), Day 2 (Ps.48), Day 3 (Ps. 82), Day 4 (Ps. 93), Day 5 (Ps. 81), Day 6 (Ps. 93) and on Sabbath.

The book of all 150 psalms was compiled over a long period of time, and its present form was well established after the exile and the rebuilding of the Temple. In the early church, chanting of Psalms remained central to worship.

The 16th Century Reformation

The 16th century reformation in England brought sweeping changes into the form of worship in the church. The principal of which was the compression of daily worship into services. Mattins and Evensong.

Mattins was based on the Roman Mattins of Salisbury Cathedral – the Sarum rite. Its canticles were VENITE (Ps. 95), the Te Deum, the Benedictus – Zechriah’s song found in Luke’s gospel chapter 1, sometimes the Quicumque vult (The Athanasian creed), which was a part of prime, Jubilate Deo (Ps. 100), Benedicib Omnia Opera.

The evening song canticles were the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis (The song of Simeon in Luke’s Gospel chapter 2).

John Merbecke in 1550 published his book of common prayer, noted and provided simple music for the ordinary texts for communion, and for the Versicles and Responses, psalms, canticles and prayers of Mattins and Evensong.

From the 150 psalms of David, various chants have been composed by several composers throughout the ages. These chants reflect the moods and themes of the psalms. There are:

Psalm of exultation – Ps 8

Psalms of thanksgiving – Ps 9, 136

Psalm of adoration – Ps 19

Psalm of penitence – Ps 51

Psalm of deliverance – Ps 20

Psalms of praise – Ps 148 and 150

There is no situation in life that does not have a corresponding psalm.

In the Book of Common Prayer, there is a psalm for each day, Mattins and Evensong, and for each psalm day, there are appropriate chants. Very many composers have worked tirelessly through the ages.

For example: F.A.G. Ouseley, George A. Macfarren, Edward J. Hopkins, Joseph Sarnby, T.A. Walmisley, James Ture, g. J. Elvey, C.V. Stanford, John Foster, George Thalben-Ball, Henry Purcell, John Wesley, S.S. Wesley, S. Mathews, J.J. Ransome-Kuti, T.K.E Philips, Fela Sowande, Ayo Bankole and Olaolu Omideyi can be included in this list.

Influence of Psalms, Chant and Canticles in early church worship in Nigeria

The influence of psalms, Chant and canticles for early churches for worshipping was so great that any service (Mattins, evensong e.t.c) without chants and canticles was not considered complete. At first, the chants and canticles were usually performed in English language; this is because most of the services were conducted mainly in English, but the emergence of the “Doyen of Nigerian music” T. K. E. Phillips, was very instrumental in worships across the Yoruba nation.

Phillips wrote several chants in four part polyphony to sing various psalms of David in Yoruba language. Some psalms are chanted, while others are set as choral anthems for the choir only, to sing. The combination of these, no doubt brings God’s glory

Emergence of Contemporary Churches

The emergence of contemporary churches has greatly influenced the way of worship in Anglican Communion and other orthodox churches in Nigeria. The dwindling nature of musically inclined priest (This is a topic for another day) in the church of Nigeria has also impacted negatively.

Chants and Canticles are now being replaced with short choruses, ideally, Chant cannot play the role of the hymn, and choruses cannot replace the spiritual role of canticles and psalms in sacred worship.

All of this music plays a different role in the worship, but this understanding is getting lost gradually, and what is alarming now is that the “Contemporary churches” are embracing the idea of chanting during sacred worship.

Now is the time to go back to the days when Psalms, chants and Canticles were much part of worship in the service for glorifying God.

Nigerian Church Music: Reform

Segun Akinfenwa

Unlike the early years of worship in the Church of Nigeria, where each music setting – Canticles, Psalms, Chants, Hymns, Versicles and Responses – has a different part, the present day way of worship is not so. My experience playing in the Anglican church in the Nigerian city of Ibadan summed up the problem. I was teaching our choir the canticle, psalm and chant in preparation for a visit to the Diocesan Bishop for annual anniversary. One of my choristers approached me and asked, “Why must we sing this ‘ORIN ARO’ on a day like this” ORIN ARO – Yoruba language meaning “Mourning song”.

CANTICLES

A Canticle (from the Latin Canticulum) is a hymn-psalm or other song of praise. In the Church of England, morning and evening prayers according to the Book of Common Prayer were extensively used in Canticles.

At the Morning Prayer

  • Venite (Psalm 95)
  • Te Deum (not biblical) or Benedicite (Daniel 3 :57 -88 on the Aporcypha)
  • Benedictus (Luke 1 : 68 – 79) or Jubilate Deo (Psalm 100)

At evening prayer

  • Magnificat (Luke 1: 46 – 55) or Cantate Domino (Psalm 98)
  • Nunc Dimittis (Luke2 : 29 – 32) or Deus Misereatur (Psalm 67)

CHANT

Chant (from French Chanter) is the rhythmic speaking or singing of words or sounds often on one or two pitches called reciting tones. Chants can range from a simple melody involving a limited set of notes to highly complex musical structures. These often include a great deal repetition of musical sub-phrases, such as great Responsories and Offertories of Gregorian chant.

PSALMS

In early Temple worship, the psalms occupied a central place in temple liturgy. For example, there is an appropriate psalm for each day of the week. Day 1 (Ps. 24), Day 2 (Ps.48), Day 3 (Ps. 82), Day 4 (Ps. 93), Day 5 (Ps. 81), Day 6 (Ps. 93) and on Sabbath.

The book of all 150 psalms was compiled over a long period of time, and its present form was well established after the exile and the rebuilding of the Temple. In the early church, chanting of Psalms remained central to worship.

The 16th Century Reformation

The 16th century reformation in England brought sweeping changes into the form of worship in the church. The principal of which was the compression of daily worship into services. Mattins and Evensong.

Mattins was based on the Roman Mattins of Salisbury Cathedral – the Sarum rite. Its canticles were VENITE (Ps. 95), the Te Deum, the Benedictus – Zechriah’s song found in Luke’s gospel chapter 1, sometimes the Quicumque vult (The Athanasian creed), which was a part of prime, Jubilate Deo (Ps. 100), Benedicib Omnia Opera.

The evening song canticles were the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis (The song of Simeon in Luke’s Gospel chapter 2).

John Merbecke in 1550 published his book of common prayer, noted and provided simple music for the ordinary texts for communion, and for the Versicles and Responses, psalms, canticles and prayers of Mattins and Evensong.

From the 150 psalms of David, various chants have been composed by several composers throughout the ages. These chants reflect the moods and themes of the psalms. There are:

Psalm of exultation – Ps 8

Psalms of thanksgiving – Ps 9, 136

Psalm of adoration – Ps 19

Psalm of penitence – Ps 51

Psalm of deliverance – Ps 20

Psalms of praise – Ps 148 and 150

There is no situation in life that does not have a corresponding psalm.

In the Book of Common Prayer, there is a psalm for each day, Mattins and Evensong, and for each psalm day, there are appropriate chants. Very many composers have worked tirelessly through the ages.

For example: F.A.G. Ouseley, George A. Macfarren, Edward J. Hopkins, Joseph Sarnby, T.A. Walmisley, James Ture, g. J. Elvey, C.V. Stanford, John Foster, George Thalben-Ball, Henry Purcell, John Wesley, S.S. Wesley, S. Mathews, J.J. Ransome-Kuti, T.K.E Philips, Fela Sowande, Ayo Bankole and Olaolu Omideyi can be included in this list.

Influence of Psalms, Chant and Canticles in early church worship in Nigeria

The influence of psalms, Chant and canticles for early churches for worshipping was so great that any service (Mattins, evensong e.t.c) without chants and canticles was not considered complete. At first, the chants and canticles were usually performed in English language; this is because most of the services were conducted mainly in English, but the emergence of the “Doyen of Nigerian music” T. K. E. Phillips, was very instrumental in worships across the Yoruba nation.

Phillips wrote several chants in four part polyphony to sing various psalms of David in Yoruba language. Some psalms are chanted, while others are set as choral anthems for the choir only, to sing. The combination of these, no doubt brings God’s glory

Emergence of Contemporary Churches

The emergence of contemporary churches has greatly influenced the way of worship in Anglican Communion and other orthodox churches in Nigeria. The dwindling nature of musically inclined priest (This is a topic for another day) in the church of Nigeria has also impacted negatively.

Chants and Canticles are now being replaced with short choruses, ideally, Chant cannot play the role of the hymn, and choruses cannot replace the spiritual role of canticles and psalms in sacred worship.

All of this music plays a different role in the worship, but this understanding is getting lost gradually, and what is alarming now is that the “Contemporary churches” are embracing the idea of chanting during sacred worship.

Now is the time to go back to the days when Psalms, chants and Canticles were much part of worship in the service for glorifying God.

Brief Note: Axiomatic Approach to Theory

Let me be clear.  Music theory is an insular academic discipline, but things are getting better as the topics get more rigorously codified and generally accepted in academia.  But no one knows better than us music theorists the extent of the problem that persists in the traditional paradigm.  Imprecise language causes disagreements among theorists over the most rudimentary topics. At a more advanced level, the lack of an axiomatic approach to analysis leaves students and professionals to the judgement of their own opinions.

And opinions are dangerous.  Dangerous because they are not the result of rigorous proof, which can only be achieved through a set of axiomatic principles from which all propositions can be ultimately forged.  This is what music theorists should think about in today’s day and age.

I have.  For a year and a half.  And I am only a little closer than I was when I began.  I cannot divulge the details of the project.  But for those of you who have read my notes before, there can make no mistake.  The approach is probably – somehow – related to contour.

Musical Villain Series: Recordings

This Musical Villain Series is not an outlet to castigate performers or composers.  My assertions are not so narrow in scope; indeed an equally culpable perpetrator is the collective unit known as “recording technology”.  The fact that I like recordings and that I use recordings almost every day does not take away from the idea that it is ultimately the advent of recording technology that in part led to the downfall of artistry in music during the later half of the 20th century.

During the 1950s, major strides were made in terms of the quality of sound that could be replicated. Recordings sounded clearer, captured more of the tone produced by musical instruments, carried more accurate pitch, and ran for longer times. It also started to become cheaper to produce multiple takes for a recording, as well as to edit what had already been recorded. Audio engineers, whose line of work had flourished since the 1930s or even earlier, could now tweak recordings to a further extent than ever before. The perfectionist mindset that arose naturally from this new and improved technology led in turn to a kind of obsession among performers with their own perfection. Any passage that contained a mistake could now be re-recorded and spliced together with the rest of the performance, producing a seamless, flawless recording.  By now, this has been routine for decades. But it would be natural to wish to go even further and actually be able to play a piece of music flawlessly every time. Practically any performer with a recording contract would be expected to have immaculate accuracy, and anyone hoping to gain any kind of prominence would need to aspire to it. Therefore, because of the sharp increase in recording quality in the mid-20th century, the uppermost level of the classical performance culture shifted its emphasis to technique over all else.

Musical Villain Series: Did Stravinsky Ruin Music?

Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky (ca.1920s-1930)

Nicholas D. Lewis

I am not one to cast aspersions, but we should be honest with ourselves: today’s performance culture has been sterilized.  Seventy or eighty years ago, the performance culture was defined by liberal interpretations and individualism.  Now, the creativity involved in the music process has largely been stifled; what appears on the page has a higher value than the ideas of the performer.  As a result, it is difficult to tell performers apart as they often strive to sound the same. Somebody or something must be the catalyst for this decline, and the arguments I’ve heard are large-scale conflations and wholly conjecture.  I am therefore writing a set of five short and blunt articles that offer a candid look at the cause of this sepulchral situation.

The first person to be held culpable is Igor Stravinsky.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy’s compositions. In fact, I spent a whole summer
compiling a catalog of his works. But his skill as a composer does not negate his blameworthiness as a musician. It is not a dubious exaggeration to claim that Stravinsky may be one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century in terms of both composition and musicality. In the late 1930s, Stravinsky was a frequent lecturer at Harvard University, and he was also publishing a fair number of essays on music in various magazines and journals. A significant portion of these essays and lectures dealt with the relationship between the composer and the performer, and the position that Stravinsky held was that it was a ‘crime against the composer’ for performers to take the interpretation of a piece of music into their own hands. In other words, every instrumentalist must obey exactly what is on the printed page; anything else represents an impurification of the composer’s intentions. Stravinsky drove this dogma home so potently and forcefully that many academics were won to his side. Since those same academics were the ones who would most directly influence student musicians through teaching, this mindset over time became institutionalized.

On Another Note… Or Pitch?

Pitch Class CircleNicholas D. Lewis

So it turns out that music theorists often don’t make the distinction between the terms note and pitch.  If music theorists don’t make the distinction, then what motivation do students have to speak correctly?  Like father like son; like teacher like student.  Comment on the bottom of the page about whether or not you guys knew the difference.  It will serve as a case in point, and statistics are good.  And worry not, I promise I’m not being too much of a pedant.  It turns out that this difference is fundamental to the way that we talk about music theory, so it’s actually important.

pitch refers only to the frequency of a given sound.  That means it’s actually impossible to name a note based on listening to someone playing a piano… Theoretically at least.  More on that later. The idea of a note in Western culture was developed by the need to transmit sounds in a semiotic (symbolic) way.  A note is therefore the symbolic representation of a pitch on paper, and is defined by a system of rules that have no other function than to define tonality.  When speaking of pitch, it is therefore technically impossible to speak of tonality.  The two ideas are separate and incompatible.

Well, some interesting arguments can be derived from these definitions.  Most importantly, it turns out that the idea of perfect pitch inherently collapses upon itself.  The idea that a person can hear a pitch and tell you what “note” that pitch represents is rubbish.  Today I was in a room with someone playing piano, and a smart-aleck in the back stood up and proudly said “You’re playing a C”.  I hate to burst his bubble – and that may be an impressive bar trick – but that “pitch” actually doesn’t correspond to any note.  Why?  Let’s analyze this on three levels:

1.  Even if we forget the definitions of these terms, the “note” could have been a B# or a D-double-flat.  It depends on the tonality of the piece.  In rare cases, could it have also been an A-triple-sharp?  You bet!

2.  Taking the definitions into account, it turns out that pitches represent nothing other than a frequency.  You can sing the pitch that a note represents, but the converse is a fallacy.  You cannot write a pitch (without harmonic context… But even then, it’s still technically impossible).

3.  I know in western culture an A4?440 hertz.  That’s great.  Turns out that this is arbitrary and actually depends upon the culture and time periods. In Baroque tuning, an A4?415 hertz.  If we take a person with “perfect pitch” and blast at them an A4 in baroque tuning, they would probably say that the “note” is an A-flat or G-sharp, or something in that ballpark.  But they’d be wrong.

If a person can hear a note and tell me the frequency, then they may have “perfect pitch”.  But in terms of how perfect pitch is normally defined, the notion is just silly.  Notes are notes, and pitches are pitches.  As far as I can see – from a practical standpoint – they live in different worlds.  One in the air, one of the staff.

Scales v. Mode

 By Nicholas D. Lewis

This post will be relatively short, but I feel that this topic needs to be discussed.  Two musicological gadflies at my old high school in Pennsylvania were debating about the difference between a scale and a mode as I sat silently petrified in the corner.  I listened to their conversation and heard reasonable arguments on both sides, but they were off the mark nonetheless.  In this article I am going to briefly address the difference. It turns out that most people have a theoretical misunderstanding of this topic, so I hope those people will take this presentation to heart.

In modern music theory, a scale is actually a device for measuring the distance between oitch classes.  Abstrically, a scale simply defines an intervalic “scale step”.  From this point of view, they are like a geometric ruler that define intervals by their relation to other pitch classes in scale.  This definition leads to some surprising results, and this is where most people get things wrong.  Scales do not have starting notes (also called “tonics”).  What is commonly called an “A minor scale” could actually also be a “C major scale”.

Modes, on the other hand, are defined by their starting pitch-class.  A diatonic scale with no sharps or flats that starts on the pitch class “D” is in Dorian Mode.  When the starting note of dorian mode is D, it is also a C major scale or A minor scale.  A B altered jazz scale is in super locrian mode.

The bottom line is that scales do not have starting notes, but modes do have starting notes.  Modes have tonics, scales do not have tonics.  Scales define a distance (called “scalar distance”), but have little to nothing to do with tonality in general.

How to Create a Sortable List of Works

P.davydov is IMSLP’s head librarian.  That means that he is in charge keeping everything on IMSLP standardized.  In addition, he is known for creating complete catalogs of composer’s works called ‘sortable lists’.  A sortable list of works is a chronological list of compositions by a certain composer that can be sorted by key, date, forces (instrumentation), and title.  About one year ago I asked Mr. Davydov how he created such splendid lists, like that of Tchaikovsky, and he politely answered my inquiry.  Without further delay, here is the method in his own words:

“1). I get them into Excel first, to get the formatting and sorting right.

2). Then I import that into Microsoft Front Page, which converts them to HTML

3). Then I usually cross-check that list with another source, to check the detail.

4). Then I copy the HTML code into a text editor to do a search and replace for the Wiki markup

5). then I copy that into the Wiki worklist, and tidy it up a bit.”

He finished the conversation by saying was “Simple really”.  But when you have thousands of works to sort through, it is only simple for our great librarian master, P.davydov.  I hope his words of wisdom help anyone in the future who wishes to complete a sortable list: us morals really can do it with a measure of hard work, a pinch of luck, and a dash of love.

WIMA Project Complete!

The 28th of August, 2011, marked an important day in the history of two websites: IMSLP and The Werner Icking Music Archive (WIMA).  After months of collaboration, it was officially decided that the immense collection of roughly 65000 PDF files and the collection of audio files from WIMA would be merged with the collection IMSLP.  From the start, we knew this would be a project of of Herculean proportions; but, after almost a year, the project is finally complete!

I would like to thank Christian Mondrup and all other WIMA contributors for their hard work – it really paid off. Before the project, IMSLP had just over 100,000 files.  Now we have more than 210,000.  In addition, the WIMA transfer improved IMSLP in ways that we could have never foreseen. As Carolus, a member of the IMSLP staff, pointed out, “The WIMA transfer has also resulted in improvements in the way IMSLP handles things – notably in the area of collections, whether of a single-composer or multiple composers”.  This couldn’t be more true.  The WIMA merge also improved IMSLP’s representation of early music, which before the transfer was probably our least prolifically represented time period.

I think I can speak for us all when I say that this project was far more work than any of us had anticipated.  As a result of the largely different ways WIMA and IMSLP organized their music, conflicts arose almost every day.  Sometimes there were over one thousand files to review in a given day, and each one of these had to be processed.  I think nobody described the inundation of files better than Carolus, when he called it “The Great WIMA Tsunami”.

But now that it is all over, I realize that the hard work was worth it.  Thanks again to the WIMA staff, it really did pay off.