Handel & Company: Classical Music is for Everybody

All right, let’s make sure we got everything we need to talk about our composers today.

Tight pants – check

Big hair – check

Lots of makeup – check

Face-melting solos – check

Yup, we’re ready to talk about Handel and his contemporaries.  Oh wait, were you thinking about someone else?

You might be a bit confused, because this checklist sounds like something you’d use to describe glam metal – sometime called hair metal – bands that dominated popular music during the 1980s (as opposed to the 1680s or whatever).  In reality these two different genres of music, centuries apart, actually have a fair amount in common.  For a while, music becomes all about the viturosi, the solos, the stars.

Compare this improvisational guitar solo from Poison’s CC Deville to a violin solo from Vivaldi’s concerto Spring (from The Seasons).

Separated at birth?  This is only a small sampling of some of the similarities between these two genres, but I’ll leave the greater details to someone else (with more time).  The point is, if you like glam metal (and the like), you might also enjoy the music of Handel and his posse.

Moving on, we’re going to look over the music of Handel mostly but have one or two other people’s music as well just to see in context what is happening here.  Handel was actually born in the same year as the other great German Baroque composer of the time: Johann Sebastian Bach (sadly, they never met).  Handel was born into a family that was rather indifferent to music.  When his father noticed he had an interest and talent in music he did what all great dads do and decided to have a household ban on instruments.  That didn’t stop little George from sneaking a clavichord up to the attic.  Later, Handel and his brother would convince their father to let them have proper musical training.  There is hope for people out there who want to pursue music in less-than-supportive families.

His father – obviously still not very supportive – decided to send Handel off to Italy to study law (dad-of-the-year candidate right here).  Lucky for Handel, Italy was brimming with music and also happened to be the cradle of the most popular music of the day: opera.  After a while, Handel couldn’t resist the music around him; He was like a little kid in a candy store.  He took some music jobs and started to write music, including opera.  Unlucky for Handel, the Catholic church soon banned opera productions throughout much of Italy.

At this point we see Handel’s tenacity and ability to adapt and thrive in hard situations.  Instead of being defeated and letting their most prized form of music die, they decided to start writing oratorios – un-staged dramatic works, basically everything that an opera is musically without staging, costumes, sets and acting (but that last one is hard to find in most operas anyway).  A great example of an oratorio during this time period is Il Trionfo Della Castità (The Triumph of Chastity) by Italian composer Antonio Caldara.

Handel really caught on to this and wrote some brilliant pieces.  He also wrote dramatic settings of the Bible that are very operatic in their nature.  From this genre comes one of his most difficult works: Dixit Dominus (a setting of Psalm 110).

Handel soon left Italy to return to Germany and take up a music job with the Elector of Hanover, George.  For some reason, Handel went on a trip to London, like it so much that he requested to go again and never returned to Hanover.  The Elector of Hanover asked him to come back, but Handel just ignored him.  Then Queen Anne of Great Britain died without children and for some odd reason the next person in line for the throne was Anne’s second cousin, George, Elector of Hanover (pfff . . . weird).  So the elector becomes king and moves to London.  Here’s where things get a bit “fictional.”  Handel’s now afraid for his life having upset his old boss who is now the King of his new favorite country.  In order for him to win the favor of his old boss (and maybe even get his old job back) Handel writes music to accompany the king’s boat ride on the Thames river (pronounced “tehmz”).  In a well-choreographed moment, the king hears the music, likes it and then Handel shows up saying he wrote the music just for him and begs for his forgiveness, which the king grants.

My guess is that King George was just happy to see a familiar face from his mother country and excited that someone else in London actually spoke German.  Neither Handel nor the king ever learned English very well.  The music was probably written after the reconciliation to accompany the King’s boat rides on the Thames.  True or not, it’s a good story with great music to match.

Handel became England greatest music import, but it wasn’t always the warmest reception.  Handel tried introducing Italian opera to them, which the public liked for a while but then grew quite cold to it.  Handel had a problem with money, he’d get lots of it and then spend it all and be left with nothing (like a true rock star).  Looking for a way to get more income, Handel tried introducing oratorios to them, which for some reason the public liked much more.  I don’t know why but while the Italians are settling for oratorios because their operas have been banned, the English actually preferred them.  Handel had much more success writing oratorios and had some great pieces along the way – the most famous being Messiah.  Just another example of Handel making the best out of a situation.

One of his secular oratorios has this fantastic number called “Myself I Shall Adore.”  In this aria it’s all about the virtuosity of the singer, there is some back and forth between the singers and the orchestra, but it’s mostly about her and you’ll see why.  Here’s a performance by Carolyn Sampson with Harry Christophers (of The Sixteen) conducting.

By 1727 Handel had become a naturalized British subject.  Somehow, this illegal immigrant gained citizenship through amnesty (A bit of a sensitive topic today).  By this time King George I (former Elector of Hanover) had died and his son George II was to be crowned as the new king.  As part of the celebration, Handel was commissioned to write a set of anthems to accompany the coronation ceremony.  Handel selected the text himself which included accounts from the Bible of the coronation of King Solomon.  The goal of these pieces was to show parallels between Solomon’s coronation and that of the current monarch, convey the majesty of the crown and of Great Britain, as well as to blow the minds of everyone listening.

The most famous anthem is “Zadok the Priest,” which has been performed at every coronation in Great Britain since George II in 1727.  It begins with a slow build up of anticipation, strings softly ascending in the same figure on different harmonies for a while.  All this builds and builds to an explosion of sound with the choir singing “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.  And all the people rejoic’d and said: ‘God save the King!  Long live the King!  May the King live forever, Hallelujah, Amen.’”  Listen for the tell-tale British pomp and circumstance but with the finest combination of music from Germany and Italy.  It really is designed to knock your socks off.  A lot like this excerpt from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” (I know it’s not 80s glam metal, but it still illustrates the point well.)

Here’s a fantastic performance by the Sixteen (although you’ll notice there’s a lot more than sixteen in this performance . . . long story) conducted by Harry Christophers.

Remember, if you liked something you read or heard, share it with someone else.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Classical Music is For Everybody

This is my first article in this series so I’m still getting used to figuring out how to organize and write what will help you get into this music.  I hope you enjoy this and learn something from it.  If you have any suggestions I would very much appreciate it.

It’s difficult to choose who goes first.  Seriously, out of hundreds of years a music, where do you start?  After thinking for a while, considering our purposes, I feel that it’s best to start with Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Let’s start with his name “Ralph.”  He’s English, but strangely, it’s not pronounced like you think.  It’s commonly pronounced “Rafe” (rhymes with safe) rather than “Ralph.”  There are some that insist that it’s “Ralph,” but most people say “Rafe.”  Go with the latter and you’ll be safe in mixed company.

Born into a fairly wealthy family in 1872, he studied music at Trinity College, Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music where he was a student of both Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Hubert Parry.  I mention these two composers because they are at the forefront of the rebirth of great, domestic, English music.  These two guys helped begin a new Renaissance and then turned around and taught the next generation of composers including Vaughan Williams and his friend Gustav Holst.  Because of his teachers he’s mostly a romantic composer, but does venture and borrow impressionist styles and techniques while keeping his sound very “English.”

Anyway, moving along.  Like I said, Vaughan Williams is quintessentially English.  He loved English folk tunes which were beginning to die from their oral traditions at that time.  He personally went out, collected and incorporated many of those tunes into his own music.  One great examples is his arrangement of “Greensleeves” for orchestra.  Listen for that old familiar melody.

Vaughan Williams was extremely talented at writing for strings orchestras.  While the piano was challenging for him, he was very talented at the violin and it shows.  He also studied with French composer Maurice Ravel, who is still considered one of the finest orchestrators in history.  Vaughan Williams’ orchestrations are characterized by lush, warm colors mostly due to emphasizing the violas and cellos.

One of the best examples of his fantastic string writing is his “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.”  Tallis was also an English composer, but lived and worked in the royal chapel of Elizabeth I during the Renaissance.  Tallis’ piece, “Why Fum’th in Fight,” has a haunting melody that I’m sure Vaughan Williams found irresistible.  Vaughan Williams loved to take these old melodies from, as early as the 1500s, and set them in a romantic, heart-breaking way.  Listen to Tallis’ original setting, then listen to Vaughan Williams’ intepretation.


One of the amazing things about Vaughan Williams was that he was good at writing for every kind of ensemble, not just orchestras.  He wrote a great deal for choirs especially church choirs, which is a bit of a surprise considering that Vaughan Williams was agnostic.  And still, he wrote very stirring and moving sacred music.  He even took on a commission to create a new English Hymnal for the Church of England.

After a few years of fame Vaughan Williams voluntarily joined the army during World War I which would change his life forever.  Fighting in the trenches disillusioned him from the “noble fight” he felt he signed up for.  After returning to England, he worked to promote English nationalism through peace rather than fighting.  Fearing that another war was coming, he wrote a choral/orchestral work to vocalize his pleading.  This became Dona Nobis Pacem which is latin for “grant us peace.”  Using texts from the catholic mass, and poems by American poet Walt Whitman (whose poetry he loved and set many times), he put into music his anti-war sentiments.  While received very well by audiences at the time, the work fell on deaf ears and the United Kingdom entered World War II a few years later.  Here’s an excerpt from the movement, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” with words by Walt Whitman.

One of Vaughan William’s finest choral works was a piece called “Silence and Music,” with words penned by his second wife and literary advisor Ursula Wood.  While it was written for the coronation of Elizabeth II, it is dedicated to his mentor and teacher Charles Villiers Stanford and his “Blue Bird” (a short but stunning choral piece for unaccompanied choir).  Listening to the Stanford’s “Blue Bird,” you can see where Vaughan Williams got his inspiration for the piece.  It’s not sung very often because of it’s difficulty, but it proves to be a ravishing work of serenity and stillness.  This is my favorite recording by the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart.  Listen to the way he sets the words “weep and cry,” and “the birds rejoice.”

Silence, come first – Silence.

I see a sleeping swan, wings closed and drifting where the water leads,
a winter moon,
a grove where shadows dream,
a hand outstretched to gather hollow reeds.

The four winds in their litanies can tell all of earth’s stories as they weep and cry,
the sea names her tides,
the birds rejoice between the earth and sky.

Voices of grief and from the heart of joy;
so near to comprehension do we stand that wind and sea and all of winged delight lie in the octaves of man’s voice and hand

and music wakes from silence, where it slept.

One piece that must be mentioned is “The Lark Ascending,” written for violin solo and orchestra.  Based on a poem by George Meredith, the violin is meant to embody a skylark singing and flying.  This work was written surrounding World War I: he finished it before the war for violin and piano and then orchestrated it after returning from the war.    I can’t help but get emotional while listening to this piece because of it’s gorgeous nostalgia.  It cries out for innocence lost and soars with wild abandon.  Many times it flows in and out of states of rapture and grace.  This piece remains to be one of the Brits favorite piece of classical music of all time.

There’s so much more music by Vaughan Williams that deserves attention.  I encourage you to look up more music by him including his Sea Symphony and Mass in G minor.  I want to end this article with what I consider to be one of his most profound works: Serenade to Music.  Using words from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice he writes for orchestra and 16 solo singers that he knew and worked with.  Later he arranged it for orchestra, choir and 4 soloists to make it more accessible.  I frequently find myself coming back to this piece and getting misty-eyed because it embodies so beautifully how I feel about music.  I’ve chosen the version with choir and four soloists, but if you prefer to hear the premiere recording with the original singers that Vaughan Williams picked, you can find it here.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive –
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak’d. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

And remember, if you liked anything you heard or read, share it with someone else.  If not, just wait a little while, something else will come by.

A Tapestry of American Song: BYU Singers Concert Last Night

Wow!  Last Night, we put on a smashing performance.  Honestly, it was one of the finest concerts I’ve ever been privileged to participate in.  We had some flubs, but it was still an incredible night of music.  I was surprised that we went over two hours for the concert.  I didn’t think it was that long.

Our theme, of course, was American choral music (with a few exceptions).  Here’s the program:

Why Do I Sing? – Ronald Staheli

Noteworthy 18th & 19th Century Composers
Kittery – William Billings
Art Thou Troubled – William Billings
Psalm 42 – George Chadwick

Sacred Concert Music by Eminent Composer
Glory to God in the Highest – Randal Thompson
O vis aeternitatis – Frank Ferko

American Anthems
Ye Shall Go Out with Joy – Hank Beebe
O Lord, I Would Hear Thy Word – Merrill Bradshaw
The Rune of Hospitality – Alf Houkom
A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief – arr. Ronald Staheli

(Intermission)

The Columbus Connection: Music from the Spanish Renaissance
Duo Seraphim – Francisco Guerrero
Laudate Dominum omens gentes – Tomas Luis de Victoria

American Composers at the Theater
Hold On – Lucy Simon
Children Will Listen – Stephen Sondheim

New Compositions based on African American Spirituals
So I’ll Sing with My Voice – arr. Dominick Argento
Crucifixion – Adolphus Hailstork

Now in Vogue
Northern Lights – Ola Gjeilo
Water Night – Eric Whitacre

Reason for Singing
Let Singing Lift our Hearts Above – George Frederic Handel
VoiceDance IV – Greg Jasperse
Why We Sing – Greg Gilpin
Why Do I Sing? – Ronald Staheli

As you can see, it was a hefty, packed program with difficult music throughout.  The best part?  Out of these 21 pieces only 6 of them were from last semester’s repertoire.  We learned, memorized, and polished 15 new pieces of music since we got back from Christmas break.  I know there are a bunch of other great choirs out there that can do the same things.  Still, we’re very happy with what we accomplished.  One of the highlights for me was the Ferko piece, “O vis aeternitatis.”  I love that piece so much and last night’s performance was probably the best we’ve ever sung it.  In tune, free and expressive.  During the performance I kept thinking, “Wow!  This is the best this has ever been!  This is exactly the way I dreamed it would be!”  It was so good I started shaking, which didn’t help because I had to conduct the very next piece!

We’ve got a few more performances left in Utah (and Wyoming) before we leave for our tour to southern England.  I’m so excited to take this program with us!  We’ve got more music to learn still, including Laurdisen’s “Sure on this Shining Night.”  Thank goodness Monday is a holiday!

Classical Music is for Everybody

A few months ago, I watched a video from TED with Benjamin Zander talking about classical music and shining eyes.  A lot of things about the video struck me and inspired me in what I do everyday.  While I don’t agree with everything he says, there’s a lot of gems in this short 20 minute presentation:

One of the things that struck me was that we really are trying hard to move from 3% to 4% when we need to believe that EVERYBODY loves classical music (they just don’t know it yet).

I’ve been pondering about this a while. In addition to the reasons given by Mr. Zander (like poor performances), perhaps people don’t like classical music because they haven’t found the portion of classical music that they would most enjoy.  Remember, classical music (or as some colleagues call it, “concert music”) spans hundreds of years, hundreds of composers and dozens of different styles and genres.

I’ve also observed that most people have a very limited view of this music, to no fault of their own.  Music education in the majority of our public schools is appalling.  Maybe they’ve only been exposed to Mozart, Beethoven or Bach, decided it wasn’t for them and then wrote off the rest of classical music thinking it was all like Mozart, Beethoven and Bach.  To say that all classical music is like Mozart or Beethoven would be like saying all pop music is like Lady Gaga or Coldplay.  There’s much more variety than that.

I’ve decided to take on a challenging project.  I want to introduce as much classical music as I can to as many people as I can.  I want to help people discover the breadth and depth of classical music from the previous centuries.  I’m going to try and present some of the finest “one-buttock” performances I can for your enjoyment, so you can hear the music in it’s most exciting state.  In addition, I’ll give some background to the music, some history of the composer and some tips on what to listen for.  I’ve found that a little information goes a long way in discovering classical music.  If you like what you hear, share it with others.  If you don’t like what you hear, just wait, something else will come along.

When you find what you like, I’m sure it will show in your eyes.  One of my goals is to light up as many eyes as I possibly can.  I really do believe that classical music is for everybody, we just haven’t all found out.

DMA Auditions

It’s been a while since I last posted because I’ve been busy getting ready and traveling for DMA auditions.  I’ve already had successful auditions at University of Southern California and University of Miami.  Both of them had me conduct portions of Rejoice in the Lamb by Benjamin Britten (Benji for short).

I grew a lot from both auditions and overcame quite a bit to make it this far.  I’ve lived in Provo for the past seven years and have felt pretty insulated because of it.  Living in Provo and going to BYU has been getting really comfortable.  While I do meet new people every year, it’s still very familiar and not as challenging (socially, emotionally, etc.) each year.  LA and Miami on the other hand, are two cities that scare/fascinate me.  Thankfully, I have a few friends in LA who were able to provide support and encouragement, but I didn’t know a soul in Miami.  What a great way to get out of my comfort zone and stretch myself a bit.

Each trip has several highlights.  One from USC was singing “Sure on this Shining Night” by Morten Lauridsen with the USC Chamber Singers with the composer at the piano.  They were preparing a concert for the premier of Shining Night, a documentary about Dr. Lauridsen, and his office was only a few floors up.  Having sung the piece several times previous, it was great to just watch him play and sing it memorized.

One highlight from Miami was being invited to attend a rehearsal of Seraphic Fire singing Bach’s B Minor Mass.  They were still experimenting with different set ups between the choir and orchestra to get a good balance, but also got to sing through several movements.  It was a VERY exciting and compelling rehearsal.  I wish I could have attended the actual performance because it was so exciting.  More people should perform Bach.

We’ll see how this all turns out, but both Schools were very inviting and exciting.  I’m just glad to be done traveling for a while, it’s starting to take a toll on the rest of my life.  I’m glad I’ve now made new friends at both schools.