The Galaxy – Music for a cold, wet night

François Couperin (1668-1733), composer

François Couperin (1668-1733), composer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We started the evening with a set of motets by François Couperin.  They were part of a set of motets that had been circulated through the possession of various collectors (including Louis Philippe I, “King of the French” during the July Monarchy) for many years.  Parts of the collection had been sold off over the years, but the entire set was eventually reunited by Louise Dyer, founder of the Editions de l’Oiseau-Lyre.  These “petit motets” are interesting in that they display Couperin’s Italian influences.  Tonight’s recording is by a group of musicians from Les Arts Florissants, under the direction of William Christie, and featuring counter-tenor Paul Agnew.

English: Ornette Coleman, Moers Festival 2011

English: Ornette Coleman, Moers Festival 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ornette Coleman holds an interesting place in jazz history.  He became one of the leaders of the avant garde jazz movement, and his Free Jazz album even lent its name to a sub-genre.  Yet his method was far more subtly different than what one might gather from his reputation.  His major innovation was to unlink improvisation from the standard chordal structure that to this day remains common in jazz – yet his improvisations remained melodic, even if they were more freely structured than what people were used to.  But his music was still a major shift for jazz musicians and fans.  One of the key albums of Coleman’s catalog, the “watershed event”, was The Shape of Jazz to Come.  Recorded without a chording instrument (i.e. piano), Coleman and his quartet (Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums) simply state the primary melody, then improvise freely.  It is truly a wonderful listening experience, and hints at some of the things to come.  We heard three songs from this album: Lonely Woman, Focus on Sanity, and Congeniality.

Cover of "Dazzle Ships"

Cover of Dazzle Ships

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark was (and still is) one of the more interesting of the New Wave bands to come out of England.  This is because they combined excellent pop sensibilities and exquisite songwriting skills with a willingness to experiment and take chances.  At various points throughout their career, they wrote a number of songs that featured interesting instrumentation and soundscapes, and are considered quite influential by a number of modern acts, including The Killers, Death Cab for Cutie, and LCD Soundsystem.  We heard a few of their songs tonight, culled from several albums: Always (from their self-titled Debut), VCL XI (from their 2nd album, Organisation), Souvenir (from their 3rd album, Architecture and Morality), and finished with a set of songs from their excellent Dazzle Ships: This is Helena, International, Dazzle Ships, and The Romance of the Telescope.

Live in Europe (Otis Redding album)

Live in Europe (the original album, pre-remaster) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is always fun listening to one of Otis Redding‘s live recordings.  While he made some truly classic soul recordings in the 50s and 60s, the stage was where the man truly belonged.  Happily, there are some excellent live recordings that have been remastered and repackaged, including the excellent Otis Redding Live! in London and Paris.  Originally issued as Live in Europe, this expanded collection gives us most, if not all, of the shows performed in London on 3/17, and Paris on 3/21, 1967.  On a number of occasions I have played excerpts from the London show, so tonight I played a few songs from the Paris set: Respect, I Can’t Turn you Loose, and I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.

Ride the Lightning

Ride the Lightning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In researching music for some promotional clips that I’ve assembled, I was impressed by a few instrumental tracks by Metallica.  Metallica has not recorded a large number of instrumentals, yet the ones that they have recorded hold a pretty significant place in their catalog.  Notably, each of their early albums (Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, …And Justice for All) included an instrumental.  That practice ended with the Black Album, so the inclusion of an instrumental (Suicide and Redemption) on Death Magnetic is considered by some as a return of attitude to the musical philosophies that were in existence during their early phase.  Of course, another way to look at it is to recognize that the instrumental pieces are great music.  We didn’t do a full instrumental set – we just heard Call of Ktulu (from Ride the Lightning), followed by The Thing that Should Not Be, from Master of Puppets.

We do like to emphasize contrasting genres on the Galaxy.  So it felt fitting, as a conclusion for the show, to follow Metallica with a couple of songs from Portishead: Sour Times (from their 1994 album Dummy); from Third (2009) we heard Magic Doors and Threads.


The Galaxy – a Tribute to Gustav Leonhardt

Tonight we are going to take a few minutes and pay tribute to a great keyboardist, and a musicologist whose research has done much to impact our awareness of how beautiful early classical music truly is, or can be.

Gustav Leonhardt (30 May 1928 – 16 January 2012)

Gustav Leonhardt (30 May 1928 – 16 January 2012) - image obtained from

Gustav Leonhardt was born in Holland on May 30, 1928.  He studied harpsichord with Eduard Miller at Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, and made his debut as a harpsichordist in Vienna in 1950.  He worked as Professor of Harpsichord at the Academy of Music in Vienna from 1952 to 1955, and at the Amsterdam Conservatory from 1954 onward.  He began issuing major harpsichord recordings in 1953, with recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Art of Fugue (this being the first ever recording of that work).  Later on he worked with Nikolaus Harnoncourt to record the first ever complete set of Bach’s cantatas, an effort which took many years to accomplish.  Among his many awards, he was awarded the Medal of Honour for the Arts and Sciences from the Netherlands in 2009.

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We started the show with a 1973 pipe organ recording of a set of Partitas that Bach based on O Gott, du Frommer Gott (“O God, Thou Righteous God”), BWV 767.  The work is believed to be one of Bach’s early compositions, possibly dating back to 1700, and is an excellent example of Bach’s skill at creating a diverse set of variations upon a simple theme, a concept that Bach would return to repeatedly over the course of his life.  One cannot say that Leonhardt was more masterly at pipe organ or harpsichord – he demonstrated equally great skill on each.  So it is good that we can represent both his harpsichord and pipe organ work, as both were equally important.

Pastel of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach drawn by h...

Pastel of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach drawn by his godson Johann Philipp Bach, currently in the Staatsbibliothek, Berlin (Preußischer Kulturbesitz) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leonhardt recorded a lot of Bach, and most of what I have available to me for tonight’s show consists of Bach.  But we do have some samplings of other composers, including one of the few occasions in which he ventured past the Baroque era in a recording.  Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (son of Johann), a key figure in the post Baroque era, wrote three keyboard concertos in D minor between 1745 and 1748.  Tonight we heard the third of these, Wq 23, in a 1987 recording with Leonhardt conducting an unnamed ensemble from the harpsichord.  The differences between C.P.E. Bach and his father are quite strikingly demonstrated here (J.S. Bach also wrote a keyboard concerto in D minor), yet at the same time the keyboard still rules the day.

Portrait of François Couperin "the Great&...

Portrait of François Couperin "the Great" (nephew of Louis Couperin) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leonhardt put a great deal of effort into researching composers who may have slid into obscurity, and over time demonstrated that, with an effective performance, such obscurity was often undeserved.  One such composer that Leonhardt championed was François Couperin.  Couperin (b. 1668, d. 1753) was greatly admired in his day, and J.S. Bach even had copied one of Couperin’s rondeaus into the notebook that he was assembling for his young wife Anna Magdalena.  In addition to his harpsichord literature, he also wrote a book, L’art de toucher le clavecin (1716) that gives us fundamental information about keyboard performance practice of the day.  This book also contains eight preludes, which we heard in a 1987 recording by Leonhardt.  I am particularly struck by the tone that Leonhardt gets out of his instrument here, a particularly beautiful sound that really frames the music quite well.

Gustav Leonhardt in 1972

Gustav Leonhardt in 1972

Not only was Leonhardt a keyboardist, but from time to time he also conducted, often from his keyboard.  Conducting was not his preferred activity, but there are a number of available recordings that Leonhardt conducted (which includes the C.P.E. Bach we’ve already heard).  In the case of the complete Bach cantata set, conducting was probably a creature of necessity, given the amount of time that was required to record the huge number of cantatas that Bach wrote (at one point Bach was writing a cantata each week, which he did for a total of four year-long cycles that were based on the Lutheran religious calendar).  It is notable that Leonhardt did this in cooperation with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who Leonhardt is known to have thought to play too much to popular sentiment – this probably reflects the challenge involved with performing the huge volume of music involved.  Tonight we heard one of those recordings, Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt (“Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes”), BWV 151, in a 1985 recording that sees Leonhardt leading his own Leonhardt Consort.  BWV 151 is actually a Christmas cantata, written for the third day of Christmas, and uses a libretto by Georg Christian Lehms.  So, yes, we may hear this one again come Christmas time.

Frontispiece of Bach's Clavier-Büchlein vor An...

Frontispiece of Bach's Clavier-Büchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bach, composed in 1722 for his second wife (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In preparing tonight’s show, I stumbled upon a recording of the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.  I find this quite startling, as I’ve long wanted to see such a recording, dating back to my teenage years.  This “notebook” was a piano exercise book that J.S. Bach prepared for his young second wife Anna Magdalena, whom he had married in the winter of 1721-22.  She was the daughter of a trumpet player in the Zerbst court, and had been active as a singer prior to her marriage to Bach.  There are two known such notebooks, one dated 1722, and a second that was dated 1725, with the title pages in Anna Magdalena’s hand.  The music was in a mixture of Bach’s and Anna’s handwriting, and include a number of his own works, as well as works by the aforementioned François Couperin and a few by son C.P.E Bach.  There are other works that may be from other writers (which may include Johann Adolph Hasse), but in many instances it is quite challenging to establish actual authorship, as Bach did not intend this for public consumption.  From this compilation, we heard a Polonaise in G minor (BWV anh 119), a March in E flat major (BWV Anh 127), a Menuet in G minor (BWV anh 114/115, which is believed to have been written by Christian Petzold), and “Willst du dein Herz mir schenken” (BWV 518), an aria.  Most of this is done solo by Leonhart, while Elly Ameling performed the aria to Leonhardt’s accompaniment.

Main organ of Saint Thomas Church (Strasbourg)...

Main organ of Saint Thomas Church (Strasbourg), by Johann Andreas Silbermann, 1741 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We closed the show with a 1973 recording of one of J.S. Bach’s more monumental works for pipe organ, his E minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV 548.  Believed to have been written after Bach’s 1723 move to Leipzig, the piece is a fine example of organwerke at its finest, both in terms of its composition and in terms of Leonhardt’s performance.  The composition of the work is interesting – while most preludes tend to be relatively free-wheeling while the fugue is locked into technical precision, BWV 548 is the opposite, with a rather strict prelude that then opens up into a fugue of three sections – an initial fugual section, a toccata-like middle, then a third section that includes a complete recapitulation of the first section.

The Galaxy – The Joys of French Composing

Erik Satie (1866-1925)

Image via Wikipedia

Its amazing what little things can inspire the germ of an idea!  I was listening to a CBS Sunday Morning piece on Diane von Furstenberg, and they were playing some Claude Debussy in the background.  That inspired in me a train of thought – from Debussy to Erik Satie – that led to tonight’s show theme – a celebration of French Composing.

We started with a lovely motet by François Couperin, a composer and pedagogist who was a major influence on composers ranging from Bach to Johannes Brahms, Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss.  Couperin’s book, “L’art de toucher le clavecin” (“The Art of Harpsichord Playing), influenced J.S. Bach to the point where Bach adopted the fingering system that Couperin set forth in the book.  Tonight’s piece was his Audite omnes et expavescite (a meditation on the Passion of the Christ).  The piece was buried within a private collection that surfaced at a second-hand bookseller’s shop in Paris in the 1930s.  An Australian art lover, Louise Dyer (the founder of the Éditions de l’Oiseau-Lyre) reunited this collection with another collection of Couperin that had been purchased at Sotheby’s by the Bibliotheque nationale de France, thereby retaining for posterity the magic of this great French master.  This compilation of the complete works of Couperin, and the resultant publication, was the first project of the Éditions de l’Oiseau-Lyre.

Next we heard a set of harpsichord pieces by another master of the baroque era, Jean-Phillipe Rameau.  Rameau made his name through the publishing of a “Treatise on Harmony” in 1722.  He spent his time after that as a teacher and composer, and eventually grew to be considered one of the most important composers and theorists in Baroque-era France.  Outside of his operas, his keyboard works are of considerable interest, and we heard one of those works tonight, his Pieces en Concerts (written in 1741), in a lovely rendition by Trevor Pinnock.

Jospeh Bodin de Boismortier (1689 – 1755) was accused in 1780 by theorist Jean Benjamin de La Borde as being a “competent musician [who] took only too much advantage of this tendency [for easy music] and devised, for the many, airs and duets in great numbers which were performed on the flute, the violins, oboes, bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies… He so abused the ingenuousness of his numerous buyers that, in the end, the following was said of him: ‘Happy is he, Boismortier, whose fertile quill each month, without pain, conceives a new air at will.”  Indeed, Boismortier was a prodigious writer (although apparently not quite as prodigious as J.S. Bach, his senior by four years) and pedagogue who wrote for the entire array of instruments available at the time.  Considered along with Rameau to be part of the French Rococo movement, he is also considered to be one of the first French composers to write concertos.  He is notable for being one of the first composers who was able to go without patronage, having been given a royal license for engraving music in 1724, thus being able to make enormous sums of money by selling his music to the public.  Tonight we heard his Deuxieme serenade ou simphonie francoise, a lovely dance suite that is crisply performed by Le Concert Spirituel.

Georges Bizet is easily best known for his enormously popular opera Carmen.  But Bizet wrote more than just opera.  Indeed, Bizet was considered by many to rank among the greatest European pianists of his day, with such a notable skill for sight reading that he is said to have given a faultless sight reading of a work of Franz Liszt in the presence of the composer.  Liszt ranked him among the three best pianists in Europe, and his skills were praised by Hector Berlioz, among others (Berlioz wrote in 1863, “His talent as a pianist is so great that no difficulty can stop him when sight-reading orchestral scores. After Liszt and Mendelssohn one could see few sight-readers of his ability.”).  Tonight we heard a set of songs of his, settings of various French authors, including the great French literary colossus Victor Hugo.  Of the five Bizet songs we heard, two were from Hugo, Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe (from 1866) and La Coccinelle, from 1868.  We also heard settings of another French Romantic, Alphonse de Lamartine‘s Chant d’amour,  and settings of Édouard Pailleron and Louis Delâtre.  Of course, one cannot say enough about the pleasure of hearing this gorgeous material in the interpretation done here by the great mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.

Part of the inspiration for tonight’s show came from a hearing of a piece of Claude Debussy’s.  I would be tempted to refer to Debussy as the quintessential French composer, except that there is such a wide breadth of music that falls under the French tri-color flag, not all of which I am able to play tonight (for example, there is a lovely French pipe-organ tradition that goes back to the 1800s, and includes such lumineries as Maurice Duruflé, Marcel Dupré and Charles-Marie Widor, all of whom are worthy of further examination).  Yet, to me, it would be shameful to devote a program to French music and not include at least a sampling of the glorious wonders of Debussy.  For tonight, we have included a set of three piano pieces, referred to as Pour le Piano.  Written betwen 1894 and 1901, he borrowed the names for the three movements (Prelude, Sarabande and Toccata) from the Baroque tradition.  Yet the phrasing and the innate poetry of Debussy’s arrangement is uniquely Debussy’s.  Indeed, Debussy was an admirer of the aforementioned Rameau, even going so far to write a Hommage à Rameau as part of his first set of Images.  Yet Debussy’s music was solidly rooted in the times he lived in.

We followed Debussy with the great Erik Satie.  Satie’s work occupies the opposite end of the musical spectrum from that of Satie, a purposeful sort of minimalism that contrasts directly against Debussy’s aggressive musicianship.  Satie at times referred to his music as “furniture music”, music that was to be experienced without necessarily being noticed.  Yet such exquisite melodies as tonight’s set of three Gymnopédies (written in 1888, and ranking among Satie’s earliest compositions) just beg to be luxuriated in, with all their sensual beauty.  Jean Cocteau, who saw Satie every morning for an extended period, said this of Satie:

“He inherited a grave eccentricity from his Scottish ancestry… Egotistical, cruel, obsessive, he would listen to nothing that did not conform to his dogma and would fly into furious rages with anything that disturbed it.  Egotistical, because he thought only of his music.  Cruel, because he defended his music.  Obsessive, because he polished his music.  And his music was tender.  And so he was, too, in his own way.  He cleaned himself with pumice stone.  He never used water.  At a time when music surged forth in floods, recognising (sp) Debussy’s genius but fearful of his despotism (they remained in friendly but quarrelsome terms right up to the end), he turned his back on the latter’s school and became, at the Schola Cantorum, the odd sort of Socrates we knew.  There he pumiced, defied, smoothed himself, and forged the little orifice through which his exquisite force needed only to flow from its source.”

Given that The Galaxy revels in an examination of contrasts, it is only fitting that we should enjoy the contrast of styles that one gets when going from Debussy, to Satie, and then finally to Olivier Messiaen.  Whereas Debussy was inspired by the literary Symbolist movement, and Satie would construct his own method of minimalism that is now considered a direct predecessor to our modern “ambient” musical styles, Messiaen was inspired by a number of things, ranging from the sounds of birds to his devotion to Roman Catholicism.  He was an innovator in the field of serialism (Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serialism was but one method of serialism).  Tonight’s work, La Bouscarle (in English, “Cetti’s Warbler”) is a “moment musicaux” that depicts a series of birdcalls, inspired by the bird commonly referred to as the Cetti’s Warbler, and was written between 1956 and 1958.