Album Release

Sunday, November 28, 2010

John Thomas' Autumn

Early Autumn became Mid Autumn and, judging from the quantity of leaves on the tree outside the bedroom, we are now in Late Autumn. 

Cabris has turned quite cold and frosty this weekend. It’s been windy and wet but the mood around town is cheery. Thanksgiving has just passed, and it’s nice to be reflecting on our loves. John Thomas’ Autumn seems a little of the same: frosty, windy, reflective, thankful. 

As guessed, this piece is part of his series on the seasons. :-D

Definitely not summer. Definitely not spring. If anything, it’s intruding a little on winter. Like four brothers trying to share a year. This is Autumn wanting to be like his big brother Winter. 

3 movements. 

Prefaced with a poem:
I love the moaning music which I hear 
In the bleak gusts of Autumn, for the soul 
Seems gathering tidings from another sphere, 
And, in sublime, mysterious sympathy, 
Man’s bounding spirit ebbs and swells more high 
Accordant to the billow’s loftier roll

The melodies could be hymns, in my opinion. They have a spirit of gratefulness about them. 

John Thomas was Welsh and lived from 1826–1913. He was a harpist and a composer. His piece “The Minstrel’s Adieu” is one that not too many classical harpists get away with not playing at some point. Crazy to think, but Thomas actually began playing the harp on a Welsh triple harp-  an instrument with three rows of strings that sat on your LEFT shoulder (a thought that makes me batty!). 

The timing and location of John Thomas’ life is significant because he was born around the dawning of the double-action harp that we know today to be the Classical harp. This kind of instrument was first patented in London by Sébastien Érard (French guy) in 1810. Érard eventually moved his business back to Paris, where the instrument began to really boom in popularity- compositions for solo harp, touring harp virtuosi, a new place for the harp in the orchestra... 

But. It began in London, which is where Thomas eventually ended up. He was introduced to the double action harp and studied at Royal Academy of Music. In 1810, Thomas was 16. 

And check this! (Sorry, I’m a geek) Thomas later became the harp professor at his alma mater, and eventually toured Europe and crossed paths with Hector Berlioz. Hector Berlioz was a French composer and officially the first guy to use the double-action harp in an orchestra. Could it be that Thomas was the catalyst for harp in the orchestra?

Of Thomas, Berlioz said: 

"Voilà comment on joue de la harpe… Il m'a charmé, fasciné, magnetisé."  “Il fait rêver et pleurer; un vrai barde inspiré.” 

“Voila, this is how to play the harp... he charmed me, fascinated me, magnetized me.”  “He makes one dream and weep- truly an inspired bard.”

This inspired bard was a key figure to the classical harp world, which is so French oriented but technically birthed in the UK. 

All this to say (whew) that of all the Autumn works for harp presented in this blog so far, Thomas’s is:

  1. 1.the earliest
  2. 2.the only one from the UK
  3. 3.the only one in 3 movements

Monday, November 22, 2010

Feuilles d’Automne by Alphonse Hasselmans

Hasselmans. The “Granddaddy of Harp.” 
His stats:
French (well, born in Belgium)
Composer for harp (50+ pieces), Harpist, Harp teacher
 Dad was a harpist (and his first teacher)
Mom dated Gabriel Faure at some point
 Studied under Gottlieb Krüger, Xavier Desargas, and Ange-Conrad Prumier (anyone ever heard of them? I hadn’t.)
Became the Head Harp Coach at the Paris Conservatories in his day.... he had many influential students who continued to shape the French harp world as he did (which is why I call him the granddaddy of harp): Henriette Renie, Marcel Tournier, Carlos Salzedo, Marcel Grandjany, Lily Laskin, and Pierre Jamet.
You can’t help but like the guy. His music sounds nice-sounding to non-harpists, and feels good to the fingertips of a harpist. His pieces are idiomatic and intuitive... writing in a way that totally suits the instrument and displays its capabilities in a friendly way. 
And, yes, as you may have guessed: he’s written on the subject of autumn.
Actually, three “easy improvisations” under the title “Feuilles D’Automne” (Autumne Leaves)...
Sérénade Mélancolique Op. 45 (Melancholy Serenade)
Crépuscule Op. 46 (Sunset)
Calme Op. 47 (Calm) 
They were each written for a different student of his, none of them of who made the earlier mentioned list of influential harpists. 
Gonna focus on only one of the three improvisations here, as it is my favorite: Sérénade Mélancolique. It’s just that: a sad song.
Kinda humorous: the dictionary on my computer defines serenade as “a piece of music sung or played in the open air, typically by a man at night under the window of his lover.” Combine that with dying leaves and inclement weather and you get “Sérénade Melancolique” by Alphonse Hasselmans. 
6/8 time, Adantino, g minor. 
I can visualize a man walking, talking to himself silently, singing, searching, schmoozing, reminiscing, feeling slightly empty. It’s a piece so simple yet so beautiful- first melody, second melody, interruption by a hefty autumn wind, recap of the first melody. Short and so sweet.
So, yes, Autumn can be sad and melancholy after all, according to Mr. Hasselmans. 
I find all three of these “improvisations” to be melancholy- very much the “sad” and reflective side of the autumn coin.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Otoño Porteño by Astor Piazzolla

The idea: there’s a series of something on the table and someone decides to create a piece that depicts the poetic character of that something, kind of like the imposed ingredient on an episode of Iron Chef. Parsnips. Go!

Years ago, there was a particular series of paintings at the Louvre that I remember hanging around for a while. It was “The Four Seasons” by the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo  (1527– 1593).

These puny pic pastings don’t do them a pinch of justice. But it’s the idea... a dude... with time and talent... thinking about the subjects “Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter” ...and creating something totally off the wall, as it were. Arcimboldo’s seasons are imaginative and beautiful.

It happens in music, too. Gustav Holst did the planets. Sufjan Stevens is working on to the United States.  Tchaikovsky did the months of the year. 

And then there are the composers that tackled the subject of the seasons, which ends me beating around the bush. 

Examples of composers who wrote a series on The Seasons are: 

Antonio Vivaldi 
John Cage
Darius Milhaud
Joseph Haydn
Astor Piazzola
John Thomas

Today’s focus: Astor Piazzolla

Otoño Porteño (translation: Buenos Aires Autumn) is a tango tune written not for solo harp but an ensemble of bandoneon, strings, electric guitar, and piano. Piazzolla (1921- 1992) was from Argentina, the “heart of tango” and this piece is among his 2500+ compositions for the genre of nuevo tango. Otoño Porteño was premiered in 1969. I guess Piazzolla’s Seasons weren’t conceived all at once,  but composed over the course of 6 years.

Luckily for the harp world, there is an Argentinean harpist who has transcribed a handful of Piazzolla’s works: Maria Luisa Rayan-Forero (b. 197???). I’ve seen and heard her live, but haven’t shaken her hand yet. In short: I’m a fan of hers. Her arrangement of Otoño Porteño is 1. difficult 2. doable 3. enjoyable. She took 6 chromatic instruments’ parts and concentrated them into one not-so-easily-chromatic instrument, keeping as much of the original color and mood as possible.  

Nuevo tango= a combo of  traditional Argentine tango, jazz, dissonance and extended harmony, and sometimes counterpoint. Melody is pointy. Rhythms are percussive and uncommon among the harp’s “normal” repertoire: end the the phrase with an accent?! Crazy crazy. 

I lived in Nice for a month, 6 years ago. It was just after I had arrived in France to study music, and I remember going home to the dorm one night very late. I had to cross Vieux Nice and a plaza that I don’t remember the name of, and as I came up the steps, there was a pack of dancers “getting down” to a loud boom box blasting tango music. I stopped, in awe. It was so beautiful- to watch how each couple interacted, the way the music altered their motion, the nice little ring they all made as each couple moved in the same direction, counterclockwise. It had to have been after midnight, and this tango club was enjoying their monthly get-together under the stars, and a very light rain.

This incident stuck with me. I try to picture these little dancers when I attack the Otoño Porteño. The good and bad news is that there are many, many pedal changes in this arrangement (there’s no way around it), and the harpist’s feet are so active, moving the pedals in rhythm with the music. Every gesture and effect are intentional, just as the dancers’ motion is intentional and timed. It’s like the harpist is dancing and playing at the same time. It’s fantastic! But tricky.

To be honest, I don’t see how Otoño Porteño reflects the poetic nature of autumn. :-D I don’t see red leaves and harvest, but seduction and tension. And French tango dancers in the rain. Nonetheless, I’m glad this arrangement is on my music stand. Thank you, Astor, Maria Luisa, and the Nice Tango Club!