Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Peter and the Wolf

I have been listening to Peter and the Wolf alot lately as it has become one of my kids' favorites everytime they get in the car with me.
Peter in the Wolf is a musical composition for children composed by Sergei Prokofiev in 1936. It has a prominent role for a narrator who tells a Russian folk tale about a young boy who goes against his grandfather's wishes and manages to capture a wolf. There is a musical theme for each of the characters in the story using a different instrument from the orchestra.
The theme for Peter is played by the strings and is the best known of the piece. It is very catchy. In fact, it is playing in my head right now.
As for the other characters, there is a bird represented by a flute; a duck represented by an oboe; a cat represented by a clarinet; the grandfather represented by the bassoon; the wolf represented by the horns; the hunters represented by the woodwinds; and gunshots represented by the timpani.
There have been many recordings made of Peter and the Wolf over the years with a wide assortment of famous people taking the role of the narrator. Here are a few examples from the Wikipedia entry:
Arthur Godfrey
Sir John Gielgud
Leonard Bernstein
Basil Rathbone
Boris Karloff
Christopher Lee
Sean Connery
Peter Ustinov
Dudley Moore
Captain Kangaroo
David Bowie
Mia Farrow
Itzhak Perlman
Lorne Greene
Sir Alec Guiness
Jonathan Winters
Patrick Stewart
Ben Kingsley
Carol Channing
David Attenborough
Sharon Stone
William F. Buckley Jr.

And of course there was the animated Disney version that came out in 1946 and was narrated by Sterling Holloway, better know as the voice of Winnie the Pooh.

But the version I have was narrated by Sting, the former lead singer of The Police, one of my all-time favorite bands. It was recorded sometime in 1991 by Deutsche Grammophon with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Claudio Abbado.
While I have not listened to all the other versions, I think that Sting does an exceptionally good job. He certainly holds my kids' attention. At first, the kids were indifferent to the music and wanted me to scoot up to the story-telling, but I insisted we listen to the whole piece and now they recognize the themes of the different characters and enjoy it as a whole.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Luigi Boccherini (February 19, 1743 – May 28, 1805)

Luigi Boccherini belongs to that sad, long list of artists who die poor and then become extremely popular. He started life as the son of a cellist, become a cellist like his father, with a public debut at the age of thirteen. He was born in Lucca, Italy, where his remains were moved in 1927 when he was "rediscovered" in the twentieth century.

Music critic Charles Burney, in 1776, wrote of Boccherini, "There is perhaps no instrumental music more ingenious, elegant, and pleasing, than his quintets: in which invention, grace, modulation, and good taste conspire to render them, when well executed, a treat for the most refined hearers and critical judges of musical composition." The quintets on which Burney heaps praise consist of a regular string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello) with an extra cello (no surprise there, since he was a cellist). These were among the first of their kind, however another chamber ensemble he pioneered was the piano quintet (piano plus string quartet).

Boccherini's guitar quintets were most likely derived from piano quintets; apparently such a practice was common, given the demand for chamber music. These works have a definite Classical Era sound. Despite the name "guitar quintet" these works do not universally feature the guitar. One of the quintets, No. 4 in D, is nicknamed "Fandango" and includes the addition of a sistrum (interesting in and of itself, check it out) and castanets. While his trips and stays in Madrid may have colored some of his works, mostly he is a composer of Italian-style music.

I have two symphonies by Boccherini, one in D Major and one in A Major, both only three movements long. It comes as no surprise that they remind me of symphonies of Haydn, as both composers are from the same era. The CD I have comes from one of those low-cost box collections, this series called The Greatest Symphonies. The CD also contains a performance of Haydn's Symphony No. 99, but I will cover that when I got to Haydn.

There sure seems to be a lot of performers and composers who begin with the letter "B" in my collection, doesn't it? I'm not even up to Brahms yet! Borodin is next...)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Georges Bizet (1838 - 1875)

Bizet was born on October 25, 1838, the only child of musician parents. His parents nurtured his talent, and he entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1848, at the age of ten. Among his talents was a musical memory similar to that of Mozart.

At seventeen, Bizet wrote his Symphony in C, of which I have a copy that shares disc space with Mendelssohn's excerpts from his incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, along with Smetana's The Moldau. If you haven't heard the latter work (or you have, but just don't recognize the name) you are in for a real treat. Though this is an entry for Bizet, I can't help but include a YouTube performance of The Moldau, in two parts.

Part One

Part Two

Bizet's symphony sounds like something Mozart or Haydn might have written. It is a charming piece, but it resembles music from the Classical era more than the Romantic era in which Bizet lived. It was never performed in his lifetime, and he tucked it away with other works from his youth. It was eighty years later when the piece was discovered by music historian Douglas Parker, who in turn drew the attention of conductor Felix Weingartner. It received its first performance in Basle, Switzerland in February 1935.

Bizet is best known for his opera Carmen, one of the most popular operas of all time. I have a recording of excerpts from the two Carmen suites, but not the entire two suites. The CD also has his Petite Suite for Orchestra and the L'Arlesienne Suite Nos. 1 & 2.

Though the recording does not include both Carmen suites, what it does include is a lot of fun, especially if you have seen the opera. Bizet didn't actually arrange the two suites, as he died just three months from the opera's premiere. This first performance, shown in Paris, was not much of a success. However, it was a blockbuster smash hit in Vienna. By this time, Bizet had died at the young age of 36. A couple of years ago I did a "Carmenathon" by watching all the DVD versions I could find at Borders, as well as through NetFlix. I thought I posted it here, but apparently did not. In any event, it was fun to do. I read that Brahms went to the opera some twenty times. Hopefully one day I'll see the opera live.