Happy Birthday Giuseppe Verdi the "King of Opera"

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He was born near Busseto to a provincial family of moderate means, and developed a musical education with the help of a local patron. Verdi came to dominate the Italian opera scene after the era of Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Gioachino Rossini, whose works significantly influenced him.

He struggled for success and in 1842, at age 28, it finally came with his bold new opera Nabucco, about the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. While the opera is justly famous for its moving chorus "Va, pensiero" — which became a rallying cry for Italy's struggle for independence and was sung spontaneously by a few hundred thousand people at Verdi's funeral in 1901 — it should be noted that the entire opera is a forward thrusting, rollicking affair. You would not be incorrect in describing it as "ass-kicking Verdi."





It's fun to trivialize Trovatore, Verdi's 18th opera, because of its outlandish plot. The Marx brothers spoofed it magnificently (but with a palpable appreciation) in their 1935 film A Night at the Opera. OK, so an old gypsy woman throws the wrong baby into the bonfire, setting off a string of unfortunate events. It could happen to anyone! Still, Trovatore is a treasure trove of some of Verdi's best and most hummable tunes, and they come lickety-split one after another. There's the crowd-pleasing "Anvil Chorus," plus "Di quella pira," with its brain-splitting high notes for the tenor, two gorgeous arias for soprano ("Tacea la notte" and "D'amor sull'ali rosee"), the exuberant "Stride la vampa" for the mezzo-soprano and "Il balen," a gorgeous moment of reflection for the baritone.



Verdi's operas act on deeply sociopolitical levels, and La Traviata is a perfect example. Here Verdi empowers the common individual. The opera stars a prostitute — something unheard of at the time — and she's the smartest, most sane and honest person in the opera. It takes very little imagination to see how this realistic story (nice boy falls in love with hooker, who breaks up with him to save his family's honor) dovetails with our contemporary concerns. La Traviata was also an act of daring for Verdi, a little jab at the conservatives of his native Parma who balked at the fact that he wasn't married to the woman he lived with. The lead soprano role is so multifaceted and difficult it almost requires three different types of sopranos to pull it off.


By the time Verdi wrote Simon Boccanegra, he was the king of opera. Even so, Boccanegra flopped at its 1857 premiere. (Verdi revised it successfully 24 years later.) It's not too nerdy to note that whatever one thinks of the convoluted plot (a 14th century doge, amid intense political maneuvering, manages to find his long-lost daughter), the work contains examples of two Verdi trademarks: The father-daughter duet and the "Verdi baritone." Verdi excelled at richly drawn, highly expressive roles for the baritone voice (Rigoletto, Falstaff, Macbeth, Iago, Nabucco) and Boccanegra is one of the most rewarding and detailed. He also focused on father-daughter relationships and the duet "Orfanella il tetto umile" from Boccanegra's first act, when he realizes Amelia is indeed his daughter, is a two-hankie affair.


Near the end of Verdi's incredible six decades in opera, he threatened to quit, but instead came up with one fresh work after another. Finally, after some two dozen serious operas, he capped it all off with a comedy. Falstaff is witty and furiously paced but with the autumnal warmth of an old man looking back on his life with a chuckle. Falstaff's Act 3 monologue is a slice of operatic heaven. Drenched from being dumped in the river (with the laundry), Falstaff muses on his fate in a cruel world. As the wine warms his immense belly in the late afternoon sun, he's revived, and the trill of a cricket (listen for it in the music!) brings a smile. Falstaff is one of three ingenious operas (with Macbeth and Otello) Verdi based on Shakespeare. The composer ends his final masterwork with a chorus of "Tutto nel mondo è burla" — everything in the world is a joke.

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Children and Music

An infant at a piano

There is no downside to bringing children and music together through fun activities. We are able to enjoy the benefits of music from the moment we’re born. Although a good dose of Mozart is probably not increasing our brain power, it’s enjoyable and beautiful. From the pure pleasure of listening to soothing sounds and rhythmic harmonies, to gaining new language and social skills music can enliven and enrich the lives of children and the people who care for them.


Toddlers and Music: Toddlers love to dance and move to music. The key to toddler music is repetition, which encourages language and memorization. Silly songs make toddlers laugh. Try singing a familiar song and inserting a silly word in the place of the correct word, like “Mary had a little spider” instead of lamb. Let children reproduce rhythms by clapping or tapping objects.

Preschoolers and Music: Preschoolers enjoy singing just to be singing. They aren’t self-conscious about their ability and most are eager to let their voices roar. They like songs that repeat words and melodies, use rhythms with a definite beat, and ask them to do things. Preschool children enjoy nursery rhymes and songs about familiar things like toys, animals, play activities, and people. They also like finger plays and nonsense rhymes with or without musical accompaniment.

School-Age Children and Music: Most young school-age children are intrigued by kids’ singalong songs that involve counting, spelling, or remembering a sequence of events. School-age children begin expressing their likes and dislikes of different types of music. They may express an interest in music education, such as music lessons for kids.

Teens and Music: Teenagers may use musical experiences to form friendships and to set themselves apart from parents and younger kids. They often want to hang out and listen to music after school with a group of friends. Remember those days of basement and garage bands? Teens often have a strong interest in taking music lessons or playing in a band.


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A fun lesson in how to get kids into classical music


 

While the merits of classical music are almost limitless, it is oftentimes a bit tricky to get kids to listen to and love it. With this problem in mind, one of our favorite experimental groups has decided to find a novel way to approach and answer the question. Take a look and listen.

By transforming contemporary pop, which kids all love, into some legendary classical compositions, the group
CDZA, short for Collective Cadenza,, has taken a very fun, "spoonful of sugar" approach to the classic (ba-dump-bump!) problem. They write about this latest project:

How do you teach the classics to students today? How do you get students thinking critically about how Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach are relevant to music today? These composers provide the building blocks of modern music, and are necessary knowledge to a well-rounded musical education, but how do you get students to pay attention to these long-deceased classical music masters?

CDZA presents an innovative way to connect with students and teach them the classics.


Happy Birthday George Gershwin

George Gershwin wrote great songs and shows for the theatre, but he always fancied himself as a serious composer. And he was - in fact, one of the 20th century’s greatest.

George Gershwin piano composer


George Gershwin was born in New York City into a Russian Jewish immigrant family. As a boy, George frequented the local Yiddish theatres, ran errands for them and appeared onstage as an extra. Around the age of 10, he took to playing the piano his parents had bought for his older brother Ira.

Young George GershwinThe acclaimed piano teacher Charles Hambitzer took Gershwin on at the age of 14 and immediately realized the level of talent he had on his hands. ‘I have a new pupil who will make his mark if anybody will. The boy is a genius,’ Hambitzer wrote to his sister. Gershwin was sent off to concerts and given significant pieces by the great composers to learn for the piano. Hambitzer's efforts certainly paid off.

Gershwin began his career as a song plugger in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. To earn extra, he also worked as a rehearsal pianist for Broadway singers. In 1916, he composed his first published song, ‘When You Want ’Em You Can’t Get ’Em.’ His first big hit was 'Swanee', composed in 10 minutes on a bus. Not long afterwards, the singer Al Jolson heard it and recorded it. ‘Swanee’ sold a million sheet music copies, and an estimated two million records. It became the biggest-selling song of Gershwin’s career.


 
In his 20s, Gershwin started composing Broadway musical theatre works with his brother Ira writing the lyrics. They even created an experimental one-act jazz opera Blue Monday, set in Harlem – a pre-cursor to Porgy and Bess. In 1924, the brothers collaborated on the stage musical Lady Be Good, which included the classic song Fascinating Rhythm. 


 
Gershwin's most ambitious composition was Porgy and Bess, which he called a ‘folk opera’. The action takes place in the fictional neighbourhood of Catfish Row, South Carolina. The opera contains some of Gershwin's most sophisticated music and some huge hit arias – ‘Summertime’, ‘I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'’ and ‘It Ain't Necessarily So’. When it was first performed in 1935, it was a box office flop. It is now widely regarded as one of the most important American operas of the 20th century.

After the disappointing reception for Porgy and Bess, Gershwin moved to Hollywood and worked on many film scores. His music for Shall We Dance, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, married ballet with jazz in a new way, and ran for more than an hour in length. It took Gershwin several months to write and orchestrate it.


 
Early in 1937, Gershwin began to complain of blinding headaches and there were signs he was suffering coordination problems. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour. An operation was unsuccessful, and Gershwin died on 11 July at the age of 38.

From the opening clarinet glissando of Rhapsody in Blue to such standards as 'Embraceable You' and 'Someone to Watch Over Me', Gershwin's music has been part of our world for almost a century. It evokes an era of glamour and sophistication and gave the United States its first authentic voice in the concert hall. The American singer Michael Feinstein has said, 'The Gershwin legacy is extraordinary because George Gershwin died in 1937, but his music is as fresh and vital today as when he originally created it.'

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Four composers at the court of Louis XIV

A quick look at those who brought music to the Sun King’s palace


Louis XIV was crowned King of France in 1654. His reign of 72 years and 110 days is the longest recorded of any monarch in European history, and he is often seen as the echt example of an absolute monarch – his power, so he perceived, came directly from God. His enthusiasm for the arts brought about musical riches that were the envy of Europe, and influenced composers for years to come.

While the French court was aware of Italian operatic practices, the musical styles that developed there in the late 17th century were considerably different. Castrati were not a common sight in France, and there was a significant emphasis on vocal and instrumental technique rather than the acrobatic, virtuosic performances seen in Italy. Here, we introduce four of the composers present at Louis XIV's court, as well as our recommended works.


Lully

The Italian born Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87) – composer, dancer, violinist and comedian – was the architect of the French national style. He became the most powerful musician in France, a true Troubadour of the era, and held a virtual monopoly over court music. His music is known for its power and vivacity: lively in the fast movements, deep and emotional in the slower. He is also credited with the invention of the French overture, a musical form used extensively in the Baroque and Classical eras, particularly by Handel and Bach. He died from gangrene after driving a conducting stick through his foot.





Lalande

Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726) was head of music in the Chapel Royal for longer than any other composer. In this capacity he brought the grand motet – a sacred work pleasing to Louis XIV because of its pomp and grandeur – to its zenith. He delighted in contrasting solo airs with homophonic (all parts moving together like a hymn) semi-choirs, and large choruses using many voices moving independently.






Hotteterre Family

The Hotteterres were a multitalented family of woodwind players, composers and makers, who in about 1670 did a makeover on the flute, oboe and bassoon. This greatly improved the tuning and tone, and enabled players to perform in an increased range of keys. The family’s most celebrated member was Jacques-Martin Hotteterre, whose first published work, Principes de la Flute Traversière (1707) is the first known essay on flute-playing. The Hotteterres wrote lots of tuneful suites and sonatas for wind instruments.






Couperin Le Grand

François Couperin (1668-1733) was the greatest French composer between Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) and the finest composer of chamber music. His exquisite works, likened in their detail to the paintings of Watteau, combine highly ornamented refined melodies with sumptuous harmony. He was known as Couperin ‘the Great’, with the inclusion of the epithet to distinguish him from other members of the musically talented Couperin family.




This article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of the BBC Music Magazine
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Classical music inspired by the Jazz Age:


Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue

When it comes to jazzy classical music, Gershwin's your guy. His Rhapsody in Blue from 1924 is one of the most famous examples of his unique style, from the boozy opening clarinet tune to the virtuosic piano solos throughout. It encapsulates the spirit of the Jazz Age - so much so, that Baz Lurhmann uses the piece to accompany the decadent party scene in his film adaptation of The Great Gatsby.



 

Copland, Piano Concerto 

"The slow blues and the snappy number". That's how Copland described the two sections of his impressive Piano Concerto, and it sums up the 1926 piece pretty perfectly. It's the ultimate example of jazz-classical fusion, both indulgent and refined in equal measure.




Gershwin, An American in Paris

Strolling through the streets of Paris in 1920s, this piece attempts to capture the sights and sounds of the city. Gershwin even brought back a few horns from Parisian taxis to add some authentic Parisian noise to the New York premier.




Weill, The Threepenny Opera

European swing, American jazz, and opera. It's all there in Weill's 1928 opera, set, unexpectedly, in Victorian London. The opening song, The Ballad of Mackie Messer, translated into English as Mack the Knife, has now become a jazz standard in its own right.

Songs from The Threepenny Opera have been widely covered and become standards, most notably "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" ("The Ballad of Mack the Knife") and "Seeräuberjenny" ("Pirate Jenny").






Stravinsky, Piano-Rag Music

Stravinsky proved himself in the field of angular tunes and stabbing rhythms in his 1910 ballet, The Firebird. It was only a matter of time before the quirky rag-time dance got its own treatment by the composer, and the results are remarkable - it's jazzy and jarring all at once, with a menacing sense of fun.

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