Six of the best: pieces of classical music for Easter

1. Johann Sebastian Bach: St Matthew Passion

The St Matthew Passion is a masterpiece that many people know well, but few tire of hearing. One of only two JS Bach passion settings still in existence (the St John is the only other to have survived), the piece was originally performed in Leipzig on Good Friday 1727, although the score as we know it dates from 1743-6.

The work’s two halves were originally intended to be sung on either side of the Good Friday sermon - a test of the piety of the most ardent churchgoers (even performances without the sermon tend to last over two-and-a-half hours). So why do we love it so much? Could it be those intricate baroque figures that tug at the heartstrings? Or the effortless coupling of soli and chorus; of arioso with aria? Perhaps it’s simply the sheer number of terrific tunes that litter the work. John Eliot Gardiner's version with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists remains one of our all-time favourite recordings of the work.

2. Thomas Tallis: Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet

Tallis composed his Lamentations around 1565-70, when he was in his early sixties. Setting Holy Week bible lessons to music was a trend that had developed on the Catholic continent during the early 1400s. Nevertheless, by the mid-16th century England had gamely caught up and the practice was enjoying a brief flourish of popularity. Alhough the jury is still out on Tallis' religious affiliations (he may have been Catholic at a time when this was politically inadvisable), the pieces could well have formed part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy in his lifetime.

These settings of verses from the Book of Jeremiah are among Tallis’s most expressive works. The composer used all the compositional techniques available to him to squeeze every last ounce of poignancy from the text. The five vocal lines imitate, suspend, clash and build towards the final section: 'Jerusalem, turn again to the Lord your God!'

3. Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture

This 1888 overture is named for the Svetlïy prazdnik or ‘Bright holiday’, as Easter is known in Russia. An avowed atheist, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that he wanted to capture 'the transition from the solemnity and mystery of the evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious celebrations of Easter Sunday morning’. The piece paints vividly the explosion of light and colour at the end of a long, hard Russian winter.
Religious and pagan themes are entwined at the very heart of the work: Rimsky-Korsakov borrowed themes from the Obikhod, a collection of Orthodox chants that since 1848 had been a mandatory part of the liturgy for every church in Russia. These austere motifs shine through the wild textures of the orchestra, no more so than at 8’35 when a solo tenor trombone (‘a piena voce’) evokes the chanting of a priest.

4. James MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross

MacMillan’s cantata for choir and string orchestra was commissioned by BBC Television and premiered in seven nightly episodes during Holy Week in 1994. The piece is a setting of the final sentences uttered by Jesus as he lay dying on the cross. The Aurora Orchestra’s Nicholas Collon recently described it as ‘one of the greatest sacred pieces written in the last 100 years’ - the writing is dramatic, emotionally-charged and extraordinarily moving.

Mantra-like settings of the gospel texts are well ornamented like many of Macmillan’s vocal works. The first movement is particularly moving with the plainsong-like chant of the sopranos and altos underpinned by savagely discordant murmurings in the strings.

Not one to listen to if you’re feeling fragile, though.

5. Gustav Mahler: Symphony No 2 ‘Resurrection’ 

 Mahler’s second symphony makes for great Passiontide listening. The journey from the tension of the first movements to the resolution of the finale mirrors Easter’s themes of destruction and redemption - hence the unofficial 'resurrection' title. The symphony took six years to complete and was first performed in 1895. Mahler always planned for the fifth movement to feature voices but lacked inspiration for a text until 1894, when he heard a setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s Die Aufersterhung (‘The Resurrection) performed at the funeral of his colleague and mentor, Hans von Bülow. Mahler was deeply moved. ‘It struck me like lightning, this thing,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘and everything was revealed to me clear and plain.’ He borrowed the first eight lines of Klopstock’s poem and supplied a further twenty or so himself. Halfway through the final movement, the choir comes in with the words: ‘Rise again! Yes, rise again will you, my dust, after a short rest!’

6. Francis Poulenc: Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence

The critic Claude Rostand famously described Poulenc as ‘le moine et le voyou’ - half monk, half rascal. Though legendary in Parisian social circles as a bit of a dilettante, the death of a close friend in 1936 prompted Poulenc to make a religious pilgrimage that led to a dramatic personal transformation. While he retained something of the rascal throughout his career, much of the composer’s work after this time bears the hallmarks of a deep and abiding spirituality.

This set of four Lenten songs, completed in 1939, are among his most popular choral works; notable for their sense of restraint, they display a beauty and subtlety appropriate to their somewhat gloomy subject matter. Yet the songs are as dramatic as they are devotional.

Reposted From Classical

The Touching Story Behind Paraguay’s Landfill Orchestra

Back in 2012, I first told you about the amazing youth chamber orchestra from Cateura, Paraguay. The families from this small impoverished town, located alongside a vast landfill, can’t afford many luxuries — like buying instruments for their kids. But what they lack in money, they make up for in ingenuity and good spirit. The short documentary above gives you a glimpse of their touching story, showing how creative leaders in the community fashioned instruments with their own hands, turning oil cans into cellos, and aluminum bowls into violins.

But why stop with the short story, when you can get the longer story. Last week, a full blown film called Landfill Harmonic premiered at the SXSW Film Festival 2015. And now the film will be screened at selected film festivals while the producers try to find a distributor who can bring the production to a wider audience. And, in another piece of good news, Simon & Schuster announced that it plans to publish a picture book about the Recycled Orchestra. Look for Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay in March 2016.

Reposted from Open Culture

More OMG Moments in Classical Music!

What are the greatest moments in classical music history? The bits that make you immediately rewind and play them again? Simply, the most surprising, shocking, beautiful or weird bits in classical music? Here are 10 moments that will make you say 'OMG'…

 When all 40 voices come together in Spem in alium

Spem In Alium is a choral classic given a new audience thanks to a certain E.L. James, but we prefer to think of Thomas Tallis' piece as it was intended - a whacking great 40-part motet with one of the most breathtaking ensemble entries in the whole repertoire. Press play below to hear those 40 parts suddenly arrive all at once…

"Zaaadoook The Prieeest!"

You know how it is. You're just bumbling along, minding your own business, maybe there's some baroque music in the background… KAPOW! Mass choral entry! Something about a priest! Make sure you're sitting down for this one.

The Rite Of Spring causes a riot

Imagine being so maddened and confused by a piece of music that you start a riot. A bit like how parents of Justin Bieber fans must feel, maybe. Anyway, Igor Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring was the original authority-botherer, with its rhythmic and textural originality causing the audience at its premiere to turn into a gibbering rabble, 40 of whom were ejected from the theatre. Give the Augurs Of Spring section a listen and try to resist the urge to flip a table.

The Rite of Spring 1913

 When Ride Of The Valkyries turns up in Apocalypse Now

When he was composing Die Walküre , it's probable that Richard Wagner didn't have the Vietnam war in mind. However, since Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, this exhilarating music has become associated with exactly that. And helicopters. And explosions.

The high notes in the Queen Of The Night aria

As well as being an OMG moment, this is a "did I just hear that correctly?" moment. Actually, it's more like an "is that an alien singing, and why has my champagne flute exploded?" moment. Just listen.

See more at Classic

Johann Sebastian Bach's "Brandenburg" Concertos


Few musical works are as loved--and as often performed--as the six "Brandenburg" Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. These six works display a lighter side of Bach's imperishable genius. Yet they came into being as an unexpected gift. That's what happened in 1721 when Bach presented the Margrave of Brandenburg with a bound manuscript containing six lively concertos for chamber orchestra, works based on an Italian Concerto Grosso style. The Margrave never thanked Bach for his work--or paid him. There's no way he could have known that this gift--later named the Brandenburg Concertos--would become a benchmark of Baroque music and still have the power to move people almost three centuries later.

The Brandenburg Concertos are a highlight of one of the happiest and most productive periods in Bach's life. At the time he wrote them, Bach was the Kapellmeister--the music director--in the small town of Coethen, where he was composing music for the court. Since the Margrave of Brandenburg seems to have ignored Bach's gift of concertos, it's likely that Bach himself presided over the first performances at home in Coethen. They didn't have a name then; that didn't come until 150 years later, when Bach's biographer Philipp Spitta called them "Brandenburg" Concertos for the very first time, and the name stuck.

Even though he didn't call them the "Brandenburgs," Bach still thought of them as a set. What he did was compile them from short instrumental sinfonias and concerto movements he had already written. Then he re-worked the old music, often re-writing and elaborating where he saw fit. In doing so, Bach created something of a dramatic arc from the brilliant first concerto to the last, which evokes a spirited chase.

Each of the six concertos requires a different combination of instruments as well as some highly skilled soloists. 

The Margrave had his own small court orchestra in Berlin, but it was a group of mostly mediocre players. All the evidence suggests that these virtuosic Brandenburg concertos perfectly matched the talents of the musicians on hand in Coethen. So how did a provincial town get so many excellent musicians? Just before Johann Sebastian arrived in Coethen in 1717, a new king inherited the throne in Prussia. Friedrich Wilhelm I became known as the "Soldier King" because he was interested in the military strength of his kingdom, not in refined artistic pursuits. One of his first royal acts was to disband the prestigious Berlin court orchestra. That threw many musicians out of work, and as luck would have it, seven of the best ones were snatched up to work in Coethen by its music-loving Prince Leopold. That's why Bach found such a rich music scene when he started to work there. It gave him the luxury of writing for virtuosos and they let him push the boundraries of his creativity. Concerto No. 2, for example, has the trumpeter play high flourishes. No. 4 allows the solo violin to soar.

When Bach played chamber music, he usually took the viola part so he could sit--as he wrote in a letter--"in the middle of the harmony." But for the Concerto No. 5 he had a real inspiration. He switched to harpsichord, gave it a knock-out part and, in the process, invented the modern keyboard concerto. The writing is so advanced and so intricate for its time that scholars assume the Fifth Concerto is actually the last Brandenburg Concerto Bach wrote.

If the dazzling writing style of the Fifth Concerto points to a late composition date, the Sixth Concerto probably came first in chronological order. It's got a simple part for the viola da gamba, a forerunner of the cello, which Bach probably put there for his employer, Prince Leopold, to play. The Prince was wealthy man and a serious music lover but probably a performer of only modest talent. The Sixth is also unique in the set because Bach omitted the violins from the ensemble; the violas take the highest string part. All six Brandenburg Concertos reveal the ebullient side of Bach, and they're one of the most welcome gifts he left us.

More Bach less bite as classical music calm dogs

Two groups of dogs were observed for a study.

During the first week one group was kept in silence while the other had classical music played into their kennels.

Conditions were switched for the second week.

The results, published in the journal Physiology And Behaviour, showed that in both groups the dogs’ stress levels decreased significantly after listening to music.

The research was carried out by Gilly Mendes Ferreira, education and research manager for the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Glasgow University PhD student Amy Bowman.

Ms Mendes Ferreira said: “Male dogs responded better than female dogs and both groups spent less time standing and barking when the music was being played.

"Although by the end of the week their heart rates and behaviour associated with kennel stress had returned to normal, the initial findings are very encouraging and show that classical music does have a positive impact on the dogs’ welfare.

“The average length of stay for a dog in our care can range from one to three weeks for small dogs and pedigrees, while larger breeds can remain with us up to six months and some breeds over a year.

“We want to make each dog’s time with us as comfortable as possible and this research is at the very forefront of animal welfare.

“This is the first step in a longer line of research and we can now try other types of music to find out how dogs respond to different genres.

"We will then decide how best to roll this out in all of our rehoming centres.”

Ms Bowman added: “Previous studies have shown potential psychological and physiological benefits of auditory stimulation, particularly classical music.

“Our study showed a similar beneficial effect of classical music but it only lasted for a short period.

“The dogs became habituated to the music after as little as one day.

"It seems dogs, like humans, prefer to listen to a variety of music and not the same thing over and over again.”

Reposted from Express UK