Monday, September 15, 2014

Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Dvořák
(1841 - 1904)

Complete Works:

Sheet Music from IMISLP:,_Anton%C3%ADn

Contrary to legend, Antonín Dvořák (September 8, 1841 - May 1, 1904) was not born in poverty. His father was an innkeeper and butcher, as well as an amateur musician. The father not only put no obstacles in the way of his son's pursuit of a musical career, he and his wife positively encouraged the boy. He learned the violin and finally was sent to the Prague Organ School, from which he emerged at age 18 as a trained organist and immediately plunged into the life of a working musician. He played in various dance bands, usually as a violist. One of his groups became the core of the Provisional Theater orchestra, the first Czech-language theater in Prague, and Dvořák was appointed principal violist. Around this time, he also began giving private piano lessons, eventually marrying one of his students.

During this early period, he composed a ton of music, learning how through studying scores mainly by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, and Wagner. At first, his music resembles that of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. The quality varies in this music, as you would expect, but the sheer amount of it impresses you. Furthermore, if some of it shows awkwardness, it also shows imagination and inventive tunefulness. In addition to songs and miniatures, you find a great deal of chamber music, at least one opera, and a concerto. Toward the end of this apprenticeship, Liszt and Wagner dominate, although Dvořák still tries to contain them in classical forms. The big work of this phase is the Symphony No. 1, which the composer thought had perished in a fire. In later life, he told his composition students that he had irretrievably lost his first symphony, his students asked anxiously, "What did you do?" "I sat down and wrote another one," he replied. Fortunately, it turns out that this composition wasn't lost, merely misplaced, and we can now hear this milestone in the composer's development. The Wagner phase, however, was brief, about five years. It permeates the opera The King and the Charcoal Burner (1873). The opera was taken off the schedule of Prague's Provisional Theater, due to rehearsal difficulties. Far from sinking into discouragement, Dvořák began a thorough reassessment of his artistic direction, finding his mature path of combining Czech folklore with classical forms. He revised The King and the Charcoal Burner, resubmitted it to the theater, and enjoyed a successful premiere in 1874. Other major works of this period include the Stabat mater (1877), the symphonies 4-6, the serenades for strings and for winds, the violin concerto, and the enormously successful first set of the Slavonic Dances.

In 1874, Dvořák applied for and received a grant from the Austrian government. He applied successfully three more times. Apart from easing Dvořák's financial stress, the grants also brought him to the attention of Brahms, one of the members of the jury. Brahms immediately became a fan and persuaded his own publisher, Simrock, to take up Dvořák's music. Thus began Dvořák's career outside Czechoslovakia. He certainly became the big musical deal within his home country.

Part of the spread of his music derives from Austro-German politics of the time. Bans were placed periodically on performances of Czech composers within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Scheduled performances of major works like the Sixth Symphony were cancelled in Vienna. However, in 1883, Joseph Barnby invited Dvořák to London to conduct his Stabat mater. The British went crazy for the music, and Dvořák's international career dates from this visit. He returned to England eight more times. His reputation was large enough to attract the notice of George Bernard Shaw, one of the finest of all musical critics. Unfortunately, Shaw disliked Dvořák's music for many of the same reasons he advanced against Brahms.

In 1889, Dvořák became a professor of composition at the Prague conservatory. His best student was undoubtedly his son-in-law, Josef Suk. As a teacher, Dvořák was no wizard of technique. In fact, he insisted that his students have a finished technique before he allowed them into his class. He would criticize student scores, put his finger on weak passages, and in general treat his pupils as colleagues, insisting that they find their own way, as he had found his.

Jeannette Thurber, a wealthy American music patron, in 1892 offered Dvořák a position as artistic director and composition professor at New York's National Music Conservatory, at a salary of $15,000, twenty-five times what he got in Prague. It was also clear that the Americans expected him to help pave the way for an "American" musical style. Dvořák took this last charge to heart. This inaugurated Dvořák's "American" phase, which produced his Ninth Symphony "From the New World," the String Quartet #12, the cantata The American Flag, and the String Quintet in Eb. However, financial advantage and high artistic purpose competed with simple homesickness in Dvořák's soul. Summer vacations among the Czech-speaking community in Spillville, Iowa, helped, but the longing to return to Prague grew. Dvořák wrote almost as many works celebrating his native country as those which hymned the New World: for example, the Te Deum and the cello concerto (one of the best for the instrument). Furthermore, Dvořák had become increasingly interested in streamlining classical forms. In the 1880s, he had entered a so-called second nationalist phase, in which Czech folk elements are completely absorbed and put in the service of Dvořák's formal experiments. The image of Dvořák as some spontaneously musical "holy fool" doesn't hold up in the presence of scores full of formal sophistication. The cello concerto, for example, provides an heroic part for the cellist without burying him in the orchestral mass. Examination of the score reveals tremendous planning to unleash orchestral power while keeping the orchestra out of the way of the soloist. No less a composer than Brahms, who had written his double concerto in 1887 in part as a solution to the problems of the cello as solo instrument, exclaimed, "Why on earth didn't I know that one could write a cello concerto like this? If I had only known, I would have written one long ago!"

A major economic depression in the 1890s reduced the Thurber fortune. She felt she could no longer keep her commitment to pay Dvořák's salary and indeed owed the composer money. Dvořák and his family returned to Prague. This inaugurated Dvořák's final period dominated by tone poems (The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, and The Golden Spinning-Wheel, among others) and opera (Rusalka, The Devil and Kate, and Armida). Dvořák considered himself primarily a dramatic composer, although, so far, few have agreed with this assessment. He wrote more operas (11) than symphonies, but only two – Rusalka and The Devil and Kate – have been staged with even minimal frequency outside Czechoslovakia.

Nevertheless, Dvořák remains the great 19th-century Czech composer – truly international, building on the achievement of Bedřich Smetana, and outstanding in symphony, concerto, symphonic overture, and chamber music. ~ Steve Schwartz

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

David Byrne: How architecture helped music evolve

As his career grew, David Byrne went from playing CBGB to Carnegie Hall. He asks: Does the venue make the music? From outdoor drumming to Wagnerian operas to arena rock, he explores how context has pushed musical innovation.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Turloch O'Carolan: The Vivaldi Tale

An interesting episode is told of O'Carolan:—"At the house of an Irish nobleman, where Geminiani was present, Carolan challenged that eminent composer to a trial of skill. The musician played over on his violin the fifth concerto of Vivaldi. It was instantly repeated by Carolan on his harp, although he had never heard it before. The surprise of the company was increased when he asserted that he would compose a concerto himself at the moment, and the more so when he actually played that admirable piece known ever since as 'Carolan's Concerto.'"[1]

It seems rather a pity to spoil this story, but it appears from O'Conor, who knew O'Carolan, that Geminiani never had the pleasure of meeting the Irish minstrel. Thus writes O'Conor:—"In the variety of his musical numbers he knew how to make a selection, and seldom was contented with mediocrity. So happy was he in some of his compositions, that he excited the wonder, and obtained the approbation, of a great master who never saw him—I mean Geminiani." [2]

The following seems to be the true version of the incident:—"Geminiani, who resided for some years in Dublin, heard of the fame of O'Carolan, and determined to test his abilities. He selected a difficult Italian concerto and made certain changes in it, 'so that no one but an acute judge could detect them,' and forwarded the mutilated version to Elphin. O'Carolan listened attentively to the violinist who performed the concerto, and at once pronounced the composition beautiful, but, to the astonishment of all present, added humorously in Irish: 'Here and there it limps and stumbles.' He was then desired to rectify the errors in musical grammar, which he immediately did, and his corrections were sent to Dublin to Geminiani. No sooner did the Italian composer see the changes than he pronounced O'Carolan to be endowed with il genio vero della musica."

O'Conor adds;—"O'Carolan outstripped his predecessors in the three species of composition used amongst the Irish, but he never omitted giving due praise to several of his countrymen who excelled before him in his art. The Italian compositions he preferred to all others, and was enraptured with Corelli's music."


[1] The Monthly Review. Old series. Vol. lxxvii. The story is substantially the same as that told by Goldsmith.
[2] Charles O'Conor, of Belanagare, died July 1st, 1791, aged 82.

Celtic Music Academy of Massachusetts

Celtic Music Academy of Massachusetts

Irish Dance: A History

Irish dance dates back to traditions in Ireland in the 1500’s and is closely tied to Irish independence and cultural identity.  Through history, these ancient dances were never documented or recorded due to Ireland’s occupation by England, which tried to make Ireland more “English” by outlawing certain traditional practices.  Many Irish cultural traditions were banned by the English authorities during the 400-year period that came to be known as the Penal Days.

Despite this ban on cultural traditions in Ireland, Irish dancing continued behind closed doors. Because their musical instruments had been confiscated by the authorities, Irish parents taught their children the dances by tapping out rhythms with their hands and feet and making music through “lilting” (or mouth music somewhat similar to “scat singing” in jazz).  Irish dances came from Ireland’s family clans and, like tribal Native American dances in this country, were never formally choreographed or recorded.

History records a variety of dances done by the Irish in the mid-1500s. These include Rinnce Fada or Fading where two lines with partners faced each other, Irish Hey (possibly a round or figure dance), jigs (likely in a group), Trenchmores (described as a big free form country dance), and sword dances.  It is not clear whose dances influenced whom among the Irish, English, and French, but it was characteristic that Irish dances had a faster tempo and included side steps. English suppression of Irish culture continued, exemplified by the banning of piping and the arrest of pipers. However, Queen Elizabeth I was “exceedingly pleased” with Irish tunes and country dances.

Power struggles between the Irish and English continued during the 1600s. The Penal Laws enacted in the late 1600s crushed Irish commerce and industries. The laws also banned the education of Catholic children leading to hidden (hedge) schools. Traditional Irish culture was practiced with some degree of secrecy. This period of severe repression lasted for more than a hundred years, explaining some of the initial secrecy of teaching Irish step dancing. Country dancing continued, one description being that on Sundays “in every field a fiddle and the lasses footing it till they are all of a foam”; another being “the young folk dance till the cows come home.” Dancing continued during the 1700s, often during holidays, weddings, christenings, and wakes. However, the Church sometimes condemned dancing, “In the dance are seen frenzy and woe.”

A major influence on Irish dance and Irish culture was the advent of the Dance Masters around 1750, beginning a tradition that you could argue continues today. A dance master typically traveled within a county, stopping for about six weeks in a village, staying with a hospitable family (who were honored by their selection as host). They taught Irish dancing (male teachers) in kitchens, farm outbuildings, crossroads, or hedge schools. Students would first learn the jig and reel. Sometimes, the teacher had to tie a rope around a student’s leg to distinguish right foot from left. Besides dancing, they also appear to have given instruction in fencing and other skills. Some teachers had other skilled trades that were used on occasion by the villagers, helping to explain dance masters habit of traveling from town to town. Having an eminent dance master associated with your village was a cause for pride and boasting by the community.

Each dance master had a repertoire of dance steps and he created new steps over time. (Eight measures or bars of music are called a “step,” hence the term step dancing.) Sometimes the masters danced competitively at feisianna, the winner being the one who knew the most steps, not the one with the best execution. The loser of a competition might have to concede a town in his territory to the winner. These men were the creators of the set and ceili dances and they carefully guarded their art of step creation. Dance masters created the first schools of dancing, the best known being from Counties Kerry, Cork, and Limerick. One dance master described himself as “an artificial rhythmical walker” and “instructor of youth in the Terpsichorean art.” Villagers paid dance masters at the end of the third week of teaching at a “benefit night.” They paid the accompanying musician a week later. Sometimes, the dance master was both musician and dancer simultaneously! Apparently the level of pay for the dance masters was relatively high for Ireland and it included room and board.

The Penal Laws were finally lifted in the late 1800’s, inspiring Irish nationalism and the Great Gaelic Revival—the resurgence of interest in Irish language, literature, history, and folklore—and its accompanying feis (essentially a gathering that included carious forms of competition).  The feis was typically held in open fields and included contests in singing, playing music, baking, and, or course, Irish dancing.

In 1929, the Irish Dancing Commission was founded (An Coimisiun le Rinci’ Gaelacha) to establish rules regarding teaching, judging, and competitions. It continues in that role. Prior to 1929, many local variations in dances, music, costumes and the rules of feisianna existed. Part of the impact of the Commission was standardization of competitions.

During the 20th Century, Irish dance has evolved in terms of locations, costumes, and dance technique.  For example, during the period of the dance masters, stages were much smaller including table tops, half doors, and sometimes the “stage” was simply a crossroad. (An old poem called dancing “tripping the sod.”) Tests of dancing ability involved dancing on the top of a barrel or on a soaped table! As stages became larger, the dance changed in at least two ways. The movement of dancers across a stage increased greatly (a judge would now subtract points if a dancer did not “use the stage”), and dance steps that require substantial space became possible (e.g., “flying jumps”). The location of competitions also changed over time from barns or outdoors where flat bed trucks were (and still are) used as stages, to predominately indoors in hotels, schools, or fairgrounds. (Note that fairgrounds are particularly appropriate in a historical context of where ancient feisianna were located.)

Irish dance has evolved in other ways during the 20th Century. Instruction is beginning at a younger age. Who is instructed has also changed from mostly males to mostly females (the turning point was before 1930). Girls dancing solos in competition were rare before the 1920s. Dance styles have also changed; for example, arms and hands were not always held rigid during solo dances. Previously they were sometimes more relaxed and were even placed on hips. It seems that the influence of parish priests led to the lack of arm movement; some argue that stiff arms were less provocative, others argue that the Church was trying to increase dancers’ self control. Hand movements still occur in figure (group) dances.

In 1969, the Irish Dance World Championships started in Dublin, and competitive Irish dancing continued to gain momentum.  As the students of the first generation of dance masters became established in American in the 1970’s, the first American Irish step dancing champions began to emerge, and would change the art form forever.

Visit the Celtic Music Academy of Massachusetts for more information!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Daily Practice: The Scale Set (major / relative minor)

On a calendar, plot a daily practice schedule of a different scale set each day.  That way you practice each scale in the circle of fifths, its arpeggio and relative minor with a group of picking patterns (for guitar and mandolin) and bowing patterns (for violin, viola and cello).

Practice 2 octaves, always use 4th finger, root the first finger in each position.  
  • For pickers, practice each scale and arpeggio with 4 quarter notes down up down up, 8 8th notes and 6 8th notes per note.  
  • For bowers, practice 1 whole note (frog to tip), 4 quarter notes (middle to tip), 8 8th notes (upper 1/3rd to tip), 2 triplets (upper 1/3rd to tip)

  1. Monday: C major, arpeggio; a minor, arpeggio
  2. Tuesday: G major, arpeggio, e minor, arpeggio
  3. Wednesday: D major, arpeggio, b minor, arpeggio
  4. Thursday: A major, arpeggio, f# minor, arpeggio
  5. Friday: E major, arpeggio, c# minor, arpeggio
  6. Saturday: B major, arpeggio, g# minor, arpeggio
  7. Sunday: F# major, arpeggio, d# minor, arpeggio
  8. Monday: C# major, arpeggio, a# minor, arpeggio
  9. Tuesday: F major, arpeggio; d minor, arpeggio
  10. Wednesday: Bflat major, arpeggio; g minor, arpeggio
  11. Thursday: Eflat major, arpeggio; c minor, arpeggio
  12. Friday: Aflat major, arpeggio; f minor, arpeggio
  13. Saturday: Dflat major, arpeggio; b flat minor, arpeggio
  14. Sunday: Gflat major, arpeggio; eflat minor, arpeggio
  15. Monday: Cflat major, arpeggio; aflat minor, arpeggio

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Normans

The Norman Invasion and Conquest of England

In the year 1066, the Saxon-Dane rulers of England were overthrown and replaced by new invaders.... The Normans.  By the end of the year, the old king was gone and the fate of the country was changed for ever.

History of the Normans

When William defeated Harold in AD 1066, the future of the Isles took a major change. For hundreds of years to come, it would be embroiled in wars in Europe and the Holy Lands. Civil unrest would be rife and the once proud traditions of the Saxons would be ground under the stone of a network of castles that covered the country. However, there is much more to the new rule than this gloomy picture paints! The Normans brought a whole new society which made the country what it is today.

A common misconception today is that the Normans were "French." Strictly speaking this is not true although it is a widely held belief and, like most beliefs, has some basis in fact.
Towards the end of the ninth century, the Viking raiders from Northern Europe (commonly known as Norsemen) were regularly foraging (raiding and trading) along the coast line of the Frankish kingdoms. During these raids, the Vikings got more and more bold - even going as far as sailing up the Seine and sacking Paris. Initially the raiders would set off from their home villages in Scandinavia and return a few weeks later with any plunder they had gathered, however as the raids continued the Norsemen started establishing raiding bases away from home. It was during this time that England was invaded by the "Grand Army" (more detail in the Vikings Section). These bases were often in very good farmland and quickly grew rich with the spoils of war, and as a result of this quickly grew in size.

In AD. 911, the Frankish King Charles (the Simple), in an effort to reduce the raids and destruction offered a large amount of land in northern France to a band of Vikings led by Rollo in return for token obedience to the Frankish crown. During the years of "Duke" Rollo's reign, the local term for the "Norsemen" slowly contracted to "Norman" and this pretty much stuck for the rest of time.
As befitting the descendants of excellent seafarers, the Normans traded with most of the kingdoms and Empires. They provided soldiers to act as a papal guard and not long after the conquest of the Angle's lands (England) they turned their attention to other places. The Normans raided Italy, and were a driving force behind the Crusades.

From the British point of view, the main identifiers of the Norman invaders were the language they spoke (a variant of Frankish - French) and their tendency to build castles everywhere. Prior to the Norman occupation, both the Anglo-Saxons and the Celtic Britons before them had lived in smallish communities built on hill tops. These Hill Forts were the primary means of defense and provided a community central point for refuge etc.

Following the Invasion of AD 1066, one of the first things William I wanted to do was to establish Norman control. This was, in part, enforced by the building of Motte and Bailey castles over the land where the Norman Knights could have a base to subjugate the surrounding lands. To ease the building, these were often on the site of Hill Forts, and equally often these hill forts had been removed from the local Celtic/Saxon nobility not to long in the past. Building on hill forts is one of the reasons why so many Norman castles (especially the early ones) are of the famous motte and bailey design. This design is easy to implement over the site of a previous hill fort.

On occasion, the Norman buildings were inside even older structures - such as the Norman Castle inside the Roman Fort at Portchester

Another common trait of the Normans, was their love of Hunting. In addition to the construction of new forest blocks across the Country, the Normans established lots of new laws. These were all very unpopular with the local British - often they were now unable to hunt or farm on their own land. While the Norman hunting may have left some gorgeous forestry blocks, and been responsible for the importation of new species, it certainly was not started from ecological grounds. Another side effect of this hunting fanaticism, was the construction of hundreds of hunting lodges around the country. These mini-castles, like Luggershall  were used by the Knights and Kings as places to stay and feast while they were out hunting (which was a lot of the time). Although they were never used as fortified bases in the way the Castles were, the hunting lodges were remarkably well built. A sign of how cheap labor and materials were to the Norman overlords.

Norman Life

The Normans had an interesting mix of cultures. Historically, they were a combination of viking settlers who had married into the local Frankish cultures and as a result their society was a conglomerate of the two.

As befits their despondency from the vikings, the Normans were a warlike culture and prized mounted soldiers. The Norman cavalry were to form the basis for medieval Knights and what we now look at as "Chivalry" stems from the Norman codes of conduct on the battlefield.

The Normans were more than just mobile killing machines (although they excelled at this), and with their invasion of England they brought in some fantastic examples of architecture and style. As they were devout followers of the medieval Christian church, the best examples of Norman style can be found in the churches and chapels that still exist all over the country.

Norman Warfare

The Normans brought with them a wholly new form of warfare. The Saxons and, before them, the Celts had largely depended on armies of "brave warriors" who would band together to fight the enemy. Often battles were resolved through one on one fights between clan heroes. (Very similar to classical era Greeks).

The Normans had a warfare style that evolved from their Norse roots and was heavily influenced by the European wars of the 9th and 10th centuries AD and the Frankish kings like Charlemagne.

This resulted in the Norman armies being very organised and disciplined. The mainstay of the army was the heavy foot soldier, although the nobles and leaders were always mounted on powerful horses. During the middle-medieval period the status symbol of horses became firmly rooted and even today people think of owning a horse as being something the "rich" do

In addition to the new forms of combat, the Normans brought with them a brand new way of defending territory. The Saxons were from a culture of mobile raiders and as such tended to not rely on heavy defensive structures as we think of them today. Most Saxon strongholds were hill forts similar to the ones the Celts used, or where they had taken over an old Roman fortification the Saxons would shore up the walls and reuse it. In the mainstream of Saxon culture, it was wrong to attack the settlements where people lived (raids, however, were common place) and battles were always fought in open ground.

This changed with the arrival of the Normans. They brought with them the massive stone structures we still see today. Norman castles were a stamp of authority as much as a defensive structure and the conquerors spent little time building hundreds of them across the country.

The Norman Timeline

For the purposes of this site, this timeline is very compressed and only highlights some of the more important dates in the history of the Normans. It is not complete - as people learn more about the past, old events which may have seemed insignificant take on a new meaning. If you have any suggestions for an important event then send an email to Etrusia with the details and we will see about adding it to our list.

The Frankish King Charles the Simple grants the Viking Rollo land in what is now northern France. This land becomes known as "Normandy" and the people who live there are known as the "Normans."

The Italians request the Normans send an army to help them defend their land. On arrival the Normans like the country and invade it themselves.

Nineteen year old, William The Bastard wins his first major engagement at the battle of Val Es Dunes on the Norman / Frankish border.

Duke Willam of Normandy (obviously didnt like his old nickname) invades England putting an end to the 500 or so years of Saxon rule.

Germans attack Rome, the Norman armies drive back the Germans and save the Pope only to raid Rome themselves.

King William I of England orders the Domesday Book be compiled.

Norman led crusaders, following Pope Urban II's orders, capture Jerusalem and massacre the occupants.

King Henry I's nephew Stephen goes to war with the Empress Matilda and brings nearly two decades of anarchy to the Norman lands.

The French King Phillip II invades and conquers Normandy. Most of the Normans in England decide to stay and become English. Most of the Normans in France become French. The Normans themselves effectively cease to exist.

The Pentatonic Scale

Dr. W. H. Cummings, one of the most eminent living English musicians, thus writes:

"I believe the Irish had the diatonic scale as we have it to-day. It was the advent of the Church scales which supplanted that beautiful scale." 

More recently, Father Bewerunge, Professor of Ecclesiastical Chant in Maynooth College, expresses his conviction as follows:

"It is thought that the old Irish melodies contain within them the germ that may be developed into a fresh luxuriant growth of Irish music. Now, the Irish melodies belong to a stage of musical development very much anterior to that of Gregorian chant. Being based fundamentally on a pentatonic scale, they reach back to a period altogether previous to the dawn of musical history." ~ New Ireland Review, March, 1900.

A pentatonic scale is a musical scale or mode with five notes per octave in contrast to a heptatonic (seven note) scale such as the major scale and minor scale.

Pentatonic scales are very common and are found all over the world. They are divided into those with semitones (hemitonic) and those without (anhemitonic).

Anhemitonic pentatonic scales can be constructed in many ways. The major pentatonic scale may be thought of as a gapped or incomplete major scale. However, the pentatonic scale has a unique character and is therefore complete in terms of tonality. One construction takes five consecutive pitches from the circle of fifths; starting on C, these are C, G, D, A, and E. Transposing the pitches to fit into one octave rearranges the pitches into the major pentatonic scale: C, D, E, G, A.

Les Poules huppées

CRESTED HENS, THE (Les Poules huppées). French, Bourrée à 3 temps (3/8 time). E Dorian. Standard tuning (fiddle). Composed in 1983 by French...