This week, Caroline Bennett concludes her four part research paper on the symphonic poem cycle Ma Vlást composed by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana.
The premiere performance of all six symphonic poems in Ma Vlást was on November 5, 1882, in Prague. It was conducted by a close friend and associate of Smetana’s, Adolf Čech. The premiere of Ma Vlást came at an opportune time, as Czech nationalism was gaining momentum with each passing year. In addition, Smetana’s audience was becoming more accustomed to and accepting of his Wagner-like sound and thus enthusiastically applauded the richly textured and beautifully orchestrated Ma Vlást. Though Smetana could not hear the performance, he was extremely pleased by both the attitude of the orchestra as well as the approval of the audience. He wrote to Čech shortly after that:
“I saw that the achievements of the players were realizing my dreams to perfection and that you were leading them…You gave me back my confidence that the mysterious sounds in the innermost depths of my heart will again make themselves heard.”
Smetana was not the only critical listener pleased by Ma Vlást. Eduard Hanslick, a prominent music critic, was also delighted by Smetana’s ode to Czech life and culture. This is rather surprising since Hanslick, although a Czech, was very much a German nationalist. Accordingly, in his review, Hanslick twisted Smetana’s purpose for the piece to be nationalistic to Germany through constant references to German writings or people. Hanslick recognized that Smetana was attempting to inspire his Czech audience to be patriots, but did his best to dismiss this important aspect of the piece. As a result, Hanslick unintentionally revealed how poignant and applicable Ma Vlást is to people of all nationalities and ethnicities. The overarching story of the cycle—one of love for home and a desire for freedom—are themes that transcend time and space. In addition, all audiences have an appreciation for beauty, and it is clear throughout Ma Vlást, but especially in Vltava, that Smetana’s symphonic poem cycle is a masterpiece.
Without a doubt, Smetana was devoted to establishing and creating Czech music that could compare with the music of other European countries like Germany and France. Czech musicologist Vladimir Helfert, however, notes that,
“…Smetana is not a figure wholly limited by the boundaries of his own country. He belongs to the art of the whole world, for his works have worth for all humanity. His idea of nation and country does not rest upon mere jingoism or racial hatred, but on respect for the culture of others and on a positive and kindly love for all mankind. Here we come upon a trait which is deeply rooted in the Slavonic soul, as is shown by the names of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy: it was because Smetana loved mankind that he also loved his own nation.”
Smetana was a well-rounded composer who was inspired by the music and society he experienced throughout his life, first through his study of the music fundamentals and later through his sojourn in Sweden. He desired to create distinctly Czech music, but was unafraid to use elements from other countries, as demonstrated by the main theme in Vltava. And though his main goal with Ma Vlást was to celebrate his beloved homeland and inspire other Czechs, Smetana understood that his music was not just to be appreciated by his countrymen, but also by audiences all over the world. Its beauty and power have ensured that Ma Vlást has become a staple in the classical music world, and promises to remain so for many years to come.
Bartos, Frantisek. Bedřich Smetana: Letters and Reminiscences. Translated by Daphne Rusbridge. Prague: Artia, 1955.
Brodbeck, David. “Hanslick’s Smetana and Hanslick’s Prague.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 134, no. 1 (2009), 1-36. Accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40783129.
Brown, Jim. “The Role of Folk Consciousness in the Modern State: Its Efficacy, Use and Abuse.” Storytelling, Self, Society 6, no. 1 Special Issue: Bhutan National Storytelling Conference (January-April 2010), 39-57. Accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41949039.
Clapham, John. “Bedřich Smetana.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980. xvii: 391-408.
———. Master Musician: Smetana. London: J. M. Dent & Sons LTD, 1972.
———. “Smetana: A Century After.” The Musical Times 125, no. 1694 (April 1984), 201-205. Accessed September 20, 2015. doi: 10.2307/963564.
Scrutinizing my computer screen, I read another sentence aloud. I heaved a sigh. None of the words seemed superfluous; I felt like I had trimmed off every spare word I could without weakening my essay. I continued reading the paper, wondering how I was ever going to get my word count below my professor’s limit of 500 words.
Picture me at ten or eleven o’ clock at night going through this exact same routine once a week for eight weeks, and you will have an idea of my experiences while taking a course on American history this past spring. I have a problem most students would envy. I struggle with word count rules, not because I have trouble reaching the minimum, but because I always overshoot the mark—usually by a lot. No matter how much I curbed myself as I typed my rough drafts, I always had too many thoughts, too much supporting material, and too many quotes I wanted to include. Most of the essays were about American war novels, each of which was full of important and interesting information that I felt I needed to mention if I was going to write a thorough paper. I also needed to include as much historical context and analysis as possible to satisfy my teacher.
While my professor’s word count rule felt constricting and chafed against my urge to write more, the limitation challenged me to become a better writer. Because of this restriction, I had to make every word count, to reexamine how I organized my paper and structured my sentences. I experienced what every child hates: that frustrating time when your parents tell you, “Do it. It’ll be good for you.” Except this time, I was the one having to remind myself of the advantages of this word count rule while simultaneously becoming annoyed with it. I was trying to see the bright side of the matter as I attempted to find another 20 words to excise. Facing character-building challenges is so frustrating.
In the end, somehow, I always managed to chop the paper down to size without making it sound like Procrustes had gotten to it. And now the ordeal is over, I am able to fully appreciate how it challenged me. Writing those essays helped me spend my words wisely and more thoughtfully than I would have otherwise. As I worked my paper down to 500 words, I felt like I was condensing it into something stronger, boiling out excess material and making it more potent in the process. My success each time also encouraged and continues to encourage me, reminding me that I can overcome writing obstacles, even when they prove to be extremely challenging.
I have to admit that oftentimes as I worked on those history essays, I wished for 750 or 1000 words to work with. (I’m guessing that desire was really strong on the papers that ended up 499 or exactly 500 words long). However, as I think about that wish now, I can see the long paper being a different but equally demanding sort of challenge as the short one. Would the paper have been as powerful? Would I have wasted time and ink on insignificant words, quotes, or ideas? Would I have been able to make every word count in that long of a paper? Perhaps that should be my next challenge. Maybe we writers would all benefit from counting every word.
In part three of her research paper about Czech composer Smetana and his work Ma Vlást, Caroline Bennett has at last reached my favorite part of the composition: the second movement known as Die Moldau. If you’re just joining us, here are Part I and Part II of the paper.
The second movement of Ma Vlást is perhaps the most well-known of all. This is not only due to its intricate orchestration, but also because its subject is that of the Czechs’ most beloved river. Though commonly called by the German name DieMoldau, the Czech name of the river is the Vltava. Smetana was likely inspired to write about the Vltava when he visited the Šumava valley in 1867, and saw the two streams that join and eventually become the sweeping river. A friend later wrote that it was there that Smetana “heard the gentle, poetic song of the two streams…and within him sounded the first two chords of the two motives which intertwine and increase and later grow and swell into a mighty melodic stream.”
Without a doubt, Smetana composed effective motives for imitating the flow of water, but there is some dispute over what inspired the main melody of the piece, a rising and falling figure, often played by the strings, that symbolizes the Vltava. The melody bears a strong resemblance to the Swedish folksong “Ack Varmeland, du skona,” as well as to a plethora of central European folksongs. Most striking, however, is its similarity to an Italian piece called “La Mantovana,” which also inspired the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah.” It is impossible to know specifically which of these songs Smetana was thinking of as he wrote Vltava, but regardless, it reveals his familiarity with different musical cultures and his ability to adjust songs to create the perfect melody for his compositions.
Smetana’s genius for combining melody with story is demonstrated throughout Vltava. In the opening bars, Smetana uses the flutes to imitate the first source of the river by having them play fluttering upward passages. Soon after, the flutes are joined by the clarinets, representing the river’s second source with a downward moving figure. After the main theme is introduced, indicating the joining of the two streams, Smetana depicts the river’s integration into daily Czech life by reflecting a series of images—forests, weddings in the countryside—through an ever changing key center. At first the entire orchestra can be heard, but slowly the volume dies away as instruments drop out. Just when it seems that the instruments will completely fade out, a lively dance is introduced by the strings, as a group of water-nymphs dance in the moonlight by the water. Then, just as suddenly, the key changes to minor and the audience is immersed in only the moonlight and the flowing of the river as it passes by ruined castles from long ago. The echoes of horns are a reminder of the former glory of the castles. The horns crescendo as they reintroduce the main theme, and the instrumental parts divide, signaling that the river enters the St. Johns Rapids. Leaving the rapids behind, the flowing lines of the music return as the Vltava enters a broad stream. Smetana has the river pass by the towering castle Vyšehrad by introducing the “glory” theme previously heard in Vyšehrad. Finally, the music dies away, much like it began, as the Vltava flows into the Elbe river.
In 1898, Olof Ohman was pulling stumps on his Minnesota farm when he encountered a particularly resistant tree. Digging away at its roots, he found a large 202 pound stone lodged beneath the tree (Holand 97, 100). The stone was covered in Norse runes. Little did Ohman realize that his discovery would turn out to be the Kensington Stone, one of many examples of the far-reaching and important effect the ancient Norse had on the world.
When asked to list important world cultures, many people would think of the Greeks and Romans; few people realize the significant effect the Norse had as well. From books like The Lord of the Rings to everyday words, the Norse influence is evident everywhere. Understanding how the Norse affected the world is valuable because they impacted civilization by leading the way in exploration, shaping European politics, and influencing culture.
To begin with, the Norse changed the world through their feats of exploration. According to maps of the Middle Ages, the area which the Norse settled now includes at least 17 modern day countries (Wiseman). The Norse tribes had several prominent leaders who led the Norse expansion across Europe, and one of these was Rollo, who founded Normandy in 911 A.D. (Jones 229). Rollo was the ancestor of William the Conqueror who took over England in 1066. Two other important Norse explorers were Erik the Red and his son Leif Erikson (Quinn 24-26). Erik the Red led a group of Norse to settle in Iceland. From there, Leif sailed even further west to the coast of North America and is credited as the first European to have discovered North America. While these are the most famous Norse voyages, the existence of the Kensington Stone reveals that the Norse continued their explorations for centuries afterwards.
In addition to accomplishing feats of exploration, the Norse impacted European politics and government. According to Winston Churchill in The Birth of Britain, two Norse leaders ruled England and established dynasties there (Churchill 140, 167). The Norse played an important role in the history of other dynasties, as well. For example, a Norse tribe called the Varangians settled in the eastern part of modern day Russia, and their leader Rurik established the Kievan Rus dynasty, which eventually ruled all of Russia (“Rurik”). Another way in which the Norse shaped government was by introducing new forms of government.
The Norse in Iceland established the first parliament in the world, called the Althing (“Althing”; Derry 33), and the Norse also contributed to the development of the Russian city of Novgorod, which was Russia’s first and only republic and a major trading center in the Middle Ages (Marumu).
By beginning dynasties, conquering countries, and establishing new forms of government, the Norse clearly affected the world. Not only did they lead the way in exploration and shape nations, though; the Norse also affected culture. According to language professors Elaine Treharne and A. A. Sokolsky, the Norse influenced the languages of England and Russia (Treharne 1; Sokolsky 11). In a news article, BBC reporter Jayne Lutwyche explained that the origins of the English names for six of the days of the week are Norse. For example, Wednesday is derived from “Wotan’s day,” and Thursday comes from “Thor’s day.” In addition to impacting language, the Norse affected many other aspects of culture. Norse culture and myths have inspired epic poems like Beowulf, fantasy series like The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, movies like Thor, and television shows like The Vikings and Game of Thrones.
The Norse broke over Europe like a tsunami, spreading far and soon disappearing from the surface, yet in their wake, they left a significant mark on cultural traditions, politics, and exploration. Their influence is not merely a part of the past, though. The effect of the Norse continues on in the modern world, for the Norse have inspired feats of exploration that led men to the North Pole, shaped nations that are now major world leaders, and created culture, stories, art, and words that remain in people’s lives today. Like the Kensington Stone, the Norse impact on the world is often buried beneath the surface and forgotten, but it continues to affect history and can be uncovered in some of the most surprising places.
This is the second installment in Caroline Bennett’s “Poems for All Nations” research paper on Bedřich Smetana. To read part one, click here.
Bedřich Smetana was born during this tumultuous period in Czech history, on the morning of March 2, 1824. Though he lived in Bohemia, Smetana was essentially raised as a German, and did not speak or write any Czech for much of his life. Smetana’s father, Frantiŝek Smetana, recognized Bedřich’s musical talent from an early age and ensured that his son received an excellent musical education, beginning with the violin at the age of three. By the time Bedřich Smetana was eight he was also playing the piano and singing in a church choir, as well as writing some basic compositions. In order to further his education, Smetana first attended a school in Prague and then moved to the town of Plzeň. It was here that he won renown as an excellent pianist.
Though he flourished musically, Smetana’s academics suffered due to his busy performance schedule. Smetana eventually chose to drop out of school and pursue a career in music, despite his father’s misgivings. Smetana recorded in his diary on January 23, 1843: “By the grace of God and with his help I shall one day be a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition.” Smetana moved back to Prague but quickly realized that he would need more proper musical training if he was to succeed in such a thriving city. Thus, he enrolled in theory lessons with Josef Proksch, one of the finest musicians in Bohemia. While studying with Proksch, Smetana learned how to analyze and imitate the works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, in addition to emulating more contemporary composers like Berlioz and Liszt. Smetana dedicated himself to his studies with such tenacity that within three years he was ready to strike out on his own for good. Smetana decided to give a brief concert tour in Europe before establishing his own music school in Prague. He continued to devote himself to his compositions, and even wrote to Franz Liszt requesting his aid in publishing what he termed “a sketch.”
Also during this time period, Smetana began displaying his patriotism: when rebellion broke out in Prague on June 11, 1848, Smetana quickly joined a corps and helped man the barricades.
The revolution was stifled like so many before, and Smetana decided to leave Prague for a while and go on a concert tour in Sweden. Though he intended for his visit to Sweden to be brief, he soon found that he was more sought after in Sweden than at home. He remained in Göteborg for many years, performing concerts, teaching piano and voice lessons, and interacting with the social and musical life of the Swedes. It was during his sojourns away from Bohemia that Smetana heard the most recent works of Richard Wagner and fell in love with the way his music told stories and spoke to the emotions of audiences.
Back home, the politics in the Czech lands were changing rapidly. The Austrian government was allowing more of Czech culture to surface, and there was suddenly a revived interest in the Czech language and arts. Smetana quickly recognized an opportunity to establish himself further by developing a national music for Bohemia and the other Czech countries. He returned to Prague for good in 1861. Smetana immediately set about writing operas in the Czech language to be performed in the newly-established Provisional Theatre. Because of his recent exposure to a thriving musical society in Sweden, Smetana advocated the forming of music groups in and around Prague. He conducted an orchestra, wrote many articles promoting Czech music, and composed for a variety of genres, including the first Czech national opera, pieces for men’s chorus, overtures for puppet plays, and the like. Early in his career Smetana had been indifferent to the fate of Czech culture; now its development and preservation was what he lived for each day.
Sadly, tragedy struck at this most prolific period of Smetana’s life. In 1874, as he was writing the first tone poem in the Ma Vlást collection, Smetana realized that he was losing his hearing. By the end of the year he was completely deaf in both ears. He resigned his position as a conductor, and struggled to continue composing. Smetana’s frustration with his health often strained his relationships with his family and colleagues. Nevertheless, his desire to write music and show his love for his homeland propelled him forward. He wrote to a friend in 1880, “I have tasted the bitterness of life in most abundant measure, as perhaps few others; but I have also experienced beautiful enchanting moments, yes, even sacred moments!” Music was a constant source of joy to Smetana, and he continued his work as a musician until his death in 1884.
Smetana shares many of his joyful moments with audiences through Ma Vlást. It is both a touching and a thrilling piece, and like many of his compositions it is focused on the Czech lands. Immediately before beginning work on Ma Vlást, Smetana premiered another patriotic composition, the opera Libuše, which greatly influenced the writing of his symphonic poem cycle. The setting for the opera is Vyšehrad, a rock that overlooks Prague, and the first tone poem Smetana wrote for Ma Vlást musically depicted Vyšehrad and the castle that looms over it. It took Smetana about seven years to write all of Ma Vlást, from approximately 1872 to 1879. Most of the movements were premiered separately: Vyšehrad (March 1875), Vltava (April 1875), Ŝárka (1876 or 1877), From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields (October 1875), and both Tábor and Blaník in 1880. When he finally completed and performed all of the tone poems together as a single unit in 1882, his audience recognized that he had written a masterpiece. Ma Vlást is powerful on many levels, and Brian Large notes that it “penetrates the very roots of Czech national feeling by celebrating everything that is dear to the people, their legends, landscapes, history and the prophetic vision of their future.” Smetana recounts ancient Czech legends through the movements Ŝárka, Tábor, and Blaník, its landscapes in Vltava and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, and history in Vyšehrad. Each of the movements reminds listeners of where the Czechs came from, and how throughout history they had fought for their homeland and freedom.
 Brian Large, Smetana (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 114.
 Jim Brown, “The Role of Folk Consciousness in the Modern State: Its Efficacy, Use and Abuse,” Storytelling, Self, Society 6, no. 1 Special Issue: Bhutan National Storytelling Conference (January-April 2010): 28, accessed September 20, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41949039.
College brings together the strangest thoughts, ideas, and stories. Just the other day, I was working on a presentation about the American Dream. Wanting a nice picture to illustrate my title slide, I decided to look up photos of the Statue of Liberty. One thing led to another, and I was suddenly thinking about Emma Lazarus’ famous poem. I could only remember snatches, so I decided to read it again, and when I did so, news stories and recent conversations with Christian friends sprang to mind.
We Americans pride ourselves on being a land of opportunity, welcoming strangers to come and make a better life—or we once did. That’s what the Statue of Liberty symbolized as it greeted immigrants entering America at Ellis Island. But now we live in a time where many of us want to refuse safe harbor to others because we see them as a threat. We want to turn back those masses which we once claimed to welcome. Lazarus’ poem is very poignant as I read it now.
“The New Colossus”
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Lazarus)
I’m not such an idealist or romantic that I deny the dangers of letting masses of people into our country. Shutting ourselves off from the world isn’t the answer, though. Erecting physical and bureaucratic walls and cutting ourselves off won’t keep us safe, for danger and terrorism can arise from inside a country as easily as they can penetrate it from without.
For Christians, I think the answer is somewhere in between the two extremes of keeping refugees out and indiscriminately letting them in. The Bible calls us to charity and hospitality, to welcoming strangers and loving neighbors. People seem to forget that the story of the Good Samaritan is about a man who helped a stranger of a different race and religion and in doing so put himself in danger of being attacked by the same robbers who had left the stranger for dead.
God’s Word also calls us to prudence and compassion, to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). This is far easier said than done, but the Bible never claims being a Christian and obeying God is easy. The Christian life requires discernment, faith, and sacrifice of safety. Even when people take advantage of charity or return evil for good, these are no excuses for not ministering to those in need. In Luke 6:29, Jesus commands his disciples, “To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.” Peter tells the Church, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:13-17).
While “The New Colossus” stems from 19th century American idealism, I think it can be a true wakeup call to modern Americans, especially Christians. The time has come for us to renew the spirit of generosity that led to the penning of those lines, for if we lose sight of the principles and ideals that form the foundation of our nation, America will weaken and fall. So, out of our abundance, let us share, let us offer homes to the homeless who seek our help, and let America once again be a land which offers opportunities for the diligent and welcomes refugees as a “Mother of Exiles” (Lazarus 6).
Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus.” National Park Service, nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/colossus.htm.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2001. Print.
I am excited to present Caroline Bennett’s latest piece on music as she will be focusing on one of my favorite composers and compositions. Because it is rather long, the research paper will appear in several installments. Without further ado, here is part one.
“I am not ashamed to reply to you in my mother tongue, however imperfectly, and am glad to be able to show that my fatherland means more to me than anything else.”—Smetana’s second letter written in Czech language, 11 March, 1860 (“Bedrich Smetana Biography”)
In the heart of Europe lies an expanse of land enclosed by low mountains. This expanse is a river basin, with several rivers passing through it and then draining into three different seas. Throughout the rolling hills are forests of towering trees, interspersed with ruined castles that recall days long ago. This region was once known as Bohemia, though it has since become a region of the Czech Republic. The ethereal geography of this land has long inspired poets and musicians, but none more so than Bedřich Smetana, a prominent Czech composer from the 19th century. Like many other Czechs, Smetana was devoted to his homeland. His love for Czech life and culture is beautifully expressed in his symphonic poem cycle Ma Vlást, which is comprised of a number of tone poems depicting various landmarks and stories. The overarching theme for Ma Vlást is one of freedom, which was a pertinent topic at the time that Smetana wrote, for the Czechs were in the middle of a struggle to break away from the Austrian empire. It has been more than a century since Ma Vlást premiered, but Smetana’s most well-known composition continues to speak to audiences all over the world. He may have originally been writing to praise the loyalty and independence of the Czechs, but people of all times, all nations, and all backgrounds can grasp and appreciate love for one’s homeland and the struggle for freedom. In order to better understand Ma Vlást and its importance in the world, it is essential to know the fundamentals of Czech history, the life of Bedřich Smetana, the composition of Ma Vlást, and the most beloved of Smetana’s works: the symphonic poem Vltava.
Music was a part of Czech culture long before Smetana was born. Rosa Newmarch, an English historian, writes that music was an important part of Czech life extending back to the Roman Empire. As Christianity spread across Europe, a lot of folk music was suppressed because of its origins in pagan ritual. Eventually, however, the church embraced music and ultimately became the primary source of music in the Czech lands for many centuries. Indeed, many of the most beloved Czech songs were written by men of the church, and even sung in services.
Such hymns became an important part of Czech history. “Ktož jsú boží bojovníci” (translated “Ye Who Are Warriors of God”) was initially used as a war song and later reminded Czechs of their long struggle for freedom. Indeed, another of the reasons religious music was such an important part of Czech culture was the fact that for hundreds of years, the Czechs were struggling to maintain their independence from other empires and countries. As a result, “love-songs, drinking and dancing songs, did not accord with the grim struggles of conscience which then absorbed the Bohemian people.” Unfortunately, the Czechs’ fight for freedom usually failed, and at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the Czech lands became a part of the Hapsburg-Austrian empire. Governed by foreigners for the next two centuries, the Czechs’ faith, language, and music were suppressed. By 1848, however, the Czechs had had enough, and many rebelled against the Austrian government. The Czechs were brutally repressed, but the independent spirit of the Czech people would not be stifled, and as the Austrian government weakened, the beautiful and unique culture of the Czechs returned in full force.
 Rosa Newmarch, The Music of Czechoslovakia (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1942), 4.
Several years ago, I was at a local high school preparing to take the PSAT. We were filling out the personal information before the actual test when we reached a section that required us to copy out an honor code promising not to release information about the test. The proctor explained that we would have to copy the honor code in cursive. She sounded almost apologetic as she instructed us, and she told us “just try to do your best.” While I was actually excited to write the honor code out as prettily and tidily as possible, many of the students around me groaned when they heard the instruction. My experience was not unique. In a 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal, high school junior Emily Freeman wrote, “The honor code was the hardest part of the whole [PSAT]…because it had to be written in cursive” (Freeman). Cursive is disappearing because it is no longer being taught in most American schools. Because the Common Core curriculum does not mandate cursive, many states and schools have dropped cursive education. Little do people realize the importance of keeping cursive, for cursive has many benefits.
One of the clearest benefits of using cursive is that it improves learning. One way cursive helps learning is by developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. In a New York Times article, columnist Katie Zezima writes that pediatric occupational therapist Sandy Schefkind “said that learning cursive helped students hone their fine motor skills” (Zezima). According to a Time article by Katy Steinmetz, another way in which cursive aids learning is that it activates different parts of the brain than print and typing do and often helps students remember information and generate ideas. In addition, studies have shown that students who have learned cursive perform better on reading and spelling tests than students who have only learned manuscript writing (Steinmetz). One reason for this may be because cursive connects letters together, helping the brain think of words as whole units instead of individual letters (Steinmetz). Psychologist Dr. William R. Klemm says that cursive “is an important tool for cognitive development” and causes the brain to integrate “sensation, movement control, and thinking.”
In addition to improving learning, cursive can assist people with handicaps. According to New York Times journalist Maria Konnikova, some people with dysgraphia, a condition in which writing is impaired, cannot write print yet can still write cursive with little impairment. Another condition, called alexia, involves reading impairments, and once again, some people who cannot read print can read cursive, or vice versa (Konnikova). Finally, cursive can help students with dyslexia. According to Washington Post journalist T. Rees Shapiro, cursive is an important part of the work that academic therapist Deborah Spear does with dyslexic students. Shapiro writes that “Because all letters in cursive start on a base line, and because the pen moves fluidly from left to right, cursive is easier to learn for dyslexic students who have trouble forming words correctly.” Because “b” and “d” in cursive are formed very differently, people with dyslexia are less like to confuse them. Also, the left-to-right flow of cursive keeps dyslexic students from accidentally reversing letters. According to a PBS news article by Elizabeth Jones and April Brown, learning cursive has helped students improve in school and overcome some of the impediments of dyslexia. Alec Falconer, a dyslexic student who went undiagnosed for almost ten years, began learning cursive and claims that doing so helped him in school, and he said, “My handwriting, my spelling, the way I put sentences together has definitely improved a lot” (Jones).
A final way in which learning cursive is beneficial is that it expands people’s reading and writing possibilities. Those who know cursive can read more historical and personal documents, such as the U.S. Constitution and handwritten letters from family. Knowing cursive enables one to write personal and professional-looking letters. In addition, according to graphologist Heidi H. Harralson, less complex handwriting is easier to forge than cursive (Zezima). Thus, while cursive may often be harder to read than print, this also means that it is harder to forge. A final benefit of cursive is that it enables people to create a personal penmanship. According to Kate Gladstone, the director of the World Handwriting Contest, a 2012 survey of handwriting teachers at a conference showed that more than half the teachers wrote in a hybrid style of handwriting that combined cursive and print. Once people have learned cursive and print, they can choose to create their own version by mixing the two styles and creating their own unique style that enables them to write with the most comfort and speed. Thus, learning cursive can open up other handwriting possibilities and combinations, allowing for more creativity and personality in penmanship.
When I was little, my sister began learning cursive, and I began imitating her. I filled notebooks with connected and repeating loops. Then I proudly displayed my work to my family, telling them, “See, I’m writing in cursive!” Learning cursive for real turned out to be a long, taxing process, but I am extremely glad I did. I can see how writing in cursive has helped me be more artistic, improve my hand-eye coordination, and hone my fine motor skills. If we really do allow cursive handwriting to disappear, it will be a loss both to education and to culture. I hope that other children can enjoy the fascination I had with cursive and the benefits that it produces. Let’s pick up our pens and write in cursive again so we can keep the skill that provides an important foundation for basic learning, development, and creativity.
Gladstone, Kate. “Handwriting Matters; Cursive Doesn’t.” The New York Times, 30 Apr. 2013, nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/04/30/should-schools-require-children-to-learn-cursive/handwriting-matters-cursive-doesnt.
Jones, Elizabeth and April Brown. “How Cursive Can Help Students with Dyslexia Connect the Dots.” PBS.org, 6 May 2014, pbs.org/newshour/updates/connecting-dots-role-cursive-dyslexia-therapy/.
Klemm, William R. “Biological and Psychology Benefits of Learning Cursive.” Psychology Today, 5 Aug. 2013, psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201308/biological-and-psychology-benefits-learning-cursive.
Konnikova, Maria. “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades.” The New York Times, 2 Jun. 2014, nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fades.html?_r=0.
Shapiro, T. Rees. “Cursive Handwriting Is Disappearing from Public Schools.” The Washington Post, 4 Apr. 2013, washingtonpost.com/local/education/cursive-handwriting-disappearing-from-public-schools/2013/04/04/215862e0-7d23-11e2-a044-676856536b40_story.html?utm_term=.074ad2c44441.
Steinmetz, Katy. “Five Reasons Kids Should Still Learn Cursive Writing.” Time, 4 Jun. 2014, time.com/2820780/five-reasons-kids-should-still-learn-cursive-writing/.
Zezima, Katie. “The Case for Cursive.” The New York Times, 27 Apr. 2011, nytimes.com/2011/04/28/us/28cursive.html.
This month, Caroline Bennett analyzes the first movement of one of Haydn’s piano sonatas. You can listen to the piece through this link.
After hearing only the opening measures of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI: 49, listeners recognize that the first movement, “Allegro non troppo,” is a playful piece of music. Throughout his life, Haydn was infamous for being a mischievous and lively man, and these traits shine through in this sonata’s first movement. Not only is the mood of the piece light-hearted, but Haydn frequently alters the typical conventions of sonata form, as well as standard musical form, in order to fool his listeners and create a sense of surprise and delight. He effectively demonstrates his penchant for doing the unexpected throughout the exposition, development, and recapitulation of the first movement.
The primary theme of the exposition begins clearly in E-flat major with trill-like sixteenth notes in the right hand and bouncy eighth notes in the left. The primary theme, which spans mm. 1-12, appears to be very straightforward, going from tonic to dominant and then back to tonic again, creating a sentence. This is the first example of Haydn’s departure from standard musical conventions, however. Haydn writes a pair of four measure basic ideas with only a four measure continuation, rather than the typical eight measure continuation. This means that, despite ending with a perfect authentic cadence, the primary theme surreptitiously segues into the transition before listeners realize what is happening. In the transition of the exposition, Haydn begins moving the piece forward into the dominant key, Bb-major. This is the usual key for the piece to modulate into, but Haydn still manages to surprise listeners by phrasing the transition so that it stops and starts, creating suspense. After the medial caesura, the main theme from the opening of the piece then comes back, this time in B-flat major and as the secondary theme of the exposition. The secondary theme appears rather straightforward; Haydn really begins playing with conventions again in mm. 50-59, where the mood of the secondary theme suddenly changes and becomes softer and more hesitant, introduced by staccato A-flat major chords. Listeners might be tricked into thinking that this is the beginning of the conclusion of the exposition, but the secondary theme does not reach a perfect authentic cadence until m. 60, marking the start of the conclusion. The exposition concludes on a resolute tonic chord in B-flat major.
The pre-core of the development is a marked contrast to the first section of the movement because it is harmonically unstable and very lyrical. By the time the piece reaches the core of the development, the music has modulated to the relative minor of E-flat major: C minor. As is common in core sections, Haydn incorporates two themes that were previously found in the exposition. He constantly moves between major and minor keys, though, until he ultimately lands on a tonic chord in C-major. This seems like it may be the cue for the retransition to begin, especially since the mood of the piece completely changes in the following measures, but Haydn makes it very hard to decide where the transition actually begins because he does not reach a tonic chord in B-flat major until m. 126, which would ordinarily introduce the retransition.
Much of the recapitulation’s departures from standard sonata form are the same as those found in the exposition. The biggest changes Haydn makes begin at the end of the closing section. Based on the exposition, listeners expect the first movement of the sonata to conclude on the fifth measure of the closing section, and Haydn does write a perfect authentic cadence in E-flat major on the downbeat of m. 216. However, this I chord is promptly followed by more notes that push the piece on towards yet another cadence, this time a half cadence. This chord precedes a coda, further prolonging the piece. The coda also has feigned endings, particularly m. 227. When Haydn does finally choose to end the coda, he surprises his listeners by suddenly crescendoing out of the otherwise subdued coda into, not the expected perfect authentic cadence, but into a determined imperfect authentic cadence in E-flat major.
Haydn certainly knew the rules for writing in sonata form, as he adeptly demonstrates throughout Sonata in E-flat Major, movement I. He includes all of the usual sections in the movement, modulates to the anticipated keys, and more. Nevertheless, Haydn refused to abide by what his listeners would expect, instead choosing to defy the standard conventions of sentence length, the beginnings of new sections, the conclusion of the recapitulation, and even the conclusion of the coda. Perhaps all of the surprising cadences and transitions between sections should not take listeners aback, however. After all, Haydn is well known for being the master of the unexpected.